Copyright
Ridgwell Cullum.

The Heart of Unaga online

. (page 21 of 30)
Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 21 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


be noticed.

"You keep it all - there?"

"No." Keeko shook her head. "But I'll have to - this. It's just too big.
I'd be scared to carry it with me."

Marcel laughed again.

"That 'scare' again," he said. Then he turned, and for a moment gazed at
the perfect profile which showed up against the growing dusk. "Say, you
make me laff. Scare? You don't know what it means."

Keeko's eyes lit responsively as she turned and looked into his strong,
fire-lit face.

"Not now," she said quietly. "When I'm down there alone
it's - different."

"Alone?" Marcel removed his pipe from between his strong teeth. Then he
nodded. "Yes," he agreed, "maybe it's different then."

Just for a moment the impulse was strong in him to fling all
responsibility to the winds. He wanted to crush her in his great arms
and tell her all those things which life ordains that woman shall yearn
to hear. But the impulse was resisted. He knew it had to be.

"But you don't ever need to be alone again," he said simply. "You're
forgetting. There's that darn old moose. That's a sign. You've only to
send word, or come right along up. You see, the folks who're alone are
the folks who've got no one to go to when things get awry. I guess you
can't ever feel just alone now - whatever happens."

Keeko's eyes were very soft, very tender as she looked up into Marcel's
face.

"It's good to hear that. It's good to feel that," she said gently. "And
I do feel it," she added with a deep sigh. "I've a whole heap to thank
God for, and, if it's not wrong to put it that way, still more to thank
you for. I just don't know how to say it all. But just as long as I live
I - - "

"Cut it right out, Keeko. Cut it right out."

Marcel spoke hastily. He spoke almost roughly. He was in no frame of
mind to listen complacently to any words of thanks from this girl.
Thanks? If thanks were due it was from him. She had given him her trust
and confidence. She had given him moments in his life such as he had
never dreamed could fall to the lot of any man. In the firelight he
flushed deeply at the thought, and again impulse stirred and nearly
overwhelmed him.

"I just can't stand thanks from you, Keeko," he said impulsively.
"Thanks only need to come from folks whom you help feeling you don't
fancy doing it. You've handed me the sort of happiness that makes a
feller feel like getting onto his hands and knees and thanking God for.
Say, I can't talk to you same as I fancy to, and I guess it's not my
fault. You don't know who I am, or a thing about me. And you can't hand
me much more about yourself. Still, I sort of feel the time'll come when
we can open out things. What I want to say is, you've handed me a trust
that isn't hardly natural. You've chased this country with a feller who
might be any old thing from a 'hold-up' to a 'gun-artist,' and they're
around in plenty north of 60°. And it's the big white heart inside you
made you act that way, and I sort of feel that big white heart is still
my care, even after we've made good-bye at that old moose head. I wish
to death I could say the things I fancy right, but I just can't, and
it's no use in talking. But don't you ever dare to hand me thanks, or
I'll have to get right up and break things."

Keeko's reply was a low thrilling laugh, full of a gentle gladness which
she cared not if he read.

"Maybe you haven't said the things the way you fancy saying them," she
said, in her gentle fashion. "But you've said them the way I'd have you
say them. But you're right. There's folks in a person's life you can't
thank, you haven't a right to thank, and maybe that's how we're fixed.
You've jumped right into my life with your big body and generous heart,
and I - well, I guess you haven't found things easier because I've butted
into yours. Still, the thing's happened, and it makes me kind of glad.
Some day - But there - what's the use?"

The temptation was irresistible. Marcel flung out one great hand and
closed it over the hands the girl was holding out to the fire.

"That's it," he said hoarsely, while his body thrilled at the girl's
warm clasp in his. "What's the use? Neither you nor I can say the things
we feel. That's so. There's a great big God of this Northland looking on
and fixing things the way He sees. As you say 'Some day'! Meanwhile
there's the start back to-morrow morning. Just get right along and
sleep, and dream good, and be sure you're aren't alone in the
world - ever again."




CHAPTER X

THE FAREWELL


A burden of grey hung depressingly over the world. A bleak north wind
came down the river gorge. The sun's power had weakened before the
advance of the Arctic night. Beaten, dismayed, it lived only just above
the skyline.

The sightless sockets of the old moose stared wide-eyed down the river.
They were fulfilling the task that had been set them. The howling of the
gale, the polar cold, the blinding storm of snow; these things would
have no power to turn them from their vigil. The wide-antlered,
bleaching skull was the guardian of the tryst, and its sole concern was
its watch and ward.

The chill and cheerlessness of it all was reaching at the hearts of the
boy and girl who were at the moment of parting. Marcel was silently
whittling a stout twig of tamarack, whose toughness threatened to dull
the keen edge of his sheath-knife. Keeko was standing a few feet from
him, within a yard or so of the precipice which dropped sheer to the
waters below. Her eyes were following the direction of the gaze of the
old moose, and the picture her mind was dwelling upon was far removed
from what she beheld.

It was of the long, lonesome winter, with her mother dying by inches,
while she, herself, spent her days in the avoidance of her step-father
whom she had learned to fear as well as to hate. Marcel had no such
bitterness to look out upon. But he was none the less weighted down that
the farewell must be spoken.

The hot blood of youth was surging through his veins. Manhood's reckless
passion was beating in heart and brain. A desperate desire to yield to
the call of Nature was urging him mercilessly. Yet, through it all, he
knew that the farewell must be said now, for both their sakes, for the
sake of honour, of loyalty, for the sake of Love itself.

Oh, yes. He knew how easy it would be to sweep along on the tide of
passion. But he loved Keeko. Loved her with all his simple heart and
body, and his love was bound up with an honour which he had no power to
outrage.

Time and again in the madness of the moment he thought to urge Keeko to
abandon all and return with him to the home which he knew would hold
nothing but welcome for her. He thought of all that happiness which
might be hers in the kindly associations of Uncle Steve and An-ina. He
thought of all the wretchednesses of soul he would save her from, the
dread of that step-father, whom she had declared to be a murderer at
heart. Then he remembered the dying mother whose one care was the child
of her heart, and he realized that his own desire must not be. The
farewell must be taken now.

Once he thought to continue the journey with her to help her complete
her final task of trading her pelts. But he remembered in time, and
thrust temptation from him. There was An-ina demanding his protection in
Uncle Steve's absence during the winter. There was his pledge to that
man who never questioned his given word.

Looking up his ardent gaze rested on the figure poised so near the brink
of the gorge.

"Keeko!"

His voice was deep with feeling. Its tone was imperative, too.

"Yes - Marcel?"

Keeko's reply was low-voiced and almost humble. She felt his gaze even
before he spoke. Had she not intercepted it a hundred times in their
work together? Oh, yes. She knew it. And that which she had seen, and
read, had been the answer she most desired to all the yearnings of her
woman's heart. Now she knew that the moment she most dreaded had come at
last. And she wondered and feared as she had never feared in her life
before.

Marcel drove his knife deeply in a diagonal cut into the hard wood of
the tamarack.

"You've a month to the freeze up," he said. "It's the limit you need.
I've figgered it. I've talked it out with Little One Man."

"Yes. I can make home in a month."

Keeko drew a sharp breath. She could make home. Never in her life had
she felt as she felt now. Home!

Marcel ripped his knife in an opposite diagonal on the reverse of the
wood. The force he applied seemed almost vicious.

"Are - you glad?"

"I - s'pose so."

"You - s'pose so? Of course you are. There's your poor sick mother."

"Yes."

The girl's reply was almost inaudible. Marcel wrenched the wood in half
with his powerful hands. It snapped, and he examined the pronged ends
critically.

With an effort Keeko bestirred herself from her despondency.

"Yes," she cried desperately. "I must get home. I want to. I love my
mother, Marcel. She's suffered. Oh, how she suffers. Yet through it all
she thinks only of me. She schemes and hopes only for me. Maybe I can't
hope to save her life, but I can tell her the things that'll let her die
almost happy. It's the best I can do, and I - I'm glad to do it."

Marcel nodded over his two pieces of wood.

"That's how I feel about it," he said. "It seems to me we haven't any
sort of right to set up the things that 'ud please us against the
happiness of those who've been good to us. I'd thought of beating down
this river with you, to see things through for you. Then I remembered a
sort of mother woman who looks to me for the help of a son. Then I
thought of asking you to cut the home with a step-father, who's a
murderer at heart, and come along where you'd find only love and
friendship. Then I remembered your sick mother. I'm guessing the self of
things is mighty big, but there's something bigger. Still - Say, come and
sit right here!"

He was smiling. But his eyes were full of a deep tenderness.

Keeko obeyed. She had no desire to deny him. He seemed to have robbed
her of all will of her own. His will had become wholly her desire. She
took her seat on the tree-trunk, just removed from his side by a rift in
the great log which was hidden under a growth of lichen.

Marcel's eyes sought hers. But she had turned from him. She was gazing
out at the moose head set up over the gorge.

"How am I to hear if you're needing my help?" he demanded. "I can't make
here till the first break of spring. There's just one hell of a long
winter before that."

Marcel was endeavouring to smother his feeling. Keeko shook her head.
Had she not thought and thought over this very thing?

"I won't need help," she said. "Not now. You've helped me through my
only worry. If mother lives, things'll just go on the same. If - she
doesn't? She and I - we got it fixed. I hit right out for myself as we've
planned it - that's all."

But the hot blood had mounted to Marcel's head. "It's not!" he cried
with startling force. "D'you think you're going out of my life that way?
You?" Suddenly he broke into a laugh that echoed down the gorge. He
pointed out at the moose head. "Look at the old feller," he cried. "He's
winking his old eyes and flapping the comic ears he hasn't got. I swear
if you could only hear it he's busting his sides laffing at the joke of
you reckoning to cut yourself out of my life that way. No, sir! I'm
coming right along here at the first break of spring, and if I don't
find you around, or a sign from you, I'm beating up this river to look
for you, if I have to chase it sheer up to its source. Say, you can't
hide yourself in a corner of this darnation territory I won't find you
in. And I guess I'm just as obstinate as a she-wolf chasing a feed of
human meat. It can't be done, Keeko. Not now. I tell you it can't be
done."

The man's force was no less for all his smiling eyes. And Keeko made no
pretence.

"But why?" she cried, with a gesture of her hands that made him desire
to imprison them. "Why should you worry? You've helped me to the things
that'll leave me free of - everything. I haven't a right. I haven't any
sort of right to take you from your folks, and from those things it's
your work to do for them. Besides, who said I figgered to cut myself out
of your life?" She smiled up into his eyes with an almost child-like
confidence. "I don't want to. I - I hadn't a thought that way. Say, if I
thought I'd never see you again I'd feel like nothing in the world ever
could matter. The thing I'm guessing to make plain is when we quit here
you don't need to worry a thing. I'll get through, and next spring I'll
come right along up and tell you how I'm fixed."

Marcel sat up, and, reaching out, caught and imprisoned the hands he
desired.

"You'll do that?" he cried, while he drew her round so that she faced
him. "Sure? Sure you mean that? You'll come right along up here with the
break of winter, and we'll - - "

"I certainly will."

Keeko's youth was no less than Marcel's. Her eyes were without any
shyness. She looked into his fearlessly, and read without shame all that
they expressed. She was glad. Her heart was full of a delight of which
even parting could not rob her. The memory of that which she beheld now
would be hers during the long, drear months of winter, a sheet anchor of
hope, of joy, something to tell her always that, whatever might chance,
life still held for her a priceless treasure of which it could never
wholly rob her.

Marcel released her hands lingeringly.

"Here," he cried holding up the pieces of tamarack he had cut. "These
darned bits of wood." Then he raised the lichen, which had been
carefully loosened, and revealed the gaping rift in the tree-trunk
beneath it. "Our cache," he added. "Say, maybe when spring breaks
there's things might make it so you can't get along up here. You see,
it's a chance. You can't just say. Maybe I'm scared. Anyway, I got a
notion you might need me in a hurry. I'm scared for you. That's it. I'm
scared for you. Well? You've got your boys. Either of 'em could make
this place in the winter. Here, grab this little old stick. I'll keep
the other. It's just a token. I've set your name on it. Well, send it
along up, and cache it in this cache, and when I come along and find it
here, instead of you, at the break of spring, I'll know you're held up
and need me, and you can gamble your big white soul I'll beat the trail
to your help like a cyclone in a hurry. Oh, I know. You'll guess nothing
can happen that way. But it's just my notion, and you're going to kind
of humour me. Git that? When I find that token set in this cache I'll
make up the river just as hard as hell'll let me."

In spite of her confidence Keeko accepted the stick the boy passed to
her and sat gazing at it. It was then that she discovered the lettering
that had been cut on it. There were just two words in letters crudely
formed: "LITTLE KEEKO."

For a while her eyes dwelt upon them absorbing all the tenderness they
conveyed. Then, in a moment, all the truth in her, the woman, roused
into active purpose. She handed it back to him.

"You've given me the wrong token," she said, with a laugh. "I need one
with your name on it."

She held out her hand and Marcel passed her the other half of the stick.
It was inscribed with the single word: "MARCEL." Instantly the girl rose
from her seat and moved away.

"We best get back to camp," she said.

It was her woman's defence. Another few moments and Keeko knew she would
have been powerless before her own passionate emotion.

She led the way to the head of the path which went down to the little
camp on the foreshore below.

* * * * *

Marcel was standing beside the tree which had become the centre of all
things for him. The grey night sky had remained. It had only deepened
its threat with the dawn. But the reality of the moment was nothing to
the desolate winter that had settled upon his heart.

The farewell lay behind him. He was alone, desperately alone, in a world
where he had never realized loneliness before. And there, far out down
on the broad bosom of the river, were the canoes carrying with them his
every hope, his every desire.

The bitterness, the depression robbed him of all the buoyant manhood
that was his. Keeko had gone. Keeko. Keeko with her wonderful eyes, and
the grace and symmetry of a youthful goddess. Yes, she had gone, and
between them now lay that long winter night with all its manifold
chances of disaster. With the break of spring he might look for her
coming again. Yes, he might look for it. But would she come? He
wondered. And again and again he cursed himself that he had listened to
other than the promptings of his desire.

The canoes reached the bend of the river driven by paddles in hands that
were wonderfully skilled. They were about to pass out of view behind the
grey wall of stone which lined the waterway. The figure of the girl in
the prow of the hindmost boat was blurred and indistinct. Marcel had
eyes for nothing else. He raised his fur cap and waved it slowly to and
fro. And as he waved he thought he detected a similar movement in the
boat. He could not be sure at the distance. But he believed. He hoped it
was so. He wanted it to be.

He turned away. The boats had passed the grey barrier. There was nothing
left but to set out to rejoin his outfit, and return - -

His wandering gaze had fallen on the tree-trunk which held such happy
memories for him. He was gazing upon the lichen covering their cache.
The lichen was sadly, recklessly disturbed. He knew he had not left it
in that condition. He was far too experienced, too old in the craft of
the trail to leave a cache in such a state. He stepped over to it
hurriedly, and raised the covering Nature had set. He peered down into
the deep pocket beneath it.

The next moment a sharp exclamation broke from him. He plunged a hand
into the pocket and drew out the token he had handed to Keeko
over-night.

He stared at it. It was her demand for his help. She had placed it
there - when? It must have been during the night. Why? What did she mean?
Did she desire him to follow - now?

He turned it about in his big fingers, and in a moment discovered fresh
characters cut roughly into the wood. It was a word prefixing the name
which he had set there: "MY MARCEL."

"My Marcel!"

He was not dreaming. No - no! The little added word was there cut in by a
hopelessly unskilled hand. But it was there, as plain as intent could
make it. "My Marcel." It told him all - all that a man desires to know
when a woman bares her heart to him. It was Keeko's farewell message
that he was not intended to discover till the break of winter. It was
her summons to him, not for mere help, but a summons to him telling him
that her love was his.

He ran to the edge of the cliff. He searched the grey headland where the
shadows had swallowed up the canoes. There remained nothing - nothing but
the dull, cold prospect of the coming of winter - the relentless Arctic
winter.

He stood there without sign or sound. He made no movement. But the heart
of the man was shining in his eyes.

A shot rang out in the woods behind him. It was distant, but it split up
the silence with a meaning that could not be denied.

Marcel turned. The light in his eyes had changed. They were shadowed as
not even the parting had shadowed them. Oh, yes, he knew. It was a
signal to him. His own men were searching for him. It warned him that
winter was fast approaching, that merciless winter of Unaga, and these
men, these Sleepers, were eager to return to the warm comfort of their
quarters and their winter's sleep.




CHAPTER XI

THROUGH THE EYES OF A WOMAN


An-ina smoothed her brown hand over the superfine surface of the spread
of buckskin where it lay on the counter in the store. Her dark eyes were
critically contemplating it, while she held ready a large pair of
scissors.

A great contentment pervaded her life. It was in her wide, wise eyes now
as she considered the piece of material which was to provide a shirt for
Steve. The buckskin had been prepared by her own hands. It was soft, and
tawny with the perfect tint she desired. It could not be too soft, or
too good for Steve. That was her thought as she prepared to hew it into
shape for the sewing and beading which no other hands would be permitted
to work.

Her contemplation was broken by the abrupt flinging open of the door of
the store. She turned quickly, expectantly, and the smiling content in
her eyes, as they rested on the figure of Steve, left no doubt as to the
welcome nature of the interruption.

"You mak your plan?" she demanded.

The manner of her question was that of poignant interest. Her whole
thought was centred on the life and well-being of this white man. For
the moment the buckskin was forgotten.

Steve closed the door. He came over to the counter behind which were
piled the stores of his trade. He leant against it, and his steady eyes
regarded the handsome, dusky woman, who had come to him at the moment of
his life's disaster, and had been his strong comfort and support ever
since.

"Yes." He nodded, in the decided fashion that was always his. "We can't
wait."

"You go - before Marcel come?"

There was no surprise in the woman's reply.

"The outfit's ready. The dogs are hardened to the bone. Every day, I
guess, is a day lost. The snow's thick on the ground and the waters are
frozen up. Well? We can't guess the time it'll take us this trip. We
can't spare an hour. If we get through, it don't matter. If we fail we
need to make back here before the 'Sleepers' crawl out from under their
dope. If we wait for Marcel, and he don't get right along quick, it
means losing time we can't ever make good. You get all that?"

The woman turned up the oil lamp. The day was dark for all the lolling
sun in the horizon. She passed across to the stove, roaring comfortingly
under its open draft. She closed the damper and stood over it with hands
outstretched to the warmth. It was a favourite attitude of hers.

"An-ina know," she said. "An' Marcel? What it keep him so much long? All
time he come before snow. Now? No. Why is it?"

A shadow of anxiety descended upon her placid face. A pucker drew her
brows together. Her heart was troubled.

Steve shook his head. He showed no sign of sharing her concern.

"He'll be along," he said confidently. "I'm not worried a thing. I'd
trust Marcel to beat the game more than I would myself. You needn't to
be scared. No. It's not that."

"What it - then?"

An-ina's eyes were full of a concern she had no desire to conceal. She
had nothing to conceal from this man who was the god of her woman's
life.

"I just can't say," Steve said. "But - I'm not worried. The thing is we'd
fixed it that I didn't quit till Marcel got to home."

"Why?"

Steve shrugged, but his eyes were smiling.

"Oh, I guess we don't fancy leaving you without men folk around. It
isn't that things are likely to worry any. But you see - you're all we've
got. You're a sort of anchor that holds us fast to things. You see, I
guess Marcel reckons you his mother, and I, why - it don't need me to say
how I feel."

The look in the woman's dark eyes deepened. She knew the feelings
prompting Steve. Oh, yes. She knew. And she thanked the God she had
learned to believe in, and to worship, for the happiness which he had
permitted her in the midst of the terrors of this desolate Northern
country. Her answer came at once. It came full of her generosity.

"Ah," she cried quickly. "You think all this thing - you men! An' what
An-ina think? Oh, An-ina think much. So much. Listen. She tell. Marcel
him big feller. Him mak' summer trail. Far - far. An-ina not know. Him
wolf all come around. Him river with much water - rapids - rocks. Him
muskeg. Him everything bad, an' much danger. An-ina she not say, 'An-ina
come too, so no harm come by Marcel.' She say, 'no.' Marcel big man.
Marcel brave. Him fight big. So him God of white man kill Marcel all up,
then An-ina heart all break, but she say it all His will. So she not
say nothing. Steve him go by Unaga, where all him devil men. They get
him. They kill him. Then An-ina all mak' big weep - inside. She say
nothing. She not say 'An-ina come, too, so she frighten all devil men
away.' Oh, no. An-ina woman. She not scare any more as Steve an' Marcel.
She sit by fire. She mak' Steve him shirt. She have gun, plenty. No man
come. Oh, no. She not scare for nothing. An-ina brave woman, too. Steve,
Marcel mak' her coward. Oh, no. Outfit ready - Julyman - Oolak - all him
dogs. Yes. Steve him go - right away. Bimeby Marcel him come. So."

An-ina's voice was low and soft. But for all her halting use of the



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 21 of 30)