Copyright
Ridgwell Cullum.

The Heart of Unaga online

. (page 28 of 30)
Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 28 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


remote. A white girl! And yet An-ina had assured him it was true, and
the manner of her assurance left it impossible for him to doubt.

Who was this Keeko? How came she in those far remotenesses which he knew
Marcel hunted? He could not think, unless - His searching mind offered
him only one solution. It seemed remote enough. It even seemed
extravagant. Lorson Harris was the evil genius he had to fear. And he
sought to connect him with the mystery of it all. Was this Keeko some
Delilah seeking to betray the secret he had fought to retain so long?
Had she discovered Marcel for the sole purpose of serving Lorson Harris?
Was she one of those beautiful lost souls haunting the vice-ridden
shores of Seal Bay? It was just possible. There were such women, clever
enough, hardy enough to accomplish such a task. It looked like the only
solution of the mystery. And he smiled to himself as he thought of the
tender soul who had told him the story of it all with such appreciation
of its romance.

He realized only too well the fascination such a woman must exercise
over a boy of Marcel's years. He would be clay in her hands. Chivalrous,
honourable, unsuspicious, what an easy prey he must prove! It was too
pitifully easy once the woman discovered him. But even with this
realization he was by no means dismayed. He remembered poignantly that
An-ina had assured him that Marcel would bring the woman to the fort.
Well, if that happened Lorson Harris was by no means likely to have
things all his own way. He, Steve, had learned his lesson of women, and
was not likely to - -

Steve was in the act of bearing down upon the lever of the baling
machine. He paused, with the lever pressed only half way home. He stood
listening, his bent figure unmoving. There was a sound beyond the door.
It might have been the sound of a snowfall from the roof above him. It
might have found its source in many things. Yet it was unusual enough to
hold the man listening acutely.

Presently, as there was no repetition of it, he dismissed the matter. He
was always fearful of possible approach. A moment's thoughtlessness on
the part of An-ina, on the part of his Indians, and the mischief would
be done. Even there was always the risk of Marcel's return, and the
attraction of the light of the lamp through the window. He dared not for
his own sake bar the door. There was always the risk of his mask failing
him.

He completed his operation. The oozing weed was compressed, and the
binding cords made fast. Then the lever was raised, and the sticky mass
was passed on to the outspread sheet for its final packing.

For all the cloth was spread, however, and the bundle was set in place
Steve hesitated before enfolding it. The disturbing sound still haunted
him curiously. He could never resist the dread of the deadly atmosphere
of the room. It needed only one breath - moments one might count upon the
fingers of a hand. The thought occurred to him to risk all and bar the
door. But it remained only a thought. He forced himself to continue his
work like a man who recognizes the weakness prompting him.

He folded the cloth about the bale and reached for the solution brush.
But the brush remained where it was. Distinct on the still night air
came the sound of a footstep. It was too heavy for An-ina. It had
nothing of Indian moccasins in it. It was the heavy footstep of a man, a
white man. Marcel!

Steve swung about in an agony of apprehension. But for once in his life
his forethought had failed him. He was too late. There was the swift
opening and shutting of the door and a man stood inside the room with
his back against it. But it was not Marcel. A heavy gun was thrusting
forward, and the muzzle of it was covering Steve's body. Helpless,
impotent, the man who had taken and survived every chance the Northern
world could offer him, stood like any weakling awaiting the shot that
must rob him of life in the hour of his triumph.

Steve stared wide-eyed. The man was no taller than himself. He was
white, and above his fur clothing was a dark, brutish face with eyes of
almost Indian blackness. For a moment they shone fiercely in the
lamplight. They were alive with demoniac purpose. A purpose he had come
so many weary miles to fulfil. Then, in a moment, the whole picture
changed with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope.

The ferocious purpose in the black eyes faded to a ghastly terror. The
lids widened, and the eyeballs rolled upwards. A voiceless gasp escaped
through wide open lips, where a moment before they had been firm set
with murderous intent. The out-held gun-arm dropped, and the weapon
clattered heavily to the ground. The man reeled. He tottered forward.
Then, with a sigh, a deep drawn sigh, his knees gave under him and he
plunged face downwards amongst the litter of the Adresol whose secret he
had come to steal. The deadly drug had done its work.

* * * * *

Steve passed down the room. He came to a stand beside the body of the
man, fallen with its face buried amidst the bruised and oozing Adresol.
His features were lost in the very heart of a limply spread white bloom.
It was as though he were seeking to intake the very dregs of the poison
with which the air was laden.

Steve stooped. Seizing the heavy body in his strong arms he dragged it
clear of the weed, and laid it upon its back. Then he stood up and gazed
down from behind his mask upon the lifeless face that gazed sightlessly
up at him.

In those long, silent, contemplative moments memory leapt back, bridging
the weary years. There was neither passion nor pity in his heart. It
was almost as if all feeling had passed from him, absorbed in a deep
curiosity at the signs which the years had set upon a once handsome
face. Even in death they remained. And only a dreadful pallor robbed it
of the deeper signs which debauchery had impressed.

Yes. Death had been merciful in that it had restored the features to
something of their early good looks. Those good looks, which, backed by
the subtle tongue of the seducer, had been sufficient to attract the
weak vessel of a foolish woman's heart from the path of virtue that had
been marked out for it.

Oh, yes. Steve recognized that ghastly, lifeless face. And just for one
moment he hoped that as Death secured its stranglehold the dead creature
had recognized his. He wondered.

"Garstaing! Hervey Garstaing!"

The words sounded faintly in the heavy atmosphere. It was Steve's voice
hushed to something like a whisper. It was a passionless whisper. There
was neither contempt nor hatred in it. Neither was there a shadow of
pity.

He turned back to the lamp. He picked it up, and brought it towards the
door. The body of his would-be murderer lay sprawled across the floor
barring his way. He thrust out a foot and pushed it aside. Then he
passed on.

Without one backward glance he turned out the light, and, passing out,
made fast the door and removed his dreadful mask.

But, for a while at least, he did not return to the woman who was
awaiting him. He moved on to the great gateway of the stockade. Then he
leant against one of the gate-posts and stood breathing the pure, cold
night air, while his thoughts drifted back over a hundred scenes,
which, until that moment, had remained deep buried in the back cells of
memory. He was thinking hard, wondering and searching, striving to probe
the full meaning of the man's attack.




CHAPTER XX

THE HOME-COMING


Steve gave no sign. He saw no reason to admit anyone to the secret of
that which had transpired in the store-house. He waited for the approach
of an accompanying outfit, he searched to discover the supporters of
Hervey Garstaing in his attempt on his life, and, failing all further
development, he saw no use in sounding a note of alarm to disturb those
who looked to him for leadership and protection. Besides, he was more
than reluctant to lay bare anything that could stir afresh those
memories from which only the passing of the years had brought him peace.

So he went on with his work, that work whose completion had become
well-nigh an obsession. The dead body of Garstaing lay huddled aside,
ruthlessly flung where it could least obtrude itself and interfere with
the labours upon which he was engaged. Its presence was no matter of
concern. It lay there held safe from decay by the power of the drug
which had robbed it of life. Later, with leisure, and when the desire
prompted, Steve would dispose of it as he might dispose of any other
refuse that displeased or disgusted him.

To a man of lesser hardihood, of less singleness of purpose such an
attitude must have been impossible. But Steve had learned his lessons of
life in a ruthless school. He had no thought for any leniency towards an
enemy, alive or dead. He had no reverence for the empty shell, which,
in life, had contained nothing but vileness.

To the last he fought out the battle of physical endurance, and he won
out. It was a bitter, deadly struggle in which will alone turned the
scale. When the last bale of Adresol was packed, and the door of the
store-house was made secure, its treasure in the keeping of its dead
guardian, Steve knew that he was about to pay the price. The final
removal of his mask found him an extremely sick man. And for two weeks
he was forced to fight against the effect of the deadly toxins he had
been inhaling for so long. He had saved others from the risk of handling
the Adresol. Now he was called upon to pay for his self-sacrifice.

In her silent, unquestioning fashion An-ina understood, and, for nearly
two weeks, she watched and ministered to the man of her love with
smiling-eyed devotion. Steve never admitted his condition, and An-ina
never reminded him of it. That was their way. But never in all their
years of life together had the woman been more surely her man's devoted
slave. Her every service was an expression of the happiness which the
privilege yielded her. Every thought behind her dark eyes was a prayer
for the well-being of her man.

For all the inroad the poisons had made upon him, Steve's robust,
healthy body was no easy prey, and, slowly but surely, it won its way
and drove back a defeated enemy. The spirit of the man was invincible,
and then, too, his knowledge of the drugs, both Adresol and those
antitoxins which he had been forced to oppose to it, was well-nigh
complete. The dead father of Marcel had left him in no uncertainty. He
had equipped him perfectly through his writings.

So, with the complete break-up of winter Steve was once more in his
place at the helm of his little vessel. He was there calm, strong,
resourceful, ready to deal with every matter that came along as the rush
of the open season's business descended upon the fort.

It, was as well. The rush was considerable as the Sleepers roused from
their hibernation. An-ina, Julyman, Oolak, were all his able
lieutenants, but Steve's was the guiding mind and hand. The others were
people of the same colour as these half Eskimos.

The hubbub and chaffer of it all went on the day long. The store was
alive with the squat, black-eyed, dusky creatures, swathed in their
Arctic furs. They brought all their trade, surplus stocks of the dried
Adresol weed, pelts, beaver and grey fox, wolf and seal. And for these
they demanded equipment and supplies for the open season's hunt. They
were mainly a good-natured and unsuspicious crowd whose guttural tongue
was harsh and very voluble. They needed handling. Essentially they
needed handling by the white man.

Steve had been relieved for his midday meal. He was relieved by An-ina,
assisted by Julyman. Oolak stood by with his club, ready for any display
of the predatory instincts that yielded to temptation.

Steve had not yet returned from the kitchen. He had finished his hearty
meal and lit his pipe. He was standing before the window, from which all
covering had been removed at the advance of the open season.

The air was chill. For the moment he was staring out reflectively at the
clear, bright sunlight, while the buzz of voices in the store hummed
upon his ears. It was well-nigh a perfect Northern spring day. The sky
was a-froth with white, sunlit clouds. But the sunlight had little
relation to the sunlight of more temperate climates at such a season. It
was fiercely bright against the melting snows, with a steely chill that
entirely lacked the gracious promise of budding trees and tender
shooting grass. At best it spoke of the final passing of the wastes of
snow and ice.

These things, however, were not concerning Steve. It was one of those
moments of solitude in which he could give run to the thoughts that most
nearly concerned him. His eyes had parted from the shadowy smile which
they usually wore before the eyes of others. Just now they were scarcely
happy, and the drawn brows suggested a lurking trouble that disturbed
him. He was thinking of Marcel. Ever since the visitation of Hervey
Garstaing, Marcel had rarely been out of his thoughts.

He removed his pipe and passed a hand across his broad brow. It was a
gesture of weariness. There were no eyes to witness the action, so he
attempted no disguise. It mattered little enough to him that the whole
world about him was awakening. It mattered nothing to him that the white
world was passing, and the rivers were starting to flood. The feathered
world might wing to greet the new-born season. It might darken the sky
with its legions. Such things had no power to stir his pulses, any more
than had the thought of the great triumph he had achieved over the
desperate Arctic elements, if all was not well with - Marcel.

This was his haunting fear. He was thinking of Marcel - and this white
girl, Keeko. Even when he had listened to the delighted tones of An-ina,
as she told him the story which she had obtained from the boy's own
lips, his fears had been stirred. The woman's delight had been the
simple delight of a woman in such romance. That side of it had left him
cold. He knew the Northern world, his world, too well. He knew the type
of woman that haunted the habitations of man in such regions as Unaga.
And so he had feared for Marcel.

Since that time had happened those things which warned him of a
wide-flung conspiracy of which his secret trade in Adresol was the
centre. Oh, yes, it had needed but one flash of inspiration to warn him
of this thing, and his concern was that this beautiful white woman,
Keeko, was a link in the chain of the conspiracy with which he was
surrounded.

He saw the hand of Lorson Harris in it, guiding, prompting, from that
office he knew so well in Seal Bay.

Hervey Garstaing was his tool. There could be no doubt as to that to
which the man had sunk. It was the simple logic of such a career as his.
A man reduced to haunting Mallard's in his endeavour to escape the law
must inevitably sink lower and lower. Garstaing was a Northern man.
Sooner or later the Northern wilderness would claim him. The next step
would be the embrace of Lorson Harris. No man "on the crook" north of
60° could escape that. Then - ? But there was no need to look further in
that direction.

But this girl, or woman, this Keeko - her very name suggested to him the
vampire creatures haunting the muddy shores of Seal Bay - had discovered
Marcel last summer. Marcel, a boy. A boy in years - a child in mind. She
would be beautiful. Oh, yes, Lorson Harris would see to that. She would
be possessed of every art and wile of the women of her trade. It would
be too pitifully easy. She must have returned to her headquarters with
the secret he had held so long hidden. And then the coming of the
murderer to complete the task Lorson Harris had set.

Now Marcel had gone again to meet this Delilah. He had returned to her
in all his splendid youth to be dragged down, down to those backwaters
of vice in which her life was spent. Or, having achieved her purpose,
would she meet him again? Would she not rather have gone to receive the
reward of her betrayal? Anyway it mattered so little. Her mischief was
complete. Body and soul, this youth was doubtless hers. What manner of
man would he return?

This it was that haunted Steve throughout the long hours of each passing
day. Mind and heart had been set on one great purpose of selfishness. He
had gambled his life against overwhelming odds for the sake of this
youth. He had won out at terrific cost to himself. And now the joy of
his thought was submerged in the prospect of that moral destruction
which the evil scheming of Lorson Harris had brought about.

The hopelessness of it all was in simple proportion to the strength and
depth of the love and parental affection of the man's heart. But he knew
that until the naked truth, however hideous, was revealed he must
continue the labours that were his. If the merciless hand of Lorson
Harris had destroyed the simple soul of Marcel, then Lorson should pay
as he little dr - -

Steve started. His depressed brows lightened. His eyes, so full of
brooding, widened as he listened. The sound of a voice, big, strong,
reached him over the guttural buzz of the trading Sleepers' tones.

"Uncle Steve? He's back. He's - safe?"

The tone was urgent. It was Marcel. And there was that note of force and
anxiety in his voice which Steve never remembered to have heard before.

Impulse urged him. It was quite beyond his power to restrain it. He
waited not a moment for An-ina's reply. Snatching his pipe from his
mouth he shouted swift response as he made for the store.

"Why, surely, boy," he cried. "It don't seem to me there's a thing north
of 60° to do me hurt."

* * * * *

The two men were standing in the doorway of the store, just where they
had met. Outside were two dog trains newly drawn up, and four figures,
stranger figures, were moving about them.

Inside the store the clamour of traffic went on undisturbed by the new
arrival. Oolak, with his club, continued to shepherd the queer, squat
creatures he despised. Julyman was at the rough counter at the command
of An-ina, whose outward calm was a perfect mask for the feelings
stirred at the unexpected return of Marcel. It was all so characteristic
of these people, for all there were momentous words and happenings
passing, for all Marcel was conveying news of the threat to their lives
which had brought him at such speed back to his home.

The older man, broad of shoulder, sturdy under his rough buckskin, was
no match for the youngster who towered over him. And that which he
lacked in stature was made up for in the undisturbed expression of his
face. Marcel was urgent in his youthful grasp of the threat
overshadowing. Steve, while apparently listening to him, seemed to be
absorbed in the movements of the strangers beyond the door.

Marcel's story was a brief outline, almost disjointed. It was the story,
roughly, as Keeko had brought it to him. He told of the purpose of the
man Nicol, bribed by Lorson Harris to steal the secret of their trade.
He told of Nicol's confession to Keeko that he had located the
whereabouts of the fort, and his purpose forthwith to raid it, and wipe
out its occupants, and so earn the price of his crime. He told of
Keeko's ultimate terror of this creature's proposals to herself and of
the desperate nature of her flight from Fort Duggan to warn Marcel, and
seek his protection.

It was all told without a thought for anything beyond the urgency of the
threat, and his own youthful absorption in the girl who had taught him
the meaning of love. In that supreme moment he had no thought for the
thing that had driven Steve out into the winter wilderness, fighting
the battle of his great purpose. He had no thought for the success or
failure that had attended him. Steve was there in the flesh, the same
"Uncle" Steve he had always known. It was sufficient. An-ina, too, was
there, safe and well, and the sight of her had banished his worst
anxieties. The lover's selfishness was his. Keeko was outside. She had
come with him to his home. She had promised him the fulfilment of his
man's great desire. Where then was the blame? Steve had no thought of
blame in his mind. And An-ina? An-ina's complete happiness lay in the
fact of her boy's return.

"Say, Uncle," Marcel cried in conclusion, with impulsive vehemence.
"It's been one hell of a trip. It certainly has. And I'd say a feller
don't know one haf the deviltry of this forsaken country till he's hit
it haf thawed."

"No." Steve smiled at the four figures he was watching as there flashed
through his mind the recollection of the journey of a white man, and a
woman, and two Indians, and a child at such a time of year a good many
seasons ago.

"You're right, Uncle," Marcel went on, without observing the smile. "But
it just needed a woman to show the way, I guess," he cried, in a wave of
burning enthusiasm. "Keeko had us well-nigh hollering help from the
start. She set the gait. She showed us the way. She guessed that warning
needed to get through quick, with An-ina here alone. And she meant to
save her if the work of it killed her. She's just the greatest ever.
She's the bravest, the best - - "

Steve nodded.

"Yes. I guess she's all you say."

The older man's eyes had come back to the handsome face lit with
passionate enthusiasm. There was a twinkle of dry humour in them.

"I know, boy," he said gently. "I get all that. That's why I want to get
right out now and hand her thanks and welcome to your home. Guess it's
not my way to have folks who've made near five hundred miles to do me
good service, standing around waiting while I'm asked to pass 'em
welcome. Guess I want to shake this white girl, with the queer Indian
name, by the hand. I want to make her just as welcome as I know how. Do
you feel like helping me that way?"

In a moment a great laugh broke, through the shadow of disappointment
that had fallen upon Marcel's eyes at the other's first words.

"You can just kick me, Uncle Steve," he cried. "You surely can. Guess
I'm every sort of crazy fool, trying to tell you the thing that's
Keeko's to tell. But I didn't think," he added, passing a hand across
his forehead. "I don't seem to be able to just now. You see - Say come
right along."

* * * * *

"So you're - Keeko."

Marcel was standing by, looking on with a smiling happiness lighting his
face. But he was not observing. Observation at such a moment was
impossible to him. He was feasting his happy eyes on the girl's pretty
face under the brown fur cap which had been tilted from her forehead. He
was looking for her approval of Uncle Steve, and her smiling blue eyes
seemed to him all sufficient.

Had he been less concerned with Keeko he must have discovered that which
was looking out of Steve's eyes. It was a curious, searching look that
had something startled in it. He must have become aware that, for all
the older man's self-restraint, something was stirring within him,
something that robbed him of a composure that the dangers and trials of
the life that was his had on power to rob him of. Uncle Steve was
smiling responsively, a gentle, kindly smile, but it was utterly
powerless to deny the other expression.

Keeko withdrew her hands which had been held for a moment in both of
Steve's.

"Yes," she said, something shyly. "I'm Keeko."

"Keeko." Steve's echo of the name was reflective. "It's a queer name."

The startled look had passed out of his eyes. But his intent regard
remained almost embarrassing. Then, quite suddenly, as the girl turned a
little helplessly, and her gaze settled itself upon the great figure of
Marcel, he seemed to become aware this was so. He, too, promptly glanced
away, taking in the three Indians standing beside the dogs.

"Here, say," he cried authoritatively. "Unhitch those dogs and fix the
sleds. You boys best get the sleds unloaded."

Then he turned again to Keeko.

"I want to hand you a big show piece talk, Keeko," he said with quiet
ease. "I want to say how glad I am you came along with this boy of ours,
and to thank you for the things you figgered to do for us. I guess we
aren't going to let the thought of this feller - Nicol - worry us grey.
And Lorson Harris, big as he may be in Seal Bay, don't cut much ice up
here in the heart of Unaga. We've the measure of most things taken
that's likely to hand us worry. There's a home right here for you, for
just as long as you two fancy. I take it you've fixed things up between
you. Guess it scared me when I first heard tell of you, and I don't need
to tell you why I was scared. Now I've seen you it isn't that way. No,"
he added, in contemplative fashion. "I kind of thank Providence. He



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 28 of 30)