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Ridgwell Cullum.

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sent you where you found our boy, and later made things so you came
along - to home. My dear, I'm just glad." Then he added in response to
the wonderful light which his words brought into the girl's pretty eyes:
"Say, just come right in. An-ina's inside. She'll get you rested and
fed. And she'll hand you a mother's welcome, same as I do a - father's."

The girl made no movement to obey. The tenderness, the simple kindliness
that rang in Steve's tones, was so utterly different from anything she
had ever listened to in the hard years of nomadic life she had been
forced to live. In contrast, the memory of her days at Fort Duggan left
her shuddering. The memory of the pitiful subterfuges to which she and
her dead mother had been forced to resort in the hope of saving her from
the merciless hands of the beast of prey who had ruined so utterly their
lives, was something that seemed to belong to some hideous nightmare.
For perhaps the first time since the iron of life had entered into her
woman's soul she wanted to fall to a-weeping. In her speechlessness
tears actually rose to her eyes. She was weary, weary of limb with the
hardship of her journey. But now, in the reaction of Steve's welcome,
she realized, too, an utter weariness of mind. But her tears were saved
from overflowing. She looked to the smiling Marcel, and, with a little
helpless gesture, held out her hands.

It was all so unlike the woman who had faced every hardship on the
trail. It was all so unlike the strong courage which Marcel knew. He
caught her hands in his, and drew her to his side. Then, together, they
passed on to the store, while Steve's eyes followed them, and the
Indians remained at the work they had been set.

Once Keeko and Marcel had vanished within the store there was no longer
need for disguise. Steve's smile passed out of his eyes. A great light
of startled wonder took its place. Unconsciously he turned in the
direction of the store-house, concealing its great burden of
Adresol - and that other.

For a while he stood there. Then a sound broke from him. It was a
single, low-muttered word.

"Keeko!"

He moved away. He passed on to the open gateway of the stockade and
gazed far out towards the south-west. The sunlight upon the melting snow
was well-nigh blinding. But it troubled him not at all. His eyes were no
longer seeing. They were absorbed in a deep contemplation, visualizing
scenes that rose up at him out of the dim, distant past. He was thinking
of that moment of parting, when he had gazed down into the great blue
eyes of his baby girl as she was held up to him by her erring mother.

"Keeko!" he muttered again. "Coqueline!" Then, after a long, almost
interminable pause: "Nita!"




CHAPTER XXI

THE GREAT REWARD


Years ago Steve had drunk to the dregs a despair that left life shorn of
everything but a desolate existence. The effect of that time had
remained in him. It would remain so long as he lived. But it was a
reverse of the picture which despairing human nature usually presents.
It had deepened the reserve of a nature at all times undemonstrative. It
had hardened a will that was already of an iron quality. It had deepened
and broadened a fine understanding of human nature, and finally it had
succeeded in mellowing a tolerance that had always been his. For him
those bitter moments had proved to be the cleansing fires which had
produced nothing but pure gold.

Now the memory of those dread moments was stirring afresh. But despair
had no place in the emotions it provoked. It was all the other extreme.
A world of glad hope had taken possession of him. A gladness
unspeakable, almost overpowering. A great impulse drove him now. It was
a sort of wild desire to yield to the amazing madness of it all, and cry
from the house-tops of his little world all that was clamouring for
unrestrained expression.

But the man had no more power to yield to this wild surge of feeling
than he had had power to yield to the despair of former years. So, for a
while, his voice remained silent, and only his lighting eyes gave index
of the thought and feeling behind them.

With the departure of Marcel and Keeko for the mother welcome of An-ina,
Steve also returned to the store. He came to release the willing
creature, yearning for that moment when she could revel in the joy of
the contemplation of her boy's happiness.

Steve took his place in the traffic that was going on, and nodded
soberly to the eager, dusky woman.

"Get right along, An-ina," he said kindly. "Guess they're needing you."

"Oh, yes? Marcel - Keeko." An-ina's eyes lit.

"Sure - and Keeko."

And the man's smile as he turned to the waiting customers was something
An-ina, at least, was never likely to forget.

Steve contemplated many things for that night. He contemplated unlocking
the doors of those hidden secrets of his life to which no one had been
admitted. But disappointment awaited him.

When the last of the Sleepers took their departure and the store was
closed for the night he passed into the kitchen for his supper. He
looked to find Keeko. He looked to find Marcel. He looked to revel in
those moments of happiness which still seemed utterly unreal, even
impossible. There were so many things he still had to learn before - -

But An-ina had all the wisdom of a great mother. And, in response to his
question, he received the final verdict from which there was no appeal.

"Keeko all beat to death," she said, with quiet assurance. "She sleep
plenty. Oh, yes. Marcel he much angry with An-ina."

She glanced swiftly across at the great figure of Marcel, lounging over
the cook-stove, smoking with the happy content of a luxurious dreamer.
The smile that responded to An-ina's sly glance was one of boyish
shyness and held no threat of displeasure.

"Guess An-ina packed her to bed, Uncle Steve," he explained. "Keeko
hadn't a notion that way, but it didn't signify with An-ina. She
reckoned Keeko ought to be plumb beat and needing her bed. So she just
handed her supper, and gave her her own bed to sleep in."

Steve glanced from one to the other. Then, in his ready way he nodded.

"Guess An-ina got these things better than you and me, boy," he said.
"Anyway where other folks are concerned. There's only herself she don't
know about. Guess we can feed ourselves for once, while she finds the
blankets she's mostly ready to pass on to other folks."

A flicker of disappointment passed over the dusky face of the woman. But
there was no demur. She understood. Steve wanted Marcel to himself for
this, his first evening. So she bowed to the man's will.

With her going the two men sat in at the supper table. And of the two it
was only Marcel who did real justice to the plain fare An-ina's hands
had set out for them. The lover in Marcel left him still a giant that
needed bodily support. But with Steve there was a burden of thought and
emotion that left food the last thing to be desired.

For some moments there was a silence between them while the steaming tea
was poured from the iron pot on the corner of the stove. Each man helped
himself from the great dish of dry hash set for them. Steve helped
himself from sheer habit. Marcel ate hungrily.

It was Marcel who broke the silence. He was in no mood for silence.
There were many things seeking outlet in his mind. But paramount was the
all-dominating subject of Keeko.

"Say, Uncle," he cried suddenly, "isn't she just great? Isn't she - - ?"

Steve nodded.

"She's greater," he said, with twinkling eyes.

Marcel's eyes widened as he stared across at the man whose sympathy he
most desired.

"You're laffing at me," he said quickly.

Steve shook his head.

"No," he said. "I just mean that."

"You do?"

"Yes. There isn't a thing you could say, boy, to make that girl greater
in my eyes." Steve laid down the fork on his enamelled plate, and drank
some tea. "Say, the story of it all's so queer I can't get the full grip
of it. Maybe I will in time. When I've thought. Yes, it's queer. And the
queerest of it is you bringing her along to us the way you have."

For a moment his reflective eyes gazed away into the distance. Then
alert and full of simple sincerity, they came back to the face of the
youth beyond the lamp which stood between them.

"But I want to say right here that I'd sooner see you married to this
girl, Keeko, than any other woman in the whole darn world. The day that
sees her your wife'll give me a happiness you can't just dream about.
Does that make you feel right? I hope so, boy, I hope it bad."

There was no need for the older man's question. The answer was looking
back at him out of Marcel's eyes, which were shining with a boyish
delight.

"Thanks, Uncle," he returned for lack of better expression. Then, in a
moment, it seemed as if he could contain himself no longer. And words
literally tumbled from his lips. They were hot, frank impulsive words,
all unconsidered, all straight from an honest heart. "Say, you've just
been everything to me. You and An-ina. And I've never had a chance to
make return or do a thing. Oh, I know. But for you An-ina and I would
have been left to chase the country with no better lot than the darn
Sleepers. I've thought and thought. And I know. You've helped me grow a
man. You've taught me life. You've taught me just everything one man can
teach another. Oh, I guess I'm grateful. I feel so I can't ever repay
you. I've wanted to. I want that way now. And, say, you can't ever stop
me again. You're glad I'm going to marry Keeko. Why, it just means all
the world to me. Now I'm a man. I'm no fool kid any longer. The summer
trail's over for me, and I'm going to take my place in the great fight
you've been making all these years. You can't deny me - now. I - I won't
stand for it - - "

Steve's smiling shake of the head brought the boy to a blank-eyed stop.

"The fight's won," he said. "There's no more fight for us."

"You mean - - ?"

Steve jerked his dark head in the direction of the store-house.

"It's full," he said. "Full, plumb up, of green weed. There's thousands
of the deadly lily blooms in there, packed and ready for Seal Bay.
Lorson Harris has lost the dirty game he's playing, and now - now he'll
just have to pay us all we choose to ask."

Marcel's food was forgotten. He stared across the table, blank amazement
looking out of his eyes.

"You've found it? The growing weed? You've brought it home? Uncle!"

"Yes." Never were Steve's eyes more sober. Never were they less
emotional. "You were full up to Keeko when you came along so I didn't
tell you. Two sled loads. As heavy as we could bank 'em up. I figure,
according to your father's reckoning of the stuff, there's well-nigh a
fortune lying back in that place." He paused and drew a deep breath.
"Yes. I got the trail. We can help ourselves. It's right in the heart of
Unaga, where the world's afire, like hell opened up from below. Say,
boy, I've seen wonders, the like I never dreamed about, and we beat all
this country could set up to keep safe its secrets. We passed through
one hell only to reach a worse. But we got it. We found it. And - the
fight's won."

Marcel forgot everything in that concise narrative of Steve's success.
All his lover's selfishness faded before the tremendous significance of
that final great adventure. He even forgot his own disappointment that
he had not been permitted to share in it. This great thing had happened,
the fulfilment of the dream that had been theirs. Then in a moment he
remembered. A thought, an apprehension flashed swiftly through his mind.
Lorson Harris! The man - Nicol!

"Is it finished?" he cried, with a swift change of manner. "Or is it
only just beginning? Say, Uncle - you've forgot. Harris! This feller we
brought you word of. Say - - "

Steve shook his head.

"It's finished," he said, with a ring in his voice that carried absolute
conviction. "Oh, yes, it was like you to spare no effort to make home
with warning. I'm not blinded. Keeko made the journey to you with word,
but it was you who forced that journey through the haf thaw to save
An-ina and me. I can see you driving through as man never drove before,
and I guess I get the feeling that made you pass the credit on to Keeko.
But I allow she'll have a different yarn of that journey. Anyway,
there's no worry to this thing. I care nothing for Lorson Harris, or
this scum - Nicol. We've the growing weed. And the battle's won."

For moments Marcel had no answer in face of Steve's denial, so sternly
confident and assured. Young and impulsive as he was the force of the
older man was still irresistible. He drew out his pipe and filled it
thoughtfully, and finally disappointment took possession of him.

"Then there's nothing - nothing more? It's done?"

Just a shadow of eagerness crept into Marcel's final question. He felt
he was being robbed of the last chance of making return and proving his
manhood to the man who had given up his life to him.

Steve was swift to read the prompting of the other's words. He laughed
silently, gently, and his eyes were alight with deep affection.

"No. There's things to do yet," he said. "Oh, yes. There's a whole heap.
Your father didn't reckon to quit on the first load. He reckoned to help
the world with all his knowledge and body. And that's what I figger to
do - with your help."

"Ah!"

"Guess I see it this way. This summer sees you and Keeko in Seal Bay. Me
too. We've to trade our weed. And I guess, if it suits your fancy, we'll
find the passon feller, that can't kick religion into that township,
ready to fix you and Keeko up. After that there's the winter trail for
us both, for just as many seasons as you fancy. We've a mighty big work
still, before we strip the heart of Unaga of the treasure the world
needs."

In the reaction from his disappointment Marcel's generous nature
asserted itself. He saw himself at last admitted to that which he
considered the work of manhood. And he sought to embrace it all.

"But you, Uncle," he cried earnestly. "Is there need? Why should you
have to go on? Think of all you've done. Why, say - pass the work to me,
and take an easy."

Steve's eyes promptly denied him.

"Easy?" He shook his head. "Why should I? Guess the north country's mine
for keeps, boy. And when my time gets around I hope it finds me beating
up the dogs at 40° below, with a hell fire blizzard sweeping down off
the Arctic ice."

* * * * *

Steve was abroad early next morning. He had talked long and late with
Marcel over-night, and their talk had been mostly of Keeko and her life,
as the lover knew it. Never, to the moment they parted for the night,
did Steve display weariness of the subject of their talk. To Marcel it
seemed natural enough that this should be so. But then he was little
more than twenty, and in love. Steve's urgency for detail must have been
pathetic to any onlooker. To Marcel it was only another exhibition of
his goodness and sympathy for himself.

Steve had little enough sleep after he left the boy. For once in a hardy
lifetime he lay under his blankets with a mind feverishly alert. He was
yearning for the passing of night. He was well-nigh crazy for the sun of
the morrow. Yet withal a wonderful happiness robbed him of all
irritation at his wakefulness.

So it came in the chill dawn of a perfect spring morning, in which only
the melting snow had reason to weep, he was moving abroad in heavy boots
wading through the slush which would soon be past. He watched the sun
rise from its nightly slumber, and its brilliant light amidst the
passing clouds of night was a sign to him. It was the dawn of his great
day. It was the passing of his years-long night.

As the clouds dropped away and vanished below the horizon, leaving the
sun safely enthroned, an amazing jewel set in the world's azure canopy,
he passed again into the store. Even on this great day habit remained.
He replenished the stoves, and set the boilers of water in place for
An-ina. After that he passed out again, and made his way to the
store-house that held his secret.

He adjusted a mask upon his mouth and nostrils and tasted again the
sickening drug he had learned to hate. He unfastened the door and passed
within. For a long time he remained with the door closed behind him.
Later he reappeared, and, removing his mask, passed out into the pure
air of the morning. He secured the door behind him.

Absorbed in thought, his eyes unsmiling, he was making his way back to
the main building. It was not until he had almost reached the door that
he became aware of An-ina's presence. It was her voice that caused him
to look up.

"Look," she cried in her soft tones, and pointed.

Steve followed the direction of her lean brown finger. Marcel and Keeko
were standing in the great gateway of the stockade.

Steve's smile was good to see and An-ina responded in sympathy.

"They love. Sure. Oh, yes," she said.

Steve nodded. He was gazing at the tall, graceful figure of Keeko. He
seemed to have no eyes for the boy at all. Keeko, in her mannish clothes
of buckskin, her beaded, fur-trimmed tunic which revealed the
shapeliness of her youthful body. The vision of it all carried his mind
back so many years.

"Keeko for Marcel. Marcel for Keeko. Yes?"

Steve drew a deep breath.

"Yes. Thank God."

He moved away. There was no ceremony between these two. Steve's love for
An-ina was built upon the unshakable foundations of perfect
understanding. He strode out towards the gates, and the lovers heard the
splash of his boots as he waded the melting snow. They turned. And it
was Marcel who made half-shamefaced explanation.

"I was telling Keeko of the weed," he said. "I was telling her of the
fire country which I guess she got a peek at last summer - from a
distance. She was asking to know the trade Lorson Harris was yearning to
steal, and the feller Nicol was ready to murder for. She guesses it's
most like a fairy yarn."

Steve's eyes were steadily regarding the girl's smiling face. He noted
the beautiful, frank, wide eyes, the perfect lips that so reminded him -

The fresh, clear, transparent cheeks forming so perfect an oval. Then
there was her fair hair escaping from beneath the soft edges of her fur
cap. She was prettier even than he had first thought.

"I allow it maybe sounds that way," he said. Then he shook his head.
"But there's nothing unreal to it. No. There's no more unreal to Adresol
than there is to the hell fires raging away out there in the heart of
Unaga, where the whole place is white like a lake of pure milk with the
bloom of the plant that breathes certain death, but which holds in its
heart the greatest benefit the world's ever known. It's all queer, I
allow. But - say - " He turned and pointed at the store-house. "It's all
there. It's baled ready for Lorson Harris to buy. You can get a peek at
it, at the stuff these folks reckoned to steal. Will you - - ?"

The invitation stirred Marcel to prompt anxiety. He laid a hand on
Keeko's soft shoulder as she prepared to move away.

"Is it safe, Uncle Steve?" he demanded hastily. "You see, Keeko's not
like - - "

"Safe? Sure." Steve produced two masks. "I've worked in there for weeks,
boy, with these things set on my face. I've worked all day and haf the
night - baling. Sure it's safe. You go, too. There's a mask for each, and
I guess they aren't just things of beauty. We'll go along over, and I'll
fix 'em for you. I kind of fancy Keeko should see what's hid up in that
store-house."

Steve led the way, and, hand in hand, like two children, the others
followed him. At the door of the store-house he paused and turned. He
stepped up to Marcel and adjusted his mask. And while he adjusted it his
eyes remained unsmiling. He was careful, infinitely careful, in the
adjustment, and in reply to the youth's protest at the nauseating taste
of the drug he was forced to inhale his retort was briefly to the point.

"Sure it's no bouquet," he said. "But it's that or a - halo, and wings
and things."

Keeko offered no protest at all. She was impressed far more than she
knew. It seemed to her that the simple trust which prompted the man's
action in revealing his secret to her, the secret Lorson Harris was
willing to pay a hundred thousand dollars for, was something too simply
wonderful for words.

With the adjustment of the masks Steve removed the fastenings that
barred the door. He held it closed a moment and turned to Marcel.

"You'll go first, boy. You'll go right in. I guess you've got the masks
so I can't come with you. I want you to take Keeko, and show it all.
Maybe you'll find things there you don't understand. That don't matter.
Maybe you can figger them out between you."

Then he turned to Keeko and his steady eyes regarded her seriously under
the disfiguring mask.

"Get a look at it all, my dear. All. But say, as you value your
life - and Marcel's and my peace of mind - don't shift that mask a hair's
breadth, no matter how you feel - looking around. When you come out you
can tell me about things."

He set the door ajar, and leading the girl by the hand Marcel passed
into the house of death.

* * * * *

Steve stood guard. He listened with straining ears. There came the faint
sound of muffled voices from within, and the sound of movement. The
moments dragged slowly. Once he thought he heard a series of sharp
exclamations. But he could not be sure. He expected them. That was all.

After awhile the voices ceased, and there only remained the shuffling of
feet whose sound drew nearer. The visit was short, as he expected it
would be. He understood. A moment later he felt pressure against the
door.

He opened it, and Keeko and Marcel returned to the open air. Without a
word Steve re-fastened the door. Marcel dragged the mask from his
troubled face and Keeko followed his example.

Steve turned from the door and stood confronting them. His eyes were
hard. They were almost fierce as he looked into the startled faces
before him.

"Well?" he demanded. Then his gaze rested on the girl. "You saw - it?"

Keeko inclined her head. She hesitated. A curious parching of throat and
tongue left her striving to moisten her trembling lips.

"Yes," she said, at last.

"And it was - Nicol?"

"Yes."

Quite suddenly Steve laughed. It was a mere expression of relief, but it
succeeded in robbing his eyes of a light which so rarely found place in
them. He pointed at the closed door.

"He came here in the night," he said. "I don't know how he came. I never
saw a sign of his outfit. Maybe they left him, as he didn't get back."

He shrugged indifference.

"It don't matter anyway. I was at work. Same as I'd been at work nights.
I'd a lamp burning. Maybe he saw me through the window. I guess that was
so. The door was shut, but unfastened. I didn't dare keep it fast,
working in there. Well, I heard a sound. The door was pushed wide and he
jumped in on me with a loaded gun at my vitals. He'd got me plumb set.
Sure. But the dope. It didn't give him a chance. It got a strangle-holt
right away, and he dropped dead at my feet. He's - he's your step-father?
The man you came to warn me of?"

"Yes."

Steve nodded.

"Here, let's quit this place. Guess it's not wholesome standing around.
Pass me the masks. We'll get right over to the sheds. There, where it's
dry, and we can sit. There's things I need to tell you right away. Both
of you."

* * * * *

Marcel and Keeko were sitting side by side on one of the sleds which had
not yet been completely unloaded. Steve was squatting on an up-turned
box that had been used to contain food stores for the trail. He was
facing them, and his back was towards the building of the store. It was
rather the picture of two children listening to some wonderful fairy
story, told in the staid tones of a well-loved parent. Never for a
moment was attention diverted. Never was interruption permitted. Even
the approach of An-ina passed unremarked.

And as Steve talked a beam of sunlight fell athwart his sturdy figure,
lightening its rough clothing, and surrounding him with a penetrating
light that revealed the sprinkling of grey beginning to mar the dark hue
of his ample hair. The lines, too, in his strong face, fine-drawn and
scarcely noticeable ordinarily, the searching sun of spring had no mercy
upon.

"Oh, it's a heap long way back," he said, "and I guess it all belongs to
me. Anyway it did till Keeko got around. Say, you need to think of a
crazy sort of feller who guessed that most all there was in life was to
make good for the woman he loved, and the poor girl kiddie she'd borne



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 29 of 30)