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Deadwater."

The doctor listened with a surge of feeling driving through his heart.
His own words, the words he had told to the man whom he knew at the time
to be floundering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown, were
ringing through his brain. He had lied. He had had to lie. And now - -

He took refuge in his pipe. He knew he would need it. He filled it from
the pouch which had become common between them and urged Steve to do the
same. In a few moments both men were smoking in an atmosphere of perfect
calm.

"You were pretty bad that time," Ross said steadily. "Yes, I don't guess
you know how bad you were."

"I think I do - now."

The doctor seemed to be absorbed in pressing down the tobacco in his
pipe. He struck another match.

"The strain had been so big the break must have come if you'd had to go
on," he said, blowing smoke till it partly obscured his patient's
unflinching eyes. "You were weak - physically. There was nothing to
support your nerve and brain. It was in your eyes. You scarcely
recognized us. You hardly knew what our presence meant to you. And,
later, the reaction made things even worse for you. A shock, and the
balance would have gone hopelessly. So - I lied to you!"

"You - lied to me?"

The pipe had been suddenly jerked from Steve's lips. He was sitting up.
A sudden fierce light had leapt to his eyes.

The Scotsman, too, had removed his pipe. His eyes were squarely
confronting the other. All his mental force and bodily energy were
summoned to his aid.

"Yes. I had to lie," he said firmly. "It was that or carry you back to
Deadwater a crazy man. I was the doctor then. Guess I'm a man now. Maybe
you won't reckon there's a difference. But there surely is. You see, I'm
not going to lie. I don't need to. Nita isn't at my shanty. She isn't at
Deadwater. Neither is Garstaing. And they've taken your little girl with
them."

"They?"

The man on the blankets had moved again. His knees were drawn up as
though he were about to spring from the sick bed he was still condemned
to.

Ross nodded.

"Yes." Then he pointed at the attitude of the other. "Say, straighten
out, Steve. Push those feet down under the blankets. You're a big man up
against disaster most times. Well, don't forget it. You're up against
disaster now. Sit back, boy, and get a grip on yourself. It's the only
way. I've got to tell you the whole rotten story, and when I've done
I'll ask you to forget the way I had to lie to you. If you can't,
why - it's up to you. My duty was to heal you first, and I don't guess
there's any rules in the game."

Ross was talking for time. He had to be sure. He was ready at a sign to
launch into his story, but he was looking for that sign.

And Steve gave it. It was the only sign the other would accept. Ross was
a powerful man, and Steve was still sick and weak. These things are as
well when a man knows that his purpose means the breaking of a strong
heart. Steve slid his injured feet down under the blankets. His legs
straightened out, and he leant his back against the pillow. But his pipe
was laid aside, and a quickening of his breathing warned the other of
the immense effort for restraint he was putting forth.

"Tell me," he said. Then he added with a sudden note of sharpness,
"Quick!"

The Scotsman nodded.

"It's best that way. Garstaing and Nita bolted. They took your little
girl with them. It's six months ago. When the Indian Treaty Money came
up. Hervey Garstaing waited for that. The Indians never saw it. He
pouched it, and beat the trail, as I said, with Nita and the kiddie.
Say, I needn't tell you more than that. I don't know any more except the
police have been chasing his trail since."

He fumbled in a pocket, and drew out a sealed envelope addressed in a
woman's handwriting, and another that was opened. The sealed envelope he
passed across to Steve. The other he retained.

"She left these two letters in her room," he went on. "That's for you,
and this one was for Millie. Maybe you'll read yours later. This one
you'd best read now. It's just a line as you'll see."

He held the letter out and Steve accepted it. And Ross watched him all
the time as he drew the note from its cover and perused it. The moment
of shock had passed, and the fierce light in Steve's eyes had died out,
leaving in its place a stony frigidity which gave the other a feeling of
unutterable regret. He would have been thankful for some passionate
outburst, some violent display. He felt it would have been more natural,
and he would have known better how to deal with it. But there was none.
Steve returned the letter to its envelope and remained silently
regarding the superscription.

"It's a bad letter," Ross went on. "If I thought Nita had written it
herself I'd say you're well rid of something that would have cursed the
rest of your life. But the stuff that's written there is the stuff that
comes out of Garstaing's rotten head. I'd bet my soul on it. She says
her marriage with you was a mistake. She didn't know. She had no
experience when she married you. She needs the things the world can show
her. The North is driving her crazy. All that muck. It's the sort of
stuff that hasn't a gasp of truth in it. If there was you need to thank
God you're quit of her. No. That hound of hell told her what to say.
Poor little fool. He's got her where he wants her, and she's as much
chance as an angel in hell. She went in the night, and they took a
storming night for it. There was two feet of snow on the ground, and
more falling. How she went we can't guess. There wasn't a track or a
sign in the morning, and it went on storming for days, so even the
police couldn't follow them up. The whole thing was well planned, and
Garstaing took no sort of chances. He got away with nearly fifty
thousand dollars of Indian money, and, so far, hasn't left a trace. We
don't know to this day if he made north, south, east, or west. All we
know are these two letters, that they got away in a 'jumper' and team,
and that Nita and the kiddie were with him."

"Say, Steve," Ross went on after a moment's pause, his voice deepening
with an emotion he could no longer deny. "I handed you a big talk of
seeing your Nita and the little kid safe till you got back. We did all
we knew. Millie and the gals did all they knew. Nita wanted for nothing.
The things that were good enough for my two we didn't reckon good enough
for her, and we saw she had one better all the time. Happy? Gee, she
seemed happy all the time, right up to the night she went. And as for
Coqueline she was the greatest ever. But he'd got her, that skunk had
her, and the thing must have been going on all the time. Still, we never
saw a sign. Not a sign. Millie never liked Garstaing, and he wasn't ever
encouraged to get around our shanty. And we had him there less after
Nita came. There's times I'm guessing it didn't begin after you went.
There's times I think there was a beginning earlier. Millie feels that
way, too. I know it don't make things better talking this way. But it's
what I feel, and think, and it's best to say it right out. I can't tell
you how I feel about it. And anyway it wouldn't make things easier for
you. I promised you, and all I said is not just hot air. I'm sick to
death - just sick to death."

Ross's voice died away, and the silence it left was heavy with disaster.
Steve had no reply. No questions. He seemed utterly and completely
beyond words. His strong eyes were expressionless. He lay there still,
quite still, with his unopened letter lying on the blankets before him.

Ross was no longer observing. His distress was pitiful. It was there in
his kindly eyes, in the purposeless fashion in which he fingered his
pipe. He was torn between two desires. One was to continue talking at
all costs. The other was precipitate, ignominious flight from the sight
of the other's voiceless despair. He knew Steve, and well enough he
realized what the strong wall the man had set up in defence concealed.
But he was held there silent by a force he had no power to deny, so he
sat and lit, and re-lit a pipe in which the tobacco was entirely
consumed.

How long it was before the silence was finally broken he never knew. It
seemed ages. Ages of intolerable suspense and waiting before Steve
displayed any sign beyond the deep rise and fall of his broad chest.
Then, quite suddenly, he reached out for the collected sheets of his
official report. These he laid on the blankets beside the unopened
letter his erring wife had addressed to him. Then he looked into the
face of the man whose blow had crushed the very soul of him. Their eyes
met, and, to the doctor, it seemed that mind had triumphed over the
havoc wrought. Steve's voice came harshly.

"When'll I be fit to move?" he demanded.

"A week - if Belton gets back."

Ross was startled and wondering.

"Belton don't cut any ice."

"But we need the wagon."

The protest, however, was promptly swept aside.

"I tell you it don't cut any ice. I move in a week That's fixed!"

For some moments Steve became deeply absorbed again. Then the watching
man saw the decision in his eyes waver, and his lean hand move up to his
head, and its fingers pass wearily through his long hair.

Then, quite suddenly, a harsh exclamation broke from him.

"Tchah!" he cried. "What's the use?"

With a great effort he seemed to pull himself together. He raised his
eyes, and the pitiful half smile in them wrung the Scotsman's heart.

"Say, Doc, I'm - kind of glad it was you handed me - this. It's hurt you,
too. Hurt you pretty bad. Yes," he went on wearily, hopelessly, "pretty
bad. But I got to thank you. Oh, yes. I want to thank you. I mean that.
For all you've done to help me. But I can't talk about it. I just can't.
That's all. I don't guess you need to read the stuff I've written now.
You see I'll need to make another report."

"Why?"

Ross's interrogation broke from him almost before he was aware of it.

"Why?" Steve's eyes widened. Then they dropped before the questioner's
searching gaze. "Yes," he went on dully. "I'll need to make a fresh one.
There's things - Say," he cried, with sudden, almost volcanic passion.
"For God's sake, why did you get around? Why didn't you leave me to the
dog's death that was yearning for me?" He laughed harshly, mirthlessly.
"Death? There was better than that. I'd have been crazy in days. Plumb,
stark crazy. And I wouldn't have known or cared a thing."




CHAPTER XII

REINDEER


It was the hospital hut at the police headquarters at Reindeer. A
cheerless, primitive place of healing, severe but adequate, as were
most things which concerned the lives of the riders of the plains and
the trail.

Steve was in occupation of the officer's ward, with its single bed, and
its boarded floor bare of all covering and scrubbed to a chilly
whiteness. For days he had contemplated its hygienic lack of comfort.
For days his weary, ceaseless thought had battered itself against
kalsomined walls, while his body, made feverishly restless, had sought
distraction between the hard Windsor chair at the only table, and the
iron bed-cot which seemed to add to his mental sufferings.

He had met his superior. He had supported the official half hour of
congratulations upon work successfully accomplished and a fortunate
escape from disaster without a sign. He had yielded to the post doctor's
ministrations, and satisfied his curiosity with explanations which could
never have been more matter-of-fact. He had been visited by two comrades
of his own rank, who contrived, with the best will in the world, by
deliberate avoidance of anything of an intimate nature, to display to
him their perfect knowledge of his domestic disaster.

All these things he had faced with a heart crying out for mercy, but
with an outward calm that left those whom he encountered guessing. And
something of the general opinion found expression in Superintendent
McDowell's remarks to his subordinate, who filled the office of
acting-adjutant.

"It seems to me, Syme, we needn't have worried a thing," he said.
"Allenwood isn't the feller to get up and shout any time. He's the sort
of boy to take a punch and come up for more. There's no woman got grip
enough on him to break him to small meat. I don't guess there's anything
could fix him that way - and after the way he made this last trip. He's
quite a feller when it comes to grit."

"Yes, sir." Syme smiled into his superior's keen face. "Maybe he doesn't
care. I've heard some fellers are that way after being married a few
years."

The cynicism of the younger man drew a responsive smile in reply. But it
also drew a very definite and decided shake of the head.

Whatever the general opinion, one man knew, one man had witnessed the
momentary baring of a man's soul torn with agony, in the candle-lit tent
on the banks of the Theton River. And now, had he been in Reindeer to
witness, he would have understood the reality of suffering under the
stern, almost forbidding front with which Steve confronted his little
world.

Not a sign did Steve give. His habitual, shadowy smile was ready when he
felt it to be due. He discussed everything that needed discussion with
the apparent interest of a mind wholly unabsorbed. He forced a
cheerfulness which carried conviction, and even drew forth such cynical
comments as those of Inspector Syme. But under it all the agony of mind
was something bordering on the insupportable.

The desolation of his outlook was appalling. And during his weary hours
of solitude the hopelessness of it stirred him to a bitterness that at
moments became almost insanely profane. Shadows, too, crept into his
mind. Ugly shadows that gained power with the passing of days. Had not
such shadows come he must have been more than human. But he was very
simply human, capable of the deepest passion subject to the human heart.
Hate seized upon him with a force even greater perhaps than the passions
that had hitherto swayed him, and hard on the heels of hate came a deep,
burning desire for revenge.

His desire was not against the woman who had wronged and deceived him. A
sort of pitying contempt had replaced the wealth of passionate devotion
he had lavished. His whole desire was against the man. And, curiously
enough, this fevered desire became a sort of palliative drug which left
him with the necessary strength to withstand the pain of his heart.

Slowly at first it took possession of him, but, with each passing day,
it grew, until, at last, it occupied him to the exclusion of everything.
Even the thought of his child, that tender atom of humanity who had been
a living part of him, and whose soft lips and baby hands could never
again become anything more than a memory, was powerless to rob him of
one particle of the cold delight, as, in a hundred ways, he discovered
the broken, dead body of the man who had wronged him within the grasp of
his merciless hands.

But none of this was outwardly visible. It was concealed with the rest.
And so the cynicism of Syme, and the general comfort of those who came
to cheer the sick room of a valued comrade.

So it came that one day, towards the end of Steve's convalescence, the
Superintendent found himself occupying the solitary chair, with Steve
lounging smoking on the be-patterned coverlet of the bed, talking of the
Unaga Indians and their habits of hibernation which sounded so
incredible to the man who had never seen for himself.

Steve had a bunch of mail lying on the bed beside him. He had been
reading when his superior had made his appearance. But his reading had
been discarded while he gave full attention to the man under whom he had
served so long and for whom he possessed no small measure of regard.

Steve had been talking in his deliberate, assured manner, and McDowell,
alert, keen-eyed, half smiling had been listening to the story of a
mysterious weed of marvellous narcotic powers. Curiously enough Steve
had imparted only the briefest outline. He had told nothing of all that
which he had read and discovered in Marcel Brand's laboratory. He had
forgotten even to point the fact that he was a chemist first and only a
trader through circumstances. There were many other things, too, that
Steve omitted. Nor was the reason for the omission clear. It may have
been forgetfulness. It may have been lack of interest. Yet neither of
these suggested the reality.

"Well, it all sounds crazy enough, Allenwood, and I admit if Belton or
Syme had told me the yarn I'd have sent 'em on leave to get a rest.
But - anyway you've handed me a good report and it's gone on down to the
Department without a word altered, and only my own comment added,
which," he went on with smiling goodwill, "I don't guess I need to tell
you about. Meanwhile I'd not be surprised if you hear things. Your
seniority runs high. And this should hand you a jump - "

Steve shook his head.

"I'm not yearning, sir," he said. "But I need to thank you for your
comments without seeing them. I can guess how they run - knowing you."

The Superintendent's eyes had suddenly become seriously searching.

"Not yearning? How - d'you mean?" he demanded.

A slight smile lit Steve's eyes at the abrupt change in the other's
tone.

"You said just now if Belton or Syme had told you my yarn you'd have
handed them leave - for a rest. I'd be glad for you to include my name
with theirs."

"You want leave?"

Steve nodded.

"I'd be glad to have six months' leave pending resignation."

"But - resignation? You want to quit? You?"

McDowell was startled completely out of all official attitude. Such a
thing as Allenwood's resignation from the force had never for a moment
entered his thoughts. It would have been simply unthinkable.

"Yes." Steve was very deliberate. He picked up one of the letters at his
side and tapped it with a forefinger.

"It's this, sir," he said. "You can read this, and - the others. I'd be
glad for you to take them away with you and read them, and then attach
them to my papers asking for my discharge. These letters were waiting me
here, and there's quite a number. They're from my father's attorneys.
You see, sir, he's dead, and I'm his heir. It's only a matter of some
fifty thousand dollars and his farm in Ontario. But I'll have to get
around and fix things."

"Oh, I'm sor - I see," McDowell had recovered from surprise, and promptly
saw his advantage. "But resignation, Steve," he cried, dropping into an
unusual familiarity. "Where's the need? You can get twelve months'
leave, if necessary, to straighten these things out. After that you'll
get back to us a Superintendent, and with money to burn. If you quit
you'll be pitching away years of big work. You'll be sacrificing more.
With means like your father's left you you can get into politics, and
then, through your official associations you don't need to get off the
political ladder till you're tired. Man, it would be crazy. Think."

Steve folded his letters with precise care while McDowell pointed to the
position as he saw it. Then he laid them together in a small pile. And
all the while his eyes remained hidden from the other as though wilfully
avoiding him. Nor, as his superior ceased speaking, did he look up.

"I have thought, sir," he said in level tones. "I've had days - weeks to
think in. Yes, and nights, too." He shook his head. "A year ago the
things you're handing me now would have sounded bully. A year ago I'd
all sorts of notions, just like you're talking now. And I was crazy to
get busy. That was a year ago. I'm still crazy to get busy, but - in a
different way. I've got to get that leave, sir. I've got to make my
resignation."

McDowell had suddenly become aware of an unusual restraint in Steve's
tone. He had also realized the avoidance of his eyes. A wave of
suspicion startled him out of his comfortable equanimity.

"You're entitled to your leave, you're entitled to resign your
commission if you want to," he said with a quick return to his more
official attitude. Then, with a sudden unbending under the pressure of
curiosity and even sympathy: "I'm sorry. I'm darn sorry. You're the one
man in my command I'd just hate to lose. Still - What do you figure to
do?"

"Do?"

The sharp interrogation came with startling force. It came full of a
world of suppressed feeling. Irony, bitterness, harsh, inflexible
purpose. These things and others, which were beyond McDowell's
estimation, rang in that sharp exclamation. Steve laughed, and even to
the Superintendent there was something utterly hateful in the sound that
broke on his ears.

"Just forget you're my superior officer, McDowell," Steve cried, raising
a pair of eyes which blazed with a frigid passion of hate. "Just figure
we're two plain men, no better and no worse than most. You've a wife and
two kiddies, both growing as you'd have them. A schoolgirl and a boy,
and round whom you've built up all your notions of life. I had a wife
and one kiddie, and round them I'd built up all my notions of life.
Well, those notions of life are wrecked. They'd been building years.
Years before I had a wife. To-day they're gone completely. I haven't a
wife, and, God help me, I haven't a kiddie. And this because of one man.
I've got to find that man."

The two men were gazing eye to eye, McDowell's darkly keen and
questioning, Steve's full of irrevocable decision and cold hate.

"And when you - find him?"

Steve made a movement of the hands. It was indescribable but
significant. His lips parted to speak, and, in parting, his even teeth
were unusually bared.

"He's going to die!"

The words were spoken without emotion, without colour. They were quiet,
and carried a conviction that left the other without a shadow of doubt.

"I'm telling you this, McDowell, so you shall know clearly what's on my
mind." Steve went on after a pause. "Maybe you'll feel, as an officer of
police, it's up to you to do everything to prevent what I intend. But I
tell you you can't prevent it. I demand the right of a man from a man, a
husband, and a father. I'm quitting. If you try to hold me it'll make no
difference. You can delay. It'll make no difference. I shall
quit - eventually. And then I shall carry out my purpose. Get that. Then
we'll understand each other."

"We do, Steve." A flush lit the Superintendent's cheek. A deep fire was
alight in his dark eyes. "We understand each other better than you
think. You'll get your discharge just as quickly as I can put it
through. You hadn't said much, and I thought - but I'm glad you've told
me as a man, and not as - an officer."

He stood up from his chair with an abruptness which betrayed something
of his feelings. Steve held out the packet of letters.

"Will you take these, sir?" he said with a return to their official
relations.

McDowell nodded.

"Yes. Say, about that boy and the squaw you brought down. You left them
at Deadwater? It looks like some proposition. We'll need to hand them
over to the Reserve missionary. It's hell these white men, when they get
away north, bringing these bastard half-breeds into the world. What's
the mother? One of those Sleeper Indians?"

For a moment Steve remained gazing out of the window at the view of the
parade ground which the sunlight rendered almost picturesque. He was
thinking of the two reports which he had prepared. The first one that
had been the simple truth, and the second one which had been only partly
the true story, the rest changed in view of his own position. A tender
light for a moment melted the cold hatred of his eyes. He was thinking
of the white boy which he had reported as the bastard of An-ina, with a
view to obviate the official claim on him as a white child.

"Yes," he said. "And I guess we'd need to hand them over to the
missionary for a while. But Doc Ross and his wife were crazy to look
after them. You see, they've a pretty swell place, and they're the best
folks I know. I left them with them, and I'd say we can't do better,
anyway for a while."

"Yes," McDowell agreed. "It'll make things easy. I'll put that into a
letter to the Commissioner and it'll save worrying with the folk of the
Indian Department. Well, so long, Steve. Yes, I'll take these letters,
and put the thing through for you. But when you quit, for God's sake
don't go and mess things. Don't queer one of the best lives it's ever
been my good fortune to have under my command."

Steve's eyes were serious as he watched McDowell move towards the door.

"Don't worry, sir. The queering's done already. Whatever I do will
be - well, just what I've fixed to do. No more and no less."




CHAPTER XIII

"ADRESOL"


The horrible aroma of a gently smouldering smudge fire, battling with



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 10 of 30)