THE DANGER TRAIL
JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
CHAPTER I. The Girl of the Snows CHAPTER II. Lips That Speak Not CHAPTER III. The Mysterious Attack CHAPTER IV. The Warning CHAPTER V. Howland's Midnight Visitor CHAPTER VI. The Love of a Man CHAPTER VII. The Blowing of the Coyote CHAPTER VIII. The Hour of Death CHAPTER IX. The Tryst CHAPTER X. A Race Into the North CHAPTER XI. The House of the Red Death CHAPTER XII. The Fight CHAPTER XIII. The Pursuit CHAPTER XIV. The Gleam of the Light CHAPTER XV. In the Bedroom Chamber CHAPTER XVI. Jean's Story CHAPTER XVII. Meleese
THE DANGER TRAIL
THE GIRL OF THE SNOWS
For perhaps the first time in his life Howland felt the spirit of romance, of adventure, of sympathy for the picturesque and the unknown surging through his veins. A billion stars glowed like yellow, passionless eyes in the polar cold of the skies. Behind him, white in its sinuous twisting through the snow-smothered wilderness, lay the icy Saskatchewan, with a few scattered lights visible where Prince Albert, the last outpost of civilization, came down to the river half a mile away.
But it was into the North that Howland looked. From the top of the great ridge which he had climbed he gazed steadily into the white gloom which reached for a thousand miles from where he stood to the Arctic Sea. Faintly in the grim silence of the winter night there came to his ears the soft hissing sound of the aurora borealis as it played in its age-old song over the dome of the earth, and as he watched the cold flashes shooting like pale arrows through the distant sky and listened to its whispering music of unending loneliness and mystery, there came on him a strange feeling that it was beckoning to him and calling to him—telling him that up there very near to the end of the earth lay all that he had dreamed of and hoped for since he had grown old enough to begin the shaping of a destiny of his own.
He shivered as the cold nipped at his blood, and lighted a fresh cigar, half-turning to shield himself from a wind that was growing out of the east. As the match flared in the cup of his hands for an instant there came from the black gloom of the balsam and spruce at his feet a wailing, hungerful cry that brought a startled breath from his lips. It was a cry such as Indian dogs make about the tepees of masters who are newly dead. He had never heard such a cry before, and yet he knew that it was a wolf's. It impressed him with an awe which was new to him and he stood as motionless as the trees about him until, from out the gray night-gloom to the west, there came an answering cry, and then, from far to the north, still another.
"Sounds as though I'd better go back to town," he said to himself, speaking aloud. "By George, but it's lonely!"
He descended the ridge, walked rapidly over the hard crust of the snow across the Saskatchewan, and assured himself that he felt considerably easier when the lights of Prince Albert gleamed a few hundred yards ahead of him.
Jack Howland was a Chicago man, which means that he was a hustler, and not overburdened with sentiment. For fifteen of his thirty-one years he had been hustling. Since he could easily remember, he had possessed to a large measure but one ambition and one hope. With a persistence which had left him peculiarly a stranger to the more frivolous and human sides of life he had worked toward the achievement of this ambition, and to-night, because that achievement was very near at hand, he was happy. He had never been happier. There flashed across his mental vision a swiftly moving picture of the fight he had made for success. It had been a magnificent fight. Without vanity he was proud of it, for fate had handicapped him at the beginning, and still he had won out. He saw himself again the homeless little farmer boy setting out from his Illinois village to take up life in a great city; as though it had all happened but yesterday he remembered how for days and weeks he had nearly starved, how he had sold papers at first, and then, by lucky chance, became errand boy in a big drafting establishment. It was there that the ambition was born in him. He saw great engineers come and go—men who were greater than presidents to him, and who sought out the ends of the earth in the following of their vocation. He made a slave of himself in the nurturing and strengthening of his ambition to become one of them—to be a builder of railroads and bridges, a tunneler of mountains, a creator of new things in new lands. His slavery had not lessened as his years increased. Voluntarily he had kept himself in bondage, fighting ceaselessly the obstacles in his way, triumphing over his handicaps as few other men had triumphed, rising, slowly, steadily, resistlessly, until now—. He flung back his head and the pulse of his heart quickened as he heard again the words of Van Horn, president of the greatest engineering company on the continent.
"Howland, we've decided to put you in charge Of the building of the Hudson Bay Railroad. It's one of the wildest jobs we've ever had, and Gregson and Thorne don't seem to catch on. They're bridge builders and not wilderness men. We've got to lay a single line of steel through three hundred miles of the wildest country in North America, and from this hour your motto is 'Do it or bust!' You can report at Le Pas as soon as you get your traps together."
Those words had broken the slavedom for Howland. He had been fighting for an opportunity, and now that the opportunity had come he was sure that he would succeed. Swiftly, with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, he walked down the one main street of Prince Albert, puffing out odorous clouds of smoke from his cigar, every fiber in him tingling with the new joy that had come into his life. Another night would see him in Le Pas, the little outpost sixty miles farther east on the Saskatchewan. Then a hundred miles by dog-sledge and he would be in the big wilderness camp where three hundred men were already at work clearing a way to the great bay to the north. What a glorious achievement that road would be! It would remain for all time as a cenotaph to his ability, his courage and indomitable persistence.
It was past nine o'clock when Howland entered the little old Windsor Hotel. The big room, through the windows of which he could look out on the street and across the frozen Saskatchewan, was almost empty. The clerk had locked his cigar-case and had gone to bed. In one corner, partly shrouded in gloom, sat a half-breed trapper who had come in that day from the Lac la Ronge country, and at his feet crouched one of his wolfish sledge-dogs. Both were wide-awake and stared curiously at Howland as he came in. In front of the two large windows sat half a dozen men, as silent as the half-breed, clad in moccasins and thick caribou skin coats. One of them was the factor from a Hudson Bay post at Lac Bain who had not been down to the edge of civilization for three years; the others, including two Crees and a Chippewayan, were hunters and Post men who had driven in their furs from a hundred miles to the north.
For a moment Howland paused in the middle of the room and looked about him. Ordinarily he would have liked this quiet, and would have gone to one of the two rude tables to write a letter or work out a problem of some sort, for he always carried a pocketful of problems about with him. His fifteen years of study and unceasing slavery to his ambition had made him naturally as taciturn as these grim men of the North, who were born to silence. But to-night there had come a change over him. He wanted to talk. He wanted to ask questions. He longed for human companionship, for some kind of mental exhilaration beyond that furnished by his own thoughts. Feeling in his pocket for a cigar he seated himself before one of the windows and proffered it to the factor from Lac Bain.
"You smoke?" he asked companionably.
"I was born in a wigwam," said the factor slowly, taking the cigar. "Thank you."
"Deuced polite for a man who hasn't seen civilization for three years," thought Howland, seating himself comfortably, with his feet on the window-sill. Aloud he said, "The clerk tells me you are from Lac Bain. That's a good distance north, isn't it?"
"Four hundred miles," replied the factor with quiet terseness. "We're on the edge of the Barren Lands."
"Whew!" Howland shrugged his shoulders. Then he volunteered, "I'm going north myself to-morrow."
"No; engineer. I'm putting through the Hudson Bay Railroad."
He spoke the words quite clearly and as they fell from his lips the half-breed, partly concealed in the gloom behind him, straightened with the alert quickness of a cat. He leaned forward eagerly, his black eyes gleaming, and then rose softly from his seat. His moccasined feet made no sound as he came up behind Howland. It was the big huskie who first gave a sign of his presence. For a moment the upturned eyes of the young engineer met those of the half-breed. That look gave Howland a glimpse of a face which he could never forget—a thin, dark, sensitive face framed in shining, jet-black hair, and a pair of eyes that were the most beautiful he had ever seen in a man. Sometimes a look decides great friendship or bitter hatred between men. And something, nameless, unaccountable, passed between these two. Not until the half-breed had turned and was walking swiftly away did Howland realize that he wanted to speak to him, to grip him by the hand, to know him by name. He watched the slender form of the Northerner, as lithe and as graceful in its movement as a wild thing of the forests, until it passed from the door out into the night.
"Who was that?" he asked, turning to the factor.
"His name is Croisset. He comes from the Wholdaia country, beyond Lac la Ronge."
"Half French, half Cree."
The factor resumed his steady gaze out into the white distance of the night, and Howland gave up his effort at conversation. After a little his companion shoved back his chair and bade him good night. The Crees and Chippewayan followed him, and a few minutes later the two white hunters left the engineer alone before the windows.
"Mighty funny people," he said half aloud. "Wonder if they ever talk!"
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, his face resting in his hands, and stared to catch a sign of moving life outside. In him there was no desire for sleep. Often he had called himself a night-bird, but seldom had he been more wakeful than on this night. The elation of his triumph, of his success, had not yet worn itself down to a normal and reasoning satisfaction, and his chief longing was for the day, and the day after that, and the next day, when he would take the place of Gregson and Thorne. Every muscle in his body was vibrant in its desire for action. He looked at his watch. It was only ten o'clock. Since supper he had smoked almost ceaselessly. Now he lighted another cigar and stood up close to one of the windows.
Faintly he caught the sound of a step on the board walk outside. It was a light, quick step, and for an instant it hesitated, just out of his vision. Then it approached, and suddenly the figure of a woman stopped in front of the window. How she was dressed Howland could not have told a moment later. All that he saw was the face, white in the white night—a face on which the shimmering starlight fell as it was lifted to his gaze, beautiful, as clear-cut as a cameo, with eyes that looked up at him half-pleadingly, half-luringly, and lips parted, as if about to speak to him. He stared, moveless in his astonishment, and in another breath the face was gone.
With a hurried exclamation he ran across the empty room to the door and looked down the starlit street. To go from the window to the door took him but a few seconds, yet he found the street deserted—deserted except for a solitary figure three blocks away and a dog that growled at him as he thrust out his head and shoulders. He heard no sound of footsteps, no opening or closing of a door. Only there came to him that faint, hissing music of the northern skies, and once more, from the black forest beyond the Saskatchewan, the infinite sadness of the wolf-howl.
LIPS THAT SPEAK NOT
Howland was not a man easily susceptible to a pair of eyes and a pretty face. The practical side of his nature was too much absorbed in its devices and schemes for the building of material things to allow the breaking in of romance. At least Howland had always complimented himself on this fact, and he laughed a little nervously as he went back to his seat near the window. He was conscious that a flush of unusual excitement had leaped into his cheeks and already the practical side of him was ashamed of that to which the romantic side had surrendered.
"The deuce, but she was pretty!" he excused himself. "And those eyes—"
Suddenly he checked himself. There had been more than the eyes; more than the pretty face! Why had the girl paused in front of the window? Why had she looked at him so intently, as though on the point of speech? The smile and the flush left his face as these questions came to him and he wondered if he had failed to comprehend something which she had meant him to understand. After all, might it not have been a case of mistaken identity? For a moment she had believed that she recognized him—then, seeing her mistake, had passed swiftly down the street. Under ordinary circumstances Howland would have accepted this solution of the incident. But to-night he was in an unusual mood, and it quickly occurred to him that even if his supposition were true it did not explain the pallor in the girl's face and the strange entreaty which had glowed for an instant in her eyes.
Anyway it was none of his business, and he walked casually to the door. At the end of the street, a quarter of a mile distant, a red light burned feebly over the front of a Chinese restaurant, and in a mechanical fashion his footsteps led him in that direction.
"I'll drop in and have a cup of tea," he assured himself, throwing away the stub of his cigar and filling his lungs with great breaths of the cold, dry air. "Lord, but it's a glorious night! I wish Van Horn could see it."
He stopped and turned his eyes again into the North. Its myriad stars, white and unshivering, the elusive play of the mysterious lights hovering over the pole, and the black edge of the wilderness beyond the river were holding a greater and greater fascination for him. Since morning, when he had looked on that wilderness for the first time in his life, new blood had entered into him, and he rejoiced that it was this wonderful world which was to hold for him success and fortune. Never had he dreamed that the mere joy of living would appeal to him as it did now; that the act of breathing, of seeing, of looking on wonders in which his hands had taken no part in the making, would fill him with the indefinable pleasure which had suddenly become his experience. He wondered, as he still stood gazing into the infinity of that other world beyond the Saskatchewan, if romance was really quite dead in him. Always he had laughed at romance. Work—the grim reality of action, of brain fighting brain, of cleverness pitted against other men's cleverness—had almost brought him to the point of regarding romance in life as a peculiar illusion of fools—and women. But he was fair in his concessions, and to-night he acknowledged that he had enjoyed the romance of what he had seen and heard. And most of all, his blood had been stirred by the beautiful face that had looked at him from out of the night.
The tuneless thrumming of a piano sounded behind him. As he passed through the low door of the restaurant a man and woman lurched past him and in their irresolute faces and leering stare he read the verification of his suspicions of the place. Through a second door he entered a large room filled with tables and chairs, and pregnant with strange odors. At one of the farther tables sat a long-queued Chinaman with his head bowed in his arms. Behind a counter stood a second, as motionless as an obelisk in the half gloom of the dimly illuminated room, his evil face challenging Howland as he entered. The sound of a piano came from above and with a bold and friendly nod the young engineer mounted a pair of stairs.
"Tough joint," he muttered, falling into his old habit of communing with himself. "Hope they make good tea."
At the sound of his footsteps on the stair the playing of the piano ceased. He was surprised at what greeted him above. In startling contrast to the loathsome environment below he entered a luxuriously appointed room, heavily hung with oriental tapestries, and with half a dozen onyx tables partially concealed behind screens and gorgeously embroidered silk curtains. At one of these he seated himself and signaled for service with the tiny bell near his hand. In response there appeared a young Chinaman with close-cropped hair and attired in evening dress.
"A pot of tea," ordered Howland; and under his breath he added, "Pretty deuced good for a wilderness town! I wonder—"
He looked about him curiously. Although it was only eleven o'clock the place appeared to be empty. Yet Howland was reasonably assured that it was not empty. He was conscious of sensing in a vague sort of way the presence of others somewhere near him. He was sure that there was a faint, acrid odor lurking above that of burned incense, and he shrugged his shoulders with conviction when he paid a dollar for his pot of tea.
"Opium, as sure as your name is Jack Howland," he said, when the waiter was gone. "I wonder again—how many pots of tea do they sell in a night?"
He sipped his own leisurely, listening with all the eagerness of the new sense of freedom which had taken possession of him. The Chinaman had scarcely disappeared when he heard footsteps on the stair. In another instant a low word of surprise almost leaped from his lips. Hesitating for a moment in the doorway, her face staring straight into his own, was the girl whom he had seen through the hotel window!
For perhaps no more than five seconds their eyes met. Yet in that time there was painted on his memory a picture that Howland knew he would never forget. His was a nature, because of the ambition imposed on it, that had never taken more than a casual interest in the form and feature of women. He had looked on beautiful faces and had admired them in a cool, dispassionate way, judging them—when he judged at all—as he might have judged the more material workmanship of his own hands. But this face that was framed for a few brief moments in the door reached out to him and stirred an interest within him which was as new as it was pleasurable. It was a beautiful face. He knew that in a fraction of the first second. It was not white, as he had first seen it through the window. The girl's cheeks were flushed. Her lips were parted, and she was breathing quickly, as though from the effect of climbing the stair. But it was her eyes that sent Howland's blood a little faster through his veins. They were glorious eyes.
The girl turned from his gaze and seated herself at a table so that he caught only her profile. The change delighted him. It afforded him another view of the picture that had appeared to him in the doorway, and he could study it without being observed in the act, though he was confident that the girl knew his eyes were on her. He refilled his tiny cup with tea and smiled when he noticed that she could easily have seated herself behind one of the screens. From the flush in her cheeks his eyes traveled critically to the rich glow of the light in her shining brown hair, which swept half over her ears in thick, soft waves, caught in a heavy coil low on her neck. Then, for the first time, he noticed her dress. It puzzled him. Her turban and muff were of deep gray lynx fur. Around her shoulders was a collarette of the same material. Her hands were immaculately gloved. In every feature of her lovely face, in every point of her dress, she bore the indisputable mark of refinement. The quizzical smile left his lips. The thoughts which at first had filled his mind as quickly disappeared. Who was she? Why was she here?
With cat-like quietness the young Chinaman entered between the screens and stood beside her. On a small tablet which Howland had not before observed she wrote her order. It was for tea. He noticed that she gave the waiter a dollar bill in payment and that the Chinaman returned seventy-five cents to her in change.
"Discrimination," he chuckled to himself. "Proof that she's not a stranger here, and knows the price of things."
He poured his last half cup of tea and when he lifted his eyes he was surprised to find that the girl was looking at him. For a brief interval her gaze was steady and clear; then the flush deepened in her cheeks; her long lashes drooped as the cold gray of Howland's eyes met hers in unflinching challenge, and she turned to her tea. Howland noted that the hand which lifted the little Japanese pot was trembling slightly. He leaned forward, and as if impelled by the movement, the girl turned her face to him again, the tea-urn poised above her cup. In her dark eyes was an expression which half brought him to his feet, a wistful glow, a pathetic and yet half-frightened appeal to him. He rose, his eyes questioning her, and to his unspoken inquiry her lips formed themselves into a round, red O, and she nodded to the opposite side of her table.
"I beg your pardon," he said, seating himself. "May I give you my card?"
He felt as if there was something brutally indecent in what he was doing and the knowledge of it sent a red flush to his cheeks. The girl read his name, smiled across the table at him, and with a pretty gesture, motioned him to bring his cup and share her tea with her. He returned to his table and when he came back with the cup in his hand she was writing on one of the pages of the tablet, which she passed across to him.
"You must pardon me for not talking," he read. "I can hear you very well, but I, unfortunately, am a mute."
He could not repress the low ejaculation of astonishment that came to his lips, and as his companion lifted her cup he saw in her face again the look that had stirred him so strangely when he stood in the window of the Hotel Windsor. Howland was not a man educated in the trivialities of chance flirtations. He lacked finesse, and now he spoke boldly and to the point, the honest candor of his gray eyes shining full on the girl.
"I saw you from the hotel window to-night," he began, "and something in your face led me to believe that you were in trouble. That is why I have ventured to be so bold. I am the engineer in charge of the new Hudson Bay Railroad, just on my way to Le Pas from Chicago. I'm a stranger in town. I've never been in this—this place before. It's a very nice tea-room, an admirable blind for the opium stalls behind those walls."
In a few terse words he had covered the situation, as he would have covered a similar situation in a business deal. He had told the girl who and what he was, had revealed the cause of his interest in her, and at the same time had given her to understand that he was aware of the nature of their present environment. Closely he watched the effect of his words and in another breath was sorry that he had been so blunt. The girl's eyes traveled swiftly about her; he saw the quick rise and fall of her bosom, the swift fading of the color in her cheeks, the affrighted glow in her eyes as they came back big and questioning to him.
"I didn't know," she wrote quickly, and hesitated. Her face was as white now as when Howland had looked on it through the window. Her hand trembled nervously and for an instant her lip quivered in a way that set Howland's heart pounding tumultuously within him. "I am a stranger, too," she added. "I have never been in this place before. I came because—"
She stopped, and the catching breath in her throat was almost a sob as she looked at Howland. He knew that it took an effort for her to write the next words.
"I came because you came."
"Why?" he asked. His voice was low and assuring. "Tell me—why?"
He read her words as she wrote them, leaning half across the table in his eagerness.
"I am a stranger," she repeated. "I want some one to help me. Accidentally I learned who you were and made up my mind to see you at the hotel, but when I got there I was afraid to go in. Then I saw you in the window. After a little you came out and I saw you enter here. I didn't know what kind of place it was and I followed you. Won't you please go with me—to where I am staying—and I will tell you—"
She left the sentence unfinished, her eyes pleading with him. Without a word he rose and seized his hat.
"I will go, Miss—" He laughed frankly into her face, inviting her to write her name. For a moment she smiled back at him, the color brightening her cheeks. Then she turned and hurried down the stair.
Outside Howland gave her his arm. His eyes, passing above her, caught again the luring play of the aurora in the north. He flung back his shoulders, drank in the fresh air, and laughed in the buoyancy of the new life that he felt.
"It's a glorious night!" he exclaimed.
The girl nodded, and smiled up at him. Her face was very near to his shoulder, ever more beautiful in the white light of the stars.
They did not look behind them. Neither heard the quiet fall of moccasined feet a dozen yards away. Neither saw the gleaming eyes and the thin, dark face of Jean Croisset, the half-breed, as they walked swiftly in the direction of the Saskatchewan.
THE MYSTERIOUS ATTACK
Howland was glad that for a time there was an excuse for his silence. It began to dawn on him that this was an extraordinary adventure for a man on whose shoulders rested the responsibilities of one of the greatest engineering tasks on the continent, and who was due to take a train for the seat of his operations at eight o'clock in the morning. Inwardly he was experiencing some strange emotions; outwardly he smiled as he thought of what Van Horn would say if he knew the circumstances. He looked down at his companion; saw the sheen of her hair as it rippled out from under her fur turban, studied the soft contour of her cheek and chin, without himself being observed, and noticed, incidentally, that the top of the bewitching head beside him came just about to a level with his cigar which he was smoking. He wondered if he were making a fool of himself. If so, he assured himself that there was at least one compensation. This night in Prince Albert would not be so uninteresting as it had promised to be earlier in the evening.
Where the river ferry was half drawn up on the shore, its stern frozen in the ice, he paused and looked down at the girl in quiet surprise. She nodded, smiling, and motioned across the river.
"I was over there once to-night," said Howland aloud. "Didn't see any houses and heard nothing but wolves. Is that where we're going?"
Her white teeth gleamed at him and he was conscious of a warm pressure against his arm as the girl signified that they were to cross. His perplexity increased. On the farther shore the forest came down to the river's edge in a black wall of spruce and balsam. Beyond that edge of the wilderness he knew that no part of Prince Albert intruded. It was possible that across from them was a squatter's cabin; and yet if this were so, and the girl was going to it, why had she told him that she was a stranger in the town? And why had she come to him for the assistance she promised to request of him instead of seeking it of those whom she knew?
He asked himself these questions without putting them in words, and not until they were climbing up the frozen bank of the stream, with the shadows of the forest growing deeper about them, did he speak again.
"You told me you were a stranger," he said, stopping his companion where the light of the stars fell on the face which she turned up to him. She smiled, and nodded affirmatively.
"You seem pretty well acquainted over here," he persisted. "Where are we going?"
This time she responded with an emphatic negative shake of her head, at the same time pointing with her free hand to the well-defined trail that wound up from the ferry landing into the forest. Earlier in the day Howland had been told that this was the Great North Trail that led into the vast wildernesses beyond the Saskatchewan. Two days before, the factor from Lac Bain, the Chippewayan and the Crees had come in over it. Its hard crust bore the marks of the sledges of Jean Croisset and the men from the Lac la Ronge country. Since the big snow, which had fallen four feet deep ten days before, a forest man had now and then used this trail on his way down to the edge of civilization; but none from Prince Albert had traveled it in the other direction. Howland had been told this at the hotel, and he shrugged his shoulders in candid bewilderment as he stared down into the girl's face. She seemed to understand his thoughts, and again her mouth rounded itself into that bewitching red O, which gave to her face an expression of tender entreaty, of pathetic grief that the soft lips were powerless to voice, the words which she wished to speak. Then, suddenly, she darted a few steps from Howland and with the toe of her shoe formed a single word in the surface of the snow. She rested her hand lightly on Howland's shoulder as he bent over to make it out in the elusive starlight.
"Camp!" he cried, straightening himself. "Do you mean to say you're camping out here?"
She nodded again and again, delighted that he understood her. There was something so childishly sweet in her face, in the gladness of her eyes, that Howland stretched out both his hands to her, laughing aloud. "You!" he exclaimed. "You—camping out here!" With a quick little movement she came to him, still laughing with her eyes and lips, and for an instant he held both her hands tight in his own. Her lovely face was dangerously near to him. He felt the touch of her breath on his face, for an instant caught the sweet scent of her hair. Never had he seen eyes like those that glowed up at him softly, filled with the gentle starlight; never in his life had he dreamed of a face like this, so near to him that it sent the blood leaping through his veins in strange excitement. He held the hands tighter, and the movement drew the girl closer to him, until for no more than a breath he felt her against his breast. In that moment he forgot all sense of time and place; forgot his old self—Jack Howland—practical, unromantic, master-builder of railroads; forgot everything but this presence of the girl, the warm pressure against his breast, the lure of the great brown eyes that had come so unexpectedly into his life. In another moment he had recovered himself. He drew a step back, freeing the girl's hands.
"I beg your pardon," he said softly. His cheeks burned hotly at what he had done, and turning squarely about he strode up the trail. He had not taken a dozen paces, when far ahead of him he saw the red glow of a fire. Then a hand caught his arm, clutching at it almost fiercely, and he turned to meet the girl's face, white now with a strange terror.
"What is it?" he cried. "Tell me—"
He caught her hands again, startled by the look in her eyes. Quickly she pulled herself away. A dozen feet behind her, in the thick shadows of the forest trees, something took shape and movement. In a flash Howland saw a huge form leap from the gloom and caught the gleam of an uplifted knife. There was no time for him to leap aside, no time for him to reach for the revolver which he carried in his pocket. In such a crisis one's actions are involuntary, machine-like, as if life, hovering by a thread, preserves itself in its own manner and without thought or reasoning on the part of the creature it animates.
For an instant Howland neither thought nor reasoned. Had he done so he would probably have met his mysterious assailant, pitting his naked fists against the knife. But the very mainspring of his existence—which is self-preservation—called on him to do otherwise. Before the startled cry on his lips found utterance he flung himself face downward in the snow. The move saved him, and as the other stumbled over his body, pitching headlong into the trail, he snatched forth his revolver. Before he could fire there came a roar like that of a beast from behind him and a terrific blow fell on his head. Under the weight of a second assailant he was crushed to the snow, his pistol slipped from his grasp, and two great hands choked a despairing cry from his throat. He saw a face over him, distorted with passion, a huge neck, eyes that named like angry garnets. He struggled to free his pinioned arms, to wrench off the death-grip at his throat, but his efforts were like those of a child against a giant. In a last terrible attempt he drew up his knees inch by inch under the weight of his enemy; it was his only chance, his only hope. Even as he felt the fingers about his throat, sinking like hot iron into his flesh, and the breath slipping from his body, he remembered this murderous knee-punch taught to him by the rough fighters of the Inland Seas, and with all the life that remained in him he sent it crushing into the other's abdomen. It was a moment before he knew that it had been successful, before the film cleared from his eyes and he saw his assailant groveling in the snow. He rose to his feet, dazed and staggering from the effect of the blow on his head and the murderous grip at his throat. Half a pistol shot down the trail he saw indistinctly the twisting of black objects in the snow, and as he stared one of the objects came toward him.
"Do not fire, M'seur Howland," he heard a voice call. "It ees I—Jean Croisset, a friend! Blessed Saints, that was—what you call heem?—close heem?—close call?"
The half-breed's thin dark face came up smiling out of the white gloom. For a moment Howland did not see him, scarcely heard his words. Wildly he looked about him for the girl. She was gone.
"I happened here—just in time—with a club," continued Croisset. "Come, we must go."
The smile had gone from his face and there was a commanding firmness in the grip that fell on the young engineer's arm. Howland was conscious that things were twisting about him and that there was a strange weakness in his limbs. Dumbly he raised his hands to his head, which hurt him until he felt as if he must cry out in his pain.
"The girl—" he gasped weakly.
Croisset's arm tightened about his waist.
"She ees gone!" Howland heard him say; and there was something in the half-breed's low voice that caused him to turn unquestioningly and stagger along beside him in the direction of Prince Albert.
And yet as he went, only half-conscious of what he was doing, and leaning more and more heavily on his companion, he knew that it was more than the girl's disappearance that he wanted to understand. For as the blow had fallen on his head he was sure that he had heard a woman's scream; and as he lay in the snow, dazed and choking, spending his last effort in his struggle for life, there had come to him, as if from an infinite distance, a woman's voice, and the words that it had uttered pounded in his tortured brain now as his head dropped weakly against Croisset's shoulder.
"Mon Dieu, you are killing him—killing him!"
He tried to repeat them aloud, but his voice sounded only in an incoherent murmur. Where the forest came down to the edge of the river the half-breed stopped.
"I must carry you, M'seur Howland," he said; and as he staggered out on the ice with his inanimate burden, he spoke softly to himself, "The saints preserve me, but what would the sweet Meleese say if she knew that Jean Croisset had come so near to losing the life of this M'seur le engineer? Ce monde est plein de fous!"
In only a subconscious sort of way was Howland cognizant of anything more that happened that night. When he came back into a full sense of his existence he found himself in his bed at the hotel. A lamp was burning low on the table. A glance showed him that the room was empty. He raised his head and shoulders from the pillows on which they were resting and the movement helped to bring him at once into a realization of what had happened. He was hurt. There was a dull, aching pain in his head and neck and when he raised an inquiring hand it came in contact with a thick bandage. He wondered if he were badly hurt and sank back again on the pillows, lying with his eyes staring at the faint glow of the lamp. Soon there came a sound at the door and he twisted his head, grimacing with the pain it caused him. Jean was looking in at him.
"Ah, M'seur ees awake!" he said, seeing the wide-open eyes. He came in softly, closing the door behind him. "Mon Dieu, but if it had been a heavier club by the weight of a pound you would have gone into the blessed hereafter," he smiled, approaching with noiseless tread. He held a glass of water to Howland's lips.
"Is it bad, Croisset?"
"So bad that you will be in bed for a day or so, M'seur. That is all."
"Impossible!" cried the young engineer. "I must take the eight o'clock train in the morning. I must be in Le Pas—"
"It is five o'clock now," interrupted Jean softly. "Do you feel like going?"
Howland straightened himself and fell back suddenly with a sharp cry.
"The devil!" he exclaimed. After a moment he added, "There will be no other train for two days." As he raised a hand to his aching head, his other closed tightly about Jean's lithe brown fingers. "I want to thank you for what you did, Croisset. I don't know what happened. I don't know who they were or why they tried to kill me. There was a girl—I was going with her—"
He dropped his hand in time to see the strange fire that had leaped into the half-breed's eyes. In astonishment he half lifted himself again, his white face questioning Croisset.
"Do you know?" he whispered eagerly. "Who was she? Why did she lead me into that ambush? Why did they attempt to kill me?"
The questions shot from him excitedly, and he knew from what he saw in the other's face that Croisset could have answered them. Yet from the thin tense lips above him there came no response. With a quick movement the half-breed drew away his hand and moved toward the door. Half way he paused and turned.
"M'seur, I have come to you with a warning. Do not go to Le Pas. Do not go to the big railroad camp on the Wekusko. Return into the South." For an instant he leaned forward, his black eyes flashing, his hands clenched tightly at his sides. "Perhaps you will understand," he cried tensely, "when I tell you this warning is sent to you—by the little Meleese!"
Before Howland could recover from his surprise Croisset had passed swiftly through the door. The engineer called his name, but there came no response other than the rapidly retreating sound of the Northerner's moccasined feet. With a grumble of vexation he sank back on his pillows. The fresh excitement had set his head in a whirl again and a feverish heat mounted into his face. For a long time he lay with his eyes closed, trying to clear for himself the mystery of the preceding night. The one thought which obsessed him was that he had been duped. His lovely acquaintance of the preceding evening had ensnared him completely with her gentle smile and her winsome mouth, and he gritted his teeth grimly as he reflected how easy he had been. Deliberately she had lured him into the ambush which would have proved fatal for him had it not been for Jean Croisset. And she was not a mute! He had heard her voice; when that death-grip was tightest about his throat there had come to him that terrified cry: "Mon Dieu, you are killing him—killing him!"
His breath came a little faster as he whispered the words to himself. They appealed to him now with a significance which he had not understood at first. He was sure that in that cry there had been real terror; almost, he fancied, as he lay with his eyes shut tight, that he could still hear the shrill note of despair in the voice. The more he tried to reason the situation, the more inexplicable grew the mystery of it all. If the girl had calmly led him into the ambush, why, in the last moment, when success seemed about to crown her duplicity, had she cried out in that agony of terror? In Howland's heated brain there came suddenly a vision of her as she stood beside him in the white trail; he felt again the thrill of her hands, the touch of her breast for a moment against his own; saw the gentle look that had come into her deep, pure eyes; the pathetic tremor of the lips which seemed bravely striving to speak to him. Was it possible that face and eyes like those could have led him into a deathtrap! Despite the evidence of what had happened he found himself filled with doubt. And yet, after all, she had lied to him—for she was not a mute!
He turned over with a groan and watched the door. When Croisset returned he would insist on knowing more about the strange occurrence, for he was sure that the half-breed could clear away at least a part of the mystery. Vainly, as he watched and waited, he racked his mind to find some reason for the murderous attack on himself. Who was "the little Meleese," whom Croisset declared had sent the warning? So far as he could remember he had never known a person by that name. And yet the half-breed had uttered it as though it would carry a vital meaning to him. "Perhaps you will understand," he had said, and Howland strove to understand, until his brain grew dizzy and a nauseous sickness overcame him.
The first light of the day was falling faintly through the window when footsteps sounded outside the door again. It was not Croisset who appeared this time, but the proprietor himself, bearing with him a tray on which there was toast and a steaming pot of coffee. He nodded and smiled as he saw Howland half sitting up.
"Bad fall you had," he greeted, drawing a small table close beside the bed. "This snow is treacherous when you're climbing among the rocks. When it caves in with you on the side of a mountain you might as well make up your mind you're going to get a good bump. Good thing Croisset was with you!"
For a few moments Howland was speechless.
"Yes—it—was—a—bad—fall," he replied at last, looking sharply at the other. "Where is Croisset?"
"Gone. He left an hour ago with his dogs. Funny fellow—that Croisset! Came in yesterday from the Lac la Ronge country a hundred miles north; goes back to-day. No apparent reason for his coming, none for his going, that I can see."
"Do you know anything about him?" asked Howland a little eagerly.
"No. He comes in about once or twice a year."
The young engineer munched his toast and drank his coffee for some moments in silence. Then, casually, he asked,
"Did you ever hear of a person by the name of Meleese?"
"Meleese—Meleese—Meleese—" repeated the hotel man, running a hand through his hair. "It seems to me that the name is familiar—and yet I can't remember—" He caught himself in sudden triumph. "Ah, I have it! Two years ago I had a kitchen woman named Meleese."
Howland shrugged his shoulders.
"This was a young woman," he said.
"The Meleese we had is dead," replied the proprietor cheerfully, rising to go. "I'll send up for your tray in half an hour or so, Mr. Howland."
Several hours later Howland crawled from his bed and bathed his head in cold water. After that he felt better, dressed himself, and went below. His head pained him considerably, but beyond that and an occasional nauseous sensation the injury he had received in the fight caused him no very great distress. He went in to dinner and by the middle of the afternoon was so much improved that he lighted his first cigar and ventured out into the bracing air for a short walk. At first it occurred to him that he might make inquiries at the Chinese restaurant regarding the identity of the girl whom he had met there, but he quickly changed his mind, and crossing the river he followed the trail which they had taken the preceding night. For a few moments he contemplated the marks of the conflict in the snow. Where he had first seen the half-breed there were blotches of blood on the crust.
"Good for Croisset!" Howland muttered; "good for Croisset. It looks as though he used a knife."
He could see where the wounded man had dragged himself up the trail, finally staggering to his feet, and with a caution which he had not exercised a few hours before Howland continued slowly between the thick forest walls, one hand clutching the butt of the revolver in his coat pocket. Where the trail twisted abruptly into the north he found the charred remains of a camp-fire in a small open, and just beyond it a number of birch toggles, which had undoubtedly been used in place of tent-stakes. With the toe of his boot he kicked among the ashes and half-burned bits of wood. There was no sign of smoke, not a living spark to give evidence that human presence had been there for many hours. There was but one conclusion to make; soon after their unsuccessful attempt on his life his strange assailants had broken camp and fled. With them, in all probability, had gone the girl whose soft eyes and sweet face had lured him within their reach.
But where had they gone?
Carefully he examined the abandoned camp. In the hard crust were the imprints of dogs' claws. In several places he found the faint, broad impression made by a toboggan. The marks at least cleared away the mystery of their disappearance. Sometime during the night they had fled by dog-sledge into the North.
He was tired when he returned to the hotel and it was rather with a sense of disappointment than pleasure that he learned the work-train was to leave for Le Pas late that night instead of the next day. After a quiet hour's rest in his room, however, his old enthusiasm returned to him. He found himself feverishly anxious to reach Le Pas and the big camp on the Wekusko. Croisset's warning for him to turn back into the South, instead of deterring him, urged him on. He was born a fighter. It was by fighting that he had forced his way round by round up the ladder of success. And now the fact that his life was in danger, that some mysterious peril awaited him in the depths of the wilderness, but added a new and thrilling fascination to the tremendous task which was ahead of him. He wondered if this same peril had beset Gregson and Thorne, and if it was the cause of their failure, of their anxiety to return to civilization. He assured himself that he would know when he met them at Le Pas. He would discover more when he became a part of the camp on the Wekusko; that is, if the half-breed's warning held any significance at all, and he believed that it did. Anyway, he would prepare for developments. So he went to a gun-shop, bought a long-barreled six-shooter and a holster, and added to it a hunting-knife like that he had seen carried by Croisset.
It was near midnight when he boarded the work-train and dawn was just beginning to break over the wilderness when it stopped at Etomami, from which point he was to travel by hand-car over the sixty miles of new road that had been constructed as far north as Le Pas. For three days the car had been waiting for the new chief of the road, but neither Gregson nor Thorne was with it.
"Mr. Gregson is waiting for you at Le Pas," said one of the men who had come with it. "Thorne is at Wekusko."
For the first time in his life Howland now plunged into the heart of the wilderness, and as mile after mile slipped behind them and he sped deeper into the peopleless desolation of ice and snow and forest his blood leaped in swift excitement, in the new joy of life which he was finding up here under the far northern skies. Seated on the front of the car, with the four men pumping behind him, he drank in the wild beauties of the forests and swamps through which they slipped, his eyes constantly on the alert for signs of the big game which his companions told him was on all sides of them.
Everywhere about them lay white winter. The rocks, the trees, and the great ridges, which in this north country are called mountains, were covered with four feet of snow and on it the sun shone with dazzling brilliancy. But it was not until a long grade brought them to the top of one of these ridges and Howland looked into the north that he saw the wilderness in all of its grandeur. As the car stopped he sprang to his feet with a joyous cry, his face aflame with what he saw ahead of him. Stretching away under his eyes, mile after mile, was the vast white desolation that reached to Hudson Bay. In speechless wonder he gazed down on the unblazed forests, saw plains and hills unfold themselves as his vision gained distance, followed a frozen river until it was lost in the bewildering picture, and let his eyes rest here and there on the glistening, snow-smothered bosoms of lakes, rimmed in by walls of black forest. This was not the wilderness as he had expected it to be, nor as he had often read of it in books. It was not the wilderness that Gregson and Thorne had described in their letters. It was beautiful! It was magnificent! His heart throbbed with pleasure as he gazed down on it, the flush grew deeper in his face, and he seemed hardly to breathe in his tense interest.
One of the four on the car was an old Indian and it was he, strangely enough, who broke the silence. He had seen the look in Howland's face, and he spoke softly, close to his ear, "Twent' t'ousand moose down there—twent' t'ousand caribou-oo! No man—no house—more twent' t'ousand miles!"
Howland, even quivering in his new emotion, looked into the old warrior's eyes, filled with the curious, thrilling gleam of the spirit which was stirring within himself. Then again he stared straight out into the unending distance as though his vision would penetrate far beyond the last of that visible desolation—on and on, even to the grim and uttermost fastnesses of Hudson Bay; and as he looked he knew that in these moments there had been born in him a new spirit, a new being; that no longer was he the old Jack Howland whose world had been confined by office walls and into whose conception of life there had seldom entered things other than those which led directly toward the achievement of his ambitions.
The short northern day was nearing an end when once more they saw the broad Saskatchewan twisting through a plain below them, and on its southern shore the few log buildings of Le Pas hemmed in on three sides by the black forests of balsam and spruce. Lights were burning in the cabins and in the Hudson Bay Post's store when the car was brought to a halt half a hundred paces from a squat, log-built structure, which was more brilliantly illuminated than any of the others.
"That's the hotel," said one of the men. "Gregson's there."
A tall, fur-clad figure hurried forth to meet Howland as he walked briskly across the open. It was Gregson. As the two men gripped hands the young engineer stared at the other in astonishment. This was not the Gregson he had known in the Chicago office, round-faced, full of life, as active as a cricket.
"Never so glad to see any one in my life, Howland!" he cried, shaking the other's hand again and again. "Another month and I'd be dead. Isn't this a hell of a country?"
"I'm falling more in love with it at every breath, Gregson. What's the matter? Have you been sick?"
Gregson laughed as they turned toward the lighted building. It was a short, nervous laugh, and with it he gave a curious sidewise glance at his companion's face.
"Sick?—yes, sick of the job! If the old man hadn't sent us relief Thorne and I would have thrown up the whole thing in another four weeks. I'll warrant you'll get your everlasting fill of log shanties and half-breeds and moose meat and this infernal snow and ice before spring comes. But I don't want to discourage you."
"Can't discourage me!" laughed Howland cheerfully. "You know I never cared much for theaters and girls," he added slyly, giving Gregson a good-natured nudge. "How about 'em up here?"
"Nothing—not a cursed thing." Suddenly his eyes lighted up. "By George, Howland, but I did see the prettiest girl I ever laid my eyes on to-day! I'd give a box of pure Havanas—and we haven't had one for a month!—if I could know who she is!"
They had entered through the low door of the log boarding-house and Gregson was throwing off his heavy coat.
"A tall girl, with a fur hat and muff?" queried Howland eagerly.
"Nothing of the sort. She was a typical Northerner if there ever was one—straight as a birch, dressed in fur cap and coat, short caribou skin skirt and moccasins, and with a braid hanging down her back as long as my arm. Lord, but she was pretty!"
"Isn't there a girl somewhere up around our camp named Meleese?" asked Howland casually.
"Never heard of her," said Gregson.
"Or a man named Croisset?"
"Never heard of him."
"The deuce, but you're interesting," laughed the young engineer, sniffing at the odors of cooking supper. "I'm as hungry as a bear!"
From outside there came the sharp cracking of a sledge-driver's whip and Gregson went to one of the small windows looking out upon the clearing. In another instant he sprang toward the door, crying out to Howland,
"By the god of love, there she is, old man! Quick, if you want to get a glimpse of her!"
He flung the door open and Howland hurried to his side. There came another crack of the whip, a loud shout, and a sledge drawn by six dogs sped past them into the gathering gloom of the early night.
From Howland's lips, too, there fell a sudden cry; for one of the two faces that were turned toward him for an instant was that of Croisset, and the other—white and staring as he had seen it that first night in Prince Albert—was the face of the beautiful girl who had lured him into the ambush on the Great North Trail!
HOWLAND'S MIDNIGHT VISITOR
For a moment after the swift passing of the sledge it was on Howland's lips to shout Croisset's name; as he thrust Gregson aside and leaped out into the night he was impelled with a desire to give chase, to overtake in some way the two people who, within the space of forty-eight hours, had become so mysteriously associated with his own life, and who were now escaping him again.
It was Gregson who recalled him to his senses.
"I thought you didn't care for theaters—and girls, Howland," he exclaimed banteringly, repeating Howland's words of a few minutes before. "A pretty face affects you a little differently up here, eh? Well, after you've been in this fag-end of the universe for a month or so you'll learn—"
Howland interrupted him sharply.
"Did you ever see either of them before, Gregson?"
"Never until to-day. But there's hope, old man. Surely we can find some one in the place who knows them. Wouldn't it be jolly good fun if Jack Howland, Esquire, who has never been interested in theaters and girls, should come up into these God-forsaken regions and develop a case of love at first sight? By the Great North Trail, I tell you it may not be as uninteresting for you as it has been for Thorne and me! If I had only seen her sooner—"
"Shut up!" growled Howland, betraying irritability for the first time. "Let's go in to supper."
"Good. And I move that we investigate these people while we are smoking our after-supper cigars. It will pass our time away, at least."
"Your taste is good, Gregson," said Howland, recovering his good-humor as they seated themselves at one of the rough board tables in the dining-room. Inwardly he was convinced it would be best to keep to himself the incidents of the past two days and nights. "It was a beautiful face."
"And the eyes!" added Gregson, his own gleaming with enthusiasm. "She looked at me squarely this afternoon when she and that dark fellow passed, and I swear they're the most beautiful eyes I ever saw. And her hair—"
"Do you think that she knew you?" asked Howland quietly.
Gregson hunched his shoulders.
"How the deuce could she know me?"
"Then why did she look at you so 'squarely?' Trying to flirt, do you suppose?"
Surprise shot into Gregson's face.
"By thunder, no, she wasn't flirting!" he exclaimed. "I'd stake my life on that. A man never got a clearer, more sinless look than she gave me, and yet—Why, deuce take it, she stared at me! I didn't see her again after that, but the dark fellow was in here half of the afternoon, and now that I come to think of it he did show some interest in me. Why do you ask?"
"Just curiosity," replied Howland, "I don't like flirts."
"Neither do I," said Gregson musingly. Their supper came on and they conversed but little until its end. Howland had watched his companion closely and was satisfied that he knew nothing of Croisset or the girl. The fact puzzled him more than ever. How Gregson and Thorne, two of the best engineers in the country, could voluntarily surrender a task like the building of the Hudson Bay Railroad simply because they were "tired of the country" was more than he could understand.
It was not until they were about to leave the table that Howland's eyes accidentally fell on Gregson's left hand. He gave an exclamation of astonishment when he saw that the little finger was missing. Gregson jerked the hand to his side.
"A little accident," he explained. "You'll meet 'em up here, Howland."
Before he could move, the young engineer had caught his arm and was looking closely at the hand.
"A curious wound," he remarked, without looking up. "Funny I didn't notice it before. Your finger was cut off lengthwise, and here's the scar running half way to your wrist. How did you do it?"
He dropped the hand in time to see a nervous flush in the other's face.
"Why—er—fact is, Howland, it was shot off several months ago—in an accident, of course." He hurried through the door, continuing to speak over his shoulder as he went, "Now for those after-supper cigars and our investigation."
As they passed from the dining-room into that part of the inn which was half bar and half lounging-room, already filled with smoke and a dozen or so picturesque citizens of Le Pas, the rough-jowled proprietor of the place motioned to Howland and held out a letter.
"This came while you was at supper, Mr. Howland," he explained.
The engineer gave an inward start when he saw the writing on the envelope, and as he tore it open he turned so that Gregson could see neither his face nor the slip of paper which he drew forth. There was no name at the bottom of what he read. It was not necessary, for a glance had told him that the writing was that of the girl whose face he had seen again that night; and her words to him this time, despite his caution, drew a low whistle from his lips.
"Forgive me for what I have done," the note ran. "Believe me now. Your life is in danger and you must go back to Etomami to-morrow. If you go to the Wekusko camp you will not live to come back."
"The devil!" he exclaimed.
"What's that?" asked Gregson, edging around him curiously.
Howland crushed the note in his hand and thrust it into one of his pockets.
"A little private affair," he laughed. "Comes Gregson, let's see what we can discover."
In the gloom outside one of his hands slipped under his coat and rested on the butt of his revolver. Until ten o'clock they mixed casually among the populace of Le Pas. Half a hundred people had seen Croisset and his beautiful companion, but no one knew anything about them. They had come that forenoon on a sledge, had eaten their dinner and supper at the cabin of a Scotch tie-cutter named MacDonald, and had left on a sledge.
"She was the sweetest thing I ever saw," exclaimed Mrs. MacDonald rapturously. "Only she couldn't talk. Two or three times she wrote things to me on a slip of paper."
"Couldn't talk!" repeated Gregson, as the two men walked leisurely back to the boarding-house. "What the deuce do you suppose that means, Jack?"
"I'm not supposing," replied Howland indifferently. "We've had enough of this pretty face, Gregson. I'm going to bed. What time do we start in the morning?"
"As soon as we've had breakfast—if you're anxious."
"I am. Good night."
Howland went to his room, but it was not to sleep. For hours he sat wide-awake, smoking cigar after cigar, and thinking. One by one he went over the bewildering incidents of the past two days. At first they had stirred his blood with a certain exhilaration—a spice of excitement which was not at all unpleasant; but with this excitement there was now a peculiar sense of oppression. The attempt that had already been made on his life together with the persistent warnings for him to return into the South began to have their effect. But Howland was not a man to surrender to his fears, if they could be called fears. He was satisfied that a mysterious peril of some kind awaited him at the camp on the Wekusko, but he gave up trying to fathom the reason for this peril, accepting in his businesslike way the fact that it did exist, and that in a short time it would probably explain itself. The one puzzling factor which he could not drive out of his thoughts was the girl. Her sweet face haunted him. At every turn he saw it—now over the table in the opium den, now in the white starlight of the trail, again as it had looked at him for an instant from the sledge. Vainly he strove to discover for himself the lurking of sin in the pure eyes that had seemed to plead for his friendship, in the soft lips that had lied to him because of their silence. "Please forgive me for what I have done—" He unfolded the crumpled note and read the words again and again. "Believe me now—" She knew that he knew that she had lied to him, that she had lured him into the danger from which she now wished to save him. His cheeks burned. If a thousand perils threatened him on the Wekusko he would still go. He would meet the girl again. Despite his strongest efforts he found it impossible to destroy the vision of her beautiful face. The eyes, soft with appeal; the red mouth, quivering, and with lips parted as if about to speak to him; the head as he had looked down on it with its glory of shining hair—all had burned themselves on his soul in a picture too deep to be eradicated. If the wilderness was interesting to him before it was doubly so now because that face was a part of it, because the secret of its life, of the misery that it had half confessed to him, was hidden somewhere out in the black mystery of the spruce and balsam forests.
He went to bed, but it was a long time before he fell asleep. It seemed to him that he had scarcely closed his eyes when a pounding on the door aroused him and he awoke to find the early light of dawn creeping through the narrow window of his room. A few minutes later he joined Gregson, who was ready for breakfast.
"The sledge and dogs are waiting," he greeted. As they seated themselves at the table he added, "I've changed my mind since last night, Howland. I'm not going back with you. It's absolutely unnecessary, for Thorne can put you on to everything at the camp, and I'd rather lose six months' salary than take that sledge ride again. You won't mind, will you?"
Howland hunched his shoulders.
"To be honest, Gregson, I don't believe you'd be particularly cheerful company. What sort of fellow is the driver?"
"We call him Jackpine—a Cree Indian—and he's the one faithful slave of Thorne and myself at Wekusko. Hunts for us, cooks for us, and watches after things generally. You'll like him all right."
Howland did. When they went out to the sledge after their breakfast he gave Jackpine a hearty grip of the hand and the Cree's dark face lighted up with something like pleasure when he saw the enthusiasm in the young engineer's eyes. When the moment for parting came Gregson pulled his companion a little to one side. His eyes shifted nervously and Howland saw that he was making a strong effort to assume an indifference which was not at all Gregson's natural self.
"Just a word, Howland," he said. "You know this is a pretty rough country up here—some tough people in it, who wouldn't mind cutting a man's throat or sending a bullet through him for a good team of dogs and a rifle. I'm just telling you this so you'll be on your guard. Have Jackpine watch your camp nights."
He spoke in a low voice and cut himself short when the Indian approached. Howland seated himself in the middle of the six-foot toboggan, waved his hand to Gregson, then with a wild halloo and a snapping of his long caribou-gut whip Jackpine started his dogs on a trot down the street, running close beside the sledge. Howland had lighted a cigar, and leaning back in a soft mass of furs began to enjoy his new experience hugely. Day was just fairly breaking over the forests when they turned into the white trail, already beaten hard by the passing of many dogs and sledges, that led from Le Pas for a hundred miles to the camp on the Wekusko. As they struck the trail the dogs strained harder at their traces, with Jackpine's whip curling and snapping over their backs until they were leaping swiftly and with unbroken rhythm of motion over the snow. Then the Cree gathered in his whip and ran close to the leader's flank, his moccasined feet taking the short, quick, light steps of the trained forest runner, his chest thrown a little out, his eyes on the twisting trail ahead. It was a glorious ride, and in the exhilaration of it Howland forgot to smoke the cigar that he held between his fingers. His blood thrilled to the tireless effort of the grayish-yellow pack of magnificent brutes ahead of him; he watched the muscular play of their backs and legs, the eager out-reaching of their wolfish heads, their half-gaping jaws, and from them he looked at Jackpine. There was no effort in his running. His black hair swept back from the gray of his cap; like the dogs there was music in his movement, the beauty of strength, of endurance, of manhood born to the forests, and when the dogs finally stopped at the foot of a huge ridge, panting and half exhausted, Howland quickly leaped from the sledge and for the first time spoke to the Indian.
"That was glorious, Jackpine!" he cried. "But, good Lord, man, you'll kill the dogs!"
"They go sixt' mile in day lak dat," He grinned.
In his admiration for the wolfish looking beasts that were carrying him through the wilderness Howland put out a hand to stroke one of them on the head. With a warning cry the Indian jerked him back just as the dog snapped fiercely at the extended hand.
"No touch huskie!" he exclaimed. "Heem half wolf—half dog—work hard but no lak to be touch!"
"Wow!" exclaimed Howland. "And they're the sweetest looking pups I ever laid eyes on. I'm certainly running up against some strange things in this country!"
He was dead tired when night came. And yet never in all his life had he enjoyed a day so much as this one. Twenty times he had joined Jackpine in running beside the sledge. In their intervals of rest he had even learned to snap the thirty-foot caribou-gut lash of the dog-whip. He had asked a hundred questions, had insisted on Jackpine's smoking a cigar at every stop, and had been so happy and so altogether companionable that half of the Cree's hereditary reticence had been swept away before his unbounded enthusiasm. He helped to build their balsam shelter for the night, ate a huge supper of moose meat, hot-stone biscuits, beans and coffee, and then, just as he had stretched himself out in his furs for the night, he remembered Gregson's warning. He sat up and called to Jackpine, who was putting a fresh log on the big fire in front of the shelter.
"Gregson told me to be sure and have the camp guarded at night, Jackpine. What do you think about it?"
The Indian turned with a queer chuckles his lathery face wrinkled in a grin.
"Gregson—heem ver' much 'fraid," he replied. "No bad man here—all down there and in camp. We kep' watch evr' night. Heem 'fraid—I guess so, mebby."
"Afraid of what?"
For a moment Jackpine was silent, half bending over the fire. Then he held out his left hand, with the little finger doubled out of sight, and pointed to it with his other hand.
"Mebby heem finger ax'dent—mebby not," he said.
A dozen eager questions brought no further suggestions from Jackpine. In fact, no sooner had the words fallen from his driver's lips than Howland saw that the Indian was sorry he had spoken them. What he had said strengthened the conviction which was slowly growing within him. He had wondered at Gregson's strange demeanor, his evident anxiety to get out of the country, and lastly at his desire not to return to the camp on the Wekusko with him. There was but one solution that came to him. In some way which he could not fathom Gregson was associated with the mystery which enveloped him, and adding the senior engineer's nervousness to the significance of Jackpine's words he was confident that the missing finger had become a factor in the enigma. How should he find Thorne? Surely he would give him an explanation—if there was an explanation to give. Or was it possible that they would leave him without warning to face a situation which was driving them back to civilization?
He went to sleep, giving no further thought to the guarding of the camp. A piping hot breakfast was ready when Jackpine awakened him, and once more the exhilarating excitement of their swift race through the forests relieved him of the uncomfortable mental tension under which he began to find himself. During the whole of the day Jackpine urged the dogs almost to the limit of their endurance, and early in the afternoon assured his companion that they would reach the Wekusko by nightfall. It was already dark when they came out of the forest into a broad stretch of cutting beyond which Howland caught the glimmer of scattered lights. At the farther edge of the clearing the Cree brought his dogs to a halt close to a large log-built cabin half sheltered among the trees. It was situated several hundred yards from the nearest of the lights ahead, and the unbroken snow about it showed that it had not been used as a habitation for some time. Jackpine drew a key from his pocket and without a word unlocked and swung open the heavy door.
Damp, cold air swept into the faces of the two as they stood for a moment peering into the gloom. Howland could hear the Cree chuckling in his inimitable way as he struck a match, and as a big hanging oil lamp flared slowly into light he turned a grinning face to the engineer.
"Gregson um Thorne—heem mak' thees cabin when first kam to camp," he said softly. "No be near much noise—fine place in woods where be quiet nights. Live here time—then Gregson um Thorne go live in camp. Say too far 'way from man. But that not so. Thorne 'fraid—Gregson 'fraid—"
He hunched his shoulders again as he opened the door of the big box stove which stood in the room.
Howland asked no questions, but stared about him. Everywhere he saw evidences of the taste and one-time tenancies of the two senior engineers. Heavy bear rugs lay on the board floor; the log walls, hewn almost to polished smoothness, were hung with half a dozen pictures; in one corner was a bookcase still filled with books, in another a lounge covered with furs, and in this side of the room was a door which Howland supposed must open into the sleeping apartment. A fire was roaring in the big stove before he finished his inspection and as he squared his shivering back to the heat he pulled out his pipe and smiled cheerfully at Jackpine.
"Afraid, eh? And am I to stay here?"
"Gregson um Thorne say yes."
"Well, Jackpine, you just hustle over to the camp and tell Thorne I'm here, will you?"
For a moment the Indian hesitated, then went out and closed the door after him.
"Afraid!" exclaimed Howland when he had gone. "Now what the devil are they afraid of? It's deuced queer, Gregson—and ditto, Thorne. If you're not the cowards I'm half believing you to be you won't leave me in the dark to face something from which you are running away."
He lighted a small lamp and opened the door leading into the other room. It was, as he had surmised, the sleeping chamber. The bed, a single chair and a mirror and stand were its sole furnishing.
Returning to the larger room, he threw off his coat and hat and seated himself comfortably before the fire. Ten minutes later the door opened again and Jackpine entered. He was supporting another figure by the arm, and as Howland stared into the bloodless face of the man who came with him, he could not repress the exclamation of astonishment which rose to his lips. Three months before he had last seen Thorne in Chicago; a man in the prime of life, powerfully built, as straight as a tree, the most efficient and highest paid man in the company's employ. How often had he envied Thorne! For years he had been his ideal of a great engineer. And now—
He stood speechless. Slowly, as if the movement gave him pain, Thorne slipped off the great fur coat from about his shoulders. One of his arms was suspended in a sling. His huge shoulders were bent, his eyes wild and haggard. The smile that came to his lips as he held out a hand to Howland gave to his death-white face an appearance even more ghastly.
"Hello, Jack!" he greeted. "What's the matter, man? Do I look like a ghost?"
"What is the matter, Thorne? I found Gregson half dying at Le Pas, and now you—"
"It's a wonder you're not reading my name on a little board slab instead of seeing yours truly in flesh and blood, Jack," laughed Thorne nervously. "A ton of rock, man—a ton of rock, and I was under it!"
Over Thorne's shoulder the young engineer caught a glimpse of the Cree's face. A dark flash had shot into his eyes. His teeth gleamed for an instant between his tense lips in something that might have been a sneer.
Thorne sat down, rubbing his hands before the fire.
"We've been unfortunate, Jack," he said slowly. "Gregson and I have had the worst kind of luck since the day we struck this camp, and we're no longer fit for the job. It will take us six months to get on our feet again. You'll find everything here in good condition. The line is blazed straight to the bay; we've got three hundred good men, plenty of supplies, and so far as I know you'll not find a disaffected hand on the Wekusko. Probably Gregson and I will take hold of the Le Pas end of the line in the spring. It's certainly up to you to build the roadway to the bay."
"I'm sorry things have gone badly," replied Howland. He leaned forward until his face was close to his companion's. "Thorne, is there a man up here named Croisset—or a girl called Meleese?"
He watched the senior engineer closely. Nothing to confirm his suspicions came into Thorne's face. Thorne looked up, a little surprised at the tone of the other's voice.
"Not that I know of, Jack. There may be a man named Croisset among our three hundred workers—you can tell by looking at the pay-roll. There are fifteen or twenty married men among us and they have families. Gregson knows more about the girls than I. Anything particular?"
"Just a word I've got for them—if they're here," replied Howland carelessly. "Are these my quarters?"
"If you like them. When I got hurt we moved up among the men. Brought us into closer touch with the working end, you know."
"You and Gregson must have been laid up at about the same time," said the young engineer. "That was a painful wound of Gregson's. I wonder who the deuce it was who shot him? Funny that a man like Gregson should have an enemy!"
Thorne sat up with a jerk. There came the rattle of a pan from the stove, and Howland turned his head in time to see Jackpine staring at him as though he had exploded a mine under his feet.
"Who shot him?" gasped the senior engineer. "Why—er—didn't Gregson tell you that it was an accident?"
"Why should he lie, Thorne?"
A faint flush swept into the other's pallid face. For a moment there was a penetrating glare in his eyes as he looked at Howland. Jackpine still stood silent and motionless beside the stove.
"He told me that it was an accident," said Thorne at last.
"Funny," was all that Howland said, turning to the Indian as though the matter was of no importance. "Ah, Jackpine, I'm glad to see the coffee-pot on. I've got a box of the blackest and mildest Porto Ricans you ever laid eyes on in my kit, Thorne, and we'll open 'em up for a good smoke after supper. Hello, why have you got boards nailed over that window?"
For the first time Howland noticed that the thin muslin curtain, which he thought had screened a window, concealed, in place of a window, a carefully fitted barricade of plank. A sudden thrill shot through him as he rose to examine it. With his back toward Thorne he said, half laughing, "Perhaps Gregson was afraid that the fellow who clipped off his finger would get him through the window, eh?"
He pretended not to perceive the effect of his words on the senior engineer. The two sat down to supper and for an hour after they had finished they smoked and talked on the business of the camp. It was ten o'clock when Thorne and Jackpine left the cabin.
No sooner had they gone than Howland closed and barred the door, lighted another cigar, and began pacing rapidly up and down the room. Already there were developments. Gregson had lied to him about his finger. Thorne had lied to him about his own injuries, whatever they were. He was certain of these two things—and of more. The two senior engineers were not leaving the Wekusko because of mere dissatisfaction with the work and country. They were fleeing. And for some reason they were keeping from him the real motive for their flight. Was it possible that they were deliberately sacrificing him in order to save themselves? He could not bring himself to believe this, notwithstanding the evidence against them. Both were men of irreproachable honor. Thorne, especially, was a man of indomitable nerve—a man who would be the last in the world to prove treacherous to a business associate or a friend. He was sure that neither of them knew of Croisset or of the beautiful girl whom he had met at Prince Albert, which led him to believe that there were other characters in the strange plot in which he had become involved besides those whom he had encountered on the Great North Trail. Again he examined the barricaded window and he was more than ever convinced that his chance hit at Thorne had struck true.
He was tired from his long day's travel but little inclination to sleep came to him, and stretching himself out on the lounge with his head and shoulders bolstered up with furs, he continued to smoke and think. He was surprised when a little clock tinkled the hour of eleven. He had not seen the clock before. Now he listened to the faint monotonous ticking it made close to his head until he felt an impelling drowsiness creeping over him and he closed his eyes. He was almost asleep when it struck again—softly, and yet with sufficient loudness to arouse him. It had struck twelve.
With an effort Howland overcame his drowsiness and dragged himself to a sitting posture, knowing that he should undress and go to bed. The lamp was still burning brightly and he arose to turn down the wick. Suddenly he stopped. To his dulled senses there came distinctly the sound of a knock at the door. For a few moments he waited, silent and motionless. It came again, louder than before, and yet in it there was something of caution. It was not the heavy tattoo of one who had come to awaken him on a matter of business.
Who could be his midnight visitor? Softly Howland went back to his heavy coat and slipped his small revolver into his hip pocket. The knock came again. Then he walked to the door, shot back the bolt, and, with his right hand gripping the butt of his pistol, flung it wide open.
For a moment he stood transfixed, staring speechlessly at a white, startled face lighted up by the glow of the oil lamp. Bewildered to the point of dumbness, he backed slowly, holding the door open, and there entered the one person in all the world whom he wished most to see—she who had become so strangely a part of his life since that first night at Prince Albert, and whose sweet face was holding a deeper meaning for him with every hour that he lived. He closed the door and turned, still without speaking; and, impelled by a sudden spirit that sent the blood thrilling through his veins, he held out both hands to the girl for whom he now knew that he was willing to face all of the perils that might await him between civilization and the bay.
THE LOVE OF A MAN
For a moment the girl hesitated, her ungloved hands clenched on her breast, her bloodless face tense with a strange grief, as she saw the outstretched arms of the man whom her treachery had almost lured to his death. Then, slowly, she approached, and once more Howland held her hands clasped to him and gazed questioningly down into the wild eyes that stared into his own.
"Why did you run away from me?" were the first words that he spoke. They came from him gently, as if he had known her for a long time. In them there was no tone of bitterness; in the warmth of his gray eyes there was none of the denunciation which she might have expected. He repeated the question, bending his head until he felt the soft touch of her hair on his lips. "Why did you run away from me?"
She drew away from him, her eyes searching his face.
"I lied to you," she breathed, her words coming to him in a whisper. "I lied—"
The words caught in her throat. He saw her struggling to control herself, to stop the quivering of her lip, the tremble in her voice. In another moment she had broken down, and with a low, sobbing cry sank in a chair beside the table and buried her head in her arms. As Howland saw the convulsive trembling of her shoulders, his soul was flooded with a strange joy—not at this sight of her grief, but at the knowledge that she was sorry for what she had done. Softly he approached. The girl's fur cap had fallen off. Her long, shining braid was half undone and its silken strands fell over her shoulder and glistened in the lamp-glow on the table. His hand hesitated, and then fell gently on the bowed head.
"Sometimes the friend who lies is the only friend who's true," he said. "I believe that it was necessary for you to—lie."
Just once his hand stroked her soft hair, then, catching himself, he went to the opposite side of the narrow table and sat down. When the girl raised her head there was a bright flush in her cheeks. He could see the damp stain of tears on her face, but there was no sign of them now in the eyes that seemed seeking in his own the truth of his words, spoken a few moments before.
"You believe that?" she questioned eagerly. "You believe that it was necessary for me to—lie?" She leaned a little toward him, her fingers twining themselves about one another nervously, as she waited for him to answer.
"Yes," said Howland. He spoke the one word with a finality that sent a gladness into the soft brown eyes across from him. "I believe that you had to lie to me."
His low voice was vibrant with unbounded faith. Other words were on his lips, but he forced them back. A part of what he might have said—a part of the strange, joyous tumult in his heart—betrayed itself in his face, and before that betrayal the girl drew back slowly, the color fading from her cheeks.
"And I believe you will not lie to me again," he said.
She rose to her feet and flung back her hair, looking down on him in the manner of one who had never before met this kind of man, and knew not what to make of him.
"No, I will not lie to you again," she replied, more firmly. "Do you believe me now?"
"Then go back into the South. I have come to tell you that again to-night—to make you believe me. You should have turned back at Le Pas. If you don't go—to-morrow—"
Her voice seemed to choke her, and she stood without finishing, leaving him to understand what she had meant to say. In an instant Howland was at her side. Once more his old, resolute fighting blood was up. Firmly he took her hands again, his eyes compelling her to look up at him.
"If I don't go to-morrow—they will kill me," he completed, repeating the words of her note to him. "Now, if you are going to be honest with me, tell me this—who is going to kill me, and why?"
He felt a convulsive shudder pass through her as she answered,
"I said that I would not lie to you again. If I can not tell you the truth I will tell you nothing. It is impossible for me to say why your life is in danger."
"But you know?"
He seated her again in the chair beside the table and sat down opposite her.
"Will you tell me who you are?"
She hesitated, twisting her fingers nervously in a silken strand of her hair. "Will you?" he persisted.
"If I tell you who I am," she said at last, "you will know who is threatening your life."
He stated at her in astonishment.
"The devil, you say!" The words slipped from his lips before he could stop them. For a second time the girl rose from her chair.
"You will go?" she entreated. "You will go to-morrow?"
Her hand was on the latch of the door.
"You will go?"
He had risen, and was lighting a cigar over the chimney of the lamp. Laughing, he came toward her.
"Yes, surely I am going—to see you safely home." Suddenly he turned back to the lounge and belted on his revolver and holster. When he returned she barred his way defiantly, her back against the door.
"You can not go!"
"Because—" He caught the frightened flutter of her voice again. "Because they will kill you!"
The low laugh that he breathed in her hair was more of joy than fear.
"I am glad that you care," he whispered to her softly.
"You must go!" she still persisted.
"With you, yes," he answered.
"No, no—to-morrow. You must go back to Le Pas—back into the South. Will you promise me that?"
"Perhaps," he said. "I will tell you soon." She surrendered to the determination in his voice and allowed him to pass out into the night with her. Swiftly she led him along a path that ran into the deep gloom of the balsam and spruce. He could hear the throbbing of her heart and her quick, excited breathing as she stopped, one of her hands clasping him nervously by the arm.
"It is not very far—from here," she whispered "You must not go with me. If they saw me with you—at this hour—" He felt her shuddering against him.
"Only a little farther," he begged.
She surrendered again, hesitatingly, and they went on, more slowly than before, until they came to where a few faint lights in the camp were visible ahead of them.
"Now—now you must go!"
Howland turned as if to obey. In an instant the girl was at his side.
"You have not promised," she entreated. "Will you go—to-morrow?"
In the luster of the eyes that were turned up to him in the gloom Howland saw again the strange, sweet power that had taken possession of his soul. It did not occur to him in these moments that he had known this girl for only a few hours, that until to-night he had heard no word pass from her lips. He was conscious only that in the space of those few hours something had come into his life which he had never known before; and a deep longing to tell her this, to take her sweet face between his hands, as they stood in the gloom of the forest, and to confess to her that she had become more to him than a passing vision in a strange wilderness filled him. That night he had forgotten half of the strenuous lesson he had striven years to master; success, ambition, the mere joy of achievement, were for the first time sunk under a greater thing for him—the pulsating, human presence of this girl; and as he looked down into her face, pleading with him still in its white, silent terror, he forgot, too, what this woman was or might have been, knowing only that to him she had opened a new and glorious world filled with a promise that stirred his blood like sharp wine. He crushed her hands once more to his breast as he had done on the Great North Trail, holding her so close that he could feel the throbbing of her bosom against him. He spoke no word—and still her eyes pleaded with him to go. Suddenly he freed one of his hands and brushed back the thick hair from her brow and turned her face gently, until what dim light came down from the stars above glowed in the beauty of her eyes. In his own face she saw that which he had not dared to speak, and from her lips there came a soft little sobbing cry.