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"Carried unanimously," he cried. "Now I've two says to your one - - "

"I was reckoning it was more than that," Keeko interrupted, laughing.

"Were you? Maybe you're right," Marcel agreed. "Well, say, let's cut the
fooling. See here, Keeko," he went on earnestly. "I've got all the pelts
you need to my own share. I wouldn't be robbing even an Eskimo, who most
folks reckon to rob. As for me, I'm no sort of real trader. I just hunt
pelts because it suits me, and I like to hear Lorson Harris squeal when
I make him pay my prices. Still, you don't reckon to accept, that way.
That being so, how's this? I'm just free as air to hunt where I choose.
My outfit's scattered, and each hunts on his own. Well, I've all the
catch I need. You can guess that, seeing I've given nine days and nights
to trailing this old moose that isn't worth the cost of the powder that
shot him up. Cut me out as a trader. Just take me on as guide. I'll join
your outfit till it freezes up, and I'll find you the best foxes the
North Country ever produced. I'll promise you that three thousand
dollars and to spare. It isn't bluff. It's just God's truth. And if you
feel like you're sick to death of the sight of what folks who's friendly
call my face any old time, why you only need to say things, and I'll hit
a trail out of sight at a gait that would leave a caribou flapping its
ears with worry. I mean that, every darn word, and the chairman and half
this fool committee are voting for it. Well?"

The appeal was irresistible. Keeko would have been less than the woman
she was had she further resisted the happy enthusiasm and youthful
impulse of this great creature who had been a stranger to her less than
an hour ago. There was honesty and confidence in every word he uttered,
and there was that simple boyish admiration in his good-looking eyes
which made the final unconscious appeal. She yielded, yielded in that
spirit which promptly left Marcel her slave for all time.

Her eyes were brimming with a smile that possessed the moisture of tears
of thankfulness.

"Guess this committee is unanimous," she said. "There's no argument left
in them. But it wants to record the biggest vote of thanks to the
chairman that was ever passed - and doesn't know how to express it.
We - - "

But Marcel was on his feet and holding out his great hands to help the
girl to hers. His eyes were wide and shining in a way that must have lit
a happy smile in the steady eyes of Uncle Steve, had he been there to
witness.

"Where's your camp?" he cried. "I need to start my job right away."

The man's demand was thrilling with the feelings of the moment. Keeko
ignored his help. She, too, was on her feet in a moment, and pointing
away amongst the shadows of the forest to the west.

"Back on the river," she cried, catching something of the infection of
the other's headlong impulse. Then with a glance down at the fallen
moose which had been the means of bringing them together, her tone
altered to one of almost tenderness. "But this?" she questioned.

Marcel laughed.

"Don't worry with that. I'll come along for the skull and the horns when
the wolves have done with it. I've quit big game. I'm out for fox,
silver and black. I'm out to break Lorson Harris's bank roll - for you.
Come on!"




CHAPTER VII

SUMMER DAYS


The youth in Marcel was abundant, it was even headlong. But even so,
there was a strong steadying strain of wisdom in him, the wisdom of the
Northland, bought at a price that few can afford to pay. It served to
hold the balance under the influence of this new adventure.

It was something more than adventure. There was a significance in the
extraordinary encounter with Keeko that dimmed to the commonplace every
thrill he had ever experienced in the past. It had lifted him at a bound
to that pinnacle of manhood, which until the moment when woman presents
herself upon youth's stage of life can never be reached.

Every pre-conceived object in life had suddenly been brushed aside by
the exhilaration of the moment. The subdued colours of his horizon had
been completely overwhelmed by the new radiance. Even Uncle Steve, that
precious guide and friend, who had always occupied the central place in
his focus, had almost been forgotten.

For Keeko, too, whose youth had been shadowed from the moment
understanding had broken through the golden mists of childhood's
dream-world, a new meaning to life had been born. She made no attempt to
look ahead, and the shadows of the past had no power whatever to rob her
of one moment of chaste delight. All she knew, or cared, was that,
almost on the instant, the personality of something over six feet of
manhood had taken possession of her will. And, with that splendid
abandon which generous nature mercifully ordains for youth, she yielded
herself to the ecstasy of it.

Keeko was resting upon a fallen tree-trunk. It had been torn up by the
roots and flung headlong by the merciless fury of a winter storm. Marcel
was standing beside her. The way had been long, but there was no real
weariness in either. They had simply paused at their journey's end to
survey the great gorge lying at their feet. In the heart of it lay the
highway that came up out of the south.

It was a scene of crude immensity which left all life infinitesimal. The
barren of it suggested the body of Nature gnawed to the bone, picked
clean of the fair flesh with which it is her wont to distract the eyes
and senses of man. There lay a frowning, rock-bound chasm at their feet,
and deep down in the heart of it a broad, sluggish stream. The two
youthful figures were gazing out across the gaping lips at the far-off,
distant hills rising up in defence of the secrets of the Northern seas
of snow and ice.

For some moments they sat in silence before the might and mystery of
that untrodden world. Awe lurked in the eyes of both. It was that awe of
the Northland which breeds terror in the weak, and only the strong may
survive.

Marcel broke the spell of it. He laughed with a quiet confidence that
found no echo in the girl's heart.

"It's pretty darn big," he said, with something almost like contempt in
his tone. "But it pays us - toll. I - a man. And you - why, you just
a - girl."

It was the pride of youth and strength that spoke. Uncle Steve would not
have talked that way - now. Years ago - perhaps. Years ago before his
terrible journey across Unaga, when he, too, had defied the very things
Marcel now spurned.

But the awe in Keeko's eyes only deepened.

"Maybe you're right," she said doubtfully. "But sometimes it scares me.
Scares me to death."

She drew a long breath as she made the admission.

Marcel's quick answer came with a laugh of amusement.

"Yet you come up this river with just three neches," he cried. "You make
rapids that would hold me guessing, for all the outfit of Eskimo I
carry. You'll beat it back south to your home against a two mile stream
with a deadly winter hard on your moccasined heels. I just want to laff.
You're scared! Why, get a look right out there, just as far as you can
see. I mean where the haze shuts down like a curtain on a forbidden
world. There, where there's the dim outline of one big hill propping up
the roof of things, standing above all the others. If you took the
notion there were pelts there that would worry Lorson Harris to pay for,
you'd think no more of making those hills than you worry with the trail
over this darn river. That scare notion isn't worth two cents."

The admiration, the obvious delight of Marcel as he derided the girl's
plea left a great warmth of pleasure flooding Keeko's eyes.

"You think that?" she cried. Then with a nod: "I'm kind of glad. But you
don't know Little One Man - yet. And Snake Foot. And Med'cine Charlie. It
isn't me. I've maybe the will. But - I haven't the skill, or the grit.
No. My boys were raised on the rapids of the Dubawnt River. If you heard
Little One Man I guess you'd know just what that means. As for me, I've
learned things from necessity. I had to learn, same as I've to collect
those furs Lorson Harris is going to pay for. Oh, I'm not full of a
courage like you think. It's will. Will bred of necessity. It's the sort
of will that can't reckon the balance of chances. Chances just don't
exist. That's all. It's as you say. That ghost of a hill yonder would
have to hand me what I need if I couldn't get it nearer home. But I'd be
scared - sure. Badly scared, same as I felt watching you waiting on that
moose."

Marcel withdrew his gaze from the tremendous view beyond the river. He
turned to the scene of the little encampment so far down below. He saw a
moving figure by the canoes, beached on the barren foreshore. He beheld
the curl of smoke rising from a camp-fire. He knew that a meal was in
preparation. It was all as he understood such things, and its interest
for him was that it was the home of the girl who had so suddenly taken
possession of his life.

"Necessity," he said reflectively. "Guess I'm not just wise to things
like older folk. But it seems to me 'necessity' is the thing of all
things in life. It sort of seems the key that unlocks the meaning of
everything. It sets you chasing pelts to sell for dollars, and it leaves
their finding just the one thing worth while. If you got plenty food you
don't care two cents if you eat it or not. If you haven't, why the
thought of food sets you dreaming beautiful dreams of things you never
tasted, and maybe you'd hate anyway if folks handed them to you. If you
got a swell bed that's all set ready for you, maybe your fancy sets you
sleeping on the hard ground with just a blanket to cover you. If you
hadn't, then the thought of that darn blanket would likely set you crazy
to grab the other feller's. I come along out every season chasing pelts.
Seeing I don't need 'em it leaves me trailing a bull moose that hands me
a chance of getting to grips with the business of life an' death. Say,
give me 'necessity' all the time. It's the thing that makes men of the
folks you can make anything of at all, and, anyway, makes life a thing
to grab right up into your arms and hug so as if you never meant to let
go. Necessity for you - a girl - is just the thing that beats me. Why, the
men folk around you must be all sorts of everyday folk that wouldn't
matter a circumstance if the whole darn lot got lost in the fog of their
own notions, and were left to hand in their checks hollering for the
help they never fancied handing you."

There was hot indignation in the final denunciation. Keeko revelled in
his sympathy. She pondered a moment. Then a fresh impulse urged her.

"I was just wondering," she said, her gaze avoiding the figure standing
so heedlessly at the brink of the canyon, "I kind of feel I ought to
tell you of that necessity. Yet it's hard. As I said, there's secrets,
and if you start in to talk free north of 60° you're liable to hand over
those secrets that belong to the folk who reckon they've the right to
impose them on all those belonging to them. I've no sort of secret of my
own. None at all. But I guess my step-father has. And that secret is the
reason that's brought him to face the storms and evil spirits of Unaga."
She laughed without any lightness. "Will you be content to hear the
things I may tell you - without asking me to show you how it is these
things are so?" she demanded.

"I don't ask a thing," the man replied promptly. "I don't need to know a
thing. You don't get the way I feel. You're a girl. You need furs for
trade. Guess that trade means the whole of everything to you, and is
liable to make you plenty happy. Well - why, it pleases me to death to
help you. That's all."

For a moment Keeko let her wide blue eyes dwell on the man's youthful
face.

"That only makes me want to say things more," she retorted, with a
slight flush dyeing her soft cheeks. "So I'm just going to say those
things right away, and I don't care what secret I hand out doing it.
When a man's generosity gets busy it's to limits mostly a long way
ahead. Well, when it's that way I don't reckon a woman feels like
slamming the door in his face. I've a step-father and a mother. My
mother's sick - sick to death. She's all I've got, and all I care for.
She's kind of a weak woman who's been up against most of the worry and
kicks a world can hand her. And now she's sick to death, and looks like
getting that peace that life never seemed to be able to hand her. My
step-father's a tough man, and I hate him. Say, you guess that my scare
isn't worth two cents. I'm scared of my step-father like nothing else in
the world. Oh, I'm not scared that he might raise a club at me. That
wouldn't worry me a thing. Guess I could deal with that - right. No. I'm
not scared that way. It's something different, and it's come through
nothing he's ever done or threatened against - me. No, it's my poor
mother. I tell you he's letting her die. He's been letting her die all
these years when I wasn't old enough to understand. He wants to be rid
of her. He's just a murderer at heart, because he's letting her die
through neglect he's figgered out. And my mother isn't only a sick woman
dying of the consumption the life he's exposed her to has brought on.
She's got a broken heart that he's handed her. But sick as she is, she's
wise, and she lies abed thinking not for herself but for me - all the
time. And lying there she's worked out a way so I'll be able to get free
of my step-father, and play a hand in life on my own when she's gone. It
was she taught me to handle a rifle when I'd got hands strong enough to
hold it. It was she who set me in the charge of Little One Man years
ago, and with Snake Foot and Charlie, to learn the business of pelt
hunting. Then when I'd learned all she reckoned I need she lay around
and figgered things out further. It was all done without fuss, it was
all done in a small way so my step-father shouldn't guess the meaning.
She just grew me into a pelt hunter who he thought some day would be
useful hunting for him, and he was kind of pleased. Oh, yes, I hunt for
him, but for every dollar I make for him there's five for myself. And
those five are hidden deep so he'll never find them. I've done this five
seasons, and my sick mother reckons this is to be my last. She guesses
she'll never see another spring, and she wants to see me with five
thousand dollars clear when I get back to home. Then, when she's gone,
she wants me to hit the trail quick. She wants me to take Little One Man
and Snake Foot and Charlie with me, and, with my five thousand dollars,
she wants me to look around beyond my step-father's reach, and make good
in the craft I've learned. With that thought in her mind she guesses to
lie easy in the grave she reckons I'll see is made right for her. That's
my 'necessity' and it's big - if you could only see into the notions of
two women."

Marcel listened without a word of comment. And as he listened his eyes
hardened, and the youthful curves about his lips drew tight into fine
lines. For all his inexperience of the lives of others the story set a
fierce anger raging in his hot, impulsive heart. The unthinkable to him
was a man who could so beset a woman.

He nodded.

"And you trade the pelts with Lorson Harris?" he said.

"Sure." Keeko smiled up into his face. It was the shrewd smile of one
who approves her own subtlety. "But I divide the catch before I make
home. Five-sixths are for me. And I set them aside, and Little One Man
helps me cache them. The rest is the catch I hand my step-father. He
makes careful tab of it, and then, after a rest, I set out with the dogs
over the winter trail for Seal Bay to make trade. Oh, it's easy. We pick
up the cache as we go, and trade the whole, and I just hand my
step-father the price of the furs he's tabbed."

The girl's smile was infectious.

"It's bright," Marcel cried. "And - and I'm glad." Then his eyes sobered
at the thought of his own purpose. "It's easy, too," he went on eagerly.
"But it's going to be easier. We'll fool this - cur. We'll fool him as he
doesn't dream. Say, you didn't need to tell me, Keeko. There wasn't any
need. Still, it shows the trust you feel. And it makes me glad. Now I'll
tell you the notion I've fixed. You're going to get a whole heap more
than that three-thousand-dollar trade. You surely are. And when you go
back you'll be free of - of him, just as far as dollars can make you. But
I'm hoping you'll go back feeling better than that. Maybe you'll be able
to feel that when your poor sick mother is gone you aren't just alone in
the world with Little One Man and Snake Foot and Charlie. There's
another feller just waiting around to hand you all the help you need any
old time. And this old tree-trunk you're sitting on will find me all the
time. We'll make a cache in it. And each end of the open season I'll get
around and open the cache. Come here yourself, or send word by Little
One Man, and, just as hard as I can lay paddle to the waters of this old
river, I'll beat it to your help for all that's in me. Maybe I'm only a
kid chasing pelts, but I'd be mighty thankful to Providence for the
chance of making good helping you." He laughed with the full sun of his
optimism shining again as he flung out a hand. "Say, shake on it, Keeko!
We're partners in an enterprise to beat a devil man. Do you know what
that means? You've likely got your notions. I've got the notion that
was handed me by the best man in the world and a dark-faced angel woman.
It means you can just claim me to the last breath. That's so. It surely
is."

Keeko took the hand that was thrust out at her. And in a moment her own
was crushed gently between the youth's warm, strong palms. And the
pressure of them thrilled the girl as nothing else had ever thrilled her
in her life.

Her only answer was to gaze up at him with wide, thankful eyes. She had
no words. She felt that any attempt to speak must choke her. So she sat
there on the ages-old trunk, with a wild feeling of unaccountable
emotion in utter and complete possession of her soul.

Marcel abruptly seated himself beside her on the tree-trunk.

"Say, Keeko," he cried, his seriousness gone, "guess this has been all
sorts of a talk, and I've blown a horn that would have worried the angel
Gabriel. Well, I've just got to make good - that's all. That being so,
there isn't a day to waste. I'll have to hit back to my outfit and
collect my 'truck,' which I need to tote along over here. It'll take me
all a piece of time, but not an hour longer than my craze to start'll
let it. I'll get back in a hell of a hurry. Meanwhile you need to put
Little One Man and Snake Foot and Charlie wise, and see and fix things
to start out right away. We're going to hit out north-west to a silver
fox country I know of, and when we're through with it Lorson Harris'll
start in to drop silver fox prices to the level of grey timber wolf. It
makes me feel good - the thought of it."

He sprang up with an energy that suggested the effort it required to
tear himself away. And promptly the woman in Keeko asserted itself.

"But you'll eat first?" she said invitingly.

Marcel laughed in frank delight.

"Why, surely," he cried. "I was guessing you might ask me."

Keeko joined in his laugh. They were children at heart, and little more
in years.




CHAPTER VIII

THE HEART OF THE WILDERNESS


Marcel and Keeko were standing at the dawn of a new life. The man had
looked into a woman's wide, blue eyes. He had gazed upon softly rounded
cheeks, as perfect as physical well-being could make them. He had
contemplated rich, ripe lips that tempted him well-nigh to distraction.
Thus it was that the passionless life of the outworld had no longer
power before the stirring of a soul at last awakened from its pristine
slumbers.

The meaning of their encounter was no less for Keeko. She was less of
the wilderness, perhaps, than Marcel. She had not been so wholly bred to
it as he. Her child's eyes had looked upon some measure of civilization,
and her mind had gathered a brief training amongst the youth of her own
sex. But the result was no less. The grey shadows, which, as far back as
she could remember, had overhung her home life seemed suddenly to have
been lifted, and the rugged desolation of the Northland had been
transformed into a veritable Eden of hope and delight.

It was his new inspiration that lent wings to the feet of Marcel when he
hastened to collect his personal outfit. It was under the same
inspiration that he flung himself into the task of preparing for the
fulfilment of his pledge. And from the moment he joined the girl's
outfit on the banks of the river that came up out of the south he
became the acknowledged leader, whose will was absolute.

And Keeko's spirit was swift to respond. She displayed a readiness that
must have astonished the Indians who were accustomed to implicit
acknowledgment of her rule. Or, perhaps, in their savage hearts, they
understood something of the change that had been wrought. Here was a
great white man, a man whose power and abilities they were quick to
recognize and appreciate, whose body was great, and whose eye was clear
and commanding. Here was a white girl, fairer than any they had ever
known, and whose spirit had served them in a hundred ways. Well? What
then? They were all men of maturing years - these Indians. They had had
many squaws of their own. Perhaps? Who could tell? It seemed natural
that Keeko should choose her man from those of her own colour. And if
this man were to be the chosen one they were ready to yield him the same
fidelity they would yield to her.

So the night before the morning of departure came round. In three days
Marcel had completed every preparation, and all was in readiness for the
earliest possible start.

By the time supper was finished the summer daylight showed no sign of
giving way to the two-hour night. Marcel had that in his mind which he
was determined to do before their well-earned rest beside the camp-fire
was taken. And he pointed at the iron-bound cliff which frowned down
upon the waters of the river.

"Say, Keeko, I've a notion to set it up before we quit," he said, with a
laugh. "Do you feel like passing me a hand?"

Keeko turned from the sluggish waters, black with the reflection of the
barren walls of the gorge.

"What are you going to set up?" she questioned like one dragged back
from the contemplation of happy dreams.

"Oh, it's just a notion," Marcel laughed, in a boyish, half shamefaced
fashion as he lit his pipe with a firebrand. "Will you - come along?"

Keeko was on her feet in a moment. For all the days of labour there was
no weariness in her body. Besides - -

"Guess you're handing me a mystery," she cried happily. "Seeing I'm a
woman I can't just miss it."

So they passed up the rugged foreshore to the foot of the path that cut
a perilous ascent to the fringe of the primordial forest above. It was
the man who led, and Keeko had no desire that it should be otherwise.

In a few minutes they were standing beside the fallen tree-trunk where
Marcel had first gazed down upon the scant encampment over which his
sovereignty was now absolute. He drew a deep breath as he gazed again
upon that first scene of the new life that had come to him.

"Gee!" he said, "I'm kind of glad."

"Glad?"

Keeko was regarding him amusedly. In those first three days of their
life together, in her woman's way, she had been studying him. And that
which she had learned filled her with a tender, almost motherly
amusement. He was transparent in his simplicity. His singleness of
purpose was almost amazing. But under it all she had become aware of a
strength and latent force that could only be guessed at. Their talks had
been less intimate during the time of their preparations, and she
understood that it was the result of the purpose that preoccupied him.
Now she speculated as to that which was in his mind. What was the boyish
whim that had brought them to the place he had selected as their tryst?
What was it that had made him express such gladness?

"I was thinking of that darn old moose," Marcel explained with eyes
alight and whimsical.

The girl waited and he went on.

"Say, I guess life's a pretty queer thing," he observed profoundly.
"It's a mighty small piece between content and discontent, isn't it?
It's so small you'd think anyone of sense could fix it so we couldn't be
discontented - ever. Yet we either can't or won't fix it. One leads to
good and the other leads to bad - and only time can say how bad. I was
getting mighty near discontent. Why? Because I'd got most everything I
wanted except the things - I wanted." He laughed. "I was crazy for



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 19 of 30)