THE HEART OF UNAGA
BY RIDGWELL CULLUM
AUTHOR OF "The Triumph of John Kars," "The Law Breakers," "The Way of the Strong," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons
COPYRIGHT, 1920 BY RIDGWELL CULLUM
Made in the United States of America
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
I.—JULYMAN TELLS OF THE "SLEEPER" INDIANS
II.—THE PASSING OF A DREAM
III.—THE GOING OF STEVE
VII.—THE HARVEST OF WINTER
VIII.—BIG CHIEF WANAK-AHA
IX.—THE VISION OF THE SPIRE
X.—THE RUSH OUTFIT
XV.—THE SET COURSE
I.—AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS
II.—THE SPRING OF LIFE
VI.—THE KING OF THE FOREST
VIII.—THE HEART OF THE WILDERNESS
IX.—THE CLOSE OF THE SEASON
XI.—THROUGH THE EYES OF A WOMAN
XII.—KEEKO RETURNS HOME
XIII.—THE FAITH OF MEN
XIV.—THE VALLEY OF DREAMS
XV.—THE HEART OF UNAGA
XVI.—KEEKO AND NICOL
XVII.—THE DEVOTION OF A GREAT WOMAN
XXI.—THE GREAT REWARD
The Heart of Unaga
JULYMAN TELLS OF THE "SLEEPER" INDIANS
Steve Allenwood raked the fire together. A shower of sparks flew up and cascaded in the still air of the summer night. A moment later his smiling eyes were peering through the thin veil of smoke at the two dusky figures beyond the fire. They were Indian figures, huddled down on their haunches, with their moccasined feet in dangerous proximity to the live cinders strewn upon the ground.
"Oh, yes?" he said. "And you guess they sleep all the time?"
The tone of his voice was incredulous.
"Sure, boss," one of the Indians returned, quite unaffected by the tone. The other Indian remained silent. He was in that happy condition between sleep and waking which is the very essence of enjoyment to his kind.
Inspector Allenwood picked up a live coal in his bare fingers. He dropped it into the bowl of his pipe. Then, after a deep inhalation or two, he knocked it out again.
"'Hibernate'—eh? That's how we call it," he said presently. Then he shook his head. The smile had passed out of his eyes. "No. It's a dandy notion. But—it's not true. They'd starve plumb to death. You see, Julyman, they're human folks—the same as we are."
The flat denial of his "boss" was quite without effect upon Julyman. Oolak, beside him, roused himself sufficiently to turn his head and blink enquiry at him. He was a silent creature whose admiration for those who could sustain prolonged talk was profound.
"All same, boss, that so," Julyman protested without emotion. "Him same like all men. Him just man, squaw, pappoose. All same him sleep—sleep—sleep, when snow comes," Julyman sucked deeply at his pipe and spoke through a cloud of tobacco smoke. "Julyman not lie. Oh, no. Him all true. When Julyman young man—very young—him father tell him of Land of Big Fire. Him say all Indian man sleeping—so." He leant over sideways, with his hands pressed together against his cheek to illustrate his meaning. "Him father say this. Him say when snow come All Indian sleep. One week—two week. Then him wake—so." He stretched himself, giving a great display of a weary half-waking condition. "Him sit up. The food there by him, an' he eat—eat plenty much. Then him drink. An' bimeby him drink the spirit stuff again. Bimeby, too, him roll up in blanket. Then him sleep some more. One week—two week. So. An' bimeby winter him all gone. Oh, him very wise man. Him no work lak hell same lak white man. No. Him sleep—sleep all him winter. An' when him wake it all sun, an' snow all gone. All very much good. Indian man him go out. Him hunt the caribou. Him fish plenty good. Him kill much seal. Make big trade. Oh, yes. Plenty big trade. So him come plenty old man. No him die young. Only very old. Him much wise man."
The white man smiled tolerantly. He shrugged.
"Guess you got a nightmare, Julyman," he said. "Best turn over."
Steve had nothing to add. He knew his scouts as he knew all other Indians in the wide wilderness of the extreme Canadian north. These creatures were submerged under a mental cloud of superstition and mystery. He had no more reason to believe the story of "hibernating" Indians than he had for believing the hundred and one stories of Indian folklore he had listened to in his time.
Julyman, too, considered the subject closed. He had said all he had to say. So the spasm of talk was swallowed up by the silence of the summer night.
The fire burned low, and was replenished from the wood pile which stood between the two teepees standing a few yards away in the shadow of the bush which lined the trail. These men, both white and coloured, had the habit of the trail deeply ingrained in them. But then, was it not their life, practically the whole of it? Stephen Allenwood was a police officer who represented the white man's law in a district as wide as a good-sized European country, and these scouts were his only assistants.
They were at headquarters now enjoying a brief respite from the endless trail which claimed all their life and energies. And such was the nature of their work, and so absorbing the endless struggle of it, that their focus of holiday-making was little better than sitting over a camp-fire at night smoking, and occasionally talking, and waiting for the call of nature summoning them to their blankets.
It was a wonderful night, still and calm, and with a radiance of starlight overhead. There was the busy hum of insect life from the adjacent woods, a deep murmur from the sluggish tide of the great Caribou River which drained the country for miles around. The occasional sigh that floated upon the air spoke of lofty pine crests bending under a light top breeze which refrained from disturbing the lower air. The night left the impression of unbreakable peace, of human content, and a world where elemental storms were unknown.
But the impression was misleading, as are all such impressions in nature's wild, and where the human heart beats strongly. There was no content in the grey eyes of the white man as he sat gazing into the heart of the fire. Then, too, not one of them but knew the cruel moods of the great Northland.
A wonderful companionship existed between these men. It was something more than the companionship of the long trail. They had fought the battle of life together for eight long years, enduring perils and hardships which had brought them an understanding and mutual regard which no difference in colour, or education could lessen. For all the distinction of the police officer's rank and his white man's learning, for all the Indians were dark-skinned, uncultured products of the great white outlands, they were three friends held by bonds which only the hearts of real men could weld.
The territory over which Steve Allenwood exercised his police control was well-nigh limitless from a "one-man" point of view. From his headquarters, which lay within the confines of the Allowa Indian Reserve on the Caribou River, it reached away to the north as far as the Arctic Circle. To the west, only the barrier of the great McKenzie River marked its limits. To the south, there was nothing beyond the Reserve claiming his official capacity, except the newly grown township of Deadwater, two miles away. Eastwards? Well, East was East. So far as Inspector Allenwood knew his district had no limits in that direction, unless it were the rugged coast line of the Hudson's Bay itself.
His task left Steve Allenwood without complaint. It was never his way to complain. Doubtless there were moments in his life when he realized the overwhelming nature of it all. But he no more yielded to it than he would yield to the overwhelming nature of a winter storm. That was the man. Patient; alive with invincible courage and dispassionate determination. Square, calm, strong, like the professional gambler he always seemed to have a winning card to play at the right moment. And none knew better than his scouts how often that card had meant the difference between a pipe over the warm camp-fire and the cold comfort of an icy grave.
Julyman was troubled at the unease he observed in the white man's eyes. It had been there on and off for some days now. It had been there more markedly earlier in the evening when the white man had helped his girl wife into the rig in which Hervey Garstaing, the Indian Agent, was driving Dr. and Mrs. Ross, and their two daughters, to the dance which was being given down at the township by the bachelors of Deadwater. Since then the look had deepened, and Julyman, in spite of his best efforts, had failed to dispel it. Even his story of a race of "hibernating" Indians had been without effect.
But Julyman did not accept defeat easily. And presently he removed the foul pipe from his thin lips, and spat with great accuracy into the heart of the fire.
"Bimeby she come," he said, in his low, even tones, while his black, luminous eyes were definitely raised to the white man's face. "Oh, yes. Bimeby she come. An' boss then him laff lak hell. Julyman know. Julyman have much squaw. Plenty."
Steve started. For a moment he stared. Then his easy smile crept into his steady eyes again and he nodded.
"Sure," he said. "Bimeby she come. Then I laff—like hell."
Julyman's sympathy warmed. He felt he had struck the right note. His wide Indian face lit with an unusual smile.
"Missis, him young. Very much young," he observed profoundly. "Him lak dance plenty—heap. It good. Very good. Bimeby winter him come. Cold lak hell. Missis no laff. Missis not go out. Boss him by the long trail. So. Missis him sit. Oh yes. Him sit with little pappoose. No dance. No nothin'. Only snow an' cold—lak hell."
This time the man's effort elicited a different response. Perhaps he had over-reached. Certainly the white man's eyes had lost the look that had inspired the Indian. They were frowning. It was the cold frown of displeasure. Julyman knew the look. He understood it well. So he went no further. Instead he spat again into the fire and gave himself up to a luxurious hate of Hervey Garstaing, the Indian Agent, whom all Indians hated.
Julyman was only a shade removed from his original savagery. There were times when he was not removed from savagery at all. This was such a moment. For he abandoned himself to the silent contemplation of a vision of the heart of the Indian Agent roasting over the fire before him. It was stuck on the cleaning-rod of his own rifle like a piece of bread to be toasted. Furthermore his was the hand holding the cleaning-rod. He would willingly throw the foul heart to the camp dogs—when it was properly cooked.
His vision was suddenly swept away by a sound which came from somewhere along the trail in the direction of Deadwater. There was a faint, indistinct blur of voices. There was also the rattle of wheels, and the sharp clip of horses' hoofs upon the hard-beaten road. He instinctively turned his head in the direction. And as he did so Steve Allenwood stood up. Just for a moment the white man stood gazing down the shadowed trail. Then he moved off in the direction of his four-roomed log house.
Left alone the Indians remained at the fireside; Oolak—the silent—indifferent to everything about him except the pleasant warmth of the fire; Julyman, on the contrary, angrily alert. He was listening to the sounds which grew momentarily louder and more distinct. And with vicious relish he had already distinguished Hervey Garstaing's voice amongst the rest. It was loud and harsh. How he hated it. How its tones set the dark blood in his veins surging to his head.
"Why sure," he heard him say, "the boys did it good. They're bright boys."
In his crude fashion the scout understood that the Agent was referring to the evening's entertainment. It was the soft voice of Mrs. Ross which replied, and Julyman welcomed the sound. All Indians loved the "med'cine woman," as they affectionately called the doctor's wife.
"It was the best party we've had in a year," she cried enthusiastically. "You wouldn't have known old Abe's saloon from a city hall at Christmas time, with its decorations and its "cuddle-corners" all picked out with Turkey red and evergreens. And you girls! My! you had a real swell time. There were boys enough and to spare for you all. And they weren't the sort to lose much time either. The lunch was real elegant, too, with the oysters and the claret cup. My! it certainly was a swell party."
The wagon had drawn considerably nearer. The quick ears of the Indian had no difficulty with the language of the white folk. His main source of interest was the identity of those who were speaking. And, in particular, he was listening for one voice which he had not as yet been able to distinguish. Hervey Garstaing seemed to do most of the talking. And how he hated the sound of that voice.
"Why, say, Dora," he heard him exclaim in good-natured protest, as the outline of the team loomed up out of the distance. "I don't guess Mrs. Allenwood and I sat out but two dances. Ain't that so, Nita?"
Julyman's ears suddenly pricked. He may have been an uncultured savage, but he was a man, and very human. And the subtle inflection, as the Agent addressed himself to Steve Allenwood's wife, was by no means lost upon him.
The answer came in chorus from the two daughters of the doctor. And it came with a giggle.
"Oh, if you're going to count a supper 'extra,' why—Anyway what's three out of twenty-seven. There's no kick coming to that. Guess a feller would be all sorts of a fool——"
"If he didn't take all that's coming his way at a dance," broke in the doctor's genial voice, with a laugh.
The wagon was abreast of him, and Julyman's eyes were studiously concerned with the glowing heart of the fire. But nothing escaped them. Nothing ever did escape them. He closely scanned the occupants of the wagon. Dr. and Mrs. Ross were in the back seat, and their two daughters were facing them. Hervey Garstaing was driving, and Nita Allenwood was sitting beside him. It was all just as it had been earlier in the evening when he had seen them set out for Deadwater.
Oh, yes. It was all the same—with just a shade of difference. Nita was sitting close—very close to the teamster. She was sitting much closer than when Steve, earlier in the evening had tucked the rug about her to keep the chill summer evening air from penetrating the light dancing frock she was wearing. They were both tucked under one great buffalo robe now. It was a robe he knew to be Hervey Garstaing's.
As the vehicle passed the fire Dr. Ross flung a genial greeting at the two Indians. Julyman responded with a swift raising of his eyes, and one of his broad, unfrequent smiles. Then, as the wagon passed, his eyes dropped again to the fire.
He knew. Oh, yes, he knew. Had he not sat with many squaws who seemed desirable in his eyes? Yes, he had sat just so. Close. Oh, very close. Yes, he was glad his boss had taken himself off. Maybe he was looking down into the depths of the basket which held the little white pappoose back there in his home. It was good to look at the little pappoose when there was trouble at the back of a father's eyes. It made the trouble much better. How he hated the white man, Hervey Garstaing.
* * * * *
For once Julyman's instincts were at fault. He had read the meaning of Steve Allenwood's sudden departure in the light of his own interpretation of the trouble he had seen in the man's grey eyes. He was entirely wrong.
Steve had heard the approaching wagon, and he knew that his wife and the other folk were returning from the dance. But almost at the same instant he had detected the sound of horses' hoofs in an opposite direction. It was in the direction of his home. Julyman had missed the latter in his absorbed interest in the return of these folk from Deadwater.
Steve reached the log home in the bluff at the same moment as a horseman reined up at his door. The man in the saddle leant over, peering into the face of the Inspector. The darkness left him uncertain.
"Deadwater post?" he demanded abruptly.
Steve had recognized the man's outfit. The brown tunic and side-arms, the prairie hat, and the glimpse of a broad yellow stripe on the side of the riding breeches just where the man's leather chapps terminated on his hips. These things were all sufficient.
"Inspector Allenwood, sir?"
The man's abrupt tone had changed to respectful inquiry.
"I'm your man, Corporal."
The Corporal flung out of the saddle.
"Sorry I didn't rec'nize you, sir," he said saluting quickly. "It's pretty dark. It's a letter from the Superintendent—urgent." He drew a long, blue envelope from his saddle wallets and passed it to his superior. "Maybe you can direct me to the Indian Agent, Major Garstaing, sir. I got a letter for him."
Steve Allenwood glanced up from the envelope he had just received.
"Sure. Best cut through the bluff. There's a trail straight through brings you to his house. It's mostly a mile and a half. Say, you'll need supper. Get right along back when you've finished with him. When did you start out?"
"Yesterday morning, sir."
The Inspector whistled.
"Fifty miles a day. You travelled some."
The Corporal patted his steaming horse's neck.
"He's pretty tough, is old Nigger, sir," he said, with quiet pride. "Mr. McDowell wanted me to pick up a horse at Beaufort last night, but I wouldn't have done any better. Nigger can play the game a week without a worry. Guess I'll get on, sir, and make back after awhile. That the barn, sir?" he went on, pointing at a second log building a few yards from the house, as he swung himself into the saddle again. "I won't need supper. I had that ten miles back on the trail. I off-saddled at an Indian lodge where they lent me fire to boil my tea."
"Very well, Corporal. There's blankets here in the office when you come back. This room, here," he added, throwing open the door. "I'll set a lamp for you. There's feed and litter for your plug at the barn. Rub him down good."
"Thank you, sir."
The man turned his horse and headed away for the trail through the bluff, and Steve watched him go. Nor could he help a feeling of admiration for the easy, debonair disregard of difficulties and hardship which these men of his own force displayed in the execution of their work. In his utter unself-consciousness he was quite unaware that wherever the police were known his own name was a household word for these very things which he admired in another.
He passed into his office and lit the lamp. Then he seated himself at the simple desk where his official reports were made out. It was a plain, whitewood table, and his office chair was of the hard Windsor type.
He tore open his letter and glanced at its contents. It was from his own immediate superior, Superintendent McDowell, and dated at Fort Reindeer. It was quite brief and unilluminating. It was a simple official order to place himself entirely at the disposal of Major Hervey Garstaing, the Indian Agent of the Allowa Indian Reserve—who was receiving full instructions from the Indian Commissioner at Ottawa—on a matter which came under his department.
He read the letter through twice. He was about to read it for a third time, but laid it aside. Instead he rose from the table and moved towards the door as the wagon from Deadwater drew up outside.
THE PASSING OF A DREAM
Steve and his wife were in the parlour of their little home. It was the home which Steve had had built to replace his bachelor shanty, and which together they had watched grow, and over the furnishing of which they had spent hours of profound thought and happy discussions.
The office was entirely separate, that is, it had its own entrance door and no communication with the rest. The private quarters consisted of three rooms. The parlour, a bedroom for Steve and Nita, and, leading out of the latter, a small apartment sacred to the tiny atom of humanity which they had christened Coqueline, and whom the man, from the moment his eyes had been permitted to gaze upon her, some fifteen months earlier, regarded as the most perfect, wonderful, priceless treasure in the world. Beyond this, a simple lean-to kitchen provided all they needed for their creature comfort.
It was all characteristic of the Northern world. The walls were of lateral logs, and the roof was of a similar material, while the entire interior was lined with red pine match-boarding. It was strong, and square, and proof against the fiercest storm that ever blew off the Arctic ice, which was all sufficient in a country where endurance was man's chief concern.
Nita was seated in the rocking-chair which Steve had set ready for her beside the stove, whose warmth was welcome enough even on a summer night. She was sipping a cup of steaming coffee which he had also prepared. But there was nothing of the smiling delight in her eyes which the memory of her evening's entertainment should have left there.
The man himself was standing. He was propped against the square table under the window. He was smoking, and watching the girl wife he idolized as she silently munched the slice of layer cake which he had passed her. He was wondering if the long-expected, and long-feared moment of crisis in their brief married life had arrived. He had watched its approach for weeks. And he knew that sooner or later it must be faced. He was even inclined to force it now, for such was his way. Trouble was in her eyes, and he felt certain of its nature. Nita was not made of the stuff that could withstand the grind of the dour life of the Northland which he loved.
They had been married about three years and Nita had as yet spoken no actual word of complaint. But the complaint was there at the back of her pretty eyes. It had been there for months now. Steve had watched it grow. And its growth had been rapid enough with the passing of the first months of the delirious happiness which had been theirs, and which had culminated in the precious arrival of their little daughter Coqueline.
"Guess you must have had a real good time," Steve said, by way of breaking the prolonged silence.
For reply the girl only nodded.
The contrast between them was strongly marked. Nita was pretty—extremely pretty, and looked as out of place in this land she was native to as Steve looked surely a part of it. But her charm was of that purely physical type which gains nothing from within. Her eyes were wide, child-like, and of a deep violet. Her hair was fair and softly wavy. Her colouring had all the delicacy which suggested the laying on by an artist's brush, and which no storm or sun seemed to have power to destroy. Her slight figure possessed all those perfect contours which are completely irresistible in early youth. Furthermore these things were supported to the utmost by the party frock she was wearing, and over which she had spent weeks of precious thought and labour.
Steve was of the trail. Face and body were beaten hard with the endless struggle of it all. His rough clothing, which had no relation to the smart Inspector's uniform he was entitled to wear, bore witness to the life that claimed him. His only claim to distinction was the sanity and strength that looked out of his steady grey eyes, the firmness and decision of his clean-shaven lips, and his broad, sturdy body with its muscles of iron.
"You'll be tired, too," he went on kindly. "You'd best get to bed when you've had a warm. I'll fix the chores."
He moved from his position at the table, and, passing out into the lean-to kitchen, returned a moment later with a small saucepan which he placed on the shining top of the stove.
"Mrs. Ross seems to figure it was all sorts of a swell party," he went on. "She guesses the boys must have worried themselves to death fixing Abe's saloon so it didn't look like—Abe's saloon."
The man's smile was gently humorous. For once he had not the courage to pursue the downright course which his nature prompted. Little Coqueline was foremost in his thoughts. Then there was the memory of all the happiness his home meant to him, and he feared that which undue precipitancy might bring about.
The girl looked up from the stove. Her eyes abandoned their intense regard with seeming reluctance.
"It was all—wonderful. Just wonderful," she said in the tone of one roused from a beautiful dream.
Steve's incautious satire suddenly precipitated the crisis he feared. The girl's eyes flashed a hot look of resentment. He was laughing at her. She was in no mood to be made sport of, or to have her words made sport of. She sat up with a start and leant forward in her chair in an attitude that gave force to her sharp enquiry.
"And why not?" she demanded, her violet eyes darkening under the frown of swift anger which drew her pretty brows together. "Why not Abe's saloon, or—or any other place?" She set her coffee cup on the floor with a clatter, and her hands clasped the arms of her chair as though she were about to spring to her feet. "Yes," she continued, with increasing heat, "why not Abe's saloon? It's not the place. It's not the folk, even. Those things don't matter. It's the thing itself. The whole thing. The glimpse of life when you're condemned to existence on this fierce outworld. It's the meaning of it. A dance. It doesn't sound much. Maybe it doesn't mean a thing to you but something to laugh at, or to sneer at. It's different to me, and to other folks, who—who aren't crazy for the long trail and the terrible country we're buried in. The decorations. The flags. Yes, the cheap Turkey red, and the fiddler's music—a half-breed fiddler—and the music of a pianist who spends most of his time getting sober. The folks who are all different from what we see them every day. Tough, hard-living, hard-swearing men all hidden up in their Sunday suits, and handing you ceremony as if you were some queen. Then the sense of pleasure in every heart, with all the cares and troubles of life pushed into the background—at least for a while. These things are a glimpse of life to us poor folk who spend all our years in the endless chores of an inhospitable country. You can smile, Steve. You can sneer at Abe's saloon. But I tell you you haven't a right to just because these things don't mean a thing to you. There's nothing means anything to you but your work——"
"And my wife, and my kiddie, and my—home."
The man's deep voice broke in sharply upon the light, strident tones of the angry girl. He spoke while he stirred the contents of the saucepan he had placed on the stove. But the interruption only seemed to add fuel to the girl's volcanic flood of bitter feeling. A laugh was the prompt retort he received.
"Your wife. Oh, yes, I know. You'd have her around all the time in her home, slaving at the chores that would break the spirit of a galley slave. Oh, it's no use pretending. It's got to come out. It's here," she rushed on, pressing her hands hysterically against her softly rounded bosom. "The dream is past. All dreams are past. I'm awake now—to this," she indicated the room about her, simple almost to bareness in its furnishing, with a gesture of indescribable feeling. "It's all I've got to waken to. All I've got to look forward to. I've tried to tell myself there's a good time coming, when I can peer into the great light world, and snatch something of the joy of it all. I've tried, I've tried. But there isn't. It's the cold drear of this northland. It's chores from daylight to dark, and all the best years of life hurrying behind me as if they were yearning to make me old before I can get a chance to—live. I'm sick thinking. Show me. What is there? You're an Inspector, and we get a thousand dollars a year, and the rations we draw from the Indian Agency. You'll never get a Superintendent. You've no political pull, shut off up here well nigh in sight of the Arctic ice. I'm twenty-two with years and years of it before me, and all the time I'll need to go on counting up my cents how I can get through till next pay-day comes around. Don't talk to me of your wife."
The injustice of the girl's unreasoning complaint was staggering. But it smote the heart of the man no less for that. Whatever his inward feelings, however, outwardly he gave no sign. He did not even raise his eyes from the saucepan he was stirring with so much deliberation and care.
"You're wrong, little girl," he said with quiet emphasis, and without one shadow of the emotion that was stirring behind the words. "You're dead wrong. You've got all those things before you. The things you're crazy for. And when they come along I guess they'll be all the sweeter for the waiting, all the better for the round of chores you're hating now, all the more welcome for the figgering you need to do now with the cents we get each month. You don't know how I stand with Ottawa. I do. There's just two years between me and the promotion you reckon I can't get. That's not a long time. Then we move to a big post where you can get all the dancing you need, and that won't be in Abe's saloon. You know that when my old father goes—and I'm not yearning for him to go—he'll pass me all he has, which is fifty thousand dollars and his swell farm in Ontario."
He paused and dipped out some of the contents of the saucepan in the spoon he was stirring it with. He tested its temperature. Then he went on with his preparations.
"Is there a reasonable kick coming to any woman in those things?" he demanded. "You knew most of what I'm telling you now when you guessed you loved me enough to marry me, and to help me along the road I'd marked out. Have I done a thing less than I promised?" he went on passing back to the table and picking up the glass bottle lying there, and removing its top. "If I have just tell me, and I'll do all I know—" He shook his head. "It's all unreasonable. Maybe you're tired. Maybe——"
"It isn't unreasonable," Nita cried sharply. "That's how men always say to a woman when they can't understand. I tell you I'm sick with the hopelessness of it all. You aren't sure of your promotion. You haven't got it yet. And maybe your father will live another twenty years. Oh, God, to think of another twenty years of this. Do you know you're away from home nine months out of twelve? Do you know that more than half my time I spend guessing if you're alive or dead? And all the time the grind of the work. The same thing day after day without relief." She watched the man as he poured the contents of the saucepan into the bottle, and her eyes were hot with the state of hysterical anger she had worked herself into. "Oh," she cried with a helpless, despairing gesture, as Steve returned the saucepan to the table. "I'm sick of it all. I hate it all, when I think of what life could be. The thought of it drives me mad. I hate everything. I hate myself. I hate——"
Steve thrust the stopper into the neck of the bottle. He had turned. His steady eyes were sternly compelling. They were shining with a light Nita had never witnessed in them before. She suddenly became afraid. And her silence was instant and complete. She sat breathlessly waiting.
"I've done with this fool talk," Steve cried almost roughly. "I've listened to too much already. I'm not figgering to let you break things between us. There's more than you and me in it. There's that poor little kiddie in the other room. Say, I've seen this coming. I've seen it coming—weeks. I've seen a whole heap that hurts a man that loves his wife, and guesses he wants to see her happy. I've seen what isn't good for a father to see, either. You've told me the things you guess you feel, and now I'm going to tell you the things I feel. You reckon the things I say about your good time coming are hot air. They're not. But you've got to get fool notions out of your head, and work for the things you want, the same as I reckon to. I'm out to make good—for you. Understand, for you, and for little Coqueline. I'm out to make good with all that's in me. And it don't matter a curse to me if all hell freezes over, I'm going to make good. Get that, and get it good. It's a sort of life-line that ought to make things easy for you. There's just one thing that can break my play, Nita. Only one. It's your weakening. It's up to me to see you don't weaken. You need to take hold of the notion we're partners in this thing. And don't forget I'm senior partner, and my word goes. Just now my word is kind of simple. If you don't feel like carrying on for me, you need to remember there's our little Coqueline. She's part of you. She's part of me. And she's got a claim on you that no human law can ever rob her of. Well, the proposition between us has two sides. My side means the trail, and the job that's mine. I need to face it with a clear head, and an easy mind. My side means I got to get busy with every nerve in my body to get you an ultimate good time, and see you get all you need to make you good an' happy. That's the one purpose I dream about. Maybe your side's different. But I don't guess it's any easier. You've got to wait around till those things come along. But you've got more to do than that. You've got to play this old game right. Your work's by this home. It don't matter if it's winter or summer, if it's storming or sunshine. You've got to do the chores you're guessing you hate, and you need to do them right, and willingly. We're man and wife. And these chores are yours by all the laws of God, and the Nature that made you the mother of our little Coqueline. You've got to cut this crazy notion for fool pleasures right out, till the pleasure time comes around. That time isn't yet. The woman who lets her child and her home suffer for joy notions isn't worth the room she'll take in hell later. Well, see and get busy, and let's have no more fool talk and crazy notions. Here, take this," he went on, in his deliberate, forceful way, thrusting the baby's feeding bottle into the girl's hands. "That's the kiddie's feed. Guess I fixed it because—well, maybe because you're tired. Take it to her. Give it to her. And, as long as you live don't you ever forget she's the right to your love, and to my love, and every darn thing we know to make things right for her."
The force of the man was irresistible. It was something the girl had never witnessed before. She had only known the husband, devoted, gentle, almost yielding in his great love. The man that had finished talking now was the man Julyman regarded above all others.
Nita took the bottle thrust into her hands, and, without a word, she rose from her chair and passed into the bedroom which the baby's room adjoined.
Steve watched her go. His hungry eyes followed her every movement. His heart was torn by conflicting emotions. His love told him that he had been harsh almost to brutality, but his sense warned him he had taken the only course which could hope to achieve the peace and happiness which was Nita's right as well as his own.
He had meant to fight for these things as he would fight on the trail against the forces of Nature seeking to overwhelm him. He would yield nothing. For all his words had cost him he was conscious of the rightness of the course he had taken. But he was fighting a battle in which forces were arrayed against him of which he was wholly unaware.
As Nita passed into the bedroom the sound of footsteps outside broke the silence of the room. A moment later he turned in response to a knock on his door.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later Steve was seated at the desk in his office. He was in the company of Major Hervey Garstaing, the Indian Agent. The Corporal, from Reindeer, was already rolled up in the blankets which were spread out in the corner of the room. His work had been accomplished. He was physically weary. And, judging by the sound of his regular breathing, Nature had claimed her own the moment his head had touched the carefully folded overcoat which served him for a pillow.
The bare severity of the room was uninviting. There was little display in the work of the police. Utility and purpose was the keynote of their lives and at the year's end the tally of work accomplished was the thing that mattered.
Steve preferred to receive the Indian Agent in his office. Garstaing had never been an intimate of his. Their relations were official, and just sufficiently neighbourly for men who lived within two miles of each other in a country where human companionship was at a premium.
The office table stood between them. The spare chair beyond the desk always stood ready for a visitor, and Garstaing had accepted it. Steve had moved the oil lamp on one side, that their view of each other might be uninterrupted.
They were both smoking, and Garstaing was doing the talking. At all times Steve preferred that his visitors should do most of the talking.
"I guessed I best come right along," he said, regarding the other closely. "You see, I'll be handin' out Treaty Money to the darn neches to-morrow morning. It'll take me best part of the day." He removed the pipe from his rather wide mouth, and held it poised significantly. "This thing won't stand keeping. It's—murder. There's two of 'em, I guess. Traders. Marcel Brand and his partner, Cyrus Allshore. Those are the names. Can't say I've heard of 'em before. Both of 'em dead—murdered—up there somewhere around the Unaga country. It's the Indians or Eskimo, whatever they are, who've done it."
Steve's gaze was directed searchingly at his visitor's good-looking face. At the moment it almost seemed as if he were regarding the man rather than his mission. And Garstaing was a somewhat interesting personality. It should have been a pleasant personality, if looks were any real indication. Garstaing was distinctly handsome. He was dark, and his swift-moving dark eyes looked always to be ready to smile. Then he possessed a superbly powerful body. But the threatened smile rarely matured, and when it did it added nothing of a pleasant nature for the student of psychology.
In age the two men were well matched, but they had little else in common. Garstaing's reputation, at least amongst men, was not a happy one. He was known to be a hard drinker. He was hot-headed and pleasure-loving. Furthermore he was given to an overbearing intolerance, in the indulgence of which his position as Indian Agent yielded him wide scope.
He ruled the Indians with an iron hand, and for all the stories of his cruelty and complete unscrupulousness which reached beyond the confines of the reserve and the bitter hatred of the Indians he remained complete master of the situation.
There was little enough which Steve had not heard of the unsavouriness of this man's administration. He by no means gave credence to all of it, but it was not without effect upon his personal attitude towards him.
"I'm not wise to your instructions," Garstaing went on as Steve offered no further comment, "but mine are pretty clear, and they are straight from my Commissioner."
"I've to place myself entirely at your disposal."
Steve's reply came without any hesitation. His tone suggested unconcern. Garstaing's dark eyes snapped. Then they smiled their approval. It was that smile which added nothing pleasant to his personality.
"I guessed it was that way from the instructions they handed me," he said. Then he withdrew a bunch of papers from an inner pocket, and opened them, and selected a particular sheet. "Here it is," he said, and promptly read out an extract from the letter. "'You will at once place yourself in touch with the police in your district, and see that the whole matter is investigated—forthwith.'"
He glanced up as he uttered the final word.
"You know what that means?" he enquired, searching the eyes that were so profoundly observing him across the table.
"It means you'll have to make the Unaga country right away."
Again came Steve's monosyllabic agreement.
"It means one hell of a long trip," the Agent went on.
The simple finality of the police officer's reply left the other speechless for the moment. The tone of it amazed him. He had hastened across from the Agency directly he had received the Corporal's dispatch, not because he had to pay out Treaty Money in the morning, not because the whole matter would not keep even a week if necessary. Instantly on reading his instructions from the Indian Commissioner all thought of the crime to be investigated had passed out of his mind. His thoughts had flown to Steve Allenwood, and from him they had passed on to another. A vision of a sweet face with deep, violet eyes, and softly waving fair hair had leapt to his mind. Furthermore he still retained the sensation of a soft, warm hand which had been clasped within his under cover of the friendly fur robe as he drove the wagon back from the dance at Deadwater.
Two years. The man had spoken with as much indifference as if he had been contemplating a trip of two days. Garstaing drew a deep breath, and, returning his pipe to his capacious mouth ignited a match over the lamp chimney and re-lit it. Then, with a quick, nervous movement he picked up a separate bunch of the papers on the table before him and flung them across to his host.
"There you are," he cried, "that's the whole darn official story. You best keep it awhile, and read it. I got orders to hand you all you need. Indians, dog-team, rations. Any old thing you fancy. But—" he paused. His quick-moving eyes became suddenly still. They were gazing directly into those of the husband beyond the table. "You'll need to start out—right away."
Steve rose from his seat with a nod.
"I shall know when to start," he replied shortly.
Then he raised his arms above his head and stretched himself luxuriously while Garstaing sat watching him, endeavouring to penetrate the man's tremendous barrier of reserve. But it remained impenetrable, and there was nothing left for him but to comply with his host's tacit invitation. He, too, rose from his seat.
"You best take a copy of the story," he said, as Steve moved towards the door. "Anyway I'll need the original later."
He was talking because the other compelled him to talk. And because he had that in his mind which made it impossible for him to remain silent.
Steve opened the door and peered out. The night was brilliantly star-lit. Garstaing was close behind him.
"It's tough on you, Allenwood," he said in a tone intended to express sympathy. "Two years. Gee!"
Steve's only reply was to move aside to let him pass out. It was as though Garstaing's expression of sympathy had at last found a weakness in his armour of reserve. His movement had been abrupt—startlingly abrupt.
"So long," he said coldly.
Just for one moment their eyes met. Steve's were frigidly non-committal. There was neither friendliness nor dislike in them. There was no emotion whatsoever. Garstaing's were questioning, searching, and full of an impulse that might have meant anything. But it was the police officer who controlled the situation, and the headstrong, intolerant Indian Agent who was obeying. He passed out, and his "So long" came back to the man in the doorway as the night swallowed him up.
Steve moved back to the table. In his deliberate fashion he leant over the lamp chimney and blew the light out. Then he passed out of the room and closed the door gently. He paused for a moment outside, and stood gazing in the direction which he knew Garstaing had taken. Presently he raised one hand and passed it across his broad forehead. It remained for a moment pressed against the skin, which had suddenly become coldly moist. His fingers searched their way up through his abundant dark hair. It was a movement that expressed something like helpless bewilderment.
"Two years!" he muttered. "Two years!"
Then his arm dropped almost nervelessly to his side.
THE GOING OF STEVE
There are some personalities which never fail to permeate their neighbourhood with their presence. Of such was Dr. Ian Ross. His presence never failed to impress itself. The moment he crossed the threshold of his home the household became aware of it. There was his big voice, his deep-throated husky laugh. There was that strong-hearted kindly humanity always shining in his deep-set, blue eyes.
He had returned from his surgery at the agency for his midday meal, and his abundant toned hail reached his wife in a remote bedroom in the almost luxurious home which he had had set up amidst the spruce woods lining the Deadwater trail.
"Ho, Millie!" he cried. "Ho you, Mill!" he called again, without waiting for any response.
"I'll be right along, Mac," came back the cheerful reply.
"Fine. But don't stop to change your gown, there's a good soul. Guess it's feed time, anyway. And not so much 'Mac.' Guess I'm Ross of the Ross of Ardairlie, which is in the Highlands of Scotland, which is part of a small group of islands, which are dumped down in the Atlantic off the west coast of Europe. Maybe—you've heard tell."
The man flung his wide-brimmed hat on a side table in the hall with a comfortable laugh. Then seating himself in a big chair, he ran his fingers through his crisp iron-grey hair.
He was a raw-boned, powerfully built man who seemed by nature the beau ideal for the healing of a race of savages who regard disease as inevitable, a visitation by the powers of evil, and something which must be submitted to in patience lest worse befall. Almost brusque of manner, forceful, he was as strong and kindly of heart as he was skilful. He was a product of the best Scottish school of medicine, and one of those rare souls whose whole desire in life is the relief of human suffering. Fortune had favoured him very practically. He had ample private means which enabled him to accept the paltry salary the Government offered him to take charge of a herd of its coloured children up on the Caribou River. Furthermore he had had the good fortune to marry a Canadian woman whose whole heart was wrapped up in him and his life's purpose.
So these two, with their two young children, had made their way north. The man had set up an ample, even luxurious home on the confines of the reserve, and they had settled down to battle with the exterminating diseases, which, since the civilizing process set in, the Indian seems to have become heir to. So far the battle had raged, for ten years, and it looked likely to last far beyond Ian Ross's lifetime.
Whatever other successes and failures he had had during that time he had achieved an affection from his patients quite as great as the hatred achieved by Hervey Garstaing in less than half that number of years.
The plump round figure of Millie Ross rustled into the hall.
The man's question came without turning from the sunlit view beyond the doorway. A wonderful stretch of undulating wood-clad country lay spread out before him. It was a waste of virgin territory chequered with woodland bluffs, with here and there the rigid Indian teepee poles supporting their rawhide dwellings, peeping out from all sorts of natural shelters.
"Dora? Why, Dora's over with Nita Allenwood. That child spends most of her time there now."
Millie's cheerful, easy manner was perhaps the greatest blessing of Ian Ross's life. Her happy good temper spoke of a perfectly healthy body, and a mind full of a pleasant humour.
Dr. Ross withdrew a timepiece from his pocket.
"Now?" he cried. "Oh, you mean because of Steve's going off on the long trail. Five days isn't it before he goes?" He chuckled in his pleasant, tolerant fashion. "Sort of sympathetic butting in, isn't it? Guess heart and sense never were a good team. I'd say Dora's chock full of heart."
"And it's just as well for someone around this house to have a bunch of heart that can feel for other folks," Millie retorted promptly. "Say, you, Mac, there's two days past since word went round of Steve's going, and you haven't done a thing. Not a thing but continue to make life miserable for those poor neches who can't help themselves, and have to spend their play time in swallowing the dope you can't make filthy enough to please your notions of humanity."
The man laughed up into the smiling, admonishing eyes of the woman who meant so much to him.
"Hell!" he cried. "What would you have me do? Isn't it my job to see those poor devils right? Why, they'd lap up dope till you couldn't tell 'em from a New York drug store. The fouler it tastes the more surely they come back for more. I'd say I've lengthened the sick list of this reserve till you'd think it was a Free Hospital, and there wasn't a healthy neche, squaw, or pappoose north of 60 deg.."
Millie picked up the hat he had flung on the side table and hung it on a peg of the coat rack.
"What would I have you do?" she said, ignoring the rest of his remarks for the thought in her mind, and coming back to his chair and resting her plump hand on his crisp hair. "Why something else besides think of these scalliwag Indians. I'm all worried to death about Nita Allenwood and Steve."
The man stirred uneasily under the caressing fingers.
"So am I," he cried brusquely. "Well?"
"That's just what it isn't," Millie had withdrawn her hand. She moved to the doorway and gazed out into the sunlight. "I want to do something and just don't know how to do it. I know you hate folks who 'slop over.' But just think of the position. Steve's going to be away for two years, according to his reckoning. They've sent Corporal Munday to take over his post in his absence. What—what on earth is Nita to do in his absence? She'll get her rations, and her pay, and all that. But—she can't live around the post sort of keeping house for this boy—Munday. She can't live there by herself anyway. Think of her by that shack with her kiddie. Two years, here in a country——Besides—"
"'Besides' nothing," exclaimed the man with that curious irritation of a troubled mind. "Is there need of 'besides' when you think of a good-looker girl who's barely twenty-two, with as dandy a baby as I've ever set eyes on, and who I helped into daylight, sitting around without her husband in a country that's peopled with white men whose morals would disgrace a dog-wolf? Two years! Why, it makes me sweat thinking. If that feller Steve don't see my way of looking at things I'm going to tell him just what his parents ought to've been."
"And what's your way of thinking, Mac?" enquired his wife with the confidence of certain knowledge.
"My way? My way?" the man exploded, his blue eyes widening with incredulity. "Why, the way he's got to look. The way sense lies. That girl and her kiddie have got to come right along here and camp with us till the boy gets back. There's going to be no darn nonsense," he added threateningly, as though Millie were protesting. "She's going to come right here, where you can keep your dandy eye on her till——"
"Eyes—plural, Mac." Millie's smile was a goodly match for the summer day.
The doctor flung his head back in a deep-throated guffaw.
"Have it your own way," he cried. "One or two, they don't miss much. Anyway, I guessed I'd put it to you before I went over to fix things up."
"Sure," laughed Millie comfortably. "You most generally ask my consent before you get busy." Then, in a moment, she became serious. "But you're right, Mac," she said. "Dora and I have been talking that way ever since we heard. And Mabel swears she's going to write the Commissioner of Police all she thinks about it, and that's 'some.' It's cruel sending off a married man on a trip like that without fixing things for his wife. You see and fix things, Mac. Nita's just as welcome as a ray of sunshine right here with us. It's a shame! It's a wicked downright shame! And Steve ought to know better than to stand for it. He ought to——"
"He can't kick." The man shook his head. "He's looking to get a superintendentship. A kick would fix that for good. No, he's got no kick coming. You need to understand the Police force right. It's no use talking that way. It's the work of the force first, last, and all the time. Everything else is nowhere, and the womenfolk, whom they discourage, last of all. And mind you, they're right. You can't run a family, and this hellish country at the same time. If the Police weren't what they were it would need seventy thousand of them instead of seven hundred to make this territory better than a sink of crime for every low down skunk who can't keep out of penitentiary anywhere else. This thing has me so worried I haven't appetite enough to care it's gone my feed time by a quarter hour. Isn't Miss Prue through with the darn potatoes, or—something?"
Millie laughed indulgently.
"I'll get along and see. You see, Miss Prue's a good and God-fearing squaw, when she isn't smoking her pipe or sitting asleep over the cook-stove. Anyway, I'll chase her up," and she bustled off in the direction of the kitchen.
Left to himself Ian Ross forgot entirely that he was awaiting his dinner. His deep-set eyes were turned to the view beyond the door, and his thoughts were still further afield. He was thinking of the pretty, eager face he had watched at the bachelors' dance at Deadwater. He was thinking of the men who had approached Nita with the ceremony which had so delighted her. He was old enough and wise enough to appreciate fully the dangers she would be confronted with in Steve's absence, dangers which it was more than likely Steve could not realize.
He liked Steve. For all their disparity of years a great friendship existed between them. Steve was a man who would succeed in anything he undertook. The doctor was sure of that. But—and this was the matter that troubled him most—Steve had utter and complete faith in his wife, the same as he had in all those who possessed his regard. Steve was a man of single, simple purpose. Strong as a lion in the open battle where the danger was apparent, but in the more subtle dangers of life he was a child.
Well, there were men in their world who constituted just one of those grave subtle dangers to Steve in Steve's absence. Ian Ross shared with everybody else the hatred of Hervey Garstaing. He had seen Garstaing and Nita together at the dance. He had seen them together at other times. Oh,—he had never seen anything that was not perhaps perfectly legitimate. But he knew Hervey Garstaing better than most people at Deadwater. He saw far more of him than he desired. And Hervey was a good-looking man. Nita was young and full of a youthful desire for a good time. And then Hervey was also an unscrupulous hound whom it would have given the doctor the greatest pleasure in life to shoot.
* * * * *
Ian Ross laughed out loud as he strode through the woods on his way to the police post. A thought had occurred to him which pleased his simple mind mightily. It was not a very profound thought. And the humour of it was difficult to detect. But it pleased him, and he had to laugh, and when he laughed the echoes rang. It had occurred to him that it took a man of real brain to be a perfect "damn fool."
The inspiration of his thought was undoubtedly Steve Allenwood. Steve Allenwood and his affairs had occupied his thoughts all the morning, and had interfered with a due appreciation of the dinner he had just eaten. He was perturbed, and Millie had set the match to the powder train of his emotions and energies. His admiration for Steve was as unstinted as his sympathy for the call that had been suddenly made on him. But he knew Steve, and realized the difficulties that lay before him in carrying out the programme of kindly purpose Millie and he had worked out over their midday meal. It was this which had brought him to the conclusion which had inspired his laugh.
In that brief instant the complete silence of the woods about him had been broken up in startling fashion. No shot from a rifle, no mournful cry of timber-wolf could disturb the spell of nature like the jarring note of the human voice.
But it had another effect. It elicited a response no less startling to the man who had laughed.
"Ho you, Mac!"
Ian Ross halted. He had recognized the voice instantly.
"That you, Steve?"
"Sure," came back the reply.
Instantly the Scotsman's lack of self-consciousness became apparent.
"How in hell did you know it was me?"
It was the turn of the invisible police officer to laugh.
"Guess there's only one laugh like yours north of 60 deg.—less a bull moose can act that way." Then he went on. "Sharp to your left. I'm down here on the creek. I was making your place and this way cuts off quite a piece."
Ross turned off at once and his burly figure crashed its way through the barrier of delicate-hued spruce. A moment later he was confronting the officer on the bank of the creek.
Steve's smile was one of cordial welcome.
"I was figgering to get you before you went back to the agency," he said in explanation.
The doctor's eyes twinkled.
"And I was guessing to get you—before I went."
"We were chasing each other."
"Which is mostly a fool stunt."
They stood smiling into each other's eyes for a moment.
"You were needing me—particular?" Steve enquired after a pause.
Ross glanced down at the gurgling water of the shallow stream as it passed over its rough gravel bed.
"I was needing a yarn. Nothing amiss at the post? You wanted me—particular?"
The smile in Steve's eyes deepened.
"No. I was needing a—yarn."
The doctor's twinkling eyes searched the clearing. A fallen tree was sprawling near by, with its upper boughs helping to cascade the waters of the stream. He pointed at it.
"Guess we don't need to wear our legs out."
Steve laughed shortly.
"That's where the neches beat us every time. You need to sit at a pow-wow."
"Sure. Their wise men sit most all the time."
They moved over to the tree trunk, and Ross accepted the extreme base of it and sat with his back against the up-torn roots. Steve sat astride the trunk facing him. Then by a common impulse the men produced their pipes. Steve's was alight first and he held a match for the other.
"You were chasing me up?" he said. "Nothing on the Reserve?"
"No." The doctor's pipe was glowing under the efforts of his powerful lungs. "Most of the neches are sleeping off the dope. It's queer how they're crazy for physic. How's Nita and the kiddie? I haven't seen Nita since the dance."
Steve's smile died out quite suddenly. The doctor's observant eyes lost nothing of the change, although the sunshine on the dancing waters seemed to absorb his whole attention.
"Guess little Coqueline absorbs more bottles to the twenty-four hours than you'd ever guess she was made to fit," Steve replied with a half laugh. "She kind of reminds you of one of those African sand rivers in the rainy season. Nita's the same as usual. She had a good time at the dance."
"Yes." The doctor bestirred himself and withdrew his gaze from the tumbling waters. "You had something to say to me," he demanded abruptly, his blue eyes squarely challenging.
Steve nodded. A half smile lit his steady eyes.
"Sure. And—it isn't easy."
The Scotsman returned the half smile with interest.
"I haven't noticed it hard for folks to talk, unless it is to tell of their own shortcomings. Guess you aren't figgering that way. Maybe I can help you. I'd hate to be setting out on a two years' trip and leaving Millie to scratch around without me."
Steve's eyes lit.
"That's it, Doc," he said with a nod which told the other of the emotions stirring under his calm exterior. "Two years!" He laughed without any amusement. "It may be more, a hell of a sight. Maybe even I won't get back. You see, you never can figger what this north country's got waiting on you. It's up in the Unaga country. And I guess it's new to me. I'd say it's new to anyone. It's mostly a thousand miles I've got to make, right up somewhere on the north-west shores of Hudson's Bay."
"A—thousand miles! It's tough." Dr. Ross shook his head.
"An' it comes at a bad time for me," Steve went on thoughtfully. "Still, I guess it can't be helped. You see, it's murder! Or they reckon it is. A letter got through from Seal Bay. That's on the Hudson coast. The Indian Department don't know where it comes from. It seems to have been handed in by an Indian named Lupite. The folks tried to get out of him where he came from, but I guess he didn't seem to know. Anyway he didn't tell them. He said Unaga, and kind of indicated the north. Just the north. Well, it isn't a heap to go on. Still, that's the way of these things. I've got to locate the things the folks at Seal Bay couldn't locate. It seems there's a biggish trading post way up hidden somewhere on the plateau of Unaga. It was run by two partners, and they had a sort of secret trade. The man at Seal Bay—Lorson Harris—reckons it's a hell of an important trade. The names of these traders were Marcel Brand—a chemist—and Cy Allshore, a pretty tough northern man. These fellers used to come down and trade at Seal Bay. Well, I don't know much more except this letter came into Seal Bay—it's written in a woman's hand and in English—to say her husband, Marcel Brand, and this, Cy Allshore, have been murdered. And she guesses by Indians. She don't seem dead sure. But they've been missing over a year. I'm just handing you this so you'll know the sort of thing I'm up against. And I've got to leave Nita, and my little baby girl, for two years—sure."
The kindly doctor nodded. He removed his pipe, and cleared his throat. His eyes were alight with a ready smile that was full of sympathy.
"Say, you haven't got to worry a thing for them that way," he said. "It's tough leaving them. Mighty tough. I get all that. And it sort of makes me wonder. But—Say, it's queer," he went on. "I was coming right along over to help fix things for you. And I was scared to death wondering how to do it without butting in. You were coming along over to me to set the same sort of proposition, and were scared to death I'd feel like turning you down. One of these days some bright darn fool'll fix up mental telepathy to suit all pocket-books. It'll save us all a deal of worry when that comes along. Now if that mental telepathy were working right now it would be handing the things passing in your head something like this: 'Why in hell can't that damned dope merchant, and that dandy woman who don't know better than to waste her time being his wife, come right along and fix something so Nita and the kiddie ain't left lonesome and unprotected while I'm away.' That's the kind of message I'd be getting from you. And you'd be getting one from me something in this way: 'If I don't screw up the two measly cents' worth of courage I've got, and go right across to Steve, and put the proposition Millie and I are crazy to make, why—why, Millie'll beat my brains out with a flat iron, and generally make things eternally unpleasant.' Having got these messages satisfactorily you and I would have set out—on the same path, mind. We'd have met right here: I should have said, 'Steve, my boy, your little gal Nita and that bright little bit of a bottle worrier you call your baby are coming right over to make their homes with Millie, and the gals, and me, till you get back. We're going to do just the best we know for them—same as we would for our own. It's going to be a real comfort for us to have them, and something more than a pleasure, and if you don't let 'em come—well, we'll be most damnably disappointed!' And you, being a straight, sound-thinking man in the main, but with a heap of notions that aren't always sound, but which you can't just help, would say: 'See, right here, Doc, I don't approve boosting my burdens on other folks' shoulders. That's not my way, but anyway I'll be mighty thankful not to disappoint you, and to go away feeling my bits of property aren't lying around at the mercy of a country, and a race of folk that'll always remain a blot on any Creator's escutcheon!' Having said all this we'd likely go on talking for awhile about the folks and things we know, such as the men of our acquaintance who reckon they're white, and the rotten acts they do because rye whisky and the climate of the Northland's killed the only shreds of conscience they ever had. And then—why, maybe then we just part, and go back to our work feeling what darn fine fellers we are, and how almighty glad we are we aren't as—the other folk."
The smile which the doctor's whimsical manner had provoked in Steve's eyes was good to see. An overwhelming gratitude urged him to verbal thanks, but somehow a great feeling deep down on his heart forbade such expression.
"You mean—all that, Doc?" he said almost incredulously at last.
The other raised his broad loose shoulders expressively.
"I wish it was more."
Steve breathed a deep sigh. He shook his head. Then, with an impulsive movement, he thrust out one powerful hand.
Just for one moment the two men gripped in silence.
"I'll fix it with Nita," Steve said, as their hands fell apart.
"Yep. And Millie and the gals will go along over. She can't refuse them."
Steve flashed a sharply enquiring look into the other's eyes.
"Why should she want to?" he demanded.
The doctor suddenly realized the doubt he had implied. His own train of thought had found unconscious expression.
"There isn't a reason in the world," he protested, "except—she's a woman."
But his reply, for all its promptness, entirely missed its purpose. It failed completely to banish the trouble which had displaced the smile in Steve's eyes.
When Steve spoke his voice was low, and he seemed to be speaking to himself rather than to his companion.
"That's so," he said at last. And Ian Ross knew there was more in Steve's mind than the fear of the common dangers to which his wife and child would be exposed in his absence. How much he did not know. Perhaps he had no desire to know. Anyway, being a man of some wisdom, being possessed of a home, and a wife, and family of his own, he applied himself assiduously to the pipe which never failed to soothe his feelings, however much they might be disturbed.
* * * * *
It was exactly a week from the time he had received his instructions that Steve's preparations were completed and the hour of his departure came round.
The afternoon was well advanced. Already the brilliant sun was drooping towards the misty range of lofty hills which cut the western skyline in the region of the Peace River country. Steve's horse was saddled and bridled, and tethered to the post outside the office door, where Corporal Munday was seated upon the sill awaiting the departure.
The "outfit" was already on the trail. That had left at sunrise. Its preparations had been simple, and even spare. But it was adequate. Steve and his Indians knew to the last fraction the requirements of a journey such as lay before them. Year in, year out, they were accustomed to preparations for the long trail. This was longer than usual. That was all.
The officer's plans were considered to the last detail. Nothing that could be foreseen was neglected. Every stage of the journey to the Unaga country was measured in his mind, both for time and distance. Only the elements were perforce omitted from his calculations. This was in the nature of things. The elemental side of his undertaking was incalculable.
His way lay due north for a while along the course of the great Caribou River. This would bring him to the half-breed settlement at the Landing on the great lakes. It would also take him through the country of the Hiada Indians. Arrived at Ruge's trading post at the Landing, his horses and police, half-spring wagons would be left to the trader's care, for beyond this point their services would be dispensed with.
The second stage of the journey would be by water and portage. In this neighbourhood, where the wilderness of sparsely travelled country opened out, he would make for the headwaters of the beautiful Theton River. The river of a hundred lakes draining a wide tract of wooded country. It was a trail which was not unfamiliar; for his work not infrequently carried him into the territory of peaceful Caribou-Eater Indians, who so often became the victims of the warlike, hot-headed Yellow-Knives.
The river journey he calculated should bring him to Fort Duggan at the height of summer, and it was without any feeling of enthusiasm that he contemplated that fly-and-mosquito-ridden country at such a time of year. But it was necessary, and so he was left without alternative. Fort Duggan was the deserted ruin of an old-time trading post, it was the home of the Shaunekuk Indians who were half Eskimo. It was also the gate of the mystery land of Unaga.
Unaga! The riddle of the wide northern-world. The land from which weird, incredible stories percolated through to the outside. They were stories of wealth. They were stories of savage romance. They were stories of the weird, terrible, and even monstrous. It was a land so unexplored as to be reputed something little better than a sealed book even to the intrepid Arctic explorer, who, at so great an expenditure of physical effort and courage, rarely accomplishes more than the blazing of a trail which seals up again behind him, and adds his toll to the graveyard which claims so many of the world's dauntless souls.
Unaga! The land unknown to the white man. And yet—news had come of the murder of two white men within its secret heart. Therefore the machinery of white man's law was set in motion, and the long, lean arm was reaching out.
Not less than a thousand miles of weary toil and infinite peril lay before Steve and his two Indian helpers. And a second thousand miles before the little home at Deadwater could hope to see him again. It was an overwhelming thought. Small blame to the heart that quailed before such an undertaking.
Steve had no thought for the immensity of the labour confronting him. He had no thought for anything but the purpose of his life. He knew that successful completion of the work before him would set the seal to his ambitions. He would then be able to lay at the feet of the girl who was the mother of his child the promotion to Superintendentship which should take her away from the dreary life of hardship which he knew to be so rapidly undermining that moral strength which was not abundantly hers.
These were the moments of the man's farewell to all that made up the spiritual side of his earthly life. It might be a final farewell. He could not tell. He knew the perils that lay ahead of him. But a great, passionate optimism burned deep down in his heart and refused him thought of disaster.
He was in the partially dismantled parlour with Nita and his baby girl. The last detail for the future of these two had been considered and prepared. At the moment of his going, Nita, too, would bid farewell to the post. And the precious home, the work of months of happy labour, would be passed on to the service of Steve's successor.
It was a moment that would surely live in the hearts of both. It was a moment when tearful eyes would leave to memory a picture perhaps to lighten the dreary months to come, a sign, a beacon, a consolation and support, a living hope for the painful months of separation when no word or sign could pass between them. They were moments sacred to husband and wife, upon which no earthly eyes have right to gaze.
The door opened and Steve passed out into the smiling sunshine. His steady eyes were dull and lustreless. His firm lips were a shade more tightly compressed. For the rest his limbs moved vigorously, his step lacked nothing of its wonted Spring.
As he left the doorway his place was taken by Nita, who bore the waking infant Coqueline in her arms. Both were dressed ready to pass on to their new home.
Steve was clad for the summer trail, and his leather chapps creaked, and his spurs clanked as he passed round to the tying post at which his horse was tethered. Force of habit made him test the cinchas of his saddle before mounting.
He spoke over his shoulder to the man who had risen to his feet at his coming.
"Guess you got everything right, Corporal?" he said.
"Good. My diary's right up to date," Steve went on. "Things are quiet just now. They'll get busy later."
He swung into the saddle and held out a hand.
"So long," he said, as the Corporal promptly gripped it.
"So long, sir. And—good luck."
The horse moved away and Steve passed round to Nita. He drew rein opposite the door but did not dismount.
"Let's—get another peck at her, Nita," he said, and it almost seemed as if the words were jerked from under the restraint he was putting on himself.
The girl had no words with which to answer him. Her eyes were wide and dry. But from her pallor it was obvious deep emotion was stirring. She came to his side, and held the baby up to him, a movement that had something of the tragic in it.
The father swept his hat from his head and bent down in the saddle, and gazed yearningly into the sleeping child's cherubic face. Then he reached lower and kissed the pretty forehead tenderly.
"She'll be getting big when I see her again," he said, in a voice that was not quite steady.
Then a passionate light flooded his eyes as he looked into the face of his girl wife.
"For God's sake care for her, Nita," he cried. "She's ours—and she's all we've got. Here, kiss me, dear. I can't stop another moment, or—or I'll make a fool of myself."
The girl turned her face up and the man's passionate kisses were given across the small atom which was the pledge of their early love. Then Steve straightened up in the saddle and replaced his hat. A moment later he had vanished within the woods through which he must pass on his way to Ian Ross and his wife, to whom he desired to convey his final word of thanks.
Nita stood silent, dry-eyed gazing after him. He was gone, and she knew she would not see him again for two years.
* * * * *
The woodland shadows were lengthening. The delicate green of the trees had lost something of its brightness. Already the distance was taking on that softened hue which denotes the dying efforts of daylight.
Nita was passing rapidly over the footpath which would take her to her new home. She was alone with her child in her arms, and carrying a small bundle. Her violet eyes were widely serious, the pallor of her pretty cheeks was unchanged. But whatever the emotions that inspired these things she lacked all those outward signs of feeling which few women, under similar circumstances, could have resisted. There were no tears. Yet her brows were puckered threateningly. She was absorbed, deeply absorbed, but it was hardly with the absorption of blind grief.
She paused abruptly. The startled look in her eyes displayed real apprehension. The sound of someone or something moving in the low-growing scrub beside her had stirred her to a physical fear of woodland solitudes she had never been able to conquer.
She stood glancing in apprehension this way and that. She was utterly powerless. Flight never entered her head. Panic completely prevailed.
A moment later a man thrust his way into the clearing of the path.
His name broke from Nita in a world of relief. Then reaction set in.
"You—you scared me to death. Why didn't you speak, or—or something?"
Hervey Garstaing stood smilingly before her. His dark eyes hungrily devouring her flushed face and half-angry eyes.
"You wouldn't have me hollering your dandy name, with him only just clear of Ross's house? I'm not chasing trouble."
"Has Steve only just gone?"
"Sure. I waited for that before I came along."
The man moistened his lips. It was a curiously unpleasant operation. Then he came a step nearer.
"Well, Nita," he said, with a world of meaning in eyes and tone. "We're rid of him for two years—anyway."
The girl started. The flush in her cheeks deepened, and the angry light again leapt into her eyes.
"What d'you mean?" she cried.
The man laughed.
"Mean? Do you need to ask? Ain't you glad?"
"Glad? I—" Suddenly pallor had replaced the flush in the girl's cheeks, and a curious light shone in eyes which a moment before had been alight with swift resentment. "—I—don't know."
The man nodded confidently, and drew still closer.
"That's all right," he said. "I do."
It was the last of the night watch. The depths of the primeval forest were alive with sound, those sounds which are calculated to set the human pulse athrob. Steve Allenwood crouched over the fire. He was still, silent, and he squatted with his hands locked about his knees.
The fitful firelight only served to emphasize the intensity of surrounding darkness. It yielded little more than a point of attraction for the prowling, unseen creatures haunting the wild. The snow outside was falling silently, heavily, for it was late in the year, and October was near its close! Here there was shelter under the wide canopy which the centuries had grown.
As yet the falling temperature was still above zero. Later it would be different. The cap on the man's head was pressed low over his ears, and his summer buckskin shirt had been replaced by the furs which would stand between him and the fierce breath of winter during the long months to come. His eyes were wide. Every sense was alert. For all he was gazing into the fire, he was listening, always listening to those sounds which he dared not ignore for one single moment.
The sounds were many. And each had a meaning which he read with a sureness that was almost instinctive. The deep unease of the myriads of bare tree-trunks about him, supporting their snow-laden canopy, told him of the burden which the pitiless northern heavens were thrusting upon them. It also told him of the strength of the breeze which was driving the banking snow outside. The not infrequent booming crash of a falling tree spoke of a burden already too great to bear. So with the splitting of an age-rotted limb torn from the parent trunk.
Of deeper significance, and more deadly, is the sound which never dies out completely. It is a sound as of falling leaves, pattering softly upon the underlay of rotting cones and dead pine needles. Its insistence is peculiar. There are moments when it is distant. And moments, again, when it is near, desperately near.
It is at times such as the latter that the man at the fire unlocks his hands. With a swift movement, he reaches down to the fire and seizes a blazing brand. For a moment a trail of fire arcs against the black depths of the forest and falls to the ground. Then, with a hasty scuttling, the sounds die away in the distance, and a fierce snarling challenge is flung from the safer depths.
The challenge is without effect. The man rises swiftly to his feet, and, a moment later, the smouldering firebrand is gathered up, and all signs of fire where it has fallen are stamped out. Again he returns to the comforting warmth to continue his watch, whilst his companions sleep on securely in their arctic, fur-lined bags.
But the threat is real and deadly. Woe betide the foolish human soul who ignores it, or fails to read it aright. The eyes of the forest are wide awake. They are everywhere watching. They are there, in pairs, merciless, savage eyes, only awaiting opportunity. It is the primeval forest world where man is no more than those other creatures who seek to support the life that is thrust upon them.
These things were only a few of the voiceless hauntings which never ceased. Steve and his companions knew them all by heart. Every sound, every cadence told its tale. Every danger, with which they were surrounded, was calculated to a fraction and left them undisturbed.
Slowly the power of the firelight lessened. For all the stirring and replenishing, the flickering blaze yielded before the steadily growing twilight, and presently it sulkily abandoned the unequal contest. The dawn had come.
It was sufficient. Steve rose from his seat and stretched himself. Then, moving over to the wood pile he replenished the fire and set the camp kettle to boil. After that he passed on to the two figures still sleeping under their furs.
Oolak was the first to reach full wakefulness, and he promptly crawled from his sleeping-bag. Steve's instructions were brief and to the point.
"Fix the dogs," he ordered. And Oolak grunted his simple acquiescence.
As Julyman broke from his spell of dreaming Steve indicated the camp kettle.
"I've set it to boil. I'll take a look outside," he said.
He passed on without waiting for reply and his way followed the track which the sled had left in the rotting underlay, where over night it had been laboriously hauled into the shelter of the woods.
His movements were vigorous. The bulk of his outer clothing robbed him of much of such height as he possessed, but it added to the natural appearance of muscular sturdiness which was always his. His mission was important, for on his accurate reading of the elemental conditions depended immediate movements, and safety or disaster for his expedition.
As he neared the break in the forest, through which their course lay, the twilight gave before the light of day, and through the aisles of bare tree-trunks ahead he beheld the white carpet which night had laid. Nearly a foot of snow had fallen, and everywhere under its burden the foliage drooped dismally in the perfect morning light.
These things, however, were without serious concern. Steve knew that for the next seven months the earth would lie deep buried under its winter pall. That was the condition under which most of his work was carried on. It was the sunrise, and the wind, which must tell him the things he desired to know.
Passing beyond the shadowed aisles he moved out over the soft snow, where the crisp breeze swept down through the break. He was a few hundred yards from the summit of the high ridge over which, for miles, to the north and south, the primeval forest spread its mantle. It was a barrier set up and shutting off the view of the final stage of his journey; that final stage towards which he had laboured for so many weeks. He had reached so nearly the heart of Unaga, and beyond, somewhere towards the shores of Hudson's Bay lay that winter goal where he hoped to find the friendly shelter of the home of the seal-hunting Eskimo who peopled the regions.
He ploughed his way through the snow towards the summit of the ridge.
* * * * *
For all his outward calm Steve Allenwood was deeply stirred. For all he knew the wide Northland, with its mystery, its harshnesses, the sight that met his gaze from the summit of the ridge was one that left him wondering, and amazed, and not a little overwhelmed.
The immensity of it all! The harsh, unyielding magnificence! The bitter breath from the north-east stung his cheeks with its fierce caresses. He felt like a man who has stolen into the studio of a great artist and finds himself confronted with a canvas upon which is roughly outlined the masterly impression of a creation yet to be completed. It seemed to him as if he were gazing upon the bold, rough draft of the Almighty Creator's uncompleted work.
The blazing arc of the rising sun was lifting over the tattered skyline, and its light burnished the snow-crowned glacial beds to an almost blinding whiteness. As yet it only caught the hill tops within its range. The hollows, the shadowed woodlands, remained lost beneath the early morning mists. It gave the impression of gazing down upon one vast steaming lake, out of which was slowly emerging ridges of white-crested land chequered with masses of primeval forest.
In all directions it was the same; a hidden world having laboriously to free itself from the bondage of the mists.
The churning mists rolled on. They cleared for a moment at a point to let the sunlight shafts illuminate some sweep of glacial ice. Then they closed down again, swiftly, as though to hide once more those secrets inadvertently revealed. The sun rose higher. The movement of the mists became more rapid. They thinned. They deepened once more. And with every change the sense of urgent movement grew. It was like the panic movement of a beaten force. The all-powerful light of day was absorbing, draining the moisture-laden shadows, and reducing them to gossamer.
It was with the final passing of the mists that a sharp ejaculation broke from the watching man. It verily seemed to have been wrung from him. His gaze was fixed at a point of the broken skyline. A great cloud lay banked above the rising crest of the snowy barrier. It was stirring. It was lifting. Slowly. Reluctantly.
The moments passed. It was like the rising of the curtain upon a wonderful stage picture. Unlike the mists the cloud did not disperse. It lifted up, up before the man's amazed eyes, and settled a dense dark mass to crown that which it had revealed.
The startled monosyllable was thrilling with every emotion of wonder.
A spire towered over the serrated skyline. Its height was utterly beyond Steve's calculation. Its final peak was lost amidst the heavy cloud. Sheer up it rose. Sheer above its monstrous surroundings. It rose like the spire of some cathedral of Nature's moulding, and dwarfed the world about it. It was dark, dark, in contrast to the crystal splendour outspread, and frowned with the unyielding hue of the barren rock.
It was the first intimation of Julyman's presence. Steve accepted it without question. He was wholly absorbed in what he beheld. The Indian was at his side pointing at the monstrous tower.
"Him Unaga—Unaga Spire. Julyman know. Him Father wise man. Him tell of Unaga Spire. Him hot. Him hot lak hell. Him all burn up snow—ice. Him burn up all thing. Come. It not good. Him Unaga Spire!"
* * * * *
A wide declining expanse stretched out before them as Steve and Julyman swung along over the snow. They were following the track of a dog train, leaving behind them the added tracks of their own snow-shoes to mark the way. Ahead of them lay another short rise whose crest was dotted with timber bluffs. It was beyond this they hoped to discover the winter shelter they were seeking. Somewhere behind them the indomitable Oolak, silent, enduring, was shepherding their own dog train over their tracks.
The end of the month had come and their fortunes were at a crisis. A thousand miles of territory had been covered since the early summer day when Steve had bade farewell to his wife and child.
The effort had been tremendous. Far more tremendous than these men knew. And the story of the journey, the endurance, the hardship of it, would have made an epic of man's silent heroism. With Steve each hardship, each difficulty encountered had been a matter of course. Accident was a thing simply to be avoided, and when avoidance was impossible then to be accepted without complaint. And these things had been so many.
Now the wide Northland had been traversed from west to east and they had crossed the fierce bosom of Unaga's plateau. The reality of it was no better and only little worse than had been anticipated. It had been a journey of hills, everlasting hills, and interminable primordial forests, with dreary breaks of open plains. Each season had brought its own troubles, with always lying ahead the deadly anticipation of the winter yet to come.
It was the thought of this, and the indications everywhere about them, that had spurred Steve to hunt down the sled track upon which they had miraculously fallen.
They moved on in silence for a long time. Such was the way of these men. The great silences had eaten into their bones. The life and labours of the trail would have been intolerable amidst the chatter of useless talk.
The rolling swing of their gait carried them swiftly to their vantage ground, and hope stirred Steve to give expression to his thoughts.
"It would be queer to find those fancy 'Sleeper Indians' of yours," he said.
Julyman cast a glance over his left shoulder in the direction of the steely north. Somewhere back there far beyond his view stood the great Spire of Unaga, and the black cloud hovering about its crest. It had been left far, far behind them, but it still remained a memory.
"No Sleeper Indian man," he said decidedly. Then he added with a final shake of his head: "Oh no."
Steve laughed. It was not often these men laughed on the trail. Just now, however, the excitement of hope had robbed the white man of something of his habit.
"Guess your yarn didn't just locate them. Where d'you reckon they are?"
Julyman slackened his gait as they breasted the final rise where the sled track vanished over the brow of the hill. His dark, questioning eyes were turned enquiringly upon his boss, and he searched the smiling face that looked back at him out of its framing of heavy fur. He feared to be laughed at. He pointed at the northern horizon.
"Him—Unaga," was all he said.
Steve followed the direction of the mitted hand pointing northward, and the smile died out of his eyes. That strange Spire filled his memory still in spite of himself. Something of the Indian's awe communicated itself to him.
But he thrust it from him and gazed out ahead again, searching the tracks they were following.
"We'll find something, anyway," he said presently. "This track's not half a day old. There's folks beyond the rise. Say, maybe we can winter hereabouts, and work along the coast. The coast line's warmer. It never hits zero on the coast till you make inside the Arctic Circle. We'll get back to home next winter. It'll be good getting back to your squaws on Caribou, eh?"