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gaze from the grim picture of winter's approach.

In a moment Steve's pre-occupation vanished. He smiled down on the
fascinating little bundle of furs as he replied.

"Oolak, old fellow, Oolak, and Uncle Steve's outfit. Guess he's got
uncle's bed, and all his food."

"Wot food?"

Interest in such a subject superceded all interest in the sunset. Little
Marcel's eyes were eagerly enquiring as they gazed up into those of his
new found friend.

"Why, there's some frozen black-tail deer. Maybe there's a jack rabbit
or so. Then I guess there's biscuit, and coffee, and tea, and maybe even
sugar."

The boy nodded appreciatively.

"I likes 'em," he said. Then after a moment. "I likes plenty sugar.
There's sugar at the store. My Mummy, hers keep it for me cos I likes
'em."

Steve understood. He interpreted the announcement in his own fashion. He
knew that stores were running short, and that those others, those two
devoted women, were hoarding the last remains of their sugar for the
little life that needed it.

He turned abruptly towards the horizon again. Perhaps he did not desire
the eyes of the child to witness the feeling he had stirred.

He need have had no fear. At that moment the boy's treble shrilled with
excitement.

"Look, Uncle Steve!" he cried pointing. "Him's Oolak. Wiv dogs, an'
sled, an' food, an' everything. Him's coming down - "

But he waited for no more. He waited for no reply. He waited for no
guiding mandate. He raced off across the frozen surface of the snow as
fast as his jolly little legs could carry him. It seemed as if he
considered anything or anyone belonging to "Uncle Steve" to be also part
of his small life, and was entitled to all the welcome he could give.

Steve watched the little fellow with a tender smile. He was so small, so
full of happy life and engaging simplicity. Then he had such a wonderful
picture face, with its fringe of curling hair which thrust its way out
from under the thick, arctic helmet of fur which was part of his outer
clothing. For a moment, as he bundled over the snow like a brown woolly
ball, Steve wondered how he managed it, so encased was his small figure
in seal-skin. But he did, and his high-pitched greeting to the man with
the dog train floated back upon the still, cold air as he floundered
farther and farther away.

"Hello! - hello! - hello!"

The greeting came back at intervals. And Steve wondered at the feelings
of the silent Oolak when he heard that voice, and saw that baby figure
sprinting and wobbling over the snow towards him.

"Missis gone - dead."

"Gone - dead!"

Steve turned with a start. He was looking into the handsome face of the
squaw, An-ina, whose words he had echoed.

"Missis all gone - dead!" the squaw repeated with a solemn inclination of
the head.

But the re-affirmation was unneeded. Full confirmation was in her wide
dark eyes, which were full of every grievous emotion short of tears.
Tears were something of which her stoic Indian nature was incapable.
But Steve knew well enough the weight of grief which lay behind the
stricken expression which looked out of the enveloping hood of the
woman's tunic of seal.

For a moment he gazed into An-ina's face in helpless silence. For the
moment the tragedy of the whole thing left him groping. He knew this
woman had come to him seeking guidance. In that moment of disaster he
felt that the destiny of little Marcel and his devoted nurse had been
flung into his hands.

"Come," he said with swift decision. "We'll get right back - to her."

* * * * *

Steve was at the bedside. He was bending low over the still, calm
figure, so straight, so rigid under the blanket covering. He was reading
for himself, and in his own way, the brief account of those last moments
when her spirit had yielded before those other overwhelming powers it
had been impossible to resist.

Every disfiguring line of suffering had passed out of the beautiful,
youthful face. For all the marble coldness which had taken possession of
it Steve realized something of the splendid, smiling, courageous
womanhood which had struggled so recklessly in support of the man for
whom she had given up her life. And the full force of the tragedy of it
all found a deep echo of pitying admiration in his heart. It seemed to
him that the hand of Providence had fallen hard, and, in his human
understanding, with more than questionable justice.

His examination completed he turned to the dusky creature at his side.

"I guess her sufferings are over - sure. Her poor soul's gone to join her
man, and the boy's just - alone."

The squaw's dark eyes were soft with that velvet look so peculiar to
the Indian woman in moments of deep emotion.

"Maybe it best so," she said, in a manner which bespoke long association
with white folk. "Him good woman. Him suffer much - so much. Poor - poor
Missis. It not him fault. Oh, no. Him think all the time for her man,
an' little Marcel. Oh, yes. Not think nothing else all time. This devil
man come. Him kill her man. She not know. Poor Missis. She not think.
Only so she please her man. So this devil man kill her man. So."

"What d'you mean?"

The man's gaze was compelling. Its steady light searched the soft eyes
of the squaw. The woman withstood his gaze unflinchingly. Then she
suddenly bent across, and drew the coverlet up, and tenderly hid the
face of the dead. Then she looked up again into Steve's face.

"Come," she said quietly. "I tell you."

Without waiting for reply she led the way out of the room into the store
beyond, with its bare counter, and shelves, and bins so meagrely
supplied. Steve followed without a word. He had suddenly realized that
as yet he knew only a part of the story of these people. There was more
to be told.

The store displayed much the same purpose and care which everything else
about the work of Marcel Brand revealed. The completeness of it all must
have been surprising, had not Steve understood that the chemist had come
here to carry his life's work to its logical completion. There were
signs everywhere of capacity, and unstinted expenditure of money. But
the haulage of it all. The thought was always in Steve's mind. The great
stove in the corner of the long, low room. The carpentered shelvings,
and drawers, and cupboards. The counter, too, no makeshift barrier set
up for the purposes of traffic, but with every sign of skilled
workmanship about it. He felt certain that all these things must have
been borne up the slopes of the great table-land, hauled overland, or by
water, from the workshops of civilization.

Habit was strong and An-ina moved at once to the great stove radiating
its pleasant warmth. Steve took up his position opposite her.

The squaw began at once. She had nothing to conceal from this man who
represented the law of the white men. Besides, was she not thinking of
the boy who had stolen so closely into her mother heart?

"An-ina not say to Missis all," she said, in her simple way. "Oh, no.
Missis much afraid. Much suffer. Him sick - much sick. No man - then all
gone. She 'fraid. She all break up her heart. Marcel not come. Why? Why?
An-ina know. She hear from Indian man. All Indian man know. Marcel him
all killed dead. Indian man not kill him. Oh, no. Cy Allshore him kill
him. Marcel him kill Cy too. Both kill each one. Oh, yes. Cy devil man.
Cy think him kill up Marcel. Then him have Missis - have all things. Oh,
yes. Indian man know. Indian man find both, all killed dead. Indian man
tell An-ina. An-ina say no tell Missis. Maybe she all kill dead - too.
Yes? An-ina love Missis. Love her much. She no hurt Missis. So she not
say. Oh, no."

The searching eyes of Steve never left the woman's dusky face for a
moment. They were boring their way to pierce the unemotional exterior
for the truth that lay behind.

"Say, just stop right there," he commanded. "I need to get this right.
You reckon this feller Cy - Cy Allshore was out for plunder - murder. You
guess he kind of loved your Missis, and she didn't know. He reckoned to
kill Marcel, and steal all this, and - his wife. That so?"

"Sure. That so."

"How d'you know?"

"An-ina see. An-ina have two eyes. She see all thing. Oh, yes."

"Tell me."

"How An-ina tell? She not know. She woman. She see. That all. Cy him
hard. Him have bad eye for woman. Him think money all time. Him say,
'An-ina you good squaw.' Him say, 'Cy have no squaw. Cy like squaw.'
An-ina say, no! She know. Then him hate An-ina. Him hate An-ina plenty,
big. An-ina say nothing. She not 'fraid. Cy know she maybe kill him.
Then him talk much with Missis. An-ina watch. Yes. Missis not know. Him
good woman. An-ina know. Cy bad. An-ina think her mak big talk with
Marcel. Her say much. No. Her not mak big talk. Marcel him kill Cy. Then
all thing here - no good. Oh, yes. So An-ina say nothing. So him Cy an'
Marcel go long trail. Marcel him not think nothin'. Him dream - dream.
All time dream. Cy think bad all time.

"So." An-ina shrugged expressively. "Much long time. No Cy. No Marcel.
Then Indian man mak big talk. Him say Indian man come by the big water.
What you call him?"

"Hudson's Bay?"

"No, no. Not so big water."

"Chesterfield Inlet?"

The woman's eyes cleared of their perplexity.

"So. Chest-fiel' Inlet. Him big water. Indian man come with much seal.
Him mak camp. Bimeby him mak big trail for Unaga. Then him find him
trail. Cy an' Marcel. Him follow him trail, an' bimeby him come big,
deep place. Cy an' Marcel, all gone - dead. Him dogs all gone - dead. An'
wolves eat up all flesh. Oh yes."

"How did they recognize the bones?"

"Him sled, him outfit. All 'Sleeper.' Indian man know."

"And you reckon Cy Allshore killed Marcel - murdered him?"

There was a sharpness in Steve's demand that suggested doubt. He did not
doubt the woman's story. It was her assertion that Cy had murdered his
partner. He saw no evidence for her assumption. He felt that she had
given run to her own personal feelings against the man.

"That so. I tell you," An-ina returned composedly. She read his doubt
and understood. "I not lie. Oh, no. Indian man wise. Sleeper man wise.
Not bad. No. They find him bones. All eat clean. They see big place.
They look an' look. No fall. Oh, no. No break 'em all up. No. Him say
Marcel wise man. Cy wise man. Not care for wolf. Oh, no. So him look
much. Him take him bone an' look. Him find him head - two. Maybe
Marcel - maybe Cy. Him find him hole. Little hole - big hole. Same like
each. Then him find gun. Two much little gun. Two big gun. Little gun
him both shoot. Two time - three time. Him say big fight - plenty. So. It
easy. Oh, yes. Marcel him no fight plenty. Oh, no. Him so as brother
with Cy. Cy him not so. An-ina know. Cy him steal, steal, so," An-ina
bent her lithe body in an attitude of stealing upon a victim. "Then him
little gun go - one I Marcel know. Him quick like lightning. Him
brave - much brave. Then him little gun go - one. So. Both all kill
up - dead."

For all the broken way of her talk, An-ina carried conviction. She knew
both men. And her woman's heart and mind had read Cy Allshore to the
dregs of what she believed was an infamous heart. Steve knew the danger
of accepting her story without reserve. He was convinced of her
sincerity. It would have been impossible to doubt. But - -

The sound of little Marcel's piping voice reached them from the outside.
Steve turned and glanced out of the window. Oolak was bringing in his
train, with its five powerful dogs. Julyman with a club was busy, with
little Marcel's assistance, beating off the ferocious welcome of dogs of
the post.

For a moment he watched the boy's amazing efforts. Then as the tumult
subsided he turned again to the patient woman awaiting his verdict.

"You're a good woman, An-ina," he said simply. "You've told me the whole
thing as you see it. Well, I guess I can't ask more. Anyway I'm camping
here for the winter, an' during that time I'll need to wake some of
these 'sleepers.' I've got to get out and see what happened at that 'big
place.' Later on, when the snow goes, why - Say, I guess there isn't a
thing to keep you and little Marcel around here - now."




CHAPTER VII

THE HARVEST OF WINTER


Steve was confronted with six months of desperate winter on the plateau
of Unaga. It was an outlook that demanded all the strength of his simple
faith. He was equal to the tasks lying before him, but not for one
moment did he underestimate them.

For all the harshness of the life which claimed him Steve's whole nature
was imbued with a saneness of sympathy, a deep kindliness of spirit that
left him master of himself under every emotion. The great governing
factor in his life was a strength of honest purpose. A purpose, in its
turn, prompted by his sense of right and justice, and those things which
have their inspiration in a broad generosity of spirit. So it was that
under all conditions his conscience remained at peace.

It was supported by such feelings that he faced the tasks which the
desperate heart of Unaga imposed upon him. He had the care of an
orphaned child, he had the care of that child's Indian nurse, and the
lives and well-being of his own two men charged up against him. He also
had the investigations which he had been sent to make, and furthermore,
there was his own life to be preserved for the woman he loved, and the
infant child of their love, waiting for his return a thousand miles
away. The work was the work of a giant rather than a man; but never for
one moment did his confidence fail him.

The days following the arrival at the post were urgent. They were days
of swift thought and prompt action. The open season was gone, and the
struggle for existence might begin without a moment's warning. Steve
knew. Everyone knew. That is, everyone except little Marcel.

The boy accepted every changing condition without thought, and busied
himself with the preparations of his new friends. It had no significance
for him that all day long the forest rang with the clip of the felling
axe. Neither did the unceasing work of the buck-saw, as it ploughed its
way through an endless stream of sapling trunks, afford him anything
beyond the joy of lending his assistance. Then, too, the morning survey
of the elemental prospect, when his elders searched the skies, fearing
and hoping, and grimly accepting that which the fates decreed, was only
one amongst his many joys. It was all a great and fascinating game, full
of interest and excitement for a budding capacity which Steve was quick
to recognize.

But the child's greatest delight was the moment when "Uncle Steve"
invited him to assist him in discovering the economic resources of his
own home. As the examination proceeded Steve learned many things which
could never have reached him through any other source. He obtained a
peep into the lives of these people through the intimate eyes of the
child, and his keen perception read through the tumbling, eager words to
the great truths of which the child was wholly unaware. And it was a
story which left him with the profoundest admiration and pity for the
dead man who was the genius of it all.

Not for one moment did Steve permit a shadow to cross the child's sunny,
smiling face. From the first moment when the responsibility for Marcel's
little life had fallen into his hands his mind was made up. By every
artifice the boy must be kept from all knowledge of the tragedy that
had befallen him. When he asked for his mother he was told that she was
so sick that she could not be worried. This was during the first two
days. After that he was told that she had gone away. She had gone away
to meet his father, and that when she came back she would bring his
"pop" with her. A few added details of a fictitious nature completely
satisfied, and the child accepted without question that which his hero
told him.

He was permitted to see nothing of the little silent cortège that left
the post late on the second night. He saw nothing of the grief-laden
eyes of An-ina as she followed the three men bearing their burden of the
dead mother, enclosed in a coffin made out of the packing cases with
which the fort was so abundantly supplied. He had seen the men digging
in the forest earlier in the day, and had been more than satisfied when
"Uncle Steve" assured him they were digging a well. Later on he would
discover the great beacon of stones which marked the "well." But, for
the moment, while the curtain was being rung down on the tragedy of his
life, he was sleeping calmly, and dreaming those happy things which only
child slumbers may know.

Good fortune smiled on the early efforts at the fort For ten days the
arch-enemy withheld his hand. For ten days the weary sun was dragged
from its rest by the evil "dogs" which seemed to dominate its movements
completely. But each day their evil eyes grew more and more portentious
and threatening as they watched the human labourers they seemed to
regard with so much contempt.

Then came the change. It was the morning of the eleventh day. The "dogs"
had hidden their faces and the weary sun remained obscured behind a mass
of grey cloud. The crisp breeze which had swept the valley with its
invigorating breath had died out, and the world had suddenly become
threateningly silent.

A few great snowflakes fluttered silently to the ground. Steve was at
the gateway of the stockade, and his constant attendant was beside him
in his bundle of furs. The man's eyes were measuring as they gazed up at
the grey sky. Little Marcel was wisely studying, too.

"Maybe us has snow," he observed sapiently at last, as he watched the
falling flakes.

"Yes. I guess we'll get snow."

Steve smiled down at the little figure beside him.

"Wot makes snow, Uncle Steve?" the boy demanded.

"Why, the cold, I guess. It just freezes the rain in the clouds. And
when they get so heavy they can't stay up any longer, why - they just
come tumbling down and makes folk sit around the stove and wish they
wouldn't."

"Does us wish they wouldn't?"

"Most all the time."

The child considered deeply. Then his face brightened hopefully.

"Bimeby us digs, Uncle Steve," he said. "Boy likes digging."

Steve held out a hand and Marcel yielded his.

"Boy'll help 'Uncle Steve,' eh?"

"I's always help Uncle Steve."

The spontaneity of the assurance remained unanswerable.

Steve glanced back into the enclosure. Then his hand tightened upon the
boy's with gentle pressure.

"Come on, old fellow. We'll get along in, and make that stove, and - wish
it wouldn't."

He led the way back to the house.

The snowfall grew in weight and density. Silent, still, the world of
Unaga seemed to have lost all semblance of life. White, white, eternal
white, and above the heavy grey of an overburdened sky. Solitude,
loneliness, desperately complete. It was the silence which well nigh
drives the human brain to madness. From minutes to hours; from inches to
feet. Day and night. Day and night. Snow, snow all the time, till the
tally of days grew, and the weeks slowly passed. It almost seemed as if
Nature, in her shame, were seeking to hide up the sight of her own
creation.

For three silent weeks the snow continued to fall without a break. Then
it ceased as abruptly as it had begun, leaving the fort buried well nigh
to the eaves. The herald of change was a wild rush of wind sweeping down
the valley from the broken hills which formed its northern limits. And,
within half an hour, the silence was torn, and ripped, and tattered, and
the world transformed, and given up to complete and utter chaos. A
hurricane descended on the post, and its timbers groaned under the added
burden. The forest giants laboured and protested at the merciless
onslaught, while the crashing of trees boomed out its deep note amidst
the shriek of the storm. As the fury of it all rose, so rose up the
snowfall of weeks into a blinding fog which shut out every sight of the
desolate plateau as though it had never been.

* * * * *

Five weeks saw the extent of winter's first onslaught. And after that
for awhile, the battle resolved itself into a test of human endurance,
with the temperature hovering somewhere below 60° below zero. For a few
short hours the sun would deign to appear above the horizon, prosecute
its weary journey across the skyline, and ultimately die its daily death
with almost pitiful indifference. Then some twenty hours, when the world
was abandoned to the starry magnificence of the Arctic night, supported
by the brilliant light of a splendid aurora.

It was during this time that Steve pursued his researches into the lives
of these people. He was sitting now in the laboratory, which was a
building apart from all the rest. It was the home of the chemist's
research. It was equipped with wonderful completeness. Besides the
shelves containing all the paraphernalia of a chemist's profession, and
the counter which supported a distilling apparatus, and which was
clearly intended for other experiment as well, there was a desk, and a
small wood stove, which was alight, and radiating a pleasant heat.

It was the desk which held most interest for Steve. It was here he
looked to find, in the dead man's papers, in his letters, in his records
and books, the answer to every question in his mind.

For some hours he had been reading from one of the volumes of the man's
exhaustive diary. It was a living document containing a fascinating
story of the chemist's hopes and fears for the great objects which had
led to his abandonment of the civilized world for the bitter heights of
Unaga. And in every line of it Steve realized it could only have been
written by a man of strong, deep conviction and enthusiasm, a man whose
purpose soared far above the mere desire for gain. He felt, in the
reading, he was listening to the words of a man who was all and more,
far more, than his wife had claimed for him.

At last the fire in the stove shook down and he became aware of the work
of busy shovels going on just outside. He pulled out his watch, and the
yellow light of the oil lamp told him that he had been reading for
nearly three hours. Setting a marker in the book he closed it
reluctantly, and prepared to return the litter of documents to the
drawers which stood open beside him.

At that moment the door opened, and the tall figure of the squaw An-ina
stood in the framing.

"Him supper all fixed," she announced, in her quietly assured fashion.

Steve looked up, and his eyes gazed squarely into the woman's handsome
face. He was thinking rapidly.

"Say An-ina," he began at last. "I've been reading a whole heap. It's
what the man, Brand, wrote. He seems to have been a pretty great
feller."

The woman nodded as he paused.

"Heap good man," she commented.

Her eyes lit with an emotion there could be no misunderstanding. For all
the savage stock from which she sprang the dead white man had claimed a
great loyalty and devotion.

"You see, An-ina," Steve went on, "I came along up here to chase up the
murder of two men. My work's to locate all the facts, arrest the
murderers, take them back to where I come from, and make my report."

"Sure. That how An-ina mak it so."

The woman's eyes were questioning. She was wondering at the meaning of
all this preliminary. And she was not without disquiet. She had come to
realize that, with the death of her mistress, only this man and his
scouts stood between her and disaster. She could not rid herself of the
dread which pursued her now. Little Marcel was a white child. This man
was white. She - she was just a squaw. She was of the colour of these
"Sleeper" Indians. Would they take the child of her mother heart from
her, and leave her to her fate amongst these folk who slept the whole
winter through?

"Yes," Steve was gazing thoughtfully at the light which came from under
the rough cardboard shade of the lamp. "Well, the whole look of things
has kind of changed since I've - " he indicated the papers on the
desk - "taken a look into all these."

"Him read - much. Him look - always look. So."

Steve nodded.

"That's so. Well, I've got to get busy now, and do the things I was sent
up to do. But it seems likely there's going to be no murderer to take
back with me. It looks like a report of two men dead, by each other's
hand, a woman dead through accident, and you, and little Marcel left
alive. That being so I guess I can't leave you two up here. Do you get
that?" He set his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his hands.
"There's the boy, he's white," he said, watching the squaw's troubled



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 6 of 30)