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on. "She guesses the boys must have worried themselves to death fixing
Abe's saloon so it didn't look like - Abe's saloon."

The man's smile was gently humorous. For once he had not the courage to
pursue the downright course which his nature prompted. Little Coqueline
was foremost in his thoughts. Then there was the memory of all the
happiness his home meant to him, and he feared that which undue
precipitancy might bring about.

The girl looked up from the stove. Her eyes abandoned their intense
regard with seeming reluctance.

"It was all - wonderful. Just wonderful," she said in the tone of one
roused from a beautiful dream.

"Abe's saloon?"

Steve's incautious satire suddenly precipitated the crisis he feared.
The girl's eyes flashed a hot look of resentment. He was laughing at
her. She was in no mood to be made sport of, or to have her words made
sport of. She sat up with a start and leant forward in her chair in an
attitude that gave force to her sharp enquiry.

"And why not?" she demanded, her violet eyes darkening under the frown
of swift anger which drew her pretty brows together. "Why not Abe's
saloon, or - or any other place?" She set her coffee cup on the floor
with a clatter, and her hands clasped the arms of her chair as though
she were about to spring to her feet. "Yes," she continued, with
increasing heat, "why not Abe's saloon? It's not the place. It's not the
folk, even. Those things don't matter. It's the thing itself. The whole
thing. The glimpse of life when you're condemned to existence on this
fierce outworld. It's the meaning of it. A dance. It doesn't sound much.
Maybe it doesn't mean a thing to you but something to laugh at, or to
sneer at. It's different to me, and to other folks, who - who aren't
crazy for the long trail and the terrible country we're buried in. The
decorations. The flags. Yes, the cheap Turkey red, and the fiddler's
music - a half-breed fiddler - and the music of a pianist who spends most
of his time getting sober. The folks who are all different from what we
see them every day. Tough, hard-living, hard-swearing men all hidden up
in their Sunday suits, and handing you ceremony as if you were some
queen. Then the sense of pleasure in every heart, with all the cares and
troubles of life pushed into the background - at least for a while. These
things are a glimpse of life to us poor folk who spend all our years in
the endless chores of an inhospitable country. You can smile, Steve. You
can sneer at Abe's saloon. But I tell you you haven't a right to just
because these things don't mean a thing to you. There's nothing means
anything to you but your work - - "

"And my wife, and my kiddie, and my - home."

The man's deep voice broke in sharply upon the light, strident tones of
the angry girl. He spoke while he stirred the contents of the saucepan
he had placed on the stove. But the interruption only seemed to add fuel
to the girl's volcanic flood of bitter feeling. A laugh was the prompt
retort he received.

"Your wife. Oh, yes, I know. You'd have her around all the time in her
home, slaving at the chores that would break the spirit of a galley
slave. Oh, it's no use pretending. It's got to come out. It's here," she
rushed on, pressing her hands hysterically against her softly rounded
bosom. "The dream is past. All dreams are past. I'm awake now - to this,"
she indicated the room about her, simple almost to bareness in its
furnishing, with a gesture of indescribable feeling. "It's all I've got
to waken to. All I've got to look forward to. I've tried to tell myself
there's a good time coming, when I can peer into the great light world,
and snatch something of the joy of it all. I've tried, I've tried. But
there isn't. It's the cold drear of this northland. It's chores from
daylight to dark, and all the best years of life hurrying behind me as
if they were yearning to make me old before I can get a chance to - live.
I'm sick thinking. Show me. What is there? You're an Inspector, and we
get a thousand dollars a year, and the rations we draw from the Indian
Agency. You'll never get a Superintendent. You've no political pull,
shut off up here well nigh in sight of the Arctic ice. I'm twenty-two
with years and years of it before me, and all the time I'll need to go
on counting up my cents how I can get through till next pay-day comes
around. Don't talk to me of your wife."

The injustice of the girl's unreasoning complaint was staggering. But it
smote the heart of the man no less for that. Whatever his inward
feelings, however, outwardly he gave no sign. He did not even raise his
eyes from the saucepan he was stirring with so much deliberation and
care.

"You're wrong, little girl," he said with quiet emphasis, and without
one shadow of the emotion that was stirring behind the words. "You're
dead wrong. You've got all those things before you. The things you're
crazy for. And when they come along I guess they'll be all the sweeter
for the waiting, all the better for the round of chores you're hating
now, all the more welcome for the figgering you need to do now with the
cents we get each month. You don't know how I stand with Ottawa. I do.
There's just two years between me and the promotion you reckon I can't
get. That's not a long time. Then we move to a big post where you can
get all the dancing you need, and that won't be in Abe's saloon. You
know that when my old father goes - and I'm not yearning for him to
go - he'll pass me all he has, which is fifty thousand dollars and his
swell farm in Ontario."

He paused and dipped out some of the contents of the saucepan in the
spoon he was stirring it with. He tested its temperature. Then he went
on with his preparations.

"Is there a reasonable kick coming to any woman in those things?" he
demanded. "You knew most of what I'm telling you now when you guessed
you loved me enough to marry me, and to help me along the road I'd
marked out. Have I done a thing less than I promised?" he went on
passing back to the table and picking up the glass bottle lying there,
and removing its top. "If I have just tell me, and I'll do all I
know - " He shook his head. "It's all unreasonable. Maybe you're tired.
Maybe - - "

"It isn't unreasonable," Nita cried sharply. "That's how men always say
to a woman when they can't understand. I tell you I'm sick with the
hopelessness of it all. You aren't sure of your promotion. You haven't
got it yet. And maybe your father will live another twenty years. Oh,
God, to think of another twenty years of this. Do you know you're away
from home nine months out of twelve? Do you know that more than half my
time I spend guessing if you're alive or dead? And all the time the
grind of the work. The same thing day after day without relief." She
watched the man as he poured the contents of the saucepan into the
bottle, and her eyes were hot with the state of hysterical anger she had
worked herself into. "Oh," she cried with a helpless, despairing
gesture, as Steve returned the saucepan to the table. "I'm sick of it
all. I hate it all, when I think of what life could be. The thought of
it drives me mad. I hate everything. I hate myself. I hate - - "

"Stop it!"

Steve thrust the stopper into the neck of the bottle. He had turned. His
steady eyes were sternly compelling. They were shining with a light Nita
had never witnessed in them before. She suddenly became afraid. And her
silence was instant and complete. She sat breathlessly waiting.

"I've done with this fool talk," Steve cried almost roughly. "I've
listened to too much already. I'm not figgering to let you break things
between us. There's more than you and me in it. There's that poor
little kiddie in the other room. Say, I've seen this coming. I've seen
it coming - weeks. I've seen a whole heap that hurts a man that loves his
wife, and guesses he wants to see her happy. I've seen what isn't good
for a father to see, either. You've told me the things you guess you
feel, and now I'm going to tell you the things I feel. You reckon the
things I say about your good time coming are hot air. They're not. But
you've got to get fool notions out of your head, and work for the things
you want, the same as I reckon to. I'm out to make good - for you.
Understand, for you, and for little Coqueline. I'm out to make good with
all that's in me. And it don't matter a curse to me if all hell freezes
over, I'm going to make good. Get that, and get it good. It's a sort of
life-line that ought to make things easy for you. There's just one thing
that can break my play, Nita. Only one. It's your weakening. It's up to
me to see you don't weaken. You need to take hold of the notion we're
partners in this thing. And don't forget I'm senior partner, and my word
goes. Just now my word is kind of simple. If you don't feel like
carrying on for me, you need to remember there's our little Coqueline.
She's part of you. She's part of me. And she's got a claim on you that
no human law can ever rob her of. Well, the proposition between us has
two sides. My side means the trail, and the job that's mine. I need to
face it with a clear head, and an easy mind. My side means I got to get
busy with every nerve in my body to get you an ultimate good time, and
see you get all you need to make you good an' happy. That's the one
purpose I dream about. Maybe your side's different. But I don't guess
it's any easier. You've got to wait around till those things come along.
But you've got more to do than that. You've got to play this old game
right. Your work's by this home. It don't matter if it's winter or
summer, if it's storming or sunshine. You've got to do the chores you're
guessing you hate, and you need to do them right, and willingly. We're
man and wife. And these chores are yours by all the laws of God, and the
Nature that made you the mother of our little Coqueline. You've got to
cut this crazy notion for fool pleasures right out, till the pleasure
time comes around. That time isn't yet. The woman who lets her child and
her home suffer for joy notions isn't worth the room she'll take in hell
later. Well, see and get busy, and let's have no more fool talk and
crazy notions. Here, take this," he went on, in his deliberate, forceful
way, thrusting the baby's feeding bottle into the girl's hands. "That's
the kiddie's feed. Guess I fixed it because - well, maybe because you're
tired. Take it to her. Give it to her. And, as long as you live don't
you ever forget she's the right to your love, and to my love, and every
darn thing we know to make things right for her."

The force of the man was irresistible. It was something the girl had
never witnessed before. She had only known the husband, devoted, gentle,
almost yielding in his great love. The man that had finished talking now
was the man Julyman regarded above all others.

Nita took the bottle thrust into her hands, and, without a word, she
rose from her chair and passed into the bedroom which the baby's room
adjoined.

Steve watched her go. His hungry eyes followed her every movement. His
heart was torn by conflicting emotions. His love told him that he had
been harsh almost to brutality, but his sense warned him he had taken
the only course which could hope to achieve the peace and happiness
which was Nita's right as well as his own.

He had meant to fight for these things as he would fight on the trail
against the forces of Nature seeking to overwhelm him. He would yield
nothing. For all his words had cost him he was conscious of the
rightness of the course he had taken. But he was fighting a battle in
which forces were arrayed against him of which he was wholly unaware.

As Nita passed into the bedroom the sound of footsteps outside broke the
silence of the room. A moment later he turned in response to a knock on
his door.

* * * * *

Ten minutes later Steve was seated at the desk in his office. He was in
the company of Major Hervey Garstaing, the Indian Agent. The Corporal,
from Reindeer, was already rolled up in the blankets which were spread
out in the corner of the room. His work had been accomplished. He was
physically weary. And, judging by the sound of his regular breathing,
Nature had claimed her own the moment his head had touched the carefully
folded overcoat which served him for a pillow.

The bare severity of the room was uninviting. There was little display
in the work of the police. Utility and purpose was the keynote of their
lives and at the year's end the tally of work accomplished was the thing
that mattered.

Steve preferred to receive the Indian Agent in his office. Garstaing had
never been an intimate of his. Their relations were official, and just
sufficiently neighbourly for men who lived within two miles of each
other in a country where human companionship was at a premium.

The office table stood between them. The spare chair beyond the desk
always stood ready for a visitor, and Garstaing had accepted it. Steve
had moved the oil lamp on one side, that their view of each other might
be uninterrupted.

They were both smoking, and Garstaing was doing the talking. At all
times Steve preferred that his visitors should do most of the talking.

"I guessed I best come right along," he said, regarding the other
closely. "You see, I'll be handin' out Treaty Money to the darn neches
to-morrow morning. It'll take me best part of the day." He removed the
pipe from his rather wide mouth, and held it poised significantly. "This
thing won't stand keeping. It's - murder. There's two of 'em, I guess.
Traders. Marcel Brand and his partner, Cyrus Allshore. Those are
the names. Can't say I've heard of 'em before. Both of 'em
dead - murdered - up there somewhere around the Unaga country. It's the
Indians or Eskimo, whatever they are, who've done it."

"Yes."

Steve's gaze was directed searchingly at his visitor's good-looking
face. At the moment it almost seemed as if he were regarding the man
rather than his mission. And Garstaing was a somewhat interesting
personality. It should have been a pleasant personality, if looks were
any real indication. Garstaing was distinctly handsome. He was dark, and
his swift-moving dark eyes looked always to be ready to smile. Then he
possessed a superbly powerful body. But the threatened smile rarely
matured, and when it did it added nothing of a pleasant nature for the
student of psychology.

In age the two men were well matched, but they had little else in
common. Garstaing's reputation, at least amongst men, was not a happy
one. He was known to be a hard drinker. He was hot-headed and
pleasure-loving. Furthermore he was given to an overbearing intolerance,
in the indulgence of which his position as Indian Agent yielded him wide
scope.

He ruled the Indians with an iron hand, and for all the stories of his
cruelty and complete unscrupulousness which reached beyond the confines
of the reserve and the bitter hatred of the Indians he remained complete
master of the situation.

There was little enough which Steve had not heard of the unsavouriness
of this man's administration. He by no means gave credence to all of it,
but it was not without effect upon his personal attitude towards him.

"I'm not wise to your instructions," Garstaing went on as Steve offered
no further comment, "but mine are pretty clear, and they are straight
from my Commissioner."

"I've to place myself entirely at your disposal."

Steve's reply came without any hesitation. His tone suggested unconcern.
Garstaing's dark eyes snapped. Then they smiled their approval. It was
that smile which added nothing pleasant to his personality.

"I guessed it was that way from the instructions they handed me," he
said. Then he withdrew a bunch of papers from an inner pocket, and
opened them, and selected a particular sheet. "Here it is," he said, and
promptly read out an extract from the letter. "'You will at once place
yourself in touch with the police in your district, and see that the
whole matter is investigated - forthwith.'"

He glanced up as he uttered the final word.

"You know what that means?" he enquired, searching the eyes that were so
profoundly observing him across the table.

Steve nodded.

"Sure."

"It means you'll have to make the Unaga country right away."

"Sure."

Again came Steve's monosyllabic agreement.

"It means one hell of a long trip," the Agent went on.

"Two years."

The simple finality of the police officer's reply left the other
speechless for the moment. The tone of it amazed him. He had hastened
across from the Agency directly he had received the Corporal's dispatch,
not because he had to pay out Treaty Money in the morning, not because
the whole matter would not keep even a week if necessary. Instantly on
reading his instructions from the Indian Commissioner all thought of the
crime to be investigated had passed out of his mind. His thoughts had
flown to Steve Allenwood, and from him they had passed on to another. A
vision of a sweet face with deep, violet eyes, and softly waving fair
hair had leapt to his mind. Furthermore he still retained the sensation
of a soft, warm hand which had been clasped within his under cover of
the friendly fur robe as he drove the wagon back from the dance at
Deadwater.

Two years. The man had spoken with as much indifference as if he had
been contemplating a trip of two days. Garstaing drew a deep breath,
and, returning his pipe to his capacious mouth ignited a match over the
lamp chimney and re-lit it. Then, with a quick, nervous movement he
picked up a separate bunch of the papers on the table before him and
flung them across to his host.

"There you are," he cried, "that's the whole darn official story. You
best keep it awhile, and read it. I got orders to hand you all you need.
Indians, dog-team, rations. Any old thing you fancy. But - " he paused.
His quick-moving eyes became suddenly still. They were gazing directly
into those of the husband beyond the table. "You'll need to start
out - right away."

Steve rose from his seat with a nod.

"I shall know when to start," he replied shortly.

Then he raised his arms above his head and stretched himself luxuriously
while Garstaing sat watching him, endeavouring to penetrate the man's
tremendous barrier of reserve. But it remained impenetrable, and there
was nothing left for him but to comply with his host's tacit invitation.
He, too, rose from his seat.

"You best take a copy of the story," he said, as Steve moved towards the
door. "Anyway I'll need the original later."

He was talking because the other compelled him to talk. And because he
had that in his mind which made it impossible for him to remain silent.

Steve opened the door and peered out. The night was brilliantly
star-lit. Garstaing was close behind him.

"It's tough on you, Allenwood," he said in a tone intended to express
sympathy. "Two years. Gee!"

Steve's only reply was to move aside to let him pass out. It was as
though Garstaing's expression of sympathy had at last found a weakness
in his armour of reserve. His movement had been abrupt - startlingly
abrupt.

"So long," he said coldly.

Just for one moment their eyes met. Steve's were frigidly non-committal.
There was neither friendliness nor dislike in them. There was no emotion
whatsoever. Garstaing's were questioning, searching, and full of an
impulse that might have meant anything. But it was the police officer
who controlled the situation, and the headstrong, intolerant Indian
Agent who was obeying. He passed out, and his "So long" came back to the
man in the doorway as the night swallowed him up.

Steve moved back to the table. In his deliberate fashion he leant over
the lamp chimney and blew the light out. Then he passed out of the room
and closed the door gently. He paused for a moment outside, and stood
gazing in the direction which he knew Garstaing had taken. Presently he
raised one hand and passed it across his broad forehead. It remained
for a moment pressed against the skin, which had suddenly become coldly
moist. His fingers searched their way up through his abundant dark hair.
It was a movement that expressed something like helpless bewilderment.

"Two years!" he muttered. "Two years!"

Then his arm dropped almost nervelessly to his side.




CHAPTER III

THE GOING OF STEVE


There are some personalities which never fail to permeate their
neighbourhood with their presence. Of such was Dr. Ian Ross. His
presence never failed to impress itself. The moment he crossed the
threshold of his home the household became aware of it. There was his
big voice, his deep-throated husky laugh. There was that strong-hearted
kindly humanity always shining in his deep-set, blue eyes.

He had returned from his surgery at the agency for his midday meal, and
his abundant toned hail reached his wife in a remote bedroom in the
almost luxurious home which he had had set up amidst the spruce woods
lining the Deadwater trail.

"Ho, Millie!" he cried. "Ho you, Mill!" he called again, without waiting
for any response.

"I'll be right along, Mac," came back the cheerful reply.

"Fine. But don't stop to change your gown, there's a good soul. Guess
it's feed time, anyway. And not so much 'Mac.' Guess I'm Ross of the
Ross of Ardairlie, which is in the Highlands of Scotland, which is part
of a small group of islands, which are dumped down in the Atlantic off
the west coast of Europe. Maybe - you've heard tell."

The man flung his wide-brimmed hat on a side table in the hall with a
comfortable laugh. Then seating himself in a big chair, he ran his
fingers through his crisp iron-grey hair.

He was a raw-boned, powerfully built man who seemed by nature the beau
ideal for the healing of a race of savages who regard disease as
inevitable, a visitation by the powers of evil, and something which must
be submitted to in patience lest worse befall. Almost brusque of manner,
forceful, he was as strong and kindly of heart as he was skilful. He was
a product of the best Scottish school of medicine, and one of those rare
souls whose whole desire in life is the relief of human suffering.
Fortune had favoured him very practically. He had ample private means
which enabled him to accept the paltry salary the Government offered him
to take charge of a herd of its coloured children up on the Caribou
River. Furthermore he had had the good fortune to marry a Canadian woman
whose whole heart was wrapped up in him and his life's purpose.

So these two, with their two young children, had made their way north.
The man had set up an ample, even luxurious home on the confines of the
reserve, and they had settled down to battle with the exterminating
diseases, which, since the civilizing process set in, the Indian seems
to have become heir to. So far the battle had raged, for ten years, and
it looked likely to last far beyond Ian Ross's lifetime.

Whatever other successes and failures he had had during that time he had
achieved an affection from his patients quite as great as the hatred
achieved by Hervey Garstaing in less than half that number of years.

The plump round figure of Millie Ross rustled into the hall.

"Where's Dora?"

The man's question came without turning from the sunlit view beyond the
doorway. A wonderful stretch of undulating wood-clad country lay spread
out before him. It was a waste of virgin territory chequered with
woodland bluffs, with here and there the rigid Indian teepee poles
supporting their rawhide dwellings, peeping out from all sorts of
natural shelters.

"Dora? Why, Dora's over with Nita Allenwood. That child spends most of
her time there now."

Millie's cheerful, easy manner was perhaps the greatest blessing of Ian
Ross's life. Her happy good temper spoke of a perfectly healthy body,
and a mind full of a pleasant humour.

Dr. Ross withdrew a timepiece from his pocket.

"Now?" he cried. "Oh, you mean because of Steve's going off on the long
trail. Five days isn't it before he goes?" He chuckled in his pleasant,
tolerant fashion. "Sort of sympathetic butting in, isn't it? Guess heart
and sense never were a good team. I'd say Dora's chock full of heart."

"And it's just as well for someone around this house to have a bunch of
heart that can feel for other folks," Millie retorted promptly. "Say,
you, Mac, there's two days past since word went round of Steve's going,
and you haven't done a thing. Not a thing but continue to make life
miserable for those poor neches who can't help themselves, and have to
spend their play time in swallowing the dope you can't make filthy
enough to please your notions of humanity."



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 2 of 30)