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stain of his own blood, and the crushed remains of hundreds of
mosquitoes.

"Get a look at that," he cried, in genial disgust.

The man riding at his side turned and laughed without mirth. His eyes
remained serious.

"Sure," he said indifferently. "We've got to get 'em, this time of year,
Doc. We need a head breeze."

"Got to get? What we're getting is hell - plumb hell," exploded the
Scotsman.

The other nodded.

"Sure. But there's worse hell on the trail, and it isn't us who's got
it."

The rebuke was without offence. But it was sufficient. In a moment Ross
was flung headlong back to the haunting thoughts of the great effort he
and his companion were engaged upon.

"Another day - and no sign," he said.

"No."

There was no great display, yet the doctor's words, and the monosyllabic
reply, were deeply significant.

Jack Belton - Inspector Jack Belton - and the doctor were on a "rush
outfit" of rescue. They were riding back to camp after a long day of
search along the banks of the Theton River. Their search was systematic.
Each day they rode out and followed the intricate course of the smiling
river with its endless chain of lakes. Each day their camp broke up and
followed a similar course, but taking the direct and shortest route down
the river. Then, at nightfall, the two men rejoined their outfit, only
to follow a similar procedure next day. Thus they had left the
headwaters far behind, and were steadily working their way down the
river. Somewhere along that river was Steve Allenwood, alive or dead.
They could not guess which. They could not estimate where. It was their
purpose to leave no creek, or lake, or yard of the great river
unexplored, until the secret was yielded up.

"And when we find him, what then?" the doctor exclaimed in a desperate
fashion. "Maybe he's sick. Maybe - whatever it is we've got to heal him,
and break him at the same time. God!"

"Yes." Jack Belton turned his dark eyes on his companion. They were hot
with feeling. "Say, Doc, I'm crazy to find that boy, and find him
cursing the skitters with a wholesome vocabulary, same as you and me.
But I'd hand over my Commission in the force with pleasure to my biggest
enemy rather than pass him the dope you and me need to."

The Scotsman nodded, and the kindly face reflected the bitterness of his
feelings.

"And I handed him my promise, and Millie's," he aid. "He was crazy about
them both - God help him."

"Poor devil!"

The great valley was lit from end to end by the last flaming rays of the
setting summer sun. The green carpet was dotted by a thousand wooded
bluffs, and a wonderful tracery of watercourses caught and reflected
the dying light. Not a breath of air stirred. And the warm, cloudless
evening was alive with the hum of insects, and the incessant chorus of
the frogs at the water's edge. Now and again the far-off cry of coyote
or wolf came dolefully across the trackless grass. For the rest a
wonderful peace reigned - that peace which belongs to the wilderness
where human habitation has not yet been set up.

It had been a tremendous time for both these men, and for those under
the Inspector's command. The whole thing had been an exhibition of human
energy, rarely to be witnessed. It had all been the result of an episode
on a similar, calm summer afternoon, which would remain for all time a
landmark in the doctor's life.

He had been reading in his shanty surgery on the Allowa Reserve. The
stream of his medicine-loving patients had ceased to flow. The little
room was heavy with the reek of his pipe. So he had risen from his chair
and passed to the door for a breath of air. It was then that he was
confronted by a gaudy coloured apparition. An Indian, whose race was
foreign to him, was patiently sitting on the back of a mean-looking
skewbald pony, clad in a parti-coloured blanket of flaming hues. The
moment Ross appeared in the doorway the Indian produced a crumpled,
folded paper from the folds of his blanket and offered it to him without
a word.

He accepted it with a keen curiosity. He unfolded it and glanced at the
handwriting. It was unrecognizable. But that which stirred him to the
depths of his soul, and flooded his heart with something like panic, was
the signature at the bottom of it. It was Steve's - Steve Allenwood.

The perusal of that letter was the work of a few moments. And throughout
the reading Ross was aware - painfully aware - of the aggravating calm of
the man who had written it. But under its unemotional words urgency,
deep, terrible urgency, was revealed. Accident and sickness had hit the
writer hard. His position was desperate. And the final paragraph
epitomized his extremity in no uncertain fashion.

I mean to do all a man can to make the headwaters of the Theton
River. Maybe I'll succeed. I can't say. If I don't you'll
understand. Maybe you'll break it to Nita as easy as you can. If
you can help her, and the kiddie, I'll be mighty thankful. Thank
God the little one won't understand. I'm sending this by a
Yellow-Knife. He reckons he knows Deadwater, and can get through
quick. Please pay him well. I can't get farther than the
headwater - if that. After that - well, it depends on the help that
can reach us.

Optimism and energy were amongst Ian Ross's strongest characteristics.
His decision was taken on the instant. With the aid of an interpreter he
questioned the Yellow-Knife, who knew no language but his own and that
of the Caribou-Eaters.

The man's story was broken but lurid.

The white man, he said, had arrived at Fort Duggan on foot, pursued by
the evil spirits of Unaga. He assured the doctor that these devils had
torn the clothes from him, and left him well-nigh naked. So with all the
party. There was blood on his feet and hands, where the spirits had
sought to devour him. Yes, they had even devoured his shoes. The white
man had a small white pappoose tied on to his back. The child was
sleeping, or sick, or dead. There was a squaw and an Indian with him,
whose bones looked out of their skins, and whose eyes were fierce and
wild like those who have looked the evil spirits in the face. These two
living-dead were hauling a sort of sled. And on the sled was another
Indian who was broken, and maybe dead. No, there were no dogs, no
outfit. It was just as he said. The Shaunekuks were good Indians, and
they gave the strangers food, and milk, and clothes to replace those the
evil spirits had devoured. They also had the canoes which the white man
had left with them a year ago. He, the messenger, was on a visit to the
Shaunekuks at the time, for a caribou hunt. But he abandoned the hunt at
the white man's request, who said he, the doctor, would pay him well.

The man was paid under promise of guiding an outfit back to the Theton
River country, and then began a hustle of a cyclonic nature.

Corporal Munday set out for Reindeer forthwith, and made headquarters in
record time. Within half an hour of his arrival Superintendent McDowell
had issued his orders for a "rush outfit." And three hours later saw it
on the trail. There was no hesitation. There was no question. There was
a comrade in peril, and with him others. There was a woman - although
only a squaw - and a white child. No greater incentive was needed, and
young Jack Belton was selected to lead the "rush" for his known speed
and capacity on the trail.

Something of the feelings stirring found expression in McDowell's final
instructions to his subordinate at the moment of departure.

"I don't care a curse if you kill every darn horse between here and the
Landing," he said. "Commandeer all you need - and plenty. I don't care
what you do. You've got to bring Allenwood back alive, or - or break your
darn neck."

And Belton had needed no urging. He had cut down the month's journey to
the Theton River to something like twenty days. He had foundered six
teams of horses and worn his two men and his scouts well-nigh
threadbare with night and day travel. But the doctor had proved
invincible, as had the Yellow-Knife scout on his skewbald pony, which,
for all its meanness of shape and size, had stood up to it all.

They had already been pursuing the river course for four days, and, so
far, it had withheld its secret. Somewhere out there on those wide
shining waters a man was struggling in a great final effort to defeat
once more the ruthless forces of Nature against which he had battled so
long and so successfully.

And what would victory mean for him? Ross knew. Jack Belton knew. And
their knowledge of that which was awaiting him, should a final triumph
be his, added a deep depression to the silence which had fallen between
them.

The great sun went to its death in a blaze of splendour, and the long
Northern twilight softened the scene with misty, velvet shadows which
crept down from distant hills to the north and south. The woodland
bluffs, too, promptly lost their sharpness of outline, and the green of
the trackless grass mellowed to a delicate softness which seemed to
round off the peace of the airless evening.

Now they picked up the spiral of smoke from the camp-fire, and direction
was promptly changed towards it.

"I sort of feel he'll make it," the Scotsman said abruptly, as though in
simple continuation of his unspoken thought.

"You can't kill - him," replied the other emphatically. "I haven't a
doubt. He guessed he could make the headwaters. He'll make them. I'm
only scared to miss him in the night."

The doctor shook his head.

"I don't fancy that's going to happen. Our camp's always on the main
water, in the open. There's our watch. No. I'm a deal more scared of him
making a day camp, resting. Even then we haven't missed anything large
enough to hide up a skitter."

"No."

Now the spot light of the camp-fire shone out of the soft twilight, and
the sound of voices came back from the water's edge.

"I'm wondering about what he needs to be told," Ross said presently.
"It's for me I guess."

"How's that?"

The younger man turned quickly. The thought of this thing had weighed
heavily with him. He was a police officer who was ready to face any
hardship, any of the hundred and one risks and dangers his calling
demanded. But from the moment he was detailed for his present duty he
had been oppressed by the thought of the story which would have to be
told Steve, and which duty, as leader of the rescue party, he calculated
must certainly fall to his lot. He had known Steve from the moment of
his joining the force. He had worked with him on the trail. He had been
present at his senior's wedding, and he remembered his comrade's
happiness at the consummation of a real love match. And now? The
doctor's words had lifted a great load from his mind.

"There's two sides to be told," Ross said, with a sigh. "There's the
police side, which deals mostly with the Treaty Money, I guess, and
there's that other which should be mine. You see, he left them in my
care. And so there's a big account to be squared between him and me.
Best let me handle the whole rotten thing." Then with a sound that was a
laugh without the least mirth: "It's a doctor's job to hand out
unpleasant dope to a patient. It's a policeman's job to act unpleasant.
Guess the act isn't needed, but the dope is. Yes, it's mine, Belton.
Will you leave it that?"

"I'll be so glad to," the other replied with a sigh of relief, "I don't
know how to tell you about it. It had me scared to death. That's so.
Even McDowell shirked it. He told me Steve had to get the whole yarn
before he got into Reindeer. That's the sort of folk we are. And it's
not a thing to brag about."

The other shook his head.

"It needs good men to hate hurting another," he said. "Guess it's a
scare you don't need to be ashamed of. I'll tell him because I've got
to. I hate it worse than hell. But I owe the hurt to myself for the way
I've - failed his trust."

"I don't see you need to blame yourself, Doc," the youngster returned,
becoming judicial under his relief. "Steve won't, if I know him. This
sort of thing happens right along under a husband's nose. Just as long
as woman's what she is, and there's low down skunks of men around,
why - But, say, there's something doing at the camp!"

He lifted his reins and urged his weary horse into a rapid canter, and
the doctor's horse clung close to its flank. The eager eyes of both were
searching for the meaning of the stir which the youthful Inspector had
detected. And instinctively they gazed out down the broad waters of the
placid river as far as the rapidly deepening twilight would permit.

Simultaneously their eyes rested on two objects, a little indistinct,
floating upon the water. They looked so small in the immensity of the
spread of the river. But even so their outline was familiar enough.

"Canoes!" cried Belton.

"It's him!" came in the deep tones of the doctor.

Five minutes later they were out of the saddle and standing with others
on the grassy river bank watching the steady approach of two canoes,
paddling their way up against the easy, sluggish stream.

Near by were the two four-horsed wagons, and the camp-fire with the
forgotten supper still wafting its pleasant odours upon the breathless
air. Flies, too, and mosquitoes were in abundance. But these, like the
rest, were forgotten. The men of the police outfit had eyes and thoughts
for the canoes only. Each and all were wondering at that which they were
to reveal.

Suddenly a shout broke the profound stillness. It came from the young
officer who could restrain himself no longer.

"Ho, you, Steve!"

The shout carried away over the water. Those on the bank could almost
hear it travel. Then followed what seemed an interminable interval. But
it was seconds only before a faint call came back.

"Hoo-y!"

The policeman was given no opportunity for reply. The doctor's great
husky voice anticipated him.

"Ho, Steve! It's Doc Ross!"

He had recognized the answering voice and flung his excited greeting in
a tumult of feeling.

* * * * *

The canoes drove head on for the river bank.

As Belton and Ross sought to discover the nature of their freight the
coursing blood of excited hope stagnated. There was only the quickening
of apprehension.

A grim, strange figure was confronting them. It was kneeling up in the
prow of the nearest vessel. A wild, straining, desperate light shone
feverishly in eyes looking out of a face lost in a tangle of beard and
whisker. The brows were fiercely depressed, suggesting a bitter
defensive spirit. The eyes were lost in cavernous sockets, and the
cheeks were sunken and scored with lines of ravening hunger. The whole
was clad in the discoloured buckskin of a Northern Indian, with a mat of
untended hair reaching to its shoulders.

The waiting men understood. This was their comrade, the man to whose
succour they had rushed. A tragic story of suffering was in that single
figure, which, paddle in hand, was battling with a burden too great for
any one man to bear. Only he, and the squat figures of Shaunekuk
paddlers were to be seen. For the rest nothing was visible to the
onlookers.

As the canoe grounded on the reed-grown mud the doctor's deep-voiced
"Thank God!" met with no response. The wild-looking figure scrambled off
the boat, and plunged nearly knee-deep into the mud. Those on the bank
seemed to concern him not at all, for he turned, as was perhaps his long
habit, to haul the vessel inshore himself.

But the rescue party forestalled him. The men from the bank, policemen
and Indian scouts, seized the boat, while Ross's friendly hand was laid
on the man's shoulder.

"The boys'll fix things," he said, in a voice deep with intense feeling.
"Best come right up to camp, Steve."

The sound of the husky voice, whose words were not quite steady, brought
a swift turn from Steve. For a moment he stared at the speaker. He
seemed to be striving to restore the broken threads of memory. Finally
he shook his head.

"No," he said. And turned again to the boat.

Ian Ross made no further attempt. He understood. He turned and flung all
his energies into the work of unloading the tragic freight. The wild
figure of Steve had prepared him. And, in a few moments, his
professional mind was absorbed to the exclusion of everything else.

Starvation had nearly defeated the otherwise invincible spirit of Steve.
It was there in the bottom of the light vessels, in the drawn faces and
attenuated bodies of the paddler crew of Shaunekuks. It was in the
display of Steve's side-arms strapped to a strut of the canoe ready to
his hand, with holsters agape, and his loaded guns protruding
threateningly. It was in a similar display in the second boat, which the
well-nigh demented Julyman had commanded. Oh, yes. No words were needed
to tell the story. It was there for all to read.

The rescuers understood the uselessness of questions. Help was needed,
and it was freely given. The urgency of it all held them utterly silent,
except for sharp, brief orders.

Ross and the two teamsters dealt with Steve's boat. Jack Belton and the
camp scouts devoted themselves to the second.

In Steve's boat were the fever-ridden body of An-ina, and the scarcely
living shadow of the child, Marcel. Ross lifted the half-dead woman and
carried her up the bank to the tent which had been set up. Then he
returned in haste for the child. On his way he paused for a moment to
glance at the broken body of Oolak, who was being removed from the
second boat by Jack Belton.

"Guess it's not starvation here," he said significantly.

"No," Belton admitted. "It's a bad smash, I guess. Say - - "

The Scotsman glanced back at the river, following the horrified gaze of
his companion. His big heart thrilled with instant pity, and he set off
on the run.

Steve, wild, unkempt, was labouring up from the water's edge, hobbling
painfully on feet that were bound up in great pads of blanket. He was
bearing in his arms the emaciated, unconscious body of the child, and
his whole attitude was one of infinite tenderness, and care, and
disregard for his own sufferings.

The doctor reached the struggling man and held out his arms.

"Give me the little chap," he demanded in his brusque fashion.

Steve turned his head. He stared at him in the fashion of a blind man.

"No!" he said sharply. Then he added with almost insane passion, "Not on
your life!"




CHAPTER XI

STEVE LISTENS


"We've got 'em beat."

The man of healing recovered the sick man's feet with the blanket, and
rolled the old dressings he had just removed into a bundle ready for the
camp-fire outside.

"You mean - - "

Steve was lying in his blankets propped into a half-sitting position. A
candle, stuck in the neck of a bottle, lit the tent sufficiently for Ian
Ross to complete his work.

"Why, the evil spirits of Unaga, I guess," he replied, with a forced
lightness. Then he shook his head. "They did their best - sure. Another
week or so and you'd have moved about on stumps the rest of your life.
And I'm reckoning that would have been the best you could have hoped.
It's been a darned near thing."

Steve nodded. His manner was curiously indifferent.

"How's the boy?" he demanded abruptly.

Ross put his instruments away and set the water bowl aside. Then he set
the stoppered bottles back into his case.

"He'll be 'whooping' it up with the boys in a couple of days," he said.

"An-ina?"

"Beating the 'reaper' out of sight."

Steve drew a deep breath.

"Oolak was all to pieces," he said doubtfully.

"He was about as broken as he could be and still hang together. He's
been a tough case." It was the doctor's turn to take a deep breath.
"He'll be a man again. But I wouldn't gamble on his shape. Say, Steve,
it's the biggest bluff I've seen put up against death. Those darn
niggers who toted your boats, they're tickled to death with the food the
boys hand out to them. And as for Julyman he's as near cast iron
as - as - you."

"Yes, it was pretty tough."

"Tough? Gee!"

The doctor's final exclamation was one of genuine amazement.

"It's near three weeks since we hauled the remains of you from that
skitter-ridden river," he went on, "and a deal's happened in that time.
Jack Belton's gone in for stores, and to report. We've shifted camp
where the flies, and bugs, and things'll let you folks forget the darn
river, and the nightmare I guess you dreamt on it. You're all beating
the game, some of you by yards, and others by inches. But you're beating
it. And I'm still guessing at those things you all know like you were
born to 'em. When are you going to hand me the yarn, Steve? When are you
going to feel like thinking about the things that two weeks ago looked
like leaving you plumb crazed?"

Steve knitted his brows. To the man watching him it seemed as if the
sudden recalling of the past was still a thing to be avoided. But his
diagnosis was in error. Steve became impatient.

"Oh hell!" he exclaimed. "Do you need me to hand it you? Do you need me
to tell you the fool stunt I played to beat schedule, and get back to
Nita and the kiddie? Do you need to know about a darn territory that
every Indian north of 60° is scared to death of? A territory only fit
for devils and such folk, like the neches reckon it's peopled with? Do
you want to hear about an outfit that found everything Nature ever set
for the world's biggest fools? Do you want to know about storms that
leave the worst Northern trails a summer picnic, and muskegs and tundra
that leave you searching for something bigger than miles to measure
with, and barren, fly-ridden territory without a leaf or blade of grass
and scored every way at once with rifts and water canyons so you can't
tell the north from the Desert of Sahara? If you do, read the old report
I've been writing. I'll hand you a story that won't shout credit for the
feller who designed it. But it'll tell you of the guts of the folk who
stood behind him every darn step of the way, and made him crazy to get
them through alive. If you'd asked me that two weeks ago I'd have cried
like a babe. Now it's different. You've got a sick woman under your
hands now, Doc, and two copper coloured neches. And when I say they're
the world's best, why - I just mean it."

A deep flush of emotion underlaid the toughened skin of Steve's face. He
was deeply stirred by the thoughts and feelings which the other's demand
had conjured.

The doctor glanced down at the sheets of paper on which Steve had
written his report. But he made no attempt to accept the invitation to
read it. The moment had come to tell this man of that disaster which yet
awaited him. So he had sought to test him in the only fashion that lay
to his hand. The break which had so sorely threatened in the reaction
following upon Steve's rescue had been completely averted, and the
Scotsman felt that now, at last, he was strong enough to bear the truth
which he had denied him on his first enquiry after his wife and child.

The flush died out of Steve's cheeks. The steady eyes were never more
steady as they looked into the strong face before them. He ran his
fingers through his long dark hair, and resettled his shoulders against
the pile of blankets supporting them.

"It kind of startles you to find guts in folks when you're up against
it. You can't help it. Maybe it's conceit makes you feel that way," he
went on quietly. "Those two boys of mine, and An-ina. You couldn't beat
'em. Nothing could. When Oolak dropped over the side of a canyon, with
most of the outfit the reindeer went with him. You see, we'd rid
ourselves of the dogs. We couldn't feed 'em. Well, I guessed the end had
come. But it hadn't. Julyman and An-ina took up the work of hauling,
while I carried Marcel. Only they hauled Oolak instead of the outfit.
They hauled him for nigh on a month, and we lived on dog meat till it
got putrid, and even then didn't feel like giving it up. I didn't have
to worry a thing except for their sanity. You see, they were Indian for
all their grit, and - I just didn't know. It was tough, Doc! Oh, gee! it
was tough! And when you've read the stuff I've doped out for
headquarters you won't need me to talk if you've two cents of
imagination about you. If you'd asked me awhile back, when I asked you
about Nita, and my little girl, and you told me they were good and
happy, and crazy to have me back, as I said, I'd have cried like a kid.
Yes, and I guess you'd have needed a gun to hold me here while you
hacked those slabs off my feet. But it's right now. My head was never
clearer, and there's just one thought in it. It's to get back to



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 9 of 30)