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Ridgwell Cullum.

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you're tired here. After we're through I don't seem to see any
difficulty in raking out a bucket of red-hot fire juice or any other old
thing you happen to fancy."

Tough Alroy grinned and accepted the invitation.

"That's the talk," he said. "Here's Lorson's letter. You read that right
away, and I'll make a big talk after."

The two men sat down, and while Nicol tore open the dirty envelope, and
read his taskmaster's orders, Tough lit a pipe, and watched him out of
the corners of his black, restless, wicked eyes.




CHAPTER VI

THE KING OF THE FOREST


A roar of fury echoes through the primeval forest. It plays amidst the
countless aisles of jack-pine. It loses itself in the dense growing
tamarack, or dies amidst the softer plumage of spruce. It is no mere
bellow of impotent rage. It is a note of defiance. It is a challenge to
the legions of the forest. It is the gage of battle flung without
reserve.

Wide-set eyes blaze their search amidst the deeper shadows. They are
eager as well as furious. They are seeking an adversary who shuns open
conflict and wounds from afar. The great head is proudly raised aloft,
and gaping nostrils on a great clubbed muzzle snuff violently at the
air. A treacherous blow has torn open the channels of life and saturated
the heaving flanks with their rich, red tide. The King Moose stands at
bay.

With the last echo, the challenge is flung again. It is ruthless,
insistent, and deep with the violence of outraged might.

The answer comes. It comes in man's own good time. It comes in the crack
of a rifle, and the moose jolts round with a spasmodic jerk. In a moment
a movement amongst the surrounding tree-trunks captures its gaze. There
is a pause, breathless, silent. Savage wrath leaps anew, and down sweeps
the great head till the spread of antlers is couched like a forest of
lance points. The huge body is hurled in a headlong charge.

It is an act of supreme courage as splendid as it is hopeless. The
elusive foe applies a wit, a skill undreamed of in the beast mind. He is
gone in a flash, and the wounded creature stands amazed, furious,
baulked, while vicious hoofs churn the soil, and a deep-throated roar
awakens again the echoes of the forest.

But there is desperation added to defiance in the challenge now. There
is uncertainty, too. The heaving flanks are dripping with a crimson
tide. The creature is sorely wounded. For all its pride and courage, its
sufferings admit of no denial. The foe has scored. He has scored
heavily.

The climax is approaching. The final challenge is taken up at last as
the king beast would have it.

The man reappears. In a moment he is standing out amidst the
tree-trunks, slim, erect, a puny figure in a world of giants. He is not
so cowardly after all. He stands there calmly, with eyes alert,
watchful, measuring, ready to gamble his wit and skill against whatever
odds may chance.

The moose only sees. It has no thought. Only its rage. No calculation
but its immense strength. Savagery, courage, alone inspire its warfare.
So it is that fierce satisfaction rings in its greeting of the vision.

It is a moment pregnant with possibility. The doomed creature summons
its last ounce of physical might. Down drops the head till the hot blast
of nostrils flings up the mouldering soil of the ages. The great split
hoofs stamp a furious tattoo. They claw at the loose earth. Then, like a
flash, an avalanche of rage is flung into the combat.

The time has come. The man has played his game to the desired end. The
creature's fury has no terror for him. With his rifle pressed to his
shoulder, and eye glancing over the sights, he waits calmly, and full of
simple confidence. Twenty yards! Fifteen! With the low, sweeping
antlers, and the rush of hoofs that could disembowel at a single blow,
it is a desperate test of nerve. Slowly, gently, a finger compresses
itself about the trigger.

But something happens. The moose flounders in its rush. It is the
ungainly roll of a rudderless ship. It stumbles. A second, and its mad
rush ends. With a curious gasping sigh it plunges to the earth.

And the man? With his undischarged weapon lowered from his shoulder, and
the sharp crack of some stranger's rifle ringing in his ears, he stares
about him in utter and complete bewilderment.

Marcel's bewilderment was swiftly passing. Hot, impulsive resentment was
quick to take its place. All his mind and heart had been set upon that
kill. He had been robbed. Someone had robbed him in the very moment of
his victory, a victory which had cost him nine days of an arduous trail.

There was no sign. No sign anywhere. The silence of the world about him
was complete, that silence which no earthly agency ever seems to have
power to break up seriously. Like the fallen moose his angry eyes
searched the shadowed aisles for the intruder upon whom to vent his
hasty wrath. But like that other there only remained disappointment to
add to the fire of his anger. He seemed alone in the primordial world.
And yet he knew that other eyes, human eyes, were observing his every
movement.

At last he abandoned his search, and turned again to the creature
stretched in the stillness of death upon the mouldering carpet of the
forest. The bitterness of regret had replaced his impulsive heat.
Perhaps, even the philosophy of the hunter had yielded him resignation.
At any rate he quickly became absorbed in the splendid qualities of the
fallen monarch. And that which he beheld stirred anew his youthful
enthusiasm.

It was an old bull, hoary with age, and scarred with the wounds of a
hundred battles. It was truly a king in a world where might alone
prevails. He moved up to the wide-spreading antlers supporting the regal
head, as if to refuse it the final degradation of complete contact with
the soil. An exclamation of appreciation broke from him. His gaze was
fixed upon a minute, blood-rimmed puncture just behind the right eye. It
was the wound where the intruder's bullet had crashed into the
infuriated creature's brain.

"Gee! That's a swell shot!" he muttered, speaking his thought aloud,
with the habit bred of the great silences.

"But I'm sorry - now."

No echo of the forest could have startled more. No spur could have
stirred Marcel to swifter movement. He was erect in a moment, and turned
about, towering in his generous height over the slim creature smiling up
into his bewildered eyes. A white girl, wide-eyed, beautiful, was
standing before him.

"Now?"

Marcel echoed the stranger's final word stupidly.

"Yes. I'm grieved all to death - now," the girl said, with a composure in
striking contrast to Marcel's obvious confusion. "I just am. I hadn't
right. But I was scared - scared to death. You don't understand that.
Why, sure you don't. How could you? You're a man. I'm only a girl. And I
had to stand around, just waiting, with another feller within a yard or
so of sheer death, while all the time I had means in my hand of fixing
things right for him. That's how it was when I saw that moose breaking
for you. And you - why, you just looked like two cents standing there
while that feller's hoofs and horns wanted to leave you feed for the
timber wolves. I couldn't stand it. My nerve broke. I drew on him. I had
to. I loosed off. Then, I s'pose, I woke up. When I saw him drop I knew
just what I'd done. I'd stolen your beast, and - I'm sorry to death."

A girl. A white girl. Oh, yes, there was no mistake, for all the
mannishness of her clothing. Marcel stared. He had listened to her words
of regret barely comprehending their drift. He was absorbed by that
which he beheld, wondering, amazed.

A white girl here, alone in the primordial world of - Unaga.

From the pretty, fair hair peeping from under her beaver cap to the
moccasined feet, so absurdly small, under the wide-cut buckskin chapps
or trousers that clad her nether limbs, he searched stupidly for the
answer to the thousand questions which flooded his brain. Who was she?
How came she there? That amazing shot?

He noted her eyes, so wide and deep-fringed, and of a blue such as he
had never yet beheld in the Northern skies. Their dazzling light left
him almost dizzy with intoxication. Her cheeks, perfect, with the bloom
of health acquired in a life of exposure to the elements. Then her sweet
lips parted in a smile that revealed a hint of even teeth of pearly
whiteness. But these things were not all. No. There was her tall, slim
figure under its buckskin clothing. The effect was superlative.

What a vision for passionate youthful eyes to gaze upon in the shadowed
world of the Northern forests, where life and death rub shoulders every
moment of time. The youth in Marcel was aflame. There flashed through
his mind a vague memory of the wooing of the painted women of Seal Bay.

The girl's explanation, her regrets, meant nothing to him.

"What - ? Where? Who are you?" he blurted, all his amazed delight flung
into a startled demand.

"I'm Keeko."

The reply was without a shadow of hesitation. It came simply, for the
wide, amused eyes had seen the youth's confusion, and the woman's mind
behind them approved.

"I'm Keeko," the girl repeated, as Marcel still struggled for composure.
"And I came right along in a hurry to tell you I'm sorry - - "

Marcel thrust up a hand and pushed back his cap. It was a movement full
of significance.

"Sorry?" he cried, with an awkward laugh. "Guess you don't need to be
sorry. I need to feel that way, acting foolish, gawking around here like
some fool kid. But - you see - you're a - girl."

Keeko's smile broadened into a delicious ripple of laughter.

"Sure," she nodded. "You didn't guess I was a-jack-rabbit?"

Marcel was recovering. He, too, laughed.

"I didn't guess anything," he said. Then with a gesture of helplessness
which further added to Keeko's amusement: "I couldn't. You see
I'm - well - I'm just darned! That's all - just darned!"

"I know," the girl cried delightedly. "You didn't guess to find a girl
around. You weren't looking to find anything diff'rent from those things
they sort of experimented with when they first reckoned making a camping
ground in space for life to move around on. But you haven't said about
that old moose. I robbed you - - "

"Oh, hell!" Marcel cried, flinging his head back in a happy, buoyant
laugh. "We'll just cut that darn old moose right out of this thing.
You're welcome to shoot up any old thing I've got. You're Keeko - - "

"Who are you?"

"I - oh, I'm Marcel, and I come from - " He broke off and shook his head.
"No, I can't hand you that."

Marcel gazed down into the girl's pretty eyes. He had only just
remembered in time. Somehow this girl seemed to have robbed him of his
wits as well as his moose.

"Say," he went on, a moment later, with a sobering of his happy eyes. "I
came near making a bad break that time. You see, I just can't tell you
where I come from. There's secrets in the darn old Northland some folks
would give a heap of dollars to get wise to. Where I come from is one of
'em. What I'm free to tell is I'm mostly a pelt hunter. I've a biggish
outfit of Eskimo, and the usual truck of the summer trail, back there on
the river that comes out of the east. We've got this territory cached
with food dumps and things, and we're out, scattered miles over the
country, beating it for pelts with trap and gun. Guess we figger to stop
right out till it starts in to freeze up. And just about the time the
old sun gets sick worrying to make Unaga a fit place for better than
skitters and things, and chases off for its winter sleep, why we're
hitting right back to - the place I come from. I've been making the
summer trail ever since I was a kid, which isn't a long way back, and I
allow this is the first time it's ever been my luck to find better than
the silences that's liable to set you plumb crazed if you don't happen
to have been born to 'em, the same as I was. Guess that's about all
there is to me I know of, except that secret I can't just hand you."

It was all said so frankly, so simply. It was not the story Marcel had
to tell that established confidence. It was the telling of it. And it
needed no words from the girl to admit her approval. It was shining in
her smiling eyes, while a wonderful feeling began to stir in a heart
that was only a shade less simple than the heart of the youth.

Keeko, woman-like, applied no reason where her feelings were concerned.
She liked the man, and she liked the name he called himself by. She
liked his great, height and breadth of shoulder, and she liked his
clear, handsome eyes with their ingenuous smile. That was sufficient.

She nodded with that intimate air of sympathy.

"I know," she said readily. "It's a land of secrets north of 60°. That's
why folks live in a country that can't ever get out of its eternal
sleep, and only the nightmare of storm disturbs it. The secret isn't
usually ours. The secret mostly belongs to those who brought us here,
and though maybe we don't understand it right, why, the thing just grows
up in our minds, and we find we couldn't talk of it to strangers any
more than if it was our own. That's the way of it. It's a country that
starts in to break your kid's heart, and ends by making you love it - if
it doesn't kill you."

"Oh, yes. I love this old north," she went on with gentle warmth. "Maybe
you do, too. It's half-baked and dead-tough anyway. But it teaches even
a girl the things it doesn't hurt anyone to know. It's good for us all
to get up against Nature in the cold raw. Guess if I was back in a city
the biggest thing in my life would likely be squeezing hands made to do
things with into gloves that weren't. Or maybe reckoning up which beau
could hand me the best time before I got too old to count. It isn't that
way here. The north teaches you to think and act right, and you don't
have to worry that the girl next door's wearing a later mode in shirt
waists than you. No. Man or woman, we've got to make good or go under.
We're all here for that, only some of us don't know it. I'm kind of glad
I've learned it, and I'm mighty grateful to those who've taught me.
That's why I'm out on the summer trail same as you. But I've only a
small outfit. Three neches and two canoes back there on the river that
comes up out of the south, and doesn't quit till it reaches the seas of
snow and ice that never thaw. We can't chase the territory wide like you
can. We can't carry food for caches, or make the big portages. So we
hunt the river, and a day's trail on either bank. There's beaver and fox
to be had that way, and it's most all I can hope for. I don't worry if
we get it plenty. You see, I need it big - this trip."

Something of the strangeness of the encounter was passing from Marcel's
mind. A curious feeling of intimacy was induced by the girl's brief
outline of the things that concerned herself. Then, above all, there was
that youthful desire, untainted by any baseness of passion, the natural
desire inspired by the appeal of a sweet face, and the smiling eyes of a
young girl, battling in a country where there is no margin for the
strongest of men.

Nor had Marcel forgotten all the early teachings of Uncle Steve. He knew
it was demanded of him that woman, in all her moods, was man's heritage
to help, to protect, to relieve, where possible, of those heavy burdens
with which nature so mercilessly weighs her down. The opening lay there
to his hand, and he seized upon it with an impulse that needed nothing
to support it.

"You're needing pelts?" he cried. "Why, that's great!"

Keeko laughed shortly. She failed to realize the thought prompting
Marcel's evident delight.

"It would be greater if I didn't," she returned, with a rueful shake of
the head.

"How's that?"

"Why it's days since our traps have shown us so much as a wolf track.
And it's nearly a week since we took our last beaver. There's three
months of the season left, and I'm needing a three-thousand-dollar trade
with Lorson Harris at Seal Bay. Maybe you don't know what that means?"

"Maybe I do," Marcel laughed.

"You do?" Keeko was forced to a responsive laugh. "Yes. It means a whole
lot," she went on. "And - I don't guess we've taken five hundred dollars
yet - at his price. Last year I took three silver foxes, and a brace of
jet black beauties that didn't set him squealing at fifty dollars each.
No. They were jo-dandies," she sighed appreciatively. "But it hasn't
been that way this season," she continued, with pathetic regret. "It
seems like there isn't a single fox this side of the big north hills."

Marcel shook his head.

"But there is," he said very definitely.

"Is there?" Keeko shook her head. "Then I must have been looking the
other way most all the time."

A reply hovered upon Marcel's lips. But he seemed to change his mind. He
could not stand the obscuring of the sun of the girl's pretty eyes. He
turned away, and laid his rifle aside. Then he sprawled his big body at
the foot of an adjacent tree, and sat with his wide shoulders propped
against it for support.

"Say, Keeko," he cried, gazing up into the troubled eyes watching him,
and addressing the girl by name for the first time, "let's sit. We've
got to make a big talk. Anyway, I have. I feel like one of those fool
neches sitting in a war council, and handing out wisdom that wouldn't
fool a half-hatched skitter. Still, I reckon I've got one hell of a
notion, and notions worry me to death if I can't hand 'em on to some
feller who can't defend himself. I'm not often worried that way. Will
you listen awhile?"

Marcel's effort was not without effect. The girl's eyes cleared of their
shadows, swept away by a smiling amusement. She found him quite
irresistible in the gloom of her twilight surroundings, and forthwith
permitted herself to subside upon the ground opposite him, with legs
crossed, and her rifle lying across her knees.

"It's easy listening," she said with a laugh.

"Good!"

Marcel laughed, too.

"Now, it's this," he began, with a profound solemnity that delighted the
girl. "If I hand you anything you don't fancy listening to, why, say so
right away, and I'll quit. You see, I don't get much practice handing it
out to a girl, and I'm liable to make breaks - bad breaks. You see, we're
mostly a thousand miles outside the world, and you're a lone girl in a
hell of a lone land. I'd be thankful for you to get hold of it that I
was raised to reckon a girl needs all the help a decent man can hand
her. That's his duty. Plumb. And he hasn't a right on earth to figger on
any return. Well, I haven't got over that notion yet. It goes with me
every time, and I pray the good God of this darnation wilderness it
always will. I allow this is just preliminary, to make you feel good
before I start in to talk. It isn't the sermon you may guess it is, so
that'll make it easier remembering what lies back of my head when you
start - guessing."

Marcel produced a pipe and stuffed it with the tobacco he flaked off a
sad-looking plug. The pipe was crudely carved in Eskimo fashion out of
the ivory of a walrus tusk. Keeko watched him silently with an interest
she made no attempt to disguise, while deep in her heart was stirring
that feeling she was wholly unconscious of. His "preliminary" was
unnecessary. In her woman's way she read him to her own satisfaction.

He lit his pipe carefully, and as carefully extinguished his match. They
were in a forest where the decaying vegetation was as dry as tinder.

"You need pelts," he said, after a considering pause. "You need three
thousand dollars trade in 'em. You want silver fox and black fox.
Well - you can have enough to set Lorson Harris squealing."

Keeko was startled.

"But - I don't get you!" she cried, with the helplessness of complete
amazement.

"It's easy."

Marcel smoked on in leisurely enjoyment of the surprise he had given
this nymph of the primordial.

Keeko shook her head.

"You mean - " she broke off. "No, you're a pelt hunter yourself. You said
so. We're rivals on the fur trail."

"Rivals?" Marcel sat up in his turn. "We can't be," he said earnestly.
"I'm some sort of a man. You're a - girl. You've forgotten."

They sat regarding each other. A great hope was in Marcel's heart. In
fancy he was picturing to himself months of this girl's companionship in
the deep silences and tremendous solitudes which had become so much a
part of his life. He had visions of this tall, beautiful creature always
by his side, ready, skilful, eager. With the sympathy of their craft
always between them, and, for himself, a purpose, an incentive such as
never in his life had he possessed. The contemplation of it all was too
wonderful for words. It was a dream, a happy, wonderful dream.

But for Keeko it was all different. She was not concerned with a dream
future. She was thinking of the generosity, the reckless generosity
that set this splendid youth desirous of yielding all to satisfy her
needs. He asked no question as to those needs. He knew nothing of her,
or of those shadows lurking in her background. He only understood that
she wanted, and it was his pleasure and purpose to supply that want at
his own expense.

"I haven't forgotten," she said, with something like a sigh. "But you
want to hand me furs that are your own trade. And I - I can't accept
them."

She shook her head definitely. Then with an effort she thrust the regret
she felt into the background, and her eyes lit with a smile of humour.

"You haven't heard the notion _I_ was raised to - yet," she said.

"No."

Marcel was satisfied with the return of her smile.

"Would you like to?"

"Sure."

The girl laughed.

"I guess it's not as simple as yours," she said. "A woman's reason isn't
generally simple. You see, she musses up feelings with argument which
generally confuse the issue. Guess a woman's life is mostly a thing of
confusion. You see, she started bad, though it wasn't her fault. When
the folks, who ought to know better, started in to make man before his
mother you can't wonder it's that way. Now I was raised to believe man
is woman's rightful protector. There's women who reckon she's got man
left standing when it comes to helping things along. But she's the sort
of woman who always cooks her own favourite dish when she reckons to
give her man a real treat. There's the other woman who's so sure man is
her rightful protector that she's not content to wait around for his
protection. She gets right out and grabs it, along with anything else
he's foolish enough to leave within her reach. Then there's the woman
who shouts around that she doesn't need protecting anyway. She mostly
ends up with grabbing all the man-protection that happens to be lying
around, without worrying whose 'claim' she's jumping. But to get back to
the notion I was raised to, it seems to me that man is surely a woman's
rightful protector, but there isn't a thing on earth can make me see
that she's the right to take any sort of protection he hasn't the right
to give. That sort of woman's a vampire. And vampires are things I'd
like to see drowned so deep they can't ever resurrect. If I took your
pelts I'd be a vampire for taking something you haven't the right to
give. They're your trade, and I guess out of your trade you've got to
pay your outfit of Eskimo. Do you see? To my way of thinking those furs
are not yours to give, just because you find a fool girl squealing for
three thousand dollars of trade. But say," she added, with a warmth of
real feeling in her smiling eyes, "I thank you for the thought. I thank
you right from the bottom of my heart."

Marcel remained quite undisturbed. He sat deliberately puffing at his
absurdly ornamented pipe, his honest eyes meditatively smiling. The
girl's rejection of his offer only made him the more determined. At last
he stirred, and sat up cross-legged, and, removing his pipe, pointed his
words with its stem, as though to drive them more fully home.

"That's all right," he said. "I'm making no kick on that. It just makes
me feel how sore you need those pelts, and how right I am to want to
hand 'em to you. I've told you what I fancy doing. Now we'll form a
committee and negotiate. Folks always form committees when they can't
agree, and then they can't agree worse. Committees always elect one of
their members chairman, and he has a casting vote. We're a committee of
two, so we'll elect a chairman, and that'll make three - chairman with
casting vote. I'll elect myself chairman. That way we'll have no sort of
difficulty. All in favour, etc." He thrust up both hands and his pipe
while he boyishly gazed up at them with a triumphant smile.



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 18 of 30)