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matter."

"Is that so? Does he feel that way? After two years?"

"Marcel think all things for Uncle Steve - always. An-ina tell him Uncle
Steve come bimeby. Sure come. She tell him all time. So Marcel think. He
not forget. No. He speak with the good spirit each night: 'God bless
Uncle Steve, an' send him back to boy.'"

The man's smile thanked her. And a deep tenderness looked out of his
steady eyes as they were turned again in the direction of the distant,
running figure.

"You come back - yes?"

The woman's voice was low. It was thrilling with a hope and emotion
which her words failed to express.

"Yes. I'm back for keeps." Steve's gaze came back to the soft eyes of
the woman. "That is, I'm going back to Unaga - with the boy. Will An-ina
come, too?"

"Boss Steve go back - Unaga?"

A startled light had replaced the softness of the Woman's eyes. Then,
after a moment, as no reply was forthcoming, she went on.

"Oh, yes. An-ina know." She glanced away in the direction where the
police post stood, and a woman's understanding was in the sympathy
shining in her eyes. "White man officer no more. Oh, yes. No little baby
girl. No. No nothing. Only Marcel, an' - maybe An-ina. So. Oh, yes.
Unaga. When we go?"

There was no hesitation, no doubt in the woman's mind. And the utter and
complete self-abnegation of it all was overwhelming to the man.

"You - you're a good soul, An-ina," he said, in the clumsy fashion of a
man unused to giving expression to his deeper feelings. "God made you a
squaw. He handed you a colour that sets you a race apart from white
folk, but he gave you a heart so big and white that an angel might envy.
Yes, I want you An-ina. So does Marcel. We both want you bad.
Unaga - it's a hell of a country, but you come along right up there with
us, and I'll fix things so you'll be as happy as that darn country'll
let you be. Julyman and Oolak are going along with us. They've quit the
police, same as I have. I can't do without them, same as we can't do
without An-ina. We're going there for the boy. Not for ourselves. It's
the weed. We got to do all that Marcel's father reckoned to do. And when
we've done it Marcel will be rich and great. Same as you would have him
be. There's 'no nothing' for me anywhere now but with Marcel. You
understand? You'll help?"

All the softness had returned to the woman's eyes, untaught to hide
those inner feelings of her elemental soul.

"An-ina help? Oh, yes." Then she added with a smile of patient content:
"An-ina always help. She love boy, too. You fix all things. You say
'go.' An-ina go. So we come by Unaga. It storm. Oh, yes. It snow. It
freeze. It no matter. Nothing not matter. Auntie Millie mak' boy and
An-ina speak with the Great Spirit each night. An' He bless you all
time. Him mak' you safe all time. An-ina know - sure."

The frank simplicity of it all left the white man searching for words to
express his gratitude. But complete and utter helplessness supervened.

"Thanks, An-ina," he articulated. And he dared not trust himself to
more.

Diversion came at a moment when he was never more thankful for it. The
shrill treble of the boy reached them across the stretch of tawny,
summer grass.

"Uncle Stee-e-ve! Uncle St-ee-ee-ve!"

Little Marcel was unstinting in all things. His call was not simply
preliminary. His enthusiasm for the hunt was incomparable with his new
enthusiasm. His call of recognition came as he ran towards the object of
his hero-worship, and he ran with all his might.

It was a breathless child that was lifted into Steve's arms and hugged
with an embrace the sight of which added to the squaw's smile of
happiness. The boy's arms were flung about the man's neck with complete
and utter abandonment. An-ina looked on, and no cloud of jealousy
shadowed her joy. She had done all in her power that the white man
should not be forgotten in his absence. The great white man, who was her
king of men. And she had her reward.

The first wild moments of greeting over, the boy's chatter flowed forth
in a breathless torrent. And all the while the man was observing those
things that mattered most to his maturer mind.

Marcel had grown astoundingly in the prolonged interval. The promise of
the sturdy body Steve had so often watched trundling across the snows of
Unaga in its bundle of furs had developed out of all knowledge under the
ample hospitality of Millie Ross's home. Tall, straight, muscular it had
shot up many inches. The boy was probably seven years of age. Steve did
not know for sure. Nor did it signify greatly. The things that mattered
were the ruddy, sunburnt cheeks of perfect health, the big, intelligent
blue eyes, the shapely mouth, and the sunny, wavy hair, all containing
the promise of a fine manhood to come. Then the firm, stout limbs, and
the powerful ribs. That which was in the handsome boyish face was in the
body, too. God willing, the man knew that the coming manhood would be
amply worth.

Slackening excitement brought the boy back to the thing which held his
vital interest, and he told of the great game he and An-ina were engaged
upon. He told of his failures and successes with impartial enthusiasm.
And finally invited his "Uncle" to join in the game.

"No, old fellow," he said. "I've got to get right along down to the
house to see Uncle Mac and Auntie Millie. You see, I've only just got
along from Reindeer. Guess I've been chasing a gopher for two years and
more. But like you I just didn't get him. Some day - - "

"You been hunting gophers, Uncle Steve?" The childish interest leapt
afresh.

The man nodded, and his smiling eyes encountered those of the squaw. He
read the understanding he beheld there, and turned quickly to the child
again.

"Sure," he said drily. "But I didn't get him."

"No." The boy turned regretful eyes towards the open, where he, too, had
just failed to bag his quarry. "You kill 'em when you get 'em, Uncle. We
do, don't we, An-ina?" he added, appealing for corroboration.

"We always kills 'em, Uncle Steve," he went on, "'cos gophers are very
bad."

"Yes. Gophers are bad, old fellow. Always kill them. That's how I'd have
done if I'd got the one I was after. But I didn't get him. He ran too
fast for me. Maybe I'll find him another time. You never know. Do you?
Boy and Uncle and An-ina are going a great long way soon. We'll find
better than gophers to hunt, eh?"

"Yes - wolves! Where we go?"

"We go back to the Sleepers - and the old fort."

Steve searched the child's face anxiously as he made the announcement.
He was half afraid of a lingering memory that might jeopardize his
plans, or, at least make their fulfilment more difficult. But he need
have had no fear. The child remembered, but only with delight. And again
the man recognized the guiding hand of the squaw.

"Oo-o, Uncle! Soon? We go soon?" Marcel cried, his eyes shining. "The
forests where the wolves are. And the Sleepers. And the snow comes down,
and we dig ourselves out. And the dogs, and sleds, and - we go soon - very
soon! Can't we go now? Oo-o!"

"Not now, but - soon."

Steve's satisfaction was in the glance of thanks which he flashed into
An-ina's watching eyes.

"But now I must really go along to the house, old fellow," he said, with
a sigh. "Guess boy'll come, too, or maybe he'll go on with his game?"

The question was superfluous. Gopher hunting was a glorious sport, but
walking hand in hand with Uncle Steve back to the house, even though bed
and a bath were awaiting him, was a delight Marcel had no idea of
renouncing.

* * * * *

The plump figure of Millie Ross half filled the doorway, while the
sunset sought out the obscure corners of the comfortably furnished hall
place behind her.

The doctor's great figure was supported on the table on which he had
flung his hat while he welcomed Steve. The latter's arrival had been
quite unheralded, completely unexpected. So long was it since his going
that husband and wife had almost abandoned the thought that some day
they would be called upon to render an account of their stewardship with
regard to young Marcel, and hand over the little human "capital"
originally entrusted to them. It was not to be wondered at. They loved
the boy. They had their two girls, but they had no son. And
Marcel - well, Steve was so long overdue, and his absence had been one
long, unbroken silence. So, all unconsciously, they had come to think
that something had happened, something which had caused him to change
his mind, or which had made it physically impossible for him to return.
Now, after the first warmth and delight of the meeting had passed, a
certain pre-occupation restrained the buoyancy so natural to the
warm-hearted pair.

Steve was seated in the chair beside the table, the chair which the
doctor was wont to adopt when the mosquitoes outside made the veranda
impossible. Perhaps he understood the preoccupation which more
particularly looked out of Millie's eyes. He felt the burden of his debt
to these people, a debt he could never repay; he understood the feelings
which his return must inspire if the child, left in their care, had
become to them a tithe of that which he had become to him. He knew it
was his purpose to tear the child out of their lives. And the wrench
would be no less for the thought that he purposed carrying him off to
those regions of desolation which had already come very near to costing
the child's helpless little life.

So his steady eyes were watchful of the woman's attitude, and he looked
for the sign of those feelings which he knew his return must have set
stirring. He knew that, whatever the big Scotsman felt and thought, the
woman was the real factor with which he must reckon.

With this understanding he frankly laid bare much which he otherwise
would have kept deep hidden. He told these two, who listened in deep
sympathy, the story of his pursuit of the man who had wronged him, from
the beginning to the end. And, in the telling, so shorn of all
unnecessary colouring, the simple deliberateness of his purpose,
contemplated in the coldly passionate desire of an implacable nature,
the story gained a tremendous force, the more so that his pursuit had
ended in failure.

He told them how for nearly a year, after winding up the affairs of his
dead father, which had left him with even a better fortune than he had
expected, he had systematically devoted himself to spreading a wide net
of enquiries. In this process he had to travel some thousands of miles,
and had to write many hundreds of letters, and had spent countless hours
in the official bureau of local police.

He told them how finally he had discovered the trail he, sought in a
remote haunt in the poorer quarters of Winnipeg. This, after many
tortuous wanderings and blind alley searchings, had finally led him to
the waterside of Quebec, and the purlieus of Mallard's, where, under the
guidance of the celebrated Maurice Saney, he ran up against the blank
wall of that redoubtable harbour of crime.

"All this," he said, without emotion, "took me over two years. And I
guess it wasn't till I hit up against Mallard's that I sat down and took
a big think. You see," he went on simply, "I wanted to kill that feller.
I wanted to kill that feller, and take my poor girl back and get back
my little, little baby. I had a notion I might have to hang for the job,
but, anyway, I'd have saved her from a life - well, I'd have saved them
both, and been able to fix them so they didn't need a thing in life.
What happened to me didn't seem to worry any. But when I hit up against
Mallard's, and I'd listened some to Saney I started in to figure. To get
that far had taken me over two years, and big money. There might be
still years of it ahead of me. And when I'd done, was I sure I'd get
Nita and the kiddie back? And if I did, how would I be able to fix them
after all the expense? Then there was Marcel. Maybe it was something
else urging me to quit. Something I wasn't just aware of. I don't know.
I've heard say that a feller who yearns to kill, either kills quick or
goes crazy. There wasn't a thing foolish about me. I hadn't any of the
foolishness of a crazy man. Which is a way of saying the yearning to
kill hadn't the grip on me it had. It was a big fight, but sense - or
something else - won out. I quit for those other things I'd got in my
head. Guess I heard that little feller's 'Hullo!' ringing in my ears.
Same as I heard it up in Unaga. So I cut out the other, and got busy
right away fixing things for the big play I mean to put up for the
kiddie that Providence has left to me. There are times when my whole
body kicks at the thought of that skunk getting away with his play. But
there's others when I'm glad - real glad - I quit. I can't judge the thing
right. I'm sort of torn in different directions. Anyway, there it is.
Maybe the thing I haven't been allowed to do will be done sometime by
the Providence that reckons to straighten out most things as it sees
fit. I hope the way it sees is my way. That's all. Now I'm ready for the
big play. My outfit has gone up by water on Hudson's Bay, a special
charter. It's to be landed and cached on the shores of Chesterfield
Inlet. I've sunk every cent of my inheritance in it. It's an outfit
that'll give Marcel and me a life stake in the work lying ahead. And all
that comes out of it is for him. With all this fixed I got back right
away."

"But not - in a 'hurry.'"

There was a half smile in the Scotsman's eyes.

"The only 'hurry' I'm in is to get all the season we need," Steve
replied simply.

"That means you want Marcel - right away."

Millie spoke without turning from her contemplation of the view beyond
the doorway. And there was that in her voice which told Steve of the
inroads Marcel had made upon her mother's heart.

"I've thought of all this a whole heap," he said gently. "It's one of
the things that clinched my idea of quitting. Later I don't guess I'd
have had the nerve to - ask for Marcel."

Millie turned abruptly. And the husband was watching her as urgently as
Steve himself.

"That's not fair, Steve," she declared, without attempting to soften the
challenge.

"But, Millie - "

The husband's protest was cut short.

"Don't worry, Mac," Millie cried. "I know just the feelings that
prompted Steve to think that way. But it's not fair. It's making out
that I'd like to go back on my word, and refuse to give Marcel up to the
moloch of Unaga. That's the part that isn't fair. Steve, if you'd come
to me in twenty years my word would have gone every time. That boy might
be my own son, I never had a son, and maybe you can guess just what that
means to me when I say it. But there's bigger things in the world than
my feelings, and I'm full wise to them. That boy loves you the same as
if you were his father. I've helped to see to that. I and An-ina. You've
been through hell for him. You've been through a hell of your own
besides. Now you're ready to give your all for him - including your life.
Do you know what I feel in my fool woman's way? I'll try and tell you,"
she went on, forcing back the threatening tears. "There's men in the
world made to give their everything for those they love. You're one of
them. To rob you of an object for you to work and sacrifice yourself for
would be to rob you of the greatest thing in your life. It would be an
unforgivable crime, and though it broke my heart I would refuse to
commit that crime. Marcel is ready for you the moment you ask for him.
Oh, yes, it's just as I said. His outfit is ready. We've enlarged it as
he's grown. An-ina has done her share. There's two of everything, as I
said there would be - and a good deal over. But," she added, with a
little pitiful break in her voice that showed how near were her tears,
"I wish, oh, how I wish, it was not Unaga, and that, some day, I might
hope to see his smiling, happy face again. You'll be good to him, Steve,
won't you? Raise him, train him, teach him. Don't let him become a wild
man. I want to think of him, to always remember him as he is now, and to
think that when he grows to manhood at least he's as good a man as
you."




PART II




CHAPTER I

AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS


It was boasted of Seal Bay that its inhabitants produced more wealth per
head than any other community in the Northern world, not even excluding
the gold cities of Alaska and the Yukon. It was a considerable boast,
but with more than usual justice. A cynic once declared that it was the
only distinction of merit the place could fairly claim.

The boast of Seal Bay was sufficiently alluring to those who had not yet
set foot on its pestilential shores. For once, by some extraordinary
chance, truth had been spoken in Seal Bay. No one need starve upon its
deplorable streets, if sufficiently clever and unscrupulous.

A photographic plate would have yielded a choice scene of desolation, if
sun enough could have been found to achieve the necessary record. The
long, low foreshore of Seal Bay was dotted with a large number of mud
huts, thatched with reeds from adjacent marshes, and a fair sprinkling
of frame houses of varying shapes and sizes. There were no streets in
the modern sense, only stretches of mire which were more or less
bottomless for about seven months in the year, and lost in the grip of
an Arctic winter for the rest of the time. Foot traffic was only made
possible in the softer portion of the year by means of disjointed
sections of wooden sidewalks laid down by those who preferred the
expense and labour to the necessary discomfort of frequent bathing.

There was no doubt that Seal Bay as a trading port owed its existence to
two spits of mud and sand on either side of a completely inhospitable
foreshore. They stretched out, forming the two horns of a horseshoe,
like puny arms seeking to embrace the wide waters of Hudson's Bay.

Within their embrace was a more or less safe anchorage for light draft
craft. There was a pier. At least it was called a pier by the more
reckless. It was propped and bolstered in every conceivable way to keep
it from sinking out of sight in its muddy bed, and became a source of
political discord on the subject of its outrageous cost of maintenance.

As for the setting which Seal Bay claimed it was no more happy than the
rest. There was no background until the far-off distance was reached,
and then it was only a serrated line of low and apparently barren hills.
Everything else was a wide expanse of deplorable morass and reed-grown
tundra, through which ran a few safe tracks, which, except in winter,
were a deadly nightmare to all travellers.

The handiwork of man is not usually wholly without merit, but Seal Bay
would have sent the most hardened real estate agent seeking shelter in a
sanatorium as a result of overwork. Still, traffic was possible. Seal
Bay was an ideal spot for robbing Indian and half-breed fur traders who
knew no better, and the plunder could be more or less safely dispatched
to the markets of the world outside. Oh, yes, there was easy money and
plenty. So what else mattered?

These were the opinions of those who really counted, such men as Lorson
Harris, head of the Seal Bay Trading Corporation, and Alroy Leclerc,
who kept a mud shelter of extensive dimensions for the sale of drink and
food and gambling. There were others, those who came over the great
white trail from the north, who possessed very definite opinions of
their own, but were wise enough to refrain from ventilating them within
the city limits.

A man who hugged to himself very strong views had just entered the city.
He always came when Seal Bay was quite at its best. It may have been
simple chance. Anyway, it was one of the coldest days of winter, with a
sharp north wind blowing, and the thermometer hard down to zero. Seal
Bay's sins lay concealed under a thick garment of snow, while its
surrounding terrors were rendered innocuous by the iron grip of frost.

Seal Bay was astir. It always was astir when this man paid his annual
visit. He excited a curiosity that never flagged. His coming was looked
for. His going was watched. His coming and going were two of the most
baffling riddles confronting the sophisticated minds of a people whose
pursuits had no relation to purity or honesty.

The man came with three great dog-trains. Sometimes he came with four,
and even five. His sleds were heavy laden, packed to the limits of the
capacity of his dogs. They, in turn, were more powerful and better
conditioned than any Indian train that visited the place, and each was a
full train of five savage creatures more than half wolf.

He drove straight through the main thoroughfare of the town. The
onlookers were fully aware of his destination. It was the great
store-house over which Lorson Harris presided. And this knowledge set
much ill-feeling and resentment stirring. It was always the same. The
sturdy, hard-faced man from the north ignored Seal Bay as a community,
and only recognized a fellow creature in the great man who wove the net
which the Seal Bay Trading Corporation spread over the Northern world.

Something of the position found illumination in the dialogue which
passed between two men lounging in Alroy's doorway as the great train
passed them by.

"Gee! Makes you wonder if us folks has the plague," laughed Kid
Restless, the most successful gambler that haunted Alroy's dive. "He
don't see a thing but Lorson's. He'd hate to pass a 'how-dy' to a cur.
But his trade ain't as big as last year. Guess Lorson'll halve his
smile. He's been coming along fourteen year, ain't it?"

Dupont nodded, his contemplative gaze following the procession of sleds
under the skilful driving of their attendants.

"Yep." Dupont was a lesser trader who lived in a state of furious
discontent at the monopoly of the greater store. "The Brand outfit's
been trading here fourteen years - and more."

"How's that?"

"Oh, ther's a heap queer about that outfit," said the envious whiskered
man, whose dark, sallow features suggested plainly enough his Jewish
origin. "Maybe it's that makes that feller act same as if we had
the - plague. He calls himself Brand, but he ain't the Brand who traded
here more than twenty years ago. Guess you wasn't around then. Guess I
wasn't, neither. I'd be crazy by now if I had been. But the story's
right enough. Brand - Marcel Brand - and his pardner traded here with
Lorson more than twenty years back. He came from God knows where, an' he
just went right back to the same place. Then him an' his pardner got
done up. The darn Eskimos, or neches, or ha'f-breeds, shot 'em both up
to small chunks. Lorson was nigh crazy for the trade he lost, for all
Brand was a free-trader like Lorson hates best. Then, three years or so
later, along comes this guy with the name of 'Marcel Brand,' and carried
on the trade. And he's a white man same as the other. It was then Lorson
took to smiling plenty again."

"You figger he's the feller that? - - "

"I don't know. I 'low' got notions though."

Kid Restless was interested. There was little enough to interest him in
Seal Bay beyond the life of piracy he carried on at the card tables.

"It's some queer sort o' trade, ain't it?" he asked.

"Queer?" Dupont spat. "Oh, he trades pelts, some o' the best seals ever
reach this darnation swamp. But the trade that makes Lorson smile is
queer. I've seen bales of it shipped out of this harbour, an' it looks
like dried seaweed, an' smells like some serrupy flower you'd hate to
have around. Lorson just loves it to death, and I guess it needs to be a
good trade that sets him lovin'. But he keeps his face closed. Same as
the feller that calls himself Brand. Oh, yes, Lorson's the kind of
oyster you couldn't hammer open with a haf ton maul."

"Why don't they trail him - this guy?" demanded Kid sharply.

"Trail? Why, the sharps are after him all the time. But he skins 'em to
death. Lorson's at the game, too. Oh, yes. Guess Lorson 'ud jump the
claim if he could get wise. But he ain't wise. No one is. But they'll
get that way one time, and then that mule-faced guy, who guesses we'll
hand him plague, will forget to get around in snow time. You can't beat
the Seal Bay 'sharps' all the time, though I allow he's beat 'em plumb
to death fourteen years."

"I'd guess it'll need grit to beat him," returned the Kid. "That is," he
added thoughtfully, "if you can judge the face of a - mule."

"Oh, _he's_ got grit - in plenty. Even Lorson gets his hat off to him
when he's around."

Dupont laughed maliciously.

"You mean - - ?"

"I was remembering Lorson's play," the trader went on. "He had his
'toughs' that time. Brand had pulled out two weeks and more. Then one



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 13 of 30)