Copyright
Ridgwell Cullum.

The Heart of Unaga online

. (page 25 of 30)
Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 25 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


moving figure. Their cold smile was steely, perhaps with the irony the
sight inspired. Their world was so coldly indifferent to human survival.

The snowless breasts of the valley rose up miles away to the north and
south. And between their swelling contours lay a country of lesser hills
and valleys, equally snowless, and whose heart was the flood of a great
river.

Sterility had passed. Here were no barren hill-crests with a hundred
weatherworn facets. Here were no fields of snow, driven by the fierce
gales of the polar seas. Here were no glacial fields bound in an iron
grip throughout the ages. The fires in the heart of Unaga were burning.
Their warming was in the breath of the breeze. It was in the very earth,
yielding its fruit with the freedom of the temperate world.

A wood-clad country of almost luxurious vegetation, there was in it a
suggestion of the sub-tropical. But under the twilight of Arctic winter
it had lost the happy hues of a sunlit season. True, the conifers
retained their dull, dark foliage, but, for the rest, the bare branches
were alive with a new-born cloak that possessed the whiteness of
fresh-fallen snow. Even the lank grass under foot was similarly
awakening.

The wonder of it all must have been amazing had Steve not been prepared
for some such phenomenon. Was not this crazy valley the reality of that
vision he had set before Marcel? It was the melting spring of temperate
latitudes transposed to the confines of the Arctic Circle. It was a land
of still, wonderful, voiceless life, whose air was sweet, and heavy
laden with a subtle perfume.

He wondered, as he paced on under the burden of the pack his broad
shoulders were supporting. His mind was a riot with questioning. What of
the rest? Would the whole dream become reality? Why not? What of the
day when the sun rose again from its long winter sleep?

For answer he gazed out ahead where a pillar of fire looked to be
supporting the clouded heavens. The logic of it all was plain. There was
no real question in his mind. With the returning light of the sun, and
the steadily rising temperature, the ghostly foliage would promptly
assume Nature's happy green and the world would ripen with the rapidity
of a forcing house. Then - -

Steve's eyes were suddenly raised to the dark vault of the skies. The
lights of the night had been largely obscured. Only the heart of Unaga
still remained shining with unabated splendour. It was _raining_!

Rain had ceased. The dripping figure of Steve was at rest on the low,
white-clad summit of a hill. He had no care for his condition as he
steamed under the dank heat of the valley. His eyes were steadily
regarding the wonder world of the west.

For a long time he stood almost without movement. He was seeking,
seeking in every direction. But the rosy twilight baffled him. Unaga
buried her secrets deeply, and only was there the perfume in the air
which she could not conceal. This was the key with which Steve meant to
open the door of her treasure house.

He raised his face and drew a deep breath through sensitive nostrils.
Then he exhaled slowly, deliberately, and his lips moved. Now there was
taste in the air as well as perfume. The change had come with the
rainfall.

He stooped and deposited his pack on the moist ground. Then he
unfastened it. A few moments later he was standing erect again, and his
face was half hidden under a curiously constructed mask. Again he turned
to the west. Again he inhaled deeply. And as he did so satisfaction lit
his steady eyes. The scent of the air, its sickly sweetness, had
entirely passed as he breathed under the mask.

He returned to his pack and fastened it up. Then he reslung it upon his
shoulders. When he passed from the summit of the hill the mask that was
to serve him when the danger line was reached had been removed.

* * * * *

Steve laboured on sweatily. He had halved the weight of his pack. He had
even removed his buckskin shirt. The heat was amazing. It nearly stifled
him.

With each mile gained the spectacle of Unaga's fires grew in intensity
and sublime fury. The whole of the western world looked to be engulfed
in a caldron of fire; while the belching source of it all flamed at the
summit of its earthly column, amidst a churning, rose-tinted froth of
cloud banks.

Changes came in swift succession. Perhaps the most significant of all
was the complete change in the aspect of the heavens, and in the
sulphurous grit with which the air was laden. The stars had vanished.
The flood of northern light had lost its clearness; now only a ghostly
shadow of its glory remained. There was only one moon. Its manifold
reflections were lost in the mist, and the shining silver of its own
light was painfully tarnished.

For all this, however, the light in the valley was no less. Its
character had changed. That was all. The rosy twilight was growing to an
angry gleaming.

Steve knew his journey's end was near. How near he could not tell. He
reminded himself that there must be a barrier, a dividing line, beyond
which no life could endure. But he also knew that the field of Adresol
must lie on the hither side of it. If that were not so, what of the
Indians to whom it yielded supplies for the pleasant calm of their
winter's sleep?

Steve knew he was by no means witnessing a simple volcanic eruption. It
was something far greater. The suggestion of it all was so colossal that
he could find no concrete form in which to express his belief. In his
mind there had formed an idea that here was a whole wide territory
forming one great vent to the subterranean fires demanding outlet. It
seemed to him that those fires had been lit just where they now burned.
Maybe they had been lit on the day that dry land was first born upon the
earth, and throughout the ages had never been permitted to die out.

Fascination held him enthralled as he laboured over the weary miles of
the valley. Every swamp became a potential objective for examination.
Every broken hill might conceal some secret valley where subterranean
heat produced a growth foreign to the more open regions. He could afford
to miss no canyon however small, lest the secret he sought lay hidden
there. And all the time with the hot breath of the westerly breeze in
his nostrils, the lure of the sickly perfume beckoned him on.

* * * * *

It was sheer mental and bodily weariness that brought Steve to a
prolonged halt. The heat was overpowering him at last. This strange land
with its ruddy twilight had become a labour beyond endurance. It was as
if the waters of the river were being evaporated into a steam which left
the air unbreathable.

Halfway to the summit of a great wood-clad hill, that jettied across
from the southern slopes of the valley to the northern limits beyond, he
had flung himself to rest in a wide clearing surrounded by the cold
delicacy of white-hued foliage. In his moment of helplessness there
seemed to be no end to his journey. He felt that the great summit he
was reaching towards meant only a descent beyond, and then again
another, and still another steep ascent.

Only for a few moments had he sprawled, seeking rest. He was thinking
and gazing back over his long solitary trail, peering into the reverse
of that upon which he had looked so long. It was intensely restful thus
to turn his gaze from the belching fires. Once his heavy eyelids closed.
But he bestirred himself. Later he would sleep, but not now. His day's
work was - Again his eyes closed heavily, and his hand fell from the
support of his head.

It was that which wakened him. And in a moment a thrill of panic flashed
through his nerves. With all his will flung into the effort, he forced
himself to complete wakefulness. He sat up. He groped in his loosened
pack. He pulled out of it the mask he had tested once before, and, with
desperate haste, adjusted it over mouth and nostrils.

It had been near, so near. He knew now how nearly disaster had clutched
at him. Furthermore he knew that even now the danger was by no means
passed. The heavy fumes of Adresol were creeping through the woods about
him. They were stealing their ghostly, paralyzing way low down upon the
ground, drifting heavily along until the open below brought them to the
stronger air currents which would disperse them on their eastward
journey, robbing them of their deadly toxin, and reducing them to a
simple sickly perfume.

He had leapt to his feet. He stood swaying like a drunken man, while a
strange bemusing attacked his brain and left a singing in his ears.
Staggering under the influence of the deadly drug, he fled from the
clearing up towards the hill-top.

* * * * *

It was victory! Complete, overwhelming.

Steve was gazing out upon a wide, seemingly limitless table-land. In
every direction it spread itself out, far as the eye could see. To the
west it looked to launch itself into the very heart of the land of fire
which was shedding its ruddy light from miles and miles away. To the
north it went on till it lost itself against the slopes of the lofty,
containing hills of the valley. Southward, its spread was swallowed up
under a rolling fog of smoke, which settled upon the world like a pall.
It was a great, white, limitless field of dead white lily bloom,
unbroken, unsullied, like the perfect damask of napery, purer in tone
than virgin snow.

The great cup-like blooms stood up nearly to the height of his
shoulders. They were superb in their gracious form, and suggested
nothing so much as a mask of innocence and purity concealing a heart of
unimaginable evil.

Steve gazed at those nearest him with mixed feelings of repulsion and
delight. Nor could he wholly rid himself of the fear his knowledge
inspired. His mask was closely adjusted over mouth and nostrils, and he
knew that it was only that product of the dead chemist's genius that
stood between him and a dreamless sleep from which there would be no
awakening.

And as he gazed he became aware of a strange phenomenon. Each lily was
slightly inclining its gaping mouth towards the distant heart of Unaga,
which inspired its life. To him it suggested an attitude of the
devoutest worship. It seemed to his mind that these strange plants,
containing all that was most beneficent, and all that was most deadly in
their composition, were yielding a silent expression of thankful worship
to the tremendous power which saved them from the frigid death to which
the dead of Arctic winter would otherwise have condemned them.

His feelings yielded to the profound wonder of it all. For all his fear
his soul was stirred to its depths. And his thankfulness was no less
than his wonder.

Yes, it was victory at last, after years of ceaseless effort. It was a
victory surpassing even his wildest hopes. Here was the wonderful field
of growing Adresol in all the glory of full bloom. Here was an
inexhaustible supply of the drug the world of healing science was crying
out for. It was here, in its deadliest form, awaiting the reapers. A
harvest such as would accomplish everything he had ever hoped to
achieve.

And as the moments passed, and his confidence in the protecting mask
grew, so a wonderful spirit buoyed him. It was a condition he had parted
from many years ago. A happy, joyous smile lit his eyes. It grew, and
broke into a laugh. He reached out and daringly plucked a great stem
supporting a perfect bloom. He stood gazing into the deep, cup-like
heart for prolonged moments. He was thinking of Ian Ross and the days so
far back in his mind. Fifteen years? Yes. More. And now - -

He contemplated with joy the labours ahead. The return to Oolak and
Julyman. The work of the harvest. The portaging of it. The packing of
the sleds. Then the long, last homeward trail with a success achieved
beyond his dreams. It was something indeed to have lived for and
laboured for. Marcel!




CHAPTER XVI

KEEKO AND NICOL


It was all so drab, so cheerless. Outside the snow was still piled to
the depth of many feet, the ice still held the river in its chill
embrace. But the temperature was rising. The open season was advancing.

Keeko was aware of it. There were weeks of melting to pass yet. But
soon - -

Inside, the vault-like store was warm enough. But it was dark, and
squalid, and it reeked with the taint which only the centuries can
impart. These things impressed themselves never so much upon Keeko as
now, while she sat over the warming stove.

She had just returned from Seal Bay. She had passed most of the winter
on the trail with her Indians. She preferred their company in desperate
circumstances to the associations of Fort Duggan. During those long
months she had planned the future for herself, a future which had
nothing to do with Nicol, but which took him into her calculations. She
possessed a wonderful faculty for clear thinking. And her decision had
been irrevocably taken.

Nicol was leaning on the heavy oaken bench that served him for a
counter, and about him, and behind him, were the piled stocks of his
trade. He was preoccupied. Keeko was glad enough. She had returned only
in the execution of her plans, and to prepare for the moment when she
intended to steal her freedom, and shut this man's companionship for
ever out of her life.

Just now her thoughts were far away as she basked in the warmth of the
stove. They were upon the coming spring, the opening river, upon the old
moose head set up to watch for her coming, and - upon Marcel.

Once she turned her head, and into her pretty eyes there crept a look
which was almost of disquiet. The man's dark head and bearded face were
bent over the sheet of paper upon which he was scratching with a stub of
pencil. There was a small heap of paper money beside him. There was also
a largish glass of raw rye whisky, from which he frequently drank. It
was the sight of this latter that caused the girl's look of disquiet. It
was the second drink in less than half an hour. She turned away with an
added feeling of repugnance, and she reckoned again the number of weeks
that must pass before her freedom came.

It was at the moment of her turning back to the stove that the
scratching of the pencil ceased. The man looked up, and his bold smiling
eyes were turned upon the girl. He drained his glass noisily while his
eyes remained upon the pretty buckskin-clad figure that so lewdly
attracted him. There was nothing pleasant in the smile. And the glazing
of his eyes was that of excessive alcoholism, and primitive, animal
passion. He was unobserved, and he knew there was no need to disguise
his feelings.

After a while he crushed the pile of paper money into a hip pocket, and
helped himself liberally to more of the spirit.

"It's pretty darn good," he said abruptly, with an appreciative smack of
the lips under his curtain of whiskers.

"You mean - ?" Keeko did not look round.

"Why, the price." Nicol laughed harshly.

Keeko heard him drink. She heard him gasp with the scorch of the liquor
passing down his throat. She waited.

The man moved round and came across to the stove. His gait was unsteady
and Keeko was aware of it. She hated, and well-nigh feared the proximity
of a man who drugged himself with alcohol on every pretext and at every
opportunity.

"Say, you've done well, kid," Nicol exclaimed, with coarse familiarity,
and with the intention of conciliation. "Sixteen hundred dollars for
those pelts? Gee! You surely must have set Lorson hating you bad."

Keeko was torn by emotions she was powerless to check as she desired.
She knew this man for all he was. She knew that he was little better
than a savage animal, and, at moments, when alcohol had completed its
work, was something even more to be feared.

Of the sober savage in him she had no fear. She had the means to deal
with that always to her hand. But influenced by drink it was a different
matter. That was his condition now. It was a condition to disturb any
young, lonely woman.

She knew she had a difficult part to play. But her mind was made up. She
would play it so long as it would serve. After that - -

She shook her head.

"No," she said coldly, without looking up. "Guess he didn't know his
dollars were going to Fort Duggan. If he had, maybe it would have been
different. He doesn't figger to pay big money to the folks he - owns. I'm
just a free trader to him. He doesn't even know my name. Maybe he hates
free traders. But he's ready to pay if the pelts are fine quality. He
didn't worry a thing."

The man's amiability beamed.

"You're a smart kid," he said, with his bold eyes on the pretty figure
which the girl's mannish buckskin had no power to conceal.

Again she shook her head.

"The North teaches a mighty tough lesson. If you don't learn it good
you're beat right away." Keeko suddenly looked up, and her eyes were
gazing directly into the man's. "I've learned a heap. I'm not yearning
to learn more. Still - Say, there's times I feel I'd like to get back to
the sheltered days when the school-ma'm sat around over a girl till she
hated herself. If I'm smart I'm no smarter than I need to be."

"No."

Nicol's eyes were almost devouring as Keeko turned back to the stove.

"We've all got to be smart if we're going to lay hold of the things held
out to us," he said. He laughed cynically. "That's how I always figger.
Guess I haven't a notion to miss a thing now. The days of foolishness
are over."

Keeko was well enough aware of the thoughts which lay at the back of her
own words. Now she strove to penetrate his.

"Yes," she said with a quiet confidence which she by no means felt.

Ease, confidence could never be hers in this man's presence, for all she
had been brought up to look on him as a step-father. The thoughts of the
weeks lying ahead were in her mind. They were always there now. Time.
She was playing for time. So she adopted the tone and attitude best
suited to help her.

After a moment's silence the man suddenly flung out his hands. It was a
movement expressive of his volcanic temper. That which had for its
inspiration cynical disregard for anything and everything which
interfered with the fulfilment of his own selfish desire.

"Hell!" he cried. "What's the use talking? We got to fix things right
here and now. It's for you, as it's for me. We've got to play the game
together. There's no other way. Say, I got to make a trip when the ice
breaks. It's a hell of a trip. It's going to hand us one of the things
held out to us." He laughed harshly. "I've got to grab it for both of
us. I need you to stop around while I'm away. You can run this layout
just as you fancy to. It don't matter a curse to me, so you stop
around."

"What's the trip?" There was a sharpness in the girl's question which
had not been in her tone before. "What's the thing held out that's
for - both of us?"

"Money. Big money."

"Big money?"

In a moment the girl's every faculty became alert.

Nicol realized the change. His temper resented it. But his cunning
robbed him of the retort that leapt to his lips. And all the while the
girl's cold, pretty eyes provoked those passions in him which the dead
mother had dreaded. Keeko could have no understanding of the unbridled
licence rampant in his besotted body.

He nodded.

"It's so big I just can't get all it means - yet. You and me - we're going
to be partners in it."

"Partners?"

"Sure."

"What's needed from me?"

Keeko's suspicions were stirring When Nicol talked of "big money" and
snatching that held out to him, it was not easy to believe in the
honesty of it all.

"Just stop around till I get back."

The girl withdrew her gaze and sat with hands spread out to the warmth
of the stove.

"You best tell me," she said quietly but firmly.

She looked for an explosion and she was not disappointed. The hot blood
rushed to the man's bloated cheeks. His eyes lit furiously. He had
looked for prompt acquiescence. It had been his habit to browbeat the
woman who had followed him throughout a long career of crime, and it
drove him half crazy to find opposition in her daughter. There could be
no doubt of Keeko's determination. She was tacitly demanding her place
in the proposed partnership.

"I'm telling nothing - not a darn thing. It's up to me, and no concern of
anyone else. Get that. We're either partners or crosswise. And I guess
it's not healthy getting crosswise with me. You'll share in the result.
Ain't that good enough? All I need from you is to sit around till I get
back."

Keeko choked back the angry retort she longed to hurl at him. Those
nightmare weeks that lay ahead were uppermost in her mind. They must be
bridged at any cost. So she smiled in a fashion that stirred the man's
pulses and melted his swift wrath instantly.

"Say, you're asking me to partner in this thing whatever it is," Keeko
said in a disarming fashion. "You're asking me to act the grown woman,
and treating me like a foolish kid. You guessed just now I was smart.
Well? Let's be reasonable folk. Here, listen. You're talking of big
money. I guess I know all about big money in this country. The only
feller north of 60° who can handle and pay big money is Lorson Harris.
And he only reckons to pay big money for something he's looking for bad.
The thing he needs bad generally has a deal of dirt in it. Well, how
much dirt is there to this trip while I sit around? Guess I'm either a
woman or a kid. If I'm a kid I can't run the layout with you away. If
I'm a woman I'll be treated that way. There's nothing in the North to
scare me, not even your bluff, any more than Lorson Harris. But tell it
all. We'll stand even then. Anyway it's not good betting blind, and I
don't feel like acting that way."

The girl's smile robbed her determination of its offence. And Nicol fell
for it. The bully in him was struggling with those purposes, that
passion which was his greatest weakness. The struggle was brief enough
as such a struggle is bound to be. In a moment he capitulated.

"Say," he cried, "you'd break up the patience of Satan. Here, the
thing's worth a hundred thousand dollars."

"A hundred thousand dollars?"

The startled tone, the amazement in Keeko's eyes, were genuine enough,
and the man grinned his enjoyment.

"Sure," Nicol laughed in the delight of his success. "Do you know what
it means? How'd you fancy living like a swell woman on the world's best,
and with folks around you to act the way you say? How'd you feel with
pockets stuffed with dollars, and wearing swell gowns instead of the
darn buckskin that hides up half the woman in you? How'd you like living
where you've as much chance of snow as eating ice cream in hell, and
supping your tea without needing to blow aside the dead flies floating
on top to make a place for your dandy lips? It means that - all that - and
more, and it's for you and me."

The girl had recovered from her surprise. Her worst suspicions were
confirmed. Her wits were alert, sharpened by the hideous necessity of
placating this amazing creature she dared not openly flout.

She smiled again. She threw into her smile all the blandness her sex
alone can command.

"I guess you're right. It's Lorson all right. It's too good to let slip.
Well?"

"Too good? Well, I'd smile. Too good? Gee!" Nicol was wholly deceived as
Keeko intended him to be. He turned abruptly away to the counter where
the bottle of rye whisky stood and helped himself to a full measure of
it. He drank it down at a gulp. He had won the day. He had swept aside
the antagonism he had felt threatened his ultimate purposes. He was on
the high road to achieving all he had promised the dead mother in her
tortured moments. He felt that Keeko was dazzled. He was buying her as
he believed he could buy any woman. The rest would be easy. It only
needed a little patience, a little care. So he drank without fear of the
potent spirit he loved.

He staggered back to the stove and stood swaying beside the girl. And he
rested one powerful hand on her buckskin-clad shoulder while his lewd
fingers moved, gently caressing the soft flesh underneath. A wild,
panicky desire set Keeko half mad to fling his filthy hand from its
contact. But she resisted the impulse. She knew she dared not risk it in
his present mood and condition. Filled with unutterable loathing she
submitted to it.

"Well?" she demanded, while she forced the smile to her eyes again.

The man leered down at her out of his inflamed eyes. He shook his head
with maudlin indulgence.

"You don't need to know any more," he said thickly. "What's the use?



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 25 of 30)