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something, and I didn't quite know what. There was something in me
crying out, hollering help, and I couldn't hand that help. Well, I guess
there isn't a sound like that going on in me now. I'm just crazy with
content."

"Why?"

The girl's question was instant, but, in a moment, she regretted it.

The man's eyes regarded her steadily for a moment, and Keeko hastily
turned away. Promptly the echoes of the canyon were awakened by the
youth's laughter.

"I couldn't just tell you - easy," he cried. "But I'm about as content as
a basking seal. That's all. It's easier telling you how I feel glad
thinking of that old moose. Oh, yes, that's easy. I owe him a debt I
can't repay easy, seeing he's dead. Still, I feel like doing the best I
know to make him feel good about things."

Marcel's mood infected the girl.

"You're - you're not reckoning to start in and - bury him?" she cried.

Marcel shook his head.

"There's only his bones left. The rest of him is chasing around in the
bellies of a pack of timber wolves. No. It's his head and his antlers.
The wolves have cleaned his head sheer to the bone, as I reckoned they
would, and I've toted their leavings right here, and I guess we're going
to set it up a monument. Say, Keeko," he went on, with real seriousness,
"I couldn't quit this camp here without setting up a monument. Do you
know why?"

Keeko sat herself on the old tree-trunk. She made no reply. She simply
waited for whatever he had to say.

"It's to commemorate something," he went on quickly, gazing out over the
canyon. "I've found something I've been looking for - years. And I just
didn't know I was looking for it. Well, that old moose found it for me.
So I'm going to set his skull up, with his proud antlers a-top of it, in
the best and highest place I can set it, so his old dead eye sockets can
just look out over the territory he reigned over till Fate reckoned it
was time to set a human queen reigning in his stead. I don't guess he'll
worry about things. He'll just feel proud that it wasn't a feller of his
own sex ever beat him, and, if I know a thing, he'll feel sort of
content and pleased watching over things for us."

The whim of the man, intended to be so light, was full of real feeling.
Keeko was torn between tears and laughter. In the end she trusted
herself only to a simple question.

"Where are you going to fix him up?" she demanded.

The spell was broken. Marcel promptly became the man of action. He
pointed at the gnarled and broken head of a stunted tree growing at the
very edge of the canyon, with its battered crest reaching out at a
perilous angle over the abyss.

"At the head of that," he said, "so he can watch for your coming up out
of the south, and - tell me about it."

"But - - !"

A sickening apprehension had seized upon Keeko as she contemplated the
overhang of the tree. It was almost at right angles to the face of the
cliff. It projected out nearly thirty feet, and below - Her woman's heart
could not repress a shudder at the thought of the three hundred feet
drop to the rocky shoals in the waters below.

"You don't mean that?" she demanded a little desperately.

Marcel nodded.

"It's plumb easy."

There was no showiness, no bravado. Marcel had no thought to dazzle the
girl. His purpose was a simple, boyish act.

He moved off into the forest while Keeko looked after him. From her
heart she could have begged him to abandon, or modify his plan. But she
refrained, and, somehow, sick at the thought of his purpose, she still
realized a thrill at the object of it all. She looked at the roots of
the overhanging tree and shuddered. They were partly torn out of the
ground.

Marcel returned with his trophy. It was a burden of no mean weight. And
Keeko's recognition of the fact only added to her fears.

"How - ?" she began. But her question remained unasked.

"It's a cinch," Marcel cried. "Don't worry a thing. See those?" He
pointed at two thongs of plaited rawhide, each secured to one of the
horns. "Guess I'll tie them into a sling about the old trunk, and move
the poor feller's head up as I get out, leaving it hanging below. Then,
when I get to the end, I'll just haul it up, and fix it in its place.
I've got it all figured."

Keeko nodded.

"I can help you fix the slings," she said eagerly.

"Sure."

The approval had its effect. Keeko set her teeth, and beat down her
panic.

The minutes stretched out into the better part of half an hour before
the sling was successfully adjusted about the tree-trunk. But at last
Marcel stood up from his task and regarded the moose head swinging just
beyond the face of the cliff. Then he followed Keeko's gaze, which was
in the direction of the upstanding roots of the tree where they had been
partially torn from their hold in the ground. It was only for a moment,
however. He had no misgivings. Forthwith he divested himself of his
pea-jacket and stood ready for the final task.

"What - what can I do now?"

Keeko's voice refused that steadiness which was its wont, and Marcel
laughed.

"Do? Why just sit around and act audience while I do the balancing act.
Guess that old moose is yearning for his place out there. He didn't
figure on the honour, but - he's earned it."

And, despite her fears Keeko smiled at the boyishness of it all.

In a moment her breath was drawn sharply. Marcel was out on the log. He
had passed from the cliff edge and was sitting astride of the trunk with
his feet and calves gripping tight about it like a horseman on a bucking
broncho. His progress was rapid. He lifted the sling and set it out at
the full reach of his powerful arms, and then drew himself out after it.

Keeko watched. She watched with wide, apprehensive eyes. It was a fear
quite new to her. A vivid imagination possessed her. She saw the great
body of this man lying crushed and broken upon the rocks below, and the
terror of it left her with nerves and muscles straining. She did not
pause to consider the reason of her fears. She knew it, and acknowledged
it to herself. In the battle of life which she had been forced to fight
a champion had suddenly appeared. A champion such as she had sometimes
dreamed of. And with perfect trust and simple faith she had yielded her
soul to him.

Foot by foot Marcel moved out, always thrusting his trophy ahead of him.
There was a growing vibration in the leaning tree. It laboured under his
weight. He pressed on, his whole mind and purpose concentrated. Keeko
watched the roots for a sign of the strain. There was none. She glanced
out at the distance he yet had to go. And the length of it prompted a
warning cry she dared not utter. Farther and farther he passed on. Then
came a pause that suggested uncertainty.

Keeko's heart leapt. Was he dizzy? Had he suddenly become aware of the
perilous depth below him? Was his nerve - - ?

The moment passed. He was moving on again. The far off head of the tree
was coming nearer, but the vibration had increased with his movements.
Would the roots hold? Could they be expected to with the balance so
heavily against them? Keeko could look no longer, and, in the agony of
the moment, she seized hold of the upstanding roots and clung to them in
a ridiculously impotent frenzy of hope that the weight of her own light
body might help him.

The vibrations of the tree ceased and Keeko raised her terrified eyes
for the meaning.

A wave of partial relief swept over her. Marcel had reached his goal. He
had swung up the great moose head to set it in position. It was a
breathless moment. She understood that his greatest difficulties had
begun, and again she withdrew her gaze. But she clung to the roots of
the tree, desperately determined that if the tree fell it should drag
her to the disaster waiting upon him.

The suspense seemed endless. But at last there was renewed vibration in
the tree. Keeko raised her eyes again. Marcel was moving backwards, and
there, right at the broken head of the tree, the fleshless skull with
its magnificent antlers was set up in its place.

The girl was still clinging to the upstanding roots when Marcel leapt
from his seat on the trunk and stood confronting her. His quick, smiling
eyes took in the meaning of the situation at once. He reached out and
removed the hands from their task, and, in doing so, he retained them
longer than was necessary.

"You guessed you could hold that up if it - fell?" he asked.

And Keeko's reply was full of confusion.

"I didn't think," she stammered. "I didn't know what to do. It was
shaking, and I thought - I thought - - "

"You didn't want me to get smashed on the rocks below. Well - say - !"
Marcel turned abruptly and pointed at the splendid antlers. "There he
is," he laughed. "Isn't he a dandy? You could see him miles. And he's
feeling good. He just told me that before I quit him. And he said he'd
stop right there and see no harm came along your way. So I patted his
darn old head, and told him I'd come along each year and see the rawhide
was sound, and, if necessary, I'd fix him up again. Well?"

Keeko's fears had passed like a summer storm and the sun of her smile
had returned again to her eyes.

"I'm just glad," she said. Then she became serious. "Say, do you believe
in omens?" She was gazing out at the great antlers. "I don't guess you
do. Only Indians worry with omens. Not folks of sense. Still, I kind of
fancy that feller set up that way is our omen. He's going to hand us
good luck in plenty. We'll get a great 'catch' where we're going, and
we'll get back-safe. Do you think that?"

"Sure. Guess I think a heap more than that, though." Marcel's smile was
good to see. "That's not the limit of our luck," he went on. "Not by a
lot. Say, I was raised by a feller who handed me a whole heap of wisdom.
Guess there's more wisdom in him than ever I could get a grip on. He
always guessed that luck was real in the folk who understood that way.
He said a feller made his luck by faith. The darn fool who squealed
because things went wrong queered his own luck, and just chased it out
of sight. Get a notion and hammer it through so long as you've a breath
in your body, and, if you act that way, luck'll pour itself all over you
till you're kind of floating around on a sea of desire fulfilled. That's
been his way, and I reckon it's good. I'm out to act as he said, so I
don't reckon that hollow-eyed feller out there is the whole meaning of
things. I've got all my notions and I'm going to push 'em plumb
through."

Keeko nodded.

"That's the grit a man needs," she said. "Maybe a woman does, too,
only - she's kind of different."

"Is she?" Marcel shook his head, and his eyes were full of a boyish
humour. "She isn't - when it comes to grit. Say, there's only one woman I
know except you, and those poor folks you see in Seal Bay, who - who
don't know better. But that other woman and you have taught me things
about grit most fellers don't ever learn. Most all the time a feller
who's built strong can fight to the limit of his muscles. A gal isn't
born with muscles worth speaking about, and she spends her life mostly
fighting beyond the limit. Say, she's born to troubles and worries all
the time. And she mostly gets through all the time. Why? Grit! She
doesn't just care a darn. She's going to get through - and she does. Say,
let's get along down and leave that wall-eyed old figurehead keeping
guard. Come on."




CHAPTER IX

THE CLOSE OF THE SEASON


For days the journey continued through the ever deepening gorge. The
stern grey walls remained unbroken, except for occasional sentry trees
which had survived the years of storm and flood. Carpets of Arctic
lichen sometimes clothed their nakedness, and even wide wastes of
noisome fungus. But these things had no power to depress Marcel and
Keeko; the Indians, too, passed them all unheeded. They were concerned
alone with the perils of the waters which were often almost
overwhelming.

The journey northward was one continuous struggle by day, and the daylit
night was passed in the profound slumbers of exhausted bodies, with the
canoes beached on some low foreshore dank with an atmosphere of hideous
decay.

For Keeko and the Indians it seemed as if the land was rising ever
higher and higher, and the endless waterway was cutting its course
deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth. But there was no
question. Marcel was piloting them to a hunting ground of his own, and
this passage was the highway to it.

Only once did Keeko protest. It was a protest that was natural enough.
But Marcel swept it aside without scruple.

"I call this 'Hell's Gate,'" he said, with a ready laugh. "Sounds
rotten? But I always figger you need to pass through 'some' hell to make
Paradise. We're in a mighty big country, and a-top of us are hundreds,
and maybe thousands, of miles of forests that never heard tell of man.
Wait. There's a break soon, just beyond the big rapids. That's where
these darn old walls of rock fade right out, and make way for a lake
that's like a sea."

It was his undisturbed confidence that broke the constant threat of
imagination. This north country was Marcel's home. He knew no other. So
they drove on, and on, to the goal that he had set.

The great rapids came at them as he had promised. And, in turn, they
were passed on that narrow margin which is the line drawn between safety
and destruction. Then came the mouth of the gorge, and the stretch of
open river where it debouched upon the "lake that was like a sea."

For Keeko it was all like some wonderful dream with Marcel the magician
who inspired it.

Two days later they had landed in a country whose relation to that which
Keeko knew was only in the swarming flies and mosquitoes, and the keen
air, which, even in the height of the open season, warned her of the
terrors which must reign when the aurora lit the night of winter.

"Guess this is Paradise," Marcel explained, in answer to Keeko's
expressed delight at the wide openness of it all, and at the sight of
the sparse, lean Arctic grass which replaced the monotony of the
shadowed river. "Guess it's a matter of contrasts," he went on. "It's
kind of light, I guess, and it makes you think it's green. There's bush,
or scrub, and bluffs of timber. But there's other things. It's mostly a
sort of tundra and muskeg. There's more flies to the square inch than
you'd reckon there's room for. But it's the home of the silver fox
that's never been hunted."

His words were lost upon the girl. Her whole attention had become
absorbed with her first glance out across the lake. She was staring at a
range of tremendous hills far away to the north-east, and her wonder-lit
eyes were held by a strange phenomenon that filled the sky.

It was a blaze of ruddy light tinting a world of frothing cloud. To her
it looked like a stormy oasis in the steely blue of an almost cloudless
sky. It might have been the splendid light of an angry sunset, only that
the sun was shining directly behind her. She pointed at it.

"That!" she cried, in a startled, hushed voice. "What's that?"

Marcel regarded the scene for some silent moments. It was a spectacle
that stirred him. He was closer to Nature than he knew. The primitive
was deeply rooted in him for all the pains at which Uncle Steve had been
to widen his outlook through the learning which his dead father had left
behind. Here was a caldron of fire playing its reflection upon a tumult
of cloud. The cloud itself stood unaccounted in a perfect sky.

But the answer came readily. Marcel knew those streaks of red and gold,
those rosy tints in contrast against the threatening cloud. They were
the lights of Unaga. The lights from the Heart of Unaga, the dread Heart
that haunted the Indian mind, and the secret of which Uncle Steve had so
recently disclosed to him.

What could he say to this girl to whom he could not lie?

Doubt and hesitancy passed. These things could not long exist in a
nature such as his.

"Guess I haven't seen it ever like that before," he said. Then he
corrected himself. "Not in my recollection. But I know what it is.
That's the Heart of Unaga. It's a heart always afire. It's real red-hot
fire that no man's ever had the nerve to get near. The Eskimo know it.
And it scares them to death. They sort of reckon it's the world where
the devil reigns. The hell that some folks reckon is real, and
hot - and - hellish. But the feller that banks on learning and isn't
worried by superstition'll just hand you the plain truth. It's a
volcano, a real, live volcano which they reckon is the heart of Unaga."

The awe in Keeko's eyes only deepened.

"It's - it's just amazing," she cried. Then she added with a deep breath,
"It's - dreadful."

* * * * *

From the moment of their landing on the shores of the lake Marcel and
Keeko became absorbed in the work that had brought them thither.

The wonder of the fiery Heart of Unaga swiftly passed, and only in the
brief moments over the camp-fire its fascination claimed them. At such
moments neither was quite free from the superstition they derided. For
Keeko it was a mystery of the unknown. For Marcel it was, perhaps, the
key to the whole life effort of the man who was his second father.

But the fur hunt was theirs, and with this no mystery of Unaga was
permitted to interfere. Marcel was determined on a result such as he had
never desired before. He dreamed of silver fox, he thought of silver
fox. Silver and black fox had become the sole purpose of his life.

So they beat this great, wide, half-created valley with trap and gun.
They beat it up with all the skill of a life of experience, and reward
came plentifully. It came rapidly, too. Sometimes it was almost
overwhelming.

It was a land teeming with game of every description known to the
regions north of 60°. The neighbourhood of the lake was alive with
feather. Geese swarmed in their thousands, and there were moments when
the sky was black with their legions. Duck, too, of every description
had winged up from the south to the virgin waters of the North as Nature
reluctantly released these hunting-grounds from the bonds of winter.
Beaver and musk-ox, caribou and black-tail, reindeer and all the legions
of lesser furs abounded. Thus, in consequence, it was the normal
hunting-ground of the pariah of the beast world. Fox swarmed to the
feast that was spread out. And it was the fox alone that needed to fear
the coming of the fur hunter.

The slaughter of fox was immense, but selection was discriminate. Only
the silver or black were troubled about, and these were collected with a
care and skill that ensured the perfection of the pelts. Marcel was
better than his word. He lived on the trail, and the Indians were given
no rest. Keeko, borne on the uplift of success, knew no weariness when
the effort promised treasure. They were working against time. Each of
them knew it. And Marcel had the whole season mapped out almost to the
hour.

So the days drew out into weeks, and the sun dropped lower and lower
towards the horizon. Steadily the nights grew longer, and the working
hours less. With each passing day the store of perfect pelts mounted.
They were pegged out and dried, and set ready for storing at the moment
the frost should bite through the air and hold them imperishable against
their journey down to Keeko's home.

Life was almost uneventful in the monotony of success. Rains came, and
gales blew down off the distant hills to the north-east. There were
times when the great lake justified Marcel's description of it. It raged
like a storm-swept sea, and white capped waves broke upon its bosom. But
with the passing of the storm and the flattening influence of the rain,
or under the breaking forth of the chilly Northern sunshine, peace was
restored, and the calm looked never to have been broken.

But for all the vagaries of climate, for all the unvarying nature of
their labours, there was no monotony in the hearts of Marcel and Keeko.
With every passing hour they came nearer and nearer to each other. The
youth in them was driving them to that splendid ultimate, which is the
horizon of all things between man and woman. There were no doubts. And
their only fear was the nearing of that dreaded day when parting must
come, and each would be forced to pursue the journey alone.

The parting was in the back of their minds almost from the moment of
their arrival at the valley of the lake. Each day that passed was marked
off in Keeko's mind. It was always one step nearer to the time when she
would be forced to bid farewell to the glad light of Marcel's happy
eyes, and the sound of his deep-toned, cheerful voice.

She knew. She had known it from those first happy days of their
preparations for this northward adventure. And she admitted it without
shame. She had learned to love the boy with a depth and strength she had
never thought to yield to any man.

Love? It had seemed so far removed from her life, and from those with
whom her life had been associated. She had thought a thousand times of
those men with whom she had been brought into contact. And the very idea
of love had only filled her with nausea. Her experience, from her
step-father down to the loafing "sharps" of Seal Bay, had firmly planted
in her mind the conviction that the men who haunted the shadows north
of 60° were only creatures whose quality of soul dared not display
itself in the sunlight of truth and honesty.

Yet here, here where the world's dark secrets were more deeply hidden
than anywhere else, even with Marcel's simple confession of a hidden
purpose, secret movements, she had found a man before whom her woman's
heart had at once prostrated itself. It was amazing even to her. She
found no explanation even in her moments of heart searching. More than
that she had no desire to explain or excuse. The wonderful dream of life
had come true. She had yielded unbidden, and nothing she could think of
in life could undo the work that had been accomplished almost in the
first moments of their meeting.

So it was she watched the store of pelts mount up, she watched the
growing laze of the sun as it rose less and less above the horizon, and
she noted with dread the steady lengthening of the brief summer night.
Soon, far too soon, must come that parting which would rob her life of
the light which had so suddenly broken through its shadows.

And Marcel was no less troubled. But his nature refused to admit the end
which Keeko saw ahead. His was a splendid optimism that refused defeat.
He had the tryst he had established in his mind. And far back behind his
ingenuous eyes the purpose lurked that should necessity arise he would
cut every tie that bound his life, no matter at what cost, and pursue to
its logical end the wonderful dream that had been vouchsafed to him.

With determination such as this Marcel delayed the start of the return
journey to the last possible moment. And Keeko set no obstacle in the
way. She asked no margin of time for accident by the way. She was
prepared to accept all chances. The last moments before the permanent
freeze up must see her back at her home. For the rest this wild, uncouth
land was a radiant garden of delight to her.

But time waits no more for lovers than it waits for those whose hope is
dying with the years. In the Northern wilderness time must be calculated
almost to the second, and so the limit of safety was reached in a
dalliance that had nothing to do with the necessities of their trade.
The moment had come when the return must begin, or the disaster of
winter would terminate for ever their youthful dream. The night frosts
had done their work upon the pelts. The day was no longer sufficiently
warm to seriously undo it. So the canoes floated laden at their moorings
as Keeko had dreamed they would, and the last night on the shores of the
lake was already closing down.

The camp-fire of driftwood and peat was glowing ruddily. The Indians
were already deep within their fur-lined bags, and slumbering with the
utter indifference engendered of complete weariness of body. Marcel and
Keeko were squatting beside each other over the cheering warmth which
kept the night chills at bay. Marcel was smoking. Keeko had no such
comfort.

"I'd say Lorson Harris'll need to hand you something a heap better than
five thousand dollars," Marcel observed with a laugh of genuine
satisfaction and without turning from his contemplation of the fire.
"Where'll you keep it so - - ?"

Keeko looked up with a start. Her thoughts had been far removed from the
profit of her trade.

"At the bank at Seal Bay," she said hastily, lest her abstraction should



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 20 of 30)