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Ridgwell Cullum.

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You're a gal with clean notions. Guess my hands are used to the dirty
sort of work Lorson needs."

"Then it is Lorson?"

"Lorson? Sure it's Lorson. Is there any other dirty swine in the North
ready to buy the lives of men?"

"Life?"

"Oh, hell! Yes," the man cried, with a gesture of tolerant impatience.
"Of course it's life. Lorson! A hundred thousand dollars! It couldn't be
for a thing less than life. It don't rattle me any."

Suddenly he flung caution to the winds. His passions were aflame, and
his bemused brain was incapable of reckoning cost.

"It's some folks up north," he went on. "They've a secret trade. Lorson
needs that trade. He's had 'em trailed, but they're wise, and they've
fooled him all the time. He's crazy about it, and - - "

Keeko had risen abruptly from her seat. The movement had rid her of
those hideously searching fingers. She could stand them no longer. She
stood up with one foot resting on the bench she had vacated, tilting it,
and holding it balanced. Her smile had gone, but she was searching the
bleared eyes of the man.

"He wants them - murdered!" she said.

But her tone, her look conveyed nothing to the man who had been her
step-father. He went on ignoring the interruption completely.

"He means to get them. He set it up to me to locate 'em last summer
while you were on the river. It was a tough trip, but I beat all I
needed out of the hides of an outfit of the Shaunekuk, and I got the
location of their post all right. Gee!" He laughed drunkenly. "Oh, yes,
I got all the word I need, an' I guess there ain't a soul but me knows
it. Well, I'm going along up north this opening, and I'm going to finish
the job, and when it's done, and Lorson's handed the cash-pappy over,
and it's set deep in my dip, why, then I'll pass him all he needs. He
can get all I know - then. It's a cinch that hundred thou - - "

"Who are the folks Lorson means to murder? Do I know them? Have I - - ?"

The man shook his head. The change in the girl's tone was lost upon him.

"Guess not. I'd say no one knows 'em except Tough Alroy and Lorson.
They're an outfit carrying on a trade under the name of Brand - Marcel
Brand - - "

The bench under the girl's moccasined foot crashed to the ground.
Instantly she was stooping over it.

When Keeko finally looked up the bench was under her foot again,
balanced as before, and she was smiling. She was pale under the weather
tanning of her face. That was all. Her mouth was set, and sharp lines
were drawn about it. But she smiled. Oh, how she smiled.

Her lips parted. Her parching tongue moved in a vain effort to moisten
them. She cleared her throat which was dry - dry as a lime kiln. When she
spoke it was with effort, and her voice had lost its usual quality.

"Marcel - Marcel Brand," she said. "It - it sounds foreign. Maybe it's
French-Canadian."

The man shrugged. The nationality of the name did not concern him. He
was not even thinking of the murder for which he was to receive a price.
It was of the girl he was thinking with all the animal there was in him.
The alcohol he had consumed was driving him to let go all control.

"Don't know. Can't say," he said indifferently. "It don't matter two
cents to me. It's the dollars when I've done and what they'll buy me.
Say, kid - " he drew a long breath like a man preparing for a
plunge - "what's the matter with us two making out together? I'll be able
to buy you - - "

"You're my step-father!" Keeko's eyes lit curiously.

"Step-father?" The man laughed as if he had just listened to something
profoundly humorous. "Step-father?" He shook his head. He moved a step
nearer, his swaying body ill-balanced as he approached. "I'm no
step-father to you, kid. There ain't a sign of relationship. You're your
mother's kid by her man, the man she married, and she and I never saw
the inside of a church together. She couldn't have married me if I'd
felt that way. Her man's alive I guess. Leastways, we ain't heard of his
death. I'm no step-father of yours. That's the stuff she handed you so
you wouldn't think bad of her. I couldn't marry her and didn't want to,
but I can marry you. See? And this hundred thousand dollars makes it so
I can hand you - - "

He lurched forward, his arms out-held. And as he came Keeko sprang back.

"Quit it!" she threatened. "Quit! A step nearer and - - "

But the man's passions were aflame. He laughed roughly.

"Quit nothing," he cried. "You can't fool me. I'm out to make good for
you, and you're standing in. You're going to - - "

"You fool man!"

Keeko's tone was cold and her words full of contempt. The white ring of
her gun barrel covered him squarely. It was directed at the pit of his
stomach, while her eyes, alight with cold purpose, stared unflinchingly
into his drunk and passion-distorted face.

The man's movement ceased. The animal shining in his eyes changed to a
sudden, livid fury. The standing veins at his temples visibly pulsed,
and Keeko knew he was only gathering afresh the forces which her action
had momentarily paralyzed. With lightning impulse she seized the chance
afforded her.

"You cur! You filthy brute!" she cried fiercely. "Do you think you can
play me as you play the miserable women of the Shaunekuks? Get sense as
quick as you know how. Get sense. Do you hear? Get out and do the work
you reckon to do, but don't dare to make an inch towards me, or you'll
never live to do the murder you're reckoning on."

It was the promptness, the strength and nerve of it all that achieved
the girl's purpose. There was no pretence now. Her eyes were alight with
a sober, frigid hate and determination.

The man understood. His fury was that of a man whose lusts are thwarted,
but his helplessness before the threatening gun was sufficiently
obvious.

He sobered abruptly, as once before Keeko had sobered him.

"You can put up your gun," he cried savagely.

He waited. As the girl ignored his invitation he turned abruptly to the
counter.

But he was not permitted to reach it. Keeko's voice rang stridently
amongst the rafters of the place.

"Stop!"

Nicol stopped and turned.

"You can stop right there," the girl said coldly. "I'm going right out.
I'm quitting. You best understand that. I'm quitting, and I'm taking my
outfit with me. I don't pass another night under this roof. You best
remember I've all I need to fight you. If you get out after me you'll
get shot like the dog you are. So you best think - hard."

Keeko moved towards the door. Not for one moment did she turn her back,
or lower her gun. And the man's furious eyes followed her till the slam
of the door shut her out from his view.

For awhile Nicol remained staring at the dark timbers of the closed
door. For awhile it seemed as if his bemused brain failed to grasp the
meaning of that which had happened. Then he turned swiftly. He reached
the counter and drained the bottle of the last dregs of the spirit it
contained. Then, reaching under the counter, he possessed himself of the
gun that was always lying there, and made for the door and flung it
open.

He stood in the doorway seeking a sight of the girl he had marked down
for his own. But there was none. She was nowhere to be seen. Only he
looked out upon, the snow, and the woods, and the ice-bound river. So,
after awhile, he seemed to change his mind. He closed the door and
returned to the stove and seated himself on the bench beside it.

* * * * *

Keeko was with her Indians at work. Snake Foot, and Med'cine Charlie,
and Little One Man were working as they always worked for the white
woman they loved.

The outfit with which they had returned from Seal Bay was changed. The
dogs were fresh, and the long sled was laden with a canoe that was
securely lashed to it. The blankets and stores were loaded in the frail
body of the light vessel.

Keeko's plan was clear in her mind, and urgency was speeding her efforts
and the efforts of her helpers. She had only one thought now. It
was - Marcel. She knew. Oh, yes. There could be no doubt. For her there
was only one Marcel. There could be no other. It was Nicol's purpose to
murder him and his people. It was for her to defeat that purpose.

Daylight was at its last extremity when the work was completed. And,
while Keeko enveloped herself in her heavy Arctic furs, and secured the
lashings of her snow-shoes, Little One Man put the only question he had
asked as to the journey about to begin.

"We mak' him - yes?" he said, his parchment-like eyelids blinking his
enquiry.

"North." Keeko's answer came promptly. "Guess we follow the river till
the ice breaks up. Then we camp, and I make the rest by the water."

"Oh, yes. Him moose head. Yes? And him big hunter - Marcel?"

Keeko smiled into the dusky face of her faithful ally.

"That's so - if God wills it."




CHAPTER XVII

THE DEVOTION OF A GREAT WOMAN


The daylight was lengthening. Very slowly the lolling sun was returning
to life and power. A sense of revivifying was in the air. As yet the
grip of winter still held. The snow was still spread to the depth of
many feet upon the broad expanse of the valley of the Sleepers. But its
perfect hue was smirched with the lateness of the season. It had assumed
that pearly grey which denotes the coming of the great thaw.

Marcel was standing on the drifted bank of the little river, winding its
way towards the Northern hills. He was there for the purpose of
ascertaining the conditions prevailing. But his purpose had been
forgotten.

Erect, motionless, superb in his physical greatness, he was gazing out
at the wall of western hills, heedless of that which he looked upon. He
was absorbed in thought that was reaching out far, far beyond the hills
which barred his vision. It was somewhere out there where the eyeless
sockets of an old moose looked down upon the great river coming up out
of the south, cutting its way between the granite walls of the earth's
foundations.

Keeko! He was thinking, dreaming of the girl who had come to him in the
heart of the far-off woods, with all her woman's appeal to his youthful
manhood. He was thinking of her wonderful blue eyes, her radiant smile,
her amazing courage. They were the same thoughts which had lightened
even the darkest moments of the howling storms of winter and transformed
the deadly monotony of it all into something more than an endurance to
which the life of the Northern world condemned him.

But there was more than all this stirring him now. He was moved to
impatience, the impatience of headstrong youth. It was not new. He had
had to battle against it from the moment of his return to the fort. More
than all else in the world he desired to fling every caution, every
responsibility to the winds, and set out for the meeting-place over
which the old moose stood guard.

He knew it could not be. He knew it would be an act of the basest
ingratitude and selfishness. Uncle Steve had not yet returned. He could
not return for weeks yet. If he, Marcel, yielded to his desires An-ina
must be left alone. His impatience was useless. He knew that. The
Sleepers would awaken soon, and demand their trade. He could not fling
the burden of it all on the willing shoulders of An-ina. He must wait.
He could do no less.

He turned away. It was an act of renunciation. The signs on the river
had told him nothing, because he had asked no question. He knew it all
without asking. He had known before he had sought his excuse. So he
floundered through the snow back to the fort.

The silence was profound. The world at the moment was a desert, a frigid
desert. There was no life anywhere. There were not even the voices of
warring dogs to greet him, and yield him excuse to vent the impatience
of his mood.

He passed the gateway of the stockade where he had so often stood
searching the distance in the long years. And so he approached the
doorway of his home. A weight of depression clouded his handsome eyes.
He was weighted with a trouble which seemed to him the greatest in the
world.

The door of the store opened before he reached it. Keen, watching,
understanding eyes had been observing his approach. They were eyes that
read him with an ease such as was denied them on the contemplation of
the pages of an open book. An-ina had made up her mind, and she stood
framed in the doorway to carry out her purpose.

The man's eyes lighted at sight of her. His trouble was lifted as though
by some strong hand. This mother woman never failed in her comfort even
in the simple fact of her presence. With his thought still filled with
the white beauty of Keeko, the soft copper of An-ina's skin, the smiling
gentleness of her dark eyes were things at all times to soften the
roughness of Marcel's mood.

"Marcel come back? The ice all hold? Oh, yes. Bimeby the trail open and
Marcel mak' him. An-ina know. But - not yet."

Marcel made no attempt to conceal his feelings from this woman. He had
told her all. He had spread out before her all his hopes and fears, all
the impatience of his youthful heart. She had endured the burden of it
throughout the long winter not unwillingly, and her sympathy had been
yielded abundantly.

Marcel laughed. It was not out of any feeling of joy. It was the
self-consciousness of youth before the eyes of maturity.

He shook his head.

"Not yet," he said. "Uncle Steve isn't back anyway."

"No." An-ina sighed. For a moment her smile died out, and her wistful
gaze was unconsciously turned towards the North. It only encountered the
crude interior of the storage sheds where the canoes and trail gear
were usually kept. One of the sheds was standing empty.

Presently her eyes came back to the man's face, and they were smiling
confidently again.

"He come - bimeby. Yes."

Even in the midst of his own troubles Marcel could never be forgetful of
this devoted creature.

"He certainly will," he said, in no doubtful fashion. "He'll be along
before the Sleepers wake. Say, An-ina, I'm not wise to many things. But
there's one I know, like - like nothing else. The North can't beat Uncle
Steve."

The dark eyes lit with a feeling which even Marcel realized.

"Marcel good. But An-ina, too, know he come - sure."

The woman paused with her gaze again turned upon the sheds, and after a
moment she looked deeply, earnestly into the eyes of the man who held
her mother love.

"That why An-ina say to Marcel now," she went on. "She think much. Oh,
yes. An-ina think much - this white girl who mak' Marcel all much happy.
She far away. Long, long by the trail. Maybe she come where Marcel say
when the river all break up. It all long piece 'way. Marcel wait while
river him break, then long-piece 'way river break too. So. This Keeko
girl she come by river. No? She mak' trail. She think Marcel not come.
He no more care find Keeko. So. Marcel go all heap sick. No Keeko - no
nothing."

The woman's halting words lost nothing of their purpose in their
limitations. Marcel's brows drew sharply together in alarm at the
prospect she painted for him. Then, after a moment, he passed a hand
across his forehead as though to brush his fears aside.

"But Uncle Steve's not back yet," he said, as though the fact clinched
all argument finally.

An-ina, however, had no intention of accepting any such finality. She
shook her head.

"That all so. Oh, yes," she said. "Uncle Steve not come back long
whiles. But he come back. When him come An-ina say: 'Good. Much good.'
Then An-ina say: 'Marcel lose all up white girl, Keeko. Bad. Much bad.
No good - nothing.'" She shook her head. "Marcel go now. Take plenty dog.
Sled. Canoe. Oh, yes. Take all thing. Reindeer. Everything plenty. So.
When river all break Marcel find white girl, Keeko. He bring Keeko to
An-ina. An-ina much happy. Uncle Steve happy - too."

The woman drove straight to the purpose at which she aimed. All the
problems concerning the lives of the men she loved held for her a
perfectly simple solution. Steve would come back to her in his own good
time. There was nothing to be considered on that score. Marcel loved the
white girl, Keeko. He must meet her again when the winter broke, or he
would know no happiness. Then he must go - go now - so that he should be
there to greet her when her canoes came up out of the south.

Self never entered into An-ina's calculations. So long as the path of
life was made as smooth and pleasant for her men folk as the Northland
would permit there was nothing else with which she need concern herself.
She would be alone, unprotected. When the Sleepers roused from their
torpor their trade must be seen to. Well, that was all right. She could
see to it all. She saw nothing in these things which must be allowed to
interfere with the happiness of any one belonging to her. Then, too,
there was the white girl Keeko. Her simple woman's mind was stirred to
wonder and curiosity as to the woman who had taken possession of the
heart of the man who was to her as a son.

The unselfishness of it all appealed to the simple heart of the youth.
But the passion that had taken possession of him overrode his finer
scruples. The selflessness of the woman was the mother in An-ina. The
emotions of the man were the emotions belonging to those primal laws of
nature wherein self stands out supreme over every other instinct. An-ina
was urging him to go - to go now - to leave her unprotected. It was the
very thing for which he had blamed Uncle Steve. And he knew from the
moment her words had been spoken that he intended to take her at her
word. He shook his head, but his eyes were shining.

"I just can't do it, An-ina," he said a little desperately. "I can't
leave you here alone. Suppose - - "

An-ina interrupted him with her low, almost voiceless laugh.

"An-ina know," she said with a curious gentle derision which was
calculated out of her years of study of the youth. "An-ina no good. She
not nothing, anyway. Indian man come beat her head. She fall dead quick.
Oh, yes. She not know gun from the 'gee-pole.' She got not two hands.
She not learn shoot caribou, same like Marcel. She big fool-woman.
An-ina know. Marcel think that. Steve not think that way. Oh, no. Boss
Steve plenty wise. So Marcel come wise - later." Again came her low
laugh. "This Keeko. This white girl so like the sun, the moon, all him
star. Marcel love her? Oh, yes? An-ina say 'no.' Marcel not love her.
Marcel love her, he say: 'An-ina no 'count Indian woman. She go plumb to
hell - anyway. She nothing. Only Keeko. Marcel love her all to death. He
go find her. He not care. Only so he find her.'"

Marcel stood dumb with amazement. His eyes were alight with a laugh he
strove to restrain, but they were alight with something else, too.
An-ina watched him. And her laugh came again as she flung her final
taunt.

"Indian man say him love An-ina?" she cried. "Indian man not come fetch
her - quick? Indian man say him not leave mother for An-ina? Then An-ina
spit at him."

It was the savage breaking through the years of simple culture. The
appeal of it all was beyond Marcel's power to resist. Suddenly he flung
out his two great arms, and the hands that were immense with his
muscular strength came down on the woman's soft, ample shoulders, and he
held her in a great affectionate embrace.

"That's fixed it, you dear mother thing!" he cried, his face flushing
with the joy of it all, the shame of it. "I'm going right away. I'm just
going to leave you right here to the darn Sleepers, to the wolves, and
the dogs, and any old thing that fancies to get around. There's no woman
going to spit at - your Marcel."

* * * * *

Marcel had gone. An-ina had seen to that. She had given him no chance to
change his mind, or to permit his duty to override his desire.

There had been little enough likelihood of any such thing happening. The
man was too human, too young, too madly in love. But An-ina was taking
no risk. So, with her own hands, she helped him prepare his outfit, and
she saw to and considered those details for his comfort which, in his
superlative impulse, he would probably have ignored. He went alone. He
refused to rouse one single Sleeper to lend him aid. His journey was in
that treacherous time between the seasons, when the snow and ice would
be rotting, and the latter part of his journey would find his winter
equipment an added burden.

Then he had set out. An-ina watched his great figure move away with joy
and pride thrilling her heart. He was out to battle with the elements,
with everything which the life of the Northland could oppose to him, for
the possession of the woman he loved. In her simple, half savage mind it
was the sign of the crown of manhood to which she had helped him. She
was glad - so glad.

The joy of her thought was her great support in the long days of
solitude that followed, and it filled her mind with a peace that left
her undisturbed. She filled each moment of her waking hours with the
labours which had become her habit. The Sleepers would soon awaken, and
all must be made ready for that moment when the work of the open season
began. It was her simple pride that with the return of her man he should
be able to find no fault.

Ah, she was longing for that moment. The return of her man. Perhaps a
triumphant return. She did not know. She could not guess. His success
would give her joy only that she would witness the light of triumph
shining in his eyes. Happiness for her would lie in his return.

He would come. She knew he would come. Her faith was expressed in the
sublime trust and confidence which her woman's adoration had built up
about the idol of her life. No god of the human mind was ever endowed
with greater, more infallible powers. So the hours of labour were brief
and swiftly passing, for she felt that each detail of her daily life was
carried out under the approving eyes that, in her imagination, were
always looking on. She was happy - utterly, completely happy. She could
have sung throughout the hours of waking, had song been her habit. She
could have laughed aloud, if the Indian in her permitted it. Heart,
mind, and body were absorbed in her faith.

* * * * *

It was in the dead of night. An-ina stirred restlessly under the
blankets which were those that once had covered the white mother of
Marcel. In a moment she was wide awake, sitting up in the darkness,
listening. The savage barking of the three old dogs, the only dogs now
left in the compound behind the fort, had roused her from sleep. It was
a furious chorus that warned her of the unusual. It suggested to her
mind the approach of marauding wolves, or some other creature that
haunted the Northern wastes.

She sprang from her bed without a moment's hesitation. Fear was unknown
to her. She knew the old dogs, long past the work of the trail, were not
easily disturbed in their slumbers. It was for her to ascertain, if
necessary - -

The chorus was still raging as she flung open the door of the store, and
stood peering out into the brilliant night. Steve's repeating rifle was
ready in her hand. She had lit the lamp before she removed the bars of
the door, and stood silhouetted against its yellow light. Only a woman
or the utterly reckless could have committed such a folly.

With every sense alert, those senses that were so keenly instinct with
the perception of the animal world, she searched the shadows within the
stockade, and the distance beyond its open gateway. There was no sign of
the marauder she looked for. But nevertheless the chorus of the canine
displeasure and protest went on. At last she pulled the door to behind
her and passed out into the night.

Once in the open her search was swift and keen. The great enclosure
yielded nothing to disturb, so she passed on to the gateway, where the
barking of the aged dogs had no power to confuse her observation.

The coldly gleaming sky shone radiantly upon the white-clad earth. The
calm of the world was unbroken. Even the wind was dead flat, and not a
sigh came from the woods which hid up the dreaming Sleepers. There was
nothing. Nothing at all. And she determined to return and to silence the
foolish old trail dogs with the weight of a rawhide. Just a few moments
longer she waited searching with eyes and ears, then she turned back.

But her purpose remained unfulfilled. She stood seemingly rooted to the
spot while her ears listened to the faint distant shout of a human
voice. It was prolonged. It had nothing in it of a cry of distress. It
was the call of a voice suggesting a simple signal of approach.

For an instant her heart seemed to leap into her throat. Then, in a wild



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 26 of 30)