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A smile crept into Steve's eyes as he made the final announcement. It
grew into his characteristic short laugh.

"Oh, I'm not going to tell you how wise I am. I'm not going to tell you
your great old father was a fool man, and I'm the wise guy that's
figgered out all he missed. I'm the fool man who's been handed a fool's
luck. I was sitting around over the camp-fire on the trail from Seal Bay
with nothing better to do than to listen to the crazy dream of an
ignorant, superstitious neche. It was in that fool yarn I found the
answer to all the questions we've asked in fourteen years. As I tell
you, it was just a crazy notion till I started in to fit it to the
arguments your father handed to us. Then I saw in a flash, and got the
start of my life. There's times that I'm still wondering if I'm not
plumb crazed."

He indicated a notebook which he had opened. Its pages were scored with
his own pencilled notes.

"I don't need to worry you with all the stuff written here," he went
on. "You know it like I do. But I'm going to read a piece so you'll get
the full drift of my argument when I hand it you. First, though, we'll
reconstruct some. The neches go out for this stuff in the open season.
They start when the ice breaks, and don't get back to home till things
freeze up again. That's important. They bring the Adresol in _dried_.
Like stuff dead for months. They don't bring it green, and dry it
themselves. They bring it _dried_. Now then, your father says that one
root would yield a thousand per cent. more Adresol than the green
foliage. And the green foliage five hundred per cent. more than the
dried. Why then do the neches bring in the dried stuff in the open
growing season? Do they prefer it that way?" He shook his head
thoughtfully. "Guess it's not that. There's a reason though. These folk
have been using this stuff for ages. Yet they never bring it green. They
never bring the root. Why not? Do they know about the yield of the
foliage, of the root? Maybe. But I don't think so. I'd like to say
_they've never seen the stuff in its growing state_. Only dead!"

Steve picked up the notebook in front of him.

"I want to read this to you, boy. You've read it. We've both read it,
but it's got a different meaning - now. Listen."

"Adresol has many features, interesting and deadly, foreign to all other
known drug-producing flora. Aconite, digitalis, and the commoner
varieties of toxins lie dormant in the producing plant. That is, there
are no exhalations of a noxious nature. In Adresol the drug is
active - violently active. Adresol extracted and duly treated (see note
X, Book C) for uses in medicine is not only harmless to the human body
in critical stages of disease, but even beneficial to the whole system
in a manner not yet fully explored. But in its active, crude state in
the growing plant, it is of a very violent and deadly character. It
would almost seem that an All-wise Creator has, for this reason, set it
to flourish in climates almost unendurable to human and animal life, and
in remotenesses almost inaccessible. No animal or human life could exist
within the range of the poison its deadly bloom exhales. The plant
belongs to the order Liliaceæ and would seem from its general form to be
closely allied with the Lilium Candidum. This, however, only applies to
its form, and by no means to its habit. Its magnificent bloom is dead
white and of intense purity. A field of this strange plant in full
bloom, viewed from above, would probably give an appearance like the
spread of a white damask table-cloth of giant proportions. The blooms
almost entirely obscure the weed-like foliage. The danger lies in the
pungent, sickly, but delicious perfume it exhales, which is so intense,
that, coming up against the wind, it could be detected miles away.
Before and after its blooming season it is only less deadly that it can
be safely approached. To cut or break the sappy stems and foliage would
be only to court prompt disaster without the use of adequate poison
masks. The newly cut plant exhales the same deadly perfume as the bloom,
one deep breath of which would frequently be fatal to human life. The
cuts in the foliage heal up quickly, however, and after a day's delay
its transport could be safely undertaken. The reference here is to
transport in the open air. The green harvest once stored in a confined
space again becomes actively dangerous. All stores containing it should
be carefully locked up, and isolated, and should only be entered by
those with poison masks carefully adjusted. The only moment at which
Adresol, in its native conditions, is perfectly innocuous is in its dead
season, when the bulbous root lies dormant. The proportion of the drug
contained in the dried foliage, however, is infinitely small.'"

Steve looked up from his reading.

"That," he said, "is all we need to convince us of the Sleepers' lack of
understanding of the nature of the plant. I'd say right here they've
never seen the plant in growth. If they had they'd be scared to get next
it by a thousand miles. Whatever we don't know of Adresol, we do surely
know Indians. But I guess there's a heap more importance in that writing
than that. How do these folk get the dead stuff in the growing
season - the blooming season? How can they face that deadly scent?
They've no scientific poison masks. Yet year after year an outfit makes
the summer trail and they get back when things freeze up with enough
Adresol for their own doping, and a big bunch for trade to us. Your
father doesn't answer that. He leaves us guessing, and thinking of
winter when the whole darn country is covered feet thick in snow and
ice."

The interest in Marcel's eyes was profound, and he drew a deep breath as
Steve paused. He had no question, however. He sat leaning forward in his
chair expectantly, waiting, his pipe dead out and forgotten.

Steve's face suddenly lit with a smile.

"Now I'm going to give you a crazy man's answer to all those things. I'd
hate for your father to hear me. I'm going to say the growing, blooming
season of this queer stuff is _dead, hard winter_. At least up here. I'm
going to say the foliage lies dead the whole of the open season, and the
root is dormant. I'm going to say these Sleepers don't know a thing but
the stuff they find, and never have known in all their history. I
believe that some where away back their ancestors found the dead weed,
and maybe used it to smoke like other weeds some of the Northern Indians
use. Maybe it doped them in the pipe. Maybe some bright squaw tried
boiling it into a drink. It's a guess. You can't say how they came to
use it as dope. Anyway the thing just developed, and has gone on without
them getting wise to any of the things your father knew."

"Oh, yes, it all sounds crazy," Steve hurried on as Marcel stirred.
"It's too crazy I guess for a scientific head like your father's. But he
hadn't listened to Oolak's fool dream, and he never saw the thing I've
seen - twice."

"You've seen?"

Marcel could deny himself no longer. Intense excitement urged him. Steve
shook his head.

"I haven't found it - yet," he said. "No. The thing I've seen you've
seen, too. You were just a bit of a kiddie and won't remember. I'll try
and fix up the picture of what I saw then in the far-away distance, and
what I see now in my crazy mind's eye."

He paused. Then, with a swift movement that had something of excitement
in it, he flung out an arm pointing while his voice took on a new note,
and his words came rapidly.

"Somewhere out there," he cried. "A land of glacial ice, endless snow
and ice. Hills everywhere, broken, bald, immense. A range of mountains.
In the midst of 'em a giant hill bigger and higher than anything I've
ever dreamed. A hill of blasting, endless fire. It never dies out. It
burns right along, belching the fiery heart out of the bowels of the
earth. And everywhere about, for maybe miles, a blistering tropical heat
that defies the deadliest cold the Arctic hands out. Do you get it? Sure
you do. You're getting my crazy notion, that isn't so crazy. Well, what
then? Winter. A temperature that turns a snowstorm into a pleasant
summer rain, and the buzzard into a summer gale. Vegetation starts into
growth. I can't guess how the absence of sun fixes it. Maybe it
grows - _white_. But it grows - grows all the time, like those things of
the folk who grow out of season. Then spring, and the sun again. Rising
temperature. The heat from this hell ripens the stuff quick, and the sun
makes it green again. This Adresol. A great field of dead white. Then,
as swiftly, it dies. Dies before the Indians come. Burnt up by the
rising temperature of the advancing season _and the blistering volcanic
heat_."

Marcel started up from his chair with an excited cry.

"You're right, Uncle," he cried, completely carried away. "But where?
Where's this place? This old hill? I've seen it? Where?"

"It's north, boy. Away north. God knows how far."

Steve's voice had lost something of its note of inspiration before the
hard facts which Marcel's question had brought home to him. He paused
for a moment with his eyes hidden. Then, with a curious movement which
suggested the determined squaring of his shoulders, he broke out again.

"Yes. It's miles - maybe hundreds of miles away north. It's somewhere in
the heart of Unaga. Some place explorers never hit. It's the great Spire
of Unaga. The unquenchable Fires of Unaga. It's a living volcano that
sets all other volcanoes looking like two cents. I've seen it twice - in
the far-off distance. You've seen it once. The boys have seen it, too.
It looked like a pillar propping up the roof of the heavens. A pillar of
fire. It set me nigh crazy with wonder. And it scared the boys to death.
They guessed it was the breeding ground of all evil spirits. But it's
there, and it grows our stuff. And I'm going right out after it."

"Yes!"

Marcel dropped back into his chair. His exclamation was a vent to the
emotions which the force of Steve's words had stirred.

"Yes. Sure," he added a moment later. "We'll go right out after it."

"We?"

Steve looked up with a start.

The boy's excitement had passed. He regarded his foster-father with a
pair of challenging, smiling eyes that were full of humour. But the
challenge was definite. He re-lit his pipe.

"Why, yes, Uncle," he said promptly. "We'll go. That's how you said. I'm
all in on this. I'm crazy to see all that wonderland can show me. It
doesn't scare me a thing. You see, it's a winter trail. I guess I know
the summer trail so I won't forget it. The winter trail's new and I'm
crazy for it. You'll need us all on this thing. I - - "

Steve shook his head. Marcel broke off at the sign, and the smile passed
out of his searching eyes as he sought to read what lay behind that
silent negative.

"You mean - ?" he went on, a moment later, a flush mounting to his cheeks
and suggesting a sudden stirring of passionate protest.

"I don't mean a thing but that you can come right along if you think
that way."

The smile that accompanied Steve's words was gently disarming. There was
no equivocation. It was impossible for the boy to misread what he said.
The capitulation had not waited for the passionate challenge Marcel had
been prepared to make.

"You - mean that, Uncle?"

"Surely. If you're yearning to take a hand, boy, I don't figger to get
in your way." Steve closed up the books on his desk and dropped them
back in the drawer from which he had taken them. Then he thrust back
his chair and prepared to join the other in a smoke. "I've got just two
feelings on this thing, Marcel," he went on, as he filled his pipe. "I'm
glad you feel that way, but I'm kind of sorry to think you're going
along with me. You see, I kind of think of you as my son. I've done all
I know in fourteen years to teach you my notion of what a man needs to
be. I've done the best I know that way. And I'd have hated to find you
short of the grit I reckon this enterprise is going to need." He
laughed. "If you'd have turned out a sort of 'Squaw-man' I guess I'd
have hated you like a nigger. But there wasn't a chance of it, with a
father and mother like you had. No." He lit his pipe, and settled
himself in his chair. "The way you've learned to beat the summer trail,
your woodcraft. You're a 'great hunter and brave,' as An-ina says, and
you've got every Indian I've ever known left cold behind you. You've
grown to all I've hoped, and I'm glad. And now - now this great last
enterprise is coming along, why, it just leaves me proud thinking that
you couldn't listen to the yarn of it, even, without reckoning to be on
the outfit yourself. I'm glad - just glad."

Marcel's eyes shone. Steve's approval, unqualified, was something he had
not hoped for. He had been prepared to battle for his rights as a man,
and now - now the wonder of it. He was admitted to the task confronting
them without question; with only cordial agreement. He remembered with
regret his outburst to An-ina, when he had been waiting for Steve's
return from Seal Bay.

"You see," he burst out with impulsive frankness, "I was scared you'd
hold me to the fort, Uncle, the same as it's been every winter. I was
just getting mad thinking I was only fit for the open summer trail,
chasing up pelts with a bunch of these doper neches. Oh, yes. It set me
mad. And I told An-ina. I'm not a kid, Uncle. Guess I'm all the man
I'll ever be, and I just want to get busy on a man's work. I can't stand
for seeing you doing these things for me. You don't get younger. And
I - I'm bursting with health and muscle, and my spirit's just crying out
against being nursed like a kid. I came here to kick, Uncle, I
did - sure. To kick hard - if you'd refused me. But I needn't have thought
that way - with you. And I'm sore now that I did. By Gee! It's just
great! That hill, those fires! We'll start to fix the whole thing. And
we'll get right out in the fall."

"Sure." Steve nodded. His eyes were very tender, and their smile was the
smile he always held for the boy who had now become a man. "It'll be
fall - early fall. We can't start out too early, but it mustn't be till
the dopers are asleep. You see, we've got to leave An-ina
behind - without a soul to protect her."

"Yes." Marcel's happy eyes shadowed. But they brightened at once.
"Couldn't we leave Julyman? There'd still be the three of us."

"I s'pose we could."

Steve seemed to consider for a moment, his serious eyes turned on the
stove. Marcel watched him anxiously. Presently the elder man looked up.
To the other it seemed that all doubt had passed out of his mind.

"I'd best tell you what's in my mind," he said. "I got it from Leclerc
at Seal Bay. I got it, by inference, from my talks with Lorson Harris.
The Seal Bay Co. are out after us all they know. They're out after our
stuff. Our secret. They've opened up Fort Duggan, and sent a crook
called David Nicol there to run it. And he's out to jump our claim. It
comes to this. This outfit is on the prowl. Their job is to locate us.
Well? An-ina alone! Even Julyman with her! What then if this bunch hits
up against the fort while we're away? Oh, I'm not thinking of our
'claim.' It's An-ina. The soul who's handed over her life to us. The
woman who's nursed you ever since you were born. And who'd give up her
life any hour of the day or night if she guessed it would help you. Can
we leave her to Julyman? You best tell me how you think - just how you
think."

The expressive face of Marcel reflected the emotion which Steve's words
had set stirring in his boyish heart. The delight at his contemplated
share in the great adventure had been shining in his eyes. Now they were
shadowed with anxiety at the talk of Lorson Harris and his scouts. A
moment's disappointment followed. But this was swept away by a rush of
feeling at the thought of his second mother left alone and unprotected,
except by an Indian.

In a moment all that was loyal and generous in him swamped the
selfishness of his own youthful desire. His passionate rebellion at
being shut out from all he considered as man's work was completely
forgotten. He remembered only the gentle dusky creature who needed his
man's support.

"You needn't say a thing, Uncle Steve," the youngster cried. "I was
crazy to go. I'm that way still. But - well, I just can't stand for
An-ina being left. She's more than my second mother. She's the only
mother I remember."

Steve nodded.

"I guessed you'd feel that way boy, and - I'm glad."




CHAPTER IV

KEEKO


Beyond the river, the trees came down to the water's edge, where roots
lay bare to the lap of the stream which frothed about them. They
shadowed the wide waters with a reflection of their own dark mystery.
They helped to close in the world about old Fort Duggan, deepening the
gloom of its aged walls, and serving to aggravate the shadow of
superstition with which the native mind surrounded it.

The hills rose up in every direction. They were clothed with forests
whose silence only yielded to crude sounds possessing no visible source.
The river seemed to drive its way through invisible passes. It appeared
out of a barrier of woodlands, backed by a rampart of seemingly
impassable hills, and vanished again in a similar opposite direction.
Between these points it lay there, a broad, sluggish stretch of water
upon which the old fort looked down from the rising foreshore.

The benighted instincts of the Shaunekuks know no half measure. Fort
Duggan to them was the gateway of Unaga, which was the home of all Evil
Spirits. So they looked upon the fort without favour, and left it
severely alone.

But now all that was changed. Fort Duggan was no longer silent, still,
the shadowed abode of evil spirits. Crazy white folks had come and taken
possession of it. They had dared the wrath of the Evil One, and the old
place rang with the echo of many voices.

For awhile these primitive folk had looked on in silence. They wondered.
They thought of the Evil One and waited for the blow to fall. But as the
weeks and months went by without the looked-for retribution they began
to take heart and give rein to a curiosity they could no longer resist.
Who were these folk? Why had they come? But most important of all, what
had they brought with them?

They found a white man and two white women. They found several dusky
creatures like themselves, only of different build. Oh, yes, they were
Indians, Northern Indians, but they were foreigners. They were slim,
tough creatures who gazed in silent contempt upon the undersized people
who came to observe them.

But the Shaunekuks were not concerned deeply with the men of their own
colour. It was the white man and the white women who chiefly aroused
their curiosity. Years of tradition warned them that the coming of the
white man was by no means necessarily an unmixed blessing, and so they
had doubts, very grave doubts.

Perhaps the white man understood. Anyway he promptly took steps. He
invited them to feast their eyes upon the treasures he had brought with
him from far distant lands. He assured them that he had come to give
away all these splendid things in exchange for the furs, which only
great hunters like the Shaunekuks knew how to obtain.

Capitulation was instant. The Indians forthwith held a council of their
wise men, and set about inundating the fort with priceless furs. So it
had gone on ever since. In a year the white man was complete master of
the situation. In less than two years he had assumed the office of
dictator.

The man Nicol knew his work. He had been sent there by Lorson Harris,
which was sufficient guarantee. None knew it better. Having established
in the Indian mind the necessity for his existence amongst them, he
exploited the position to its extreme limits. Through methods which knew
no scruple he usurped the authority of the wise men, or adapted it to
his own uses. He saw to it that the generosity of his original trading
was swiftly reduced to the bare bone of extortion. And the Indians
submitted. The white man had come in the midst of their darkness and had
given them light, at least he had dazzled their eyes, and excited their
cupidity by his display of trade. Furs - furs. They could always obtain
furs. If he were foolish enough to exchange simple furs for beautiful
beads, and blankets, and tobacco, and essences, and coloured prints, and
even fire-water, well, that was his lookout. At least they were not the
fools.

With the coming of the white man and the two white women with their
several Indian followers the life of the Shaunekuks at Fort Duggan was
completely revolutionized. Before the foolish Indians knew what was
happening they were captured body and soul. They quickly learned that
the white man was to be feared rather than loved. They realized it was
better to risk the anger of the Evil Spirits of Unaga rather than to
offend him. So they yielded to the course which they hoped would afford
them the greatest benefit. It was no less than submitting to an
unacknowledged slavery.

It was perhaps a dangerous condition, a situation full of risk for the
white man and all his people, should his force and ruthlessness weaken
even for one moment. But Nicol was too widely experienced, too naturally
cut out for his work to fall for weakness. He treated the Indian as he
would treat a trail dog, as a savage beast to be beaten down to the
master will, and kept alive only as long as it yielded return for the
clemency.

For the women folk of this man the benighted Indians had little concern.
One of them was sick, which made her a creature of even less
consequence. The other, the one who called herself Keeko, she seemed to
live her own life regardless of the man, regardless of everybody except
the sick woman, who was her mother. She made the summer trail after
pelts and so trespassed upon what the Indians regarded as their rights,
but since the white man seemed to approve there was little to be said.

Just now the spring freshet had subsided, which meant that the river was
clear of ice. Keeko was at the landing preparing for the trail. She was
there with her Indians looking on while the laden canoes received their
final lashings, and the joy of the open season was surging in her rich
young veins.

Keeko was more than a little tall. She was as graceful as a young fawn
in her suit of beaded buckskin. She was as slim as a well-grown boy in
her mannish suit, with muscles of steel under flesh of velvet softness.
Reliance and purpose, and the joy of living, looked out of her
beautiful, deeply fringed eyes. Her ripe lips and firm chin were as full
of decision as the oval of her wholesomely tanned cheeks was full of
girlish beauty.

An Indian looked up quickly at the sound of her keen tone of authority.
His face was crumpled and scored with advancing years, and the merciless
blast of the northern winter trail. But for all his years he was hard as
nails.

"We'll pull out after we've eaten," cried the girl. "We're days late.
Get Snake Foot, and don't leave the outfit unguarded. Guess we're not
yearning for the scalliwag Shaunekuks thieving around. It'll be two
hours. The sun'll be shining there," she pointed, indicating an immense
bank of forest trees. "Where's Med'cine Charlie? By the teepees of the
Shaunekuks? He's most generally that way."

Little One Man nodded, and grinned in his crumpled way.

"Oh, yes," he said. "But I get 'em."

"Good. See to it." The girl nodded. "Don't forget. Two hours. The sun on
the water. I come."

Keeko turned away up the rising foreshore in the direction of the long,
low building of the fort.

Once she was beyond the observation of the Indian's keen eyes her whole
expression underwent a change. The light died out of her eyes and a deep
anxiety replaced it. She was torn by conflicting feelings. The desire of
the trail had grown to a passion. The immense solitudes of the great
forests were the paradise she dreamed of during the long dark days of
winter. But deep in her heart there were other feelings that preoccupied
her no less.

Her mother was sick, sick to death with the ravages of consumption, on a
bed from which she would only be removed for a grave somewhere in the
shadows of the surrounding woods. And she loved her mother. She loved
her mother with a passionate devotion.

It was the thought of all that might happen during her prolonged absence
that robbed Keeko's eyes of their buoyant light and happy smile.
But - what could she do? She must go. She knew she must go. It had all
been arranged between her and her mother. And with each season her work
became more urgent.



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 16 of 30)