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white man's tongue, with which she found so much difficulty, there was
decision and earnest in every word she uttered. There was the force,
too, of a brave, clear-thinking mind in it. And it left Steve with
difficulty in answering her. Besides for all his desire to protest, he
knew he must go, or sacrifice that thing which had brought him to Unaga.

With characteristic decision he accepted her protest. He knew her
generosity and courage. But a sense of shame was not lacking at the
thought that the very position he had used to convince Marcel could not
be allowed to stand where his purpose was threatened.

"I've got to go," he said almost doggedly. "But I hate the thought of
leaving you, An-ina. If Marcel would only get around now, I'd feel easy.
But there's not a sign of him. He's late - late and - Psha! It's no sort
of use. I must pull out right away."

He stood up from the counter and came over to the stove. An-ina's dark
eyes watched him. Even in her untutored mind she understood the strength
of character which overrode his every scruple, his every sentiment. Her
regard for him was something of idolatry, and deep in her soul she knew
that the gleanings in his heart left by that white woman were hers.
Maybe they were only gleanings, but she asked no more. She was content.
She knew no distinction between mistress and wife. The natural laws were
sufficient. He was the joy of her savage heart, and she was the only
woman in his life. It was as she would have it.

He came up to her and stood gazing down at the long, thin hands
outspread to the warmth. Then with an unaccustomed display of feeling he
thrust one arm through hers, and his strong hand clasped itself over
both of hers.

"Say, An-ina, I'm going a hell of a long trail. It's so long we just
can't figure the end. It's a winter trail northward, and I don't need to
tell you a thing of what that means. I'd say anyone but you and Marcel
would guess I'm crazy. Well, I'm not. But it's a mighty desperate chance
we're taking. If we win through, and get what we're chasing, it means
the end of this country for all of us. Maybe you'll be glad. I don't
know. If we fail - well, I can't just figure on failure. I never have and
I don't reckon to start that way now. But I got to hand you 'good-bye'
this time. It's not that way with us usually. But this time I sort of
feel I want to. You're just a great woman, and you've been mostly the
whole meaning of things to me since - since - Anyway, I've done the best
I know to hand you all the happiness lying around in a territory there's
nothing much to in that way. But all that's nothing to what you've been
to me. Well, my dear, I don't guess it's our way talking these things,
but I got that inside me makes me want to say a whole heap about how I
feel and what I think. Guess I'm not going to try though. It wouldn't
amount to anything if I talked a day through. I wouldn't have said half
I needed to. You and Marcel are all I've got, and you two dear folk'll
be the last thought I have in life. You'll help him, my dear, won't
you? You're just Marcel's mother, and if I don't get back you'll need to
be his father, too. Good-bye."

An-ina made no reply. She had listened to him with a heart that was
overflowing. As he said "good-bye" she turned her head, and the
speechlessness of their farewell was deep with simple human passion.

A moment later they had moved apart. It was Steve's initiative.

"Now? You go - now?"

An-ina's voice was heroic in its steadiness. There was not a sign of
tears in her shining eyes. She followed him to the door as though his
going were an ordinary incident in their day's routine, and stood there,
while he passed out, the very embodiment of that stoicism for which her
race is so renowned.

* * * * *

An-ina was alone. Only the skeleton of her life at the fort remained to
keep her company. The flesh was shorn from the bone. That flesh which
had made her life an existence of joy which the greatest terror of Unaga
was powerless to rob her of. It is true there were a few of the trail
dogs left behind, and some of the reindeer. But what were these half
wild creatures in exchange for a human companionship in which her whole
soul was bound up?

But An-ina was free of the vain imaginings which curse the lives of
those who boast the culture of civilization. She was content in her
woman's memory, in her looking forward, and the present was full of an
hundred and one occupations which held her mind to the exclusion of
everything but the contemplation of the coming joy of reunion.

She had claimed to herself a bravery equal to that of her men folk. She
might well have claimed more. She possessed, in addition to that active
courage which belongs to the adventurer, the passive, courageous
endurance of the woman. So, with an unruffled calm, she set about the
daily "chores" that were hers, and added to them all those labours which
were necessary that this outland home should lack nothing in its welcome
to her men.

For the moment the world about her was still and silent. It was as
though Nature remained suspended in doubt between the seasons. The open
season was passed, when the earth lay bare to the lukewarm sun of
summer. A white shroud covered the nakedness of the world, and already
ice was spread out over the waters. But winter had not yet made its
great onslaught.

It was coming. Oh, yes. It was near. The brief hours of daylight warned
that. So did the mock-suns which hovered in the sky, chained by the
radiant circle which held the dying sun prisoned. Then in the north the
heavy clouds were gathering. They gathered and dispersed. Then they
gathered again. And always they banked deeper and darker. The wind was
rising. That fitful, patchy wind which is so full of threat, and which
bears in its breath the cutting slash of a whip.

There were moments in her solitude when An-ina read these warnings with
some misgivings. They were not for herself. They were not even for
Steve. The winter trail was no new thing to her great man. Besides, he
was equipped against anything the Northern winter could display.
Accident alone could hurt him. That was her creed. Marcel was different.
He was only equipped for summer, and he should have returned before that
first snowfall. How could his canoes make the waters of the river when
they were already frozen?

Thus it was she speculated as each dawn she sought the sign of his
return, and at the close of each day, with the last of the vanishing
light.

For a week she went on with her endless labours in that cheerful spirit
of confidence which never seemed to fail her. Then there came a change.
She sought the gates of the fort more often, and stood gazing out
longer, and with eyes that were not quite easy. Her unease was growing.
She spurned it, she refused to admit her fears. And, in her defence, she
redoubled her labours.

Thus ten days from the moment of Steve's going passed. It was the
evening of the tenth day.

With a desperate resolve she had refused to allow herself her last
evening vigil. Snow was in the air and had already begun to fall. So she
sat over the great stove in the store, and plied her needle, threaded
with gut, upon the shirt that was some day to cover Steve's body. Not
once did she look up. It was almost as if she dared not. She was
fighting a little battle with herself in which hope and confidence were
hard pressed.

It was in the midst of this that the door was thrust open wide, and,
with the opening, a flurry of snow swept in upon the warm atmosphere.
But that which caused her to start to her feet, and drop the treasured
garment perilously near to the stove, was the figure that appeared in
the white cloud that blew about it. It was Marcel, with snow and ice
about his mouth and chin, and upon his eye-lashes, and with his thick
pea-jacket changed from its faded hue to the virgin whiteness of the
elements through which he had succeeded in battling his way.

"An-ina!"

It was the glad cry of greeting she had yearned for in the big voice of
a man whose delight is unmeasured.

"Marcel!" The woman's reply was full of joy. Then, with a sigh that was
a deep expression of relief: "An-ina glad - so glad!"

Marcel turned and closed the outer storm door. Then he shut the inner
door securely. A moment later he was freeing himself from icicles and
snow at the stove.

"Say, I had to beat it like hell," he declared with a great laugh, while
An-ina gathered up her sewing and laid it aside. Her mother mind was
running upon a hot supper for her boy. "I was just worried to death at
you folks sitting around guessing. Winter got me beat by just two weeks,
and now the snow's falling in lumps, and it's mighty near down to zero.
Where's Uncle Steve?"

"Gone." An-ina had forgotten the supper. "Him gone where you know. Him
gone days. Maybe ten. No wait. Oh, no. Him guess you come soon. So him
go."

"And Julyman? And Oolak?"

"All gone. All him gone by land of fire. Oh, yes."

An-ina sighed. It was her only means of expressing the feelings she
could not deny.

Marcel's eyes had sobered. He flung off his pea-jacket and possessed
himself of An-ina's chair. He sat there with his great hands spread out
to the warmth, enduring the sharp cold-aches it inspired. He was gazing
steadily at the glowing patch where the side of the stove was red hot.
His mind was busy with thoughts which robbed him of half the joy of his
return.

The thought of supper returned to the woman.

"So. I mak' him supper," she said. "Him boys. They come too?"

"Oh, yes," Marcel laughed shortly "Guess they're back in the woods
there, doping like hell so they shan't lose any sleep. They were kind of
mad with me getting back late. I had to rawhide two of them, or the
whole darn lot would have bolted. You see, I was held up."

An-ina would have questioned further but there was no encouragement in
Marcel's tone or manner. He had not turned to reply. His attitude was
one the squaw recognized. He wanted to think. So she moved silently away
and passed to the old kitchen to prepare his food.

Marcel sat on. He was thinking, thinking hard. But not in any direction
that An-ina would have guessed. For once there was confusion of thought
and feeling that was quite foreign to his nature. He was thinking of
Keeko, he was thinking of Uncle Steve, and he was thinking of An-ina. He
was angry with himself and as nearly angry with Uncle Steve as he could
be. He cursed himself that through his delay An-ina should have been
left alone for two weeks. He was troubled at the thought that Uncle
Steve saw fit to leave her, and refused to await his return. And towards
An-ina he felt that contrition which his deep regard for her made so
poignant. But through all, above all, floated the spirit of Keeko, and
he knew that whatever might have befallen nothing would have made him
act differently. He was troubled to realize that for the first time in
his life Uncle Steve and An-ina had only second place in his thought.

His reflections were broken by An-ina's quiet return.

"Supper - him all fixed. Marcel come?"

Marcel started up. And the shadows passed out of his handsome eyes. The
gentle humility with which An-ina addressed him was irresistible. He was
smiling again. His deep affection for this mother woman was shining in
his eyes.

"Will I come?" he cried. "Say, you just see."

* * * * *

Marcel had eaten his fill. He had been well-nigh famishing when he
arrived, and the simple cooking and wholesome food that An-ina set
before him was like a banquet compared to the fare of the trail, on
which he had subsisted all the open season.

Now he was lounging back in the rawhide-seated chair with his pipe
aglow. He was ready to talk, more than ready. And An-ina's soft eyes
were observing him, and reading him in her own wise way.

"You tell me - now?" she said, in the fashion of one who knows the value
of food to her men folk's mood.

Marcel nodded with a ready smile.

"Any old thing you fancy," he cried. "What'll I tell you? About the darn
outfit, the pelts we got? The woods? The rivers? The skitters? The - - "

An-ina shook her head. His mood was what she desired.

"No. Marcel say the thing that please him. An-ina listen."

Marcel laughed. He had come home with the treasure hugged tight to his
bosom. He had promised himself that this was his secret, to be imparted
to no one - not even to Uncle Steve. An-ina had demanded that he should
speak as he desired, and he knew that his one desire was to talk of
Keeko. Now, he asked himself, why - why, for all his resolve, should he
withhold the story of this greatest of all joys from the woman who was
his second mother?

His laugh was his yielding.

"Oh, yes," he cried impulsively. "I'll tell you the thing that pleases
me. I'll tell you the reason I was held up. And - it's the greatest
ever!"

An-ina rose quickly from her seat.

"You tell An-ina - sure. It long. Oh, yes. An-ina say this thing - 'the
greatest ever.'"

She was gone and had returned again before Marcel had dragged himself
back from his contemplation of the things which he desired to talk of.
It was a gentle hint from An-ina that roused him.

"Oh, yes? An-ina listen."

Marcel started. He stirred his great bulk, and re-lit the pipe he had
failed to keep alight.

"I'd forgotten," he said, with another laugh that was not free from
self-consciousness. "Say," he went on, "I've hit the greatest trail ever
a feller struck in this queer darn country. Gee!" He breathed a profound
sigh. "It was queer. I was trailing an old bull moose. I followed it
days."

An-ina was watching him. She beheld the radiant light in his frank eyes.
She noted the almost feverish manner in which he was clouding the
tobacco smoke about him. She even thought she detected an unsteadiness
in the hand that held his pipe. She waited.

"Oh, yes," he went on. "I was in a territory I guess I've hunted plenty.
I kind of knew it all, as it's given to anyone to know this darn land. I
followed the trail right up to the end, but - I didn't make a kill. No."

His tone had dropped to a soft, deep note that thrilled with some
emotion An-ina had never before been aware of in him. A startled light
shone in her eyes, and her work lay unheeded in her lap.

"No. I didn't make a kill, but I came right up to the end of that trail,
and found - - "

"A woman?"

Marcel sat up with a jolt. His wide, astonished eyes stared almost
foolishly into the dark native eyes smiling back into his.

"How d'you know - that?" he demanded sharply.

He planted his elbows on the table, resting his square chin upon his
hands.

An-ina laughed that almost silent laugh so peculiar to her.

"An-ina guess him. An-ina look and look. An-ina see Marcel all
smiling - inside. She hear him voice all soft, like - like - Ah, An-ina not
know what it like. So she think. She say, what mak' Marcel all like this?
Him find something. Him not scare. Oh, no. Marcel not scare nothing. No.
Him much please. Marcel boy? No. Him big man. What him mak' big man much
please. An-ina know. It woman. So she say."

Marcel wanted to laugh. He wanted to shout his delight. He wanted to
pour out the hot, passionate feelings of his heart to a woman who could
read and understand him like this. He did none of these things, however.

He simply smiled and nodded, while his whole face lit radiantly.

"That's a hell of a good guess," he cried. "Yes. I found a - woman. A
beautiful, blue-eyed white woman. And she called herself, 'Keeko.'"

An-ina swiftly rolled up the buckskin she was working. She laid it on
the supper table beside her. Then she drew up her chair, and she, too,
set her elbows on the table, and supported her handsome, smiling face in
her hands. Again it was the woman, the mother in her. It was her boy's
romance. The boy she had raised to manhood with so much love and
devotion. And she was thirsting, as only a mother can, for the story of
it.

"So. Marcel him say. An-ina listen."




CHAPTER XII

KEEKO RETURNS HOME


Keeko had beaten the winter where Marcel had failed. But then Keeko's
journey had been southward towards the sun, where the forest sheltered,
and the river pursued a deep-cut course to the westward of the great
hills supporting the wind-swept plateau of Unaga.

For all these easier conditions, however, the journey was a hard beat up
against the sluggish flow of the river. It permitted no relaxation, and
only a minimum of rest. Then the portages up the rapids had been
rendered doubly laborious by reason of cargoes such as the girl and her
Indians had never been called upon to deal with before.

It should have been a happy enough journey. Was it not in the nature of
a procession of great triumph? Had not Keeko's summer labours been
crowned far beyond her dreams? Surely this was so. The ardent little
feminine scheme, worked out on a sick bed, and executed with great
strength and courage had been brought to a complete and successful
issue. Oh, yes. The shadows which had threatened Keeko's future had been
completely confounded. She knew beyond a doubt that she was independent,
as her mother desired her to be. When the moment came she knew she was
in the privileged position of being free to cut the bonds which had
hitherto held her to the man whose brutality was surely enough driving
her suffering mother to the grave.

But depression weighed the girl down. Look forward as she might, hope
would not rise at her bidding. Marcel had been snatched out of her life
like a shadowy dream, and the future offered her little enough comfort.
Then there was her mother, and all that might have happened at the post
in her long absence.

It was in such a mood that she emerged into the horseshoe loop of the
river and beheld the dark walls of the old Fort Duggan. Her pretty face
and serious eyes reflected her feelings as she piloted her boat towards
the landing in the cold, crisp air of the brief daylight. Furthermore it
was with no easing of her mood that she beheld the figure of her
step-father on the landing awaiting her approach.

Just for a moment she wondered. Just for a moment she asked herself if
he had had warning from some stray Shaunekuk of her coming. She realized
a spasm of fear that perhaps prying eyes had witnessed her caching of
the great bulk of her furs, that part which represented her own personal
fortune. But the fear passed. It could not be so. Her plans had been
laid and executed far too carefully.

So she coldly awaited the man's greeting.

It came. And its tone was unusually modulated. It was almost gentle. The
man's eyes were a reflection of his tone as he gazed down at her. The
effect was startling, and a light of wonder crept into Keeko's eyes as
she looked up into the bloated face with its beard and general air of
brutishness.

"You've cut it fine, Keeko," he said, with a swift, calculating glance
at the sky. "I was getting well-nigh scared. We'll be snowed under right
away." Then he drew a deep breath as of relief. "I'm glad you got to
home."

Keeko had her part to play and she never hesitated.

"I was held up, but - I've had a good catch," she said, without
enthusiasm. She pointed at the bale of pelts in her canoe. "They're
silver fox. There's two more bales in the other boat. Guess Lorson
Harris'll hand you a thousand dollars."

"Silver fox?" The man's eyes lit with cupidity. For a moment his
seriousness passed out of them. "Why, that's great! You haven't got
beyond grey fox and beaver ever before. It was a new territory?"

Keeko nodded. She was yearning to ask one question. One question only.
But she knew the value of her success with this creature whom she could
not yet openly defy.

"Yes. It was that held me up. I made farther down the river. Right to
its mouth. It's a great fox country. Next year - - "

But Nicol was unable to restrain his impatience. He turned to Little One
Man.

"Haul 'em ashore an' open 'em out. We need to see the quality."

Little One Man looked at Keeko.

The girl nodded at once. Nicol saw the look and understood, and, for a
moment, his eyes flashed with that ungovernable temper which was part of
him. But the danger passed as swiftly as it came. Little One Man had
flung the bundle ashore as Keeko stepped from the boat, and, in another
moment, Nicol's sheath knife was ripping the thongs of rawhide which
held it.

Keeko stood looking on watching the man's hands as he ran his fingers
through the silken mass. He caressed the steely blue fur with the
appreciation of a real pelt hunter, and presently stood up with a look
in his eyes such as Keeko had never before beheld.

"How many?" he demanded.

"Sixty."

Nicol blew a faint whistle of astonished delight.

"You said a thousand dollars," he exclaimed. "Lorson Harris'll need to
pay more than sixteen dollars for those pelts. We'll need twenty. Say,
gal, you've done well. You surely have."

Keeko desired none of his praise. One thought only was in her mind. Up
to that moment she had been playing the game she knew to be necessary.
Now she reckoned she could safely abandon tactics in favour of her own
desire.

"How's - mother?" she demanded.

Nicol stood up. His movement was a little precipitate. Nevertheless a
moment passed before he withdrew his gaze from the treasure he coveted.
When he finally did so it was not to look in the girl's direction. He
was gazing out at the forest backing the fort.

Keeko became impatient. She was alarmed, too.

"How is she?" she cried urgently.

Nicol shook his head. He turned to the waiting Indians.

"We'll have them up at the store, and fix 'em ready for transport," he
ordered. Then he sought to take the girl's arm while his hard eyes
assumed a regret that utterly ill-suited them. "Come along up to the
fort while I tell you."

But Keeko avoided him. Panic had seized her.

"No," she cried, in a tone she rarely permitted herself. "Tell me
here - right now. Is - is she dead?"

She would take no denial. There was something in her clear, fearless
eyes finely compelling. The man nodded.

"Dead?"

The girl spoke in a low, heart-broken whisper. She had forgotten the
man. Dead! Her mother was dead. That poor suffering creature who had
clung so long to life in her frantic desire to safeguard her child.
Dead! And she would never know the success of the plans she had laboured
so ardently to work out.

Stunning as was the blow Keeko promptly reacted.

"When did she die?" she demanded, in a tone that no longer needed
disguise.

"I'd say a month after you quit."

"And where - where's she buried?"

The man nodded in the direction of the woods at the back of the fort.

"Back there," he said. Then his manner became urgent. "Say, once we saw
the end was coming ther' wasn't a thing left undone to make her easy.
Lu-cana'll tell you that. We sat with her the whole time, and did all we
knew. And we buried her deep down wher' the wolves couldn't reach her,
and I set up a cross I fixed myself, and cut her name deep on it so
it'll take years to lose."

Keeko recognized a sort of defence in the man's words and in his manner.
It seemed to be his paramount purpose. She saw in him not a sign of real
sorrow, real regret. Contempt and bitterness rose and robbed her of all
discretion.

"When you saw the end coming!" she replied scornfully.

But Nicol ignored the tone.

"Yes," he said deliberately. "She didn't go short of a thing we could
do - Lu-cana and me. We did our best-I don't guess you could have done a
thing more. Will you come along up, an' - I'll show you."

"No!"

The reply was fierce. Keeko was at the extremity of restraint. She could
no longer endure the man's presence. She could no longer listen to him.

"There's the pelts," she cried, pointing. "See to them. That's your
work." Then she looked him squarely in the eyes. "The other is for
me - alone."

Nicol submitted. He had no alternative. And Keeko hurried away up to the
fort.

* * * * *

There was unutterable grief in Keeko's attitude. At her feet lay the
low, long mound which marked her mother's grave. Beyond, at the head of
it, was a rough wooden cross, hewn from stout logs of spruce. And deeply
cut on the cross-bar was her mother's name prefixed by words of
endearment. Just behind the girl stood the heavily blanketed figure of
Lu-cana, whose eyes were shadowed by a grief which her lips lacked the
power to express.

All about them reigned the living silence of the forest with its threat
of hidden dangers. It was a silence where the breaking of a twig, the



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 22 of 30)