Ridgwell Cullum.

The Heart of Unaga online

. (page 15 of 30)
Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 15 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the southern hills.

"He come that way," she said. Then she smiled. "The same he come always.
The same he come long time gone, when Marcel hide by waters and make big
shout. Him much scared. Marcel think? Oh, yes."

The man laughed in a happy boyish way.

"I'd like to, but I just can't," he said. Then he added: "You always
think of that, An-ina. No," he went on with a shake of the head. "I
remember riding Uncle Steve's back. Seems it was for days and days. I
sort of remember sitting around and watching him while he looked down at
a pair of feet like raw meat, with the flies all trying to settle on
them. The sort of way flies have. Then there were his eyes. I've still
got the picture of 'em in my mind. They were red - red with blood, it
seemed. They were sort of straining, too. And they shone - shone like the
blazing coals of a camp-fire."

An-ina nodded, and into her dark eyes came a look of the dread of the
days he had recalled.

"That so," she said, in a tone of suppressed emotion. "It was bad - so
bad. Him carry Marcel. Oh, yes. Carry all time, like the squaw carry
pappoose. So you live, - and An-ina glad."

"Yes." The man bestirred himself abruptly. He stood up from his lounging
against the gatepost, and his great height and breadth of muscular
shoulders seemed suddenly to have grown. "So I live. And you are glad.
That's it. So I live. It's always that way - with you and Uncle Steve.
It's for me. All the time for me. Not a thing for yourselves - ever."

The woman's eyes were suddenly filled with startled questioning and

"Oh, yes? That so," she said simply. "Why not? You all Uncle Steve got.
You all An-ina got. So."

"And aren't you both all - I've got?" The man's smile disarmed the sudden
passionate force which had taken possession of his voice and manner.
"Can't I act that way, too? Can't I sort of carry you and Uncle Steve on
my back? Can't I come along and say, 'Here, you've done all this for me
when I couldn't act for myself, now it's my turn? You sit around and
look on, and act foolish, like I've done all the time, while I get
busy.' Can't I say this, same as you've acted all these years? No. You
two great creatures won't let me. And sometimes it makes me mad. And
sometimes it makes me want to stretch out these fool arms of mine and
hug you for the kindest, bravest, and best in the world."

An-ina laughed in her silent Indian fashion, and the delight in her eyes
was a reflection of the joy in her soul.

"You say all those. It make no matter," she said.

"But it does make matter." The man's handsome face flushed, and his keen
blue eyes shone with a half angry, half impatient light. With a curious
gesture of suppressed feeling he passed a hand over his clean-shaven
mouth, as though to smooth the whiskers that had never been permitted to
disfigure it. "It makes me feel a darn selfish, useless hulk of a man.
And I'm not," he cried. "I'm neither those things. Say An-ina," he went
on, more calmly, and with a light of humour in his eyes, "Don't you dare
to laff at me. Don't you dare deny the things I'm saying. I won't stand
for it. For all you're my old nurse I'll just pick you up like nothing
and throw you to the dogs back in the yard there. And maybe that'll let
you see I can do the things I figure to. I'm a grown man, and Uncle
Steve says 'no' every time I ask to take on the work of locating where
the weed grows, which he hasn't found in fourteen years, and which my
father was yearning to find before he died. 'No,' he says. 'This is for
me. It's my work. It's the thing I set out to do - for you.' When I ask
to do the trade at Seal Bay, it's the same. He guesses the 'sharps'
would beat me. Me! who could break a dozen of their heads in as many
minutes. So I'm left to the trail - the summer trail - to gather pelts,
and learn a craft I know by heart. I keep the Sleeper boys busy, and in
good heart. I'm the big hunter they like to follow. I'm the son of a
great white chief they say, and, for me, they're sort of fool dolls I
pull the strings of, while Uncle Steve does the big man's work. Can you
beat it? It's all wrong. You and Uncle Steve are twice my age. You've
crowded a life's work - for me. You both reckon to go on - always for me.
While I sit around guessing I'm a man because I know a jack-rabbit from
a bull-moose. It's got to alter. It's going to alter - after the summer.
I want the big scrap, An-ina. The real scrap life can hand a feller that
can write 'man' to his name. I'm out for it all. I want it all. And if
Uncle Steve's right, and I'm wrong, and I go under, I'm ready to take
the med'cine however it comes."

The smile of the woman was full of the mother. It was full of the
Indian, too.

"Oh, yes," she said quickly. "What you call him, 'chance.' The 'big
chance.' So it is. It good. So very, very good for the big man. Marcel
the big man. I know. Oh, yes. I know. The chance it come. Maybe easy.
Maybe not. It come. So it is always. It come, you take it. You not must
look, or you find trouble. You take it. Always take it when it come.
That how An-ina think."

Marcel laughed. His impatience had vanished before the sun of his happy

"You've dodged the dogs, An-ina," he cried. "You're too cute for me.
You've agreed with me, and haven't handed an inch of ground. But I tell
you right here, you dear old second mother of mine, I'm going to play
the man as I see the game. And I'm going to play it good."

* * * * *

The expression on the man's dusky face was deadly earnest. His lean
brown hands were spread out over the fire for warmth. His fur-clad body
was hunched upon his quarters, as near to the glowing embers as safety
permitted. And as he talked a look of awe and apprehension dilated his
usually unexpressive eyes.

"The fire run this way - that way," he cried, in a voice of monotonous
cadence, but with a note of urgency behind it. "The man stand by dogs.
He look - look all the time. Fire all same everywhere. It burn up all.
Nothing left. Only two men. Boss Steve and Julyman. Oh, yes. They stan'.
They look, too. They no fear. So they not burn all up. The man by the
dogs much scare. He left him club, an' beat all dogs. So they all crazed
with him club. They run. Oh, yes. An' the man turn. He run, too. Then
Oolak see him face. Oh, yes. Him face of Oolak. Him eyes big with fear.
Him cry out. So him run lak hell so the fire not get him."

The silent Oolak had committed himself to speech. He had talked long out
of the superstitious dread that beset his Indian heart. He had dreamed a
dream that filled him with fear of the future, towards which he looked
for its fulfilment.

The grey dawn was searching the obscurity of the fringe of woody shelter
in which the camp was made - the last camp on the return journey from
Seal Bay to the fort. The smell of cooked meat rose from the pan which
Julyman held over the fire. Steve sat on a fallen log, smoking, and
listening tolerantly to the man's recital, while the sharp yapping of
the dogs near by suggested the usual altercation over their daily meal
of frozen fish. The cold was intense, but the cracking, splitting
booming which came up out of the heart of the woods told of the
reluctant yielding of the tenacious grip of winter.

Something of Oolak's awe found reflection in the eyes of Julyman. He,
too, was an easy prey to the other's primitive superstition. Steve alone
seemed untroubled. He understood these men. They were comrades on the
trail. There was no distinction. There was no master and servant here.
They fought the battle together, the Indians only looking to him for
leadership. Thus he restrained the lurking smile of irony as he listened
to the awesome recital of a dream that filled the dreamer with serious

"And this fire? Where did it come from?" he demanded, with a seriousness
he by no means felt.

Oolak met his gaze with a look of appeal.

"The earth all fire," he said. "The hills, the valleys, the trees. All
same. Him fire everywhere. Oh, yes. It run so as water. It fill 'em up
all things - everywhere. An' it burn all up. Not boss Steve an' Julyman.
Oh, no."

Steve meditated awhile. Oolak needed an interpretation of his dream, or,
anyway, must listen to the voice of comfort. He understood this as he
gazed upon the partially crippled body of the man who was still a giant
on the trail.

The passing of years had touched Steve lightly enough. Time might almost
have stood still altogether. A few grey hairs about the temples. A
thinning of his dark hair perhaps. Then the lines of his face had
perhaps deepened. But in the fourteen years that had elapsed since his
return to Unaga the raw muscle and the powerful frame of his youthful
body had only gained in mass and left him the more capable of
withstanding the demands which his life on the merciless plateau made
upon his endurance.

Julyman, too, was much the Julyman of bygone years. The only change in
him was that opportunity had robbed him of many of those lapses he had
been wont to indulge in. But he was still no nearer the glory of a halo.
Oolak alone displayed the wear and tear of the life that was theirs. His
body was slightly askew from the disaster of the return from the first
visit to Unaga, and one leg was shorter than the other. But the effect
of these things was only in appearance. His vigour of body remained
unimpaired. His silence was even more profound. And his mastery of the
trail dogs left him a source of endless admiration to his companions.

Steve dipped some tea into a pannikin.

"Oolak had a nightmare, I guess," he said, feeling that a gentle
ridicule could do no harm.

Julyman grinned his relief that the white man saw nothing serious in
that which all Indians regard as the voice of the spirits haunting their

"Oolak eat plenty, much," he observed slyly.

Steve helped himself to meat from the pan and dipped some beans from the
camp kettle beside the fire.

"Dreams are damn-fool things, anyway," he said. Then he laughed, "Guess
we've dreamed dreams these fourteen years. And we're still sitting
around waiting for things to happen."

Despite his concern Oolak tore at the meat with his sharp teeth, and ate
with noisy satisfaction.

"Him all fire. Burn up all things. Oh, yes. Bimeby we find him," he said

Steve was in the act of drinking. He paused, his pannikin remaining

"You guess - - "

"Him fire," said Oolak, wiping the grease from his lips on the sleeve
of his furs. "Him big fires. Oolak know. Him not eat plenty. Him see
this thing. The spirits show him so he know all time."

Steve gulped his tea down, and set the pannikin on the ground.

"That's crazy," he declared. "It's not spirits who show Oolak. It's as
Julyman says. He eats plenty. So he dreams fool things that don't mean a
thing. Oolak doesn't need to believe the spirits are busy around him
when he sleeps."

He laughed in the face of the unsmiling Oolak. But his laugh was cut
short by the Indian's stolid response.

"Boss white man know all things plenty," he said, with the patient calm
of a mind made up. "He big man. Oh, yes. Him bigger as all Indian man.
Sure. But he not know the voice of the spirits that speak much with
Indian man. Oolak know him. So. An' the father of Oolak. Oh, yes. So we
find this fire sometime. We find him. This fire of the world. The
spirits tell Oolak, so him not afraid nothing."

Julyman set a pannikin down with a clatter. He raised a brown hand
pointing. He was pointing at Oolak, and his eyes were wide with

"He dream of Unaga - him fire of Unaga! So!"

Steve started. In a moment, at the challenge of Julyman, his mind had
bridged a gulf of fourteen years. He was gazing upon a scene he had
almost forgotten. A strange, magnificent scene in the heart of a white
world where snow and ice held nature's wonderful creation buried deep in
its crystal dungeons. The distant, towering spire rising sheer above a
surrounding of lofty mountains. The pillar of ruddy smoke and mist
piercing deep into the heart of a cloud belt lit with the vivid
reflection of blazing volcanic fires. The splendour of it had been
awesome, terrific. He remembered it now.

All thought of ridicule had died within him. For the inspiration of
Julyman had stirred his own inspiration beyond all reason. In a moment
his mind was a surge of teeming thought, with Unaga - the fires of
Unaga - the centre of a vivid, reckless imagination.

For fourteen years a wealth of dogged effort had been expended in an
accumulation of failure, as he had admitted to Lorson Harris only a few
weeks back in Seal Bay. The whole purpose of his life on Unaga had been
denied him. Where he had sought and striven for Marcel, he had only
partially made good. The promised fortune was amassing only slowly,
painfully, while the child had grown to manhood with a rapidity that far
outstripped it. The source of the elusive Adresol had remained hidden.
Nature, and the Sleeper Indians, had refused him their secret.

For fourteen years the winter trail had been faced under the direst
perils. And in all that time never once had the memory of the Spire of
Unaga come to inspire him. He had pursued his endless search along the
lines which the learning of the dead chemist had laid down. He had
sought to trap the secret of the Sleeper men by every means in his
power. But always and everywhere he had run upon the blank wall of

Now - now, at a time when he had learned in Seal Bay disquieting news
suggesting jeopardy for his whole enterprise, a flash of imagination had
stirred in him an inspiration, which, against all reason, had changed
the whole outlook of the future.

Unaga! Could it be? Was that the secret hiding-place of Nature? Could he
make it? How far? Where? Somewhere within the boundaries of the Arctic
ice? Maybe. He could not tell. The Spire was for all to see. Somewhere
beyond. Somewhere lost in the grey world of the North. A lure to - what?
A hundred miles. Two. Three. Four. No, he could not estimate. He did
not know. All he knew was that it was there, a fiery pillar, the simple
sight of which set the heart of the Indian quaking. Was it there that
the secret of the Adresol plant lay hidden? Was it there that the sturdy
Sleepers dared the summer trail for their priceless treasure? What
monstrous conditions had produced it? What amazing anachronism had
Nature created in the far-off Arctic world?

And the terror of that journey in the dead of winter. It was a journey
into the unknown, unguessed heart of a world's desolation. Was it
possible? Was it within human powers of endurance? If the land of fire
were the nursery whence the Sleepers drew their supplies of Adresol they
made the journey. But it was in summer. Winter? Was it possible?

Yes. It was possible. It must be made possible. If it were not, if the
effort were too great he could always pay the price. Marcel had grown to
manhood. Fourteen years of failure had elapsed since the taking of his
great decision. Here was a prospect. Here was a chance. Had he not in
the past fourteen years taken every chance? Well, it was no time to
shrink before the fiery heart of Unaga.

The men devoured their food. Steve had no desire to talk of his new-born
inspiration. Bald words would never convince these primitive creatures.
They looked to him for leadership. It was for him to dictate. It was for
them to follow. To discuss the project he contemplated would weaken his

So he smoked on in silence, with a tumult of thought passing behind the
steady eyes gazing so deeply into the heart of the fire.



An-ina watched them pass out of the store together, her dark eyes
following them until they vanished beyond the range of the doorway. Her
regard for both was intense. The untamed Indian heart knew no
reservations. She had no thought for anything in the world but these two
men, and that which pertained to their well-being.

The depth of her devotion was unfathomable. Only its quality varied with
each. For the one it was the devotion of the wife. For the other it was
the devotion of the mother.

She made no comparison between them. How could she? Each in his way was
perfect in her eyes. Young Marcel's superb manhood had no greater claim
upon her woman's admiration than had the sturdy set of Steve's broad
shoulders. The boy's sunny smile, and often humorous eyes, were no
greater source of delight to her than the steady, honest purpose which
was in every line of the older man's strong face. Age and temperament
were far enough apart, but, to An-ina, they were children of a great
mother heart.

At the lean-to store-house, built against the stockade wall, designed by
the dead chemist to hold the bulk of Adresol he had hoped some day to
discover and which had never yet been called upon to fulfil its original
purpose, Steve came to a halt. The melting snow lay heavy upon the
sloping thatch of the roof, which was battened secure by heavy logs. It
was banked against the door. It was laden upon the sills of the one long
window. Steve kicked it clear of the door and took down the fastenings
which secured it. He passed within, with Marcel close upon his heels.

"We're going to need it, boy - after all," Steve said, with a note in his
voice and a light in his eyes that rarely found place in either. He
laughed shortly. "Yes. I think so."

"You think so?"

There was a quick glance of responsive eagerness in Marcel's eyes. Well
enough he knew the store had been built for one purpose only. He had
long since dubbed it "The Poison House." Steve's words meant - -

It had a long low interior, with a heavily raftered roof, and an earthen
floor. It was a shadowed, empty tunnel that was only half lit, and
gloomily seemed to merit the name Marcel had chosen for it. At the far
end stood a small unused baling machine, and beside it a set of iron
scales. And on the bench, set up under the windows, stood a few oddments
of appliances of a scientific nature. For the rest it was pathetically
empty. It was altogether a tragic expression of the failure of the
living as well as the dead.

Steve laughed again. It was the same short laugh.

"Maybe I'm crazy," he said. "If I'm not, and there's two cents of luck
waiting around on us, why, we'll need this old store-house after all.
Yes, and I guess we'll need those poison masks your father made and
figgered to need sometime. The whole thing leaves me guessing and
wondering at the sort of fool man I am not to see what's been looking me
in the face for the last fourteen years."

The flash of excitement leapt into Marcel's eyes.

"You've - found the stuff?" he demanded, in a curious hushed tone. Then
with a rush: "Where? On the road to Seal Bay? Or the shores of Hudson's
Bay? It's the sort of thing for a coast like that. Guess it's like
seaweed. Where?"

Steve shook his head.

"Guess again," he said, with a smile of added confidence. "No, I haven't
seen it. I haven't found it. It's just a notion in my fool head." His
eyes lapsed again into their wonted seriousness. "It's a notion I've
got, and - it's right. Oh, yes. In my mind's eye I can see the stuff
growing. And - I - know - where. It's just for me to locate the place and
make the journey - - "

"For us, Uncle Steve."

Steve turned sharply and gazed up into the boy's handsome, determined
face. He studied the unsmiling blue eyes that returned his look
unflinchingly. And that which he read in them left him with a
realization that a new chapter in the history of their companionship was
about to open.

"We'll get along to your father's office, boy," he said quietly. "It's
been our refuge and schoolroom for fourteen years. Maybe it's still the
best place for us both to learn our lessons."

He led the way out without waiting for reply. And as they passed from
the portals of the Poison House he again set up the fastenings.

Each had his own place in the simple room which Marcel's father had
dedicated to the science which had been his whole life. For him it had
been all sufficient. The storming of the elements outside might have
been the breathlessness of a tropical climate so far as he cared, once
absorbed in the studies that claimed him. And in a measure the
atmosphere of the room had a similar influence upon these two who came
after him.

Steve occupied the chair at the desk. Marcel had taken possession of the
chair which stood before a small table upon which he had been accustomed
to pursue the simple studies Steve had been able to prepare for him. He
had turned the chair about so that he sat with his feet upon the rail of
the stove in which summer and winter the fire was never permitted to go
out. He had come prepared to listen to the man who had always been his
guide and well-loved friend. But he had come also with the intention of
pressing those claims of manhood which were passionately crying out
within him.

The room was changed only that the belongings of these men, accumulated
in fourteen years, predominated over those things which the dead man had
left behind him. The room was intimate with the personalities of its new
tenants, while it still retained full evidence of the man who had
modelled its original character.

For some moments Steve searched amongst the drawers of the desk. Finally
he produced a number of note books and well-worn diaries. These he set
on the writing pad before him. Then he smilingly regarded the man who
was as a son to him.

"Guess I've got the things I need, boy," he said. "They're support for
the notion I'm going to tell you about. That's so you won't think I'm
crazy," he added, laying a hand on the books.

Marcel nodded keenly.

"Sure. And the notion?"

Steve understood the other's impatience.

"Ordinarily I'd hand you what's got into my mind right away," he said,
still regarding the books. "But that way I couldn't convince anything.
There's got to be arguments, and your father's got to hand us the

He thrust his fur cap back from his forehead.

"Light a pipe, boy," he went on kindly. "I've got to make a big talk.
And, for a while, anyway, you've got to listen."

Marcel laughed. He obeyed without demur. But Steve was in no way blinded
to the fact that for all his excited interest there was lying, at the
back of every thing, a tug-of-war coming between them, a tug-of-war
which he was by no means sure he was equal to.

"I'm just glad about the big talk," Marcel said. "You see, Uncle Steve,
there isn't much of the kid left in me. This country doesn't leave us
kids long. I'm still ready to act when you say so, and mostly without
question. But a whole heap of questions have been buzzing around in my
head lately, and they need to get out sometime. May as well be now. Talk
all you need, an' I'll blow the pipe."

Steve nodded. He knew the rope for the tug was laid.

"I'll begin at the right start," he said. "That way I'll have to hand
you things you already know. But I don't want to leave you guessing
anywhere along the line, because you're going to tell me all you think
when I've done. First we'll look right back. For fourteen years we've
chased over this territory where your father chased before us. We've
followed his notions to the letter set out in these old books. We've
gone further. We've tried tracking the Sleepers in the open season,
which he reckoned was a bad play. The result? Nix. We've done all he's
done and more, and we've no better result than he had. We've read and
re-read his stuff. We've dreamed, and wondered, and guessed till we know
the whole of Unaga like the pages of one of his books. We've failed to
find the growing ground of this darn Adresol, and, like your father,
we've had to content ourselves with a trade in the dried stuff these
dopey rascals choose to hand us. In twice the years he had at his
disposal we haven't advanced a step along the path he's handed to us."

He turned the pages of some of the notebooks while the smoke of Marcel's
pipe distributed a pleasant haze about the room.

"Now your father was a heap more than a clever scientific man," he went
on a moment later, "and I get that through his notes, which I well-nigh
know by heart. He was a reasoner in those things that had nothing to do
with his science. Guess he was dead practical, too, well-nigh a genius
that way. As for his courage and patience - well, I guess you've only got
to look around you at this old fort. You won't need my hot air to tell
you of it. So I'm left guessing at the wonder of it. _He just missed the
whole point of his own observations, and knowledge, and research._"

Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 15 of 30)