THE CHALLENGE OF THE NORTH
GARDEN CITY ————- NEW YORK
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
The Challenge of the North
Oskar Hedin, head of the fur department of old John McNabb's big store, looked up from his scrutiny of the Russian sable coat spread upon a table before him, and encountered the twinkling eyes of old John himself.
"It's a shame to keep this coat here—and that natural black fox piece, too. Who is there in Terrace City that's got thirty thousand dollars to spend for a fur coat, or twenty thousand for a fox fur?"
Old John grinned. "Mrs. Orcutt bought one, didn't she?"
"Yes, but she bought it down in New York——"
"An' paid thirty-five thousand for a coat that runs half a dozen shades lighter, an' is topped an' pointed to bring it up to the best it's got. Did I ever tell ye the story of Mrs. Orcutt's coat?"
"It goes back quite a ways—the left-handed love me an' Fred Orcutt has for one another. We speak neighborly on the street, an' for years we've played on opposite sides of a ball-a-hole foursome at the Country Club, but either of us would sooner lose a hundred dollars than pay the other a golf ball.
"It come about in a business way, an' in a business way it's kept on. Not a dollar of McNabb money passes through the hands of Orcutt's Wolverine Bank—an' he could have had it all, an' he knows it.
"As ye know, I started out, a lad, with the Hudson's Bay Company, an' I'd got to be a factor when an old uncle of my mother's in Scotlan' died an' left me a matter of twenty thousand pounds sterling. When I got the money I quit the Company an' drifted around a bit until finally I bought up a big tract of Michigan pine. There wasn't any Terrace City then. I located a sawmill here at the mouth of the river an' it was known as McNabb's Landin'.
"D'ye see those docks? I built 'em, an' I've seen the time when they was two steamers warped along each side of 'em, an' one acrost the end, an' a half a dozen more anchored in the harbor waitin' to haul McNabb's lumber. The van stood on this spot in the sawmill days, an' when it got too small I built a wooden store. Folks began driftin' in. They changed the name from McNabb's Landin' to Terrace City, an' I turned a many a good dollar for buildin' sites.
"The second summer brought Fred Orcutt, an' I practically give him the best lot of the whole outfit to build his bank on. The town outgrew the wooden store an' I built this one, addin' the annex later, an' I ripped out the old dam an' put in a concrete dam an' a power plant that furnished light an' power for all Terrace City. Money was comin' in fast an' I invested it here an' there—Michigan, an' Minnesota, an' Winconsin pine, an' the Lord knows what not. Then come the panic, an' I found out almost over night that I was land poor. I needed cash, or credit at the bank, or I had to take a big loss. I went to see Fred Orcutt—I banked with him, those days, an' he knew the fix I was in. Yes, the bank would be glad to accommodate me all right; if you could of been there an' heard Fred Orcutt lay down his terms you'd know just how damn glad they'd of been to accommodate me. It kind of stunned me at first, an' then I saw red—the man I'd befriended in more ways than one, just layin' back till he had me in his clutches! Well, I lit out an' told him just what I thought of him—an' he got it in log camp English. It never fazed him. He just sat there leanin' back in his chair, bringin' the points of his fingers together an' drawin' 'em apart again, an' lookin' me square in the face with them pale blue fishy eyes of his. When I'd used up all the oaths an' epithets in common use, an' some new ones, an' had to quit, he says, in the same cold, even voice that he'd used in layin' down his terms, he says, 'You're a little excited now, John, and I'll not hold it against you. Just drop in sometime to-morrow or next day and we'll fix up the papers.'"
"I walked out of the bank with a wild scheme in my head of going to Detroit or Chicago for the money. But I knew it was no use—and so did Orcutt. He thought he had me right where he wanted me—an' so did I. Meanwhile, an' about six months previous, a young fellow named Charlie Bronson—president of the First National now—had opened up a little seven-by-nine bank in a tin-covered wooden shack that I'd passed a dozen times a day an' hadn't even looked into. I'd met Bronson once or twice, but hadn't paid no attention to him, an' as I was headin' back for the store, he stood in his doorway. 'Good mornin' Mr. McNabb,' he says. I don't think I'd of took the trouble to answer him, but just then his bank sign caught my eye. It was painted in black letters an' stuck out over the sidewalk. I stopped an' looked past him through the open door where his bookkeeper-payin'-an'-receivin'-teller-cashier, an' general factotum was busy behind the cheap grill. Then I looked at Bronson an' the only thing I noticed was that his eyes was brown, an' he was smilin'. 'Young man,' I says, 'have you got any money in that sardine can?'
"'Quite a lot,' he answers with a grin. 'More than I wish I had.'
"'You got a hundred thousand?' I asks—it was more than I needed, but I thought I'd make it big enough to scare him.
"'More than that,' he answers, without battin' an eye. 'But—what's the matter with the Wolverine?'
"'The Wolverine?' I busted out. 'Young man, if I was to tell you what I think of the Wolverine here on the street, I'd be arrested before I'd got good an' started.'
"'Better come inside, then,' he grins, an' I followed him into a little box of a private office. 'Of course,' I says later, when I'd told him what I wanted, 'most of my collateral is pine timber, an' I suppose, as Orcutt says, it's depreciated——'
"'Depreciated?' he asks. 'Why has it depreciated? It's all standin' on end, ain't it?' he says. An' it ain't gettin' no smaller, is it? An' they're layin' down the pine a damn sight faster than God Almighty can grow it, ain't they?' An' when I admitted that such was the facts, he laughed. 'Well then, we'll just go over your reports an' estimates, an' I don't think we'll have any trouble about doin' business.'
"An we never have had no trouble, an' we've been doin' business every day since."
"But the coat?" reminded Hedin, after an interval of several minutes.
"I'm coming to that. Orcutt ain't human, but his wife is. When he found out I'd slipped out of his clutches an' swung all my business over to Bronson's bank he never by so much as a word or a look let on that he even noticed it. They still have an account at the store; they can't help it, because no other store in Terrace City keeps the stock we do. But Mrs. Orcutt does all her real shoppin' in New York or Chicago."
Oskar Hedin loved fur, and the romance of fur. From his earliest recollection he had loved it as he had curled up and listened to the stories of his father, a great upstanding Viking of a sailor man, who year after year had forced his little vessel into the far North where he traded with the natives, and who had lost his life in the ice floes of the frozen sea while sailing with Nordenskjold.
Furs were to Hedin an obsession; they spoke a language he knew. He hated the grosser furs, as he loved the finer. He despised the trade tricks and spurious trade names by which the flimsiest of furs are foisted upon the gullible purchasers of "seal," "sable," "black fox," "ermine," and "beaver." He prided himself that no misnamed fur had ever passed over his counter, and in this he was backed up by his employer. The cheaper furs were there, but they sold under their true names and upon their merits.
In the social democracy of the town of twenty thousand people Oskar Hedin had earned a definite place. After graduating from the local high school he had entered the employ of McNabb, and within a very few years had been promoted to head his department. At the Country Club he could be depended upon to qualify with the first flight in the annual golf tournament, and the "dope" was all upset when he did not play in the finals on the courts. He lived at the city's only "family hotel," drove his own modest car, and religiously spent his Sundays on the trout streams.
Hedin picked up the coat and reverently deposited it in the fur safe. "It's a coat fit for a queen," he decided as he closed and locked the door. And Jean was the one woman in the world to wear it. Jean with the red blood coursing through her veins, her glow of health, and the sparkle of her eyes—McNabb's own daughter. "And, yet, I can't suggest it because—" Hedin muttered aloud and scowled at the floor. "I'd have asked her before this," he went on, "if that Wentworth hadn't butted in. Who knows anything about him, anyway? I'll ask her this afternoon." He stopped abruptly and smiled into the eyes of the girl who was hurrying toward him down the aisle.
"Oh, Oskar, I've just got a minute. I stopped in to remind you that this is Saturday, and we're going tobogganing this afternoon, and I've asked Mr. Wentworth and some of the crowd, and there'll be four or five toboggans, and it will be no end jolly. And this is my birthday, and you're a dear to think of it and send me all those flowers, and I'm going to wear 'em to-night. Listen, Elsie Campbell is giving a dinner for me this evening and of course you're not invited because it's just too funny the way she has snubbed you lately, and there's a show in town and after dinner we're going. Of course it won't be any good, but she's making a theatre party of it, and it sounds grand anyway. And I must hurry along now because I must remind Dad that he promised me a fur coat the day I was twenty-one, and I'll be back after a while and you can help me pick it out. Good-by, see you later!" And she was gone, leaving Hedin gazing after her with a smile as he strove to digest the jumble of uncorrelated information of which she had unburdened herself. "Wentworth, and some of the crowd! Oh, it will be jolly, all right—damn Wentworth!"
Old John McNabb looked up from his papers as his daughter burst into his private office and, rushing to his side, planted a kiss squarely upon the top of his bald head. "I came in to tell you I'm twenty-one to-day," she announced.
"Well, well, so ye are! Ye come into the world on the first of March, true to the old sayin', an' ye've be'n boisterous ever since. Twenty-one years old, an' tell me now, what have ye ever accomplished? When I was your age I'd be'n livin' in the bush north of 60 for two years, an' could do my fifty miles on snowshoes an' carry a pack."
"Maybe I can't do fifty miles a day on snowshoes, and I'm sure it isn't my fault I don't live north of 60. But I'm in a hurry; I promised to help Mr. Wentworth pick out a toboggan cap. I stopped in to remind you that you promised me a fur coat on my twenty-first birthday."
The old man regarded her thoughtfully. "So I did, so I did," he repeated absently. "This Wentworth, now—he's been kickin' around an uncommon lot, lately. Tell me again, who is he? What does he do for a livin'?"
"Why, he's a civil engineer—hydraulic work is his specialty. He has been employed by some company that intended to put in a power plant of some kind on Nettle River, and either the company broke up, or they found the plan was not feasible, or something, and they abandoned it. So Mr. Wentworth isn't doing anything, at present. But he is a fine fellow—so jolly, and so good looking, and he has a wonderful war record. He was with the engineers in Russia."
"U-m-m, where d'ye get hold of his war record?"
"Why—why—he—he has told us about the things they did—his company."
"Um—hum," Old John was stroking his nose.
"But, if he's civil engineer, an' out of a job, you might tell him to stop in a minute—after he gets the right color of a toboggan cap picked out."
When the door closed behind the girl old John readjusted his nose glasses and leaned back in his chair. "A clever engineer he is, beyond a doubt," he mused. "For I kept my eye on him while he was layin' out Orcutt's Nettle River project. If he'd made a botch of the job 'twould have saved me offerin' my plant to the city. But he has the look of a man ye couldn't trust in the dark—an' 'twould be clever engineerin' to marry a million. I'll set him a job that'll show the stuff that's in him. If he's a crook, I'll give him the chance to prove it." Reaching into a pigeon-hole of his desk, McNabb withdrew a thick packet of papers and removed the rubber band.
A few moments later Jean entered, the office followed by a rather well set up young man, whose tiny mustache was chopped square, like a miniature section of box hedge. "This is Mr. Wentworth, Dad," introduced the girl. "And now I'll leave you two men, because Oskar has promised to help me pick out a coat, and it's after ten o'clock. And, by the way, Dad, what kind of a coat shall I get? I want a good one."
"I'll warrant ye do! Well, just you tell Oskar to let you pick out a pony, or a crummer, or a baum marten, or a squirrel. They're all good."
As the door closed behind his daughter, old John McNabb motioned the younger man to a chair. "My daughter tells me you're an engineer," he began.
"Yes, sir, temporarily unemployed."
"Come up here on the Nettle River project, I hear. What's the matter? Couldn't you dam the river?"
"Oh, yes. The Nettle River presents no serious engineering problem. I spent four months on the ground and reported it favorably, and then all of a sudden, I was informed that the project had been abandoned, at least for the present. The trouble, I presume, was in the financing. It certainly was not because of any physical obstacles."
"What was the idea in building the dam in the first place?"
"Why, for power purposes. I believe it was their intention to induce manufacturing enterprises to locate in Terrace City, and to furnish them electric power at a low rate——"
"An' underbid me on the lightin' contract—an' then unload onto the city at a big profit."
Wentworth smiled. "I was not advised as to the financial end of it. I suppose, though, that that would have been the logical procedure."
Old John chuckled. "You're right, it would, with Fred Orcutt mixed up in it. But they didn't catch me nappin', an' I slipped the word to the city dads that I'd sell out to 'em, lock, stock, an' barrel, at a figure that would have meant a loss to Orcutt's crowd to meet. So I'm the one that busted the Nettle River bubble, an' seein' I knocked ye out of a job, it's no more than fair I should offer ye another."
"Why, thank you——"
"Don't thank me yet," interrupted McNabb. "Ye may not care to tackle it. It's a man's size job, in a man's country. Part of it's the same kind of work you've been doin' here—locatin' a dam to furnish power to run a pulp mill. Then you'll have to check up the land covered by that batch of options, an' explore a couple of rivers, an' locate more pulpwood, an' get options on it. An' lay out a road to the railway. It's in Canada, in the Gods Lake Country, three hundred miles north of the railhead."
"How soon would you expect me to start?"
"Monday wouldn't be none too soon; to-morrow would be better. It's this way. I've got options on better than half a million acres of pulpwood lyin' between Hayes River an' the Shamattawa. Ten years ago I cut the last of my pine, an' I got out my pencil an' begun to figure how I could keep in the woods. I pig-ironed a little—got out hardwood for the wooden specialty factories to cut up into spools, an' clothes-pins, an' oval dishes an' whatnot—an' then I turned my attention to the pulpwood. I figured it wouldn't be long before the papermills would be hollerin' for raw materials the way they was turnin' out the paper, so I nosed around a bit an' bought options on pulpwood land here an' there. An' now's the time to get busy, with the big newspapers an' the magazines all howlin' for paper, an' all the mills workin' overtime."
"Do you mean that you're going to manufacture paper yourself—way up there? How do you expect to get your product to market?"
"Easy enough. Make the paper in the woods, an' float it a little better than a hundred miles to Hudson Bay in barges, or scows. You see, the Shamattawa runs into Hayes River, an' Hayes River empties into the Bay just across a spit of land from Port Nelson. And the railway from The Pas to Port Nelson is being pushed to completion. With the paper on the Bay, I can ship by rail or boat to the market."
"And you want to locate the mill on the Hayes River?"
"No; the Hayes runs too flat. Either on the upper Shamattawa, or on Gods River, which lies between the two, an' flows into the Shamattawa. There's plenty of water in either one, an' I think both or 'em have got fall enough. I want the mill where it will be easy to get the wood to it, an' at the same time, where we'll have a good head of water—an' it's got to be done quick. The options expire the first of August, an' I've nosed around an' found out there's no chance to renew 'em on decent terms. When you get the mill located, then you've got to slip down the river an' find out what kind of scows we'll need, an' lay out a road to the new Hudson Bay Railway that's headed for Port Nelson. We'll haul in the material an' save time. An' when you've finished that, you can make a survey of the pulpwood available outside our present holdin's."
"Quite a job, take it all in all."
"Yes—an' takin' it all in all, it'll take quite a man to fill it," retorted McNabb brusquely. "The man that puts this through won't never need to hunt another job, because this is only the beginnin' of the pulpwood game for me——" The telephone on the desk rang, and after a moment's conversation, McNabb arose and tossed the packet of papers into Wentworth's lap. "I've got to step out for a matter of ten or fifteen minutes," he said. "Here's the papers, an' a map of the country. Look 'em over, an' if you care to tackle it, let me know when I come back."
Alone in the office, Wentworth studied the map fully five minutes; then he read over the option contract. Suddenly, he straightened in his chair, and read the last clause of the contract carefully:
Be it further agreed that if the said John McNabb, or his authorized representative, does not demand fulfillment of the terms of this agreement, and accompany the said demand by tender of at least ten percent of the purchase price named herein, on or before noon of the first day of July, nineteen hundred and twenty-one, this agreement shall automatically become null and void in its entirety.
Be it further agreed between the said John McNabb, and the said Canadian Wild Lands Company, Ltd., that aforementioned demand and tender of payment shall be made at and in the store of that trading post of the Hudson's Bay Company, situated upon the north shore of Gods Lake, and known as Gods Lake Post.
Swiftly Wentworth stepped to the desk and, lifting the receiver from its hook, called a number. "Hello! Wolverine Bank? I want to speak with Mr. Orcutt. Hello, Mr. Orcutt? This is Wentworth—No, I don't want any money. Listen, I must see you at once. I'm on the trail of something big, and I need you to help swing it. There's a million in it—can't say more now. What? One o'clock at the bank? Right, I'll be there. Good-by."
A few moments later McNabb entered the office. "Well, did you look the proposition over? Ye see by the map how we can get the paper to the Bay. What d'ye say? Take it, or leave it?"
"I'll take it," answered Wentworth.
"An' ye'll start to-morrow?"
"Why—it's pretty short notice—but—yes, I'll start to-morrow."
Old John McNabb drew a check which he handed to Wentworth.
"Expenses, an' a month's advance salary," grunted the older man.
"And when do you want a report on the mill site?"
"As soon after the ice goes out as you can make it."
"And you will be up during the summer?"
"Some time in July—I've got to be there on the first of August to close that option. Take those location papers with ye. Ye'll need them, an' the map—I have another copy in the vault at the bank. I'll bring 'em up when I come, so if somethin' comes up so you couldn't be at the post on the first of August, it won't hold up the deal. Run along now, I must catch the 11:45 train for Grand Rapids—see you in July."
Upstairs in the fur department Oskar Hedin paused in the act of returning some fox pieces to their place, and greeted the girl who had halted before the tall pier glass to readjust her hat and push a refractory strand of hair into place. "Back again?" he smiled. "And now for the coat!"
"Now for the coat," she repeated. "What kind of a coat do I want, Oskar? I want to try on lots of them. I don't know a thing in the world about furs. All I know is that I've seen some I liked, and some that I didn't care much for."
For half an hour Jean tried on coats, until her choice had narrowed down to a handsome dark baum marten, and a shimmery gray squirrel.
"I think they're both lovely, and I can't quite make up my mind," she said at last, in a tone of mock despair. "It's worse than picking out toboggan caps. I just helped Mr. Wentworth select one—and, oh, by the way, I believe dad is going to find a place for him."
"For who?" asked Hedin, and Jean noticed tiny wrinkles gather between his eyes.
"Why, for Mr. Wentworth, of course. You see, I told dad that he'd just lost his position with that old Nettle River thing they were trying to put through, and Dad said if he was a civil engineer, and out of a job, to tell him to drop in and see him, so I took him in and introduced him and I guess they're still talking."
"Humph," grunted Hedin.
"You don't need to be so grumpy about it. Mr. Wentworth is awfully nice, and all the girls are crazy about him."
"I don't think that gives you any call to rave much over him when it was Fred Orcutt that brought him here, and he brought him for no other purpose than to knife your father," replied Hedin dryly.
Jean laughed. "You take Dad too seriously. He really believes Mr. Orcutt has it in for him, and he sees an ulterior motive in everything he does in a business way. But, really, the Orcutts are all right. There was some business deal, years and years ago, in which Dad fancied Mr. Orcutt tried to get the best of him, and he has never forgotten it. You see, Dad is the dearest thing that ever lived, but he is sort of crusty, and it isn't everybody that knows how to take him. Why, Mr. and Mrs. Orcutt are going to be at dinner this evening, and are going to the theatre, too. They know it is my birthday party, so that doesn't look as though they were such fierce enemies of the McNabbs, does it?
"Let's get back to the subject of coats. This squirrel is beautiful, but I believe I like the dark fur the better. I think I'll try that marten again."
Hedin was thinking rapidly. He had known from the first that the darker fur was the fur for her, yet he had refrained from making any direct suggestion.
"Just a moment, please," he said. "Won't you button that coat once more, I want to get an artificial light effect." As he spoke, he moved toward the windows and drew the shades. Returning in the gloom, he reached swiftly into the fur safe and withdrew the Russian sable coat which he deftly deposited on top of the marten coat that lay with several others upon a nearby table. As the girl turned from the glass, he switched on the light.
"All right," he said, a moment later. "If you care to try on the marten again, we'll see how that shows up under the artificial." Deftly he lifted the squirrel from her shoulders, and, picking up the Russian sable, held it while she slipped her arms into the sleeves. As she buttoned it, he stepped back, and viewed the result through critically puckered eyes. With an effort he refrained from voicing his enchantment with the living picture before him. Old John was right—it was a coat fit for a queen!
"I like this one best. I'll take it."
Hedin agreed. "I think you have chosen wisely," he answered, adding, as she started to loosen the garment at the throat, "Just a minute—the set of the collar in the back——" He stepped behind her, raised the collar a trifle with his fingers, smoothed it into place, and stepped aside to note the effect. "Just a trifle low," he said, "but it's too late to have it altered to-day."
"Oh, bother! I think the set is all right. Who would ever notice it? Let it go."
Hedin smiled. "You can wear it to-night, all right, but you must promise me to send it down the first thing Monday morning for the alteration.
"I will bring it to the house this afternoon."
A sudden caprice seized her. "Why, I think I'll wear it!" she answered. "Just help me on with it, Oskar. And thank you so much for helping me select it. Here comes Mr. Wentworth, now. I wonder whether he will like it. I'm crazy about it. What kind of a marten did you say it is? Everybody will be asking me, and I want to be able to tell them what my own coat is."
"Baum marten," answered Hedin stiffly, heartily wishing the coat safe in its accustomed place. In vain he regretted the wild impulse that had led him to substitute the sable coat for the marten. The impulse had come when the girl told him that Mrs. Orcutt was to be one of the theatre party. The plan had flashed upon him with overwhelming brilliance. He knew that Jean would in all probability never notice that the coat was not a marten. And he knew that Mrs. Orcutt most certainly would, for McNabb had once publicly compared it with her coat, much to the New York coat's detriment and Mrs. Orcutt's humiliation. It was not altogether loyalty for his employer that led him to plot the woman an uncomfortable evening, for he owed her a grudge on his own account. Ever since the coming of Wentworth, whom she had taken under her special patronage, Hedin had been studiously omitted from her scheme of social activities—and Jean McNabb had been as studiously included. He knew that McNabb was leaving town to be gone until the following evening, and that the chance of his seeing the garment was exceedingly small, and he had invented the fiction of the low collar in order to get the coat back on Monday morning when he would, of course, substitute the baum marten and return the sable to its safe. But now he felt vaguely uneasy.
Hedin saw that Wentworth was staring at the coat with a swiftly appraising eye. "It's a baum marten," Jean went on. "It took me a long time to choose between this and a squirrel. There was one that was a luscious gray, but I like this better—don't you?"
Wentworth nodded. "I certainly do," he agreed. "And I do not believe it would have taken me long to decide between that and a squirrel." He turned to Hedin. "What do you think, Mr.—ah—Haywood? That the choice was a wise one? This is certainly a handsome—er—what did you say it is?"
"Baum marten," snapped Hedin, with scarcely a glance at the questioner, as he turned and began to replace the coats that lay upon the table. Wentworth watched Hedin return the baum marten to its place, and Jean stepped swiftly to Hedin's side.
As she spoke, he saw that her eyes were flashing angrily.
"If your surly mood doesn't change," she whispered, "you will not add much to the enjoyment of our coasting party."
"I shall neither add to, nor detract from it," answered Hedin, meeting her gaze squarely. "Please don't wait for me. I find that I shall not be able to attend."
The United States Government formally entered the world war in April, and the following month Ross Wentworth had been graduated from a technical college, and through the auspices of an influential relative was commissioned a captain of engineers, and assigned to duty in one of the larger cantonments. In due course of events he was sent overseas, and was attached to the forces operating in northern Russia. During the sixteen months of his service in the land of the erstwhile Czar, he acquired a fund of military terms, both official and slang. Also he built and maintained in a state of inutility, nine and one-half miles of military swamp road, over which no gun nor detachment of troops ever passed. The abrupt termination of hostilities caught him with a formidable and inexplicable discrepancy of company funds—which discrepancy was promptly and liberally met by the aforementioned relative. Whereupon, Captain Wentworth was honorably discharged from the service of his country.
For many months after his discharge he lived by his wits and looks, but when this grew unproductive of ready cash, he decided to seek employment in his accredited vocation.
This decision he arrived at while sojourning in the home of a wealthy fruit-grower who was interested in the Nettle River project, and who furnished him a letter of recommendation to Orcutt, who promptly employed him. Thereafter all went well until McNabb's ultimatum brought the Nettle River project to as sudden a termination as the armistice had brought the war. Whereupon Wentworth found himself in the uncomfortable predicament of having no available assets and many pressing liabilities, incurred in the course of his endeavor to win the good graces of the wealthy Jean McNabb.
While scarcely knowing Hedin, Wentworth recognized him as a possible rival. He, himself, was no connoisseur of fur, but at least he knew a Russian sable when he saw one, and as he preceded Jean down the aisle, his brain worked rapidly.
By the time he reached the street, a daring scheme was half-formed in his brain—a scheme which, if successful, would work the utter ruin of Hedin, and leave him a clear field with the girl. At the first corner he excused himself.
Hardly was the girl's back turned when Wentworth dodged around the corner and entered McNabb's store by another door just in time to see old John rush from the building, bag in hand, and hurry down the street in the direction of the station.
McNabb's was the only big store in Terrace City, and being a department store, it kept city hours, so while on Saturday evenings all the other stores remained open for business until a late hour, McNabb's closed at noon. Passing unnoticed down the aisle, Wentworth's eyes darted here and there in search of a place of concealment, until at length he took up a position close beside McNabb's private office, the door of which, he noted with satisfaction, stood slightly ajar.
Watching his opportunity, Wentworth slipped unnoticed into the private office, closed the door softly behind him, and sank comfortably into McNabb's desk chair.
A gong sounded, and was repeated, dimly, upon the floors above. Wentworth could hear the tramp of feet in the aisles as the clerks poured from the building through a door that gave on to a side street. In a few minutes the rush was over, and then they came scatteringly, singly, and by twos and threes. He could hear the opening of the door, and the click of the lock as it closed behind them. The footsteps ceased. He drew his watch and waited. Noises from the street reached him, sounding far off and muffled, but the store was silent as a tomb. Twelve minutes ticked away. A footstep sounded. Wentworth could trace it descending the stairs, and walking the length of an aisle. Followed the sound of the opening door, and the click of the latch. Some belated department head, he thought. Possibly Hedin, himself—and he grinned at the thought.
In the silence of the great building Wentworth suddenly realized that he was nervous. It was all well enough to plan a thing, but the carrying out of the plan was quite another matter. He took a silent turn or two the length of the office, his footsteps making no sound upon the soft carpet. He waited twenty minutes and, hearing no sound, closed his watch and dabbed at his forehead with the handkerchief which he drew from his sleeve. Turning the knob, he stepped out upon the uncarpeted floor. The sound of his footsteps upon the hardwood seemed to reverberate through the whole building. He walked a few steps on tiptoe, and then decided that in case anyone should see him, the tiptoeing would look furtive. So he walked to the foot of the stairway, his footsteps sounding in his ears like the ring of a hammer on an anvil. As he ascended the stairs he called out, "Hey, isn't there any one here? I am locked in, and can't get out! Hello! Someone show me the way out!"
Swiftly he ascended to the third floor and crossed to the fur case. Silently he slid back the door and lifted the baum marten coat from its place, and stepping to a counter upon which was fixed a huge roll of wrapping paper, he proceeded to make the coat into a package. This done, he hastened toward the stairway with the package under his arm. Down the stairs he flew, taking them two and three at a time, down the next flight, and across the floor, until he brought up panting at the door with the spring lock by which the employees had left the building.
Thought of material gain had not until this point entered into the scheme. He had merely plotted the undoing of a rival, but at the sudden realization of his status in the eyes of the world, a new thought struck him. "If I can get away with it—why not? A Russian sable! Why, it's worth thousands!"
It took a concentrated effort to open the door a tiny crack and peer through. Swiftly opening the door, Wentworth stepped onto the sidewalk, closed the door behind him, and clutching his package tightly, hurried down the street. He had entirely gained his composure by the time he reached his hotel, and hastening to his room, placed the package in his trunk and turned the key. He glanced at his watch. It lacked three minutes of one, and remembering his appointment with Orcutt, he hastened to the Wolverine Bank.
Orcutt greeted his caller without enthusiasm. For despite the assurance over the telephone that Wentworth wanted no money, he felt that he was in for a touch.
The younger man was quick to note the attitude, and hastened to dispel it. "In the first place, Mr. Orcutt, I am going to ask you to cash a check for three thousand dollars, but——"
"Three thousand!" exclaimed Orcutt, his eyes narrowing. "Whose check is it?"
"John McNabb's!" A look of suspicion flashed into his eyes.
"Yes—isn't it good?"
"Good! Hell—yes, of course it's good! But what are you doing with McNabb's check for three thousand?"
Reaching into his pocket, Wentworth drew out the packet of papers and held it in his hand. "Eight or ten years ago McNabb bought options on a half million acres of pulp-wood lying between two certain rivers. He sent for me—said he heard I was out of a job, and that as he was the one that was responsible for my losing out, it was only fair that he should offer me another. Then he went on to outline the whole proposition, told me the options expired on August first; then he was called out of the office for a minute and asked me to look over the maps and papers and let him know if I wanted to tackle it or not.
"In going over the contract, I found that the options expire on July first, instead of August first, as he said. It was then I called you up, for the whole scheme hit me like a flash. Don't you see it? If I worked for him, I'd draw a salary, and a good one—and nothing more. But if I should interest sufficient capital to step in on the first day of July when those options expire, and buy up the whole tract, where would McNabb be?"
Orcutt tapped thoughtfully upon his desk pad with the tip of his pencil. "I wonder," he muttered aloud, more to himself than to Wentworth, "I wonder if John has made a slip at last?"
"That is just what he has done! And he is so cocksure of his ground that he didn't even glance at the papers to refresh his memory—I doubt if he has looked at them since he made the deal."
The banker eyed the younger man shrewdly. "And in case I should interest myself in the proposition to the extent of organizing the capital to swing the deal, what would you expect out of it?"
"A share in the business, and a salary of ten thousand a year."
"You don't want much!" exclaimed Orcutt.
"Not any more than you could well afford to give me. You don't realize what a big thing this is—it's going to take a lot of capital to swing it."
"About how much?"
"You'll have to get your figures on the paper mill from someone that knows more about it than I do. The pulp-wood will cost, I imagine, somewhere between six and ten dollars an acre. McNabb's options call for purchase at five dollars, and he told me he could not renew at that figure. But even at ten dollars, there is a mint in it. You will have to pay down ten percent of the purchase price in cash."
Orcutt whistled. "Ten percent of the purchase price, at say, ten dollars, would be half a million. Besides the cost of the mill and the interest on four million and a half!"
"It is a big proposition," agreed Wentworth. "If it is too big for you to handle, I can find someone who will. I have a friend in Detroit whose father will jump at the chance. It isn't too big for McNabb."
"Who said anything about it being too big?" snapped Orcutt. "If McNabb could find the money, I can. But, mind you, I'm not going to spend a damned cent on the proposition until after McNabb's options have expired and we've got our hands on the pulp-wood. Mind you; you don't draw any advance money."
"Not a cent," agreed Wentworth. "But you'd better have the money right on hand on the first day of July; those options expire at noon, and we don't want any delay about getting hold of the property. And, by the way, I want a written contract—make my share a ten percent interest in the business."
After some demurring on the part of Orcutt, he called a stenographer and drew a contract, which he duly signed and handed to Wentworth, who thrust it into his pocket with the packet of papers.
"Let's see those papers of McNabb's," said Orcutt.
Wentworth smiled. "That is hardly necessary, do you think? I will vouch for the date—and the location need not concern you at present. All you need to know is that at noon on the first day of July, you, or your legal representative, must be at the Gods Lake post of the Hudson's Bay Company, with a half million dollars in cash, or its equivalent—and you'd better have all your arrangements made in advance, and allow plenty of time to get there."
On the whole the afternoon was a disappointing one for Jean McNabb. She had been deeply hurt by Hedin's curt refusal to attend the coasting party, and Wentworth had proved a very luke-warm cavalier. She had started out to be extremely vivacious so all might see that the absence of Hedin was a matter of no concern, but Wentworth's preoccupied manner soon dampened her ardor, until for her the coasting party became a monotonous affair.
She breathed a sigh of relief when it was over, and after a walk, during which neither ventured a word, she parted from Wentworth at the gate and rushed to her room. She was furious with Hedin, furious with Wentworth, and furious with herself for being furious.
When he parted from Jean McNabb after the coasting party, Wentworth proceeded to the railway station, where he purchased his ticket and arranged with a truckman to call for his trunk at exactly eight o'clock. Hastening to the hotel, he dressed for dinner.
This accomplished, he carefully locked his door, removed the coat from his trunk, concealed it within the folds of his own overcoat, and sat down to smoke a cigarette as he went over, step by step, his hastily conceived plan. When the hands of his watch indicated that he would be precisely fifteen minutes late, he left the hotel, carrying the overcoat upon his arm.
The street into which he turned was deserted, and proceeding to a point opposite the Campbell residence, he stepped behind a huge maple tree and surveyed the brilliantly lighted house across the way.
"They're late getting started. I hope they are not waiting on my account," he grinned, and drew closer into the shadow of the trees as a lone pedestrian passed along the opposite sidewalk. Faintly to his ears came the sound of laughter, and then there was a general exodus toward the dining room. With a sigh of relief, Wentworth crossed the street, rang the doorbell, and was admitted.
"That you, Captain Wentworth?" called his hostess. "We waited for you until just this minute."
"Awfully sorry to be late—detestable thing to do—going away in the morning—thousand-and-one things to attend to—be down in a moment to offer humble apology."
Swiftly and silently Wentworth removed the coat from within his own, crossed the hall, substituted the baum marten for the Russian sable, and reentered the gentlemen's dressing room, where it was but the work of a moment to conceal the garment within the folds of his coat. Then he descended the stairs, entered the dining room, and seated himself in the vacant chair beside Jean McNabb.
The dinner went as dinners do and was brought to a rather abrupt termination by someone's discovery that it lacked but five minutes to eight. As the guests rose from the table Wentworth gave a startled exclamation.
"In my haste in dressing I forgot my pocketbook. I distinctly recollect removing it from my pocket and tossing it upon the bed, and there I must have left it." He turned to Elsie Campbell. "I hope you will pardon me if I hurry away but really, that pocketbook contains a rather large sum—expense money you know—and, I am almost certain that I neglected to lock my room. I will join you at the door of the theatre; I can easily reach there before you, if I hurry."
A moment later he rushed from the house with his overcoat upon his arm, and hurried to the hotel where, lifting the tray of his trunk, he deposited the sable coat, replaced the tray, locked and strapped the trunk, and finished just in time to respond to the knock of the truckman. Five minutes later he was waiting at the theatre for the others, who appeared just before the rise of the curtain on the first act.
When Oskar Hedin left the store at the closing hour, he went directly to his hotel, bolted a hasty luncheon, slipped into outdoor togs and a half hour later was silently threading an old log-trail that bit deep into the jack-pines. Mile after mile he glided smoothly along that silent winding white lane, his skis making no sound in the soft, deep snow.
Just beyond a swamp, in the centre of a wide clearing, surrounded upon three sides by the encroaching jack-pines and poplars, and upon the fourth by a broad bend of the river, Hedin removed his skis and seated himself upon a rotting log of a tumbled-down cabin, there to think.
So, that's why she wanted a new coat? She was going out for the evening with Wentworth. And she invited Wentworth to go tobogganing, on this particular afternoon of all others, when he had intended to whisper in her ear, as the toboggan flew down the steep grade, the thing that had been uppermost in his mind for a year. And she had asked her father to give him a job. Of course, what could be simpler? A man can manage to exist, somehow, without a job—but with two a job is essential.
He laughed, a short, hard laugh that ended in a sneer. Well, he had been a fool—that's all. He had served her purpose, had been the poor dupe upon whom she had practised her wiles, a plaything, to be lightly tossed aside for a new toy. Some day, too late perhaps, she would see her mistake, and then she would suffer, even as he was suffering now—but, no, to suffer one must first love, and woman had not the capacity to love. "To hell with them!" he cried aloud. "To hell with my tame job! And to hell with Terrace City, and with the civilization that calls a man from the wild places and sets him to selling women baubles to deck themselves out in."
The jack-pine shadows reached far into the clearing as Oskar fastened on his skis and headed back along the tote-road. It was not too late—he was only twenty-five. He, too, would live like a man, would go into the North, and henceforth only the outlands should know him. He would resign Monday morning. The thought caused a pang of regret at parting with McNabb.
Darkness found him still upon the tote-road. He emerged from the jack-pines and paused at the long smooth hill, as was his wont, to look down upon the brilliant lights of Terrace City. His momentum carried him skimming across a flat meadow, and he slowed to a stand at the very end of the main street where, in the white glare of an arc light he removed his skis, and stepped onto the sidewalk.
Well, he would see her once more, arrayed in the coat of matched sable—and he would carry the picture with him to far places where the stars winked cold in the night sky.
Fully twenty minutes before time for the curtain Hedin was in his place, tenth row on the middle aisle, eagerly scanning the patrons as they were ushered to their seats. The theatre boasted only two boxes, set just above the stage level, and Elsie Campbell had engaged them both.
As time for the curtain to rise drew near, Hedin found himself fidgeting nervously. Had the theatre party been called off? The house was already well filled; surely there was no block of vacant seats that would accommodate a dinner party. Then, as he had about given up hope, he raised his eyes to a box just as Jean McNabb entered, followed closely by Wentworth. Hedin stared as if petrified, brushed his hand across his eyes as though to clear his vision of distorting film, and stared again. For Wentworth was lifting a coat from Jean's shoulders, but it was not a sable one. Seizing his hat and coat, Hedin rushed from the building, narrowly avoiding collision with an usher.
Without pausing to put on his coat, he dashed for the store and letting himself in, took the stairs three at a time. Upon the second flight, he met the night watchman who, recognizing him, allowed him to pass, but noting his evident agitation and unaccountable haste, silently and discreetly followed and took up a position where he could watch every move of the excited department head. Hastening to the fur safe, Hedin unlocked and threw it open. He switched on the light, and peered into the interior. The Russian sable coat was not in its accustomed place. And a hurried search of the safe showed that it was in no other place. Closing the door, he inspected the case that contained the less valuable furs, and it was but the work of a moment to discover that the baum marten coat was missing. Dumbfounded, he stared at the empty space where the coat should have been. His brief inspection in the theatre had told him this was the coat Jean McNabb was wearing—but where was the sable? He distinctly remembered replacing the marten with his own hands, and of seeing the girl pass down the aisle wearing the sable.
He sank into his chair and, leaning forward, buried his face in his arms upon his desk. He tried to think clearly, but found himself entirely incapable of thought. How did it happen? Where was the sable?
Calling the watchman, Hedin questioned him for half an hour, but learned nothing. He even made a personal inspection of every door and window in the store, and sent the watchman to the basement on a tour of similar inspection. When the man returned and reported nothing disturbed, Hedin left the store and proceeded directly to his room, where he spent a sleepless night in trying to solve the mystery.
After breakfast the following morning Jean McNabb sat before the little dressing table in her room when the doorbell rang, and the maid announced Mr. Hedin.
"Tell Mr. Hedin I can't see anyone this morning," she said, without looking up.
Again the maid tapped at the door, and entering, handed the girl a hastily scribbled leaf torn from a notebook. Jean read it at a glance, and her face flushed with swift anger. No salutation, only a few scrawled words: "Must see you at once. Purely matter of business—very important—about the coat."
Crossing to her desk the girl scribbled upon the reverse side of the paper. "Never talk business on Sunday. Coat will be at store as per agreement."
On Monday morning old John McNabb entered his private office to find Hedin awaiting him. He glanced at the younger man inquiringly—"What ails ye, lad? Ye look like ye hadn't slept for a week."
"I haven't slept for two nights," answered Hedin. "There is no use beating around the bush. As a matter of fact, the Russian sable coat is missing, and I am to blame for it."
The old man stared incredulously. "Missin'!" he exclaimed. "An' you're to blame! What d'ye mean?"
Hastily, in as few words as possible, Hedin recited the facts as he knew them, while an angry flush mounted to the old man's face.
McNabb reached for the telephone and called a number. "Hello! Is that you, Jean? Come to the store at once, and bring your new fur coat—to my office. . . . What? No, that won't do, at all. Bring it yourself—I'm waitin'."
"I'll step outside while Jean—while Miss McNabb——"
"Ye'll stay where ye are!" snapped McNabb.
The older man turned to his desk, where for ten minutes he opened and closed drawers and rustled papers viciously. Then the door opened and Jean herself stepped into the room with the fur coat over her arm. "Well, Dad, here's the coat." She paused abruptly, glanced inquiringly at Hedin, nodded coolly, and continued, "Oskar said it needed a little tailoring, and that I was to bring it down this morning, but I didn't think there was any tearing hurry about it."
Her father took the garment, smoothed the fur with his hand, and asked casually, "Is this the coat ye wore from the store?"
"Why, of course it is."
"An' the one ye wore to the show?"
"Yes, yes," answered the girl impatiently. "I haven't so many fur coats that I would be apt to get them mixed."
McNabb ignored the impatience. "Ye've had no other coat in your possession since you selected this one?"
"No, I haven't. What's all this about?"
"Did Oskar tell you what kind of a coat you were gettin'?"
"Yes, a baum marten. Why, isn't it a baum marten?"
McNabb nodded. "Yes, it's a baum marten. Run along now. I just wanted to see which coat ye'd got. Here, take it along with ye. The tailor can wait."
With a puzzled glance at the two men, Jean took the coat, and with a toss of the head left the office.
McNabb turned to Hedin. "What have ye got to say now? Did the girl tell the truth?"
"Then that was the coat she wore from the store?"
"No—but she thinks it was. She doesn't know the difference."
For a long time John McNabb spoke no word but sat staring at his desk, pecking at the blotter with his pencil. He prided himself upon his ability to pick men. He knew men, and in no small measure was this knowledge responsible for his success in dealing with men. He had been certain that Jean and Hedin would eventually marry, and secretly he longed for the day. He had watched Hedin for years and now, despite the improbability of the story, he believed it implicitly. And it was with a heavy heart that he had watched the studied coldness of each toward the other. McNabb was a man of snap decisions. He would teach these young fools a lesson, and at the same time find out which way the wind blew. With a clenching of his fists, he whirled abruptly upon Hedin.
"What did ye do with the coat?" he roared. "It'll go easier with ye if ye tell me!"
"What do you mean?" cried Hedin, white to the lips, meeting McNabb's gaze with a look of mingled surprise, pain, and anger.
"I mean just what I say. Ye've got the coat—where is it?"
Hedin felt suddenly weak and sick. He had expected McNabb's anger at his foolish whim, and knew that he deserved it—but that McNabb should accuse him of theft! Sick at heart, he faltered his answer, and in his own ears his voice sounded strange, and dull, and unconvincing. "You think I—I stole it?"
"What else am I to think? What will the police think? What will the jury think when they hear your flimsy yarn—an' the straightforward evidence of my daughter? They'll think that the coat she wore to the show, an' that she still has, is the coat she wore from the store, an' that you've got the other. An' when Kranz tells of your midnight visit to the store, what'll they think then?" McNabb finished and, reaching for the telephone, called the police headquarters. A few minutes later the chief himself appeared, accompanied by the night watchman, Kranz, whose story of the nervous and agitated appearance of Hedin on his midnight visit to the store forged the strongest link in the chain of circumstantial evidence.
After the watchman had been dismissed, Hedin was subjected to a bullying at the hands of the burly officer that stopped just short of personal violence, and through it all he stubbornly maintained his innocence.
After another brief telephone conversation, the three visited the private room of the judge where, waiving a preliminary hearing, the prisoner was bound over to await the action of the grand jury, and his bail fixed at ten thousand dollars.
At the mouth of the alley that led from a side street to the rear of the jail, the policeman plucked at Hedin's sleeve, and turned in. Mechanically Hedin fell in beside him. Someone passed upon the street. "See who that was?" asked the officer maliciously, for he knew all the town gossip. Hedin scarcely heard the question. "It was McNabb's gal. Her throwin' you over fer this here Wentworth didn't give you no license to steal her old man's fur coat, all right—but maybe you ain't so onlucky, at that. Folks says she's all right—a little gay an' the like of that—but runnin' the streets at midnight, like she was a Saturday, with a guy that goes after 'em like Wentworth! Call it gay if they want to, but if it was anyone but old McNabb's daughter, they'd be callin' it somethin' else."
Smash! Hedin's fist drove with terrific force into the flappy jaw, and the big officer reeled, and crashed into the snow between a row of ash barrels, and a dilapidated board fence. The young man stared in surprise as he waited for the other to regain his feet. The officer's words had roused a sudden flash of fury, and with nerves already strained to the breaking point, he had struck. But the man, grotesquely sprawled behind the barrels, made no move.
Hedin glanced up and down the alley. It was empty. He was free! Swiftly he proceeded down the alley, passed the jail, and turned into the street. Here he slackened his pace, and walking leisurely to his hotel, hastily made up a light pack. Passing around to the rear, he took his skis from their place, walking to the edge of town, fastened them on, and was soon swallowed up in the jack-pines. For an hour he glided smoothly over the snow, and upon the edge of a balsam thicket sat down on a log to rest.
There were two courses open. Either he could return to Terrace City and face the charge against him as best he could, or he could keep going. It was only a few miles across country to Pipe Lake, where he could catch the P.M. for Detroit.
His thoughts turned abruptly from the problem of flight, and plunged into the problem of the missing coat. It was not conceivable that the garment had been destroyed; therefore it was still in existence. If in existence, somebody had it. Who? One by one, Hedin considered the personnel of the theatre party, and one by one he eliminated them until only Wentworth was left. Wentworth! If he could only prove it! He remembered that someone had casually remarked that morning at breakfast that Wentworth had gone North for old John McNabb. He had heard McNabb mention some pulp-wood lands in the North. Gods Lake, wasn't it? Why, Gods Lake post was old Dugald Murchison's post! Hedin remembered Murchison well. It was only last year he had spent a week as the guest of his old friend McNabb, and nearly every evening at dinner Hedin had sat at meat with them, and listened in fascination to the talk of the far outlands. He remembered the shrewd gray eyes of Murchison—eyes that bespoke wisdom, and justice tempered with mercy.
He smote his leg with his mittened fist. He would go North, straight to old Dugald Murchison, and he would tell him the whole story. Murchison would help him, and if Wentworth were innocent, then he, Hedin would return to Terrace City and give himself up. He would not be a fugitive from justice, for justice owed him the chance to prove his innocence.
Once his mind was made up, Hedin rose to his feet and slung the light pack to his back. Then he lowered the pack, and stood thinking. He would hit for Pipe Lake, but Hanson, the storekeeper at Pipe Lake, would recognize him. Tossing his pack aside, he scooped a hole in the snow, built a tiny fire of balsam twigs, and melted some water in his drinking cup. Then, setting a small hand mirror upon the log, he produced his razor and proceeded to shave off his mustache. This done, he grinned at himself in the mirror, as he reflected that Hanson had never seen him except in conventional clothing, and that he would never recognize him in mackinaw and larrigans, with his mustache gone.
Once more he stood up, kicked snow over his fire, swung the pack to his back, and started to skirt the swamp. Then suddenly he halted in his tracks. There was a mighty crackling of dry twigs close at hand, and a voice commanded gruffly, "Hands up!"
Instinctively Hedin elevated his hands as he stared into the muzzle of a revolver. Beyond the revolver he saw the grinning face of Mike Duffy, erstwhile lumberjack, then bootlegger, and now policeman; under the Hicks regime.
"Shaved her off, eh?" taunted the man. "Well, mebbe you'd 'a' fooled most folks, but you hain't fooled me none, special' as I be'n layin' in the brush watchin' you fer half an hour. You'd of got away from the rest of 'em too."
Old John McNabb had not been long at his desk when the telephone bell rang and he picked up the receiver.
"Hello—who? Hicks? He—what? Where is he now? Got away! Well, you get him! Get him, or I'll get you! If he ain't back in jail to-day, off comes your buttons to-morrow—do you get that?" Old John banged the receiver onto the hook, and launched what would undoubtedly have been a classic of denunciatory profanity, had it not been interrupted in its inception by Jean, who had slipped into the office unnoticed at the beginning of the telephone conversation.
"Why, Dad!" exclaimed the girl laughing, as the red-faced man whirled upon her in surprise. "What a beastly temper you are in this morning! Who got away, and why are you so anxious to have him caught?"
"Oskar got away," he growled, apparently somewhat mollified by his daughter's tone. "Hicks started for jail with him an' Oskar knocked him down in the alley an' got away."
"Oskar! Jail! What do you mean?"
"I mean just what I say," answered McNabb, meeting the girl's startled gaze squarely. "A thirty thousand dollar sable coat is missing from the store, and no one except Oskar and I had access to the fur safe. He made up a cock-an'-bull story about letting you wear it Saturday to show up Mrs. Orcutt. He claims he went to the theatre to enjoy the effect on Mrs. Orcutt, when he discovered that you were wearing, not the Russian sable that you had worn from the store, but a baum marten coat. He hurried to the store to find that both the sable and the marten coats were gone——"
Old John noticed that as he talked the color receded slowly from the girl's face, leaving it almost chalk white, and then suddenly the color returned with a rush that flamed red to her hair roots. But he was totally unprepared for the sudden fury with which she faced him.
"And you had him arrested! Oskar arrested like a common thief! Are you crazy? You know as well as I do that he never stole a pin——"
"No, he never stole a pin, but there's some little difference in value between a pin and a thirty thousand dollar coat. They say every man's got his price."
"It's a lie!" cried the girl, stamping her foot. "But even if it were true, his price would be so big that there isn't money enough in this world to even tempt him! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Think what people will say!"
"I don't care what they say. He's got that coat, an' I'm right here to see that he gets just what's comin' to him."
"Well, what people will say won't hurt Oskar!" cried the girl. "They'll all know he didn't steal your coat! They'll say you're a fool! That's what they'll say—and they'll be right, too! It won't take him long to prove his innocence, and then what will people think of you?"
"He ain't got a show to prove his innocence," retorted McNabb. "Your own testimony will convict him. Didn't ye tell me right here in this room within the hour that the coat ye brought in was the one ye wore from the store, an' the one ye wore to the theatre?"
"And I thought it was," flared the girl. "But if Oskar says it wasn't then it wasn't. And let me tell you this—if you're depending on my testimony to convict him, you might as well have him turned loose right this minute! Because I won't say a word at their old trial. They can put me in jail, too, but they can't make me talk. The whole thing is an outrage, and I'm going right straight down to the jail and tell them to let him out this minute——"
"He's out all right," retorted McNabb. "He knocked Hicks down and escaped on the way to jail."
"I'm glad of it! I hope he broke that nasty old Hicks's head! And if they catch Oskar you had better see that they let him go at once—unless you want to see your own daughter married to a jailbird!"
It was nine o'clock that evening when, growling and grumbling, Hicks himself moved heavily down the short corridor of the jail, and unlocked the door of the cell that held Oskar Hedin. "Come on out!" he commanded.
Hedin stepped in the corridor, and looked inquiringly into the officer's face. "What's up?" he asked.
"Bailed out," growled Hicks.
"Bailed out! Why, who——?"
"I don't know, an' don't give a damn. Someone that's got more money than brains. I wouldn't trust you as far as I could throw a bull by the tail, an' you needn't think I've forgot the poke in the jaw you give me. I'll git you yet."
Hedin paused upon the steps of the police station and glanced across the street where a light burned in the office of Hiram P. Buckner, attorney-at-law. Buckner held the reputation of being by far the most able lawyer in the vicinity, and Hedin's first impulse was to retain him. He crossed the sidewalk and paused abruptly as he remembered that Buckner was McNabb's attorney. Of course, the prosecution of his case would be in the hands of the state, but—why jeopardize his own case by employing a man who stood at the beck and call of the very man who was pushing his prosecution? He turned and proceeded slowly toward his hotel, and as he passed down the street a man stepped from the office of the attorney and followed. He was a large man, muffled to the ears in a fur coat. He followed unnoticed, into the hotel and up the stairs, and when Hedin entered his room and switched on the light the man stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind him. He turned and faced Hedin, throwing back the collar of his coat. Hedin gasped in amazement. The man was old John McNabb, and to his utter bewilderment, Hedin caught a twinkle in the old Scot's eye.
"'Tis the truth, I'd never ha' know'd ye, an' ye hadn't told me who ye was," welcomed old Dugald Murchison, as he gripped Hedin's hand in the door of the little trading post on the shore of Gods Lake. "Knock the snow from your clothes an' come in to the stove. You're just in time, for by the signs, the storm that's on us will be a three days' nor'easter straight off the Bay. Ye'd of had a nasty camp of it if ye'd of been a day later."
"The guide saw it coming, and we did double time yesterday, and to-day we didn't stop to eat."
Murchison nodded. "Ye come in up the chain of lakes from the south. 'Tis a man's job ye've done—this time o' year. Ye come up from Lac Seul, an' by the guide ye've got, I see the hand of John McNabb in your visit. For old Missinabbee won't go into the woods with everyone, though he'd go through hell itself for John McNabb. But come on in an' get thawed out while the Injun 'tends to the dogs, an' then we'll eat."
"Has Wentworth arrived yet?" asked Hedin, as he followed the factor toward the stove at the rear of the trading room.
Murchison shook his head. "Ye're the first this winter. But who's Wentworth? An' what'll he be doin' here? An' what are ye doin' here yourself? I suppose it had to do with John's pulp-wood, but the options don't expire till sometime in the summer. Why didn't he come himself?"
It was a long story Hedin unfolded as he and Murchison sat late over their pipes beside the roaring stove in the long, low trading room. The factor puffed in silence without once interrupting until the younger man had finished.
"So John is really goin' to build a paper mill up here? But why did John hire this Wentworth if he figured he couldn't trust him, an' why did he have ye under arrest an' bail ye out? Unless——"
The old factor paused and puffed at his pipe the while his eyes were fixed upon the deep shadows at the far corner.
"Unless what?" asked Hedin eagerly. "I thought, at first, that he believed me guilty of stealing the coat," he went on when Murchison didn't answer. "I know now that he didn't, but when I asked him the reason for my arrest, he only laughed and said that it was all part of the game." Then the younger man's voice dropped, and Murchison noted that the look of eagerness had faded from his face. "As to the hiring of Wentworth," continued Hedin, "that is another matter."
The factor rose slowly and, crossing to the door, opened it and hastily closed it again as a swirl of fine snow-powder enveloped him. Hedin caught the muffled roar of the wind, and in the draught of cold air that swept the room, the big swinging lamp flared smokily. Murchison returned to his chair and filled his pipe. "How's John's daughter comin' along?" he asked between puffs of blue smoke.
"Why, Miss McNabb is very well, I believe," answered Hedin, a bit awkwardly. "You were right about that storm," Hedin hastened to change the subject. "I'm mighty glad we made Gods Lake to-day, or we would have been held up for the Lord knows how long."
Murchison suppressed a smile, and hunched his chair a bit nearer the stove. "When all's said an' done then, the case stands about like this. This engineer will be along in a few days to begin work locatin' the power dam, an' lookin' up more pulpwood. John believes that Wentworth will let the options expire, an' then swing the stuff over to this man Orcutt an' his crowd—an he's sent you up to block the game."
Hedin nodded. "That's it."
"You're my clerk, an' your name's Sven Larson—that's a good Scandinavian name—an' you don't know nothin' about pulp-wood, nor options. I guess it would be best if we could put him up right here. We could be watchin' him all the while without seemin' to."
"I wonder when Wentworth will be here?" speculated Hedin.
"There's no tellin'. It's accordin' to the outfit he packs an' the guide he's got. They'll have to camp for the storm, an' the snow will slow them up one-half. The storm will last three days or four, an' after that, a day, mebbe a week. Anyways, 'twill give ye time to learn the duties of a factor's clerk, which is a thing the Company has never furnished at Gods Lake, but if John McNabb foots the bill, they'll not worry. 'Twould be better an' ye could play the dolt—not an eediot, or an addlepate—but just a dull fellow, slow of wit, an' knowin' nought except of fur."
Hedin laughed. "That won't bother me in the least."
Murchison shook his head. "'Twill not be so easy as ye think. Askin' foolish questions here an' there, forgettin' to do things ye're told to do, ponderin' deep over simple matters, an' above all ye're to neither laugh nor take offense when I berate ye for a dullard. Ye get the idea—your knowledge of fur is your only excuse for livin'?"
"I get it," smiled Hedin.
Murchison studied the younger man intently. "This Wentworth—how well did ye know him? Or, rather, how well did he know you?"
"You are wondering whether he will recognize me?"
The factor nodded. "Yes, I would not have known ye, for as I remember ye wore a mustache, an' were smooth of chin an' jaw, an' of course, ye wore city clothes. But one who had known ye well wouldn't be so easy fooled."
"He won't recognize me. We have met only a few times. But even if he had known me much better I wouldn't be afraid, because when I left Terrace City dressed in these togs, and carrying a lumberjacks' turkey on my back, I stopped into a cigar store and inquired the way to the station. The clerk who has seen me every day for years pointed out the way without a flicker of recognition in his eyes—and I didn't have this stubby beard then either."
Murchison seemed satisfied, and after showing his new clerk to his bed, he returned to the stove and knocked the ash from his pipe. "John is canny," he grinned. "As canny in the handlin' of women, as of men. He'll have the son-in-law he wants, an' careful he'll be that he's the man of the lass's own choosin'."
On the day after the big storm old Missinabbee returned to the southward, and the following day Wentworth arrived at the post, cursing his guide, and the storm, and the snow that lay deep in the forest. The half-breed refused to stop over and rest, but accepted his pay and turned his dogs on the back-trail. And as Murchison accepted McNabb's letter of introduction from Wentworth's hand in the door of the post trading room, his eyes followed the retreating form of the guide. For he had caught a malevolent gleam of hate that flashed from the narrowed black eyes as the man had accepted his pay.
"Ye have not seen the last of yon," he said, turning to Wentworth with a nod of his head toward the breed. "Alex Thumb is counted a bad man in the North. I would not rest so easy, an' he was camped on my trail."
Wentworth scowled. "Worthless devil! Kicked on my bringing my trunk. Wanted me to transfer my stuff into duffle bags and carry a pack to ease up on his dogs; and then to top it off with, he wasn't going to let me ride on the sled. But I showed him who was boss. I hired the outfit and believe me, I rode whenever I felt like it. He may have you fellows up here bluffed, but not me."
"Well, 'tis none of my business. I was only givin' ye a friendly warnin'. Come on now till I get my glasses on, an' we'll see what ye've got here."
Presently he folded and returned the brief note. "An' now what can I do for ye? Will ye be makin' your headquarters here, or will ye have a camp of your own down on the river?"
"I think I'll stay here if there's room. When I'm exploring the river I can take a light outfit along."
"There's plenty of room. There's an empty cabin beside the storehouse, an' I'll have a stove set up, an' your things moved in. Ye'll take your meals with me. There's only a couple of Company Injuns, an' my clerk." Murchison paused. "Sven!" he called. "Sven Larson! Where are ye? Come down out of that fur loft! I've a job for ye."
Slow, heavy footsteps sounded upon the floor above, and a moment later two feet appeared upon the ladder, and very deliberately the clerk negotiated the descent.
"Sven Larson, this is Mr. Wentworth. He's from the States, an' he's goin' to live in the cabin. Take Wawake an' Joe Irish an' set up a stove in there, an' move the stuff in that lays outside."
Hedin acknowledged the introduction with a solemn bob of the head, and as he stared straight into Wentworth's face he blinked owlishly.
"This stove?" he asked, indicating the huge cannon stove in which the fire roared noisily.
"No! No! Ye numbskull! One of them Yukon stoves. An' be quick about it."
"The stuff that lays outside the door—Wentworth's stuff, of course!'
"In the cabin?"
"Yes, in the cabin!" cried the factor impatiently. "Ye didn't think ye was to put it in the stove, did ye?"
Hedin moved slowly away in search of the Company Indians, and Wentworth laughed. "Hasn't got quite all his buttons, has he?" he inquired. "I should say the Company had treated you shabbily in the matter of a clerk."
"Well, I don't know," replied Murchison. "I could have had worse. 'Tis not to be gainsaid that he's slow an' heavy of wit in the matter of most things, but the lad knows fur. More than forty years I've handled fur, an' yet to-day the striplin' knows more about fur, an' the value of fur, than I ever will know. An' then there's the close-mouthedness of him. Ye tell him a thing, an' caution him to say naught about it, an' no bribe nor threat could drag a word of it from his lips. So, ye see, for the job he's got, I could scarce hope for better."
"I presume he knows only raw furs," said Wentworth casually. "He could, of course, have no knowledge of the finished product."
"An' there ye're wrong. Of his early life I know nothing except that he's a foreigner, raised in the fur trade. He can spot topped or pointed furs as far as he can see them, an' as for appraisin' them, he can tell almost to a dollar the value of any piece ye could show him. But——"
The door opened and Murchison turned to greet a newcomer. "Hello, Downey!" he called. "'Tis a long time since ye've favored Gods Lake with a visit. Come up to the stove, lad, an' meet Mr. Wentworth.
"Mr. Wentworth, this is Corporal Downey, of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police." At the word police Wentworth started ever so slightly, but caught himself on the instant. He searched the keen gray eyes of the officer as he extended his hand, but if Downey noticed the momentary trepidation he gave no sign.
"So you're Wentworth," he remarked casually, as he swung the light pack from his shoulders.
"Oh," Downey accorded him a slanting glance, and entered into conversation with Murchison.
"You knew my name, do you want to see me?" Wentworth interrupted after a wait of several minutes.
"No, not in particular. Only if I was you I'd beware of a dark-haired man, as the fortune-tellers say."
"What do you mean?"
"I met Alex Thumb a piece back on the trail."
"Well, what of it? What has that got to do with me?"
"I don't know. He mentioned your name, that's all. An' I just kind of surmised from the way he done it that you an' him didn't part the best of friends."
"I hired him for a guide, and he undertook to give me my orders on the trail. But I soon showed him where he stood."
Downey nodded. "He's counted bad medicine up here."
"I guess he won't bother me any; I'm here to stay."
"No, he won't be apt to bother you any. Probably kill you, though, if you don't keep your eyes open. But don't worry about that, because if he does I'll get him."
"He can't bluff me. I served with the engineers in Russia."
"You'll be servin' with the devils in hell, too, if you don't quit makin' enemies of men like Alex Thumb."
"They didn't use up all the brains, when they made the Mounted, Captain."
"Corporal'll do me," corrected the officer. "I wasn't with the engineers—in Russia. I was only in the trenches—in France."
As Downey slung his pack to his shoulders the following morning he stepped close to Murchison. The trading room was deserted save for those two, but the officer lowered his voice. "Wentworth ain't the only one around here that needs watchin'," he said warningly.
"What do ye mean?"
"I mean your clerk ain't the fool he lets on he is. That room you put me in was next to his. The chinkin's fallen out in spots, an' his light was lit late, so I just laid in my bunk an' glued my eye to the crack. He was readin'—an' enjoyin' what he read. He'd lay down the book now an' then an' light a good briar pipe. I'd get a good look into his face then, an' he's no more a fool than you or I. He's damned smart lookin'. An' the books he had laid out on the table wasn't books a fool would be readin'. He was careful to hide 'em away when he rolled in—an' he cleaned his fingernails with a white handled dingus, an' brushed his teeth, an' put the tools back in a black leather case that had silver trimmin's. Believe me, there's somethin' comin' off here between now an' summer, an' I'm goin' to ask for the detail!"
Murchison laughed. "Come on back, Downey, and you'll see the fun. An' I ain't so sure you won't be needed in your official capacity. But don't bother your head over Sven Larson. Remember this: it takes a smart man to play the fool, an' play it right. That's why John McNabb sent him up here. An' his name ain't Larson; it's Hedin. He's John's right-hand man—an' if I mistake not someday he'll be his son-in-law."
"Oh, I'll be back all right," grinned Downey. "I've got a hunch that maybe I'll be needed."
"Ye wouldn't be sorry to have to arrest Wentworth for some kind of thievery, would ye, Downey? I could see ye distrusted him from the moment ye laid eyes on him."
"U-m-m-m," answered Downey. "I was thinkin' more of, maybe, bringin' in Alex Thumb—for murder."
A week later Murchison accompanied Wentworth upon a ten-day trip, during the course of which they visited the proposed mill site, the McNabb holdings, and a great part of the available pulp-wood territory adjoining. With Murchison's help, Wentworth sketched a map of the district that showed with workable accuracy the location of lakes and streams, together with the location of Government and Hudson's Bay Company lands. This done, he secured an Indian guide and proceeded to lay out and blaze the route of the wagon road to the railway.
By the middle of May the snow had nearly disappeared, and the first of June saw the rivers running free of ice. It was then that Wentworth "borrowed" Sven Larson from the factor and dropped down Gods River in a canoe to its confluence with the Shamattawa. Camp was made at the head of the rapids. Thereafter for five days Hedin worked under Wentworth's direction, while the engineer ran his levels and established his contour. In the evenings as they sat by the campfire smoking, Hedin preserved the same stolid silence that he had studiously observed since the coming of Wentworth.
"Murchison says you know all about fur," Wentworth suggested one evening. "And the finished fur? Do you know that, too—about, well, for instance kolinsky, and nutria, and Russian sable?"
"Kolinsky and nutria are no good. We do not have them here. Russian sable, and sea otter, and black fox, they are the best furs in the world. We do not have them here, either, except once in a while a black, or a silver fox."
"A coat of Russian sable would be very valuable?"
"Yes. Real Russian sable, dark, and well silvered, would be very valuable."
"How much would one be worth?"
"Nobody can tell unless they can see it. It is all in the matching."
For a full minute Wentworth studied the face across the little fire, the face with the unkempt beard, and the far-off, pondering eyes.
"I have a Russian sable coat," ventured Wentworth.
The factor's clerk gazed at him with unwinking blue eyes, and the head wagged slowly. "No. Russian sable is woman's fur. They do not make men's coats of Russian sable."
"But this is a woman's coat," explained Wentworth. "I got it in Russia when I was in the Army. She was a Russian princess and I helped her escape from the country at great risk to myself. It was in the winter, in the dead of night, and a terrible blizzard was raging. When she safely crossed the border she thanked me with tears in her eyes and begged me to take her coat in payment, as she had no money. I refused, but she tossed it into my arms, and disappeared into the night."
"Maybe she died in the storm without her coat."
"Why, no—you see, she had—that is, I had arranged for a car—a sleigh, I mean, to meet her there with plenty of robes. But what I want to get at, is this. If I show you this coat will you promise not to say a word to Murchison about it? I do not want him to know I have it. He would want to buy it, and he is my friend and I do not want to refuse him. But I do not want to sell the coat, because sometime I am going to return it to its original owner. But first I should like you to tell me what it is worth. Can you tell me that? And can you remember never to tell Murchison that I have the coat?"
Hedin nodded. "Yes, I can tell you how much the coat is worth when I see it and feel it. And I will not tell Murchison. That is why I am smart, and others are foolish. Because they tell me what they know, and I listen, and pretty soon I know that, too. But I do not tell what I know, and they cannot listen. So I know what they know, and they do not know what I know, and that is why I am wise and they don't know hardly anything at all."
"Everything coming in, and nothing going out," laughed Wentworth. "That's right, Sven; you've got the system. We will finish here to-morrow, and then we will return to the post, and you can come to my cabin, and I'll show you the fur."
Ever since the evening in camp when Wentworth had confided in him that he had the coat, Hedin had been debating his course of procedure. His first impulse had been to denounce Wentworth to his face, to seize the coat and obtain the engineer's arrest. He knew that Downey expected to return to the post—but there was Jean to consider. Jean—the girl of his fondest dreams, who had forsaken him and fallen under the spell of the courtly manners of the suave soldier-engineer. What would Jean think? If she loved the man she would never believe in his guilt. She would believe, with a woman's irrational loyalty, that he, Hedin, had in some manner contrived to place the coat in Wentworth's possession, and he knew that the engineer would never cease to proclaim that he had been made the dupe of a scheming lover. The case against the man must be plain. When Jean could be shown that Wentworth deliberately endeavored to cheat her father, she would then believe that he stole the coat. She would be saved from throwing herself away, and he—Hedin's lips moved, "I will hire out to the Company, and ask to be sent to the northern-most post they've got."
Upon his arrival at the post, Wentworth made out two reports, one to McNabb and the other to Orcutt, which he dispatched to the railway by a Company Indian. Late in the afternoon, as he was polishing his instruments in the little cabin, the figure of Sven Larson appeared in the doorway. The engineer motioned him to enter and close the door behind him. "Where is Murchison?" he asked, glancing through the window toward the post.
"He has gone in a boat with Wawake to set the fish nets."
Without a word Wentworth stepped across the room, unlocked his trunk, and from its depths drew the sable coat that Hedin had last seen upon the shoulders of Jean McNabb as she walked from the store upon that memorable Saturday. With a conscious effort he controlled himself, and reaching out his hand took the coat and carried it to the window. He was conscious that the engineer's eyes were fastened intently upon him as, inch by inch, he carefully examined the garment whose every skin—every hair, almost—was familiar to him. Still holding the coat, he spoke more to himself than to Wentworth. "A fine piece. All good dark Yakutsk skins. And the matching is good. Only one skin a shade off——"
"What's it worth?" asked Wentworth abruptly. "I don't care a damn about the specifications. They don't mean anything to me. I knew it was a fine garment the minute I spotted it, and I knew Hedin was lying when he said it was a marten."
"Hedin?" queried the clerk. "Was that the name of the princess? She must be a fool to say this is a marten."
"No, no! Hedin is a man. And he is a fool, all right. Fool enough to let a damn fool girl make a fool of him——"
Wentworth suddenly saw a blinding flash of light. He felt himself falling; then he lay very still as a shower of little star-like sparks flowed upward from a black abyss.
The instant he struck, Hedin realized the folly of his act. He would have given all he possessed to have recalled the blow. McNabb had trusted him to carry out a carefully laid plan—and he had failed. He remembered how the old Scot had told him frankly that Jean had fallen in love with Wentworth, and personally, while he believed him to be a good engineer, he wouldn't trust him out of his sight. And then he had outlined the scheme he had laid for showing him up so that Jean would be convinced of his crookedness. And now he had spoiled it all.
The man on the floor stirred restlessly. The thought flashed into Hedin's brain that there might still be a chance. If he played his part well, it was possible.
The next thing Wentworth knew, Sven Larson was bending over him, bathing his face with a large red handkerchief saturated with cold water. "What in hell happened?" muttered the man, as he brushed clumsily at his fast discoloring eye with his hand. With the help of the factor's clerk he sat up. "You hit me! Damn you! What did you hit me for?"
"I am sorry I hit you," answered Hedin heavily. "It is in here—the thing that makes me strike." He rubbed his forehead with his fingers. "It is like many worms crawling inside my head, when one speaks ill of women. My eyes get hot, and the red streaks come, and then I strike. It was such a thing that made me strike Pollak. But I had a hammer in my hand and I looked and saw that Pollak was dead, so I ran away from there and climbed onto the ship. I am glad I did not have a hammer in my hand to-day."
Wentworth regained his feet and glanced at his fast closing eye in the bit of mirror that hung above his wash bench. "So am I," he seconded, forcing a smile. "Where did all this happen? Who was Pollak, and where did the ship take you?"
"It was in London in the place of Levinski, the furrier. Pollak and I worked for him in the sorting of skins. The ship took me to Port Nelson. It was a Hudson's Bay Company ship, and I hired out to the Company and they sent me here to Gods Lake. I like it here."
"So that's it, is it? Well, now you listen to me. We'll just forget the black eye and make a little trade. You keep still about the sable coat, and about hitting me, and I'll keep still about your killing Pollak. Mind you, if I should tell Murchison you had killed a man he would send you back to London, and they would hang you."
"Yes, they would hang me because I killed Pollak. But I do not tell Murchison things that I know. If you do not tell him I killed Pollak, he will not send me back to get hung."
When John McNabb read Wentworth's report, he reached for his telephone and called Detroit. "That you, Beekman?" he asked, recognizing the voice of the senior partner of one of the foremost engineering firms in the country. "How about you—all set for that Gods Lake job? Just got the preliminary report. Everything O. K. Plenty of water, plenty of head, and we can get it without spreading the reservoir over the whole country. Hustle that road through as fast as you can. Hundred miles of it—only about eight or ten miles of swamp. We can truck the material in quicker than by shipping it clear around through the Bay and track-lining it up the river. Few small bridges, and one motor ferry. Make it good for heavy work. Put on men enough to complete the road in a month at the outside. Most if it will only be clearing out timber and stumps. As soon as the road is done we'll begin to shoot in the cement. Get at it on the jump now, an' I'll see you in a day or two."
The days following the return of Wentworth and Hedin from the survey of the rapids were busy ones at the little post on Gods Lake. For it was the time of the spring trading, and from far and near came the men of the outlands, bringing in their harvest of fur.
The post flag floated gaily at the staff head, and in the broad clearing about its base were pitched the tepees of the fur bringers.
Each rising sun brought additional wilderness gleaners from afar, and additional children, and many additional starving dogs. For these days were the gala days of the Northland; days of high feast and plenty, of boastings, and recountings, and the chanting of weird chants.
The crudity, the primitive savagery of the scene gripped Hedin as nothing had gripped him before. He was astonished that the setting held for him so little of surprise. He fitted into the life naturally and perfectly as though to the manner born. But his own astonishment was as nothing as compared to the astonishment of Murchison, who stood close as Hedin broke open and sorted the packs of fur. Time and again his swift appraisal of a skin won a nod of approval from the factor, who received the skins from his hands and paid for them in tokens of made beaver.
"I do not understand it," said Murchison, between puffs of his pipe, as at the end of a day he and Hedin sat in the doorway of the trading room and watched the yellow flames from a hundred campfires stab the black darkness of the night, and send wavering shadows playing in grotesque patterns upon the walls of the tepees. The harsh din of the encampment all but drowned the factor's words, and Hedin smiled.
"Do not understand what?" he asked.
"'Tis yourself I do not understand. Ye've never handled raw fur, yet in the handling of thirty packs I have not changed the rating of a skin. By your own word, 'tis your first venture into the North, yet since the day of your coming ye have behaved like a man of the North. The Indians distrust a new-comer. They are slow to place confidence in any white man. An' yet, they have accepted your judgment of fur without question. An' a good half of them ye call by name. 'Tis a combination unheard of, an' to be believed only when one sees it."
"And yet it is very simple," explained Hedin. "For years I have studied fur—finished fur—and in the study I have read everything I could find about fur, from the habits of the animals up through their trapping, and the handling of the skins in every step of their preparation. And as for the Indians themselves, I have merely moved about among them and got acquainted, as I would do in a city of white men."
Murchison interrupted him with a snort. "An' a thousand would try it, an' one succeed! 'Tis no explanation ye've given at all. Ye cannot explain it. 'Tis a something ye have that's bred in the bone. Ye're a born man of the North—an' God pity ye for the job ye've got! Cooped up in a store all day with the fanfare of a city dingin' your ears from dawn till midnight, an' beyond! An' what's the good of it? When ye might be living up here in the land that still lays as God made it. The Company can use men like you. You could have a post of your own in a year's time."