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soft "pad" of her moccasined feet first drew his attention, and
immediately all thought of the coming storm passed from his mind.

"Him big chief wake all up," she announced urgently, as she reached his
side.

"Did you speak to him?"

The man's enquiry was sharpened by responsive eagerness. The squaw
nodded.

"An-ina say, 'Boss white man officer come mak big talk with big chief,
Wanak-aha. Him look for dead white man by the big water. Yes.' Him big
chief say, 'White man officer? Him not know this man. Who?' An-ina say
much - plenty. Big chief all go mad. Oh, much angry. Then An-ina mak big
talk plenty. She say, 'Big Chief not mak big talk, then boss white man
officer of Great White Chief come kill up all Indian man.' Big chief
very old. Him all 'fraid. Him shake all over like so as seal fat. Much
scare. Oh, yes." She laughed in her silent fashion. "So him say, 'Boss
white man officer come, then Big Chief Wanak-aha mak plenty big talk.'
Then him sleep. Oh, yes."

The woman's amusement at the chief's panic was infectious. Steve smiled.

"I guess we'll go right along," he said. Then he indicated the moon with
its misty halo. "Storm."

Again An-ina nodded.

"Him storm plenty - sure," she agreed. "Boss come quick?"

"Right away."

A moment later An-ina was leading the way up the long slope of the
snow-drift, returning over the tracks which her own moccasins had left.

* * * * *

The atmosphere of the hut was oppressive. It reeked with the smoke of
wood fire. It was nauseating with a dreadful human foulness. But over
all hung the sickly sweet odour of the Adresol drug, which oppressed the
brain and weighted down the eyelids of those who had just left the pure
cold air beyond the curtained doorway.

Steve was not without a feeling of apprehension. He was in the presence
of the active operation of the subtle drug. He had read the dead
chemist's papers. He knew the deadly exhalations of the weed when
growing, or when in an undried state. He also knew that distillation
robbed it of its poisonous effect, but for all that, the sickly
atmosphere left him with a feeling of nausea.

He and An-ina were sitting beyond one of the two wood fires that had
been replenished. The old chief, Wanak-aha, was squatting on his
haunches amongst his frowsy fur robes at the opposite side. He was a
shrivelled, age-weazened creature whose buckskin garments looked never
to have been removed from his aged body. His years would have been
impossible to guess at. All that was certain about him was that his
mahogany face was like creased parchment, that his eyes peered out in
the dim light of the hut through the narrowest of slits, that he was
alert, vital to an astounding degree, and that he suggested a foulness
such as humanity rarely sinks to.

An-ina was speaking in the tongue native to the old man, who was
replying in his monosyllabic fashion while he kept all his regard for
the stern-eyed white man, who, the squaw was explaining, represented all
the unlimited power of the white peoples.

Steve waited in patience for the completion of these necessary
preliminaries, and acted his part with the confidence of wide
experience. And presently An-ina turned to him. Her eyes were serious,
but there was a smile behind her words.

"Him say him much big friend for white man," she said, in her broken
way. "Him love all white man so as a brother. White man mak plenty good
trade with Indian man. It much good. So him big chief plenty friend. Oh,
yes."

Steve inclined his head seriously.

"Tell him that's all right," he said. "Tell him white man good friend,
too. White man love all Indian man. Tell him all white man children of
Great White Chief. When they die Great White Chief know. If Indian man
kill white man then Great White Chief send all thunder and lightning and
kill up all Indian man. Tell him Great White Chief know that two white
men all killed dead by great waters. He know Chief Wanak-aha's young men
find them. Great White Chief knows Indian man didn't kill them, but, as
he knows where they are, he must show the Great White Chief's Officer
where they are, so he can take their bones back to their own country, or
bury them as he sees fit. If Chief Wanak-aha does not tell White
Officer, and his young men don't show him this place, then the thunders
and lightning will come and kill up all Indian 'Sleeper' men."

An-ina interpreted rapidly. And by the length of her harangue, and by
the attitude of the old man, Steve shrewdly suspected she was adding
liberal embellishments such as her own savage mind suggested as being
salutory. It was always so. An Indian on the side of the police was
merciless to his own people.

The old man replied with surprising energy, and it was obvious to Steve
that panic had achieved all he desired. So he was content to watch
silently while the soft-voiced woman, with unsmiling eyes, spurred the
little, old, great man to decisions which it is more than probable only
real fear could have hastened.

At last An-ina ceased speaking. She turned to Steve who received the net
results she had achieved in concrete form.

"It much good," she said, without permitting the smallest display of
feeling before the watchful eyes of the old chief. "Him say all as
An-ina tell boss white man officer. Young men find dead white men all
kill up. In great, deep place by big waters. So. Him say when winter him
all go then young men take boss white man officer, show him all. Help
him much plenty. All him dog-train, all him young man for boss white man
officer. Yes. Not so as snow him not go. Not find. All kill dead, sure.
'Sleeper' man sleep plenty. Then him all wake. Boss white man say 'go.'
Yes."

The purpose of the visit was achieved. Steve desired nothing more. These
Indians would take him to the place where the two white men had fought
out the old, old battle for a woman. Yes, he was convinced now that
An-ina's original story was the true one. His visit to these squalid
creatures had served a double purpose. The old man's willingness to
comply with his demands amply convinced him that the wife's belief had
no foundation in the facts. Had the Indians murdered Marcel Brand and
his partner, the whole attitude of the chief must have been very
different.

It was some moments before he replied. It was necessary that he should
play his part to the end. So he appeared to consider deeply before he
accepted the chief's offer.

At length he raised his eyes from the flickering blaze of the fire. He
gazed round the dimly lit room where the Indians lay about in their
deathlike slumber. There was a stirring as of waking in a far corner,
and for awhile he contemplated the direction. Then, at last, his eyes
came back to the crumpled face of the old man awaiting anxiously his
reply.

"Tell him," he said, addressing the squaw without withdrawing his gaze
from the face of the old man, "that the officer of the Great White Chief
will wait till the snow goes. Tell him he'll need to have his young men
ready then to make the trail. And when they've shown the officer all
they've found, and told him all they know, then the officer will tell
the Great White Chief that the 'Sleeper' men are good men, who deserve
all that is good. Tell him, there will be no thunder or lightning. And
if white men come again to the fort and find it as it has been left,
nothing taken, nothing destroyed, then maybe they'll bring good trade
for the Indian men, and presents for the big chief. But if they come and
find that one little thing has been destroyed or stolen, then the
thunder and lightning will speak, and there'll be no more Indians."

* * * * *

When Steve and An-ina emerged from the woods utter and complete darkness
reigned. The world had been swallowed up under an inky pall. The moon,
the brilliant stars, the blazing northern lights - all were extinguished,
and not a ray of light was left to guide them the last few hundred yards
to safety. Furthermore snow was falling. It was falling in great flakes
half as big as a man's hand.

The life-line which the woman had set up was all that stood between them
and complete disaster.




CHAPTER IX

THE VISION OF THE SPIRE


Winter with all its deadly perils had become a memory. Life was supreme
again on the plateau of Unaga. It was in the air, in the breezes
sweeping down from the Northern hills, where the crystal snow caps no
longer had power to inspire distrust. It was in the flowing waters of
the river. It was in the flights of swarming wildfowl, winging to fresh
pastures of melting snows. It was in the new-born grass blades,
thrusting up their delicate heads to rid the world of winter's
unsightliness. The animal world, too, was seeking to alleviate the pangs
of semi-starvation to which it had so long been condemned. The sense of
gladness was stirring, lifting the world upon a glorious pinacle of
youthful hope.

Gladness was in An-ina's heart as she moved over the dripping grass,
bearing the water fresh dipped from the river whose banks were a-flood
in every direction. Was not the darkness of winter swallowed up by the
brilliant sunlight? Was not the child of her heart trudging manfully at
her side, firmly grasping the bucket handle in a vain belief in the
measure of his help? Was not the moment rapidly approaching, when the
white man officer would return with the young men of the Sleepers from
the "deep place" by the "big waters?" Would not the day soon come when
the trail to the southlands would again be broken? And would she not
gaze once more upon the pleasant lands that gave her birth? Oh, yes. She
knew. It was a great rush to the promised home, far from the desperate
life on the plateau of Unaga, with the child, whose dancing eyes and
happy smile were like a ray of sunshine amidst the shadows of her life.

Morning and night, now, An-ina looked for the return of those who had
set out before the break of the winter. A month had passed since Steve's
going. She was quite alone with her boy, with the wakened Indians
preparing for their labours of the open season. The "white man officer"
would return. An-ina had no fear for him even on the winter trail of
Unaga. He would return, and then - and then - And so she watched and
waited, and worked with all the will of her simple, savage heart.

It was no easy task that lay ahead. An-ina knew that. Steve had told her
much during those dark days of winter. He had spoken of a thousand
miles. What was a mile? She did not know. A sun. A moon. These things
she knew. But his tone she understood. And she knew what he meant when
he declared his intention of beating schedule, and his determination not
to spend another winter on Unaga if it were the last trail he ever made.
She was ready. And, in her simple woman's way she beguiled the days of
waiting with speculation as to the white woman who had inspired in this
white man's heart so great a desire.

Life was more than good to An-ina just now. She was young. She was
thrilling with the wild emotions of her untamed blood. She was an Indian
of the finest ancestry, but more than all she was a devoted woman. She
had lost a mistress whom she had loved, and a master whom she had been
glad to serve. She had found one to take their places, one whose first
act had been his re-assurance that she should not be robbed of the
child who was her all. There was no one greater in all the world to her
than the "white man officer" whose courage and will she counted as
powers greater than the storms of Unaga.

All day she laboured at her many tasks. And the boy, faithful to his
doctrine of helpfulness, found a world of recreation in his idea. Thus,
with the passing of the sun, they stood together at the gateway of the
fort with eyes searching, as many times they had searched before, for a
sign of the return of the trail men.

"Us wants Uncle Steve."

There was a plaintive appeal in the boy's tone which found an echo in
the woman's heart. She sighed, but her voice was steady as she replied:

"Bimeby him come," she said.

"'Ess. Bimeby him come."

But the boy's agreement lacked conviction. A moment later, with his big
eyes turned to the southeast, the way he had seen the expedition set
out, he went on:

"Boy's Pop didn't come. An-ina said him's do. Boy's Mummy go 'way 'cos
Uncle Steve said her does. Uncle Steve hims all goes, too. Boy want
Uncle Steve."

"Him come bimeby."

The woman had no words with which to comfort. It was not lack of desire.
Though her conviction was unwavering, she, too, in her heart, echoed the
plaint.

For some moments they continued their evening vigil. The eyes of both
searched the growing shadows. And, as was always the case, it was the
child who finally broke the silence.

"Us cries," he said half tearfully.

It was then the Indian in the woman asserted itself.

"Squaw-men him weeps. 'Brave' him fight. No cry. Oh, no. Only fight. Boy
great white 'brave.' Him not cry. No."

Marcel nodded, but his eyes were turned to the hills.

"'Ess. Boy great white 'brave,'" he agreed, in a choking voice. "Boy not
cry - never. What's hims little things all dancing in the fog, An-ina?"
he enquired, his mind suddenly distracted, pointing at a gap between two
low hills, where a thin vapour of fog was slowly rising. "Is them's
debble-mens?"

The keen eyes of the squaw followed the pointing finger. In a moment
there leapt into them a light which required no words to interpret. But
even in her excited joy the Indian calm remained uppermost. She drew
nearer the child, and one of her soft brown hands rested caressingly on
his shoulder.

"Him not devil-men," she said, in a deep tone of exaltation. "Him Uncle
Steve an' all fool 'Sleeper' men. They all come so as An-ina say."

Then the smile in her eyes suddenly transformed her, and her joy could
no longer be denied. She stooped over the small figure and pressed her
lips upon the soft white forehead.

"Us go by river. An-ina hide. Boy hide. Then Uncle Steve come. Boy jump
out. Him say 'Boo!' Uncle Steve all scairt. Much frightened all dead.
So?"

The appeal was irresistible. The boy's excitement leapt. In a moment he
was transformed from a tearful "brave" to a happy, laughing child. He
set off at a run for the river, with An-ina close upon his heels,
utterly regardless of the fact that they were within full view of the
on-coming trail men. This was a detail. The child's enthusiasm permitted
no second thought, and his breathless orders to his nurse were flung
back as he ran. The cover of the bush-lined river was reached, and the
hiding-place was selected just short of the flood water.

The child crouched down trembling with excitement. And the sound of
Uncle Steve's voice giving orders as he came up on the far side of the
water made the suspense almost unendurable. He talked to An-ina, who
crouched at his side. He chattered incessantly. The splash of a canoe,
dropped into the water, was exquisite torture. The dip of paddles set
him well-nigh beside himself. Then, a few moments later, when the light
craft slithered on the mud of the shallows, just beyond the
hiding-place, he felt the psychological moment had come. Out he sprang
at his victim, who was still ankle deep in the water.

"Boo-o-o!" he shrieked, with all the power of his little lungs, and, a
moment later, he was gathered into the caressing arms of a terrified
"uncle."

* * * * *

The work was accomplished. The police officer had fulfilled his mission,
a mission detailed to him coldly, officially, without a shadow of regard
for the tremendous trials entailed, and with only an eye for the
capacity of the officer selected.

So far he had beaten his own schedule. He had calculated his work would
occupy two years from the moment of his going to his return to
Deadwater, but he meant to cut this down by something like six months.
The resolve to do so had been taken during the drear of winter. He had
been haunted by the appealing eyes of the woman he loved, and by the
memory of the soft clutch of baby hands. And his desire had become
irresistible.

Under his new resolve it had become necessary to speed the waking of the
Indians. He had had no scruple. Again he had bearded the chief and
forced his will upon him. For all the old man's fears of the white man's
threats it had been no easy task. But at last he had convinced him of
the hopeless recklessness of denying him. So twenty of the young men
were found who reluctantly enough gave up the last month of their
winter's sleep. And now he had returned with his work accomplished.

Steve had no illusions upon the desperate nature of the rush for home.
He knew the chances he was taking. A week's preparation. He could spare
no more time. A journey on foot of some hundreds of miles. An Indian
carry-all hauled by reindeer for the boy and the camp outfit, the dogs
to be herded without burden till their usefulness could serve. For each
man, and An-ina, the burden of a heavy pack. Such preparations were
wholly inadequate. He knew that. He was staking the courage and
endurance of those he was responsible for against a ruthless,
inhospitable world.

Oh, yes, his eyes were wide to the dangers that lay ahead. He knew them
all. He had visions of a dripping, melting land. He knew the spring
rains with their awesome powers of washout and flood. The blinding,
steaming fogs of the high altitudes. So with the glacial avalanches, and
the terror of thawing tundra, shaking, treacherous, bottomless.

The week passed rapidly and the moment for the "pull-out" came. The
Indians were awake, and their winter quarters in the woods had been
abandoned for the domed igloos of the open season. The fort was alive
with their comings and goings. They were alert for the promised spoils.

Peaceable, kindly, the sturdy undersized people of the outlands were
driven to a supreme selfishness by reason of the conditions under which
they lived. They cared little for anything but that which the white folk
could provide. Without interest or ambitions, beyond such comfort as
they could snatch from life, they desired only to be left in peace. But
with real amiability they wished the stranger well in his going.

The post presented a curious enough scene on the morning of departure.
And to Steve, at least, thought of it was to recur many times in the
great struggle that lay before him. The poles of the carry-all, their
ends trailing upon the ground, loaded with camp outfit and ready for the
boy, stood just within the stockade. The dogs were ready and waiting
under Oolak's charge. Inside the store, Steve supported by Julyman and
An-ina, and the child Marcel, occupied the well-worn bench beside the
stove.

He was receiving the farewell words of the old chief, Wanak-aha, who was
thankful enough to see the last of the disturber of his winter sleep.
The old man was surrounded by his equally aged counsellors, and the
whole deputation squatted ceremonially upon their haunches about him.
The store had been stripped of all supplies. The shelves were bare and
only a litter of packings remained to mark the end of the chemist's
great enterprise.

Steve addressed the chief through An-ina without relaxing his authority.
He told the old man that everything that was good in the store had been
handed over a present to his people for their valuable services to the
Great White Chief. The store was now empty of everything that was good.
He told him that this was the way the Great White Chief always acted
towards those who served him. The things that remained in the store were
only evil things that were full of evil magic. The Great White Chief had
hidden these things deeply, and he had set a spell upon them. This had
been done so that no harm should come to the Indian. In this he was
referring to the contents of the dead man's laboratory. He told him that
the Great White Chief had ordered him to place the store and fort in the
chief's safe keeping. No Indian man was to enter it to destroy it. If he
did the evil spirits would break loose, and death and disaster for the
whole tribe would undoubtedly follow. Therefore he had summoned the
council that Wanak-aha might give his pledge for the safety of the
property of the Great White Chief.

He told them he was going now because he wanted the Indians to live in
peace, with their slumbers undisturbed. He might never come again. He
could not say. But if the Great White Chief sent anybody, it would only
be for the purpose of giving great benefit to the Indians, whom he
undoubtedly regarded as a very wise and good people.

It was a masterly exhibition of Steve's understanding of the savage it
was his work to deal with, and the happy effect was promptly evidenced.
Ten minutes of monosyllabic discussion between the chief and his
counsellors produced the pledge Steve desired, and he knew from the
manner of it that the pledge would be kept to the letter. But it brought
forth something more. An-ina was called upon to interpret an expression
of the friendly spirit in which the Indians parted from the disturber of
their slumbers.

The old man in a long peroration explained all he and his people felt.
They were in no way behind the Great White Chief in their regard, he
assured Steve. They loved the white man, whose ways were not always
Indian ways. He re-affirmed his solemn promise that the fort should be
safe in Indian hands. Furthermore he told him they had no desire to
anger the evil spirits it contained. In conclusion he produced a beaded
seal-skin bag which he asked the white man to accept. It contained, he
explained, the bones of the right hand of one of his ancestors who had
been a great hunter and warrior, and withal a lucky and mighty chief who
was only murdered by his people after a long and fierce reign. This bag,
with its contents, was a sure talisman and guard against the evil
spirits of Unaga, and they were very, very many, and very cruel.

With due solemnity Steve accepted this priceless gift, and, to add to
his display of gratification, he drew little Marcel to him and secured
it about his neck. Then, turning to the chief, he explained. He pointed
at the child, and assured him that the white man regarded his children
before all things - even before his own life. Therefore, to display his
gratitude to the great chief, he bestowed the gift upon the child whose
safety he desired above all things in the world. Approval was unanimous.
To every one of these simple creatures the white man's act was one of
the greatest self-sacrifice. And even in the more enlightened minds of
An-ina and Julyman there was a deep appreciation of the act.

When the council broke up, and the fur-clad Indians moved out, Steve
might well have been forgiven had he felt that his work had been well
and truly done.

With the going of the last Indian he promptly shouldered his pack, and
Julyman and An-ina did the same. A moment later he took the child in his
arms.

"Come," he said, and led the way out of the building.

Ten minutes later the outfit was on the move, and the great adventure,
with the new-born mosquitoes and flies swarming, began in a blaze of
spring sunshine.

* * * * *

Out on a snow-clad ridge, a saddle between two forest-clad hills, a
meagre camp was set. The shelter of woods against the keen north wind
made the resting-place possible. Two weeks of struggle, two weeks of
tremendous effort left the choice of daylight camping ground a matter of
small moment, but just now the bleak ridge had been selected for a
definite reason.

Steve and An-ina were standing out in the gap, with little Marcel
between them. Oolak was somewhere within the woods, tending his savage
dogs. Julyman was hugging the fire, with complete disregard for all but
its precious warmth.

Those in the gap were staring out at the north-east with eyes held
fascinated by the wonder of it all. It was the Spire, the amazing Spire
of Unaga rearing its mighty crest out of the far-off distance. Even the
child was awed to silence by the spell of the inspiring vision.

They were gazing upon a world of fire and smoke. And the fire was
belching out of the bowels of the earth and lighting up the whole
skyline far and wide. It was a scene no words could adequately describe.
It was a scene to awe the stoutest heart. The whole country in the
distant north seemed to lie prostrate at the mercy of a world of
devouring flame.




CHAPTER X

THE RUSH OUTFIT


"Curse 'em!"

Ian Ross raised a hand and swept it across the back of his muscular
neck. Then he wiped his palm on his cord breeches leaving there the



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 8 of 30)