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rustle of the soft, rotting vegetation, inches deep upon the ground,
might indicate the prowling approach of famished wolf or scavenging
coyote, the stealing of wildcat or even of the deadly puma.

The minutes passed as the two women stood voicelessly at the grave side.
That which was passing in their minds was their own. Both, in their
different fashions, had loved the woman laid so deep in the ground at
their feet. And both knew, and perfectly understood, the life she had
endured at the hands of the man who had set up the monument to her
memory.

After a long time Keeko stirred. She drew a deep breath. It was the sign
of passing from thought to activity. She turned to the woman behind her.

"How did she die, Lu-cana?" she asked, in a low voice.

Lu-cana drew near. She spoke in a tone as if in fear of being
overheard. And as she spoke she looked this way and that.

"She weep - weep all time when you go," she said brokenly. "She big with
much fear. Oh, yes. She scare all to death. So. Days come - she live. She
not eat. Oh, no. Days come many. An' all time she weep inside. She not
speak. No. Her eye - it all time look around. Oh, much fear. Then one day
she not wake. She die all up."

"And he?"

"Oh, him come all time. Him sit and mak' talk to her. I not know. Only
him talk. Him go - she weep. Him go - she watch all scare. So it come she
die all up."

Keeko pointed at the cross at the head of the grave.

"He set that up? Yes?"

"Him mak' him totem."

Keeko stood staring at the cross for some moments. Then she moved over
to it and grasped it. It stirred in its setting. Then she left it, and
returned to Lu-cana.

"He dared to set that up," she cried bitterly. "'In loving memory.'" She
read the words before the name of her mother. "He dared to set
up - that?"

Her eyes shone with a fierce light as she turned and looked into the
squaw's face.

"Yes. Him set 'em up."

Lu-cana failed to understand that which lay at the back of Keeko's eyes.
She could not read the words on the totem. She did not know their
meaning when she heard them. All she knew was that the white man had
done this thing.

Keeko pointed at it.

"Guess I'll make a new - totem," she said, in a tone that was only cold
and hard. "And we'll set it up. You and me, Lu-cana. And that one - that
one," she repeated with bitter emphasis, "we'll break it, we'll smash
it, and we'll burn it in the cook stove till there's nothing left."

* * * * *

Keeko remained for two months at the fort. And the length of her stay
was the result of careful calculation, and the necessity which her final
break from association with her step-father demanded. Then, too, there
was the season to consider. Before she set out on her journey to Seal
Bay the fierce winter of Unaga must have completely closed down. No
storm or cold had terror for her. All she required was the
case-hardening of the world, which would leave an iron surface upon
which the dog trains could travel.

During those two months the force of Keeko's character developed with
giant strides. She was alone, utterly alone. Her whole life depended
upon her own powers to carry out the plans which had seemed almost
simple while her mother was still alive. Now everything had suddenly
changed. Inevitably, had there been a shadow of weakness in the girl it
must have found her out, and tripped her into some pitfall, floundering.
But there was no such weakness.

From the first moment the enormous change wrought by her mother's death
left her keenly understanding. Until the final break, her step-father
must be humoured, conciliated. The thought was humiliating, but
necessity urged. And she accepted the inevitable with simple courage.

Well enough was she aware of the danger in which she stood, and further
the danger in which her required course placed her.

Had she known all that lay in the man's ruthless heart, had she been
present at her mother's bedside, and listened to those talks which
Lu-cana had told her of, had she had less youth and courage and a
deeper understanding of the realities of life, it is likely that panic
would have sent her fleeing headlong from a presence that filled her
with nothing but loathing. But she had been spared all this knowledge,
and Nicol saw to it that nothing should startle her, nothing should
excite her distrust until, in the fulness of time, his purposes had
fully ripened.

As it was he accepted the position which Keeko had created. He played
his part as she played hers. And right up to the very last moment before
the girl's departure for Seal Bay nothing was permitted to disturb the
harmony between them.

The man gave her farewell and received the girl's calm response. He
watched her Indians break out the two sleds on the bitterly frosted
trail. He heard her sharp tones echoing through the still air as she
gave the order to "mush." And all the while he stood smiling, while his
eyes followed every movement of the girl's graceful, fur-clad body with
the insensate lust of an animal.

Robbed of all suspicion Keeko went forth with a heart high with hope.
Away out lay her cache of priceless furs to be picked up within the next
few hours. All the great plan which she and her mother had so carefully
prepared looked to be reaching fulfilment. She had only to sell her furs
and return and pay over her step-father's due. It would be springtime
then.

All her mind and heart turned to Marcel. Yes. He would be there. Far
away up the river where the old grey skull of the moose was watching for
her coming. And then - and then - But imagination carried her no further.
She was left longing only for that moment to come.

Nicol remained only long enough to see the runners of the hindmost sled
vanish in a flurry of powdered snow round the limits of a woodland
bluff. Then he turned back to the dark old fort, and the mask under
which he had so carefully concealed himself fell away. Straightway he
returned to his store to flood his senses with the raw spirit which
alone made his degenerate life tolerable.

* * * * *

Winter was howling about the old fort. Drifts were piled feet deep
against every obstruction that stood in the way of the driving snow. The
fort was closed up. Every habitation was made fast against the onslaught
of the elements Life was unstirring.

Far out in the woods bayed the fierce, famished timber wolf. The lighter
but more doleful howl of coyote seemed to reply from every point of the
compass. And amidst the rack of savage chorus came the harsh human voice
that had little the better of the animal world in the pleasing quality
of its note.

A train of three dogs hauling a light sled broke from the shadows of the
forest. A single human figure on snow-shoes laboured along beside it. It
was a figure entirely unrecognizable, except that it was human.

There was no pause, no uncertainty. The train came on and halted at a
word of command at the doorway of the fort. In a moment the human figure
was beating with its fur-mitted fists upon the door that had weathered
the ages of storm.

The door was flung wide from within, and the blear eyes of Nicol peered
out into the night-light. In a moment an exclamation of recognition
broke from him.

"Alroy!" he cried. "'Tough' Alroy!" Then something of gladness at the
prospect of companionship lit his eyes with a happier light. "Say, come
right in," he invited, almost boisterously. "I'll send along some neches
to see to your darn train."

Tough needed no second invitation. He smelt warmth, rest, and there was
the promise in his mind of a good "souse." For the time he had had
enough of Unaga. He had had enough of his employer, Lorson Harris. He
had had enough of snow and ice, and the merciless cold of the twilit
trail. God! but he was glad to leave it all behind him for the warmth of
Nicol's store, and the raw spirit he knew was to be found there in
generous quantities.

Half an hour later, divested of his furs, clad only in rough buckskin
and pea-jacket, with feet encased in thick reindeer moccasins, Tough sat
over the trader's stove with a pannikin of evil smelling rye whisky in
his hand.

"Guess I've driven through hell an' damnation to git your darn report,"
he said, his wicked eyes beaming across the stove at his host on the far
side of it.

"Lorson's blasted orders?"

"You mean blasted Lorson's orders!"

"Amen - or any other old chorus - to that," returned Nicol, with a gleam
of brooding hate in his dark eyes. "Say, that swine has got all us
fellers by the back o' the neck, and he twists us this way and that as
he darn pleases, till we're well-nigh crazy. I'd give half a life to cut
it - to make a break that would quit me of it all. But - - "

"You're scared," Tough laughed, as he gulped at his spirit. "Guess we
all are." Then he added as an after-thought: "I wonder. I don't know I
would if - I dared. He's tough. He'd beat a dead man to pieces if he felt
that way. He's plumb to the neck in work that 'ud shame a black, but he
pays good for the doin' of it. And he reckons to pay you mighty well, if
you put this thing through right. Best hand me your news. He don't want
it wrote out."

Nicol leant back in his chair, and thrust his feet on the rail of the
stove.

"No, he don't fancy a thing wrote out," he said. "And anyway I'm writin'
out nothing for Lorson Harris. He's got one piece of my paper, and I
guess that's mostly why I'm here."

"And your summer trip?"

Tough recalled his host to the business in hand. He did it amiably,
almost pleasantly, but such things were entirely upon the surface. Tough
Alroy was Lorson's most trusted agent.

Nicol shook his head.

"Guess I didn't do all I figured to," he said. "You see, my fool woman
took on and died. It cut the season short. But I located ther's a fort
way out more than three hundred miles north-east of this lousy hole.
Yes, it's more than three hundred miles north-east. Might be even four
hundred. And there are folks running it. White folks. Three of my
Shaunekuk boys got it dead pat. They ran into an outfit of queer sort of
Eskimo pelt hunters. They were hunting the territory away north, up
along this darn river. And they came from that post to the north-east.
They said they were part of an outfit run by a feller named Brand. He
was one of the white men running that post. They said these folk traded
with Seal Bay. It was a big piece of luck. You see, the Shaunekuk never
go into Unaga proper. They're scared to death of it. They make the
forests along this river, that's all. Well, this outfit of queer Eskimo
haven't ever been seen along this territory before. So you see I might
have saved myself one hell of a rush trip that only took me to a place
where I got a sight of a mighty tough looking hill, all smoke and fire.
The three neches were out on their own and had their yarn waiting on me
when I got back. That's my yarn, and all there is to it. Guess it's what
Lorson Harris needs - until we make that fort, itself, for him."

Tough nodded. His wicked black eyes were serious, and, in their
seriousness, were never more wicked.

"It'll do," he said. "Sure, it'll do. Guess it's a rough map of the
trail we're chasing. But it's only the beginning. See, and listen close.
Lorson Harris don't care a curse for the trade you make here with these
fool neches. You ain't here for that, whatever you happen to think.
You're here to make that trail. You're here to make that fort. And when
you've made it, it's up to you to get possession of it. See? Lorson
Harris means to bring that post right into his grip. There's a reason. A
hell of a reason. It's so big he's ready to dope out a hundred thousand
dollars to the man who can blot out the fellers trading there, and grab
their trade. He reckons you're the man to do it. Well?"

Tough was leaning forward. His manner was deadly earnest and intended to
impress. His keen black eyes stared hard into the bloated features of
the man beyond the stove. He waited, watchful, alert.

"A hundred thousand dollars!"

Nicol's astonishment was without feigning. Suddenly he bestirred
himself. He felt there must be some trick in it all.

"Would I need to - remain buried alive there?" he demanded.

Tough shook his head.

"Get possession of that place, that trade. Out those folks running the
trade, and Lorson'll hand you one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and
you'll be quit of the North if it suits you that way. You'll be quit of
Lorson Harris, too. Well?"

"Gee!" Nicol passed a moist palm across his forehead.

"It's a swell proposition!"

"It's a hell of a proposition!"

"Well? You need to say right now. I don't need to remind you of Lorson
Harris."

"God curse Lorson Harris!"

"Just so."

Tough was unrelenting in his pressure upon his victim. Lorson Harris
chose his agents well.

Suddenly Nicol flung out his hands in a furious gesture.

"God's hell light on him! Yes," he cried, with eyes aflame, and his
ungovernable temper surging. "I'll put his filthy work through. But when
I've done it he'll need to hand me that hundred thousand dollars in cash
right here before he learns a darn thing of the place he's yearning to
grab. Get me? He reckons that he's got the drop on me. Well, maybe he
has. But he don't get my tongue wagging till I get the cash pappy. Savee
that, and savee it good!"

"But you'll do it?"

"That's what I've been shouting at you."

"Good. Now listen, and I'll pass you the rest of Lorson's message."

Tough emptied his pannikin to the dregs, and, leaning back in his chair,
beamed across at the man he knew to be at the mercy of Lorson Harris.
There was no feeling, no sympathy in him. He cared not one jot for
anyone in the world but himself, and his standing with the man who paid
for his services.




CHAPTER XIII

THE FAITH OF MEN


The men crouched for warmth and the shadow of comfort over a miserable
fire. The dogs were beyond, herded far within the shelter, their fierce
eyes agleam with a reflection of the feeble firelight as they gazed out
hungrily in its direction. It was a cavernous break in the rock-bound
confines of a nameless Northern river.

Steve passed a hand down his face. He brushed away the moisture of
melting ice. It was a significant gesture, accompanied as it was by a
deep breath of weariness. Two hundred miles and more of Arctic terror
lay behind him. As yet he had no reckoning of how much more lay ahead.

The world outside was lost in a chaos of warring elements. So it had
lain for a week. In the fury of the blizzard the Arctic night was
reduced to a pitchy blackness worse than the sightlessness of the blind.

How long? It was the question haunting Steve's mind, and the minds of
those others with him. But the shrieking elements refused to enlighten
him. It was their joy to mock, and taunt, and, if possible, to slay.

Steve rose from his seat over the fire. He turned and moved towards the
mouth of the shelter. Beyond the light of the fire he had to grope his
way. At the opening the snow was piled high, driven in by the storm.
There was left only the narrowest aperture leading to the black
darkness beyond.

He paused at the opening. He was half buried in the drift, and the lash
of the storm whipped his face mercilessly. For some moments he endured
the assault, then his voice came back to the figures of his companions
squatting moveless over the fire.

"Ho, you, Julyman!" he called sharply.

Moments later the Indian stood beside the white man, peering out into
the desolation beyond.

"She's not going to last a deal longer."

Steve was wiping his face with a _bare_ hand.

Julyman missed the movement in the darkness.

"She mak' him break bimeby - soon. Oh, yes."

There was something almost heroic in the attempt Julyman made to throw
confidence into his tone. But Steve needed no such support. He was
preoccupied with his own discoveries. His bare hand was still wiping
away the curiously moist snow that beat upon his face.

"Yes," he said conclusively. "She'll break soon." Then after a moment:
"She's breaking _now_."

An interruption came from the distant dogs. It was the snarling yap of a
quarrel. Then came the echo of Oolak's harsh voice and the thud of his
club as he silenced them in the only manner they understood.

Steve's announcement failed to startle his companion. Nothing stirred
Julyman but the fear of "devil-men," and his queer native superstitions.

"Him soften. Oh, yes," he said. "Wind him all go west. Him soft. Yes."

The wind had been carrying "forty below zero" on its relentless bosom.
Its ferocity still remained, but now it was tempered by a warmth wholly
unaccounted for by the change in its direction. A western wind in these
latitudes was little less terrible than when it blew from the north. It
had over three thousand miles of snow and ice to reduce its temperature.

Steve's voice again came in the howl of the wind.

"Guess we'll get back to the fire," he said decisively.

Julyman needed no second bidding; he turned and moved away.

Back at the fire Oolak watched his companions retake their places. He
had no questions to ask. He simply waited. That was his way. He seemed
to live at all times with a mind absorbed.

Steve pointed at the diminished pile of scrub wood.

"Best make up the fire," he said, addressing Julyman.

The Indian eyed him doubtfully. Their store of fuel was perilously low.

"Sure," Steve nodded. And the Indian obeyed without further demur.

Steve re-lit his pipe and sucked at it comfortably. Then he spoke with
an assurance he could not have displayed earlier.

"Say," he exclaimed, without looking up from the fire. "You get the
meaning of it? Maybe you don't get the meaning I do."

He laughed. It was a curious laugh. It had no mirth. But it was an
expression of feelings which required outlet.

"No. Maybe you don't," he went on. "You see, I got a - notion. The wind's
west - now. It should be a hell of a cold wind. It isn't. No. It should
be hellish cold," he reflected. "Why isn't it? The hills lie west. The
big hills. Maybe _the_ big hill. Well? I kind of wonder. Maybe it's
that. It's a guess. A hell of a guess. Does the west wind hereabouts
blow across the big fire hill? And are those fires so almighty hot they
set the snow melting where all the world's freezing at 60° below? Is it
a sort of chinook in the dead of winter?"

He raised his eyes to the faces of his companions. The dusky figures
were half hidden behind the smoke of the fire, which rose between them.
He nodded at the steady gazing black eyes.

"Yes," he said. "Guess that break's come. We'll be out on the trail
right away. And we'll beat up against a breeze that's warming. It'll
lead us to - the Heart of Unaga."

* * * * *

The splendour of the Arctic night was shining over the world. There was
scarcely a breath of wind. The air currents were still from the west,
but the wind had died out. For the moment the amazing warmth which had
stirred the imagination of Steve and his companions had passed.

A silver sheen played upon the limitless fields of snow. It was like a
world of alabaster. The light came from every corner of the heavens. It
came from the glory of a full moon, hard-driven to retain supremacy over
its satellites. It came from the myriads of burnished stars, gleaming
with a clarity, a penetrating sparkle, unknown to their brethren of
lower latitudes. It came from the supreme magnificence of an aurora of
moving light, dancing and curtseying with ghostly grace, as though
stepping the measure of a heavenly minuet. Its radiance filled half the
dome of night. It was a glory of frigid colour to ravish the artist eye.

The men on the trail had lost all sense of degrees of cold. It was
simply cold. Always cold. A thermometer would have frozen solid. They
knew that. Cold? So long as a strong, warm life burned in their bodies,
and their stores of food remained, it was the best they could hope for.

And the dogs. They were bred to the Arctic cold. So is the bear of the
Pole. They needed no better than to follow their labours with a couch
burrowed beneath the snows, and hours for the dream feast which their
ravening appetites yearned and never tasted.

The outfit had broken trail as Steve had promised, and it was moving
through the ghostly world like insects a-crawl over the folds of an
ill-spread carpet.

The course had been deflected in response to the change of wind. Steve
had left the shelter of the river where it had definitely turned
northward. He had left it without regret. He had no regret for anything
which did not further his purpose. Adresol! The quest of the Adresol
pastures was the whole aim and object of his life. Somewhere out there
over the desolate wastes he believed the great secret of it all lay
awaiting his discovery. Nothing else, then, was of any significance.

For the moment Nature seemed bent on favouring him. For over two hundred
miles she had beaten him well-nigh breathless. She had hurled her storms
at him without mercy, and, at the end of her transcendent fury, she had
found him undismayed, undefeated. Perhaps his tenacity excited her
admiration. Perhaps she was nursing her wrath for a more terrible
onslaught. Whatever her mood he was ready to face it.

At the beginning of the third week since leaving the shelter on the
river Steve trod the first of the western hills under foot, and awaited
the coming of the train upon its summit. His dark, fur-clad figure stood
out in relief against the world about him. It looked squat, it was
utterly dwarfed in the twilit vastness. But there was something
tremendous in the meaning of that living presence in the voiceless
solitudes which the ages have failed to stir.

* * * * *

The sleds were still. The dogs lay sprawled for rest awaiting the will
of their masters. Julyman stood abreast of Steve, tall, lean, but bulky
in his frosted furs. Oolak stood over his dogs, which were his first
care.

"You can feel it now," Steve said, thrusting a hand under his fur
helmet. A moment later he withdrew fingers that were moist with sweat.
"If the wind came down at us out of the hills now we'd need to quit our
furs. Do you get that? Quit our furs here in the dead of winter. It's
getting warmer every mile."

"It warm. Much warm. Oh, yes."

Julyman's resources of imagination were being sorely taxed.

Steve nodded.

"Yes," he said. "It isn't wind now. There's no wind. It's the air. It's
warm. It's getting warmer. Later it'll get hot as hell."

He drew a profound breath. He felt that victory was very near. It only
needed - -

"We got to beat on all we know," he said, examining the brilliant
heavens. "We need to grab every moment of this weather. We don't know.
We can't guess the things waiting on us. Yes. We'll 'mush' on."

His tones were deep. The restraint of years which the Northland had bred
into him was giving way before the surge of a hope that was almost
certainty. And his order was obeyed by men who knew no law but his will.

But for all the urgency of his mandate, for all his efforts, progress
slackened from the moment the first hill was passed. From the seemingly
limitless plains of snow, rolling maddeningly in a succession of low
hills and shallow hollows, now it seemed that Nature spurned the milk
and water fashioning of her handiwork, and had hurled the rest of the
world into a wreckage of broken, barren hills.

Into the midst of this chaos Steve plunged.

For awhile the confusion robbed him of all certainty. It not
infrequently left decision floundering. The mountains leapt at him with
a rush from every side, confusing direction and reducing even instinct
to something like impotence. With familiarity, however, his trained mind
adapted itself. Then the rush went on with the old irresistible
confidence.

But human endurance was sorely tested. The tasks often became well-nigh
insuperable. There were moments when dogs and Indians lay beaten in the
midst of their labours, without will, without energy to stir another
yard. It was at such times that despair knocked at the strong heart of
the man who had never learned to yield, and who had never quite known
defeat.

But even in the worst moments the steadily warming air never failed to
lure. It breathed its soft message of promise into Steve's ready ears,
supporting a heart powerless to resist the appeal.

The change to warmth, however, had another and less pleasing aspect. The
snow lost its icy case-hardening. A rot set in. On the hill-tops the ice
was not always reliable. In the valleys men sank up to their knees in



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 23 of 30)