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The man laughed up into the smiling, admonishing eyes of the woman who
meant so much to him.

"Hell!" he cried. "What would you have me do? Isn't it my job to see
those poor devils right? Why, they'd lap up dope till you couldn't tell
'em from a New York drug store. The fouler it tastes the more surely
they come back for more. I'd say I've lengthened the sick list of this
reserve till you'd think it was a Free Hospital, and there wasn't a
healthy neche, squaw, or pappoose north of 60°."

Millie picked up the hat he had flung on the side table and hung it on a
peg of the coat rack.

"What would I have you do?" she said, ignoring the rest of his remarks
for the thought in her mind, and coming back to his chair and resting
her plump hand on his crisp hair. "Why something else besides think of
these scalliwag Indians. I'm all worried to death about Nita Allenwood
and Steve."

The man stirred uneasily under the caressing fingers.

"So am I," he cried brusquely. "Well?"

"That's just what it isn't," Millie had withdrawn her hand. She moved to
the doorway and gazed out into the sunlight. "I want to do something and
just don't know how to do it. I know you hate folks who 'slop over.' But
just think of the position. Steve's going to be away for two years,
according to his reckoning. They've sent Corporal Munday to take over
his post in his absence. What - what on earth is Nita to do in his
absence? She'll get her rations, and her pay, and all that. But - she
can't live around the post sort of keeping house for this boy - Munday.
She can't live there by herself anyway. Think of her by that shack with
her kiddie. Two years, here in a country - - Besides - "

"'Besides' nothing," exclaimed the man with that curious irritation of a
troubled mind. "Is there need of 'besides' when you think of a
good-looker girl who's barely twenty-two, with as dandy a baby as I've
ever set eyes on, and who I helped into daylight, sitting around without
her husband in a country that's peopled with white men whose morals
would disgrace a dog-wolf? Two years! Why, it makes me sweat thinking.
If that feller Steve don't see my way of looking at things I'm going to
tell him just what his parents ought to've been."

"And what's your way of thinking, Mac?" enquired his wife with the
confidence of certain knowledge.

"My way? My way?" the man exploded, his blue eyes widening with
incredulity. "Why, the way he's got to look. The way sense lies. That
girl and her kiddie have got to come right along here and camp with us
till the boy gets back. There's going to be no darn nonsense," he added
threateningly, as though Millie were protesting. "She's going to come
right here, where you can keep your dandy eye on her till - - "

"Eyes - plural, Mac." Millie's smile was a goodly match for the summer
day.

The doctor flung his head back in a deep-throated guffaw.

"Have it your own way," he cried. "One or two, they don't miss much.
Anyway, I guessed I'd put it to you before I went over to fix things
up."

"Sure," laughed Millie comfortably. "You most generally ask my consent
before you get busy." Then, in a moment, she became serious. "But you're
right, Mac," she said. "Dora and I have been talking that way ever since
we heard. And Mabel swears she's going to write the Commissioner of
Police all she thinks about it, and that's 'some.' It's cruel sending
off a married man on a trip like that without fixing things for his
wife. You see and fix things, Mac. Nita's just as welcome as a ray of
sunshine right here with us. It's a shame! It's a wicked downright
shame! And Steve ought to know better than to stand for it. He ought
to - - "

"He can't kick." The man shook his head. "He's looking to get a
superintendentship. A kick would fix that for good. No, he's got no kick
coming. You need to understand the Police force right. It's no use
talking that way. It's the work of the force first, last, and all the
time. Everything else is nowhere, and the womenfolk, whom they
discourage, last of all. And mind you, they're right. You can't run a
family, and this hellish country at the same time. If the Police weren't
what they were it would need seventy thousand of them instead of seven
hundred to make this territory better than a sink of crime for every low
down skunk who can't keep out of penitentiary anywhere else. This thing
has me so worried I haven't appetite enough to care it's gone my feed
time by a quarter hour. Isn't Miss Prue through with the darn potatoes,
or - something?"

Millie laughed indulgently.

"I'll get along and see. You see, Miss Prue's a good and God-fearing
squaw, when she isn't smoking her pipe or sitting asleep over the
cook-stove. Anyway, I'll chase her up," and she bustled off in the
direction of the kitchen.

Left to himself Ian Ross forgot entirely that he was awaiting his
dinner. His deep-set eyes were turned to the view beyond the door, and
his thoughts were still further afield. He was thinking of the pretty,
eager face he had watched at the bachelors' dance at Deadwater. He was
thinking of the men who had approached Nita with the ceremony which had
so delighted her. He was old enough and wise enough to appreciate fully
the dangers she would be confronted with in Steve's absence, dangers
which it was more than likely Steve could not realize.

He liked Steve. For all their disparity of years a great friendship
existed between them. Steve was a man who would succeed in anything he
undertook. The doctor was sure of that. But - and this was the matter
that troubled him most - Steve had utter and complete faith in his wife,
the same as he had in all those who possessed his regard. Steve was a
man of single, simple purpose. Strong as a lion in the open battle where
the danger was apparent, but in the more subtle dangers of life he was a
child.

Well, there were men in their world who constituted just one of those
grave subtle dangers to Steve in Steve's absence. Ian Ross shared with
everybody else the hatred of Hervey Garstaing. He had seen Garstaing and
Nita together at the dance. He had seen them together at other times.
Oh, - he had never seen anything that was not perhaps perfectly
legitimate. But he knew Hervey Garstaing better than most people at
Deadwater. He saw far more of him than he desired. And Hervey was a
good-looking man. Nita was young and full of a youthful desire for a
good time. And then Hervey was also an unscrupulous hound whom it would
have given the doctor the greatest pleasure in life to shoot.

* * * * *

Ian Ross laughed out loud as he strode through the woods on his way to
the police post. A thought had occurred to him which pleased his simple
mind mightily. It was not a very profound thought. And the humour of it
was difficult to detect. But it pleased him, and he had to laugh, and
when he laughed the echoes rang. It had occurred to him that it took a
man of real brain to be a perfect "damn fool."

The inspiration of his thought was undoubtedly Steve Allenwood. Steve
Allenwood and his affairs had occupied his thoughts all the morning, and
had interfered with a due appreciation of the dinner he had just eaten.
He was perturbed, and Millie had set the match to the powder train of
his emotions and energies. His admiration for Steve was as unstinted as
his sympathy for the call that had been suddenly made on him. But he
knew Steve, and realized the difficulties that lay before him in
carrying out the programme of kindly purpose Millie and he had worked
out over their midday meal. It was this which had brought him to the
conclusion which had inspired his laugh.

In that brief instant the complete silence of the woods about him had
been broken up in startling fashion. No shot from a rifle, no mournful
cry of timber-wolf could disturb the spell of nature like the jarring
note of the human voice.

But it had another effect. It elicited a response no less startling to
the man who had laughed.

"Ho you, Mac!"

Ian Ross halted. He had recognized the voice instantly.

"That you, Steve?"

"Sure," came back the reply.

Instantly the Scotsman's lack of self-consciousness became apparent.

"How in hell did you know it was me?"

It was the turn of the invisible police officer to laugh.

"Guess there's only one laugh like yours north of 60° - less a bull moose
can act that way." Then he went on. "Sharp to your left. I'm down here
on the creek. I was making your place and this way cuts off quite a
piece."

Ross turned off at once and his burly figure crashed its way through the
barrier of delicate-hued spruce. A moment later he was confronting the
officer on the bank of the creek.

Steve's smile was one of cordial welcome.

"I was figgering to get you before you went back to the agency," he said
in explanation.

The doctor's eyes twinkled.

"And I was guessing to get you - before I went."

Steve nodded.

"We were chasing each other."

"Which is mostly a fool stunt."

"Mostly."

They stood smiling into each other's eyes for a moment.

"You were needing me - particular?" Steve enquired after a pause.

Ross glanced down at the gurgling water of the shallow stream as it
passed over its rough gravel bed.

"I was needing a yarn. Nothing amiss at the post? You wanted
me - particular?"

The smile in Steve's eyes deepened.

"No. I was needing a - yarn."

The doctor's twinkling eyes searched the clearing. A fallen tree was
sprawling near by, with its upper boughs helping to cascade the waters
of the stream. He pointed at it.

"Guess we don't need to wear our legs out."

Steve laughed shortly.

"That's where the neches beat us every time. You need to sit at a
pow-wow."

"Sure. Their wise men sit most all the time."

They moved over to the tree trunk, and Ross accepted the extreme base of
it and sat with his back against the up-torn roots. Steve sat astride
the trunk facing him. Then by a common impulse the men produced their
pipes. Steve's was alight first and he held a match for the other.

"You were chasing me up?" he said. "Nothing on the Reserve?"

"No." The doctor's pipe was glowing under the efforts of his powerful
lungs. "Most of the neches are sleeping off the dope. It's queer how
they're crazy for physic. How's Nita and the kiddie? I haven't seen
Nita since the dance."

Steve's smile died out quite suddenly. The doctor's observant eyes lost
nothing of the change, although the sunshine on the dancing waters
seemed to absorb his whole attention.

"Guess little Coqueline absorbs more bottles to the twenty-four hours
than you'd ever guess she was made to fit," Steve replied with a half
laugh. "She kind of reminds you of one of those African sand rivers in
the rainy season. Nita's the same as usual. She had a good time at the
dance."

"Yes." The doctor bestirred himself and withdrew his gaze from the
tumbling waters. "You had something to say to me," he demanded abruptly,
his blue eyes squarely challenging.

Steve nodded. A half smile lit his steady eyes.

"Sure. And - it isn't easy."

The Scotsman returned the half smile with interest.

"I haven't noticed it hard for folks to talk, unless it is to tell of
their own shortcomings. Guess you aren't figgering that way. Maybe I can
help you. I'd hate to be setting out on a two years' trip and leaving
Millie to scratch around without me."

Steve's eyes lit.

"That's it, Doc," he said with a nod which told the other of the
emotions stirring under his calm exterior. "Two years!" He laughed
without any amusement. "It may be more, a hell of a sight. Maybe even I
won't get back. You see, you never can figger what this north country's
got waiting on you. It's up in the Unaga country. And I guess it's new
to me. I'd say it's new to anyone. It's mostly a thousand miles I've got
to make, right up somewhere on the north-west shores of Hudson's Bay."

"A - thousand miles! It's tough." Dr. Ross shook his head.

"An' it comes at a bad time for me," Steve went on thoughtfully. "Still,
I guess it can't be helped. You see, it's murder! Or they reckon it is.
A letter got through from Seal Bay. That's on the Hudson coast. The
Indian Department don't know where it comes from. It seems to have been
handed in by an Indian named Lupite. The folks tried to get out of him
where he came from, but I guess he didn't seem to know. Anyway he didn't
tell them. He said Unaga, and kind of indicated the north. Just the
north. Well, it isn't a heap to go on. Still, that's the way of these
things. I've got to locate the things the folks at Seal Bay couldn't
locate. It seems there's a biggish trading post way up hidden somewhere
on the plateau of Unaga. It was run by two partners, and they had a sort
of secret trade. The man at Seal Bay - Lorson Harris - reckons it's a hell
of an important trade. The names of these traders were Marcel Brand - a
chemist - and Cy Allshore, a pretty tough northern man. These fellers
used to come down and trade at Seal Bay. Well, I don't know much more
except this letter came into Seal Bay - it's written in a woman's hand
and in English - to say her husband, Marcel Brand, and this, Cy Allshore,
have been murdered. And she guesses by Indians. She don't seem dead
sure. But they've been missing over a year. I'm just handing you this so
you'll know the sort of thing I'm up against. And I've got to leave
Nita, and my little baby girl, for two years - sure."

The kindly doctor nodded. He removed his pipe, and cleared his throat.
His eyes were alight with a ready smile that was full of sympathy.

"Say, you haven't got to worry a thing for them that way," he said.
"It's tough leaving them. Mighty tough. I get all that. And it sort of
makes me wonder. But - Say, it's queer," he went on. "I was coming right
along over to help fix things for you. And I was scared to death
wondering how to do it without butting in. You were coming along over to
me to set the same sort of proposition, and were scared to death I'd
feel like turning you down. One of these days some bright darn fool'll
fix up mental telepathy to suit all pocket-books. It'll save us all a
deal of worry when that comes along. Now if that mental telepathy were
working right now it would be handing the things passing in your head
something like this: 'Why in hell can't that damned dope merchant, and
that dandy woman who don't know better than to waste her time being his
wife, come right along and fix something so Nita and the kiddie ain't
left lonesome and unprotected while I'm away.' That's the kind of
message I'd be getting from you. And you'd be getting one from me
something in this way: 'If I don't screw up the two measly cents' worth
of courage I've got, and go right across to Steve, and put the
proposition Millie and I are crazy to make, why - why, Millie'll beat my
brains out with a flat iron, and generally make things eternally
unpleasant.' Having got these messages satisfactorily you and I would
have set out - on the same path, mind. We'd have met right here: I should
have said, 'Steve, my boy, your little gal Nita and that bright little
bit of a bottle worrier you call your baby are coming right over to make
their homes with Millie, and the gals, and me, till you get back. We're
going to do just the best we know for them - same as we would for our
own. It's going to be a real comfort for us to have them, and something
more than a pleasure, and if you don't let 'em come - well, we'll be most
damnably disappointed!' And you, being a straight, sound-thinking man in
the main, but with a heap of notions that aren't always sound, but
which you can't just help, would say: 'See, right here, Doc, I don't
approve boosting my burdens on other folks' shoulders. That's not my
way, but anyway I'll be mighty thankful not to disappoint you, and to go
away feeling my bits of property aren't lying around at the mercy of a
country, and a race of folk that'll always remain a blot on any
Creator's escutcheon!' Having said all this we'd likely go on talking
for awhile about the folks and things we know, such as the men of our
acquaintance who reckon they're white, and the rotten acts they do
because rye whisky and the climate of the Northland's killed the only
shreds of conscience they ever had. And then - why, maybe then we just
part, and go back to our work feeling what darn fine fellers we are, and
how almighty glad we are we aren't as - the other folk."

The smile which the doctor's whimsical manner had provoked in Steve's
eyes was good to see. An overwhelming gratitude urged him to verbal
thanks, but somehow a great feeling deep down on his heart forbade such
expression.

"You mean - all that, Doc?" he said almost incredulously at last.

The other raised his broad loose shoulders expressively.

"I wish it was more."

Steve breathed a deep sigh. He shook his head. Then, with an impulsive
movement, he thrust out one powerful hand.

Just for one moment the two men gripped in silence.

"I'll fix it with Nita," Steve said, as their hands fell apart.

"Yep. And Millie and the gals will go along over. She can't refuse
them."

Steve flashed a sharply enquiring look into the other's eyes.

"Why should she want to?" he demanded.

The doctor suddenly realized the doubt he had implied. His own train of
thought had found unconscious expression.

"There isn't a reason in the world," he protested, "except - she's a
woman."

But his reply, for all its promptness, entirely missed its purpose. It
failed completely to banish the trouble which had displaced the smile in
Steve's eyes.

When Steve spoke his voice was low, and he seemed to be speaking to
himself rather than to his companion.

"That's so," he said at last. And Ian Ross knew there was more in
Steve's mind than the fear of the common dangers to which his wife and
child would be exposed in his absence. How much he did not know. Perhaps
he had no desire to know. Anyway, being a man of some wisdom, being
possessed of a home, and a wife, and family of his own, he applied
himself assiduously to the pipe which never failed to soothe his
feelings, however much they might be disturbed.

* * * * *

It was exactly a week from the time he had received his instructions
that Steve's preparations were completed and the hour of his departure
came round.

The afternoon was well advanced. Already the brilliant sun was drooping
towards the misty range of lofty hills which cut the western skyline in
the region of the Peace River country. Steve's horse was saddled and
bridled, and tethered to the post outside the office door, where
Corporal Munday was seated upon the sill awaiting the departure.

The "outfit" was already on the trail. That had left at sunrise. Its
preparations had been simple, and even spare. But it was adequate. Steve
and his Indians knew to the last fraction the requirements of a journey
such as lay before them. Year in, year out, they were accustomed to
preparations for the long trail. This was longer than usual. That was
all.

The officer's plans were considered to the last detail. Nothing that
could be foreseen was neglected. Every stage of the journey to the Unaga
country was measured in his mind, both for time and distance. Only the
elements were perforce omitted from his calculations. This was in the
nature of things. The elemental side of his undertaking was
incalculable.

His way lay due north for a while along the course of the great Caribou
River. This would bring him to the half-breed settlement at the Landing
on the great lakes. It would also take him through the country of the
Hiada Indians. Arrived at Ruge's trading post at the Landing, his horses
and police, half-spring wagons would be left to the trader's care, for
beyond this point their services would be dispensed with.

The second stage of the journey would be by water and portage. In this
neighbourhood, where the wilderness of sparsely travelled country opened
out, he would make for the headwaters of the beautiful Theton River. The
river of a hundred lakes draining a wide tract of wooded country. It was
a trail which was not unfamiliar; for his work not infrequently carried
him into the territory of peaceful Caribou-Eater Indians, who so often
became the victims of the warlike, hot-headed Yellow-Knives.

The river journey he calculated should bring him to Fort Duggan at the
height of summer, and it was without any feeling of enthusiasm that he
contemplated that fly-and-mosquito-ridden country at such a time of
year. But it was necessary, and so he was left without alternative. Fort
Duggan was the deserted ruin of an old-time trading post, it was the
home of the Shaunekuk Indians who were half Eskimo. It was also the
gate of the mystery land of Unaga.

Unaga! The riddle of the wide northern-world. The land from which weird,
incredible stories percolated through to the outside. They were stories
of wealth. They were stories of savage romance. They were stories of the
weird, terrible, and even monstrous. It was a land so unexplored as to
be reputed something little better than a sealed book even to the
intrepid Arctic explorer, who, at so great an expenditure of physical
effort and courage, rarely accomplishes more than the blazing of a trail
which seals up again behind him, and adds his toll to the graveyard
which claims so many of the world's dauntless souls.

Unaga! The land unknown to the white man. And yet - news had come of the
murder of two white men within its secret heart. Therefore the machinery
of white man's law was set in motion, and the long, lean arm was
reaching out.

Not less than a thousand miles of weary toil and infinite peril lay
before Steve and his two Indian helpers. And a second thousand miles
before the little home at Deadwater could hope to see him again. It was
an overwhelming thought. Small blame to the heart that quailed before
such an undertaking.

Steve had no thought for the immensity of the labour confronting him. He
had no thought for anything but the purpose of his life. He knew that
successful completion of the work before him would set the seal to his
ambitions. He would then be able to lay at the feet of the girl who was
the mother of his child the promotion to Superintendentship which should
take her away from the dreary life of hardship which he knew to be so
rapidly undermining that moral strength which was not abundantly hers.

These were the moments of the man's farewell to all that made up the
spiritual side of his earthly life. It might be a final farewell. He
could not tell. He knew the perils that lay ahead of him. But a great,
passionate optimism burned deep down in his heart and refused him
thought of disaster.

He was in the partially dismantled parlour with Nita and his baby girl.
The last detail for the future of these two had been considered and
prepared. At the moment of his going, Nita, too, would bid farewell to
the post. And the precious home, the work of months of happy labour,
would be passed on to the service of Steve's successor.

It was a moment that would surely live in the hearts of both. It was a
moment when tearful eyes would leave to memory a picture perhaps to
lighten the dreary months to come, a sign, a beacon, a consolation and
support, a living hope for the painful months of separation when no word
or sign could pass between them. They were moments sacred to husband and
wife, upon which no earthly eyes have right to gaze.

The door opened and Steve passed out into the smiling sunshine. His
steady eyes were dull and lustreless. His firm lips were a shade more
tightly compressed. For the rest his limbs moved vigorously, his step
lacked nothing of its wonted Spring.

As he left the doorway his place was taken by Nita, who bore the waking
infant Coqueline in her arms. Both were dressed ready to pass on to
their new home.

Steve was clad for the summer trail, and his leather chapps creaked, and
his spurs clanked as he passed round to the tying post at which his
horse was tethered. Force of habit made him test the cinchas of his
saddle before mounting.

He spoke over his shoulder to the man who had risen to his feet at his
coming.

"Guess you got everything right, Corporal?" he said.

"Everything, sir."

"Good. My diary's right up to date," Steve went on. "Things are quiet
just now. They'll get busy later."

He swung into the saddle and held out a hand.

"So long," he said, as the Corporal promptly gripped it.

"So long, sir. And - good luck."

"Thanks."

The horse moved away and Steve passed round to Nita. He drew rein
opposite the door but did not dismount.

"Let's - get another peck at her, Nita," he said, and it almost seemed as



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 3 of 30)