THE HONOR OF THE BIG SNOWS
By JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
Author of "The Danger Trail," "The Courage of Captain Plum," etc.
"Listen, John—I hear music—"
The words came in a gentle whisper from the woman's lips. One white, thin hand lifted itself weakly to the rough face of the man who was kneeling beside her bed, and the great dark eyes from which he had hidden his own grew luminously bright for a moment, as she whispered again:
A sigh fluttered from her lips. The man's head drooped until it rested very near to her bosom. He felt the quiver of her hand against his cheek, and in its touch there was something which told John Cummins that the end of all life had come for him and for her. His heart beat fiercely, and his great shoulders shook with the agony that was eating at his soul.
"Yes, it is the pretty music, my Melisse," he murmured softly, choking back his sobs. "It is the pretty music in the skies."
The hand pressed more tightly against his face.
"It's not the music in the skies, John. It is real—REAL music that I hear—"
"It's the sky music, my sweet Melisse! Shall I open the door so that we can hear it better?"
The hand slipped from his cheek. Cummins lifted his head, slowly straightening his great shoulders as he looked down upon the white face, from which even the flush of fever was disappearing, as he had seen the pale glow of the northern sun fade before a thickening snow. He stretched his long, gaunt arms straight up to the low roof of the cabin, and for the first time in his life he prayed—prayed to the God who had made for him this world of snow and ice and endless forest very near to the dome of the earth, who had given him this woman, and who was now taking her from him.
When he looked again at the woman, her eyes were open, and there glowed in them still the feeble fire of a great love. Her lips, too, pleaded with him in their old, sweet way, which always meant that he was to kiss them, and stroke her hair, and tell her again that she was the most beautiful thing in the whole world.
He crushed his face to her, his sobbing breath smothering itself in the soft masses of her hair, while her arms rose weakly and fell around his neck. He heard the quick, gasping struggle for breath within her bosom, and, faintly again, the words:
"It is the music of the angels in the skies, my sweet Melisse! It is OUR music. I will open the door."
The arms had slipped from his shoulders. Gently he ran his rough fingers through the loose glory of the woman's hair, and stroked her face as softly as he might have caressed the cheek of a sleeping child.
"I will open the door, Melisse."
His moccasined feet made no sound as he moved across the little room which was their home. At the door he paused and listened; then he opened it, and the floods of the white night poured in upon him as he stood with his eyes turned to where the cold, pale flashes of the aurora were playing over the pole. There came to him the hissing, saddening song of the northern lights—a song of vast, unending loneliness, which they two had come to know as the music of the skies.
Beyond that mystery-music there was no sound. To the eyes of John Cummins there was no visible movement of life. And yet he saw signs of it—signs which drew his breath from him in choking gulps, and which sent him out into the night, so that the woman might not hear.
It was an hour past midnight at the post, which had the Barren Lands at its back door. It was the hour of deep slumber for its people; but to-night there was no sleep for any of them. Lights burned dimly in the few rough log homes. The company's store was aglow, and the factor's office, a haven for the men of the wilderness, shot one gleaming yellow eye out into the white gloom. The post was awake. It was waiting. It was listening. It was watching.
As the woman's door opened, wide and brimful of light, a door of one of the log houses opened, and then another, and out into the night, like dim shadows, trod the moccasined men from the factor's office, and stood there waiting for the word of life or death from John Cummins. In their own fashion these men, who, without knowing it, lived very near to the ways of God, sent mute prayers into the starry heavens that the most beautiful thing in the world might yet be spared to them.
It was just two summers before that this beautiful thing had come into Cummins' life, and into the life of the post. Cummins, red-headed, lithe as a cat, big-souled as the eternal mountain of the Crees, and the best of the company's hunters, had brought Melisse thither as his bride. Seventeen rough hearts had welcomed her. They had assembled about that little cabin in which the light was shining now, speechless in their adoration of this woman who had come among them, their caps in their hands, their faces shining, their eyes shifting before the glorious ones that looked at them and smiled at them as the woman shook their hands, one by one.
Perhaps she was not strictly beautiful, as most people judge; but she was beautiful here, four hundred miles beyond civilization. Mukee, the half-Cree, had never seen a white woman, for even the factor's wife was part Chippewayan; and no one of the others went down to the edge of the southern wilderness more than once each twelvemonth or so.
Melisse's hair was brown and soft, and it shone with a sunny glory that reached far back into their conception of things dreamed of but never seen. Her eyes were as blue as the early wild flowers that came after the spring floods, and her voice was the sweetest sound that had ever fallen upon their ears. So these men thought when Cummins first brought home his wife, and the masterpiece which each had painted in his soul and brain was never changed. Each week and month added to the deep-toned value of that picture, as the passing of a century might add to a Raphael or a Vandyke.
The woman became more human, and less an angel, of course, but that only made her more real, and allowed them to become acquainted with her, to talk with her, and to love her more. There was no thought of wrong, for the devotion of these men was a great, passionless love unhinting of sin. Cummins and his wife accepted it, and added to it when they could, and were the happiest pair in all that vast Northland.
The girl—she was scarce more than budding into womanhood—fell happily into the ways of her new life. She did nothing that was elementally unusual, nothing more than any pure woman reared in the love of God and of a home would have done. In her spare hours she began to teach the half-dozen wild little children about the post, and every Sunday she told them wonderful stories out of the Bible. She ministered to the sick, for that was a part of her code of life. Everywhere she carried her glad smile, her cheery greeting, her wistful earnestness, to brighten what seemed to her the sad and lonely lives of these silent men of the North.
And she succeeded, not because she was unlike other millions of her kind, but because of the difference between the fortieth degree and the sixtieth—the difference in the viewpoint of men who fought themselves into moral shreds in the big game of life and those who lived a thousand miles nearer to the dome of the earth.
A few days before there had come a wonderful event in the history of the company's post. A new life was born into the little cabin of Cummins and his wife. After this the silent, wordless worship of their people was filled with something very near to pathos. Cummins' wife was a mother! She was one of them now, an indissoluble part of their existence—a part of it as truly as the strange lights for ever hovering over the pole, as surely as the countless stars that never left the night skies, as surely as the endless forests and the deep snows!
Then had come the sudden change, and the gloom, that brought with it the shadow of death, fell like a pall upon the post, stifling its life, and bringing with it a grief that those who lived there had never known before.
There came to them no word from Cummins now.
He stood for a moment before his lighted door, and then went back, and the word passed softly from one to another that the most beautiful thing in the world was still living her sweet life in that little cabin at the end of the clearing.
"You hear the music in the skies—now, my Melisse?" whispered the man, kneeling beside her again. "It is very pretty to-night!"
"It was not that," repeated the woman.
She attempted to stroke his face, but Cummins saw nothing of the effort, for the hand lay all but motionless. He saw nothing of the fading softness that glowed in the big, loving eyes, for his own eyes were blinded by a hot film. And the woman saw nothing of the hot film, so torture was saved them both. But suddenly the woman quivered, and Cummins heard a thrilling sound.
"It is the music!" she panted. "John, John, it is—the music—of—my— people!"
The man straightened himself, his face turned to the open door. He heard it now! Was it the blessed angels coming for his Melisse? He rose, a sobbing note in his throat, and went, his arms stretched out, to meet them. He had never heard a sound like that—never in all his life in this endless wilderness.
He went from the door out into the night, and, step by step, through the snow toward the black edge of the spruce forest. The sobs fell chokingly from his lips, and his arms were still reaching out to greet this messenger of the God of his beloved; for Cummins was a man of the wild and mannerless ways of a savage world, and he knew not what to make of this sweetness that came to them from out of the depths of the black forest.
"My Melisse! My Melisse!" he sobbed.
A figure came from the shadows, and with the figure came the music, sweet and soft and low. John Cummins stopped and turned his face straight up to the sky. His heart died within him.
The music ceased, and when he looked again the figure was close to him, staggering as it walked, and a face white and thin and starved came with it. It was a boy's face.
"For the museek of the violon—somet'ing to eat!" he heard, and the thin figure swayed and fell almost into his arms. The voice came weak again. "Thees is Jan—Jan Thoreau—and his violon—"
The woman's bloodless face and her great staring dark eyes greeted them as they entered the cabin. As the man knelt beside her again, and lifted her head against his breast, she whispered once more:
"It is the—music—of my people—the violin!"
John Cummins turned his head.
"Play!" he breathed.
"Ah, the white angel is seek—ver' seek," murmured Jan, and he drew his bow gently across the strings of his violin.
From the instrument there came something so soft and sweet that John Cummins closed his eyes as he held the woman against his breast and listened. Not until he opened them again, and felt a strange chill against his cheek, did he know that his beloved's soul had gone from him on the gentle music of Jan Thoreau's violin.
For many minutes after the last gentle breath had passed from the woman's lips, Jan Thoreau played softly upon his violin. It was the great, heart-broken sob of John Cummins that stopped him. As tenderly as if she had fallen into a sweet sleep from which he feared to awaken her, the man unclasped his arms and lowered his wife's head to the pillow; and with staring black eyes Jan crushed his violin against his ragged breast and watched him as he smoothed back the shimmering hair and looked long and hungrily into the still, white face.
Cummins turned to him, and, in the dim light of the cabin, their eyes met. It was then that Jan Thoreau knew what had happened. He forgot his starvation. He crushed his violin closer, and whispered to himself:
"The white angel ees—gone!"
Cummins rose from the bedside, slowly, like a man who had suddenly grown old. His moccasined feet dragged as he went to the door. They stumbled when he went out into the pale star-glow of the night.
Jan followed, swaying weakly, for the last of his strength had gone in the playing of the violin. Midway in the cabin he paused, and his eyes glowed with a wild, strange grief as he gazed down upon the still face of Cummins' wife, beautiful in death as it had been in life, and with the sweet softness of life still lingering there. Some time, ages and ages ago, he had known such a face, and had felt the great clutching love of it.
Something drew him to where John Cummins had knelt, and he fell upon his knees and gazed hungrily and longingly where John Cummins had gazed. His pulse was beating feebly, the weakness of seven days' starvation blurred his eyes, and unconsciously he sank over the bed and one of his thin hands touched the soft sweep of the woman's hair. A stifled cry fell from him as he jerked himself rigidly erect; and as if for the desecration of that touch there was but one way of forgiveness, he drew his violin half to his shoulder, and for a few moments played so softly that none but the spirit of the woman and himself could hear.
Cummins had partly closed the door after him; but watchers had seen the opening of it. A door opened here, and another there, and paths of yellow light flashed over the hard-trodden snow as shadowy life came forth to greet what message he brought from the little cabin.
Beyond those flashes of light there was no other movement, and no sound. Dark figures stood motionless. The lonely howl of a sledge-dog ended in a wail of pain as some one kicked it into terrified silence. The hollow cough of Mukee's father was smothered in the thick fur of his cap as he thrust his head from his little shack in the edge of the forest. A score of eyes watched Cummins as he came out into the snow, and the rough, loyal hearts of those who looked throbbed in fearful anticipation of the word he might be bringing to them.
Sometimes a nation ceases to breathe in the last moments of its dying chief, and the black wings of calamity gather over its people, enshrouding them in a strange gloom and a stranger fear; and so, because the greatest of all tragedies had come into their little world, Cummins' people were speechless in their grief and their waiting for the final word. And when the word came to them at last, and passed from lip to lip, and from one grim, tense face to another, the doors closed again, and the lights went out one by one, until there remained only the yellow eye of the factor's office and the faint glow from the little cabin in which John Cummins knelt with his sobbing face crushed close to that of his dead.
There was no one who noticed Jan Thoreau when he came through the door of the factor's office. His coat of caribou-skin was in tatters. His feet thrust themselves from the toes of his moccasins. His face was so thin and white that it shone with the pallor of death from its frame of straight dark hair. His eyes gleamed like black diamonds. The madness of hunger was in him.
An hour before, death had been gripping at his throat, when he stumbled upon the lights of the post, That night he would have died in the deep snows. Wrapped in its thick coat of bearskin he clutched his violin to his breast, and sank down in a ragged heap beside the hot stove. His eyes traveled about him in fierce demand. There is no beggary among these strong-souled men of the far North, and Jan's lips did not beg. He unwrapped the bearskin, and whispered:
"For the museek of the violon—somet'ing to eat!"
He played, even as the words fell from him, but only for a moment—for the bow slipped from his nerveless grip and his head sank forward upon his breast.
In the half-Cree's eyes there was something of the wild beauty that gleamed in Jan's. For an instant those eyes had met in the savage recognition of blood; and when Jan's head fell weakly, and his violin slipped to the floor, Mukee lifted him in his strong arms and carried him to the shack in the edge of the spruce and balsam.
And there was no one who noticed Jan the next day—except Mukee. He was fed. His frozen blood grew warm. As life returned, he felt more and more the pall of gloom that had settled over this spark of life in the heart of the wilderness. He had seen the woman, in life and in death, and he, too, loved her and grieved that she was no more. He said nothing; he asked nothing; but he saw the spirit of adoration in the sad, tense faces of the men. He saw it in the terror-stricken eyes of the wild little children who had grown to worship Cummins' wife. He read it in the slinking stillness of the dogs, in the terrible, pulseless quiet that had settled about him.
It was not hard for Jan to understand, for he, too, worshiped the memory of a white, sweet face like the one that he had seen in the cabin. He knew that this worship at Lac Bain was a pure worship, for the honor of the big snows was a part of his soul. It was his religion, and the religion of these others who lived four hundred miles or more from a southern settlement.
It meant what civilization could not understand—freezing and slow starvation rather than theft, and respect for the tenth commandment above all other things. It meant that up here, under the cold chill of the northern skies, things were as God meant them to be, and that a few of His creatures could live in a love that was neither possession nor sin.
A year after Cummins brought his wife into the North, a man came to the post from Fort Churchill, on Hudson's Bay. He was an Englishman, belonging to the home office of the Hudson's Bay Company in London. He brought with him something new, as the woman had brought something new; only in this instance it was an element of life which Cummins' people could not understand.
It breathed of tragedy from the first, to the men of the post. To the Englishman, on the other hand, it promised to be but an incident—a passing adventure in pleasure. Here again was that difference of viewpoint—the eternity of difference between the middle and the end of the earth.
Cummins was away for a month on a trap-line that went into the Barren Lands. At these times the woman fell as a heritage to those who remained, and they watched over her as a parent might guard its child. Yet the keenest eyes would not have perceived that this was so.
With Cummins gone, the tragedy progressed swiftly toward finality. The Englishman came from among women. For months he had been in a torment of desolation. Cummins' wife was to him like a flower suddenly come to relieve the tantalizing barrenness of a desert; and with the wiles and ways of civilization he sought to breathe its fragrance.
In the days and weeks that followed, he talked a great deal, when heated by the warmth of the box stove and by his own thoughts; and this was because he had not yet measured the hearts of Cummins' people. And because the woman knew nothing of what was said about the box stove, she continued in the even course of her pure life, neither resisting nor encouraging the new-comer, yet ever tempting him with that sweetness which she gave to all alike.
As yet there was no suspicion in her soul. She accepted the Englishman's friendship, for he was a stranger among her people. She did not hear the false note, she saw no step that promised evil. Only the men at the post heard, and saw, and understood.
Like so many faithful beasts, they were ready to spring, to rend flesh, to tear life out of him who threatened the desecration of all that was good and pure and beautiful to them; and yet, dumb in their devotion and faith, they waited and watched for a sign from the woman. The blue eyes of Cummins' wife, the words of her gentle lips, the touch of her hands, had made law at the post. If she smiled upon the stranger and talked with him, and was pleased with him, that was only one other law that she had made for them to respect. So they were quiet, evaded the Englishman as much as possible, and watched—always watched.
One day something happened. Cummins' wife came into the company's store; and a quick flush shot into her cheeks, and the glitter of blue diamonds into her eyes, when she saw the stranger standing there. The man's red face grew redder, and he shifted his gaze. When Cummins' wife passed him, she drew her skirt close to her; and there was the poise of a queen in her head, the glory of wife and womanhood, the living, breathing essence of all that was beautiful in her people's honor of the big snows.
That night Mukee, the half-Cree, slunk around in the edge of the forest to see that all was well in Cummins' little home. Once Mukee had suffered a lynx-bite that went clear to the bone, and the woman had saved his hand. After that, the savage in him was enslaved to her like an invisible spirit.
He crouched for a few minutes in the snow, looking at the pale filter of light that came through a hole in the curtain of the woman's window; and as he looked something came between him and the light. Against the cabin he saw the shadow of a sneaking human form; and as silently as the steely flash of the aurora over his head, as swiftly as a lean deer, he sped through the gloom of the forest's edge and came up behind the woman's home.
With the caution of a lynx, his head close to the snow, he peered around the logs. It was the Englishman who stood looking through the tear in that curtained window.
Mukee's moccasined feet made no sound. His hand fell as gently as a child's upon the stranger's arm.
"Thees is not the honor of the beeg snows," he whispered. "Come!"
A sickly pallor filled the other man's face; but Mukee's voice was soft and dispassionate, his touch was velvety in its hint, and he went with the guiding hand away from the curtained window, smiling in a companionable way. Mukee's teeth gleamed back. The Englishman chuckled.
Then Mukee's hands changed. They flew to the thick, reddening throat of the man from civilization, and without a sound the two sank together upon the snow.
The next day a messenger behind six dogs set out for Fort Churchill, with word for the company's home office that the Englishman had died in the big snow—which was true.
Mukee told this to Jan, for there was the bond of blood between them. It was a painting of life, and love, and purity. Deep down in the loneliness of his heart, Jan Thoreau, in his own simple way, thanked the great God that it had been given to him to play his violin as the woman died.
The passing of Cummins' wife was as quiet as had been her coming. With bare heads, their shaggy hair falling wildly about their faces, their lips set tight to choke back their grief, the few at the post went, one by one, into the little cabin, and gazed for the last time upon her face. There was but one sound other than the gentle tread of their moccasined feet, and that was a catching, sobbing moan that fell from the thick gray beard of Williams, the old factor.
After that they carried her to where a clearing had been cut in the edge of the forest; and at the foot of a giant spruce, towering sentinel-like to the sky, they lowered her into the frozen earth. Gaspingly, Williams stumbled over the words on a ragged page that had been torn from a Bible. The rough men who stood about him bowed their wild heads upon their breasts, and sobs broke from them.
At last Williams stopped his reading, stretched his long arms above his head, and cried chokingly:
"The great God keep Mees Cummins!"
As the earth fell, there came from the edge of the forest the low, sweet music of Jan Thoreau's violin. No man in all the world could have told what he played, for it was the music of Jan's soul, wild and whispering of the winds, sweetened by some strange inheritance that had come to him with the picture which he carried in his throbbing heart.
He played until only the tall spruce and John Cummins stood over the lone grave. When he stopped, the man turned to him, and they went together to the little cabin where the woman had lived.
There was something new in the cabin now—a tiny, white, breathing thing over which an Indian woman watched. The boy stood beside John Cummins, looking down upon it, and trembling.
"Ah," he whispered, his great eyes glowing. "It ees the LEETLE white angel!"
"It is the little Melisse," replied the man.
He dropped upon his knees, with his sad face close to the new life that was to take the place of the one that had just gone out. Jan felt something tugging in a strange way at his heart, and he, too, fell upon his knees beside John Cummins in this first worship of the child.
From this hour of their first kneeling before the little life in the cabin, something sprang up between Jan Thoreau and John Cummins which it would have been hard for man to break. Looking up after many moments' contemplation of the little Melisse, Jan gazed straight into Cummins' face, and whispered softly the word which in Cree means "father." This was Jan's first word for Melisse.
When he looked back, the baby was wriggling and kicking as he had seen tiny wolf-whelps wriggle and kick before their eyes were open. His beautiful eyes laughed. As cautiously as if he were playing with hot iron, he reached out a thin hand, and when one of his fingers suddenly fell upon something very soft and warm, he jerked it back as quickly as if he had been burned.
That night, when Jan picked up his violin to go back to Mukee's cabin, Cummins put his two big hands on the boy's shoulders and said:
"Jan, who are you, and where did you come from?"
Jan stretched his arm vaguely to the north.
"Jan Thoreau," he replied simply. "Thees is my violon. We come alone through the beeg snow."
Cummins stared as if he saw a wonderful picture in the boy's eyes. He dropped his hands, and walked to the door. When they stood alone outside, he pointed up to the stars, and to the mist-like veil of silver light that the awakening aurora was spreading over the northern skies.
"Get your bearings, and tell me again where you came from, Jan!"
Unhesitatingly the boy pointed into the north.
"We starve seven day in the beeg snow. My violon keep the wolf off at night."
"Look again, Jan! Didn't you come from there, or there, or there?"
Cummins turned slowly, facing first to the east and Hudson's Bay, then to the south, and lastly to the west. There was something more than curiosity in the tense face that came back in staring inquiry to Jan Thoreau.
The boy hunched his shoulders, and his eyes flashed.
"It ees not lie that Jan Thoreau and hees violon come through the beeg snow," he replied softly. "It ees not lie!"
There was more than gentleness in John Cummins' touch now. Jan could not understand it, but he yielded to it, and went back into the cabin. There was more than friendship in Cummins' eyes when he placed his hands again upon the boy's shoulders, and Jan could not understand that.
"There is plenty of room here—now," said Cummins huskily. "Will you stay with the little Melisse and me?"
"With the leetle Melisse!" gasped the boy. Softly he sped to the tiny cot and knelt beside it, his thin shoulders hunched over, his long black hair shining lustrously in the lamp-glow, his breath coming in quick, sobbing happiness. "I—I—stay with the leetle white angel for ever and ever!" he whispered, his words meant only for the unhearing ears of the child. "Jan Thoreau will stay, yes—and hees violon! I give it to you—and ze museek!"
He laid his precious violin across the foot of the cot.
In the days that followed, there came other things which Jan could not understand, and which he made no great effort to understand. He talked little, even to Cummins. He listened, and his eyes would answer, or he would reply with strange, eery little hunches of his shoulders, which ruffled up his hair. To the few simple souls at the post, he brought with him more than his starved body from out of the unknown wilderness. This was the chief cause of those things which he could not understand.
No man learned more of him than had Cummins. Even to Mukee, his history was equally simple and short. Always he said that he came from out of the north—which meant the Barren Lands; and the Barren Lands meant death. No man had ever come across them as Jan had come; and at another time, and under other circumstances, Cummins and his people would have believed him mad.
But others had listened to that strange, sweet music that came to them from out of the forest on the night when the woman died, and they, like Cummins, had been stirred by thrilling thoughts. They knew little of God, as God is preached; but they knew a great deal about Him in other ways. They knew that Jan Thoreau had come like a messenger from the angels, that the woman's soul had gone out to meet him, and that she had died sweetly on John Cummins' breast while he played. So the boy, with his thin, sensitive face and his great, beautiful eyes, became a part of what the woman had left behind for them to love. As a part of her they accepted him, without further questioning as to who he was or whence he came.
In a way, he made up for her loss. The woman had brought something new and sweet into their barren lives, and he brought something new and sweet—the music of his violin. He played for them in the evening, in the factor's office; and at these times they knew that Cummins' wife was very near to them and that she was speaking to them through the things which Jan Thoreau played.
Music had long passed out of their lives. Into some, indeed, it had never come. Years ago, Williams had been at a post where there was an accordion. Cummins had heard music when he went down to civilization for his wife, more than two years ago. To the others it was mystery which stirred them to the depths of their souls, and which revealed to them many things that had long been hidden in the dust of the past.
These were hours of triumph for Jan in the factor's office. Perched on a box, with his back to the wall, his head thrown back, his black eyes shining, his long hair giving to his face a half savage beauty, he was more than king to the grim-visaged men about him. They listened, movelessly, soundlessly; and when he stopped there was still neither move nor sound until he had wrapped his violin in its bear-skin and had returned to John Cummins and the little Melisse. Jan understood the silence, and took it for what it meant.
But it was the audience in the little cabin that Jan liked best, and, most of all, he loved to have the little Melisse alone. As the days of early spring trapping approached, and the wilderness for a hundred miles around the post was crisscrossed with the trails of the Cree and Chippewayan fur-seekers, Cummins was absent for days at a time, strengthening the company's friendships, and bargaining for the catch that would be coming to market about eight weeks later.
This was a year of intense rivalry, for the Revillons, French competitors of the company, had established a post two hundred miles to the west, and rumor spread that they were to give sixty pounds of flour to the company's forty, and four feet of cloth to the yard. This meant action among Williams and his people, and the factor himself plunged into the wilderness. Mukee, the half-Cree, went among his scattered tribesmen along the edge of the barrens, stirring them by the eloquence of new promises and by fierce condemnation of the interlopers to the west. Old Per-ee, with a strain of Eskimo in him, went boldly behind his dogs to meet the little black people from farther north, who came down after foxes and half-starved polar bears that had been carried beyond their own world on the ice-floes of the preceding spring. Young Williams, the factor's son, followed after Cummins, and the rest of the company's men went into the south and east.
The exodus left desolate lifelessness at the post. The windows of the fireless cabins were thick with clinging frost. There was no movement in the factor's office. The dogs were gone, and wolves and lynx sniffed closer each night. In the oppression of this desertion, the few Indian and half-breed children kept indoors, and Williams' Chippewayan wife, fat and lazy, left the company's store securely locked.
In this silence and lifelessness Jan Thoreau felt a new and ever- increasing happiness. To him the sound of life was a thing vibrant with harshness; quiet—the dead, pulseless quiet of lifelessness—was beautiful. He dreamed in it, and it was then that his fingers discovered new things in his violin.
He often sent Maballa, the Indian woman who cared for Melisse, to gossip with Williams' wife, so that he was alone a great deal with the baby. At these times, when the door was safely barred against the outside world, it was a different Jan Thoreau who crouched upon his knees beside the cot. His face was aflame with a great, absorbing passion which at other times he concealed. His beautiful eyes glowed with hidden fires, and he whispered soothing, singsong things to the child, and played softly upon his violin, leaning his black head far down so that the baby Melisse could clutch her appreciative fingers in his hair.
"Ah, ze sweet leetle white angel!" he would cry, as she tugged and kicked. "I luf you so—I luf you, an' will stay always, ah' play ze violon! Ah, mon Dieu, you will be ze gr-r-r-eat bea-utiful white angel lak—HER!"
He would laugh and coo like a mother, and talk, for at these times Jan Thoreau's tongue was as voluble as his violin.
Sometimes Melisse listened as if she understood the wonderful things he was telling her. She would lie upon her back with her eyes fixed upon him, her little red fists doubled over his bow, or a thumb thrust into her mouth. And the longer she lay like this, gazing at him blankly, the more convinced Jan became that she was understanding him; and his voice grew soft and low, and his eyes shone with a soft mist as he told her those things which John Cummins would have given much to know.
"Some day you shall understand why it happened, sweet Melisse," he whispered, bringing his eyes so near that she reached up an inquiring finger to them. "Then you will luf Jan Thoreau!"
There were other times when Jan did not talk, but when the baby Melisse talked to him; and these were moments of even greater joy. With the baby wriggling and kicking, and making queer noises in her tiny cot, he would sit silently upon his heels, watching her with the pride and happiness of a mother lynx in the first tumbling frolics of her kittens.
Once, when Melisse straightened herself for an instant, and half reached up her tiny arms to him, laughing and cooing into his face, he gave a glad cry, crushed his face down to hers, and did what he had not dared to do before—kissed her. There was something about it that frightened the little Melisse, and she set up a wailing that sent Jan, in a panic of dismay, for Maballa. It was a long time before he ventured to kiss her again.
It was during this fortnight of desolation at the post that Jan discovered the big problem for himself and John Cummins. In the last days of the second week, he spent much of his time skirting the edge of the barrens in search of caribou, that there might be meat in plenty when the dogs and men returned a little later. One afternoon, he returned early, while the pale sun was still in the sky, laden with the meat of a musk-ox. As he came from the edge of the forest, his slender body doubled over under the weight of his pack, a terrifying sight greeted him in the little clearing at the post.
Upon her knees in front of their cabin was Maballa, industriously rolling the half-naked little Melisse about in a soft pile of snow, and doing her work, as she firmly believed, in a most faithful and thorough manner. With a shriek, Jan threw off his pack and darted toward her like a wild thing.
"Sacre bleu—you keel—keel ze leetle Melisse!" he cried shrilly, snatching up the half-frozen child, "Mon Dieu, she ees not papoose! She ees ceevilize—ceevilize!" and he ran swiftly with her into the cabin, flinging back a torrent of Cree anathema at the dumbly bewildered Maballa.
Jan left the rest of his musk-ox to the wolves and foxes. He went out into the snow, and found half a dozen other snow-wallows in which the helpless Melisse had taken her chilling baths. He watched Maballa with a new growing terror, and fifty times a day he said to her:
"Melisse ees not papoose! She ees ceevilize—lak HER!" And he would point to the lonely grave under the guardian spruce.
At last Maballa went into an ecstasy of understanding. Melisse was not to be taken out and rolled in the snow; so she brought in the snow and rolled it over Melisse!
When Jan discovered this, his tongue twisted itself into sounds so terrible, and his face writhed so fiercely, that Maballa began to comprehend that thereafter no snow at all, either out doors or in, was to be used in the physical development of the little Melisse.
This was the beginning of the problem, and it grew and burst forth in all its significance on the day before Cummins came in from the wilderness.
For a week Maballa had been dropping sly hints of a wonderful thing which she and the factor's half-breed wife were making for the baby. Jan had visions of a gorgeous garment covered with beads and gaudy braid, which would give the little Melisse unending delight. On the day before Cummins' arrival, Jan came in from chopping wood, and went to the cot. It was empty. Maballa was gone. A sudden fear thrilled him to the marrow, and he sprang back to the cabin door, ready to shriek out the Indian woman's name.
A sound stopped him—the softest, sweetest sound in all the world to Jan Thoreau—and he whirled around like a cat. Melisse was smiling and making queer, friendly little signals to him from the table. She was standing upright, wedged in a coffin-shaped thing from which only her tiny white face peered out at him; and Jan knew that this was Maballa's surprise, Melisse was in a papoose-sling!
"Melisse, I say you shall be no papoose!" he cried, running to the table. "You ees ceevilize! You shall be no papoose—not if twen' t'ous'nd devil come tak Jan Thoreau!"
And he snatched her from her prison, flung Maballa's handiwork out into the snow, and waited impatiently for the return of John Cummins.
Cummins returned the next day—not that his work among the wild trappers to the south was finished, but because he had suffered a hurt in falling from a slippery ledge. When Jan, from his wood-chopping in the edge of the forest, saw the team race up to the little cabin and a strange Cree half carry the wounded man through the door, he sped swiftly across the open with visions of new misfortune before him.
What he saw when he reached the door was reassuring. Cummins was upon his knees beside the cot, his big shoulders hunched over, and Melisse was welcoming him with her whole vocabulary of sound. The injury to Cummins' leg was not serious; and not being serious, it was accepted as a special incident of Providence by Jan, for the new thoughts that had come into his head were causing him great uneasiness.
He lost no time in revealing his fears, after Maballa had been sent to the factor's wife. With graphic gesture he told of what had happened. Cummins hobbled to the door to look upon the wallows in the snow, and hobbled back to the table when Jan ran there in excited imitation of the way in which he had found the little Melisse in Maballa's sling.
"She ees ceevilize!" finished Jan hotly. "She ees not papoose! She mus' be lak—HER!" His great eyes shone, and Cummins felt a thickening in his throat as he looked into them and saw what the boy meant. "Maballa mak papoose out of Melisse. She grow—know not'ing, lak papoose, talk lak papoose—"
Jan's feelings overwhelmed his tongue. His shining hair rumpled thickly about his face as he leaned anxiously toward Cummins; and Cummins, in turn, stared down in dumb perplexity upon the joyful kickings and wrigglings of the growing problem.
"Ees she not ceevilize?" demanded Jan ecstatically, bending his black head over her. "Ah, ze sweet Melisse!"
"Yes, she must be like HER, Jan—just as good and just as sweet and just as beautiful," interrupted Cummins gently.
There was a quick intaking of his breath as he hobbled back to his own cot, leaving Jan at play with the baby.
That night, in the dim, sputtering glow of an oil-lamp, John Cummins and Jan Thoreau solemnly set to work to thrash out the great problem that had suddenly entered into their existence. To these two there was no element of humor in what they were doing, for into their keeping had been given a thing for which God had not schemed them. The woman, had she been there, would have laughed at them, and in a dozen gentle breaths might have told them all that the world held in secret between mother and child; but, leaving them, she had passed on to them something that was life, like herself, and yet mystery.
Had fate given Maballa to Melisse for a mother there would have been no mystery. She would have developed as naturally as a wolf-whelp or a lynx-kitten, a savage breath of life in a savage world, waxing fat in snow-baths, arrow-straight in papoose-slings, a moving, natural thing in a desolation to which generations and centuries of forebears had given it birthright. But Melisse was like her mother. In the dreams of the two who were planning out her fate, she was to be a reincarnation of her mother. That dream left a ray of comfort in Cummins' breast when his wife died. It stirred happy visions within Jan. And it ended with a serious shock when Maballa brought into their mental perspective of things the possibilities of environment.
So far as Cummins knew, there was not a white woman nearer than Fort Churchill, two hundred miles away. In all that region he knew of only two full-white men, and they were Williams and himself. The baby Melisse was hopelessly lost in a world of savagery; honest, loyal, big-souled savagery—but savagery for all that, and the thought of it brought the shadows of fear and foreboding to the two into whose lives the problem had just come.
Long into the night they talked seriously of the matter, while Melisse slept; and the longer they talked, the greater loomed the problem before them. Cummins fancied that he already began to see signs of the transformation in Melisse. She was passionately fond of the gaudy things Maballa gave her, which was a sign of savagery. She was charmed by confinement in the papoose-sling, which was another sign of it; and she had not died in the snow-wallows—which was still another.
So far back as he could remember, Cummins had never come into finger- touch of a white baby. Jan was as blissfully ignorant; so they determined upon immediate and strenuous action. Maballa would be ceaselessly watched and checked at every turn. The Indian children would not be allowed to come near Melisse. They two—John Cummins and Jan Thoreau—would make her like the woman who slept under the sentinel spruce.
"She ees ceevilize," said Jan with finality, "an' we mus' keep her ceevilize!"
Cummins counted back gravely upon his fingers. The little Melisse was four months and eighteen days old!
"To-morrow we will make her one of those things with wheels—like the baby-wagons they have in the South," he said. "She must not go in the papoose-slings!"
"An' I will teach her ze museek," whispered Jan, his eyes glowing. "That ees ceevilize!"
Suddenly an eager light came into Cummins' face, and he pointed to a calico-covered box standing upon end in a corner of the room.
"There are the books—HER books, Jan," he said softly, the trembling thrill of inspiration in his voice. He limped across the room, dropped upon his knees before the box, and drew back the curtain. Jan knelt beside him. "They were HER books," he repeated. There was a sobbing catch in his throat, and his head fell a little upon his breast. "Now —we will give them—to Melisse."
He drew the books out, one by one, his fingers trembling and his breath coming quickly as he touched them—a dozen worn, dusty things, holding within them more than John Cummins would ever know of the woman he had lost. These volumes of dead voices had come with her into the wilderness from that other world she had known. They breathed the pathos of her love from out of their ragged pages, mended in a hundred places to keep them from falling into utter ruin. Slowly the man gathered them against his breast, and held them there silently, as he might have held the woman, fighting hard to keep back his grief.
Jan thrust a hand deeper into the box, and brought forth something else—a few magazines and papers, as ragged and worn as the books. In these other treasures there were pictures—pictures of the things in civilization, which Jan had never seen, and which were too wonderful for him to comprehend at first. His eyes burned excitedly as he held up a gaudily covered fashion paper to John Cummins.
"Theese are picture for Melisse!" he whispered tensely. "We teach her —we show her—we mak her know about ceevilize people!"
Cummins replaced the books, one at a time, and each he held tenderly for a moment, wiping and blowing away the dust gathered upon it. At the last one of all, which was more ragged and worn than the others, he gazed for a long time. It was a little Bible, his wife's Bible, finger-worn, patched, pathetic in its poverty. The man gulped hard.
"She loved this, Jan," he said huskily. "She loved this worn, old book more than anything else, and little Melisse must love it also. Melisse must be a Christian."
"Ah, yes, ze leetle Melisse mus' love ze great God!" said Jan softly.
Cummins rose to his feet and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping baby.
"A missionary is coming over from Fort Churchill to talk to our trappers when they come in. She shall be baptized!"
Like a cat Jan was on his feet, his eyes flashing, his long, thin fingers clenched, his body quivering with a terrible excitement.
"No—no—not baptize by missioner!" he cried. "She shall be good, an' love ze great God, but not baptize by missioner! No—no—no!"
Cummins turned upon him in astonishment. Before him Jan Thoreau stood for a minute like one gone mad, his whole being consumed in a passion terrible to look upon. Lithe giant of muscle and, fearlessness that he was, Cummins involuntarily drew back a step, and the mainspring of instinct within him prompted him to lift a hand, as if to ward off a leaping thing from his breast.
Jan noted the backward step, the guarded uplift of hand, and with an agonized cry he buried his face in his hands. In another instant he had turned, and, before Cummins' startled voice found words, had opened the door and run out into the night. The man saw him darting swiftly toward the forest, and called to him, but there was no response.
There was a hot fire burning in Jan's brain, a blazing, writhing contortion of things that brought a low moaning from his lips. He ran tirelessly and swiftly until he sank down upon the snow in a silent place far from where he had left John Cummins. His eyes still blazed with their strange fire upon the desolation about him, his fingers clenched and unclenched themselves, digging their nails into his flesh, and he spoke softly to himself, over and over again, the name of the little Melisse.
Painting itself each instant more plainly through the tumult of his emotions was what Jan had come to know as the picture in his brain. Shadowy and indistinct at first, in pale, elusive lines of mental fabric, he saw the picture growing; and in its growth he saw first the soft, sweet outlines of a woman's face, and then great luring eyes, dark like his own—and before these eyes, which gazed upon him with overwhelming love, all else faded away from before Jan Thoreau. The fire went out of his eyes, his fingers relaxed, and after a little while he got up out of the snow, shivering, and went back to the cabin.
Cummins asked no questions. He looked at Jan from his cot, and watched the boy silently as he undressed and went to bed; and in the morning the whole incident passed from his mind. The intangible holds but little fascination for the simple folk who live under the Arctic Circle. Their struggle is with life, their joys are in its achievement, in their constant struggle to keep life running strong and red within them. Such an existence of solitude and of strife with nature leaves small room for curiosity. So the nature of John Cummins led him to forget what had happened, as he would have forgotten the senseless running away of a sledge-dog, and its subsequent return. He saw no tragedy, and no promise of tragedy, in the thing that had occurred.
There was no recurrence of the strange excitement in Jan. He gave no hint of it in word or action, and the thing seemed to be forgotten between the two.
The education of the little Melisse began at once, while the post was still deserted. It began, first of all, with Maballa. She stared dumbly and with shattered faith at these two creatures who told her of wonderful things in the upbringing of a child—things of which she had never so much as heard rumor before. Her mother instincts were aroused, but with Cree stoicism she made no betrayal of them.
The leather-tanned immobility of her face underwent no whit of change when Cummins solemnly declared that the little Melisse was about to begin teething. She sat grimly and watched them in silence when between them, upon a bearskin stretched on the floor, they tried vainly to persuade Melisse to use her feet.
It was great fun for Melisse, and she enjoyed it immensely; so that as the days passed, and the post still remained deserted, John Cummins and Jan Thoreau spent much of their time upon their knees. In their eyes, the child's progress was remarkable. They saw in her an unceasing physical growth, and countless symptoms of forthcoming mental development. She delighted to pull the strings of Jan's violin, which was an unmistakable token of her musical genius. She went into ecstasies over the gaudy plates in the fashion paper. She fingered them in suggestive and inquiring silence, or with still more suggestive grunts, and made futile efforts to eat them, which was the greatest token of all.
Weeks passed, and Williams came in from the southern forests. Mukee followed him from the edge of the barrens. Per-ee returned from the Eskimo people, three-quarters starved and with half of his dogs stolen. From the north, east, west, and south the post's fur-rangers trailed back. Life was resumed. There was a softness in the air, a growing warmth in the midday sun. The days of the big change were near. And when they came, John Cummins and Jan Thoreau, of all the factor's people, wore patches at their knee.
DAYS OF TRIUMPH
One afternoon, in the beginning of the mush-snow, a long team of rakish Malemutes, driven by an Athabasca French-Canadian, raced wildly into the clearing about the post. A series of yells, and the wild cracking of a thirty-foot caribou-gut whip, announced that the big change was at hand—that the wilderness was awakening, and life was drawing near.
The entire post rushed out to meet the new-comer—men and dogs, the little black-and-tan children, and even Williams' fat and lethargic wife. For a few moments there was a scene of wild disorder, of fighting Malemutes buried under a rush of angry huskies, while men shouted, and the yelling Frenchman leaped about and cut his caribou- gut in vicious slashes over the wolfish horde around his heavily laden sledge.
Partial order being restored, Mukee and Per-ee took charge of the snarling Malemutes, and, surrounded by Williams' men, the trapper stalked to the company's office. He was Jean de Gravois, the most important man in the Fond du Lac country, for whose good-will the company paid a small bonus. That he had made a record catch even the children knew by the size of the packs on his sledge and by the swagger in his walk.
Gravois was usually one of the last to appear at the annual gathering of the wilderness fur-gatherers. He was a big man in reputation, as he was small in stature. He was known as far west as the Peace River, and eastward to Fort Churchill. He loved to make his appearance at the post in a wild and picturesque rush when the rest of the forest rovers were there to look on, and to envy or admire. He was one of the few of his kind who had developed personal vanity along with unerring cunning in the ways of the wild. Everybody liked Gravois, for he had a big soul in him and was as fearless as a lynx; and he liked everybody, including himself.
He explained his early arrival by announcing in a nonchalant manner that after he had given his Malemutes a day's rest he was going on to Fort Churchill, to bring back a wife. He hinted, with a punctuating crack of his whip, that he would make a second visit, and a more interesting one, at just about the time when the trappers were there in force.
Jan Thoreau listened to him, hunching his shoulders a little at the other's manifest air of importance. In turn, the French-Canadian scrutinized Jan good-naturedly. Neither of them knew the part which Jean de Gravois was to play in Jan's life.
Every hour after the half-breed's arrival quickened the pulse of expectancy at the post. For six months it had been a small and solitary unit of life in the heart of a big desolation. The first snow had smothered it in a loneliness that was almost the loneliness of desertion. With that first snow began the harvest days of the people of the wilderness. Far and wide they were busy along their trap-lines, their lonely shacks hidden in the shelter of thick swamps, in deep chasms and dense forests. For six months the short days and the long nights had been days and nights of fur-gathering.
During those months the post was silent. It lived and breathed, but that was all. Its life, for Williams and the few people whom the company kept with him, was a life of waiting. Now the change was at hand. It was like the breath of spring to the awakening wilderness. The forest people were moving. Trap-lines were being broken, shacks abandoned, sledge-dogs put to harness. On the day that Jean de Gravois left for Hudson's Bay, the company's supplies came in from Fort Churchill—seven toboggans drawn by Eskimo dogs, laden with flour and cloth; fifty pounds of beads, ammunition, and a hundred other things to be exchanged for the furs that would soon be in London and Paris.
Fearfully Jan Thoreau ran out to meet the sledges. There were seven Indians and one white man. Jan thrust himself close to look at the white man. He wore two revolver-holsters and carried an automatic. Unquestionably he was not a missionary, but an agent of the company well prepared to care for the company's treasure.
Jan hurried back to the cabin, his heart bubbling with a strange joy.
"There ees no missioner, Melisse!" he cried triumphantly, dropping beside her, his face glowing with the gladness of his tidings. "You shall be good and beautiful, lak HER, but you shall not be baptize by missioner! He has not come!"
A few minutes later Cummins came in. One of his hands was torn and bleeding.
"Those Eskimo dogs are demons!" he growled. "If they knew how to stand on their legs, they'd eat our huskies alive! Will you help me with this?"
Jan was at work in an instant, bandaging the wounded hand.
"It ees not deep," he said; and then, without looking up, he added: "The missioner did not come."
"No," said Cummins shortly. "Neither has the mail. He is with that."
He did not notice the sudden tremble of Jan's fingers, nor did he see the startled look that shot into the boy's down-turned eyes. Jan finished his bandaging without betraying his emotion, and went back with Cummins to the company's store.
The next morning, two Chippewayans trailed in with a team of mongrel curs from the south. Thereafter Cummins found but little time to devote to Melisse. The snow was softening rapidly, and the daily increasing warmth of the sun hastened the movement of the trappers. Mukee's people from the western Barren Lands arrived first, bringing with them great loads of musk-ox and caribou skins, and an army of big-footed, long-legged Mackenzie hounds that pulled like horses and wailed like whipped puppies when the huskies and Eskimo dogs set upon them.
From east and west and south all trails now led to the post. By the end of the third day after the arrival of the company's supplies, a babel of fighting, yelling, ceaselessly moving discord had driven forth the peace and quiet in which Cummins' wife had died. The fighting and discord were among the dogs, and the yelling was a necessary human accompaniment. Half a hundred packs, almost as wild and as savage as the wolves from whom half of them possessed a strong inheritance of blood, were thrown suddenly into warring confusion.
All the dogs were fighters except the big, soft-throated Mackenzie hounds, with the slow strength of oxen in their movements, and the quarter-strained and half-strained mongrels from the south; and upon these unfortunates the others preyed. Packs of fierce Labrador dogs, never vanquished except by death, came from close to Hudson's Bay. Team after team of the little yellow and gray Eskimo dogs, as quick with their fangs as were their black and swift-running masters with their hands and feet, met the much larger and darker-colored Malemutes from the Athabasca. Enemies of all these, fighting, snapping, and snarling, with the lust of killing deep born in them from their wolf progenitors, packs of fierce huskies trailed in from all sides.
There was no cessation in the battle of the fangs. It began with the first brute arrivals. It continued from dawn through the day, and around the campfires at night. There was never an end to the strife between the dogs, and between the men and the dogs. The snow was stained and trailed with blood, and the scent of it added greater fierceness to the wolf-breeds. Half a dozen battles were fought to the death each day and night. Those that died were chiefly the south-bred curs—mixtures of mastiff, Great Dane, and sheep-dogs—and the fatally slow Mackenzie hounds.
From its towering height the sentinel spruce frowned down upon the savage life that had come to outrage the grave it guarded. Yet beyond all this discord and bloody strife there was a great, throbbing human happiness—a beating of honest hearts filled to overflowing with the joys of the moment, a welding of new friendships, a renewal of old ones, a closer union of the brotherhood that holds together all things under the cold gray of the northern skies.
There were no bickerings among the hunters, no anger of man against man in the fierce voices that emphasized the slashing cuts of the caribou-whips. If the fangs of a Hudson's Bay husky let out the life- blood from the soft throat of a Mackenzie hound, it was a matter of the dogs, and not of their owners. They did not quarrel.
One day a fierce Eskimo pack cornered a giant husky under the big spruce, and slew him. When Cummins came from the company's store in the afternoon, he saw a number of men, with bared heads, working about the grave. He drew near enough to see that they were building around it a barricade of saplings; and his breath choked him as he turned to the cabin and Melisse. He noticed, too, that no fires were built near the spot consecrated to the memory of the dead woman; and to his cabin the paths in the snow became deeper and wider where trod the wild forest men who came to look upon the little Melisse.
These were days of unprecedented prosperity and triumph for the baby, as they were for the company. The cabin was half filled with strange things, for all who came gave something to Melisse. There were polar bears' teeth, brought down by the little black men who in turn had got them from the coast people; strange gods carved from wood; bits of fur, bushy fox tails, lynx paws, dried fruits, candy bought at fabulous prices in the store, and musk—always and incessantly musk— from Mukee's people of the west barrens.
To Jan this homage to Melisse was more than gratifying. It formed a bond between him and Cummins' people. His heart went out to them, and he went more freely among them, and made friends.
THE CARIBOU CARNIVAL
Jan had not played upon his violin since the coming of Jean de Gravois; but one evening he tuned his strings, and said to Melisse:
"They have been good to you, my Melisse. I will give them ze museek of ze violon."
It was the big night at the post—the night that is known from Athabasca to Hudson's Bay as the night of the caribou roast. A week had passed, and there were no more furs to be disposed of. In the company's ledger each man had received his credit, and in the company's store the furs were piled high and safe. Three caribou had been killed by Per-ee and his hunters; and on this night, when Jan took down his violin from its peg on the wall, a huge fire blazed in the open, and on spits six inches in diameter the caribou were roasting.
The air was filled with the sound and odor of the carnival. Above the fighting and snarling of dogs, the forest people lifted their voices in wild celebration, forgetting, in this one holiday of the year, the silence that they would carry back into the solitudes with them. Numbers gave them courage of voice, and in its manifestation there was the savagery of the forests that hemmed them in. Shrill voices rose in meaningless cries above the roaring of the fire. Caribou whips snapped fiercely. Chippewayans, Crees, Eskimos, and breeds crowded in the red glare. The factor's men shouted and sang like mad, for this was the company's annual "good time"—the show that would lure many of these same men back again at the end of another trapping season.
Huge boxes of white bread were placed near to the fire. A tub of real butter, brought five thousand miles from across the sea for the occasion, was set on a gun-case thrown where the heat played upon it in yellow glory. In a giant copper kettle, over a smaller fire, bubbled and steamed half a barrel of coffee.
The richness of the odors that drifted in the air set the dogs gathering upon their haunches beyond the waiting circle of masters, their lips dripping, their fangs snapping in an eagerness that was not for the flesh of battle. And above it all there gleamed down a billion stars from out of the skies, the aurora flung its banners through the pale night, and softly the smoke rose straight up and then floated into the North, carried there by the gentle breath that spring was luring from out of the South.
Jan picked his way through the cordon of dogs and the inner circle of men until he stood with the firelight flashing in his glossy hair and black eyes, and there, seated upon the edge of one of the bread-boxes, he began to play.
It was not the low, sweet music of Cummins and the little Melisse that he played now, but a wild, wailing song that he had found in the autumn winds. It burst above the crackling fire and the tumult of man and dog in a weird and savage beauty that hushed all sound; and life about him became like life struck suddenly dead. With his head bowed Jan saw nothing—saw nothing of the wonder in the faces of the half- cringing little black men who were squatted in a group a dozen feet away, nothing of the staring amazement in the eyes that were looking upon this miracle he was performing. He knew only that about him there was a deep hush, and after a while his violin sang a lower song, and sweeter; and still softer it became, and more sweet, until he was playing that which he loved most of all—the music that had filled the little cabin when Cummins' wife died.
As he continued to play there came an interruption to the silence—a low refrain that was almost like that of the moaning wind. It grew beyond the tense circle of men, until a song of infinite sadness rose from the throats of a hundred dogs in response to Jan Thoreau's violin. To Jan, it was like the song of life. The unending loneliness and grief of it stirred him to the quick of his soul, and unconsciously his voice rose and fell softly with the wailing of the brute chorus. But to the others it was a thing that rose portentous above their understanding, a miracle of mystery that smote them with awe even as they surrendered themselves to the wonderful sweetness of the music.
Cummins saw the change in his people, and understood what it meant. He saw the surrounding cordon become thinner as man crushed closer to man, and he saw strained faces turned from the player to where the dogs sat full-throated upon their haunches, with their heads pointed straight to the stars in the sky.
Suddenly he burst into a volume of wild song, and made his way through the crouching Eskimos to Jan.
"For the love of Heaven, play no more of that!" he cried in the boy's ear. "Play something fast!"
Jan lifted his head as if from a dream. In an instant he perceived the strange effect of his music, and his bow raced across the strings of his violin in a rhythm swift and buoyant, his voice rising shrill and clear in words familiar to them all:
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo, He roas' on high, Jes' under ze sky, Ze beeg white cariboo-oo-oo!"
With a yell Cummins joined in, waving his arms and leaping in the firelight. The spell was broken. Williams and Mukee and the rest of the company's men burst forth in song; Jan's violin leaped in crescendos of stirring sound; and where before there had been a silent circle of awestruck men there was now a yelling din of voices.
The dogs lowered their heads again, and licked their chops at the odors in the air. With a yell Mukee and three Crees dashed toward the fire, long-hooked poles in their hands; and as the caribou carcasses were turned upon their huge spits, and their dripping fat fell sizzling into the flames, the wild chorus of men and dogs and Jan's violin rose higher, until Cummins' great voice became only a whisper in the tumult.
The third caribou had been twice turned upon its spit, and Mukee and his Crees paused in waiting silence, their hooked poles gripping the long bar that rested horizontally across the arms of two stout posts driven into the earth close to the fire. At this signal there was a final outburst from the waiting horde, and then a momentary silence fell as Cummins sprang upon one of the bread-boxes and waved his arms frantically above his head. "Now!" he shouted. "Now! 'Ze cariboo-oo- oo—'"
With eyes flashing with excitement, Jan stood before Cummins, and his violin shrieked out the wild tune to a still wilder response of untamed voices.
"Now!" yelled Cummins again.
The wilderness song, that was known from Athabasca to Hudson's Bay, burst forth in a savage enthusiasm that reached to the skies:
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo, He roas' on high, Jes' under ze sky, Ze beeg white cariboo-oo-oo!"
Cummins drew his revolver and blazed fiercely into the air.
"Now!" he shrieked.
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo, He brown 'n' juice 'n' sweet! Ze cariboo-oo-oo, he ver' polite— He roas' on high, Jes' under ze sky, He ready now to come 'n' eat!"
With yells that rose above the last words of the song, Mukee and his Crees tugged at their poles, and the roasted caribou fell upon the snow. Jan drew back, and with his violin hugged under one arm, watched the wild revelers as, with bared knives flashing in the firelight, they crowded to the feast. Williams, the factor, who was puffing from his vocal exertions, joined him.
"Looks like a fight, doesn't it, Jan? Once I saw a fight at a caribou roast."
"So did I," said Jan, who had not taken his eyes from the jostling crowd.
"It was far to the west and north," continued Williams; "beyond the Great Slave country."
"Far beyond," said Jan, lifting his eyes quietly. "It was ver' near to ze Great Bear."
The factor stared at him in amazement.
"You saw it?" he exclaimed.
But Jan turned away, as if he had heard nothing, and passed beyond the packs of waiting dogs to restore his precious violin to its peg on the cabin wall. The factor's words had stirred deep memories within him, and for the first time since he had come to the post he spoke no word to Melisse when he found her wakeful and friendly in her cot.
Neither was it the old Jan Thoreau who returned to the excitement about the great fire. With his long hunting-knife flashing above his head, he plunged into the throng around the caribou, crowding and jostling with the others, his voice rising in shrill cries as he forced himself through to the edge of the fire. Cummins was there, kneeling with turned-up sleeves and greasy hands beside the huge roast, and when he saw Jan he stared at him in wonder. There was neither laughter nor song in Jan Thoreau's voice. It was vibrant with a strange savageness which was more savage than the wildest yells of the half-breed Crees, and his great eyes burned fiercely as they rested for an instant upon Cummins' face.
Close behind Cummins stood Williams. Jan saw him, and his knife dropped to his side. Then, so quickly that the startled factor drew back a step, Jan sprang to him.
"Ze fight at ze Great Bear!" he cried in swift eagerness. "For who you fight at ze Great Bear?"
The factor was silent, and the muscles of his arms grew like steel as he saw the madness in Jan's face. Suddenly he reached out and gripped the boy's wrists. Jan made no effort to evade the clutch.
"For who you fight?" he cried again. "For who you fight at ze Great Bear?"
"We tried to kill a man, but he got away," said Williams, speaking so low that only Jan heard. "He was—" The factor stopped.
"Ze missioner!" panted Jan.
The wild light went out of his eyes as he stared up at Williams, and the softer glow which came into them loosened at once the factor's grip on the boy's wrists.
"Yes, the missioner!"
Jan drew back. He evaded meeting the eyes of Cummins as he made his way among the men. There was a new burst of song as Mukee and his Crees pulled down a second caribou, but the boy paid no attention to the fresh excitement. He thrust his knife into its sheath and ran—ran swiftly through the packs of dogs fighting and snarling over the scraps that had beep thrown to them; past Maballa who was watching the savage banquet around the big fire, and into the little cabin, to Melisse.
Here he flung himself upon his knees, and for the first time he caught the baby in his arms, holding her close to him, and rocking her to and fro, as he cried out sobbingly the words which she did not understand.
"An' when I fin' heem an' kill heem, I will come back to you, my angel Melisse," he whispered. "And then you will luf Jan Thoreau for letting out the blood of a missioner!"
He put her back into the little bed, kissed her again, took down his violin from its peg in the wall, and turned to the door.
THE FIGHT AT DAWN
For a few moments Jan stood with his back to Melisse and his eyes upon the carnival about the great fire. As he looked, the third caribou was pulled down from its spit, and the multitude of dogs rushed in upon the abandoned carcasses of the other two.
He caught his breath quickly as a loud shout and the wailing yelp of a hurt dog rose for an instant above all other sounds. Only one thing was wanting to complete another picture in his brain—a scene which had burned itself into his life for ever, and which he strove to fight back as he stood staring from the doorway. He half expected it to come—the shrill scream of a boyish voice, an instant's sullen quiet, then the low-throated thunder of impending vengeance—and the fight!
With marvelous quickness his excited mind reconstructed the scene before him into the scene that had been. He heard the scream again, which had been HIS voice; saw, as if in a dream, the frenzied rush of men and the flash of knives; and then, from where he lay trampled and bleeding in the snow, the long, lean team of swift huskies that had carried in mad flight the one whose life those knives sought.
Williams had been there; he had seen the fight—his knife had flashed with the others in its demand for life. And yet he—Jan Thoreau—had not been recognized by the factor out there beside the caribou roast!
He hurried toward the fire. Half-way across the open he stopped. From out of the forest opposite Cummins' cabin there trailed slowly a team of dogs. In the shadows of the spruce, hidden from the revelers, the team halted. Jan heard the low voices of men, and a figure detached itself from the gloom, walking slowly and in the manner of one near to exhaustion in the direction of the carnival.
It was a new team. It had come from the trails to the east, and Jan's heart gave a sudden jump as he thought of the missionary who was expected with the overdue mail. At first he had a mind to intercept the figure laboring across the open, but without apparent reason he changed his course and approached the sledge.
As he came nearer, he observed a second figure, which rose from behind the dogs and advanced to meet him. A dozen paces ahead of the team it stopped and waited.
"Our dogs are so near exhaustion that we're afraid to take them any nearer," said a voice. "They'd die like puppies under those packs!"
The voice thrilled Jan. He advanced with his back to the fire, so that he could see the stranger.
"You come from Churchill?" he asked.
His words were hardly a question. They were more of an excuse for him to draw nearer, and he turned a little, so that for an instant the glowing fire flashed in his eyes.
"Yes, we started from the Etawney just a week ago to-day."
Jan had come very near. The stranger interrupted himself to stare into the thin, fierce face that had grown like a white cameo almost within reach of him. With a startled cry, he drew a step back, and Jan's violin dropped to the snow.
For no longer than a breath there was silence. The man wormed himself back into the shadows inch by inch, followed by the white face of the boy. Then there came shrilly from Jan's lips the mad shrieking of a name, and his knife flashed as he leaped at the other's breast.
The stranger was quicker than he. With a sudden movement he cleared himself of the blow; and as Jan's arm went past him, the point of the knife ripping his coat-sleeve, he shot out a powerful fist and sent the boy reeling to the ground.
Stunned and bleeding, Jan dragged himself to his knees. He saw the dogs turning, heard a low voice urging them to the trail, and saw the sledge disappear into the forest. He staggered from his knees to his feet, and stood swaying in his weakness. Then he followed.
He forgot that he was leaving his knife in the snow, forgot that back there about the fire there were other dogs and other men. He only knew that once before he had seen a sledge slip off into the wilderness; that its going had left him a life of hatred and bitterness and desire for vengeance; and that this was the same man who was slipping away from him in the same way again.
He followed, sickened by the blow, but gaining strength as he pursued. Ahead of him he could hear the sound of the toboggan and the cautious lashing of a whip over the backs of the tired huskies. The sounds filled him with fierce strength. He wiped away the warm trickle of blood that ran over his cheek, and began to run, slowly at first, swinging in the easy wolf-lope of the forest runner, with his elbows close to his sides.
At that pace he could have followed for hours, losing when the pack took a spurt, gaining when they lagged, an insistent Nemesis just behind when the weighted dogs lay down in their traces. But there was neither the coolness of Mukee nor the cleverness of Jean de Gravois in the manner of Jan's running. When he heard the cracking of the whip growing fainter, he dropped his arms straight to his sides and ran more swiftly, his brain reeling with the madness of his desire to reach the sledge—to drag from it the man who had struck him, to choke life from the face that haunted that mental picture of his, grinning at him and gloating always from the shadow world, just beyond the pale, sweet loveliness of the woman who lived in it.
That picture came to him now as he ran, more and more vividly, and from out of it the woman urged him on to the vengeance which she demanded of him, her great eyes glowing like fire, her beautiful face torn with the agony which he had last seen in it in life.
To Jan Thoreau there seemed almost to come from that face a living voice, crying to him its prayer for retribution, pleading with him to fasten his lithe, brown hands about the throat of the monster upon the sledge ahead, and choke from it all life. It drove reason from him, leaving him with the one thought that the monster was almost within reach; and he replied to the prayer with the breath that came in moaning exhaustion from between his lips.
He did not feel the soft, sun-packed snow under the beat of his feet. He received the lash of low-hanging bushes without experiencing the sensation of their sting. Only he knew that he wanted air—more and more air; and to get it he ran with open mouth, struggling and gasping for it, and yet not knowing that Jean de Gravois would have called him a fool for the manner in which he sought it.
He heard more and more faintly the run of the sledge. Then he heard it no longer, and even the cracking of the whip died away. His heart swelled in a final bursting effort, and he plunged on, until at last his legs crumpled under him and he pitched face downward in the snow, like a thing stung by sudden death.
It was then, with his scratched and bleeding face lying in the snow, that reason began to return to him. After a little while he dragged himself weakly to his knees, still panting from the mad effort he had made to overtake the sledge. From a great distance he heard faintly the noise of shouting, the whispering echo of half a hundred voices, and he knew that the sound came from the revelers at the post. It was proof to him that there had been no interruption to the carnival, and that the scene at the edge of the forest had been witnessed by none. Quickly his mental faculties readjusted themselves. He rose to his feet, and for a few moments stood hesitatingly. He had no weapon; but as his hand rested upon the empty knife-sheath at his belt, there came to him a thought of the way in which Mukee had avenged Cummins' wife, and he turned again upon the trail. He no longer touched the low- hanging bushes. He was no more than a shadow, appearing and disappearing without warning, trailing as the white ermine follows its prey, noiseless, alert, his body responding sinuously and without apparent effort to the working commands of his brain.
Where the forest broke into an open, lighted by the stars, he found blood in the footprints of the leading dog. Half-way across the open, he saw where the leader had swung out from the trail and the others of the pack had crowded about him, to be urged on by the lashings of the man's whip. Other signs of the pack's growing exhaustion followed close.
The man now traveled beside the sledge where the trail was rough, and rode where it was smooth and hard. The deep imprints of his heeled boots in the soft snow showed that he ran for only a short distance at a time—a hundred yards or less—and that after each running spell he brought the pack to a walk. He was heavy and lacked endurance, and this discovery brought a low cry of exultation to Jan's lips.
He fell into a dog-trot. Mile after mile dropped behind him; other miles were ahead of him, an endless wilderness of miles, and through them the tired pack persisted, keeping always beyond sound and vision.
The stars began fading out of the skies. The shadows of the forest grew deeper and blacker, and where the aurora had lightened the heavens there crept the somber gray film that preceded dawn by three hours.
Jan followed more and more slowly. There was hard-breathing effort now in his running—effort that caused him physical pain and discomfort. His feet stumbled occasionally in the snow; his legs, from thigh to knee, began to ache with the gnawing torment that centers in the marrowbone; and with this beginning of the "runner's cramp" he was filled with a new and poignant terror.
Would the dogs beat him out? Sloughing in the trail, bleeding at every foot, would they still drag their burden beyond the reach of his vengeance? The fear fastened itself upon him, urging him to greater effort, and he called upon the last of his strength in a spurt that carried him to where the thick spruce gave place to thin bush, and the bush to the barren and rocky side of a huge ridge, up which the trail climbed strong and well defined. For a few paces he followed it, then slipped and rolled back as the fatal paralysis deadened all power of movement in his limbs. He lay where he fell, moaning out his grief with his wide-staring eyes turned straight up into the cold gray of the starless sky.
For a long time he was motionless. From the top of the ridge, where the trail cut over the mountain, he looked like a bit of fire- blackened wood half buried in the snow. Half-way up the ridge a wolf, slinking hungrily, sniffed first up the trail and then down, and broke the stillness of the gray night-end with a mournful howl. It did not stir Jan Thoreau.
Long after the wolf had passed on, he moved a little, twisting himself so that his eyes could follow the tracks made by the sledge and dogs. When he came to where the snow-covered backbone of the ridge cut itself in faint outline against the desolate coldness of the sky, there fell from him the first sound of returning life. Up there he was sure that he had seen something move—an object which at first he had taken for a bush, and which he knew was not the wolf.
He watched for its reappearance, until all sorts of gray dawn shadows danced before his eyes. Then he began slowly to crawl up the trail. Some of the dull, paralytic ache was gone from his limbs, and as he worked his blood began to warm them into new strength, until he stood up and sniffed like an animal in the wind that was coming over the ridge from the south.
There was something in that wind that thrilled him. It stung his nostrils to a quick sensing of the nearness of something that was human. He smelled smoke. In it there was the pungent odor of green balsam, mixed with a faint perfume of pitch pine; and because the odor of pitch grew stronger as he ascended, he knew that it was a small fire that was making the smoke, with none of the fierce, dry woods to burn up the smell. It was a fire hidden among the rocks, a tiny fire, over which the fleeing missioner was cooking his breakfast.
Jan almost moaned aloud in his gladness, and the old mad strength returned to his body. Near the summit of the ridge he picked up a club. It was a short, thick club, with the heavy end knotted and twisted.
Cautiously he lifted his face over the rocks, and looked out upon a plateau, still deep in snow, swept bare by the winter's winds, and covered with rocks and bushes. His face was so white that at a little distance it might have been taken for a snow hare. It went whiter when, a few yards away, he saw the fire, the man, and the dogs.
The man was close to the little blaze, his broad shoulders hunched over, steadying a small pot over the flame. Beyond him were the dogs huddled about the sledge, inanimate as death.
Jan drew himself over the rocks. Once he had seen a big-footed lynx creep upon a wide-awake fox, and like that lynx he crept upon the man beside the fire. One of the tired dogs moved, and his pointed nostrils quivered in the air. Jan lay flat in the snow. Then the dog's muzzle dropped between his paws, and the boy moved on.
Inch by inch he advanced. The inches multiplied themselves into a foot, the foot lengthened into yards, and still the man remained hunched over his simmering pot.
Jan rose gently from his hands and knees to his feet, a furnace of madness blazing in his eyes. The restless dog raised his head again. He sniffed danger—near, menacing danger—and sprang up with a snarling cry that brought the man over the fire to quick attention. In a flash Jan took the last leap, and his club crashed down upon the missioner's head. The man pitched over like a log, and with a shrill cry the boy was at his throat.
"I am Jan Thoreau!" he shrieked. "I am Jan Thoreau—Jan Thoreau—come to keel you!" He dropped his club, and was upon the man's chest, his slender fingers tightening like steel wire about the thick throat of his enemy. "I keel you slow—slow!" he cried, as the missioner struggled weakly.
The great thick body heaved under him, and he put all his strength into his hands. Something struck him in the face. Something struck him again and again, but he felt neither the pain nor the force of it, and his voice sobbed out his triumph as he choked. The man's hands reached up and tore at his hair; but Jan saw only the missioner's mottled face growing more mottled, and his eyes staring in greater agony up into his own.
"I am Jan Thoreau," he panted again and again. "I am Jan Thoreau, an' I keel you—keel you!"
The blood poured from his face. It blinded him until he could no longer see the one from which he was choking life. He bent down his head to escape the blows. The man's body heaved more and more; it turned until he was half under it; but still he hung to the thick throat, as the weasel hangs in tenacious death to the jugular of its prey.
The missioner's weight was upon him in crushing force now. His huge hands struck and tore at the boy's head and face, and then they had fastened themselves at his neck. Jan was conscious of a terrible effort to take in breath, but he was not conscious of pain. The clutch did not frighten him. It did not make him loosen his grip. His fingers dug deeper. He strove to cry out still his words of triumph; but he could make no sound, except a gasping like that which came from between the gaping jaws of the man whose life his body and soul were fighting to smother.
There was death in each of the two grips; but the man's was the stronger, and his neck was larger and tougher, so that after a time he staggered to his knees and then to his feet, while Jan lay upon his back, his face and hair red with blood, his eyes wide open and with a lifeless glare in them. The missioner looked down upon his victim in horror. As the life that had nearly ebbed out of him poured back into his body, he staggered among the dogs, fastened them to the sledge, and urged them down the mountain into the plain. There was soon no sound of the sledge.
From a bush a dozen yards away a wondering moose-bird had watched the terrible struggle. Now he hopped boldly upon Jan's motionless body, and perked his head inquisitively as he examined the strange face, covered with blood and twisted in torture.
The gray film of dawn dissolved itself into the white beginning of day. Far to the south, a bit of the red sunrise was creeping into the northern world.
JEAN AND JAN
Half a mile down the ridge, where it sloped up gradually from the forests and swamps of the plain, a team of powerful Malemutes were running at the head of a toboggan. On the sledge was a young half-Cree woman. Now beside the sledge, now at the lead of the dogs, cracking his whip and shouting joyously, ran Jean de Gravois.
"Is it not beautiful, my Iowaka?" he cried for the hundredth time, in Cree, leaping over a three-foot boulder in his boundless enthusiasm. "Is this not the glorious world, with the sun just rising off there, and spring only a few days away? It is not like the cold chills at Churchill, which come up with the icebergs and stay there all summer! What do you think of your Jean de Gravois and his country now?"
Jean was bringing back with him a splendid young woman, with big, lustrous eyes, and hair that shone with the gloss of a raven's wing in the sun. She laughed at him proudly as he danced and leaped beside her, replying softly in Cree, which is the most beautiful language in the world, to everything that he said.
Jean leaped and ran, cracked his caribou whip, and shouted and sang until he was panting and red in the face. Just as Iowaka had called upon him to stop and get a second wind, the Malemutes dropped back upon their haunches where Jan Thoreau lay, twisted and bleeding, in the snow.
"What is this?" cried Jean.
He caught Jan's limp head and shoulders up in his arms, and called shrilly to Iowaka, who was disentangling herself from the thick furs in which he had wrapped her.
"It is the fiddler I told you about, who lives with Williams at Post Lac Bain!" he shouted excitedly in Cree. "He has been murdered! He has been choked to death, and torn to pieces in the face, as if by an animal!" Jean's eyes roved about as Iowaka kneeled beside him. "What a fight!" he gasped. "See the footprints—a big man and a small boy, and the murderer has gone on a sledge!"
"He is warm," said Iowaka. "It may be that he is not dead."
Jean de Gravois sprang to his feet, his little black eyes flashing with a dangerous fire. In a single leap he was at the side of the sledge, throwing off the furs and bundles and all other objects except his rifle.
"He is dead, Iowaka. Look at the purple and black in his face. It is Jean de Gravois who will catch the murderer, and you will stay here and make yourself a camp. Hi-o-o-o-o!" he shouted to the Malemutes.
The team twisted sinuously and swiftly in the trail as he sped over the edge of the mountain. Upon the plain below he knelt upon the toboggan, with his rifle in front of him; and at his low, hissing commands, which reached no farther than the dogs' ears, the team stretched their long bodies in pursuit of the missioner and his huskies.
Jean knew that whoever was ahead of him was not far away, and he laughed and hunched his shoulders when he saw that his magnificent Malemutes were making three times the speed of the huskies. It was a short chase. It led across the narrow plain and into a dense tangle of swamp, where the huskies had picked their way in aimless wandering until they came out in thick balsam and Banksian pine. Half a mile farther on, and the trail broke into an open which led down to the smooth surface of a lake, and two-thirds across the lake was the fleeing missioner.
The Malemute leader flung open his jaws in a deep baying triumph, and with a savage yell Jean cracked his caribou whip over his back. He saw the man ahead of him lean over the end of his sledge as he urged his dogs, but the huskies went no faster; and then he caught the glitter of something that flashed for a moment in the sun.
"Ah!" said Jean softly, as a bullet sang over his head. "He fires at Jean de Gravois!" He dropped his whip, and there was the warm glow of happiness in his little dark face as he leveled his rifle over the backs of his Malemutes. "He fires at Jean de Gravois, and it is Jean who can hamstring a caribou at three hundred yards on the run!"
For an instant, at the crack of his rifle, there was no movement ahead; then something rolled from the sledge and lay doubled up in the snow. A hundred yards beyond it, the huskies stopped in a rabble and turned to look at the approaching strangers.
Beside it Jean stopped; and when he saw the face that stared up at him, he clutched his thin hands in his long black hair and cried out, in shrill amazement and horror:
"The saints in Heaven, it is the missioner from Churchill!"
He turned the man over, and found where his bullet had entered under one arm and come out from under the other. There was no spark of life left. The missioner was already dead.
"The missioner from Churchill!" he gasped again.
He looked up at the warm sun, and kicked the melting snow under his moccasined feet.
"It will thaw very soon," he said to himself, looking again at the dead man, "and then he will go into the lake."
He headed his Malemutes back to the forest. Then he ran out and cut the traces of the exhausted huskies, and with his whip scattered them in freedom over the ice.
"Go to the wolves!" he shouted in Cree. "Hide yourselves from the post, or Jean de Gravois will cut out your tongues and take your skins off alive!"
When he came back to the top of the mountain, Jean found Iowaka making hot coffee, while Jan was bundled up in furs near the fire.
"It is as I said," she called. "He is alive!"
Thus it happened that the return of Jean de Gravois to the post was even more dramatic than he had schemed it to be, for he brought back with him not only a beautiful wife from Churchill, but also the half dead Jan Thoreau from the scene of battle on the mountain. And in the mystery of it all he reveled for two days; for Jean de Gravois said not a word about the dead man on the lake beyond the forest, nor did the huskies come back into their bondage to give a hint of the missing missionary.
From the day after the caribou roast the fur-gatherers began scattering. The Eskimos left the next morning. On the second day Mukee's people from the west set off along the edge of the barrens. Most of the others left by ones and twos into the wildernesses to the south and east.
Less than a dozen still put off their return to the late spring trapping, and among these were Jean de Gravois and his wife. Jean waited until the third day. Then he went to see Jan. The boy was bolstered up in his cot, with Cummins balancing the little Melisse on the edge of the bed when he came in.
For a time Jean sat and watched them in silence; then he made a sign to Cummins, who joined him at the door.
"I am going the Athabasca way to-day," he said. "I wish to talk with the boy before I go. I have a word to say to him which no ears should hear but his own. Will it be right?"
"Talk to him as long as you like," said Cummins, "but don't worry him about the missionary. You'll not get a word from him."
Jan's eyes spoke with a devotion greater than words as Jean de Gravois came and sat close beside him. He knew that it was Jean who had brought him alive into the post, and now there was something in the suggestive grimacing of the Frenchman's face, and in the eagerness with which he looked over his shoulder, as if he was not quite sure but that the walls held ears, that caused the boy's heart to beat a little faster as he speculated upon what Jean was going to say.
For a few moments Jean looked at the other steadily, with his thin, black face propped in his hands and a curious smile on his lips. He twisted his face into a dozen expressions of a language as voluble as that of his tongue, hunched his shoulders up to his ears as he grinned at Jan, and chuckled between his grimaces.
"Ah, it was wan be-e-a-u-tiful fight!" he said softly. "You are a brave boy, Jan Thoreau!"
"You did not see it?" asked Jan.
Unconsciously the words came from him in French. Jean caught one of his thin hands and laughed joyfully, for the spirit of him was French to the bottom of his soul.
"I see it? No, neither I nor Iowaka; but there it was in the snow, as plain as the eyes in your face. And did I not follow the trail that staggered down the mountain, while Iowaka brought you back to life? And when I came to the lake, did I not see something black out upon it, like a charred log? And when I came to it, was it not the dead body of the missioner from Churchill? Eh, Jan Thoreau?"
Jan sat up in his bed with a sharp cry.
"Sh-h-h-h-h!" admonished Jean, pressing him back gently. "There is no need of telling what is out there on the lake. Only the Blessed Virgin made me dream last night that you would like to see with your own eyes that the missioner is dead. The thaw will open up the lake in a few days. Then he will go down in the first slush. And"—Jean looked about him cautiously again, and whispered low—"if you see anything about the dead missioner that you do not understand—THINK OF JEAN DE GRAVOIS!"
He rose to his feet and bent over Jan's white face.
"I am going the Athabasca way to-day," he finished. "Perhaps, Jan Thoreau, you will hear after a time that it would be best for Jean de Gravois never to return again to this Post Lac Bain. If so, you will find him between Fond du Lac and the Beaver River, and you can make it in four days by driving your dogs close to the scrub-edge of the barrens, keeping always where you can see the musk-ox to the north." He turned to the door, and hesitated there for a moment, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. "Jean de Gravois wonders if Jan Thoreau understands?" he said, and passed out.