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surge, it started to hammer as though seeking to free itself from the
bonds that held it. That call. She knew it. There could be no mistake.
Nor could she mistake the voice that uttered it. It was the voice of
Steve. It was the great return of which her faith had assured her. And
high and shrill she flung back her answer, with all the power of her
lungs and a grateful heart.

* * * * *

The greeting had been all An-ina had ever dreamed it. It had been even
more, for she had gazed into steady grey eyes shining with the light of
triumph.

They were standing in the store where the stove, banked for the long,
cold night, was radiating its comforting warmth. Steve, sturdy,
unemotional, was replying to the question which had come with the
passing of the woman's greeting.

"We're loaded right down, and the dogs are well-nigh beat," he said, in
his quiet way. "Guess that's not the reason they're way back camped
while I got on to home though. It's the green weed in full bloom, and
we daren't open the bales with folks around without masks. We daren't
risk a thing that way. I kind of guessed I'd best get on and warn you
and Marcel, and make ready to pass it right into the store-house quick."
He thrust up a hand and pushed his fur cap back from his brow. And, for
a brief moment, he permitted play to his feelings. "Say, it's great,
An-ina! And - and I'm just glad. I guess we've been as near hell as this
land can show us, but we've made good. The boys are with me back there.
They're feeling good and fit, and we've - Where's Marcel?"

An-ina's eyes were shining with the joy of a triumph no less than the
man's. It was the greatest moment of her life. Had not her idol proved
himself even beyond her dreams? Her gladness only deepened at his sharp
question. She had her great story to tell. The story which no woman's
heart can resist.

"Him go," she said, with a little gesture of the hands. "An-ina send
him. Oh, yes."

"Gone? Where?"

Steve was startled. For a moment a sickening doubt flashed through his
mind, and robbed his eyes of the shining joy of his return.

"It Keeko. She call - call. All the time she call to Marcel, who is great
man like to Boss Steve. Yes. Oh, yes. She call - this white girl, Keeko.
And An-ina say, 'Go! Marcel go! Bring this white girl.' But Marcel say,
'No. Uncle Steve not come back. An-ina alone. Oh, no. Marcel go bimeby.'
Then An-ina say, 'Go.' She know. Him all sick for Keeko. So. Marcel go."

An-ina's low, gentle laugh came straight from the woman in her. Just as
her account of Marcel's reluctance to leave her was a touch of the
mother defending her offspring.

But Steve missed these things. He was amazed. He was
wondering - searching.

"White girl? Keeko?" he exclaimed sharply. "What crazy story - Tell me!"
he commanded. "Tell me quick!"

He flung aside his cap, and the furs which encased his sturdy body. Then
he caught up a bench, and set it beside the stove. He sat down, and held
out his strong hands to the warmth with that habit which belongs to the
North.

An-ina remained standing. It was her way to stand before him. She would
tell her story thus. Was she not in the presence of the man whose smile
was her greatest joy on earth?




CHAPTER XVIII

THE VIGIL


Marcel flung the fuel upon the fire, and gravely watched the flames lick
about the fresh-hewn timber, and the pillar of smoke rolling heavily
upwards on the breath of an almost imperceptible breeze.

It was cold - beyond the reach of the great fire - bitterly cold. For all
April was near its close the signs of thaw had again given way to an
Arctic temperature. It was only another example of the freakishness of
the Northland seasons. His journey had been accomplished at a speed that
was an expression of his desire. He had taken risks, he had dared
chances amidst the rotting, melting snows, only to find at the river,
where the old moose head stood guard, that Nature's opening channels had
sealed again under a breath that carried with it a return to the depth
of winter.

He had not been unprepared. He knew the Northland moods all too well.
Besides, his practised eyes had sought in vain the real signs of the
passing of winter. The migratory creatures of the feathered world had
given no sign. The geese and ducks were still waiting in the shelter of
warmer climates. Those wonderful flights, moving like clouds across the
sky, had put in no appearance, while the furry world still hugged the
shelter and sparse feeding grounds of the aged woods.

His disappointment was none the less at the sight of the solid,
ice-bound river, lying in the depths of the earth's foundations. It was
impossible as yet for the girl with the smiling blue eyes, who had given
him that message of her love at the moment of her going, to approach the
tryst, and he was left with the negative consolation that when she
arrived she would find him awaiting her.

His purpose, however, was simple. He was at the appointed spot, and he
intended to remain there until Keeko came to him. It was a matter of no
significance at all if he had to wait till the summer came and passed,
or if he must set out to search the ends of the earth for her. His
persistent, dogged mood was an expression of the passionate youth in
him. He loved as only early youth knows how to love, and nothing else
mattered. He was there alone with Nature in her wildest mood, a fit
setting for the primal passions sweeping through his soul.

So, in the time of waiting, he had lit a great fire. It was a beacon
fire. And in his simple fancy it was sending out a message which the
voiceless old moose was powerless to convey. It was a message carrying
with it the story of the love burning deep in his heart. And he hoped
that distant, searching eyes might see and interpret his signs. The
thought of it all pleased him mightily.

For ten days he had carried on his giant's work of feeding the
insatiable thing he had created. He laboured throughout the daylight
hours. At night he sat about, where his dogs were secured, gazing deep
into its ruddy heart, dreaming his dreams till bodily weariness overcame
him, and he sank into slumbers that yielded him still more precious
visions.

It was all so simple. It was all so real and human. The cares of life
left Marcel untouched. The bitter conditions of the outlands passed him
by without one thought to mar his enjoyment of being. Life was a perfect
thing that held no shadows, and for him it was lit by the sunshine of
eyes the thought of which sent the hot blood surging through his veins
till the madness of his longing found him yearning to embrace the whole
wide world in his powerful arms.

It was with all these undimmed feelings stirring that he took up his
customary position before his great signal fire at the close of a
laborious day. He had eaten. He had fed his vicious trail dogs and left
them for the night. His blankets and his sleeping-bag lay spread out
ready to receive him. And the old, sightless moose gazed out in its
silent, never-ceasing vigil.

Night shut down with a stillness that must have been maddening to a less
preoccupied mind. The perfect night sky shone coldly with the burnish of
its million stars. The blazing northern lights plodded their ghostly
measure with the sedateness of the ages through which they had endured,
while the youth sat on unstirring, smoking his pipe of perfect peace.
They were moments such as Marcel would never know again. For all the
waiting his happiness was well-nigh perfect.

His pipe went out. It was re-lit in the contemplative fashion of habit.
A whimper from the slumbering dogs left him indifferent. Only when the
flames of his fire grew less did he bestir himself. A great
replenishment and his final task was completed.

Again he returned to his seat. But it was not for long. Tired nature was
making herself felt. She was claiming him in the drooping eyelids, in
the nodding head. And her final demand came in the fall of his pipe from
the grip of his powerful jaws. He passed across to his blankets.

* * * * *

A thunderous crash from the depths below and Marcel was wide awake
again. He was sitting up in the shelter of his fur bag with eyes alight
with question. He was alert, with the ready wakefulness which is the
habit of the trail. That crash! It was - -

But he quickly returned to his rest. It was the splitting of the solid
bed of ice into which the river that came up out of the south had been
transformed.

But somehow he did not readily sleep again. He was weary enough. His
mind was at rest. But sleep - sleep was reluctant, and the old thread of
his waking dreams came again as he gazed across at the beacon fire.

Hours passed. He had no idea of time. He had no care. He lay there
watching the dancing firelight, building for the hundredth time those
priceless castles of the night which the daylight loves to shatter.
Never were they more resplendent. Never was their lure more
irresistible.

But a drowsy fancy began to distort them. He had no knowledge of it. He
never realized the change. He passed to the realms of sleep like a tired
child, striving to follow the course of the flying sparks from the fire
till his final memory was of a hundred pairs of blazing eyes peering at
him out of the darkness.

He awoke with the grey of dawn. And as his eyes opened he heard a voice,
a gentle, low voice in which rang a world of gladness and tender
feeling.

"Why I just knew no one but Marcel could have lit that fire."

"Keeko!"

Every joyous emotion was thrilling in the man's exclamation. He leapt
from his blankets, and stood staring, in utter and complete amazement,
at the vision of the girl's smiling beauty.

* * * * *

Neither knew how it came about. It simply happened. Neither questioned,
or had thought to question. The long months of parting had completed
that which the summer had brought about. It was the spontaneous
confession of all that which had lain deep in the heart of each.

It was the girl who sought release from those caressing moments. Her
arms reaching up, clasped about the boy's muscular shoulders, parted,
and her warm woman's body stirred under the crushing embrace holding
her. Her lips were withdrawn from his, and, gazing up into the
passionate eyes above her, she spoke the desperate fears of her woman's
heart which had been submerged in the passion of the moment.

"But there's no time to lose!" she cried urgently. "Oh, Marcel, I came
because I just didn't dare to wait. It's you - you and those you love.
They mean to murder you. You - and those others. And so I came to bring
you warning."

The ardent light in the man's eyes changed. But the change seemed slow,
as though with difficulty only he was able to return to the things which
lay outside their love. But with the change came a look of incredulous
amazement that was almost derision.

"Murder?"

He echoed the word blankly. Then he laughed. It was the laugh of
reckless confidence engendered of the wild happiness of holding the girl
of his dreams in his arms, and feeling the soft, warm pressure of her
lips upon his.

For all Keeko's urgency Marcel refused to be robbed of his joy at their
reunion. His embrace relaxed in response to her movement, but he took
possession of her hands. Deliberately he moved towards the fallen
tree-trunk where the lichen-covered cache of their token lay. He sat
himself down, and drew her down beside him.

"Tell me," he said smilingly. "Tell it me all. You came to hand me
warning. They guess they're going to murder me, and Uncle Steve, and
An-ina. Tell me how you came, and all that happened. And the things that
happened to you, I reckon, interest me a heap more than this talk of
murder."

The easy assurance of Marcel's manner sobered the girl's alarm. She
yielded herself at his bidding, and sat beside him with her clasped hand
resting in one of his.

Just for a moment she turned wistful eyes upon the ice of the river
below them, and her gaze wandered on southwards.

"Oh, it's a bad story," she cried. "I guess it's as bad as I ever
feared - worse. Maybe I best tell it you all. But, oh, Marcel, just don't
figger it's nothing. I know you. There's nothing I can say to scare you.
We've just got to get right away to your home, and hand the warning, and
pass them our help."

The girl's appeal had a different effect from that she hoped. The man's
eyes lit afresh. He drew a sharp breath. His arm tightened about her
body, and the hand clasping hers crushed them with unconscious force.

"You'll come right back with me to our home?" he cried in a thrilling
tone. "You?" Then in a moment the great joy of it all broke forth. "Say,
I could just thank God for these - murderers."

But the woman in Keeko left her unsharing in his mood. She turned. And
her eyes were startled.

"You could - ! Say," she cried with a sudden vehemence in sharp contrast
to her appealing manner. "Do you think I made trail from Fort Duggan for
a fancy, after months of winter to Seal Bay and back, on the day I'd
just made home? Do you think I wouldn't have waited for the river? Do
you think I'd have done this if it wasn't all - real? Oh, man, man," she
cried in protest, "I'm no fool girl to see things that just aren't. I
guess David Nicol has located your post, and he's right on his way there
now - for murder. There's - - "

"On his way there now?" Marcel broke in sharply, fiercely. "How? How
d'you mean? He's located - Who's - this David Nicol? God! An-ina alone!
Tell me! Tell me quick. An-ina, my second mother, she's alone at the
post. A woman! God in heaven! Tell me quick."

The change was supreme. No tone the girl had used could compare with the
force of Marcel's demand. There was no laugh on his lips now, no smile
in his eyes. A deadly fear, such as Keeko had never beheld in them
before, had taken possession of them. He was stirred to the depths of
his very soul.

Keeko's reply came at once.

"Yes. Nicol's the man I believed my step-father. He's a murderer. He's
the man who sent my mother to her grave before I made home last summer.
He's the man who Lorson Harris is going to hand a hundred thousand
dollars for the murder of your outfit, and to steal your trade. He's the
man who asked me to share with him the price of his crime, and would
have held me prisoner to obey his will if I hadn't just had the means
right there to help myself. Oh, my dear, my dear. I'm scared. I'm scared
to death now for the folks you love. That's why I struck out on a chance
for this old moose head, with my boys and dogs. I hoped, I prayed - oh,
God, how I prayed! - that I could get around and find you, and hand you
warning."

Marcel was no longer seated. He was standing, his great height towering
over the girl who was gazing up at him with tears of emotion shining in
her pretty eyes. He did not realize them. He was no longer thinking of
her. He was no longer thinking of his love, and the happiness that was
so newly born. His thought was far back over the trail of ice and snow
over which he had so recently passed. He was contemplating a dusky face
with eyes of velvet softness, carrying out her patient labours for the
men she loved. He was contemplating the stealing approach of the
would-be murderer. He saw in fancy the dawn of horror in the mother
woman's eyes as she awoke to realization - -

Suddenly he flung out his clenched fists in a gesture of superlative
determination and threat.

"Say!" he cried, his eyes hot with a fire such as Keeko had never
thought to see in them. "It's two hundred miles of hell's own territory
with the thaw coming. I'm going right back - now. I'm going just as quick
as I can load my outfit. She's alone - do you get it? An-ina! She raised
me - she's my Indian mother woman. God help the swine that harms her
body!"

He turned and moved abruptly away. Keeko had come to him with her love.
She had faced everything the north country could show her to bring him
the warning. He had forgotten her. He had forgotten everything, but the
gentle creature whose dark-eyed terror haunted him.

Keeko understood. She had no feeling other than a great, unvoiced joy in
the splendid manhood of it all. She stood up. She moved after the man as
he made towards his camp. She overtook him.

"They're all down there, Marcel dear. They're down there on the river,"
she said, as she came to his side and her two hands clasped themselves
about his swinging arm. "There's Little One Man, Snake Foot, and
Med'cine Charlie. They're good boys, and the dogs are fresh, and ready.
I saw to that. We can start right away, and I guess you can't just set
the gait too hot."




CHAPTER XIX

THE STORE-HOUSE


Steve pushed back from the table in An-ina's kitchen. The woman was
standing ready to minister to his lightest demands. She had waited on
him throughout the meal, and remained standing the whole time. It was a
habit, which, throughout their years of life together, Steve had been
powerless to break her of. It was her pride thus to wait upon him.

Her soft, watchful eyes were observing him closely as he filled and lit
his pipe. There was something approaching anxiety in their depths. It
may have been the dull yellow lamplight that robbed the man's face of
its usual look of robust health. But if the shadows wrought upon it and
the curious pasty yellow tint of the skin were due to the lamplight,
certainly the hollows about the eyes, the cheeks, which had become
almost alarmingly drawn, and the sunken lines about the firm mouth could
not have been attributed to a similar cause.

An-ina understood this. She understood more. She had realized, during
the weeks that had elapsed since Steve's return from the heart of Unaga,
a curious growing bodily lassitude in the man. It was something
approaching inertia, and she knew its cause. Fear had grown up in her
simple Indian mind and heart. She wanted to speak. She wanted to offer
her warning. But somehow Steve's will was her law, and she knew that
will was driving him now in a fashion that would only leave her words
wasted. So, while her lips remained silent, her feelings were clearly
enough expressed in her eyes.

"Just a draw or two at the old pipe, An-ina," Steve said, with his
flicker of a smile that was full of gentleness. "Guess you can't know
the relief of being rid of the mask for awhile. The taste of every
breath I draw through it makes me well-nigh sick. Still, it's got to be.
It's that or quick death. And I'm not yearning to 'cash in' yet. There's
more than two weeks of it still. We brought a hell of a cargo of the
stuff. More than I guessed. I'd like to get through with it before
Marcel gets back with - this Keeko."

An-ina nodded. Something of her anxiety became absorbed by her tender
smile at the reference to Marcel and Keeko.

"The thaw him no come," she said. "Maybe him not find Keeko. Maybe it
long - heap long time. Oh, yes?"

Steve stood up and turned his back to the cook-stove. His sunken eyes
were reflective.

"No. The thaw's quit, and a sharp spell's closed down again," he said.
"He guessed the girl was coming up the river." He shook his head.
"There'll be no river open for weeks yet."

He passed across to the door and flung it open. Outside the night was
coldly bright, and the still air had a bitter snap in it. He remained
only a moment, then he closed the door again.

"We'll get no change till the next moon," he said as he returned.
"Anyway, I'll need to get things through before he comes. I don't want
the boy to take a hand in the packing. It's a big risk."

"Yes. Boss Steve take all risk. An-ina know." The woman sighed. "An-ina
mak' pack. Oh, no! Much big risk. She not mak' pack. So Boss Steve him
say. Boss Steve die all up bimeby. Leave An-ina. Leave him Marcel - an'
this Keeko. All mak' big weep. Oh, yes."

Steve's eyes smiled gently. He came over to the woman's side. One hand,
that seemed to have lost much of its muscular shape, rested gently on
her shoulder.

"Don't you just worry a thing, An-ina," he said. "Guess I know. When
Marcel gets back I'll be around all right. I reckon to get through
quick. That's why I work late into the night. After I get through, and
get quit of the masks, I'll eat good, and be as I was. I just get sick
with the dope on the mask, that's all. I'll get right on now."

He laid aside his pipe and passed out of the kitchen. And, as he went,
the woman's eyes gazed yearningly after him.

* * * * *

Steve had lit his lamp. It burned up. It flooded the great store-room
with its rank light. He watched it till it settled into full flame, half
his strong face hidden up under the mask saturated with its nauseating
"dope." Habit forced him to a swift upward glance at the three
ventilators in the roof. They were all set wide open. Then he glanced
round him surveying the work that occupied his working-day, and half the
night he would gladly have devoted to much-needed rest.

It was a curious scene. It was full of fascination in that it
represented the complete triumph which for so many years had been
withheld from him.

The great store-house, built with so much care and close study of its
purposes, and which had stood for so long empty, a pathetic expression
of man's hope deferred, was filled to its capacity. A greater part of
its shelving was groaning under bales of closely pressed Adresol in
hermetically-sealed wrappings, while the floor was piled with vast
quantities of the deadly plant awaiting the process that would render it
comparatively harmless to those who had yet to handle it.

In its raw, limp state the plant was unwholesome enough to look at. Its
pale foliage had something of the rubbery look of seaweed. But the
crushed blooms, oozing thick sap from their wounds, were something
almost evil for eyes that had knowledge behind them. Even in his most
triumphant mood Steve was not without a feeling of repulsion at the
sight. His mask held him impervious to the deadly fumes of the oozing
sap, but well enough he knew that, in such a presence, it was only that
ingenious contrivance that stood between him and swift death.

He turned to the window to see that it was secure. The door, too, he
tried to assure himself that it was shut tight. He was fearful lest the
heavy escaping fumes should reach those beyond. The ventilators were
built high, chimneys that carried the fumes well up into the night air,
where their diffusion was assured, leaving them robbed of their deadly
poison. But the window and door were dangerous outlets that needed close
watch.

Finally he passed to the far end of the room where his lamp stood on the
bench beside the baling machine, and the rolls of curious-looking cloth,
almost like oilskin, or some rubber-proofed material, and the large
vessel of sealing solution with its brush for application sticking up in
it. And forthwith he set to work at the scales upon which he measured
his quantities. The organization of it all was perfect. It was Steve
through and through, and his calm method seemed to rob the whole process
of any sense of danger.

But Steve was sick. He knew it. He knew it was a race between his
condition and the completion of the work. He was living in an atmosphere
of contending poisons, breathing one to nullify the effects of the
other. There were moments when he wondered how long his body could
endure the struggle which he knew must go on to the end, whatever that
end might be.

His determination remained unweakening. He knew that An-ina had become
aware of his condition, and it only made him the more urgent that his
task should be completed before Marcel's return. Whatever happened
Marcel must not be permitted to participate in the danger. So, for all
his appearance of calm, he worked with a feverish energy in the deadly
atmosphere.

Whatever Steve's bodily condition mentally he was fully alert. It even
seemed as if his bodily weakness stimulated the clear activity of his
mental powers. Working through the long hours of voiceless solitude he
held under almost microscopic review every aspect of the situation his
final triumph had created. Everything must fall out - provided his sick
body endured - just as he had calculated. There was only one thing that
disturbed the perfect smoothness of the road that lay open before him.
It was the story he had listened to from the lips of An-ina. It was
Marcel, and this girl with the Indian name of - "Keeko."

The thought was in his mind now. He was uneasy. The whole possibility of
Marcel's encountering such a woman in Unaga had seemed so absurdly



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 27 of 30)