Back to God's Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood - HTML preview
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Back to God's Country and Other StoriesBack To God's Country.................................................................................................... 3
The Yellow-Back ............................................................................................................. 25
The Fiddling Man ........................................................................................................... 39
The Case Of Beauvais..................................................................................................... 57
The Other Man's Wife.................................................................................................... 63
The Strength Of Men...................................................................................................... 68
The Match........................................................................................................................ 79
The Honor Of Her People .............................................................................................. 89
Bucky Severn................................................................................................................. 100
His First Penitent .......................................................................................................... 103
Peter God ....................................................................................................................... 108 The Mouse...................................................................................................................... 125
Back To God's Country
When Shan Tung, the long-cued Chinaman from Vancouver, started up the Frazer River in the old days when the Telegraph Trail and the headwaters of the Peace were the Meccas of half the gold-hunting population of British Columbia, he did not foresee tragedy ahead of him. He was a clever man, was Shan Tung, a cha-sukeed, a very devil in the collecting of gold, and far-seeing. But he could not look forty years into the future, and when Shan Tung set off into the north, that winter, he was in reality touching fire to the end of a fuse that was to burn through four decades before the explosion came.
With Shan Tung went Tao, a Great Dane. The Chinaman had picked him up somewhere on the coast and had trained him as one trains a horse. Tao was the biggest dog ever seen about the Height of Land, the most powerful, and at times the most terrible. Of two things Shan Tung was enormously proud in his silent and mysterious oriental way--of Tao, the dog, and of his long, shining cue which fell to the crook of his knees when he let it down. It had been the longest cue in Vancouver, and therefore it was the longest cue in British Columbia. The cue and the dog formed the combination which set the forty-year fuse of romance and tragedy burning. Shan Tung started for the El Dorados early in the winter, and Tao alone pulled his sledge and outfit. It was no more than an ordinary task for the monstrous Great Dane, and Shan Tung subserviently but with hidden triumph passed outfit after outfit exhausted by the way. He had reached Copper Creek Camp, which was boiling and frothing with the excitement of gold-maddened men, and was congratulating himself that he would soon be at the camps west of the Peace, when the thing happened. A drunken Irishman, filled with a grim and unfortunate sense of humor, spotted Shan Tung's wonderful cue and coveted it. Wherefore there followed a bit of excitement in which Shan Tung passed into his empyrean home with a bullet through his heart, and the drunken Irishman was strung up for his misdeed fifteen minutes later. Tao, the Great Dane, was taken by the leader of the men who pulled on the rope. Tao's new master was a "drifter," and as he drifted, his face was always set to the north, until at last a new humor struck him and he turned eastward to the Mackenzie. As the seasons passed, Tao found mates along the way and left a string of his progeny behind him, and he had new masters, one after another, until he was grown old and his muzzle was turning gray. And never did one of these masters turn south with him. Always it was north, north with the white man first, north with the Cree, and then wit h the Chippewayan, until in the end the dog born in a Vancouver kennel died in an Eskimo igloo on the Great Bear. But the breed of the Great Dane lived on. Here and there, as the years passed, one would find among the Eskimo trace-dogs, a grizzled-haired, powerful-jawed giant that was alien to the arctic stock, and in these occasional aliens ran the blood of Tao, the Dane.
Forty years, more or less, after Shan Tung lost his life and his cue at Copper Creek Camp, there was born on a firth of Coronation Gulf a dog who was named Wapi, which means "the Walrus." Wapi, at full growth, was a throwback of more than forty dog generations. He was nearly as large as his forefather, Tao. His fangs were an inch in length, his great jaws could crack the thigh-bone of a caribou, and from the beginning the hands of men and the fangs of beasts were against him. Almost from the day of his birth until this winter of his fourth year, life for Wapi had been an unceasing fight for existence. He was maya-tisew--bad with the badness of a devil. His reputation had gone from master to master and from igloo to igloo; women and children were afraid of him, and men always spoke to him with the club or the lash in their hands. He was hated and feared, and yet because he could run down a barren-land caribou and kill it within a mile, and would hold a big white bear at bay until the hunters came, he was not sacrificed to this hate and fear. A hundred whips and clubs and a hundred pairs of hands were against him between Cape Perry and the crown of Franklin Bay--and the fangs of twice as many dogs.
The dogs were responsible. Quick-tempered, clannish with the savage brotherhood of the wolves, treacherous, jealous of leadership, and with the older instincts of the dog dead within them, their merciless feud with what they regarded as an interloper of another breed put the devil heart in Wapi. In all the gray and desolate sweep of his world he had no friend. The heritage of Tao, his forefather, had fallen upon him, and he was an alien in a land of strangers. As the dogs and the men and women and children hated him, so he hated them. He hated the sight and smell of the round-faced, blear-eyed creatures who were his master, yet he obeyed them, sullenly, watchfully, with his lips wrinkled warningly over fangs which had twice torn out the life of white bears. Twenty times he had killed other dogs. He had fought them singly, and in pairs, and in packs. His giant body bore the scars of a hundred wounds. He had been clubbed until a part of his body was deformed and he traveled with a limp. He kept to himself even in the mating season. And all this because Wapi, the Walrus, forty years removed from the Great Dane of Vancouver, was a white man's dog.
Stirring restlessly within him, sometimes coming to him in dreams and sometimes in a great and unfulfilled yearning, Wapi felt vaguely the strange call of his forefathers. It was impossible for him to understand. It was impossible for him to know what it meant. And yet he did know that somewhere there was something for which he was seeking and which he never found. The desire and the questing came to him most compellingly in the long winter filled with its eternal starlight, when the maddening yap, yap, yap of the little white foxes, the barking of the dogs, and the Eskimo chatter oppressed him like the voices of haunting ghosts. In these long months, filled with the horror of the arctic night, the spirit of Tao whispered within him that somewhere there was light and sun, that somewhere there was warmth and flowers, and running streams, and voices he could understand, and things he could love. And then Wapi would whine, and perhaps the whine would bring him the blow of a club, or the lash of a whip, or an Eskimo threat, or the menace of an Eskimo dog's snarl. Of the latter Wapi was unafraid. With a snap of his jaws, he could break the back of any other dog on Franklin Bay.
Such was Wapi, the Walrus, when for two sacks of flour, some tobacco, and a bale of cloth he became the property of Blake, the uta-wawe-yinew, the trader in seals, whalebone--and women. On this day Wapi's soul took its flight back through the space of forty years. For Blake was white, which is to say that at one time or another he had been white. His skin and his appearance did not betray how black he had turned inside and Wapi's brute soul cried out to him, telling him how he had waited and watched for this master he knew would come, how he would fight for him, how he wanted to lie down and put his great head on the white man's feet in token of his fealty. But Wapi's bloodshot eyes and battle-scarred face failed to reveal what was in him, and Blake--following the instructions of those who should know--ruled him from the beginning with a club that was more brutal than the club of the Eskimo.
For three months Wapi had been the property of Blake, and it was now the dead of a long and sunless arctic night. Blake's cabin, built of ship timber and veneered with blocks of ice, was built in the face of a deep pit that sheltered it from wind and storm. To this cabin came the Nanatalmutes from the east, and the Kogmollocks from the west, bartering their furs and whalebone and seal-oil for the things Blake gave in exchange, and adding women to their wares whenever Blake announced a demand. The demand had been excellent this winter. Over in Darnley Bay, thirty miles across the headland, was the whaler Harpoon frozen up for the winter with a crew of thirty men, and straight out from the face of his igloo cabin, less than a mile away, was the Flying Moon with a crew of twenty more. It was Blake's business to wait and watch like a hawk for such opportunities as there, and tonight--his watch pointed to the hour of twelve, midnight--he was sitting in the light of a sputtering seal-oil lamp adding up figures which told him that his winter, only half gone, had already been an enormously profitable one."If the Mounted Police over at Herschel only knew," he chuckled. "Uppy, if they did, they'd have an outfit after us in twenty-four hours."
Oopi, his Eskimo right-hand man, had learned to understand English, and he nodded, his moon-face split by a wide and enigmatic grin. In his way, "Uppy" was as clever as Shan Tung had been in his.And Blake added, "We've sold every fur and every pound of bone and oil, and we've forty Upisk wives to our credit at fifty dollars apiece." Uppy's grin became larger, and his throat was filled with an exultant rattle. In the matter of the Upisk wives he knew that he stood ace-high. "Never," said Blake, "has our wife-by-the-month business been so good. If it wasn't for Captain Rydal and his love-affair, we'd take a vacation and go hunting."
He turned, facing the Eskimo, and the yellow flame of the lamp lit up his face. It was the face of a remarkable man. A black beard concealed much of its cruelty and its cunning, a beard as carefully Van-dycked as though Blake sat in a professional chair two thousand miles south, but the beard could not hide the almost inhuman hardness of the eyes. There was a glittering light in them as he looked at the Eskimo. "Did you see her today, Uppy? Of course you did. My Gawd, if a woman could ever tempt me, she could! And Rydal is going to have her. Unless I miss my guess, there's going to be money in it for us--a lot of it. The funny part of it is, Rydal's got to get rid of her husband. And how's he going to do it, Uppy? Eh? Answer me that. How's he going to do it?"
In a hole he had dug for himself in the drifted snow under a huge scarp of ice a hundred yards from the igloo cabin lay Wapi. His bed was red with the stain of blood, and a trail of blood led from the cabin to the place where he had hidden himself. Not many hours ago, when by God's sun it should have been day, he had turned at last on a teasing, snarling, back-biting little kiskanuk of a dog and had killed it. And Blake and Uppy had beaten him until he was almost dead.
It was not of the beating that Wapi was thinking as he lay in his wallow. He was thinking of the fur-clad figure that had come between Blake's club and his body, of the moment when for the first time in his life he had seen the face of a white woman. She had stopped Blake's club. He had heard her voice. She had bent over him, and she would have put her hand on him if his master had not dragged her back with a cry of warning. She had gone into the cabin then, and he had dragged himself away.
Since then a new and thrilling flame had burned in him. For a time his senses had been dazed by his punishment, but now every instinct in him was like a living wire. Slowly he pulled himself from his retreat and sat down on his haunches. His gray muzzle was pointed to the sky. The same stars were there, burning in cold, white points of flame as they had burned week after week in the maddening monotony of the long nights near the pole. They were like a million pitiless eyes, never blinking, always watching, things of life and fire, and yet dead. And at those eyes, the little white foxes yapped so incessantly that the sound of it drove men mad. They were yapping now. They were never still. And with their yapping came the droning, hissing monotone of the aurora, like the song of a vast piece of mechanism in the still farther north. Toward this Wapi turned his bruised and beaten head. Out there, just beyond the ghostly pale of vision, was the ship. Fifty times he had slunk out and around it, cautiously as the foxes themselves. He had caught its smells and its sounds; he had come near enough to hear the voices of men, and those voices were like the voice of Blake, his master. Therefore, he had never gone nearer.
There was a change in him now. His big pads fell noiselessly as he slunk back to the cabin and sniffed for a scent in the snow. He found it. It was the trail of the white woman. His blood tingled again, as it had tingled when her face bent over him and her hand reached out, and in his soul there rose up the ghost of Tao to whip him on. He followed the woman's footprints slowly, stopping now and then to listen, and each moment the spirit in him grew more insistent, and he whined up at the stars. At last he saw the ship, a wraithlike thing in its piled-up bed of ice, and he stopped. This was his dead-line. He had never gone nearer. But tonight--if any one period could be called night--he went on.
It was the hour of sleep, and there was no sound aboard. The foxes, never tiring of their infuriating sport, were yapping at the ship. They barked faster and louder when they caught the scent of Wapi, and as he approached, they drifted farther away. The scent of the woman's trail led up the wide bridge of ice, and Wapi followed this as he would have followed a road, until he found himself all at once on the deck of the Flying Moon. For a space he was startled. His long fangs bared themselves at the shadows cast by the stars. Then he saw ahead of him a narrow ribbon of yellow light. Toward this Wapi sniffed out, step by step, the footprints of the woman. When he stopped again, his muzzle was at the narrow crack through which came the glimmer of light.
It was the door of a deck-house veneered like an igloo with snow and ice to protect it from cold and wind. It was, perhaps, half an inch ajar, and through that aperture Wapi drank the warm, sweet perfume of the woman. With it he caught also the smell of a man. But in him the woman scent submerged all else. Overwhelmed by it, he stood trembling, not daring to move, every inch of him thrilled by a vast and mysterious yearning. He was no longer Wapi, the Walrus; Wapi, the Killer. Tao was there. And it may be that the spirit of Shan Tung was there. For after forty years the change had come, and Wapi, as he stood at the woman's door, was just dog,--a white man's dog--again the dog of the Vancouver kennel--the dog of a white man's world.
He thrust open the door with his nose. He slunk in, so silently that he was not heard. The cabin was lighted. In a bed lay a white-faced, hollow-cheeked man--awake. On a low stool at his side sat a woman. The light of the lamp hanging from above warmed with gold fires the thick and radiant mass of her hair. She was leaning over the sick man. One slim, white hand was stroking his face gently, and she was speaking to him in a voice so sweet and soft that it stirred like wonderful music in Wapi's warped and beaten soul. And then, with a great sigh, he flopped down, an abject slave, on the edge of her dress.
With a startled cry the woman turned. For a moment she stared at the great beast wideeyed, then there came slowly into her face recognition and understanding. "Why, it's the dog Blake whipped so terribly," she gasped. "Peter, it's--it's Wapi!" For the first time Wapi felt the caress of a woman's hand, soft, gentle, pitying, and out of him there came a wimpering sound that was almost a sob.
"It's the dog--he whipped," she repeated, and, then, if Wapi could have understood, he would have noted the tense pallor of her lovely face and the look of a great fear that was away back in the staring blue depths of her eyes.
From his pillow Peter Keith had seen the look of fear and the paleness of her cheeks, but he was a long way from guessing the truth. Yet he thought he knew. For days--yes, for weeks--there had been that growing fear in her eyes. He had seen her mighty fight to hide it from him. And he thought he understood.
"I know it has been a terrible winter for you, dear," he had said to her many times. "But you mustn't worry so much about me. I'll be on my feet again--soon." He had always emphasized that. "I'll be on my feet again soon!"
Once, in the breaking terror of her heart, she had almost told him the truth. Afterward she had thanked God for giving her the strength to keep it back. It was day--for they spoke in terms of day and night--when Rydal, half drunk, had dragged her into his cabin, and she had fought him until her hair was down about her in tangled confusion--and she had told Peter that it was the wind. After that, instead of evading him, she had played Rydal with her wits, while praying to God for help. It was impossible to tell Peter. He had aged steadily and terribly in the last two weeks. His eyes were sunken into deep pits. His blond hair was turning gray over the temples. His cheeks were hollowed, and there was a different sort of luster in his eyes. He looked fifty instead of thirty-five. Her heart bled in its agony. She loved Peter with a wonderful love.
The truth! If she told him that! She could see Peter rising up out of his bed like a ghost. It would kill him. If he could have seen Rydal--only an hour before--stopping her out on the deck, taking her in his arms, and kissing her until his drunken breath and his beard sickened her! And if he could have heard what Rydal had said! She shuddered. And suddenly she dropped down on her knees beside Wapi and took his great head in her arms, unafraid of him--and glad that he had come.
Then she turned to Peter. "I'm going ashore to see Blake again--now," she said. "Wapi will go with me, and I won't be afraid. I insist that I am right, so please don't object any more, Peter dear."
She bent over and kissed him, and then in spite of his protest, put on her fur coat and hood, and stood for a moment smiling down at him. The fear was gone out of her eyes now. It was impossible for him not to smile at her loveliness. He had always been proud of that. He reached up a thin hand and plucked tenderly at the shining little tendrils of gold that crept out from under her hood."I wish you wouldn't, dear," he pleaded.
How pathetically white, and thin, and weak he was! She kissed him again and turned quickly to hide the mist in her eyes. At the door she blew him a kiss from the tip of her big fur mitten, and as she went out she heard him say in the thin, strange voice that was so unlike the old Peter:"Don't be long, Dolores."
She stood silently for a few moments to make sure that no one would see her. Then she moved swiftly to the ice bridge and out into the star-lighted ghostliness of the night. Wapi followed close behind her, and dropping a hand to her side she called softly to him. In an instant Wapi's muzzle was against her mitten, and his great body quivered with joy at her direct speech to him. She saw the response in his red eyes and stopped to stroke him with both mittened hands, and over and over again she spoke his name. "Wapi--Wapi--Wapi." He whined. She could feel him under her touch as if alive with an electrical force. Her eyes shone. In the white starlight there was a new emotion in her face. She had found a friend, the one friend she and Peter had, and it made her braver.
At no time had she actually been afraid--for herself. It was for Peter. And she was not afraid now. Her cheeks flushed with exertion and her breath came quickly as she neared Blake's cabin. Twice she had made excuses to go ashore--just because she was curious, she had said--and she believed that she had measured up Blake pretty well. It was a case in which her woman's intuition had failed her miserably. She was amazed that such a man had marooned himself voluntarily on the arctic coast. She did not, of course, understand his business--entirely. She thought him simply a trader. And he was unlike any man aboard ship. By his carefully clipped beard, his calm, cold manner of speech, and the unusual correctness with which he used his words she was convinced that at some time or another he had been part of what she mentally thought of as "an entirely different environment."She was right. There was a time when London and New York would have given much to lay their hands on the man who now called himself Blake.
Dolores, excited by the conviction that Blake would help her when he heard her story, still did not lose her caution. Rydal had given her another twenty-four hours, and that was all. In those twenty-four hours she must fight out their salvation, her own and Peter's. If Blake should fail--
Fifty paces from his cabin she stopped, slipped the big fur mitten from her right hand and unbuttoned her coat so that she could quickly and easily reach an inside pocket in which was Peter's revolver. She smiled just a bit grimly, as her fingers touched the cold steel. It was to be her last resort. And she was thinking in that flash of the days "back home" when she was counted the best revolver shot at the Piping Rock. She could beat Peter, and Peter was good. Her fingers twined a bit fondly about the pearl-handled thing in her pocket. The last resort--and from the first it had given her courage to keep the truth from Peter!
She knocked at the heavy door of the igloo cabin. Blake was still up, and when he opened it, he stared at her in wide-eyed amazement. Wapi hung outside when Dolores entered, and the door closed. "I know you think it strange for me to come at this hour," she apologized, "but in this terrible gloom I've lost all count of hours. They have no significance for me any more. And I wanted to see you--alone."
She emphasized the word. And as she spoke, she loosened her coat and threw back her hood, so that the glow of the lamp lit up the ruffled mass of gold the hood had covered. She sat down without waiting for an invitation, and Blake sat down opposite her with a narrow table between them. Her face was flushed with cold and wind as she looked at him. Her eyes were blue with the blue of a steady flame, and they met his own squarely. She was not nervous. Nor was she afraid."Perhaps you can guess--why I have come?" she asked.
He was appraising her almost startling beauty with the lamp glow flooding down on her. For a moment he hesitated; then he nodded, looking at her steadily. "Yes, I think I know," he said quietly. "It's Captain Rydal. In fact, I'm quite positive. It's an unusual situation, you know. Have I guessed correctly?"
She nodded, drawing in her breath quickly and leaning a little toward him, wondering how much he knew and how he had come by it.
"A very unusual situation," he repeated. "There's nothing in the world that makes beasts out of men--most men--more quickly than an arctic night, Mrs. Keith. And they're all beasts out there--now--all except your husband, and he is contented because he possesses the one white woman aboard ship. It's putting it brutally plain, but it's the truth, isn't it? For the time being they're beasts, every man of the twenty, and you--pardon me!--are very beautiful. Rydal wants you, and the fact that your husband is dying--"
She leaned forward eagerly, gripping her hands in front of him on the table. She spoke swiftly, as if she must convince him before he asked her another question. Blake's eyes did not change. They had not changed for an instant. They were hard, and cold, and searching, unwarmed by her beauty, by the luster of her shining hair, by the touch of her breath as it came to him over the table.
"I have gone everywhere with him--everywhere," she began. "Peter writes books, you know, and we have gone into all sorts of places. We love it--both of us--this adventuring. We have been all through the country down there," she swept a hand to the south, "on dog sledges, in canoes, with snowshoes, and pack-trains. Then we hit on the idea of coming north on a whaler. You know, of course, Captain Rydal planned to return this autumn. The crew was rough, but we expected that. We expected to put up with a lot. But even before the ice shut us in, before this terrible night came, Rydal insulted me. I didn't dare tell Peter. I thought I could handle Rydal, that I could keep him in his place, and I knew that if I told Peter, he would kill the beast. And then the ice--and this night--" She choked.
Blake's eyes, gimleting to her soul, were shot with a sudden fire as he, too, leaned a little over the table. But his voice was unemotional as rock. It merely stated a fact. "That's why Captain Rydal allowed himself to be frozen in," he said. "He had plenty of time to get into the open channels, Mrs. Keith. But he wanted you. And to get you he knew he would have to lay over. And if he laid over, he knew that he would get you, for many things may happen in an arctic night. It shows the depth of the man's feelings, doesn't it? He is sacrificing a great deal to possess you, losing a great deal of time, and money, and all that. And when your husband dies--"Her clenched little fist struck the table. "He won't die, I tell you! Why do you say that?"
"Because--Rydal says he is going to die." "Rydal--lies. Peter had a fall, and it hurt his spine so that his legs are paralyzed. But I know what it is. If he could get away from that ship and could have a doctor, he would be well again in two or three months.""But Rydal says he is going to die."
There was no mistaking the significance of Blake's words this time. Her eyes filled with sudden horror. Then they flashed with the blue fire again. "So--he has told you? Well, he told me the same thing today. He didn't intend to, of course. But he was half mad, and he had been drinking. He has given me twenty-four hours.""In which to--surrender?" There was no need to reply.
For the first time Blake smiled. There was something in that smile that made her flesh creep. "Twenty-four hours is a short time," he said, "and in this matter, Mrs. Keith, I think that you will find Captain Rydal a man of his word. No need to ask you why you don't appeal to the crew! Useless! But you have hope that I can help you? Is that it?"
Her heart throbbed. "That is why I have come to you, Mr. Blake. You told me today that Fort Confidence is only a hundred and fifty miles away and that a Northwest Mounted Police garrison is there this winter--with a doctor. Will you help me?"
"A hundred and fifty miles, in this country, at this time of the year, is a long distance, Mrs. Keith," reflected Blake, looking into her eyes with a steadiness that at any other time would have been embarrassing. "It means the McFarlane, the Lacs Delesse, and the Arctic Barren. For a hundred miles there isn't a stick of timber. If a storm came--no man or dog could live. It is different from the coast. Here there is shelter everywhere." He spoke slowly, and he was thinking swiftly. "It would take five days at thirty miles a day. And the chances are that your husband would not stand it. One hundred and twenty hours at fifty degrees below zero, and no fire until the fourth day. He would die.""It would be better--for if we stay--" she stopped, unclenching her hands slowly. "What?" he asked.
"I shall kill Captain Rydal," she declared. "It is the only thing I can do. Will you force me to do that, or will you help me? You have sledges and many dogs, and we will pay. And I have judged you to be--a man."
He rose from the table, and for a moment his face was turned from her. "You probably do not understand my position, Mrs. Keith," he said, pacing slowly back and forth and chuckling inwardly at the shock he was about to give her. "You see, my livelihood depends on such men as Captain Rydal. I have already done a big business with him in bone, oil, pelts--and Eskimo women."
Without looking at her he heard the horrified intake of her breath. It gave him a pleasing sort of thrill, and he turned, smiling, to look into her dead-white face. Her eyes had changed. There was no longer hope or entreaty in them. They were simply pools of blue flame. And she, too, rose to her feet.
"I didn't say that, Mrs. Keith. It shocks you to know that I am responsible. But up here, you must understand the code of ethics is a great deal different from yours. We figure that what I have done for Rydal and his crew keeps sane men from going mad during the long months of darkness. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to help you--and Peter. I think I shall. But you must give me a little time in which to consider the matter--say an hour or so. I understand that whatever is to be done must be done quickly. If I make up my mind to take you to Fort Confidence, we shall start within two or three hours. I shall bring you word aboard ship. So you might return and prepare yourself and Peter for a probable emergency."
She went out dumbly into the night, Blake seeing her to the door and closing it after her. He was courteous in his icy way but did not offer to escort her back to the ship. She was glad. Her heart was choking her with hope and fear. She had measured him differently this time. And she was afraid. She had caught a glimpse that had taken her beyond the man, to the monster. It made her shudder. And yet what did it matter, if Blake helped them?
She had forgotten Wapi. Now she found him again close at her side, and she dropped a hand to his big head as she hurried back through the pallid gloom. She spoke to him, crying out with sobbing breath what she had not dared to reveal to Blake. For Wapi the long night had ceased to be a hell of ghastly emptiness, and to her voice and the touch of her hand he responded with a whine that was the whine of a white man's dog. They had traveled two-thirds of the distance to the ship when he stopped in his tracks and sniffed the wind that was coming from shore. A second time he did this, and a third, and the third time Dolores turned with him and faced the direction from which they had come. A low growl rose in Wapi's throat, a snarl of menace with a note of warning in it."What is it, Wapi?" whispered Dolores. She heard his long fangs click, and under her hand she felt his body grow tense. "What is it?" she repeated.
A thrill, a suspicion, shot into her heart as they went on. A fourth time Wapi faced the shore and growled before they reached the ship. Like shadows they went up over the ice bridge. Dolores did not enter the cabin but drew Wapi behind it so they could not be seen. Ten minutes, fifteen, and suddenly she caught her breath and fell down on her knees beside Wapi, putting her arms about his gaunt shoulders. "Be quiet," she whispered. "Be quiet."
Up out of the night came a dark and grotesque shadow. It paused below the bridge, then it came on silently and passed almost without sound toward the captain's quarters. It was Blake. Dolores' heart was choking her. Her arms clutched Wapi, whispering for him to be quiet, to be quiet. Blake disappeared, and she rose to her feet. She had come of fighting stock. Peter was proud of that. "You slim wonderful little thing!" he had said to her more than once. "You've a heart in that pretty body of yours like the general's!" The general was her father, and a fighter. She thought of Peter's words now, and the fighting blood leaped through her veins. It was for Peter more than herself that she was going to fight now.
She made Wapi understand that he must remain where he was. Then she followed after Blake, followed until her ears were close to the door behind which she could already hear Blake and Rydal talking.
Ten minutes later she returned to Wapi. Under her hood her face was as white as the whitest star in the sky. She stood for many minutes close to the dog, gathering her courage, marshaling her strength, preparing herself to face Peter. He must not suspect until the last moment. She thanked God that Wapi had caught the taint of Blake in the air, and she was conscious of offering a prayer that God might help her and Peter.
Peter gave a cry of pleasure when the door opened and Dolores entered. He saw Wapi crowding in, and laughed. "Pals already! I guess I needn't have been afraid for you. What a giant of a dog!"
The instant she appeared, Dolores forced upon herself an appearance of joyous excitement. She flung off her coat and ran to Peter, hugging his head against her as she told him swiftly what they were going to do. Fort Confidence was only one hundred and fifty miles away, and a garrison of police and a doctor were there. Five days on a sledge! That was all. And she had persuaded Blake, the trader, to help them. They would start now, as soon as she got him ready and Blake came. She must hurry. And she was wildly and gloriously happy, she told him. In a little while they would be at least on the outer edge of this horrible night, and he would be in a doctor's hands.
She was holding Peter's head so that he could not see her face, and by the time she jumped up and he did see it, there was nothing in it to betray the truth or the fact that she was acting a lie. First she began to dress Peter for the trail. Every instant gave her more courage. This helpless, sunken-cheeked man with the hair graying over his temples was Peter, her Peter, the Peter who had watched over her, and sheltered her, and fought for her ever since she had known him, and now had come her chance to fight for him. The thought filled her with a wonderful exultation. It flushed her cheeks, and put a glory into her eyes, and made her voice tremble. How wonderful it was to love a man as she loved Peter! It was impossible for her to see the contrast they made--Peter with his scrubby beard, his sunken cheeks, his emaciation, and she with her radiant, golden beauty. She was ablaze with the desire to fight. And how proud of her Peter would be when it was all over!
She finished dressing him and began putting things in their big dunnage sack. Her lips tightened as she made this preparation. Finally she came to a box of revolver cartridges and emptied them into one of the pockets of her under-jacket. Wapi flattened out near the door, watched every movement she made.
When the dunnage sack was filled, she returned to Peter. "Won't it be a joke on Captain Rydal!" she exulted. "You see, we aren't gong to let him know anything about it." She appeared not to observe Peter's surprise. "You know how I hate him, Peter dear," she went on. "He is a beast. But Mr. Blake has done a great deal of trading with him, and he doesn't want Captain Rydal to know the part he is taking in getting us away. Not that Rydal would miss us, you know! I don't think he cares very much whether you live or die, Peter, and that's why I hate him. But we must humor Mr. Blake. He doesn't want him to know.""Odd," mused Peter. "It's sort of--sneaking away."
His eyes had in them a searching question which Dolores tried not to see and which she was glad he did not put into words. If she could only fool him another hour--just one more hour.
It was less than that--half an hour after she had finished the dunnage sack--when they heard footsteps crunching outside and then a knock at the door. Wapi answered with a snarl, and when Dolores opened the door and Blake entered, his eyes fell first of all on the dog.
"Attached himself, eh?" he greeted, turning his quiet, unemotional smile on Peter. "First white woman he has ever seen, and I guess the case is hopeless. Mrs. Keith may have him."He turned to her. "Are you ready?"
She nodded and pointed to the dunnage sack. Then she put on her fur coat and hood and helped Peter sit up on the edge of the bed while Blake opened the door again and made a low signal. Instantly Uppy and another Eskimo came in. Blake led with the sack, and the two Eskimos carried Peter. Dolores followed last, with the fingers of one little hand gripped about the revolver in her pocket. Wapi hugged so close to her that she could feel his body.
On the ice was a sledge without dogs. Peter was bundled on this, and the Eskimos pulled him. Blake was still in the lead. Twenty minutes after leaving the ship they pulled up beside his cabin.
There were two teams ready for the trail, one of six dogs, and another of five, each watched over by an Eskimo. The visor of Dolores' hood kept Blake from seeing how sharply she took in the situation. Under it her eyes were ablaze. Her bare hand gripped her revolver, and if Peter could have heard the beating of her heart, he would have gasped. But she was cool, for all that. Swiftly and accurately she appraised Blake's preparations. She observed that in the six-dog team, in spite of its numerical superiority, the animals were more powerful than those in the five-dog team. The Eskimos placed Peter on the six-dog sledge, and Dolores helped to wrap him up warmly in the bearskins. Their dunnage sack was tied on at Peter's feet. Not until then did she seem to notice the five-dog sledge. She smiled at Blake. "We must be sure that in our excitement we haven't forgotten something," she said, going over what was on the sledge. "This is a tent, and here are plenty of warm bearskins--and--and--" She looked up at Blake, who was watching her silently. "If there is no timber for so long, Mr. Blake, shouldn't we have a big bundle of kindling? And surely we should have meat for the dogs!"Blake stared at her and then turned sharply on Uppy with a rattle of Eskimo. Uppy and one of the companions made their exit instantly and in great haste. "The fools!" he apologized. "One has to watch them like children, Mrs. Keith. Pardon me while I help them."
She waited until he followed Uppy into the cabin. Then, with the remaining Eskimo staring at her in wonderment, she carried an extra bearskin, the small tent, and a narwhal grub-sack to Peter's sledge. It was another five minutes before Blake and the two Eskimos reappeared with a bag of fish and a big bundle of ship-timber kindlings. Dolores stood with a mittened hand on Peter's shoulder, and bending down, she whispered:
"Peter, if you love me, don't mind what I'm going to say now. Don't move, for everything is going to be all right, and if you should try to get up or roll off the sledge, it would be so much harder for me. I haven't even told you why we're going to Port Confidence. Now you'll know!"
She straightened up to face Blake. She had chosen her position, and Blake was standing clear and unshadowed in the starlight half a dozen paces from her. She had thrust her hood back a little, inspired by her feminine instinct to let him see her contempt for him."You beast!" The words hissed hot and furious from her lips, and in that same instant Blake found himself staring straight into the unquivering muzzle of her revolver.
"You beast!" she repeated. "I ought to kill you. I ought to shoot you down where you stand, for you are a cur and a coward. I know what you have planned. I followed you when you went to Rydal's cabin a little while ago, and I heard everything that passed between you. Listen, Peter, and I'll tell you what these brutes were going to do with us. You were to go with the six-dog team and I with the five, and out on the barrens we were to become separated, you to go on and be killed when you we're a proper distance away, and I to be brought back--to Rydal. Do you understand, Peter dear? Isn't it splendid that we should have forced on us like this such wonderful material for a story!" She was gloriously unafraid now. A paean of triumph rang in her voice, triumph, contempt, and utter fearlessness. Her mittened hand pressed on Peter's shoulder, and before the weapon in her other hand Blake stood as if turned into stone.
"You don't know," she said, speaking to him directly, "how near I am to killing you. I think I shall shoot unless you have the meat and kindlings put on Peter's sledge immediately and give Uppy instructions--in English--to drive us to Fort Confidence. Peter and I will both go with the six-dog sledge. Give the instructions quickly, Mr. Blake!"
Blake, recovering from the shock she had given him, flashed back at her his cool and cynical smile. In spite of being caught in an unpleasant lie, he admired this golden-haired, blue-eyed slip of a woman for the colossal bluff she was playing. "Personally, I'm sorry," he said, "but I couldn't help it. Rydal--""I am sure, unless you give the instructions quickly, that I shall shoot," she interrupted him. Her voice was so quiet that Peter was amazed. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Keith. But--"
A flash of fire blinded him, and with the flash Blake staggered back with a cry of pain and stood swaying unsteadily in the starlight, clutching with one hand at an arm which hung limp and useless at his side.
"That time, I broke your arm," said Dolores, with scarcely more excitement than if she had made a bull's-eye on the Piping Rock range. "If I fire again, I am quite positive that I shall kill you!"The Eskimos had not moved. They were like three lifeless, staring gargoyles. For another second or two Blake stood clutching at his arm. Then he said,
"Uppy, put the dog meat and the kindlings on the big sledge--and drive like hell for Fort Confidence!" And then, before she could stop him, he followed up his words swiftly and furiously in Eskimo."Stop!"
She almost shrieked the one word of warning, and with it a second shot burned its way through the flesh of Blake's shoulder and he went down. The revolver turned on Uppy, and instantly he was electrified into life. Thirty seconds later, at the head of the team, he was leading the way out into the chaotic gloom of the night. Hovering over Peter, riding with her hand on the gee-bar of the sledge, Dolores looked back to see Blake staggering to his feet. He shouted after them, and what he said was in Uppy's tongue. And this time she could not stop him.
She had forgotten Wapi. But as the night swallowed them up, she still looked back, and through the gloom she saw a shadow coming swiftly. In a few moments Wapi was running at the tail of the sledge. Then she leaned over Peter and encircled his shoulders with her furry arms."We're off!" she cried, a breaking note of gladness in her voice. "We're off! And, Peter dear, wasn't it perfectly thrilling!" A few minutes later she called upon Uppy to stop the team. Then she faced him, close to Peter, with the revolver in her hand. "Uppy," she demanded, speaking slowly and distinctly, "what was it Blake said to you?" For a moment Uppy made as if to feign stupidity. The revolver covered a spot half-way between his narrow-slit eyes. "I shall shoot--" Uppy gave a choking gasp. "He said--no take trail For' Con'dence--go wrong--he come soon get you."
"Yes, he said just that." She picked her words even more slowly. "Uppy, listen to me. If you let them come up with us--unless you get us to Fort Confidence--I will kill you. Do you understand?"
She poked her revolver a foot nearer, and Uppy nodded emphatically. She smiled. It was almost funny to see Uppy's understanding liven up at the point of the gun, and she felt a thrill that tingled to her finger-tips. The little devils of adventure were wide-awake in her, and, smiling at Uppy, she told him to hold up the end of his driving whip. He obeyed. The revolver flashed, and a muffled yell came from him as he felt the shock of the bullet as it struck fairly against the butt of his whip. In the same instant there came a snarling deep-throated growl from Wapi. From the sledge Peter gave a cry of warning. Uppy shrank back, and Dolores cried out sharply and put herself swiftly between Wapi and the Eskimo. The huge dog, ready to spring, slunk back to the end of the sledge at the command of her voice. She patted his big head before she got on the sledge behind Peter.
There was no indecision in the manner of Uppy'S going now. He struck out swift and straight for the pale constellation of stars that hung over Fort Confidence. It was splendid traveling. The surface of the arctic plain was frozen solid. What little wind there was came from behind them, and the dogs were big and fresh. Uppy ran briskly, snapping the lash of his whip and la-looing to the dogs in the manner of the Eskimo driver. Dolores did not wait for Peter's demand for a further explanation of their running away and her remarkable words to Blake. She told him. She omitted, for the sake of Peter's peace of mind, the physical insults she had suffered at Captain Rydal's hands. She did not tell him that Rydal had forced her into his arms a few hours before and kissed her. What she did reveal made Peter's arms and shoulders grow tense and he groaned in his helplessness. "If you'd only told me!" he protested. Dolores laughed triumphantly, with her arm about his shoulder. "I knew my dear old Peter too well for that," she exulted. "If I had told you, what a pretty mess we'd be in now, Peter! You would have insisted on calling Captain Rydal into our cabin and shooting him from the bed--and then where would we have been? Don't you think I'm handling it pretty well, Peter dear?"Peter's reply was smothered against her hooded cheek.
He began to question her more directly now, and with his ability to grasp at the significance of things he pointed out quickly the tremendous hazard of their position. There were many more dogs and other sledges at Blake's place, and it was utterly inconceivable that Blake and Captain Rydal would permit them to reach Fort Confidence without making every effort in their power to stop them. Once they succeeded in placing certain facts in the hands of the Mounted Police, both Rydal and Blake would be done for. He impressed this uncomfortable truth on Dolores and suggested that if she could have smuggled a rifle along in the dunnage sack it would have helped matters considerably. For Rydal and Blake would not hesitate at shooting. For them it must be either capture or kill--death for him, anyway, for he was the one factor not wanted in the equation. He summed up their chances and their danger calmly and pointedly, as he always looked at troubling things. And Dolores felt her heart sinking within her. After all, she had not handled the situation any too well. She almost wished she had killed Rydal herself and called it self-defense. At least she had been criminally negligent in not smuggling along a rifle.
"But we'll beat them out," she argued hopefully. "We've got a splendid team, Peter, and I'll take off my coat and run behind the sledge as much as I can. Uppy won't dare play a trick on us now, for he knows that if I should miss him, Wapi would tear the life out of him at a word from me. We'll win out, Peter dear. See if we don't!"
Peter hugged his thoughts to himself. He did not tell her that Blake and Rydal would pursue with a ten- or twelve-dog team, and that there was almost no chance at all of a straight get-away. Instead, he pulled her head down and kissed her.
To Wapi there had come at last a response to the great yearning that was in him. Instinct, summer and winter, had drawn him south, had turned him always in that direction, filled with the uneasiness of the mysterious something that was calling to him through the years of forty generations of his kind. And now he was going south. He sensed the fact that this journey would not end at the edge of the Arctic plain and that he was not to hunt caribou or bear. His mental formulae necessitated no process of reasoning. They were simple and to the point His world had suddenly divided itself into two parts; one contained the woman, and the other his old masters and slavery. And the woman stood against these masters. They were her enemies as well as his own. Experience had taught him the power and the significance of firearms, just as it had made him understand the uses for which spears, and harpoons, and whips were made. He had seen the woman shoot Blake, and he had seen her ready to shoot at Uppy. Therefore he understood that they were enemies and that all associated with them were enemies. At a word from her he was ready to spring ahead and tear the life out of the Eskimo driver and even out of the dogs that were pulling the sledge. It did not take him long to comprehend that the man on the sledge was a part of the woman.He hung well back, twenty or thirty paces behind the sledge, and unless Peter or the woman called to him, or the sledge stopped for some reason, he seldom came nearer. It took only a word from Dolores to bring him to her side.
Hour after hour the journey continued. The plain was level as a floor, and at intervals Dolores would run in the trail that the load might be lightened and the dogs might make better time. It was then that Peter watched Uppy with the revolver, and it was also in these intervals--running close beside the woman--that the blood in Wapi's veins was fired with a riotous joy.
For three hours there was almost no slackening in Uppy's speed. The fourth and fifth were slower. In the sixth and seventh the pace began to tell. And the plain was no longer hard and level, swept like a floor by the polar winds. Rolling undulations grew into ridges of snow and ice; in places the dogs dragged the sledge over thin crusts that broke under the runners; fields of drift snow, fine as shot, lay in their way; and in the eighth hour Uppy stopped the lagging dogs and held up his two hands in the mute signal of the Eskimo that they could go no farther without a rest.
Wapi dropped on his belly and watched. His eyes followed Uppy suspiciously as he strung up the tent on its whalebone supports to keep the bite of the wind from the sledge on which Dolores sat at Peter's feet. Then Uppy built a fire of kindlings, and scraped up a pot of ice for tea-water. After that, while the water was heating, he gave each of the trace dogs a frozen fish. Dolores herself picked out one of the largest and tossed it to Wapi. Then she sat down again and began to talk to Peter, bundled up in his furs. After a time they ate, and drank hot tea, and after he had devoured a chunk of raw meat the size of his two fists, Uppy rolled himself in his sleeping bag near the dogs. A little at a time Wapi dragged himself nearer until his head lay on Dolores' coat. After that there was a long silence broken only by the low voices of the woman and the man, and the heavy breathing of the tired dogs. Wapi himself dozed off, but never for long. Then Dolores nodded, and her head drooped until it found a pillow on Peter's shoulder. Gently Peter drew a bearskin about her, and for a long time sat wide-awake, guarding Uppy and baring his ears at intervals to listen. A dozen times he saw Wapi's bloodshot eyes looking at him, and twice he put out a hand to the dog's head and spoke to him in a whisper.
Even Peter's eyes were filmed by a growing drowsiness when Wapi drew silently away and slunk suspiciously into the night. There was no yapping foxes here, forty miles from the coast. An almost appalling silence hung under the white stars, a silence broken only by the low and distant moaning the wind always makes on the barrens. Wapi listened to it, and he sniffed with his gray muzzle turned to the north. And then he whined. Had Dolores or Peter seen him or heard the note in his throat, they, too, would have stared back over the trail they had traveled. For something was coming to Wapi. Faint, elusive, and indefinable breath in the air, he smelled it in one moment, and the next it was gone. For many minutes he stood undecided, and then he returned to the sledge, his spine bristling and a growl in his throat.Wide-eyed and staring, Peter was looking back. "What is it, Wapi?" His voice aroused Dolores. She sat up with a start. The growl had grown into a snarl in Wapi's throat. "I think they are coming," said Peter calmly. "You'd better rouse Uppy. He hasn't moved in the last two hours." Something that was like a sob came from Dolores' lips as she stood up. "They're not coming," she whispered. "They've stopped--and they're building a fire!" Not more than a third of a mile away a point of yellow flame flared up in the night. "Give me the revolver, Peter."
Peter gave it to her without a word. She went to Uppy, and at the touch of her foot he was out of his sleeping-bag, his moon-face staring at her. She pointed back to the fire. Her face was dead white. The revolver was pointed straight at Uppy's heart."If they come up with us, Uppy--you die!"
The Eskimo's narrow eyes widened. There was murder in this white woman's face, in the steadiness of her hand, and in her voice. If they came up with them--he would die! Swiftly he gathered up his sleeping-bag and placed it on the sledge. Then he roused the dogs, tangled in their traces. They rose to their feet, sleepy and ill-humored. One of them snapped at his hand. Another snarled viciously as he untwisted a trace. Then one of the yawning brutes caught the new smell in the air, the smell that Wapi had gathered when it was a mile farther off. He sniffed. He sat back on his haunches and sent forth a yelping howl to his comrades in the other team. In ten seconds the other five were howling with him, and scarcely had the tumult burst from their throats when there came a response from the fire half a mile away."My God!" gasped Peter, under his breath.
Dolores sprang to the gee-bar, and Uppy lashed his long whip until it cracked like a repeating rifle over the pack. The dogs responded and sped through the night. Behind them the pandemonium of dog voices in the other camp had ceased. Men had leaped into life. Fifteen dogs were straightening in the tandem trace of a single sledge.Dolores laughed, a sobbing, broken laugh, that in itself was a cry of despair. "Peter, if they come up with us, what shall we do?" "If they overtake us," said Peter, "give me the revolver. It is fully loaded?" "I have cartridges--"
For the first time she remembered that she had not filled the three empty chambers. Crooking her arm under the gee-bar, she fumbled in her pocket. The dogs, refreshed by their sleep and urged by Uppy's whip, were tearing off the first mile at a great speed. The trail ahead of them was level and hard again. Uppy knew they were on the edge of the big barren of the Lacs Delesse, and he cracked his whip just as the off runner of the sledge struck a hidden snow-blister. There was a sudden lurch, and in a vicious up-shoot of the gee-bar the revolver was knocked from Dolores' hand--and was gone. A shriek rose to her lips, but she stifled it before it was given voice. Until this minute she had not felt the terror of utter hopelessness upon her. Now it made her faint. The revolver had not only given her hope, but also a steadfast faith in herself. From the beginning she had made up her mind how she would use it in the end, even though a few moments before she had asked Peter what they would do.
Crumpled down on the sledge, she clung to Peter, and suddenly the inspiration came to her not to let him know what had happened. Her arms tightened about his shoulders, and she looked ahead over the backs of the wolfish pack, shivering as she thought of what Uppy would do could he guess her loss. But he was running now for his life, driven on by his fear of her unerring marksmanship--and Wapi. She looked over her shoulder. Wapi was there, a huge gray shadow twenty paces behind. And she thought she heard a shout!Peter was speaking to her. "Blake's dogs are tired," he was saying. "They were just about to camp, and ours have had a rest. Perhaps--" "We shall beat them!" she interrupted him. "See how fast we are going, Peter! It is splendid!" A rifle-shot sounded behind them. It was not far away, and involuntarily she clutched him tighter. Peter reached up a hand. "Give me the revolver, Dolores." "No," she protested. "They are not going to overtake us." "You must give me the revolver," he insisted. "Peter, I can't. You understand, I can't. I must keep the revolver."
She looked back again. There was no doubt now. Their pursuers were drawing nearer. She heard a voice, the la-looing of running Eskimos, a faint shout which she knew was a white man's shout--and another rifle shot. Wapi was running nearer. He was almost at the tail of the sledge, and his red eyes were fixed on her as he ran.
"Wapi!" she cried. "Wapi!"
"Wapi," she almost screamed, "go back! Sick 'em, Wapi--sick 'em--sick 'em--sick 'em!" She flung out her arms, driving him back, repeating the words over and over again. She leaned over the edge of the sledge, clinging to the gee-bar. "Go back, Wapi! Sick 'em-sick 'em--sick 'em!"As if in response to her wild exhortation, there came a sudden yelping outcry from the team behind. It was close upon them now. Another ten minutes. And then she saw that Wapi was dropping behind. Quickly he was swallowed up in the starlit chaos of the night. "Peter," she cried, sobbingly. "Peter!"
Listening to the retreating sound of the sledge, Wapi stood a silent shadow in the trail. Then he turned and faced the north. He heard the other sound now, and ahead of it the wind brought him a smell, the smell of things he hated. For many years something had been fighting itself toward understanding within him, and the yelping of dogs and the taint in the air of creatures who had been his slave-masters narrowed his instinct to the one vital point. Again it was not a process of reason but the cumulative effect of things that had happened, and were happening. He had scented menace when first he had given warning of the nearness of pursuers, and this menace was no longer an elusive and unseizable thing that had merely stirred the fires of his hatred. It was now a near and physical fact. He had tried to run away from it--with the woman--but it had followed and was overtaking him, and the yelping dogs were challenging him to fight as they had challenged him from the day he was old enough to take his own part. And now he had something to fight for. His intelligence gripped the fact that one sledge was running away from the other, and that the sledge which was running away was his sledge--and that for his sledge he must fight.
He waited, almost squarely in the trail. There was no longer the slinking, club-driven attitude of a creature at bay in the manner in which he stood in the path of his enemies. He had risen out of his serfdom. The stinging slash of the whip and his dread of it were gone. Standing there in the starlight with his magnificent head thrown up and the muscles of his huge body like corded steel, the passing spirit of Shan Tung would have taken him for Tao, the Great Dane. He was not excited--and yet he was filled with a mighty desire-more than that, a tremendous purpose. The yelping excitement of the oncoming Eskimo dogs no longer urged him to turn aside to avoid their insolent bluster, as he would have turned aside yesterday or the day before. The voices of his old masters no longer sent him slinking out of their way, a growl in his throat and his body sagging with humiliation and the rage of his slavery. He stood like a rock, his broad chest facing them squarely, and when he saw the shadows of them racing up out of the star-mist an eighth of a mile away, it was not a growl but a whine that rose in his throat, a whine of low and repressed eagerness, of a great yearning about to be fulfilled. Two hundred yards--a hundred-eighty--not until the dogs were less than fifty from him did he move. And then, like a rock hurled by a mighty force, he was at them.
He met the onrushing weight of the pack breast to breast. There was no warning. Neither men nor dogs had seen the waiting shadow. The crash sent the lead-dog back with Wapi's great fangs in his throat, and in an instant the fourteen dogs behind had piled over them, tangled in their traces, yelping and snarling and biting, while over them round-faced, hooded men shouted shrilly and struck with their whips, and from the sledge a white man sprang with a rifle in his hands. It was Rydal. Under the mass of dogs Wapi, the Walrus, heard nothing of the shouts of men. He was fighting. He was fighting as he had never fought before in all the days of his life. The fierce little Eskimo dogs had smelled him, and they knew their enemy. The lead-dog was dead. A second Wapi had disemboweled with a single slash of his inch-long fangs. He was buried now. But his jaws met flesh and bone, and out of the squirming mass there rose fearful cries of agony that mingled hideously with the bawling of men and the snarling and yelping of beasts that had not yet felt Wapi's fangs. Three and four at a time they were at him. He felt the wolfish slash of their teeth in his flesh. In him the sense of pain was gone. His jaws closed on a foreleg, and it snapped like a stick. His teeth sank like ivory knives into the groin of a brute that had torn a hole in his side, and a smothered death-howl rose out of the heap. A fang pierced his eye. Even then no cry came from Wapi, the Walrus. He heaved upward with his giant body. He found another throat, and it was then that he rose above the pack, shaking the life from his victim as a terrier would have shaken a rat. For the first time the Eskimos saw him, and out of their superstitious souls strange cries found utterance as they sprang back and shrieked out to Rydal that it was a devil and not a beast that had waited for them in the trail. Rydal threw up his rifle. The shot came. It burned a crease in Wapi's shoulder and tore a hole as big as a man's fist in the breast of a dog about to spring upon him f rom behind. Again he was down, and Rydal dropped his rifle, and snatched a whip from the hand of an Eskimo. Shouting and cursing, he lashed the pack, and in a moment he saw a huge, open-jawed shadow rise up on the far side and start off into the open starlight. He sprang back to his rifle. Twice he fired at the retreating shadow before it disappeared. And the Eskimo dogs made no movement to follow. Five of the fifteen were dead. The remaining ten, torn and bleeding--three of them with legs that dragged in the bloody snow--gathered in a whipped and whimpering group. And the Eskimos, shivering in their fear of this devil that had entered into the body of Wapi, the Walrus, failed to respond to Rydal's command when he pointed to the red trail that ran out under the stars.
At Fort Confidence, one hundred and fifty miles to the south, there was day--day that was like cold, gray dawn, the day one finds just beyond the edge of the Arctic night, in which the sun hangs like a pale lantern over the far southern horizon. In a log-built room that faced this bit of glorious red glow lay Peter, bolstered up in his bed so that he could see it until it faded from the sky. There was a new light in his face, and there was something of the old Peter back in his eyes. Watching the final glow with him was Dolores. It was their second day.
Into this world, in the twilight that was falling swiftly as they watched the setting of the sun, came Wapi, the Walrus. Blinded in the eye, gaunt with hunger and exhaustion, covered with wounds, and with his great heart almost ready to die, he came at last to the river across which lay the barracks. His vision was nearly gone, but under his nose he could still smell faintly the trail he was following until the last. It led him across the river. And in darkness it brought him to a door.
After a little the door opened, and with its opening came at last the fulfilment of the promise of his dreams--hope, happiness, things to live for in a new, a white-man's world. For Wapi, the Walrus, forty years removed from Tao of Vancouver, had at last come home.
Above God's Lake, where the Bent Arrow runs red as pale blood under its crust of ice, Reese Beaudin heard of the dog auction that was to take place at Post Lac Bain three days later. It was in the cabin of Joe Delesse, a trapper, who lived at Lac Bain during the summer, and trapped the fox and the lynx sixty miles farther north in this month of February.
"Diantre, but I tell you it is to be the greatest sale of dogs that has ever happened at Lac Bain!" said Delesse. "To this Wakao they are coming from all the four directions. There will be a hundred dogs, huskies, and malamutes, and Mackenzie hounds, and mongrels from the south, and I should not wonder if some of the little Eskimo devils were brought from the north to be sold as breeders. Surely you will not miss it, my friend?""I am going by way of Post Lac Bain," replied Reese Beaudin equivocally.
But his mind was not on the sale of dogs. From his pipe he puffed out thick clouds of smoke, and his eyes narrowed until they seemed like coals peering out of cracks; and he said, in his quiet, soft voice:"Do you know of a man named Jacques Dupont, m'sieu?" Joe Delesse tried to peer through the cloud of smoke at Reese Beaudin's face. "Yes, I know him. Does he happen to be a friend of yours?" Reese laughed softly.
"I have heard of him. They say that he is a devil. To the west I was told that he can whip any man between Hudson's Bay and the Great Bear, that he is a beast in man-shape, and that he will surely be at the big sale at Lac Bain."On his knees the huge hands of Joe Delesse clenched slowly, gripping in their imaginary clutch a hated thing. "Oui, I know him," he said. "I know also--Elise--his wife. See!" He thrust suddenly his two huge knotted hands through the smoke that drifted between him and the stranger who had sought the shelter of his cabin that night. "See--I am a man full-grown, m'sieu--a man--and yet I am afraid of him! That is how much of a devil and a beast in man-shape he is." Again Reese Beaudin laughed in his low, soft voice. "And his wife, mon ami? Is she afraid of him?" He had stopped smoking. Joe Delesse saw his face. The stranger's eyes made him look twice and think twice. "You have known her--sometime?" "Yes, a long time ago. "We were children together. And I have heard all has not gone well with her. Is it so?" "Does it go well when a dove is mated to a vulture, m'sieu?" "I have also heard that she grew up to be very beautiful," said Reese Beaudin, "and that Jacques Dupont killed a man for her. If that is so--"
"It is not so," interrupted Delesse. "He drove another man away--no, not a man, but a yellow-livered coward who had no more fight in him than a porcupine without quills! And yet she says he was not a coward. She has always said, even to Dupont, that it was the way le Bon Dieu made him, and that because he was made that way he was greater than all other men in the North Country. How do I know? Because, m'sieu, I am Elise Dupont's cousin."Delesse wondered why Reese Beaudin's eyes were glowing like living coals.
"And yet--again, it is only rumor I have heard--they say this man, whoever he was, did actually run away, like a dog that had been whipped and was afraid to return to its kennel."
"Pst!" Joe Delesse flung his great arms wide. "Like that--he was gone. And no one ever saw him again, or heard of him again. But I know that she knew--my cousin, Elise. What word it was he left for her at the last she has always kept in her own heart, mon Dieu, and what a wonderful thing he had to fight for! You knew the child. But the woman--non? She was like an angel. Her eyes, when you looked into them--hat can I say, m'sieu? They made you forget. And I have seen her hair, unbound, black and glossy as the velvet side of a sable, covering her to the hips. And two years ago I saw Jacques Dupont's hands in that hair, and he was dragging her by it--"Something snapped. It was a muscle in Reese Beaudin's arm. He had stiffened like iron. "And you let him do that!" Joe Delesse shrugged his shoulders. It was a shrug of hopelessness, of disgust.
"For the third time I interfered, and for the third time Jacques Dupont beat me until I was nearer dead than alive. And since then I have made it none of my business. It was, after all, the fault of the man who ran away. You see, m'sieu, it was like this: Dupont was mad for her, and this man who ran away--the Yellow-back--wanted her, and Elise loved the Yellow-back. This Yellow-back was twenty-three or four, and he read books, and played a fiddle and drew strange pictures--and was weak in the heart when it came to a fight. But Elise loved him. She loved him for those very things that made him a fool and a weakling, m'sieu, the books and the fiddle and the pictures; and she stood up with the courage for them both. And she would have married him, too, and would have fought for him with a club if it had come to that, when the thing happened that made him run away. It was at the midsummer carnival, when all the trappers and their wives and children were at Lac Bain. And Dupont followed the Yellow-back about like a dog. He taunted him, he insulted him, he got down on his knees and offered to fight him without getting on his feet; and there, before the very eyes of Elise, he washed the Yellow-back's face in the grease of one of the roasted caribou! And the Yellow-back was a man! Yes, a grown man! And it was then that Jacques Dupont shouted out his challenge to all that crowd. He would fight the Yellow-back. He would fight him with his right arm tied behind his back! And before Elise and the Yellow-back, and all that crowd, friends tied his arm so that it was like a piece of wood behind him, and it was his right arm, his fighting arm, the better half of him that was gone. And even then the Yellow-back was as white as the paper he drew pictures on. Ventre saint gris, but then was his chance to have killed Jacques Dupont! Half a man could have done it. Did he, m'sieu? No, he did not. With his one arm and his one hand Jacques Dupont whipped that Yellow-back, and he would have killed him if Elise had not rushed in to sav e the Yellow-back's purple face from going dead black. And that night the Yellow-back slunk away. Shame? Yes. From that night he was ashamed to show his face ever again at Lac Bain. And no one knows where he went. No one--except Elise. And her secret is in her own breast.""And after that?" questioned Reese Beaudin, in a voice that was scarcely above a whisper.
"I cannot understand," said Joe Delesse. "It was strange, m'sieu, very strange. I know that Elise, even after that coward ran away, still loved him. And yet--well, something happened. I overheard a terrible quarrel one day between Jan Thiebout, father of Elise, and Jacques Dupont. After that Thiebout was very much afraid of Dupont. I have my own suspicion. Now that Thiebout is dead it is not wrong for me to say what it is. I think Thiebout killed the halfbreed Bedore who was found dead on his trap-line five years ago. There was a feud between them. And Dupont, discovering Thiebout's secret--well, you can understand how easy it would be after that, m'sieu. Thiebout's winter trapping was in that Burntwood country, fifty miles from neighbor to neighbor, and very soon after Bedore's death Jacques Dupont became Thiebout's partner. I know that Elise was forced to marry him. That was four years ago. The next year old Thiebout died, and in all that time not once has Elise been to Post Lac Bain!""Like the Yellow-back--she never returned," breathed Reese Beaudin. "Never. And now--it is strange--" "What is strange, Joe Delesse?" "That for the first time in all these years she is going to Lac Bain--to the dog sale." Reese Beaudin's face was again hidden in the smoke of his pipe. Through it his voice came. "It is a cold night, M'sieu Delesse. Hear the wind howl!" "Yes, it is cold--so cold the foxes will not run. My traps and poison-baits will need no tending tomorrow." "Unless you dig them out of the drifts." "I will stay in the cabin." "What! You are not going to Lac Bain!" "I doubt it." "Even though Elise, your cousin, is to be there?"
"I have no stomach for it, m'sieu. Nor would you were you in my boots, and did you know why he is going. Par les mille cornes d'u diable, I cannot whip him but I can kill him--and if I went--and the thing happens which I guess is going to happen--""Qui? Surely you will tell me--"
"Yes, I will tell you. Jacques Dupont knows that Elise has never stopped loving the Yellow-back. I do not believe she has ever tried to hide it from him. Why should she? And there is a rumor, m'sieu, that the Yellow-back will be at the Lac Bain dog sale."Reese Beaudin rose slowly to his feet, and yawned in that smoke-filled cabin. "And if the Yellow-back should turn the tables, Joe Delesse, think of what a fine thing you will miss," he said. Joe Delesse also rose, with a contemptuous laugh. "That fiddler, that picture-drawer, that book-reader--Pouff! You are tired, m'sieu, that is your bunk."
Reese Beaudin held out a hand. The bulk of the two stood out in the lamp-glow, and Joe Delesse was so much the bigger man that his hand was half again the size of Reese Beaudin's. They gripped. And then a strange look went over the face of Joe Delesse. A cry came from out of his beard. His mouth grew twisted. His knees doubled slowly under him, and in the space of ten seconds his huge bulk was kneeling on the floor, while Reese Beaudin looked at him, smiling.
"Has Jacques Dupont a greater grip than that, Joe Delesse?" he asked in a voice that was so soft it was almost a woman's.
On that day--the day of Wakoa, the dog sale--seven fat caribou were roasting on great spits at Post Lac Bain, and under them were seven fires burning red and hot of seasoned birch, and around the seven fires were seven groups of men who slowly turned the roasting carcasses.
It was the Big Day of the mid-winter festival, and Post Lac Bain, with a population of twenty in times of quiet, was a seething wilderness metropolis of two hundred excited souls and twice as many dogs. From all directions they had come, from north and south and east and west; from near and from far, from the Barrens, from the swamps, from the farther forests, from river and lake and hidden trail--a few white men, mostly French; half-breeds and 'breeds, Chippewans, and Crees, and here and there a strange, darkvisaged little interloper from the north with his strain of Eskimo blood. Foregathered were all the breeds and creeds and fashions of the wilderness.
Over all this, pervading the air like an incense, stirring the desire of man and beast, floated the aroma of the roasting caribou. The feast-hour was at hand. With cries that rose above the last words of a wild song the seven groups of men rushed to seven pairs of props and tore them away. The great carcasses swayed in mid-air, bent slowly over their spits, and then crashed into the snow fifteen feet from the fire. About each carcass five men with razor-sharp knives ripped off hunks of the roasted flesh and passed them into eager hands of the hungry multitude. First came the women and children, and last the men.On this there peered forth from a window in the factor's house the darkly bearded, smiling face of Reese Beaudin.
"I have seen him three times, wandering about in the crowd, seeking someone," he said. "Bien, he shall find that someone very soon!"
In the face of McDougall, the factor, was a strange look. For he had listened to a strange story, and there was still something of shock and amazement and disbelief in his eyes.
He turned from the window again, and took from the table a violin wrapped in buckskin, and softly he played one of their old love songs. It was not much more than a whisper, and yet it was filled with a joyous exultation. He laid the violin down when he was finished, and laughed, and filled his pipe, and lighted it.
"It is good for a man's soul to know that a woman loves him, and has been true," he said. "Mon pere, will you tell me again what she said? It is strength for me--and I must soon be going."McDougall repeated, as if under a strain from which he could not free himself:
"She came to me late last night, unknown to Dupont. She had received your message, and knew you were coming. And I tell you again that I saw something in her eyes which makes me afraid! She told me, then, that her father killed Bedore in a quarrel, and that she married Dupont to save him from the law--and kneeling there, with her hand on the cross at her breast, she swore that each day of her life she has let Dupont know that she hates him, and that she loves you, and that some day Reese Beaudin would return to avenge her. Yes, she told him that--I know it by what I saw in her eyes. With that cross clutched in her fingers she swore that she had suffered torture and shame, and that never a word of it had she whispered to a living soul, that she might turn the passion of Jacques Dupont's black heart into a great hatred. And today--Jacques Dupont will kill you!""I shall die hard," Reese repeated again. He tucked the violin in its buckskin covering under his arm. From the table he took his cap and placed it on his head. In a last effort McDougall sprang from his chair and caught the other's arm. "Reese Beaudin--you are going to your death! As factor of Lac Bain--agent of justice under power of the Police--I forbid it!"
"So-o-o-o," spoke Reese Beaudin gently. "Mon pere--" He unbuttoned his coat, which had remained buttoned. Under the coat was a heavy shirt; and the shirt he opened, smiling into the factor's eyes, and McDougall's face froze, and the breath was cut short on his lips."That!" he gasped. Reese Beaudin nodded. Then he opened the door and went out.
Joe Delesse had been watching the factor's house, and he worked his way slowly along the edge of the feasters so that he might casually come into the path of Reese Beaudin. And there was one other man who also had watched, and who came in the same direction. He was a stranger, tall, closely hooded, his mustached face an Indian bronze. No one had ever seen him at Lac Bain before, yet in the excitement of the carnival the fact passed without conjecture or significance. And from the cabin of Henri Paquette another pair of eyes saw Reese Beaudin, and Mother Paquette heard a sob that in itself was a prayer.
In and out among the devourers of caribou-flesh, scanning the groups and the ones and the twos and the threes, passed Jacques Dupont, and with him walked his friend, oneeyed Layonne. Layonne was a big man, but Dupont was taller by half a head. The brutishness of his face was hidden under a coarse red beard; but the devil in him glowered from his deep-set, inhuman eyes; it walked in his gait, in the hulk of his great shoulders, in the gorilla-like slouch of his hips. His huge hands hung partly clenched at his sides. His breath was heavy with whisky that Layonne himself had smuggled in, and in his heart was black murder."He has not come!" he cried for the twentieth time. "He has not come!" He moved on, and Reese Beaudin--ten feet away--turned and smiled at Joe Delesse with triumph in his eyes. He moved nearer. "Did I not tell you he would not find in me that narrow-shouldered, smooth-faced stripling of five years ago?" he asked. "N'est-ce pas, friend Delesse?" The face of Joe Delesse was heavy with a somber fear. "His fist is like a wood-sledge, m'sieu." "So it was years ago." "His forearm is as big as the calf of your leg." "Oui, friend Delesse, it is the forearm of a giant." "He is half again your weight." "Or more, friend Delesse." "He will kill you! As the great God lives, he will kill you!" "I shall die hard," repeated Reese Beaudin for the third time that day. Joe Delesse turned slowly, doggedly. His voice rumbled. "The sale is about to begin, m'sieu. See!"
A man had mounted the log platform raised to the height of a man's shoulders at the far end of the clearing. It was Henri Paquette, master of the day's ceremonies, and appointed auctioneer of the great wakao. A man of many tongues was Paquette. To his lips he raised a great megaphone of birchbark, and sonorously his call rang out--in French, in Cree, in Chippewan, and the packed throng about the caribou-fires heaved like a living billow, and to a man and a woman and a child it moved toward the appointed place."The time has come," said Reese Beaudin. "And all Lac Bain shall see!" Behind them--watching, always watching--followed the bronze-faced stranger in his close-drawn hood.
For an hour the men of Lac Bain gathered close-wedged about the log platform on which stood Henri Paquette and his Indian helper. Behind the men were the women and children, and through the cordon there ran a babiche-roped pathway along which the dogs were brought.
The platform was twenty feet square, with the floor side of the logs hewn flat, and there was no lack of space for the gesticulation and wild pantomime of Paquette. In one hand he held a notebook, and in the other a pencil. In the notebook the sales of twenty dogs were already tabulated, and the prices paid.Anxiously, Reese Beaudin was waiting. Each time that a new dog came up he looked at Joe Delesse, but, as yet Joe had failed to give the signal. On the platform the Indian was holding two malamutes in leash now and Paquette was crying, in a well simulated fit of great fury:
"What, you cheap kimootisks, will you let this pair of malamutes go for seven mink and a cross fox. Are you men? Are you poverty-stricken? Are you blind? A breed dog and a male giant for seven mink and a cross fox? Non, I will buy them myself first, and kill them, and use their flesh for dog-feed, and their hides for fools' caps! I will--""Twelve mink and a Number Two Cross," came a voice out of the crowd.
"Twelve mink and a Number One," shouted another. "A little better--a little better!" wailed Paquette. "You are waking up, but slowly--mon Dieu, so slowly! Twelve mink and--"A voice rose in Cree: "Nesi-tu-now-unisk!" Paquette gave a triumphant yell.
"The Indian beats you! The Indian from Little Neck Lake--an Indian beats the white man! He offers twenty beaver--prime skins! And beaver are wanted in Paris now. They're wanted in London. Beaver and gold--they are the same! But they are the price of one dog alone. Shall they both go at that? Shall the Indian have them for twenty beaver--twenty beaver that may be taken from a single house in a day--while it has taken these malamutes two and a half years to grow? I say, you cheap kimootisks--"And then an amazing thing happened. It was like a bomb falling in that crowded throng of wondering and amazed forest people. It was the closely hooded stranger who spoke. "I will give a hundred dollars cash," he said. A look of annoyance crossed Reese Beaudin's face. He was close to the bronze-faced stranger, and edged nearer. "Let the Indian have them," he said in a low voice. "It is Meewe. I knew him years ago. He has carried me on his back. He taught me first to draw pictures." "But they are powerful dogs," objected the stranger. "My team needs them." The Cree had risen higher out of the crowd. One arm rose above his head. He was an Indian who had seen fifty years of the forests, and his face was the face of an Egyptian. "Nesi-tu-now Nesoo-sap umisk!" he proclaimed. Henri Paquette hopped excitedly, and faced the stranger. "Twenty-two beaver," he challenged. "Twenty-two--" "Let Meewe have them," replied the hooded stranger.
Three minutes later a single dog was pulled up on the log platform. He was a magnificent beast, and a rumble of approval ran through the crowd.
The face of Joe Delesse was gray. He wet his lips. Reese Beaudin, watching him, knew that the time had come. And Joe Delesse, seeing no way of escape, whispered:
"He is a woman's dog," repeated Reese Beaudin without excitement, yet so clearly that every ear heard. "He is a woman's pet, and M'sieu Dupont most surely does lie if he denies it!"
So far as memory went back no man at Lac Bain that day had ever heard another man give Jacques Dupont the lie. A thrill swept those who heard and understood. There was a great silence, in that silence men near him heard the choking rage in Dupont's great chest. He was staring up--straight up into the smiling face of Reese Beaudin; and in that moment he saw beyond the glossy black beard, and amazement and unbelief held him still. In the next, Reese Beaudin had the violin in his hands. He flung off the buckskin, and in a flash the instrument was at his shoulder."See! I will play, and the woman's pet shall sing!"
And once more, after five years, Lac Bain listened to the magic of Reese Beaudin's violin. And it was Elise's old love song that he played. He played it, smiling down into the eyes of a monster whose face was turning from red to black; yet he did not play it to the end, nor a quarter of it, for suddenly a voice shouted:"It is Reese Beaudin--come back!" Joe Delesse, paralyzed, speechless, could have sworn it was the hooded stranger who shouted; and then he remembered, and flung up his great arms, and bellowed: "Oui--by the Saints, it is Reese Beaudin--Reese Beaudin come back!"
Suddenly as it had begun the playing ceased, and Henri Paquette found himself with the violin in his hands. Reese Beaudin turned, facing them all, the wintry sun glowing in his beard, his eyes smiling, his head high--unfraid now, more fearless than any other man that had ever set foot in Lac Bain. And McDougall, with his arm touching Elise's hair, felt the wild and throbbing pulse of her body. This day--this hour--this minute in which she stood still, inbreathing--had confirmed her belief in Reese Beaudin. As she had dreamed, so had he risen. First of all the men in the world he stood there now, just as he had been first in the days when she had loved his dreams, his music, and his pictures. To her he was the old god, more splendid,--for he had risen above fear, and he was facing Dupont now with that strange quiet smile on his lips. And then, all at once, her soul broke its fetters, and over the women's heads she reached out her arms, and all there heard her voice in its triumph, its joy, its fear."Reese! Reese--my sakeakun!"
Over the heads of all the forest people she called him beloved! Like the fang of an adder the word stung Dupont's brain. And like fire touched to powder, swiftly as lightning illumines the sky, the glory of it blazed in Reese Beaudin's face. And all that were there heard him clearly:
"I am Reese Beaudin. I am the Yellow-back. I have returned to meet a man you all know
-Jacques Dupont. He is a monkey-man--a whipper of boys, a stealer of women, a cheat, a coward, a thing so foul the crows will not touch him when he dies--"
Quick as Dupont's movement had been it was no swifter than that of the closely-hooded stranger. He was as tall as Dupont, and about him there was an air of authority and command."Wait," he said, and placed a hand on Dupont's heaving chest. His smile was cold as ice. Never had Dupont seen eyes so like the pale blue of steel.
"M'sieu Dupont, you are about to avenge a great insult. It must be done fairly. If you have weapons, throw them away. I will search this--this Reese Beaudin, as he calls himself! And if there is to be a fight, let it be a good one. Strip yourself to that great garment you have on, friend Dupont. See, our friend--this Reese Beaudin--is already stripping!"
He was unbuttoning the giant's heavy Hudson's Bay coat. He pulled it off, and drew Dupont's knife from its sheath. Paquette, like a stunned cat that had recovered its ninth life, was scrambling from the platform. The Indian was already gone. And Reese Beaudin had tossed his coat to Joe Delesse, and with it his cap. His heavy shirt was closely buttoned; and not only was it buttoned, Delesse observed, but also was it carefully pinned. And even now, facing that monster who would soon be at him, Reese Beaudin was smiling.
For a moment the closely hooded stranger stood between them, and Jacques Dupont crouched himself for his vengeance. Never to the people of Lac Bain had he looked more terrible. He was the gorilla-fighter, the beast fighter, the fighter who fights as the wolf, the bear and the cat--crushing out life, breaking bones, twisting, snapping, inundating and destroying with his great weight and his monstrous strength. He was a hundred pounds heavier than Reese Beaudin. On his stooping shoulders he could carry a tree. With his giant hands he could snap a two-inch sapling. With one hand alone he had set a bear-trap. And with that mighty strength he fought as the cave-man fought. It was his boast there was no trick of the Chippewan, the Cree, the Eskimo or the forest man that he did not know. And yet Reese Beaudin stood calmly, waiting for him, and smiling!In another moment the hooded stranger was gone, and there was none between them. "A long time I have waited for this, m'sieu," said Reese, for Dupont's ears alone. "Five years is a long time. And my Elise still loves me."
Still more like a gorilla Jacques Dupont crept upon him. His face was twisted by a rage to which he could no longer give voice. Hatred and jealousy robbed his eyes of the last spark of the thing that was human. His great hands were hooked, like an eagle's talons. His lips were drawn back, like a beast's. Through his red beard yellow fangs were bared.And Reese Beaudin no longer smiled. He laughed!
"Until I went away and met real men, I never knew what a pig of a man you were, M'sieu Dupont," he taunted amiably, as though speaking in jest to a friend. "You remind me of an aged and over-fat porcupine with his big paunch and crooked arms. What horror must it have been for my Elise to have lived in sight of such a beast as you!"
With a bellow Dupont was at him. And swifter than eyes had ever seen man move at Lac Bain before, Reese Beaudin was out of his way, and behind him; and then, as the giant caught himself at the edge of the platform, and turned, he received a blow that sounded like the broadside of a paddle striking water. Reese Beaudin had struck him with the flat of his unclenched hand!
A murmur of incredulity rose out of the crowd. To the forest man such a blow was the deadliest of insults. It was calling him an Iskwao--a woman--a weakling--a thing too contemptible to harden one's fist against. But the murmur died in an instant. For Reese Beaudin, making as if to step back, shot suddenly forward--straight through the giant's crooked arms--and it was his fist this time that landed squarely between the eyes of Dupont. The monster's head went back, his great body wavered, and then suddenly he plunged backward off the platform and fell with a crash to the ground.
A yell went up from the hooded stranger. Joe Delesse split his throat. The crowd drowned Reese Beaudin's voice. But above it all rose a woman's voice shrieking forth a name.
And then Jacques Dupont was on the platform again. In the moments that followed one could almost hear his neighbor's heart beat. Nearer and still nearer to each other drew the two men. And now Dupont crouched still more, and Joe Delesse held his breath. He noticed that Reese Beaudin was standing almost on the tips of his toes--that each instant he seemed prepared, like a runner, for sudden flight. Five feet--four--and Dupont leapt in, his huge arms swinging like the limb of a tree, and his weight following with crushing force behind his blow. For an instant it seemed as though Reese Beaudin had stood to meet that fatal rush, but in that same instant--so swiftly that only the hooded stranger knew what had happened--he was out of the way, and his left arm seemed to shoot downward, and then up, and then his right straight out, and then again his left arm downward, and up--and it was the third blow, all swift as lightning, that brought a yell from the hooded stranger. For though none but the stranger had seen it, Jacques Dupont's head snapped back--and all saw the fourth blow that sent him reeling like a man struck by a club.
There was no sound now. A mental and a vocal paralysis seized upon the inhabitants of Lac Bain. Never had they seen fighting like this fighting of Reese Beaudin. Until now had they lived to see the science of the sawdust ring pitted against the brute force of Brobdingnagian, of Antaeus and Goliath. For Reese Beaudin's fighting was a fighting without tricks that they could see. He used his fists, and his fists alone. He was like a dancing man. And suddenly, in the midst of the miracle, they saw Jacques Dupont go down. And the second miracle was that Reese Beaudin did not leap on him when he had fallen. He stood back a little, balancing himself in that queer fashion on the balls and toes of his feet. But no sooner was Dupont up than Reese Beaudin was in again, with the swiftness of a cat, and they could hear the blows, like solid shots, and Dupont's arms waved like tree-tops, and a second time he was off the platform.He was staggering when he rose. The blood ran in streams from his mouth and nose. His beard dripped with it. His yellow teeth were caved in.
This time he did not leap upon the platform--he clambered back to it, and the hooded stranger gave him a lift which a few minutes before Dupont would have resented as an insult."Ah, it has come," said the stranger to Delesse. "He is the best close-in fighter in all--" He did not finish.
"I could kill you now--kill you with a single blow," said Reese Beaudin in a moment when the giant stood swaying. "But there is a greater punishment in store for you, and so I shall let you live!"
And now Reese Beaudin was facing that part of the crowd where the woman he loved was standing. He was breathing deeply. But he was not winded. His eyes were black as night, his hair wind-blown. He looked straight over the heads between him and she whom Dupont had stolen from him.
And Joe Delesse, looking up, saw that Reese Beaudin was making a mighty effort to quiet a strange excitement within his breast. And then there was a rending of cloth and of buttons and of pins as in one swift movement he tore the shirt from his own breast-exposing to the eyes of Lac Bain blood-red in the glow of the winter sun, the crimson badge of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police!And above the gasp that swept the multitude, above the strange cry of the woman, his voice rose:
"I am Reese Beaudin, the Yellow-back. I am Reese Beaudin, who ran away. I am Reese Beaudin,--Sergeant in His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and in the name of the law I arrest Jacques Dupont for the murder of Francois Bedore, who was killed on his trap-line five years ago! Fitzgerald--"
The hooded stranger leaped upon the platform. His heavy coat fell off. Tall and grim he stood in the scarlet jacket of the Police. Steel clinked in his hands. And Jacques Dupont, terror in his heart, was trying to see as he groped to his knees. The steel snapped over his wrists.And then he heard a voice close over him. It was the voice of Reese Beaudin.
"And this is your final punishment, Jacques Dupont--to be hanged by the neck until you are dead. For Bedore was not dead when Elise's father left him after their fight on the trap-line. It was you who saw the fight, and finished the killing, and laid the crime on Elise's father. Mukoki, the Indian, saw you. It is my day, Dupont, and I have waited long
The rest Dupont did not hear. For up from the crowd there went a mighty roar. And through it a woman was making her way with outreaching arms--and behind her followed the factor of Lac Bain.
The Fiddling Man
Breault's cough was not pleasant to hear. A cough possesses manifold and almost unclassifiable diversities. But there is only one cough when a man has a bullet through his lungs and is measuring his life by minutes, perhaps seconds. Yet Breault, even as he coughed the red stain from his lips, was not afraid. Many times he had found himself in the presence of death, and long ago it had ceased to frighten him. Some day he had expected to come under the black shadow of it himself--not in a quiet and peaceful way, but all at once, with a shock. And the time had come. He knew that he was dying; and he was calm. More than that--in dying he was achieving a triumph. The red-hot death-sting in his lung had given birth to a frightful thought in his sickening brain. The day of his great opportunity was at hand. The hour--the minute.
A last flush of the pale afternoon sun lighted up his black-bearded face as his eyes turned, with their new inspiration, to his sledge. It was a face that one would remember--not pleasantly, perhaps, but as a fixture in a shifting memory of things; a face strong with a brute strength, implacable in its hard lines, emotionless almost, and beyond that, a mystery.
It was the best known face in all that part of the northland which reaches up from Fort McMurray to Lake Athabasca and westward to Fond du Lac and the Wholdais country. For ten years Breault had made that trip twice a year with the northern mails. In all its reaches there was not a cabin he did not know, a face he had not seen, or a name he could not speak; yet there was not a man, woman, or child who welcomed him except for what he brought. But the government had found its faith in him justified. The police at their lonely outposts had come to regard his comings and goings as dependable as day and night. They blessed him for his punctuality, and not one of them missed him when he was gone. A strange man was Breault.
With his back against a tree, where he had propped himself after the first shock of the bullet in his lung, he took a last look at life with a passionless imperturbability. If there was any emotion at all in his face it was one of vindictiveness--an emotion roused by an intense and terrible hatred that in this hour saw the fulfilment of its vengeance. Few men nursed a hatred as Breault had nursed his. And it gave him strength now, when another man would have died.
He measured the distance between himself and the sledge. It was, perhaps, a dozen paces. The dogs were still standing, tangled a little in their traces,--eight of them,--wide-chested, thin at the groins, a wolfish horde, built for endurance and speed. On the sledge was a quarter of a ton of his Majesty's mail. Toward this Breault began to creep slowly and with great pain. A hand inside of him seemed crushing the fiber of his lung, so that the blood oozed out of his mouth. When he reached the sledge there were many red patches in the snow behind him. He opened with considerable difficulty a small dunnage sack, and after fumbling a bit took there-from a pencil attached to a long red string, and a soiled envelope.
For the first time a change came upon his countenance--a ghastly smile. And above his hissing breath, that gushed between his lips with the sound of air pumped through the fine mesh of a colander, there rose a still more ghastly croak of exultation and of triumph. Laboriously he wrote. A few words, and the pencil dropped from his stiffening fingers into the snow. Around his neck he wore a long red scarf held together by a big brass pin, and to this pin he fastened securely the envelope.
This much done,--the mystery of his death solved for those who might some day find him,--the ordinary man would have contented himself by yielding up life's struggle with as little more physical difficulty as possible. Breault was not ordinary. He was, in his one way, efficiency incarnate. He made space for himself on the sledge, and laid himself out in that space with great care, first taking pains to fasten about his thighs two babiche thongs that were employed at times to steady his freight. Then he ran his left arm through one of the loops of the stout mail-chest. By taking these precautions he was fairly secure in the belief that after he was dead and frozen stiff no amount of rough trailing by the dogs could roll him from the sledge.
In this conjecture he was right. When the starved and exhausted malamutes dragged their silent burden into the Northwest Mounted Police outpost barracks at Crooked Bow twenty-four hours later, an ax and a sapling bar were required to pry Francois Breault from his bier. Previous to this process, however, Sergeant Fitzgerald, in charge at the outpost, took possession of the soiled envelope pinned to Breault's red scarf. The information it bore was simple, and yet exceedingly definite. Few men in dying as Breault had died could have made the matter easier for the police.On the envelope he had written: Jan Thoreau shot me and left me for dead. Have just strength to write this--no more. Francois Breault. It was epic--a colossal monument to this man, thought Sergeant Fitzgerald, as they pried the frozen body loose.
To Corporal Blake fell the unpleasant task of going after Jan Thoreau. Unpleasant, because Breault's starved huskies and frozen body brought with them the worst storm of the winter. In the face of this storm Blake set out, with the Sergeant's last admonition in his ears:"Don't come back, Blake, until you've got him, dead or alive."
That is a simple and efficacious formula in the rank and file of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. It has made volumes of stirring history, because it means a great deal and has been lived up to. Twice before, the words had been uttered to Blake--in extreme cases. The first time they had taken him for six months into the Barren Lands between Hudson's Bay and the Great Slave--and he came back with his man; the second time he was gone for nearly a year along the rim of the Arctic--and from there also he came back with his man. Blake was of that sort. A bull-dog, a Nemesis when he was once on the trail, and--like most men of that kind--without a conscience. In the Blue Books of the service he was credited with arduous patrols and unusual exploits. "Put Blake on the trail" meant something, and "He is one of our best men" was a firmly established conviction at departmental headquarters.
Only one man knew Blake as Blake actually lived under his skin--and that was Blake himself. He hunted men and ran them down without mercy--not because he loved the law, but for the reason that he had in him the inherited instincts of the hound. This comparison, if quite true, is none the less unfair to the hound. A hound is a good dog at heart.
In the January storm it may be that the vengeful spirit of Francois Breault set out in company with Corporal Blake to witness the consummation of his vengeance. That first night, as he sat close to his fire in the shelter of a thick spruce timber, Blake felt the unusual and disturbing sensation of a presence somewhere near him. The storm was at its height. He had passed through many storms, but to-night there seemed to be an uncannily concentrated fury in its beating and wailing over the roofs of the forests.
He was physically comfortable. The spruce trees were so dense that the storm did not reach him, and fortune favored him with a good fire and plenty of fuel. But the sensation oppressed him. He could not keep away from him his mental vision of Breault as he had helped to pry him from the sledge--his frozen features, the stiffened fingers, the curious twist of the icy lips that had been almost a grin.
Blake was not superstitious. He was too much a man of iron for that. His soul had lost the plasticity of imagination. But he could not forget Breault's lips as they had seemed to grin up at him. There was a reason for it. On his last trip down, Breault had said to him, with that same half-grin on his face:"M'sieu, some day you may go after my murderer, and when you do, Francois Breault will go with you."
That was three months ago. Blake measured the time back as he sucked at his pipe, and at the same time he looked at the shadowy and half-lost forms of his dogs, curled up for the night in the outer rim of firelight.
Over the tree-tops a sudden blast of wind howled. It was like a monster voice. Blake rose to his feet and rolled upon the fire the big night log he had dragged in, and to this he added, with the woodman's craft of long experience, lengths of green timber, so arranged that they would hold fire until morning. Then he went into his silk service tent and buried himself in his sleeping-bag.
For a long time he did not sleep. He listened to the crackle of the fire. Again and again he heard that monster voice moaning and shrieking over the forest. Never had the rage of storm filled him with the uneasiness of to-night. At last the mystery of it was solved for him. The wind came and went each time in a great moaning, half shrieking sound: B-r-rr-r--e-e-e-e--aw-w-w-w!
It was like a shock to him; and yet, he was not a superstitious man. No, he was not that. He would have staked his life on it. But it was not pleasant to hear a dead man's name shrieked over one's head by the wind. Under the cover of his sleeping-bag flap Corporal Blake laughed. Funny things were always happening, he tried to tell himself. And this was a mighty good joke. Breault wasn't so slow, after all. He had given his promise, and he was keeping it; for, if it wasn't really Breault's voice up there in the wind, multiplied a thousand times, it was a good imitation of it. Again Corporal Blake laughed--a laugh as unpleasant as the cough that had come from Breault's bullet-punctured lung. He fell asleep after a time; but even sleep could not drive from him the clinging obsession of the thought that strange things were to happen in this taking of Jan Thoreau.
With the gray dawn there was nothing to mark the passing of the storm except freshly fallen snow, and Blake was on the trail before it was light enough to see a hundred yards ahead. There was a defiance and a contempt of last night in the crack of his long caribougut whip and the halloo of his voice as he urged on his dogs. Breault's voice in the wind? Bah! Only a fool would have thought that. Therefore he was a fool. And Jan Thoreau--it would be like taking a child. There would be no happenings to report--merely an arrest, a quick return journey, an affair altogether too ordinary to be interesting. Perhaps it was all on account of the hearty supper of caribou liver he had eaten. He was fond of liver, and once or twice before it had played him tricks.
He began to wonder if he would find Jan Thoreau at home. He remembered Jan quite vividly. The Indians called him Kitoochikun because he played a fiddle. Blake, the Iron Man, disliked him because of that fiddle. Jan was never without it, on the trail or off. The Fiddling Man, he called him contemptuously--a baby, a woman; not fit for the big north. Tall and slim, with blond hair in spite of his French blood and name, a quiet and unexcitable face, and an air that Blake called "damned superiority." He wondered how the Fiddling Man had ever screwed up nerve enough to kill Breault. Undoubtedly there had been no fight. A quick and treacherous shot, no doubt. That was like a man who played a fiddle. POOF! He had no more respect for him than if he dressed in woman's clothing.
And he DID have a wife, this Jan Thoreau. They lived a good twenty miles off the northand-south trail, on an island in the middle of Black Bear Lake. He had never seen the wife. A poor sort of woman, he made up his mind, that would marry a fiddler. Probably a half-breed; maybe an Indian. Anyway, he had no sympathy for her. Without a doubt, it was the woman who did the trapping and cut the wood. Any man who would tote a fiddle around on his back--
Corporal Blake traveled fast, and it was afternoon of the second day when he came to the dense spruce forest that shut in Black Bear Lake. Here something happened to change his plans somewhat. He met an Indian he knew--an Indian who, for two or three good reasons that stuck in the back of his head, dared not lie to him; and this tribesman, coming straight from the Thoreau cabin, told him that Jan was not at home, but had gone on a three-day trip to see the French missioner who lived on one of the lower Wholdaia waterways.
Blake was keen on strategem. With him, man-hunting was like a game of chess; and after he had questioned the Indian for a quarter of an hour he saw his opportunity. Pastamoo, the Cree, was made a part of his Majesty's service on the spot, with the promise of torture and speedy execution if he proved himself a traitor.
Blake turned over to him his dogs and sledge, his provisions, and his tent, and commanded him to camp in the heart of a cedar swamp a few miles back, with the information that he would return for his outfit at some time in the indefinite future. He might be gone a day or a week. When he had seen Pastamoo off, he continued his journey toward the cabin, in the hope that Jan Thoreau's wife was either an Indian or a fool. He was too old a hand at his game to be taken in by the story that had been told to the Cree.
Jan had not gone to the French missioner's. A murderer's trail would not be given away like that. Of course the wife knew. And Corporal Blake desired no better string to a criminal than the faith of a wife. Wives were easy if handled right, and they had put the finishing touch to more than one of his great successes.
At the edge of the lake he fell back on his old trick--hunger, exhaustion, a sprained leg. It was not more than a quarter of a mile across the snow-covered ice of the lake to the thin spiral of smoke that he saw rising above the thick balsams on the island. Five times in that distance he fell upon his face; he crawled like a man about to die. He performed an arduous task, a devilish task, and when at last he reached the balsams he cursed his luck until he was red in the face. No one had seen him. That quarter-mile of labor was lost, its finesse a failure. But he kept up the play, and staggered weakly through the sheltering balsams to the cabin. His artifice had no shame, even when played on women; and he fell heavily against the door, beat upon it with his fist; and slipped down into the snow, where he lay with his head bowed, as if his last strength was gone.
He heard movement inside, quick steps--and then the door opened. He did not look up for a moment. That would have been crude. When he did raise his head, it was very slowly, with a look of anguish in his face. And then--he stared. His body all at once grew tense, and the counterfeit pain in his eyes died out like a flash in this most astounding moment of his life. Man of iron though he was, steeled to the core against the weaknesses of sudden emotions, it was impossible for him to restrain the gasp of amazement that rose to his lips.
In that stifled cry Jan Thoreau's wife heard the supplication of a dying man. She did not catch, back of it, the note of a startled beast. She was herself startled, frightened for a moment by the unexpectedness of it all.
And Blake stared. This--the fiddler's wife! She was clutching in her hand a brush with which she had been arranging her hair. The hair, jet black, was wonderful. Her eyes were still more wonderful to Blake. She was not an Indian--not a half-breed--and beautiful. The loveliest face he had ever visioned, sleeping or awake, was looking down at him.
With a second gasp, he remembered himself, and his body sagged, and the amazed stare went out of his eyes as he allowed his head to fall a little. In this movement his cap fell off. In another moment she was at his side, kneeling in the snow and bending over him."You are hurt, m'sieu!"
Her hair fell upon him, smothering his neck and shoulders. The perfume of it was like the delicate scent of a rare flower in his nostrils. A strange thrill swept through him. He did not try to analyze it in those few astonishing moments. It was beyond his comprehension, even had he tried. He was ignorant of the finer fundamentals of life, and of the great truth that the case-hardened nature of a man, like the body of an athlete, crumbles fastest under sudden and unexpected change and strain.
He regained his feet slowly and stupidly, assisted by Marie. They climbed the one step to the door. As he sank back heavily on the cot, in the room they entered, a thick tress of her hair fell softly upon his face. He closed his eyes for a space. When he opened them, Marie was bending over the stove.
And SHE was Thoreau's wife! The instant he had looked up into her face, he had forgotten the fiddler; but he remembered him now as he watched the woman, who stood with her back toward him. She was as slim as a reed. Her hair fell to her hips. He drew a deep breath. Unconsciously he clenched his hands. SHE--the fiddler's wife! The thought repeated itself again and again. Jan Thoreau, MURDERER, and this woman--HIS WIFE.She returned in a moment with hot tea, and he drank with subtle hypocrisy from the cup she held to his lips.
"Sprained my leg," he said then, remembering his old part, and replying to the questioning anxiety in her eyes. "Dogs ran away and left me, and I got here just by chance. A little more and--"
He smiled grimly, and as he sank back he gave a sharp cry. He had practised that cry in more than one cabin, and along with it a convulsion of his features to emphasize the impression he labored to make."I'm afraid--I'll be a trouble to you," he apologized. "It's not broken; but it's bad, and I won't be able to move--soon. Is Jan at home?"
"No, m'sieu; he is away." "Away," repeated Blake disappointedly. "Perhaps sometime he has told you about me," he added with sudden hopefulness. "I am John Duval.""M'sieu--DUVAL!" Marie's eyes, looking down at him, became all at once great pools of glowing light. Her lips parted. She leaned toward him, her slim hands clasped suddenly to her breast. "M'sieu Duval--who nursed him through the smallpox?" she cried, her voice trembling. "M'sieu Duval--who saved my Jan's life!" Blake had looked up his facts at headquarters. He knew what Duval, the Barren Land trapper, had once upon a time done for Jan. "Yes; I am John Duval," said. "And so--you see--I am sorry that Jan is away." "But he is coming back soon--in a few days," exclaimed Marie. "You shall stay, m'sieu! You will wait for him? Yes?" "This leg--" began Blake. He cut himself short with a grimace. "Yes, I'll stay. I guess I'll have to."
Marie had changed at the mention of Duval's name. With the glow in her eyes had come a flush into her cheeks, and Blake could see the strange little quiver at her throat as she looked at him. But she did not see Blake so much as what lay beyond him--Duval's lonely cabin away up on the edge of the Great Barren, the hours of darkness and agony through which Jan had passed, and the magnificent comradeship of this man who had now dragged himself to their own cabin, half dead.
Many times Jan had told her the story of that terrible winter when Duval had nursed him like a woman, and had almost given up his life as a sacrifice. And this--THIS--was Duval? She bent over him again as he lay on the cot, her eyes shining like stars in the growing dusk. In that dusk she was unconscious of the fact that his fingers had found a long tress of her hair and were clutching it passionately. Remembering Duval as Jan had enshrined him in her heart, she said:"I have prayed many times that the great God might thank you, m'sieu."
He raised a hand. For an instant it touched her soft, warm cheek and caressed her hair. Marie did not shrink--yes, that would have been an insult. Even Jan would have said that. For was not this Duval, to whom she owed all the happiness in her life--Duval, more than brother to Jan Thoreau, her husband?"And you--are Marie?" said Blake.
"Yes, m'sieu, I am Marie." A joyous note trembled in her voice as she drew back from the cot. He could hear her swiftly braiding her hair before she struck a match to light the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. After that, through partly closed eyes, he watched her as she prepared their supper. Occasionally, when she turned toward him as if to speak, he feigned a desire to sleep. It was a catlike watchfulness, filled with his old cunning. In his face there was no sign to betray its hideous significance. Outwardly he had regained his iron-like impassiveness; but in his body and his brain every nerve and fiber was consumed by a monstrous desire--a desire for this woman, the murderer's wife. It was as strange and as sudden as the death that had come to Francois Breault.
The moment he had looked up into her face in the doorway, it had overwhelmed him. And now even the sound of her footsteps on the floor filled him with an exquisite exultation. It was more than exultation. It was a feeling of POSSESSION.In the hollow of his hand he--Blake, the man-hunter--held the fate of this woman. She was the Fiddler's wife--and the Fiddler was a murderer. Marie heard the sudden deep breath that forced itself from his lips, a gasp that would have been a cry of triumph if he had given it voice. "You are in pain, m'sieu," she exclaimed, turning toward him quickly. "A little," he said, smiling at her. "Will you help me to sit up, Marie?"
He saw ahead of him another and more thrilling game than the man-hunt now. And Marie, unsuspicious, put her arms about the shoulders of the Pharisee and helped him to rise. They ate their supper with a narrow table between them. If there had been a doubt in Blake's mind before that, the half hour in which she sat facing him dispelled it utterly. At first the amazing beauty of Thoreau's wife had impinged itself upon his senses with something of a shock. But he was cool now. He was again master of his old cunning. Pitilessly and without conscience, he was marshaling the crafty forces of his brute nature for this new and more thrilling fight--the fight for a woman.
That in representing the Law he was pledged to virtue as well as order had never entered into his code of life. To him the Law was force--power. It had exalted him. It had forged an iron mask over the face of his savagery. And it was the savage that was dominant in him now. He saw in Marie's dark eyes a great love--love for a murderer.
It was not his thought that he might alienate that. For that look, turned upon himself, he would have sacrificed his whole world as it had previously existed. He was scheming beyond that impossibility, measuring her even as he called himself Duval, counting--not his chances of success, but the length of time it would take him to succeed.
He had never failed. A man had never beaten him. A woman had never tricked him. And he granted no possibility of failure now. But--HOW? That was the question that writhed and twisted itself in his brain even as he smiled at her over the table and told her of the black days of Jan's sickness up on the edge of the Barren.And then it came to him--all at once. Marie did not see. She did not FEEL. She had no suspicion of this loyal friend of her husband's.
Blake's heart pounded triumphant. He hobbled back to the cot, leaning on Marie slim shoulder; and as he hobbled he told her how he had helped Jan into his cabin in just this same way, and how at the end Jan had collapsed--just as he collapsed when he came to the cot. He pulled Marie down with him--accidentally. His lips touched her head. He laughed.
For a few moments he was like a drunken man in his new joy. Willingly he would have gambled his life on his chance of winning. But confidence displaced none of his cunning. He rubbed his hands and said:"Gawd, but won't it be a surprise for Jan? I told him that some day I'd come. I told him!"
It would be a tremendous joke--this surprise he had in store for Jan. He chuckled over it again and again as Marie went about her work; and Marie's face flushed and her eyes were bright and she laughed softly at this great love which Duval betrayed for her husband. No; even the loss of his dogs and his outfit couldn't spoil his pleasure! Why should it? He could get other dogs and another outfit--but it had been three years since he had seen Jan Thoreau! When Marie had finished her work he put his hand suddenly to his eyes and said:
"Peste! but last night's storm must have hurt my eyes. The light blinds them, ma cheri. Will you put it out, and sit down near me, so that I can see you as you talk, and tell me all that has happened to Jan Thoreau since that winter three years ago?"
She put out the light, and threw open the door of the box-stove. In the dim firelight she sat on a stool beside Blake's cot. Her faith in him was like that of a child. She was twenty-two. Blake was fifteen years older. She felt the immense superiority of his age.
This man, you must understand, had been more than a brother to Jan. He had been a father. He had risked his life. He had saved him from death. And Marie, as she sat at his side, did not think of him as a young man--thirty-seven. She talked to him as she might have talked to an elder brother of Jan's, and with something like the same reverence in her voice.
It was unfortunate--for her--that Jan had loved Duval, and that he had never tired of telling her about him. And now, when Blake's caution warned him to lie no more about the days of plague in Duval's cabin, she told him--as he had asked her--about herself and Jan; how they had lived during the last three years, the important things that had happened to them, and what they were looking forward to. He caught the low note of happiness that ran through her voice; and with a laugh, a laugh that sounded real and wholesome, he put out his hand in the darkness--for the fire had burned itself low--and stroked her hair. She did not shrink from the caress. He was happy because THEY were happy. That was her thought! And Blake did not go too far.
She went on, telling Jan's life away, betraying him In her happiness, crucifying him in her faith. Blake knew that she was telling the truth. She did not know that Jan had killed Francois Breault, and she believed that he would surely return--in three days. And the way he had left her that morning! Yes, she confided even that to this big brother of Jan, her cheeks flushing hotly in the darkness--how he had hated to go, and held her a long time in his arms before he tore himself away.
Had he taken his fiddle along with him? Yes--always that. Next to herself he loved his violin. Oo-oo--no, no--she was not jealous of the violin! Blake laughed--such a big, healthy, happy laugh, with an odd tremble in it. He stroked her hair again, and his fingers lay for an instant against her warm cheek.And then, quite casually, he played his second big card. "A man was found dead on the trail yesterday," he said. "Some one killed him. He had a bullet through his lung. He was the mail-runner, Francois Breault."
It was then, when he said that Breault had been murdered, that Blake's hand touched Marie's cheek and fell to her shoulder. It was too dark in the cabin to see. But under his hand he felt her grow suddenly rigid, and for a moment or two she seemed to stop breathing. In the gloom Blake's lips were smiling. He had struck, and he needed no light to see the effect."Francois--Breault!" he heard her breathe at last, as if she was fighting to keep something from choking her. "Francois Breault--dead--killed by someone--"
She rose slowly. His eyes followed her, a shadow in the gloom as she moved toward the stove. He heard her strike a match, and when she turned toward him again in the light of the oil-lamp, her face was pale and her eyes were big and staring. He swung himself to the edge of the cot, his pulse beating with the savage thrill of the inquisitor. Yet he knew that it was not quite time for him to disclose himself--not quite. He did not dread the moment when he would rise and tell her that he was not injured, and that he was not M'sieu Duval, but Corporal Blake of the Royal Mounted Police. He was eager for that moment. But he waited--discreetly. When the trap was sprung there would be no escape."You are sure--it was Francois Breault?" she said at last. He nodded.
"Yes, the mail-runner. You knew him?" She had moved to the table, and her hand was gripping the edge of it. For a space she did not answer him, but seemed to be looking somewhere through the cabin walls--a long way off. Ferret-like, he was watching her, and saw his opportunity. How splendidly fate was playing his way!
He rose to his feet and hobbled painfully to her, a splendid hypocrite, a magnificent dissembler. He seized her hand and held it in both his own. It was small and soft, but strangely cold."Ma cheri--my dear child--what makes you look like that? What has the death of Francois Breault to do with you--you and Jan?"
It was the voice of a friend, a brother, low, sympathetic, filled just enough with anxiety. Only last winter, in just that way, it had won the confidence and roused the hope of Pierrot's wife, over on the Athabasca. In the summer that followed they hanged Pierrot. Gently Blake spoke the words again. Marie's lips trembled. Her great eyes were looking at him--straight into his soul, it seemed."You may tell me, ma cheri," he encouraged, barely above a whisper. "I am Duval. And Jan--I love Jan."
He drew her back toward the cot, dragging his limb painfully, and seated her again upon the stool. He sat beside her, still holding her hand, patting it, encouraging her. The color was coming back into Marie's cheeks. Her lips were growing full and red again, and suddenly she gave a trembling little laugh as she looked up into Blake's face. His presence began to dispel the terror that had possessed her all at once."Tell me, Marie." He saw the shudder that passed through her slim shoulders. "They had a fight--here--in this cabin--three days ago," she confessed. "It must have been--the day--he was killed."
Blake knew the wild thought that was in her heart as she watched him. The muscles of his jaws tightened. His shoulders grew tense. He looked over her head as if he, too, saw something beyond the cabin walls. It was Marie's hand that gripped his now, and her voice, panting almost, was filled with an agonized protest."No, no, no--it was not Jan," she moaned. "It was not Jan who killed him!" "Hush!" said Blake.
He looked about him as if there was a chance that someone might hear the fatal words she had spoken. It was a splendid bit of acting, almost unconscious, and tremendously effective. The expression in his face stabbed to her heart like a cold knife. Convulsively her fingers clutched more tightly at his hands. He might as well have spoken the words: "It was Jan, then, who killed Francois Breault!"Instead of that he said:
"You must tell me everything, Marie. How did it happen? Why did they fight? And why has Jan gone away so soon after the killing? For Jan's sake, you must tell me-everything."
He waited. It seemed to him that he could hear the fighting struggle in Marie's breast. Then she began, brokenly, a little at a time, now and then barely whispering the story. It was a woman's story, and she told it like a woman, from the beginning. Perhaps at one time the rivalry between Jan Thoreau and Francois Breault, and their struggle for her love, had made her heart beat faster and her cheeks flush warm with a woman's pride of conquest, even though she had loved one and had hated the other. None of that pride was in her voice now, except when she spoke of Jan.
"Yes--like that--children together--we grew up," she confided. "It was down there at Wollaston Post, in the heart of the big forests, and when I was a baby it was Jan who carried me about on his shoulders. Oui, even then he played the violin. I loved it. I loved Jan--always. Later, when I was seventeen, Francois Breault came."She was trembling. "Jan has told me a little about those days," lied Blake. "Tell me the rest, Marie."
"I--I knew I was going to be Jan's wife," she went on, the hands she had withdrawn from his twisting nervously in her lap. "We both knew. And yet--he had not spoken--he had not been definite. Oo-oo, do you understand, M'sieu Duval? It was my fault at the beginning! Francois Breault loved me. And so--I played with him--only a little, m'sieu!-to frighten Jan into the thought that he might lose me. I did not know what I was doing. No--no; I didn't understand.
"Jan and I were married, and on the day Jan saw the missioner--a week before we were made man and wife--Francois Beault came in from the trail to see me, and I confessed to him, and asked his forgiveness. We were alone. And he--Francois Breault--was like a madman."She was panting. Her hands were clenched. "If Jan hadn't heard my cries, and come just in time--" she breathed. Her blazing eyes looked up into Blake's face. He understood, and nodded.
"And it was like that--again--three days ago," she continued. "I hadn't seen Breault in two years--two years ago down at Wollaston Post. And he was mad. Yes, he must have been mad when he came three days ago. I don't know that he came so much for me as it was to kill Jan, He said it was Jan. Ugh, and it was here--in the cabin--that they fought!""And Jan--punished him," said Blake in a low voice. Again the convulsive shudder swept through Marie's shoulders.
"It was strange--what happened, m'sieu. I was going to shoot. Yes, I would have shot him when the chance came. But all at once Francois Breault sprang back to the door, and he cried: 'Jan Thoreau, I am mad--mad! Great God, what have I done?' Yes, he said that, m'sieu, those very words--and then he was gone.""And that same day--a little later--Jan went away from the cabin, and was gone a long time," whispered Blake. "Was it not so, Marie?" "Yes; he went to his trap-line, m'sieu."
For the first time Blake made a movement. He took her face boldly between his two hands, and turned it so that her staring eyes were looking straight into his own. Every fiber in his body was trembling with the thrill of his monstrous triumph. "My dear little girl, I must tell you the truth," he said. "Your husband, Jan, did not go to his trap-line three days ago. He followed Francois Breault, and killed him. And I am not John Duval. I am Corporal Blake of the Mounted Police, and I have come to get Jan, that he may be hanged by the neck until he is dead for his crime. I came for that. But I have changed my mind. I have seen you, and for you I would give even a murderer his life. Do you understand? For YOU--YOU--YOU--"
And then came the grand finale, just as he had planned it. His words had stupefied her. She made no movement, no sound--only her great eyes seemed alive. And suddenly he swept her into his arms with the wild passion of a beast. How long she lay against his breast, his arms crushing her, his hot lips on her face, she did not know.
The world had grown suddenly dark. But in that darkness she heard his voice; and what it was saying roused her at last from the deadliness of her stupor. She strained against him, and with a wild cry broke from his arms, and staggered across the cabin floor to the door of her bedroom. Blake did not pursue her. He let the darkness of that room shut her in. He had told her--and she understood.
He shrugged his shoulders as he rose to his feet. Quite calmly, in spite of the wild rush of blood through his body, he went to the cabin door, opened it, and looked out into the night. It was full of stars, and quiet.
It was quiet in that inner room, too--so quiet that one might fancy he could hear the beating of a heart. Marie had flung herself in the farthest corner, beyond the bed. And there her hand had touched something. It was cold--the chill of steel. She could almost have screamed, in the mighty reaction that swept through her like an electric shock. But her lips were dumb and her hand clutched tighter at the cold thing.
She drew it toward her inch by inch, and leveled it across the bed. It was Jan's goose-gun, loaded with buck-shot. There was a single metallic click as she drew the hammer back. In the doorway, looking at the stars, Blake did not hear.
Marie waited. She was not reasoning things now, except that in the outer room there was a serpent that she must kill. She would kill him as he came between her and the light; then she would follow over Jan's trail, overtake him somewhere, and they would flee together. Of that much she thought ahead. But chiefly her mind, her eyes, her brain, her whole being, were concentrated on the twelve-inch opening between the bedroom door and the outer room. The serpent would soon appear there. And then--
She heard the cabin door close, and Blake's footsteps approaching. Her body did not tremble now. Her forefinger was steady on the trigger. She held her breath--and waited. Blake came to the deadline and stopped. She could see one arm and a part of his shoulder. But that was not enough. Another half step--six inches--four even, and she would fire. Her heart pounded like a tiny hammer in her breast.
And then the very life in her body seemed to stand still. The cabin door had opened suddenly, and someone had entered. In that moment she would have fired, for she knew that it must be Jan who had returned. But Blake had moved. And now, with her finger on the trigger, she heard his cry of amazement:"Sergeant Fitzgerald!" "Yes. Put up your gun, Corporal. Have you got Jan Thoreau?" "He--is gone."
"That is lucky for us." It was the stranger's voice, filled with a great relief. "I have traveled fast to overtake you. Matao, the half-breed, was stabbed in a quarrel soon after you left; and before he died he confessed to killing Breault. The evidence is conclusive. Ugh, but this fire is good! Anybody at home?""Yes," said Blake slowly. "Mrs. Thoreau--is--at home."
She stood in the doorway of a log cabin that was overgrown with woodvine and mellow with the dull red glow of the climbing bakneesh, with the warmth of the late summer sun falling upon her bare head. Cummins' shout had brought her to the door when we were still half a rifle shot down the river; a second shout, close to shore, brought her running down toward me. In that first view that I had of her, I called her beautiful. It was chiefly, I believe, because of her splendid hair. John Cummins' shout of homecoming had caught her with it undone, and she greeted us with the dark and lustrous masses of it sweeping about her shoulders and down to her hips. That is, she greeted Cummins, for he had been gone for nearly a month. I busied myself with the canoe for that first half minute or so.
Then it was that I received my introduction and for the first time touched the hand of Melisse Cummins, the Florence Nightingale of several thousand square miles of northern wilderness. I saw, then, that what I had at first taken for our own hothouse variety of beauty was a different thing entirely, a type that would have disappointed many because of its strength and firmness. Her hair was a glory, brown and soft. No woman could have criticized its loveliness. But the flush that I had seen in her face, flower-like at a short distance, was a tan that was almost a man's tan. Her eyes were of a deep blue and as clear as the sky; but in them, too, there was a strength that was not altogether feminine. There was strength in her face, strength in the poise of her firm neck, strength in every movement of her limbs and body. When she spoke, it was in a voice which, like her hair, was adorable. I had never heard a sweeter voice, and her firm mouth was all at once not only gentle and womanly, but almost girlishly pretty.
I could understand, now, why Melisse Cummins was the heroine of a hundred true tales of the wilderness, and I could understand as well why there was scarcely a cabin or an Indian hut in that ten thousand square miles of wilderness in which she had not, at one time or another, been spoken of as "L'ange Meleese." And yet, unlike that other "angel" of flesh and blood, Florence Nightingale, the story of Melisse Cummins and her work will live and die with her in that little cabin two hundred miles straight north of civilization. No, that is wrong. For the wilderness will remember. It will remember, as it has remembered Father Duchene and the Missioner of Lac Bain and the heroic days of the early voyageurs. A hundred "Meleeses" will bear her memory in name--for all who speak her name call her "Meleese," and not Melisse.
The wilderness itself may never forget, as it has never forgotten beautiful Jeanne D'Arcambal, who lived and died on the shore of the great bay more than one hundred and sixty years ago. It will never forget the great heart this woman has given to her "people" from the days of girlhood; it will not forget the thousand perils she faced to seek out the sick, the plague-stricken and the starving; in old age there will still be those who will remember the first prayers to the real God that she taught them in childhood; and children still to come, in cabin, tepee and hut, will live to bless the memory of L'ange Meleese, who made possible for them a new birthright and who in the wild places lived to the full measure and glory of the Golden Rule.
To find Meleese Cummins and her home in the wilderness, one must start at Le Pas as the last outpost of civilization and strike northward through the long Pelican Lake waterways to Reindeer Lake. Nearly forty miles up the east shore of the lake, the adventurer will come to the mouth of the Gray Loon--narrow and silent stream that winds under overhanging forests--and after that a two-hours' journey in a canoe will bring one to the Cummins' cabin.
It is set in a clearing, with the thick spruce and balsam and cedar hemming it in, and a tall ridge capped with golden birch rising behind it. In that clearing John Cummins raises a little fruit and a few vegetables during the summer months; but it is chiefly given up to three or four huge plots of scarlet moose-flowers, a garden of Labrador tea, and wild flowering plants and vines of half a dozen varieties. And where the radiant mooseflowers grow thickest, screened from the view of the cabin by a few cedars and balsams, are the rough wooden slabs that mark seven graves. Six of them are the graves of children--little ones who died deep in the wilderness and whose tiny bodies Meleese Cummins could not leave to the savage and pitiless loneliness of the forests, but whom she has brought together that they might have company in what she calls her, "Little Garden of God."
Those little graves tell the story of Meleese--the woman who, all heart and soul, has buried her own one little babe in that garden of flowers. One of the slabs marks the grave of an Indian baby, whose little dead body Meleese Cummins carried to her cabin in her own strong arms from twenty miles back in the forest, when the temperature was fifty degrees below zero. Another of them, a baby boy, a French half-breed and his wife brought down from fifty miles up the Reindeer and begged "L'ange Meleese" to let it rest with the others, where "it might not be lonely and would not be frightened by the howl of the wolves." It was a wild and half Indian mother who said that!
It was almost twenty years ago that the romance began in the lives of John and Meleese Cummins. Meleese was then ten years old; and she still remembers as vividly as though they were but memories of yesterday the fears and wild tales of that one terrible winter when the "Red Terror"--the smallpox--swept in a pitiless plague of death throughout the northern wilderness. It was then that there came down from the north, one bitter cold day, a ragged and half-starved boy, whose mother and father had died of the plague in a little cabin fifty miles away, and who from the day he staggered into the home of Henry Janesse, became Meleese's playmate and chum. This boy was John Cummins.
When Janesse moved to Fort Churchill, where Meleese might learn more in the way of reading and writing and books than her parents could teach her, John Cummins went with her. He went with them to Nelson House, and from there to Split Lake, where Janesse died. From that time, at the age of eighteen, he became the head and support of the home. When he was twenty and Meleese eighteen, the two were married by a missioner from Nelson House. The following autumn the young wife's mother died, and that winter Meleese began her remarkable work among her "people."
In their little cabin on the Gray Loon, one will hear John Cummins say but little about himself; but there is a glow in his eyes and a flush in his cheeks as he tells of that first day he came home from a three-days journey over a long trap line to find his home cold and fireless, and a note written by Meleese telling him that she had gone with a twelveyear-old boy who had brought her word through twenty miles of forest that his mother was dying. That first "case" was more terrible for John Cummins than for his wife, for it turned out to be smallpox, and for six weeks Meleese would allow him to come no nearer than the edge of the clearing' in which the pest-ridden cabin stood. First the mother, and then the boy, she nursed back to life, locking the door against the two husbands, who built themselves a shack in the edge of the forest. Half a dozen times Meleese Cummins has gone through ordeals like that unscathed. Once it was to nurse a young Indian mother through the dread disease, and again she went into a French trapper's cabin where husband, wife and daughter were all sick with the malady. At these times, when the "call" came to Meleese from a far cabin or tepee, John Cummins would give up the duties of his trap line to accompany her, and would pitch his tent or make him a shack close by, where he could watch over her, hunt food for the afflicted people and keep up the stack of needed firewood and water.
But there were times when the "calls" came during the husband's absence, and, if they were urgent, Meleese went alone, trusting to her own splendid strength and courage. A half-breed woman came to her one day, in the dead of winter, from twenty miles across the lake. Her husband had frozen one of his feet, and the "frost malady" would kill him, she said, unless he had help. Scarcely knowing what she could do in such a case, Meleese left a note for her husband, and on snowshoes the two heroic women set off across the wind-swept and unsheltered lake, with the thermometer fifty degrees below zero. It was a terrible venture, but the two won out. When Meleese saw the frozen man, she knew that there was but one thing to do, and with all the courage of her splendid heart she amputated his foot. The torture of that terrible hour no one will ever know. But when John Cummins returned to his home and, wild with fear, followed across the lake, he scarcely recognized the Meleese who flung herself sobbing into his arms when he found her. For two weeks after that Meleese herself was sick. Thus, through the course of years, it came about that it was, indeed, a stranger in the land who had not heard her name. During the summer months Meleese's work, in place of duty, was a pleasure. With her husband she made canoe journeys for fifty miles about her home, hearing with her the teachings of cleanliness, of health and of God. She was the first to hold to her own loving breast many little children who came into their wild and desolate inheritance of life. She was the first to teach a hundred childish lips to say "Now I lay me down to sleep," and more than one woman she made to see the clear and starry way to brighter life.
Far up on Reindeer Lake, close to the shore, there is a towering "lob-stick tree"--which is a tall spruce or cedar lopped of all its branches to the very crest, which is trimmed in the form of a plume. A tree thus shriven and trimmed is the Cree cenotaph to one held in almost spiritual reverence, and the tree far up on Reindeer Lake is one of the half dozen or more "lob-sticks" dedicated to Meleese. Six weeks Meleese and John Cummins spent in an Indian camp at this point, and when at last the two bade their primitive friends good-bye and left for home, the little Indian children and the women followed their canoe along the edge of a stream and flung handfuls of flowers after them.
Of what Meleese Cummins and her husband know of the great outside world, or of what they do not know, it is wisest to leave unsaid. Details have often marred a picture. They are children of the wilderness, born of that wilderness, bred of it, and life of it--a beating and palpitating part of a world which few can understand. I doubt if one or the other has ever heard of a William Shakespeare or a Tennyson, for it has not been in my mind or desire to ask; but they do know the human heart as it beats and throbs in a land that is desolation and loneliness, where poetry runs not in lines and meters, but in the bloom of the wild flower, the rush of the rapid, the thunder of the waterfall and the murmuring of the wind in the spruce tops; where drama exists not in the epic lines of literature, but in the hunt cry of the wolf, the death dirges of the storms that wail down from the Barrens, and in the strange cries that rise up out of the silent forests, where for a half of each year life is that endless strife that leaves behind only those whom we term the survival of the fittest.
The Case Of BeauvaisMadness? Perhaps. And yet if it was madness. . . .
But strange things happen up there, gentlemen. I have found it sometimes hard to define that word. There are so many kinds of madness, so many ways in which the human brain may go wrong; and so often it happens that what we call madness is both reasonable and just. It is so. Yes. A little reason is good for us, a little more makes wise men of some of us--but when our reason over-grows us and we reach too far, something breaks and we go insane.
But I will tell you the story. That is what you want to hear, and you expect that it will be prejudiced--that I will either deliberately attempt to protect and prolong a human life, or shorten and destroy it. I shall do neither, gentlemen of the Royal Mounted Police. I have a faith in you that is in its way an unbounded as my faith in God. I have looked up to you in all my life in the wilderness as the heart of chivalry and the soul of honor and fairness to all men. Pathfinders, men of iron, guardians of people and spaces of which civilization knows but little, I have taught my children of the forests to honor, obey and to trust you. And so I shall tell you the story without prejudice, with the gratitude of a missioner who has lived his life for forty years in the wilderness, gentlemen.
I am a Catholic. It is four hundred miles straight north by dog-sledge or snowshoe to my cabin, and this is the first time in nineteen years that I have been down to the edge of the big world which I remember now as little more than a dream. But up there I knew that my duty lay, just at the edge of the Big Barren. See! My hands are knotted like the snarl of a tree. The glare of your lights hurts my eyes. I traveled to-day in the middle of your street because my moccasined feet stumbled on the smoothness of your walks. People stared, and some of them laughed.
Forty years I have lived in another world. You--and especially you gentlemen who have trailed in the Patrols of the north--know what that world is. As it shapes different hands, as it trains different feet, as it gives to us different eyes, so also it has bred into my forest children hearts and souls that may be a little different, and a code of right and wrong that too frequently has had no court of law to guide it. So judge fairly, gentlemen of the Royal Mounted Police! Understand, if you can.
It was a terrible winter--that winter of Le Mort Rouge. So far down as men and children now living will remember, it will be called by my people the winter of Famine and Red Death. Starvation, gentlemen--and the smallpox. People died like--what shall I say? It is not easy to describe a thing like that. They died in tepees. They died in shacks. They died on the trail. From late December until March I said my prayers over the dead. You are wondering what all this has to do with my story; why it matters that the caribou had migrated in vast herds to the westward, and there was no food; why it matters that there were famine and plague in the great unknown land, and that people were dying and our world going through a cataclysm. My backwoods eyes can see your thought. What has all this to do with Joseph Brecht? What has it to do with Andre Beauvais? Why does this little forest priest take up so much time in telling so little? you ask. And because it has its place--because it has its meaning--I ask you for permission to tell my story in my own way. For these sufferings, this hunger and pestilence and death, had a strange and terrible effect on many human creatures that were left alive when spring came. It was like a great storm that had swept through a forest of tall trees. A storm of suffering that left heads bowed, shoulders bent, and minds gone. Yes, GONE!
Since that winter of Le Mort Rouge I know of eyes into which the life of laughter will never come again; I know of strong men who became as little children; I have seen faces that were fair with youth shrivel into age--and my people call it noot' akutawin keskwawin--the cold and hungry madness. May God help Andre Beauvais!I will tell the story now.
It was in June. The last of the mush-snows had gone early, nearly a fortnight before, and the waters were free from ice, when word was brought to me that Father Boget was dying at Old Fort Reliance. Father Boget was twenty years older than I, and I called him mon pere. He was a father to me in our earlier years. I made haste to reach him that I might hold his hand before he died, if that was possible. And you, Sergeant McVeigh, who have spent years in that country of the Great Slave, know what a race with death from Christie Bay to Old Fort Eeliance would be. To follow the broken and twisted waters of the Great Slave would mean two hundred miles, while to cut straight across the land by smaller streams and lakelets meant less than seventy. But on your maps that space of seventy miles is a blank. You have in it no streams and no larger waters. You know little of it. But I can tell you, for I have been though it. It is a Lost Hell. It is a vast country in which berry bushes grow abundantly, but on which there are no berries, where there are forests and swamps, but not a living creature to inhabit them; a country of water in which there are no fish, of air in which there are no birds, of plants without flowers--a reeking, stinking country of brimstone, a hell. In your Blue Books you have called it the Sulphur Country. And this country, as you draw a line from Christie Bay to Old Fort Reliance, is straight between. Mon pere was dying, and my time was short. I decided to venture it--cut across that Sulphur Country, and I sought for a man to accompany me. I could find none. To the Indian it was the land of Wetikoo--the Devil Country; to the Breeds it was filled with horror. Forty miles distant there was a man I knew would go, a white man. But to reach him would lose me three days, and I was about to set out alone when the stranger came. He was, indeed, a strange man. When he came to what I called my chateau, from nowhere, going nowhere, I hardly knew whether to call him young or old. But I made my guess. That terrib le winter had branded him. When I asked him his name, he said:"I am a wanderer, and in wandering I have lost my name. Call me M'sieu."
I found this was a long speech for him, that his tongue was tied by a horrible silence. When I told him where I was going, and described the country I was going through, and that I wanted a man, he merely nodded that he would accompany me.
We started in a canoe, and I placed him ahead of me so that I could make out, if I could, something of what he was. His hair was dark. His beard was dark. His eyes were sunken but strangely clear. They puzzled me. They were always questing. Always seeking. And always expecting, it seemed to me. A man of unfathomable mystery, of unutterable tragedy, of a silence that was almost inhuman. Was he mad? I ask you, gentlemen--was he mad? And I leave the answer to you. To me he was good. When I told him what mon pere had been to me, and that I wanted to reach him before he died, he spoke no word of hope or sympathy--but worked until his muscles cracked. We ate together, we drank together, we slept side by side--and it was like eating and drinking and sleeping with a sphinx which some strange miracle had endowed with life.
The second day we entered the Sulphur Country. The stink of it was in our nostrils that second night we camped. The moon rose, and we saw it as if through the fumes of a yellow smoke. Far behind us we heard a wolf howl, and it was the last sound of life. With the dawn we went on. We passed through broad, low morasses out of which rose the sulphurous fogs. In many places the water we touched with our hands was hot; in other places the forests we paddled through were so dense they were almost tropical. And lifeless. Still, with the stillness of death for thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years. The food we ate seemed saturated with the vileness of sulphur; it seeped into our water-bags; it turned us to the color of saffron; it was terrible, frightening, inconceivable. And still we went on by compass, and M'sieu showed no fear--even less, gentlemen, than did I.And then, on the third day--in the heart of this diseased and horrible region--we made a discovery that drew a strange cry even from those mysteriously silent lips of M'sieu. It was the print of a naked human foot in a bar of mud.
How it came there, why it was there, and why if was a naked foot I suppose were the first thoughts that leaped into our startled minds. What man could live in these infernal regions? WAS it a man, or was it the footprint of some primeval ape, a monstrous survival of the centuries?
The trail led through a steaming slough in which the mud and water were tepid and which grew rank with yellow reeds and thick grasses--grasses that were almost flesh-like, it seemed to me, as if swollen and about to burst from some dreadful disease, Perhaps your scientists can tell why sulphur has this effect on vegetation. It is so; there was sulphur in the very wood we burned. Through those reeds and grasses we soon found where a narrow trail was beaten, and then we came to a rise of land sheltered in timber, a sort of hill in that flat world, and on the crest of this hill we found a cabin.
Yes, a cabin; a cabin built roughly of logs, and it was yellow with sulphur, as if painted. We went inside and we found there the man whom you know as Joseph Brecht. I did not look at M'sieu when he first rose before us, but I heard a great gasp from his throat behind me. And I think I stood as if life had suddenly gone out of me. Joseph Brecht was half naked. His feet were bare. He looked like a wild man, with his uncut hair--a wild man except that his face was smooth. Curious that a man would shave there! And not so odd, perhaps, when one knows how a beard gathers sulphur. He had risen from a cot on which there was a bed of boughs, and in the light that came in through the open door he looked terribly emaciated, with the skin drawn tightly over his cheek bones. It was he who spoke first."I am glad you have come," he said, his eyes staring wildly. "I guess I am dying. Some water, please. There is a spring back of the cabin."
Quite sanely he spoke, and yet the words were scarcely out of his mouth when he fell back upon the cot, his eyes rolling in the top of his head, his mouth agape, his breath coming in great panting gasps. It was a strange sickness. I will not trouble you with all the details. You are anxious for the story--the tragedy--which alone will count with you gentlemen of the law. It came out in his fever, and in the fits of sanity into which he at times succeeded in rousing himself. His name, he said, was Joseph Brecht. For two years he had lived in that sulphur hell. He had, by accident, found the spring of fresh, sweet water trickling out of the hill--another miracle for which I have not tried to account; he built his cabin; for two years he had gone with his canoe to the shore of the great Slave, forty miles distant, for the food he ate. But WHY was he here? That was the story that came bit by bit, half in his fever, half in his sanity. I will tell it in my own words. He was a Government man, mapping out the last timber lines along the edge of the Great Barren, when he first met Andre Beauvais and his wife, Marie. An accident took him to their cabin, a sprained leg. Andre was a fox-hunter, and it was when he was coming home from one of his trips that he found Joseph Brecht helpless in the deep snow, and carried him on his shoulders to his cabin.
Ah, gentlemen, it was the old story--the story old as time. In his sanity he told us about Marie, I hovering over him closely, M'sieu sitting back in the shadows. She was like some wonderful wildflower, French, a little Indian. He told us how her long black hair would stream in a shining cascade, soft as the breast of a swan, to her knees and below; how it would hang again in two great, lustrous braids, and how her eyes were limpid pools that set his soul afire, and how her slim, beautiful body filled him with a monstrous desire. She must have been beautiful. And her husband, Andre Beauvais, worshipped her, and the ground she trod on. And he had the faith in her that a mother has in her child. It was a sublime love, and Joseph Brecht told us about it as he lay there, dying, as he supposed. In that faith of his Andre went unsuspectingly to his trap-lines and his poisontrails, and Marie and Joseph were for many hours at a time alone, sometimes for a day, sometimes for two days, and occasionally for three, for even after his limb had regained its strength Joseph feigned that it was bad. It was a hard fight, he said--a hard fight for him to win her; but win her he did, utterly, absolutely, heart, body and soul. Remember, he was from the South, with all its power of language, all its tricks of love, all its furtiveness of argument, a strong man with a strong mind--and she had lived all her life in the wilderness. She was no match for him. She surrendered. He told us how, after that, he would unbind her wonderful hair and pillow his face in it; how he lived in a heaven of transport, how utterly she gave herself to him in those times when Andre, was away. Did he love her?
Yes, in that mad passion of the brute. But not as you and I might love a woman, gentlemen. Not as Andre loved her. Whether she had a heart or a soul it did not matter. His eyes were blind with an insensate joy when he shrouded himself in her wonderful hair. To see the wild color painting her face like a flower filled his veins with fire. The beauty of her, the touch of her, the mad beat of her heart against him made him like a drunken man in his triumph. Love? Yes, the love of the brute! He prolonged his stay. He had no idea of taking her with him. When the time came, he would go. Day after day, week after week he put it off, feigning that the bone of his leg was affected, and Andre Beauvais treated him like a brother. He told us all this as he lay there in his cabin in that sulphur hell. I am a man of God, and I do not lie.
Is there need to tell you that Andre discovered them? Yes, he found them--and with that wonderful hair of hers so closely about them that he was still bound in the tresses when the discovery came.
Andre had come in exhausted, and unexpectedly. There was a terrible fight, and in spite of his exhaustion he would have killed Joseph Brecht if at the last moment the latter had not drawn his revolver. After all is said and done, gentlemen, can a woman love but once? Joseph Brecht fired. In that infinitesimal moment between the leveling of the gun and the firing of the shot Marie Beauvais found answer to that question. Who was it she loved? She sprang to her husband's breast, sheltering him with the body that had been disloyal to its soul, and she died there--with a bullet through her heart.
Joseph Brecht told us how, in the horror of his work--and possessed now by a terrible fear--he ran from the cabin and fled for his life. And Andre Beauvais must have remained with his dead. For it was many hours later before he took up the trail of the man whom he made solemn oath to his God to kill. Like a hunted hare, Joseph Brecht eluded him, and it was weeks before the fox-trapper came upon him. Andre Beauvais scorned to kill him from ambush. He wanted to choke his life out slowly, with his two hands, and he attacked him openly and fairly.
And in that cabin--gasping for breath, dying as he thought, Joseph Brecht said to us: "It was one or the other. He had the best of me. I drew my revolver again--and killed him, killed Andre Beauvais, as I had killed his wife, Marie!"
Here in the South Joseph Brecht might not have been a bad man, gentlemen. In every man's heart there is a devil, but we do not know the man as bad until the devil is roused. And passion, the mad passion for a woman, had roused him. Now that it had made twice a murderer of him the devil slunk back into his hiding, and the man who had once been the clean-living, red-blooded Joseph Brecht was only a husk without a heart, slinking from place to place in the evasion of justice. For you men of the Royal Mounted Police were on his trail. You would have caught him, but you did not think of seeking for him in the Sulphur Hell. For two years he had lived there, and when he finished his story he was sitting on the edge of the cot, quite sane, gentlemen.
And for the first time M'sieu, my comrade, spoke.
He did not join me. When I returned with my burden, M'sieu appeared at the door. He amazed me, startled me, I will say, gentlemen. I could not imagine such a change as I saw in him--that man of horrible silence, of grim, dark mystery. He was smiling; his white teeth shone; his voice was the voice of another man. He seemed to me ten years younger as he stood there, and as I dropped my load and went in he was laughing, and his hand was laid pleasantly on my shoulder.
Across the cot, with his head stretched down to the floor, his eyes bulging and his jaws agape, lay Joseph Brecht. I sprang to him. He was dead. And then I SAW Gentlemen, he had been choked to death!"He made one leetle meestake, mon pere. Andre Beauvais did not die. I am Andre Beauvais." That is all, gentlemen of the Royal Mounted. May the Law have mercy!
The Other Man's Wife
Thornton wasn't the sort of man in whom you'd expect to find the devil lurking. He was big, blond, and broad-shouldered. When I first saw him I thought he was an Englishman. That was at the post at Lac la Biche, six hundred miles north of civilization. Scotty and I had been doing some exploration work for the government, and for more than six months we hadn't seen a real white man who looked like home.
We came in late at night, and the factor gave us a room in his house. When we looked out of our window in the morning, we saw a little shack about a hundred feet away, and in front of that shack was Thornton, only half dressed, stretching himself in the sun, and LAUGHING. There wasn't anything to laugh at, but we could see his teeth shining white, and he grinned every minute while he went through a sort of setting-up exercise.
When you begin to analyze a man, there is always some one human trait that rises above all others, and that laugh was Thornton's. Even the wolfish sledge-dogs at the post would wag their tails when they heard it.
We soon established friendly relations, but I could not get very far beyond the laugh. Indeed, Thornton was a mystery. DeBar, the factor, said that he had dropped into the post six months before, with a pack on his back and a rifle over his shoulder. He had no business, apparently. He was not a propectory and it was only now and then that he used his rifle, and then only to shoot at marks.
One thing puzzled DeBar more than all else. Thornton worked like three men about the post, cutting winter fire-wood, helping to catch and clean the tons of whitefish which were stored away for the dogs in the company's ice-houses, and doing other things without end. For this he refused all payment except his rations.
Scotty continued eastward to Churchill, and for seven weeks I bunked with Thornton in the shack. At the end of those seven weeks I knew little more about Thornton than at the beginning. I never had a closer or more congenial chum, and yet in his conversation he never got beyond the big woods, the mountains, and the tangled swamps. He was educated and a gentleman, and I knew that in spite of his brown face and arms, his hard muscles and splendid health, he was three-quarters tenderfoot. But he loved the wilderness."I never knew what life could hold for a man until I came up here," he said to me one day, his gray eyes dancing in the light of a glorious sunset. "I'm ten years younger than I was two years ago." "You've been two years in the north?" "A year and ten months," he replied. Something brought to my lips the words that I had forced back a score of times. "What brought you up here, Thornton?" "Two things," he said quietly, "a woman--and a scoundrel."
He said no more, and I did not press the matter. There was a strange tremble in his voice, something that I took to be a note of sadness; but when he turned from the sunset to me his eyes were filled with a yet stranger joy, and his big boyish laugh rang out with such wholesome infectiousness that I laughed with him, in spite of myself.
That night, in our shack, he produced a tightly bound bundle of letters about six inches thick, scattered them out before him on the table, and began reading them at random, while I sat bolstered back in my bunk, smoking and watching him. He was a curious study. Every little while I'd hear him chuckling and rumbling, his teeth agleam, and between these times he'd grow serious. Once I saw tears rolling down his cheeks.
He puzzled me; and the more he puzzled me, the better I liked him. Every night for a week he spent an hour or two reading those letters over and over again. I had a dozen opportunities to see that they were a woman's letters: but he never offered a word of explanation.With the approach of September, I made preparations to leave for the south, by way of Moose Factory and the Albany. "Why not go the shorter way--by the Reindeer Lake water route to Prince Albert?" asked Thornton. "If you'll do that, I'll go with you."
His proposition delighted me, and we began planning for our trip. From that hour there came a curious change in Thornton. It was as if he had come into contact with some mysterious dynamo that had charged him with a strange nervous energy. We were two days in getting our stuff ready, and the night between he did not go to bed at all, but sat up reading the letters, smoking, and then reading over again what he had read half a hundred times before.
I was pretty well hardened, but during the first week of our canoe trip he nearly had me bushed a dozen times. He insisted on getting away before dawn, laughing, singing, and talking, and urged on the pace until sunset. I don't believe that he slept two hours a night. Often, when I woke up, I'd see him walking back and forth in the moonlight, humming softly to himself. There was almost a touch of madness in it all; but I knew that Thornton was sane.
One night--our fourteenth down--I awoke a little after midnight, and as usual looked about for Thornton. It was glorious night. There was a full moon over us, and with the lake at our feet, and the spruce and balsam forest on each side of us, the whole scene struck me as one of the most beautiful I had ever looked upon.
When I came out of our tent, Thornton was not in sight. Away across the lake I heard a moose calling. Back of me an owl hooted softly, and from miles away I could hear faintly the howling of a wolf. The night sounds were broken by my own startled cry as I felt a hand fall, without warning, upon my shoulder. It was Thornton. I had never seen his face as it looked just then.
"No use to tell you that I loved her," he went on. "I worshipped her. She was my life. And I believe she loved me as much. I might have added that there was a third thing that drove me up here--what remained of the rag end of a man's honor.""I begin to understand," I said, as he paused. "You came up here to get away from the woman. But this woman--her husband--" For the first time since I had known him I saw a flash of anger leap into Thornton's face. He struck his hand against the rock.
"Her husband was a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn't fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife! He ought to have been shot. I can see it, now; and--well, I might as well tell you. I'm going back to her!""You are?" I cried. "Has she got a divorce? Is her husband still living?"
"No, she hasn't got a divorce, and her husband is still living; but for all that, we've arranged it. Those were her letters I've been reading, and she'll be at Prince Albert waiting for me on the 15th--three days from now. We shall be a little late, and that's why I'm hustling so. I've kept away from her for two years, but I can't do it any longer--and she says that if I do she'll kill herself. So there you have it. She's the sweetest, most beautiful girl in the whole world--eyes the color of those blue flowers you have up here, brown hair, and--but you've got to see her when we reach Prince Albert. You won't blame me for doing all this, then!"I had nothing to say. At my silence he turned toward me suddenly, with that happy smile of his, and said again:
"I tell you that you won't blame me when you see her. You'll envy me, and you'll call me a confounded fool for staying away so long. It has been terribly hard for both of us. I'll wager that she's no sleepier than I am to-night, just from knowing that I'm hurrying to her."
"You're pretty confident," I could not help sneering. "I don't believe I'd wager much on such a woman. To be frank with you, Thornton, I don't care to meet her, so I'll decline your invitation. I've a little wife of my own, as true as steel, and I'd rather keep out of an affair like this. You understand?""Perfectly," said Thornton, and there was not the slightest ill-humor in his voice. "You-you think I am a cur?" "If you have stolen another man's wife--yes." "And the woman?" "If she is betraying her husband, she is no better than you." Thornton rose and stretched his long arms above his head.
"Isn't the moon glorious?" he cried exultantly. "She has never seen a moon like that. She has never seen a world like this. Do you know what we're going to do? We'll come up here and build a cabin, and--and she'll know what a real man is at last! She deserves it. And we'll have you up to visit us--you and your wife--two months out of each year. But then"--he turned and laughed squarely into my face--"you probably won't want your wife to know her.""Probably not," I said, not without embarrassment.
"I don't blame you," he exclaimed, and before I could draw back he had caught my hand and was shaking it hard in his own. "Let's be friends a little longer, old man," he went on. "I know you'll change your mind about the little girl and me when we reach Prince Albert."
I didn't go to sleep again that night; and the half-dozen days that followed were unpleasant enough--for me, at least. In spite of my own coolness toward him, there was absolutely no change in Thornton. Not once did he make any further allusion to what he had told me.
As we drew near to our journey's end, his enthusiasm and good spirits increased. He had the bow end of the canoe, and I had abundant opportunity of watching him. It was impossible not to like him, even after I knew his story.
We reached Prince Albert on a Sunday, after three days' travel in a buckboard. When we drove up in front of the hotel, there was just one person on the long veranda looking out over the Saskatchewan. It was a woman, reading a book.
As he saw her, I heard a great breath heave up inside Thornton's chest. The woman looked up, stared for a moment, and then dropped her book with a welcoming cry such as I had never heard before in my life. She sprang down the steps, and Thornton leaped from the wagon. They met there a dozen paces from me, Thornton catching her in his arms, and the woman clasping her arms about his neck.
I heard her sobbing, and I saw Thornton kissing her again and again, and then the woman pulled his blond head down close to her face. It was sickening, knowing what I did, and I began helping the driver to throw off our dunnage.In about two minutes I heard Thornton calling me. I didn't turn my head. Then Thornton came to me, and as he straightened me around by the shoulders I caught a glimpse of the woman. He was right--she was very beautiful.
"I told you that her husband was a scoundrel and a rake," he said gently. "Well, he was-and I was that scoundrel! I came up here for a chance of redeeming myself, and your big, glorious North has made a man of me. Will you come and meet my wife?"