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day a bunch of Northern neches pulled in. They'd beat down the coast in
a big-water canoe. The folks didn't notice them. It's the sort of thing
frequent happens. But Lorson got the scare of his life. He woke up next
morning with his pet 'tough' - a big breed - lying across his home
doorstep. He guessed he was dead. But he wasn't. He woke up about midday
and started guessing where he was. Later on he handed out a fancy yarn
what the neches had done to him. An', happening to dove a hand into a
pocket, he hauled out a letter addressed to Lorson himself. It just said
four words, an' Lorson spoke them. I don't guess they'd mean a thing to
the likes of him. They just said, 'Play the darn game.' And under them
was wrote 'Brand.'"

Kid grinned back into the other's eyes which were alight with malicious
delight.

"That's the med'cine to hand a feller that can understand white - not
Lorson," the gambler said. "I like that guy that calls himself 'Brand.'"

"Guess he's some boy all right. But - I was thinkin' of that breed. He
was doped."

The other nodded.

"You're guessing about that - queer trade," he said.

Dupont gazed out in the direction whence the dog train had disappeared
behind the group of great frame buildings which represented the
establishment of the Seal Bay Trading Corporation.

"Yep," he said thoughtfully.

* * * * *

Lorson Harris was a type common enough in outland places, where money is
easy and conscience does not exist. He was vulgar, he was brutal, he was
a sensualist in his desire for all that wealth could buy him. He was not
a man of education. Far from it. He was a clever, unscrupulous schemer,
a product of conditions - rough conditions.

He was a large, coarse man who had permitted his passions to gain the
upper hand in the control of his life, but they by no means interfered
with his capacity as the head of the Seal Bay Trading Corporation.

He overflowed a big armchair before his desk in the office of his great
store, and beamed a hard-breathing good-nature upon all those who seemed
likely to be useful in his multitudinous schemes. Just now the victim of
his smile was a man at the zenith of middle life. He was of medium
height, but of herculean muscle, and the fact was patent enough even
under the dense bulk of fur-lined buckskin clothing he was wearing.

There was no more sympathy in the two men's appearance than there was in
their condition of mind. While a passionate desire for the flesh-pots
enjoyed by other magnates of commerce, whose good fortune had provided
them with a happier hunting-ground than Seal Bay, was the primal motive
power of the trader, the man who had just come off the great white trail
was driven by a desire no less strong, but only selfish in that the
final achievement should be entirely his.

Just now the fur cap was removed from the visitor's head, and a tingeing
of grey was apparent in the shock of brown hair he had bared. A few
sharp lines scored his forehead and played about his clean-shaven mouth,
but the steady, serious eyes, with their strongly marked, even brows
were quite devoid of all sign of passing years. They accentuated the
impression of tremendous vigour and capacity his personality conveyed.

The smiling eyes of Lorson read all these things. It was his business to
read his visitors. He pushed the cigar box across the desk invitingly.

"They're some cigars, boy," he said complacently. "Try one."

The other shook his head.

"Don't use 'em, thanks. Maybe I'll try my pipe."

"Sure. Do. A horn of whisky - imported Scotch?"

The same definite shake of the head followed, but before the visitor
could pass a verbal negative the trader laughed.

"Nothing doing?" he said amiably. "Well, maybe you're right. You boys
need fit stomachs. Drink's a darn fool play, but - Here's 'how,'" he
added, as he gulped down the dash of spirit he had poured out for
himself. He smacked his heavy, appreciative lips, and fondly
contemplated the label on the bottle. But he was not really reading it.

"Your trade in the dope's growing," he said, his fat fingers fondling
the glass bottle neck as though he were loth to release it. "Nearly
fifty thousand dollars. That's your credit for a year's trade. It's the
biggest in - fourteen years. And it don't begin to touch the demand I got
for the darn stuff. I could sell you a hundred thousand dollars' worth,
and still ask for more at the same price. You don't get what that means
to me," he went on, with a laugh intended to be disarming. "You ain't
running a great store that's crazy to hand out dividends. Here's a
market gasping. Prices are sky high, an' we can't 'touch.' I tell you it
wouldn't lower the price a haf cent if you quadrupled your output. I
want to weep. I sure do."

The man in buckskin was filling his pipe from a bag of Indian
manufacture.

"Sure," he nodded. "I get that." Then he added very deliberately.
"That's why you send your boys out scouting my trail."

Lorson laughed immoderately to hide the effect of the quietly spoken
challenge.

"That's business, boy. I buy your stuff - all you can hand me. But if I
can jump into your market, why - it's up to me."

"It certainly is up to you." The man lit his pipe and pressed down the
tobacco with one of his powerful fingers. "It's up to you more than you
know. I once sent back one of your boys. I shan't worry to send back any
more. Best save their skins whole, Harris. You'll never jump my market
till you can find a feller who can hit a trail such as you never dreamed
of. And it's a trail they got to locate first."

The trader leant back in his chair and linked his fat fingers across his
wide stomach. His eyes were twinkling as he regarded the visitor from
the North. The smile was still in them, but there was a keen speculation
in them, too.

"You can't blame me, boy," he said, with perfect amiability. "Hand me
all the stuff I'm asking, and your market's as sacred as a woman's
virtue. But you don't hand it me, or maybe you can't. Well, it's up to
me to supply my needs any way I know. There's nothing crooked in that.
If you're reckoning to squeeze my market you can't kick if I try to open
it wide. You see, Brand, this stuff _grows_. I guess it grows in plenty,
because you admit you trade it, and I know the Northern neche well
enough to guess he only trades sufficient for his needs. See? Well,
I've the same right you have to get on to that source. If you know it,
hand me what I'm asking for. If you don't, then you can't stop me trying
to locate it for myself. If all business propositions were as straight
as that there'd be no kick coming to anyone. As it is, the man who's got
a kick is me - not you."

"I get all that," the visitor said, without relaxing his attention.
"There's no kick on the moral side of this thing. I never said there
was. I said save your boys' skins whole. That's all. If you fancy
jumping my claim, jump it, but I guess I don't need to tell you what to
expect. You sit around here and order other folks to the job. It's they
who're going to suffer. Not you."

"I pay them. They take it on with their darn eyes open," snapped the
trader, his amiability slipping from him in a moment.

The other gathered a half smile at the display. He blew a great cloud of
smoke, and removed his pipe.

"I'd best tell you something I haven't seen necessary to tell you
before," he said. "And it's because I'm not yearning for any feller to
get hurt in this thing. And, further, I'm telling you because you'll see
the horse sense in cutting out sharp business for real business. There's
a big source of this stuff. Oh, yes. I know that. I've been chasing it
for fourteen years, and - I haven't found it. When I do - if I do, I'll
hand you all you need, and save that weep you threatened. Meanwhile
you're sinking dollars in a play that maybe fits your notion of
business, but is going to snuff out uselessly the lights of some of your
boys, who I agree 'ud be better off the earth. Here's where the horse
sense comes in. I know all about this stuff, all there is to know. I
know the folks, all of them, who can supply me. They wouldn't trade with
your folks. They wouldn't trade with a soul but me. This is simple
fact, and no sort of bluff. But the whole point is that I - I wish an
outfit ready to face anything the North can hand me, with the confidence
of the folks who know the source, have been chasing for it fourteen
years and failed, while you, with a bunch of toughs who couldn't live
five minutes on one of my winter trails, are guessing to do something
that for fourteen years has beaten me. That's the horse sense I want to
hand you, and I'm only handing it you so you don't pitchfork any more
lives into the trouble that's waiting on them. They won't find it. I'll
see to that, and what I don't see to the Northern trail will. If you
don't see the sense of this, it's up to you, and anyway, as I'm needing
to pull out early, I'll take a draft on the bank for those dollars. I'll
be along down again this time next year."

He rose from his chair preparatory to departure, and picked up the warm
seal cap he had flung aside.

For a moment the trader sat lost in thought. Then, quite suddenly, he
stirred, and reached the check book lying on the desk. He wrote rapidly,
and finally tore the draft from its counterfoil and blotted it. Then he
looked up, and his smiling amiability was uppermost once more.

"Thanks, Brand," he said. "I'm not sure you aren't right. It's hoss
sense anyway. You aren't given to talk most times. I wanted to know how
you stood about that stuff. I'm glad you told me. What's more, I guess
it's true. Still, what I figger to do in the future don't concern anyone
but me. All I can say is I built this enterprise up on a definite hard
rule. I never compromise with a rival trading concern, particularly with
a free-trading outfit. I trade with 'em, but I'm out to beat 'em all the
time."

The other accepted the draft and signed a receipt. Then he thrust his
cap over his head and his steady eyes smiled down into the amiable face
smiling up at him.

"That's all right, Harris," he said easily. "The feller who don't know
wins a pot now and again. But it's the feller who knows wins in the long
run. You back the game if you feel that way. You won't hand me a
nightmare. Later you'll wake up and get a fresh dream. The game's lost
before you start. So long."

* * * * *

Alroy Leclerc beamed on the man who was perhaps the greatest curiosity
amongst the many to be found in Seal Bay. His "hotel" had sheltered the
trader, who called himself Brand, for three days. A fact sufficiently
unusual to stir the saloon-keeper to a high pitch of cordiality. For all
his most liberal sources of revenue came from the scallywags of the
town, Alroy, with sound instinct, infinitely preferred the custom of the
stable men of the Northern world. Brand was more than desirable.

It was early morning. Much too early for Alroy. He felt lonely in the
emptiness of the place. A grey daylight, peering in through the window
of the office, scarcely lit the remote corners of the room. Brand had
breakfasted by lamplight. The saloon-keeper was more than thankful for
the comforting warmth of the great wood stove they were standing over.

"Guess it looks like bein' our last real cold snap," Alroy said, by way
of making talk with a man who was always difficult. "We'll be running
into May in a week. 'Tain't as easy with your folks. We git the warm
wind of this darn old bay, with all that means, which," he added with a
laugh, "is mostly rain. You'll be runnin' into cold right up to July."

The man from the trail was unrolling a bundle of notes for the
settlement of the bill Alroy had presented. He glanced up with a smiling
amusement in his eyes.

"Guess that's as may be," he said indifferently. "We get fancy patterns
where I come from."

He passed the account and a number of bills to the other, and returned
his roll to his pocket.

"And wher' may that be?" enquired the saloon-keeper, with as much
indifference as his curiosity would permit.

"Just north," returned the other. "Guess you'll find that right.
Twenty-five fifty. I'll take a receipt."

Alroy turned hastily to the table supporting the hotel register, and,
producing an ornate fountain pen, forthwith prepared to scratch a
receipt, which was rarely enough demanded by his customers amongst the
trail men.

"Sure," Brand went on, while the other bent over his unaccustomed work.
"We get all sorts. You can't figger anything this time of year, except
it'll be a hell of a sight more cussed than when winter's shut down
tight. I once knew a red hot chinook that turned the whole darn country
into a swamp in April, and never let it freeze up again. I once broke
trail at Fort Duggan at the start of May on open water with the skitters
running, like midsummer."

Alroy looked up.

"Duggan?" he questioned sharply. "That's the place Lorson opened up last
spring. It's right on the edge of a territory they call Unaga, ain't it?
The boys were full of it last summer and were guessing what sort of
murder lay behind his play."

Brand took the receipt the other handed him and folded it. He thrust it
into a pocket inside his fur-lined tunic.

"Why?" he demanded, in the curt fashion that seemed so natural to him.

"Why?" Alroy laughed. "Well, the boys around here guess they know Lorson
Harris, and ain't impressed with his virtues. You see, Fort Duggan, they
reckon, is a bum sort of location, eaten up by bugs an' a poor sort of
neche race. There's an old fort there, ain't there? One o' them places
where a hundred an' more years ago the old fur-traders stole, and
looted, and murdered the darn neches, and mostly drank themselves to
death when they didn't do it by shootin'. That don't figure a heap in
the boys' reckonin'. What does, is the feller Lorson sent there. The
yarn goes that this feller Nicol - David Nicol - that's his name, I
reckon, has been working for the Seal Bay Trading for some years. He
seems to be some crook, and Harris found him out. Guess he seems to have
cost the Seal Bay outfit a big bunch of money. They were all for sending
him down for penitentiary. Then a sort of miracle happened. Lorson
begged off. Why? It ain't usually Lorson's way. Next thing happens is
Lorson opens up Fort Duggan, and puts the tough in. So the boys are
guessin'. There sure is some sort of murder behind it. Lorson don't miss
things. His chances are mostly a cinch."

"Yes, he's pretty wise." The thoughtful eyes of the trail man were
turned on the sides of the glowing stove so that the saloon-keeper had
no chance of observing them. "You can't guess the things behind Lorson's
smile," he went on. "But I reckon you can figger there's always
something. As far as I can recollect of Fort Duggan - and I haven't been
there these years - I'd say he's no mean judge. I always wondered when a
big corporation would come along and open it up. There's big trade there
in pelts. Still, it's a tough sort of place."

"From what I hear it can't be too tough for the feller Lorson's sent
there. There'll be blood and murder amongst the neches there if they
don't hand over easy."

Alroy laughed immoderately at the prospect he contemplated, and held out
his hand in friendly farewell as his customer prepared to depart.

"Well, so long, Mister," he grinned amiably. "I guess there's things
worse in the world than the shelter of this old shanty. Anyway I'd
sooner you hit the Northern trail than me. I'll be mighty pleased to see
you around come - next year."

"So long."

Alroy's cordiality found very little that was responsive in the other.
Perhaps the trail man understood its exact value. Perhaps he was simply
indifferent. The saloon-keeper served a purpose, and was amply paid for
his service. Anyway he shook hands, and departed without any other
response.

Alroy watched him go. There was nothing else to do at this early hour
with his entire establishment still abed, and Seal Bay's main
thoroughfare still a desert of dirty, rutted snow, some foot or more
deep. He stood in his doorway gazing out at the cheerless grey of early
morning, watching with interest the handling of the three great dog
trains which he had seen come into town with their laden sleds only
three days before.

For all the cold and the early morning drear, for all he was of the life
of the desolate shores of Seal Bay, for all the comings and goings of
the men of the trails, for whom he mostly entertained a more or less
profound contempt, for Alroy Leclerc there was still a fascination
attached to the mysterious beyond to which these people belonged.
Somewhere out there was a great white world whose secrets he could only
guess at. The life was a life he did not envy. He knew it by the
thousand and one stories of disaster and miraculous escape he had
listened to, but that was all. There was more in it, he knew. Much more.
It held fascinated the adventurous, untamed spirits of men whose
superhuman efforts, yielding them little better than a pittance, still
made possible the enormous profits of a parasitic world which battened
upon them, and sucked them dry. Oh, yes. Whatever his sympathies he had
a pretty wide understanding of the lives of these men. He also knew that
he was one of the parasites which battened upon them. But he had no
scruples. Nor had he envy. Only a sort of fascination which never failed
at the sight of a sled, and a powerful train of well-handled dogs.

It was that which he looked upon now. He watched the two Indians stir
the savage creatures from their crouching upon the snow. It was the
harsh law of the club administered by skilled but merciless hands. The
great, grey beasts, fully half wolf, understood nothing more gentle.

In moments only the whole of the three trains were alert and ready on
their feet straining against the rawhide breast draws of their harness.
Then the white man shouted the word to "mush." The long hardwood poles
of the men broke out the sleds from the frozen grip of snow, and the
whole of the lightened outfit dashed off at a rapid, almost headlong
gait.

For a few moments Alroy remained at his post gazing after them. Then of
a sudden his attention was drawn in an opposite direction.

It was an incoming train. A single sled, heavily laden, but with only a
team of three dogs, far inferior to those which had just passed out of
the town. They cut into the main thoroughfare out of a side turning and
headed at once for the store of the Seal Bay Trading Company.

He looked for the owner. The owner was always his chief interest. He
anticipated that a liberal share of the value of the man's cargo would
find its way across his counter, and the extent of his profit would
depend on the man's identity.

He was destined to receive the surprise of his life. He looked for an
Indian, a half-breed, or a white man. Some well-known man of the trail.
But it was none of these. Despite the fur-lined tunic almost to the
knees, despite the tough, warm nether garments, and the felt leggings,
and beaded moccasins, and the well-strung snow-shoes, there remained no
doubt in his startled mind. None whatsoever. It was a woman! A girl!

Alroy ran a hand across his astonished eyes. He pushed back his fur cap
and stared. The girl was moving down the trail towards him. He had a
full view of the face looking out of the fur hood which surrounded it. A
white girl, with the heightened colour and brightening eyes of youth and
perfect health and strength. She was tall, beautifully tall, and as she
swept on past him in her gliding snow-shoes he had a fleeting vision of
a strand of fair hair escaped from beneath her fur hood, and a pair of
beautiful blue eyes, and pretty, parted lips which left him hugging
himself.

The vision had rewarded him for his early rising.




CHAPTER II

THE SPRING OF LIFE


It was a moment when memories were stirring. An-ina searched the
distance with eyes untroubled and full of a glad content. Had she not
every reason for content? Oh, yes. She knew.

It was the same scene she had gazed upon for many seasons, for many
years, and the limit of her vision had become practically the limits of
her world. There stretched the white snow-clad valley with the still
frozen river winding its way throughout its length to the north and
south. There were the far-off hills beyond, white, grey; and purpling as
the distance gained. Dark forest patches chequered the prospect. It was
the same all ways, north, south, and west.

For all the few changings of aspect with the passing of the seasons
there was no weariness in the woman's heart. She was bound up to the
exclusion of all else with the human associations which were hers. No
prison could hold bondage for her, so long as those associations were
not denied her.

Out of the tail of her eyes she glanced at the great figure that was
standing near her in the gateway of the fort. It was a figure, the sight
of which filled her with a great sense of pride, and joy, and gratitude.
In her simple way she understood something of the debt owed her for her
years of untiring, watchful care of the small body which had grown to
such splendid manhood. But the thought of its discharge never occurred
to her uncalculating mind. That which she beheld more than repaid.

Marcel was great for Indian eyes to gaze upon. Tall as was the woman,
comely in her maturing years, she was left dwarfed beside the youthful
manhood she had watched grow from its earliest days. The young man had
the erect, supple, muscular body of a trained athlete and the face of
the mother who had long since been laid to rest in the woods of the
Sleeper Indians. He had moreover the strength of the father's unspoiled
character, and all the purposeful method which the patient upbringing of
"Uncle Steve" had been capable of inspiring. He was a simple human
product, unspoiled by contamination with the evil which lurks under the
veneer of civilization, yet he possessed all the trained mind that both
Steve and he had been able to achieve from the wealth of learning which
his father's laboratory had been found to contain.

Beyond this, the bubbling springs of youth were in full flood, and the
tide ran strong in his rich veins. A passionate enthusiasm was the
outlet for this tide. A buoyant, fearless energy, a youthful pride in
strenuous achievement. It was with these he faced the bitterness of the
cruel Northland which he had grown to look upon like the Indians, who
knew no better, as the whole setting of human life and all that was to
be desired.

He was a hunter and a man of the trail before all things. His every
thought was wrapt up in the immensity of the striving. He had absorbed
the teachings of Steve, and added to them his own natural instincts. And
in all this he had raised himself to that ideal of manhood which nature
had implanted in An-ina's Indian heart. If she had thought of him as she
would have thought of him years ago in the teepees of her race, she
would have been content that he was a great "brave" and a "mighty
hunter." As it was her feelings were restricted to an immense pride that
she had been permitted the inestimable privilege of raising a real white
child to well-nigh perfect manhood.

Marcel knocked out the pipe he was smoking. It was with something like
reluctance he withdrew his gaze from the far distance.

"I've only two days more, An-ina," he said. "The outfit's ready to the
last ounce of tea and the filling of the last cartridge. The Sleepers
are wide awake, and squatting around waiting for the word to 'mush.' We
just daren't lose the snow for the run to our headquarters. I wish Uncle
Steve would get around. I just can't quit till he comes."

"No."

The squaw's reply was one of complete agreement. She understood. The
long summer trail was claiming the man. The hunter in him was clamouring
for the silent forests, where King Moose reigned supreme, the racing
mountain streams alive with trout and an untold wealth of salmon, the
open stretches of plain where the caribou browsed upon the weedy, tufted
Northern grass, the marsh land and lakes, where the beavers spend the
open season preparing their winter quarters. Then the traps, and the
wealth of fox pelts they would yield, while the eternal dazzle of the
much-prized black fox was always before his eyes. But stronger than all
was his thought for Steve. No passion, so far, was greater in his life
than his regard for this man who had been father, mother, and mentor to
him in the years of his helplessness.

An-ina pointed down the course of the winding river where it came out of



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 14 of 30)