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Title: In the Brooding Wild
Author: Cullum, Ridgwell, 1867-1943
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "In the Brooding Wild" ***

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[Illustration: "THERE IS NO MOVEMENT IN THE SAVAGE BODY BUT THE FURIOUS,
NOISELESS LASHING OF THE TAIL" (_See page 244_)]



IN THE BROODING WILD

By RIDGWELL CULLUM

Author of

"The Story of The Foss River Ranch," "The Law Breakers,"
"The Way of the Strong," Etc.

[Illustration]

With Frontispiece

By CHARLES LIVINGSTON BULL

A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers--New York

Published by Arrangement with The Page Company



Copyright, 1905

By L. C. Page & Company

(INCORPORATED)

All rights reserved



CONTENTS

       I. On the Mountainside                                    1
      II. Which Tells of the White Squaw                        15
     III. The Quest of the White Squaw                          34
      IV. The Hooded Man                                        55
       V. The White Squaw                                       79
      VI. The Weird of the Wild                                 93
     VII. In the Storming Night                                112
    VIII. The Unquenchable Fire                                130
      IX. To the Death                                         142
       X. The Battle in the Wild                               157
      XI. The Gathering of the Forest Legions                  174
     XII. Where the Laws of Might Alone Prevail                188
    XIII. Out on the Northland Trail                           213
     XIV. Who Shall Fathom the Depths of a Woman's Love?       228
      XV. The Tragedy of the Wild                              239



IN THE BROODING WILD



CHAPTER I.

ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE


To the spirit which broods over the stupendous solitudes of the northern
Rockies, the soul of man, with all its complex impulses, is but so much
plastic material which it shapes to its own inscrutable ends. For the
man whose lot is cast in the heart of these wilds, the drama of life
usually moves with a tremendous simplicity toward the sudden and sombre
tragedy of the last act. The titanic world in which he lives closes in
upon him and makes him its own. For him, among the ancient watch-towers
of the earth, the innumerable interests and activities of swarming
cities, the restless tides and currents of an eager civilization, take
on the remoteness of a dream. The peace or war of nations is less to him
than the battles of Wing and Fur. His interests are all in that world
over which he seeks to rule by the law of trap and gun, and in the war
of defence which he wages against the aggression of the elements. He
returns insensibly to the type of the primitive man, strong, patient,
and enduring.

High up on the mountainside, overlooking a valley so deep and wide as to
daze the brain of the gazing human, stands a squat building. It seems to
have been crushed into the slope by the driving force of the vicious
mountain storms to which it is open on three sides. There is no shelter
for it. It stands out bravely to sunshine and storm alike with the
contemptuous indifference of familiarity. It is a dugout, and, as its
name implies, is built half in the ground. Its solitary door and single
parchment-covered window overlook the valley, and the white path in
front where the snow is packed hard by the tramp of dogs and men, and
the runners of the dog-sled. Below the slope bears away to the
woodlands. Above the hut the overshadowing mountain rises to dazzling
heights; and a further, but thin, belt of primeval forest extends up,
up, until the eternal snows are reached and the air will no longer
support life. Even to the hardy hunters, whose home this is, those upper
forests are sealed chapters in Nature's story.

Below the dugout, and beyond the valley, lie countless lesser hills, set
so closely that their divisions are lost in one smooth, dark expanse of
forest. Blackened rifts are visible here and there, but they have little
meaning, and only help to materialize what would otherwise wear an
utterly ghostly appearance. The valley in front is so vast that its
contemplation from the hillside sends a shudder of fear through the
heart. It is dark, dreadfully dark and gloomy, although the great
stretch of pine forest, which reaches to its uttermost confines, bears
upon its drooping branches the white coat of winter.

The valley is split by a river, now frozen to its bed. But, from the hut
door, the rift which marks its course in the dark carpet cannot be seen.

In the awesome view no life is revealed. The forests shadow the earth
and every living thing upon it, and where the forest is not there lies
the snow to the depth of many feet. It is a scene of solemn grandeur,
over which broods silence and illimitable space.

Out of the deathly stillness comes a long-drawn sigh. It echoes down the
hillside like the weary expression of patient suffering from some poor
creature imprisoned where ancient glacier and everlasting snows hold
place. It passes over the low-pitched roof of the dugout, it plays about
the angles and under the wide reaching eaves. It sets the door creaking
with a sound that startles the occupants. It passes on and forces its
way through the dense, complaining forest trees. The opposition it
receives intensifies its plaint, and it rushes angrily through the
branches. Then, for awhile, all is still again. But the coming of that
breath from the mountain top has made a difference in the outlook.
Something strange has happened. One looks about and cannot tell what it
is. It may be that the air is colder; it may be that the daylight has
changed its tone; it may be that the sunlit scene is changed as the air
fills with sparkling, diamond frost particles. Something has happened.

Suddenly a dismal howl splits the air, and its echoes intensify the
gloom. Another howl succeeds it, and then the weird cry is taken up by
other voices.

And ere the echoes die out another breath comes down from the hilltop, a
breath less patient; angry with a biting fierceness which speaks of
patience exhausted and a spirit of retaliation.

It catches up the loose snow as it comes and hurls it defiantly at every
obstruction with the viciousness of an exasperated woman. Now it shakes
the dugout, and, as it passes on, shrieks invective at the world over
which it rushes, and everything it touches feels the bitter lash of the
whipping snow it bears upon its bosom. Again come the strange howls of
the animal world, but they sound more distant and the echoes are
muffled, for those who cry out have sought the woodland shelter, where
the mountain breath exhausts itself against the countless legions of the
pines.

Ere the shriek has died out, another blast comes, down the mountainside,
and up rises the fine-powdered snow like a thin fog. From the valley a
rush of wind comes up to meet it, and the two battle for supremacy.
While the conflict rages fresh clouds of snow rise in other directions
and rush to the scene of action. Encountering each other on the way they
struggle together, each intolerant of interference, until the shrieking
is heard on every hand, and the snow fog thickens, and the dull sun
above grows duller, and the lurid "sun dogs" look like evil coals of
fire burning in the sky.

Now, from every direction, the wind tears along in a mad fury. The
forest tops sway as with the roll of some mighty sea swept by the sudden
blast of a tornado. In the rage of the storm the woodland giants creak
out their impotent protests. The wind battles and tears at everything,
there is no cessation in its onslaught.

And as the fight waxes the fog rises and a grey darkness settles over
the valley. The forest is hidden, the hills are gone, the sun is
obscured, and a fierce desolation reigns. Darker and darker it becomes
as the blizzard gains force. And the cries of the forest beasts add to
the chaos and din of the mountain storm.

The driving cold penetrates, with the bite of invisible arrows, to the
interior of the dugout. The two men who sit within pile up the fuel in
the box stove which alone makes life possible for them in such weather.
The roof groans and bends beneath the blast. Under the rattling door a
thin carpet of snow has edged its way in, while through the crack above
it a steady rain of moisture falls as the snow encounters the rising
heat of the stifling atmosphere.

"I knew it 'ud come, Nick," observed one of the men, as he shut the
stove, after carefully packing several cord-wood sticks within its
insatiable maw.

He was of medium height but of large muscle. His appearance was that of
a man in the prime of life. His hair, above a face tanned and lined by
exposure to the weather, was long and grey, as was the beard which
curled about his chin. He was clad in a shirt of rough-tanned buckskin
and trousers of thick moleskin. His feet were shod with moccasins which
were brilliantly beaded. Similar bead-work adorned the front of the
weather-proof shirt.

His companion was a slightly younger and somewhat larger man. The
resemblance he bore to his comrade indicated the relationship between
them. They were brothers.

Ralph and Nicol Westley were born and bred in that dugout. Their father
and mother were long since dead, dying in the harness of the toil they
had both loved, and which they bequeathed to their children. These two
men had never seen the prairie. They had never left their mountain
fastnesses. They had never even gone south to where the railway bores
its way through the Wild.

They had been born to the life of the trapper and knew no other. They
lived and enjoyed their lives, for they were creatures of Nature who
understood and listened when she spoke. They had no other education. The
men lived together harmoniously, practically independent of all other
human companionship.

At long intervals, when pelts had accumulated and supplies had run low,
they visited the cabin of an obscure trader. Otherwise they were cut off
from the world and rejoiced in their isolation.

"Yes, we've had the warnin' this week past," rejoined Nick solemnly, as
he affectionately polished the butt of his rifle with a rag greased with
bear's fat. "Them 'patch' winds at sunrise an' sunset ain't sent fer
nothin'. I 'lows Hell's hard on the heels o' this breeze. When the wind
quits there'll be snow, an' snow means us bein' banked in. Say, she's
boomin'. Hark to her. You can hear her tearin' herself loose from
som'eres up on the hilltops."

Nick looked round the hut as though expecting to see the storm break
through the walls of their shelter. A heavy storm always affected the
superstitious side of these men's natures. A blizzard to them was as the
Evil Spirit of the mountains. They always possessed the feeling,
somewhere deep down in their hearts, that the attack of a storm was
directed against them. And the feeling was a mute acknowledgment that
they were interlopers in Nature's most secret haunts.

Ralph had planted himself upon an upturned bucket, and sat with his
hands thrust out towards the stove. He was smoking, and his eyes were
directed in a pensive survey at a place where the black iron of the
stove was steadily reddening.

Presently he looked up.

"Ha' ye fed the dogs, lad?" he asked.

"Ay."

The two relapsed into silence. The creaking of the hut was like the
protest of a wooden ship riding a heavy storm at sea. The men shifted
their positions with every fresh burst which struck their home; it was
as though they personally felt each shock, and their bones ached with
the strain of battle. The smoke curled up slowly from Ralph's pipe and a
thin cloud hovered just beneath the roof. The red patch on the stove
widened and communicated itself to the stovepipe. Presently the trapper
leaned forward, and, closing the damper, raked away the ashes with a
chip of wood.

Nick looked up and laid his gun aside, and, rising, stepped over to the
stove.

"Makes ye feel good to hear the fire roarin' when it's stormin' bad.
Ther' ain't no tellin' when this'll let up." He jerked his head backward
to imply the storm.

"It's sharp. Mighty sharp," replied his brother. "Say--"

He broke off and bent his head in an attitude of keen attention. He held
his pipe poised in his right hand, whilst his eyes focused themselves on
a side of bacon which hung upon the wall.

Nick had turned towards the door. His attitude was intent also; he, too,
was listening acutely.

The howling elements continued to beat furiously upon the house and the
din was appalling, but these two men, keen-eared, trained to the life of
their mountains, had heard a sound which was not the storm, nor of the
forest creatures doling their woful cries beneath the shelter of the
woods.

Slowly Ralph's eyes moved from the bacon and passed over the smoke
stained wooden wall of the hut. Nor did they pause again until they
looked into the eyes of his brother. Here they fixed themselves and the
working brains of the two men seemed to communicate one with the other.
Neither of them was likely to be mistaken. To hear a sound in those
wilds was to recognize it unerringly.

"A cry," said Nick.

"Some 'un out in the storm," replied Ralph.

"A neche."

Ralph shook his head.

"A neche would 'a' know'd this was comin'. He'd 'a' made camp. 'Tain't a
neche. Hark!"

The beat of the storm seemed to drown all other sounds, and yet those
two men listened. It is certain that what they heard would have been
lost to most ears.

Ralph rose deliberately. There was no haste, nor was there any
hesitation. His intention was written on his face.

"The lifeline," he said briefly.

Out into the awful storm the two men plunged a few moments later. There
was no thought of their own comfort in their minds. They had heard a
cry--the cry of a human being, and they were prepared to lend such aid
as lay in their power. They did not pause to wonder at a voice other
than their own in those regions. Some one was caught in the storm, and
they knew that such a disaster meant certain death to the poor wretch if
they did not go to the rescue. The terror of the blizzard was expressed
in the significant words Ralph had uttered. Even these hardy men of the
wild dared not venture beyond their door without the lifeline which was
always kept handy.

With their furs covering every part of them but their eyes and noses
they plunged into the fog of blinding snow. They could see nothing
around them--they could not even see their own feet. Each gripped a long
pole, and used his other hand to grasp the line.

They moved down the beaten path with certain step. Three yards from the
dugout and the house was obscured. The wind buffeted them from every
direction, and they were forced to bend their heads in order to keep
their eyes open.

The whole attack of the wind now seemed to centre round those two
struggling human creatures. It is the way of the blizzard. It blows
apparently from every direction, and each obstacle in its chaotic path
becomes the special object of its onslaught.

A forceful gust, too sudden to withstand, would drive them, blind,
groping, from their path; and a moment later they would be hurled like
shuttlecocks in the opposite direction. They staggered under the burden
of the storm, and groped for the solid foothold of the track with their
poles; and so they slowly gained their way.

Their strenuous life had rendered them uncomplaining, and they laboured
in silence. No emergency but they were ready to meet with a promptness
that was almost automatic. A slip upon the declining path and the fall
was checked by the aid of the poles which both men used as skilfully as
any guide upon the Alps. These contests with the elements were as much a
part of their lives as were their battles with the animal world.

After awhile Ralph halted; he thrust his pole deep into the snow and
held his position by its aid. Then, throwing up his head, as might any
wolf, he opened his throat and uttered a prolonged cry. It rose high
above the storm in a manner which only the cry of a mountain or forest
bred man can. It rushed forth borne unwillingly upon the shrieking wind,
and its sound almost instantly died out of the ears of the sender. But
the men knew it was travelling. Nick followed his brother's example, and
then Ralph gave out the mountain call again.

Then they waited, listening. A sound, faint and far off, came in answer
to their cries. It was the human cry they had heard before.

Ralph moved forward with Nick hard upon his heels. The line "paid out,"
and the points of the poles sought the hard earth beneath the snow. They
gained their way in spite of the storm, foot by foot, yard by yard. And,
at short intervals, they paused and sent their cries hurtling upon the
vicious wind. And to every cry came an answer, and every answer sounded
nearer.

They were on the only open track in the valley, and both men knew that
whoever was out in that storm must be somewhere upon it. Therefore they
kept on.

"The line's gettin' heavy," said Nick presently.

"It's only a little further," replied Ralph.

"By the weight o' the line, I reckon ther' ain't more'n fifty feet
more."

"Maybe it'll be 'nough."

And Ralph was right.

Ten yards further on they almost fell over a dark mass lying in the
snow. It was a huddled heap, as of a creature striving to shut out the
attack of the storm. It was the attitude of one whose heart quails with
dread. It was the attitude of one, who, in possession of all his
faculties and strength, lies down to die. Rank cowardice was in that
fur-clad figure, and the cries for help were as the weeping of a
fear-filled soul.

Ralph was down upon his knees in a moment, and all that the still figure
conveyed was at once apparent to him. His hand fell heavily upon the
man's shoulder, and he turned him over to look at his face.

The victim of the storm groaned; as yet he was unable to realize that
help was at hand. Then, after several rough shakes, his head emerged
from the folds of an enormous storm-collar.

As he looked up at the faces bending over him the two trappers uttered
exclamations.

"It's the trader!" said Ralph.

"Victor Gagnon!" exclaimed Nick.



CHAPTER II.

WHICH TELLS OF THE WHITE SQUAW


The stormy day was followed by an equally stormy night. Inside the
dugout it was possible, in a measure, to forget the terrors of the
blizzard raging outside. The glowing stove threw out its comforting
warmth, and even the rank yellow light of the small oil lamp, which was
suspended from one of the rafters, gave a cheering suggestion of comfort
to the rough interior. Besides, there were within food and shelter and
human association, and the mind of man is easily soothed into a feeling
of security by such surroundings.

The trappers had brought the rescued trader to the shelter of their
humble abode; they had refreshed him with warmth and good food; they had
given him the comfort of a share of their blankets, the use of their
tobacco, all the hospitality they knew how to bestow.

The three men were ranged round the room in various attitudes of repose.
All were smoking heavily. On the top of the stove stood a tin billy full
to the brim of steaming coffee, the scent of which, blending with the
reek of strong tobacco, came soothingly to their nostrils.

Victor Gagnon was lying full length upon a pile of outspread blankets.
His face was turned towards the stove, and his head was supported upon
one hand. He looked none the worse for his adventure in the storm. He
was a small, dark man of the superior French half-breed class. He had a
narrow, ferret face which was quite good looking in a mean small way. He
was clean shaven, and wore his straight black hair rather long. His
clothes, now he had discarded his furs, showed to be of orthodox type,
and quite unlike those of his hosts. He was a trader who kept a store
away to the northeast of the dugout. He worked in connection with one of
the big fur companies of the East, as an agent for the wholesale house
dealing directly with trappers and Indians.

This was the man with whom the Westleys traded, and they were truly glad
that chance had put it in their power to befriend him. Their
associations with him, although chiefly of a business nature, were
decidedly friendly.

Now they were listening to his slow, quiet, thoughtful talk. He was a
man who liked talking, but he always contrived that his audience should
be those who gave information. These two backwoodsmen, simple as the
virgin forests to which they belonged, were not keen enough to observe
this. Victor Gagnon understood such men well. His life had been made up
of dealings with the mountain world and those who peopled it.

Nick, large and picturesque, sat tailor-fashion on his blankets, facing
the glowing stove with the unblinking, thoughtful stare of a large dog.
Ralph was less luxurious. He was propped upon his upturned bucket, near
enough to the fire to dispense the coffee without rising from his seat.

"Yup. It's a long trail for a man to make travellin' light an' on his
lone," Victor was saying, while his black eyes flashed swiftly upon his
companions. "It's not a summer picnic, I guess. Maybe you're wonderin'
what I come for."

He ceased speaking as a heavy blast shook the roof, and set the lamp
swinging dangerously.

"We're good an' pleased to see you--" began Ralph, in his deliberate
way; but Victor broke in upon him at once.

"O' course you are. It's like you an' Nick there to feel that way. But
human natur's human natur', an' maybe som'eres you are jest wonderin'
what brought me along. Anyway, I come with a red-hot purpose. Gee! but
it's blowin'. I ain't like to forget this storm." Gagnon shuddered as he
thought of his narrow escape.

"Say," he went on, with an effort at playfulness. "You two boys are
pretty deep--pretty deep." He repeated himself reflectively. "An' you
seem so easy and free, too. I do allow I'd never 'a' thought it. Ha,
ha!"

He turned a smiling face upon his two friends and looked quizzically
from one to the other. His look was open, but behind it shone something
else. There was a hungriness in his sharp, black eyes which would have
been observed by any one other than these two backwoodsmen.

"You allus was a bit fancy in your way o' speakin', Victor," observed
Nick, responding to the man's grin. "Hit the main trail, man. We ain't
good at guessin'."

Ralph had looked steadily at the trader while he was speaking; now he
turned slowly and poured out three pannikins of coffee. During the
operation he turned his visitor's words over in his mind and something
of their meaning came to him. He passed a tin to each of the others and
sipped meditatively from his own, while his eyes became fixed upon the
face of the half-breed.

"Ther' was some fine pelts in that last parcel o' furs you brought
along," continued Victor. "Three black foxes. But your skins is always
the best I get."

Ralph nodded over his coffee, whilst he added his other hand to the
support of the tin. Nick watched his brother a little anxiously. He,
too, felt uneasy.

"It's cur'us that you git more o' them black pelts around here than
anybody else higher up north. You're a sight better hunters than any
durned neche on the Peace River. An' them hides is worth more'n five
times their weight in gold. You're makin' a pile o' bills. Say, you keep
them black pelts snug away wi' other stuff o' value."

Gagnon paused and took a deep draught at his coffee.

"Say," he went on, with a knowing smile. "I guess them black foxes lived
in a gold mine--"

He broke off and watched the effect of his words. The others kept
silence, only their eyes betrayed them. The smoke curled slowly up from
their pipes and hung in a cloud about the creaking roof. The fire burned
fiercely in the stove, and with every rush of wind outside there came a
corresponding roar of flame up the stovepipe.

"Maybe you take my meanin'," said the Breed, assured that his words had
struck home. "Them black furs was chock full o' grit--an' that grit was
gold-dust. Guess that dust didn't grow in them furs; an' I 'lows foxes
don't fancy a bed o' such stuff. Say, boys, you've struck gold in this
layout o' yours. That's what's brought me out in this all-fired storm."

The two brothers exchanged rapid glances and then Ralph spoke for them
both.

"You're smart, Victor. That's so. We've been workin' a patch o' pay-dirt
for nigh on to twelve month. But it's worked out; clear out to the
bedrock. It wa'n't jest a great find, though I 'lows, while it lasted,
we took a tidy wage out o' it--"

"An' what might you call a 'tidy wage'?" asked the Breed, in a tone of
disappointment. He knew these men so well that he did not doubt their
statement; but he was loth to relinquish his dream. He had come there to
make an arrangement with them. If they had a gold working he considered
that, provided he could be of use to them, there would be ample room for
him in it. This had been the object of his hazardous journey. And now he
was told that it had worked out. He loved gold, and the news came as a
great blow to him.

He watched Ralph keenly while he awaited his reply, sitting up in his
eagerness.

"Seventy-fi' dollars a day," Ralph spoke without enthusiasm.

Victor's eyes sparkled.

"Each?" he asked.

"No, on shares."

There was another long silence while the voice of the storm was loud
without. Victor Gagnon was thinking hard, but his face was calm, his
expression almost indifferent. More coffee was drunk, and the smoke
continued to rise.

"I 'lows you should know if it's worked out, sure."

The sharp eyes seemed to go through Ralph.

"Dead sure. We ain't drawn a cent's worth o' colour out o' it fer nine
months solid."

"'Tain't worth prospectin' fer the reef?"

"Can't say. I ain't much when it comes to prospectin' gold. I knows the
colour when I sees it."

Nick joined in the conversation at this point.

"Guess you'd a notion you fancied bein' in it," he said, smiling over at
the Breed.

Victor laughed a little harshly.

"That's jest what."

The two brothers nodded. This they had understood.

"I'd have found all the plant fer big work," went on the trader eagerly.
"I'd have found the cash to do everything. I'd have found the labour.
An' us three 'ud have made a great syndicate. We'd 'a' run it dead
secret. Wi' me in it we could 'a' sent our gold down to the bank by the
dogs, an', bein' as my shack's so far from here, no one 'ud ever 'a'
found whar the yeller come from. It 'ud 'a' been a real fine game--a
jo-dandy game. An' it's worked clear out?" he asked again, as though to
make certain that he had heard aright.

"Bottomed right down to the bedrock. Maybe ye'd like to see fer
yourself?"

"Guess I ken take your word, boys; ye ain't the sort to lie to a pal.
I'm real sorry." He paused and shifted his position. Then he went on
with a slightly cunning look. "I 'lows you're like to take a run down to
Edmonton one o' these days. A feller mostly likes to make things hum
when he's got a good wad." Gagnon's tone was purely conversational. But
his object must have been plain to any one else. He was bitterly
resentful at the working out of the placer mine, and his anger always
sent his thoughts into crooked channels. His nature was a curious one;
he was honest enough, although avaricious, while his own ends were
served. It was different when he was balked.

"We don't notion a city any," said Nick, simply.

"Things is confusin' to judge by the yarns folks tell," added Ralph,
with a shake of his shaggy head.

"Them fellers as comes up to your shack, Victor, mostly talks o' drink,
an' shootin', an'--an' women," Nick went on. "Guess the hills'll do us.
Maybe when we've done wi' graft an' feel that it 'ud be good to laze,
likely we'll go down an' buy a homestead on the prairie. Maybe, I sez."

Nick spoke dubiously, like a man who does not convince himself.

"Hah, that's 'cause you've never been to a city," said the Breed
sharply.

"Jest so," observed Ralph quietly, between the puffs at his pipe.

Gagnon laughed silently. His eyes were very bright and he looked from
one brother to the other with appreciation. An idea had occurred to him
and he was mentally probing the possibilities of carrying it out. What
he saw pleased him, for he continued to smile.

"Well, well, maybe you're right," he said indulgently. Then silence
fell.

Each man was rapt in his own thoughts, and talk without a definite
object was foreign to at least two of the three. The brothers were
waiting in their stolid Indian fashion for sleep to come. The trader was
thinking hard behind his lowered eyelids, which were almost hidden by
the thick smoke which rose from his pipe.

The fire burned down and was replenished. Ralph rose and gathered the
pannikins and threw them into a biscuit-box. Then he laid out his
blankets while Nick went over and bolted the door. Still the trader did
not look up. When the two men had settled themselves comfortably in
their blankets the other at last put his pipe away.

"No," he said, as he too negotiated his blankets, "guess we want good
sound men in these hills, anyway. I reckon you've no call to get
visitin' the prairie, boys; you're the finest hunters I've ever known.
D'ye know the name your shack here goes by among the down-landers? They
call it the 'Westley Injun Reserve.'"

"White Injuns," said Nick, with a grin followed by a yawn.

"That's what," observed Victor, curling himself up in his blankets.
"I've frequent heard tell of the White Squaw, but White Injuns sounds
like as it wa'n't jest possible. Howsum, they call you real white buck
neches, an' I 'lows ther' ain't no redskin in the world to stan' beside
you on the trail o' a fur."

The two men laughed at their friend's rough tribute to their
attainments. Ralph was the quieter of the two, but his appreciation was
none the less. He was simple-hearted, but he knew his own worth when
dealing with furs. Nick laughed loudly. It tickled him to be considered
a White Indian at the calling which was his, for his whole pride was in
his work.

Nick was not without a romantic side to his nature. The life of the
mountains had imbued him with a half-savage superstition which revelled
in the uncanny lore of such places. This was not the first time he had
heard of a White Squaw, and, although he did not believe such a
phenomenon possible, it appealed seductively to his love of the
marvellous. Victor had turned over to sleep, but Nick was very wide
awake and interested. He could not let such an opportunity slip. Victor
was good at a yarn. And, besides, Victor knew more of the mountain-lore
than any one else. So he roused the Breed again.

"You was sayin' about a White Squaw, Victor," he said, in a shamefaced
manner. His bronzed cheeks were deeply flushed and he glanced over at
his brother to see if he were laughing at him. Ralph was lying full
length upon his blankets and his eyes were closed, so he went on. "Guess
_I've_ heerd tell of a White Squaw. Say, ain't it that they reckon
as she ain't jest a human crittur?"

Victor opened his eyes and rolled over on his back. If there was one
weakness he had it was the native half-breed love of romancing. He was
ever ready to yarn. He revelled in it when he had a good audience. Nick
was the very man for him, simple, honest, superstitious. So he sat up
and answered readily enough.

"That's jest how, pard. An' it ain't a yarn neither. It's gospel truth.
I know."

"Hah!" ejaculated Nick, while a strange feeling passed down his spine.
Ralph's eyes had slowly opened, but the others did not notice him.

"I've seen her!" went on the trader emphatically.

"You've seen her!" said Nick, in an awed whisper.

An extra loud burst of the storming wind held the men silent a moment,
then, as it died away, Victor went on.

"Yes, I see her with my own two eyes, an' I ain't like to ferget it
neither. Say, ye've seen them Bible 'lustrations in my shanty? Them
pictur's o' lovesome critturs wi' feathery wings an' sech?"

"I guess."

"Wal, clip them wings sheer off, an' you've got her dead right."

"Mush! But she must be a dandy sight," exclaimed Nick, with conviction.
"How come ye to--"

"Guess it's a long yarn, an' maybe ye're wantin' to sleep."

"Say, I 'lows I'd like that yarn, Victor. I ain't worried for sleep,
any."

Nick deliberately refilled his pipe and lit it, and passed his tobacco
to the trader. Victor took the pouch. Ralph's eyes had closed again.

"You allus was a great one fer a yarn, Nick," began the half-breed, with
a laugh. "Guess you most allus gets me gassin'; but say, this ain't no
yarn, in a way. It's the most cur'us bit o' truth, as maybe you'll
presently allow. But I ain't goin' to tell it you if ye ain't believin',
'cause it's the truth." The trader's face had become quite serious and
he spoke with unusual earnestness. Nick was impressed, and Ralph's eyes
had opened again.

"Git goin', pard; guess your word's good fer me," Nick said eagerly.
"You was sayin'--"

"Ye've heard tell o' the Moosefoot Injuns?" began the trader slowly.
Nick nodded. "They're a queer lot o' neches. I used to do a deal o'
trade wi' them on the Peace River, 'fore they was located on a reserve.
They were the last o' the old-time redskin hunters. Dessay they were the
last to hunt the buffalo into the drives. They're pretty fine men now, I
guess, as neches go, but they ain't nothin' to what they was. I guess
that don't figger anyway, but they're different from most Injuns, which
is what I was coming to. Their chief ain't a 'brave,' same as most,
which, I 'lows, is unusual. Maybe that's how it come they ain't allus on
the war-path, an' maybe that's how it come their river's called Peace
River. Their chief is a Med'cine Man; has been ever since they was drove
across the mountains from British Columbia. They was pretty nigh wiped
out when that happened, so they did away wi' havin' a 'brave' fer a
chief, an' took on a 'Med'cine Man.'

"Wal, it ain't quite clear how it come about, but the story, which is
most gener'ly believed, says that the first Med'cine Man was pertic'ler
cunnin', an' took real thick with the white folks' way o' doin' things.
Say, he learned his folk a deal o' farmin' an' sech, an' they took to
trappin' same as you understand it. There wa'n't no scrappin', nor
war-path yowlin'; they jest come an' settled right down an' took on to
the land. Wal, this feller, 'fore he died, got the Mission'ry on his
trail, an' got religion; but he couldn't git dead clear o' his med'cine,
an' he got to prophesyin'. He called all his folk together an' took out
his youngest squaw. She was a pretty crittur, sleek as an antelope fawn;
I 'lows her pelt was nigh as smooth an' soft. Her eyes were as black an'
big as a moose calf's, an' her hair was as fine as black fox fur. Wal,
he up an' spoke to them folk, an' said as ther' was a White Squaw comin'
amongst 'em who was goin' to make 'em a great people; who was goin' to
lead 'em to victory agin their old enemies in British Columbia, where
they'd go back to an' live in peace. An' he told 'em as this squaw was
goin' to be the instrument by which the comin' of the White Squaw was to
happen. Then they danced a Med'cine Dance about her, an' he made
med'cine for three days wi'out stoppin'. Then they built her a lodge o'
teepees in the heart o' the forest, where she was to live by herself.

"Wal, time went on an' the squaw give birth to a daughter, but she
wa'n't jest white, so the men took and killed her, I guess. Then came
another; she was whiter than the first, but she didn't jest please the
folk, an' they killed her too. Then came another, an' another, each
child whiter than the last, an' they were all killed, 'cause I guess
they wa'n't jest white. Till the seventh come along. The seventh was the
White Squaw. Say, fair as a pictur, wi' black hair that shone in the
sun, an' wi' eyes that blue as 'ud shame the summer sky."

The half-breed paused, and sat staring with introspective gaze at the
iron side of the stove. Nick was gazing at him all eyes and ears for the
story. Ralph, too, was sitting up now.

"Wal, she was taken care of an' treated like the queen she was. On'y the
headman was allowed to look at her. She grew an' grew, an' all the tribe
was thinkin' of war, an' gettin' ready. They made 'braves' nigh every
week, an' their Sun Dances was the greatest ever known. They danced
Ghost Dances, too, to keep away Evil Spirits, I guess, an' things was
goin' real good. Then sudden comes the white folk, an' after a bit they
was all herded on to a Reserve an' kep' there. But that White Squaw
never left her home in the forest, 'cause no one but the headman knew
where she was. She was on'y a young girl then; I guess she's grown now.
Wal, fer years them pore critturs reckoned on her comin' along an'
leadin' them out on the war-path. But she didn't come; she jest stayed
right along with her mother in that forest, an' didn't budge.

"That's the yarn as it stan's," Victor went on, after another pause,
"but this is how I come to see her. It was winter, an' I was tradin' on
the Reserve there. It was a fine, cold day, an' the snow was good an'
hard, an' I set out to hunt an old bull moose that was runnin' with its
mates in the location. I took two neches with me, an' we had a slap-up
time fer nigh on to a week. We hunted them moose hard the whole time,
but never came up wi' 'em. Then it came on to storm, an' we pitched camp
in a thick pine forest. We was there fer nigh on three days while it
stormed a'mighty hard. Then it cleared an' we set out, an', wi'in fifty
yards o' our camp, we struck the trail o' the moose. We went red-hot
after them beasts, I'm figgerin', an' they took us into the thick o' the
forest. Then we got a couple o' shots in; my slugs got home, but, fer
awhiles, we lost them critturs. Next day we set out again, an' at noon
we was startled by hearin' a shot fired by som'un else. We kep' right
on, an' bimeby we came to a clearin'. There we saw four teepees an' a
shack o' pine logs all smeared wi' colour; but what came nigh to
par'lyzin' me was the sight o' my moose lyin' all o' a heap on the
ground, an', standin' beside its carcass, leanin' on a long
muzzle-loader, was a white woman. She was wearin' the blanket right
enough, but she was as white as you are. Say, she had six great huskies
wi' her, an' four women. An' when they see us they put hard into the
woods. I was fer goin' to have a look at the teepees, but my neches
wouldn't let me. They told me the lodge was sacred to the White Squaw,
who we'd jest seen. An' I 'lows, they neches wa'n't jest easy till we
cleared them woods."

"An' she was beautiful, an'--an' fine?" asked Nick, as the trader ceased
speaking. "Was she that beautiful as you'd heerd tell of?"

His voice was eager with suppressed excitement. His pipe had gone out,
and he had forgotten everything but the story the Breed had told.

"Ay, that she was; her skin was as clear as the snow she trod on, an'
her eyes--gee! but I've never seen the like. Man, she was wonderful."

Victor threw up his hands in a sort of ecstasy and looked up at the
creaking roof.

"An' her hair?" asked Nick, wonderingly.

"A black fox pelt was white aside it."

"An' didn't ye foller her?"

The question came abruptly from Ralph, whom the others had forgotten.

"I didn't jest know you was awake," said Victor. "Wal, no, to own the
truth, I 'lows I was scart to death wi' what them neches said. Maybe I
wa'n't sorry to light out o' them woods."

They talked on for a few moments longer, then Ralph's stertorous
breathing told of sleep. Victor was not long in following his example.
Nick sat smoking thoughtfully for some time; presently he rose and put
out the lamp and stoked up the fire. Then he, too, rolled over in his
blankets, and, thinking of the beautiful White Squaw, dropped off to
sleep to continue his meditations in dreamland.



CHAPTER III.

THE QUEST OF THE WHITE SQUAW


Christmas had gone by and the new year was nearing the end of its first
month. It was many weeks since Victor Gagnon had come to the Westley's
dugout on that stormy evening. But his visit had not been forgotten. The
story of the White Squaw had made an impression upon Nick such as the
half-breed could never have anticipated. Ralph had thought much of it
too, but, left to himself, he would probably have forgotten it, or, at
most, have merely remembered it as a good yarn.

But this he was not allowed to do. Nick was enthusiastic. The romance of
the mountains was in his blood, and that blood was glowing with the
primest life of man. The fire of youth had never been stirred within
him, but it was there, as surely as it is in every human creature. Both
men were nearing forty years of age, and, beyond the associations of the
trader's place, they had never mixed with their fellows.

The dream of this beautiful White Squaw had come to Nick; and, in the
solitude of the forest, in the snow-bound wild, it remained with him, a
vision of such joy as he had never before dreamed. The name of "woman"
held for him suggestions of unknown delights, and the weird surroundings
with which Victor had enveloped the lovely creature made the White Squaw
a vision so alluring that his uncultured brain was incapable of shutting
it out.

And thus it was, as he glided, ghost-like, through the forests or scaled
the snowy crags in the course of his daily work, the memory of the
mysterious creature remained with him. He thought of her as he set his
traps; he thought of her, as, hard on the trail of moose, or deer, or
wolf, or bear, he scoured the valleys and hills; in the shadow of the
trees at twilight, in fancy he saw her lurking; even amidst the black,
barren tree-trunks down by the river banks. His eyes and ears were ever
alert with the half-dread expectation of seeing her or hearing her
voice. The scene Victor had described of the white huntress leaning upon
her rifle was the most vivid in his imagination, and he told himself
that some day, in the chances of the chase, she might visit his valleys,
his hills.

At night he would talk of her to his brother, and together they would
chum the matter over, and slowly, in the more phlegmatic Ralph, Nick
kindled the flame with which he himself was consumed.

And so the days wore on; a fresh zest was added to their toil. Each
morning Ralph would set out with a vague but pleasurable anticipation of
adventure. And as his mind succumbed to the strange influence of the
White Squaw, it coloured for him what had been the commonplace events of
his daily life. If a buck was started and rushed crashing through the
forest growths, he would pause ere he raised his rifle to assure himself
that it was not a woman, garbed in the parti-coloured blanket of the
Moosefoot Indians, and with a face radiant as an angel's. His
slow-moving imagination was deeply stirred.

From the Beginning Nature has spoken in no uncertain language. "Man
shall not live alone," she says. Victor Gagnon had roused these two
simple creatures. There was a woman in the world, other than the mother
they had known, and they began to wonder why the mountains should be
peopled only by the forest beasts and solitary man.

As February came the time dragged more heavily than these men had ever
known it to drag before. They no longer sat and talked of the White
Squaw, and speculated as to her identity, and the phenomenon of her
birth, and her mission with regard to her tribe. Somehow the outspoken
enthusiasm of Nick had subsided into silent brooding; and Ralph needed
no longer the encouragement of his younger brother to urge him to think
of the strange white creature. Each had taken the subject to himself,
and nursed and fostered it in his own way.

The time was approaching for their visit to Gagnon's store. This was the
reason of the dragging days. Both men were eager for the visit, and the
cause of their eagerness was not far to seek. They wished to see the
half-breed and feed their passion on fresh words of the lovely creature
who had so strangely possessed their imaginations.

They did not neglect the methodical routine of their duties. When night
closed in Nick saw to the dogs. The great huskies obeyed only one master
who fed them, who cared for them, who flogged them on the trail with
club and whip; and that was Nick. Ralph they knew not. He cooked. He was
the domestic of the abode, for he was of a slow nature which could deal
with the small details of such work. Nick was too large and heavy in his
mode of life to season a stew. But in the trapper's craft it is probable
that he was the better man.

The brothers' nights were passed in long, Indian-like silence which
ended in sleep. Tobacco scented the atmosphere of the hut with a
heaviness that was depressing. Each man sat upon his blankets
alternating between his pannikin of coffee and his pipe, with eyes
lowered in deep thought, or turned upon the glowing stove in earnest,
unseeing contemplation.

The night before the appointed day for starting came round. To-morrow
they would be swinging along over the snowy earth with their dogs
hauling their laden sled. The morrow would see them on their way to
Little Choyeuse Creek, on the bank of which stood Victor Gagnon's store.

There was an atmosphere of suppressed excitement in the doings of that
night. There was much to be done, and the unusual activity almost seemed
a bustle in so quiet an abode. Outside the door the sled stood piled
with the furs which represented their winter's catch. The dog harness
was spread out, and all was in readiness. Inside the hut the two men
were packing away the stuff they must leave behind. Although there was
no fear of their home being invaded it was their custom to take certain
precautions. In that hut were all their savings, to lose which would
mean to lose the fruits of their life's labours.

Nick had just moved a chest from the depths of the patchwork cupboard in
which they kept their food. It was a small receptacle hewn out of a
solid pine log. The lid was attached with heavy rawhide hinges, and was
secured by an iron hasp held by a clumsy-looking padlock. He set it down
upon his blankets.

"Wer'll we put this?" he asked abruptly.

Ralph looked at it with his thoughtful eyes.

"It needs considerin'," he observed. And he leant himself against a
heavy table which stood by the wall.

"We ain't opened it since last fall," said Nick presently, after a long
and steady survey of the object of their solicitude.

"No."

"Ther's a deal in it."

Ralph groped at the neck of his shirt. Nick watched his brother's
movements.

"Maybe we'll figure it up agin."

Ralph fell in with his brother's suggestion and drew out the key which
was secured round his neck. He unlocked the rusty padlock and threw open
the lid. The chest contained six small bags filled to bursting point and
securely tied with rawhide; one bag, half-full and open; and a thick
packet of Bank of Montreal bills.

Nick knelt down and took out the bills and set them on one side.

"Ther's fi' thousand dollars ther," he said. "I 'lows they've been
reckoned careful." Then he picked up one of the bags and held it up for
his brother's inspection. "We tied them seven bags up all weighin'
equal, but we ain't jest sure how much dust they hold. Seven," he went
on reflectively, "ther's on'y six an' a haf now, since them woodbugs got
at 'em, 'fore we made this chest. I 'lows Victor's 'cute to locate the
dust in them furs. It wa'n't a good layout wrappin' the bags in black
fox pelts. Howsum, I'd like to know the value o' them bags. Weighs nigh
on to three poun', I'm guessin'."

Ralph took the bag and weighed it in his hand.

"More," he said. "Ther's fi' poun' o' weight ther'."

"Guess them bags together means fifteen to twenty thousan' dollars,
sure," said Nick, his eyes shining at the thought.

"I don't rightly know," said Ralph. "It's a goodish wad, I 'lows."

Nick returned the store to the chest which Ralph relocked.

"Where?" asked Nick, glancing round the hut in search of a secure
hiding-place.

"We'll dig a hole in the floor under my blankets," said Ralph after a
pause. "Maybe it'll be tol'ble safe there."

And for greater security the chest was so disposed. The work was quickly
done, and the clay floor, with the aid of water, was smeared into its
usual smooth appearance again. Then the brothers sought their rest.

At daybreak came the start. Nick harnessed the dogs, five great huskies
who lived in the shelter of a rough shed outside the hut when it
stormed, and curled themselves up in the snow, or prowled, baying the
moon, when the night was fine. Fierce-looking brutes these with their
long, keen muzzles, their high shoulders and deep chests, their drooping
quarters which were massed with muscle right down to the higher sinews
of their great feet. Their ferocity was chiefly the animal antagonism
for their kind; with Nick they were easy enough to handle, for all had
been well broken beneath the heavy lash which the man knew better than
to spare.

While the dogs were being hitched into their places Ralph secured the
door of the dugout. There were no half measures here. The door was
nailed up securely, and a barrier of logs set before it. Then, when all
was ready, the men took their poles and Nick broke out the frost-bound
runners of the sled. At the magic word "Mush!" the dogs sprang at their
breast-draws, and the sled glided away down the slope with Nick running
beside it, and Ralph following close behind.

Down they dropped into the depths of the silent valley, Nick guiding his
dogs by word of mouth alone. The lead dog, an especially vile-tempered
husky, needed nothing but the oft-repeated "Gee" and "Haw" where no
packed path was, and when anything approaching a trail was struck Nick
issued no commands. These creatures of the wild knew their work, loved
it, lived for it, as all who have seen them labouring over snow and ice
must understand.

By the route they must take it was one hundred miles to Little Choyeuse
Creek. One hundred miles of mountain and forest; one hundred miles of
gloomy silence; one hundred miles of virgin snow, soft to the feet of
the labouring dogs, giving them no foothold but the sheer anchorage of
half-buried legs. It was a temper-trying journey for man and beast. The
dogs snapped at each other's heels, but the men remained silent, hugging
their own thoughts and toiling amidst the pleasure of anticipation.

Skirting the forests wherever possible, and following the break of the
mammoth pine-trees when no bald opening was to hand they sped along. The
dogs hauled at the easy running sled, while, with long, gliding strides,
the two men kept pace with them. The hills were faced by the sturdy dogs
with the calm persistence of creatures who know their own indomitable
powers of endurance, while the descents were made with a speed which was
governed by the incessant use of Nick's pole.

The evening camp was pitched in the shelter of the forest. The dogs fed
voraciously and well on their raw fish, for the journey was short and
provisions plentiful. The two men fared in their usual plain way. They
slept in their fur-lined bags while the wolfish burden-bearers of the
North first prowled, argued out their private quarrels, sang in chorus
as the northern lights moved fantastically in the sky, and finally
curled themselves in their several snow-burrows.

The camp was struck at daylight next morning and the journey resumed.
The dogs raced fresh and strong after their rest, and the miles were
devoured with greedy haste. The white valleys wound in a mazy tangle
round the foot of tremendous hills, but never a mistake in direction was
made by the driver, Nick. To him the trail was as plain as though every
foot of it were marked by well-packed snow; every landmark was
anticipated, every inch of that chaotic land was an open book. A "Gee,"
or a sudden "Haw" and a fresh basin of magnificent primeval forest would
open before the travellers. And so the unending ocean of mountain
rollers and forest troughs continued. No variation, save from the dead
white of the open snowfields to the heavy shadows of the forest. Always
the strange, mystic grey twilight; the dazzling sparkle of glinting
snow; the biting air which stung the flesh like the sear of a red-hot
iron; the steady run of dogs and men. On, on, with no thought of time to
harass the mind, only the destination to think of.

And when they came to Little Choyeuse Creek they were welcomed in person
by Victor Gagnon. He awaited them at his threshold. The clumsy stockade
of lateral pine logs, a relic of the old Indian days when it was
necessary for every fur store to be a fortress, was now a wreck. A few
upright posts were standing, but the rest had long since been used to
bank the stoves with.

The afternoon was spent in barter, and the time was one of beaming good
nature, for Victor was a shrewd dealer, and the two brothers had little
real estimate of the value of money. They sold their pelts in sets,
regardless of quality. And when the last was traded, and Victor had
parted the value in stores and cash, there came a strong feeling of
relief to the trappers. Now for their brief holiday.

It was the custom on the occasion of these visits to make merry in a
temperate way. Victor was never averse to such doings for there was
French blood in his veins. He could sing a song, and most of his ditties
were either of the old days of the Red River Valley, or dealt with the
early settlers round the Citadel of Quebec. Amongst the accomplishments
which he possessed was that of scraping out woful strains upon an
ancient fiddle. In this land, where life was always serious, he was a
right jovial companion for such men as Nick and Ralph, and the merry
evenings in his company at the store were well thought of.

When night closed down, and supper was finished, and the untidy
living-room which backed the store was cleared by the half-breed, the
business of the evening's entertainment began. The first thing in
Victor's idea of hospitality was a "brew" of hot drink. He would have
called it "punch," but the name was impossible. It was a decoction of
vanilla essence, spiced up, and flavoured in a manner which, he claimed,
only he understood. The result was stimulating, slightly nauseating, but
sufficiently unusual to be enticing to those who lived the sober life of
the mountain wild. He would have bestowed good rum or whiskey upon these
comrades of his, only his store of those seductive beverages had long
since given out, and was not likely to be replenished until the breaking
of spring. The variety of strong drink which falls to the lot of such
men as he is extensive. His days of "painkiller," which he stocked for
trade, had not yet come round. The essences were not yet finished.
Painkiller would come next; after that, if need be, would come libations
of red ink. He had even, in his time, been reduced to boiling down plug
tobacco and distilling the liquor. But these last two were only used
_in extremis_.

The three men sat round and sipped the steaming liquor, the two brothers
vying with each other in their praises of Victor's skill in the "brew."

The first glass was drunk with much appreciation. Over the second came a
dallying. Nick, experiencing the influence of the spirit, asked for a
tune on the fiddle. Victor responded with alacrity and wailed out an old
half-breed melody, a series of repetitions of a morbid refrain. It
produced, nevertheless, an enlivening effect upon Ralph, who asked for
another. Then Victor sang, in a thin tenor voice, the twenty and odd
verses of a song called "The Red River Valley;" the last lines of the
refrain were always the same and wailed out mournfully upon the dense
atmosphere of the room.

    "So remember the Red River Valley
    And the half-breed that loved you so true."

But, even so, there was something perfectly in keeping between the
recreation of these men and the wild, uncouth life they led. The long,
grey winter and the brief, fleeting summer, the desolate wastes and
dreary isolation.

After awhile the sum of Victor's entertainment was worked out and they
fell back on mere talk. But as the potent spirit worked, the
conversation became louder than usual, and Victor did not monopolize it.
The two brothers did their share, and each, unknown to the other, was
seeking an opportunity of turning Victor's thoughts into the channel
where dwelt his recollections of the wonderful White Squaw.

Nick was the one who broke the ice. The more slow-going Ralph had not
taken so much spirit as his brother. Nick's eyes were bright, almost
burning, as he turned his flushed, rugged face upon the half-breed. He
leant forward in his eagerness and his words came rapidly, almost
fiercely.

"Say, Victor," he jerked out, as though he had screwed himself up for
the necessary courage to speak on the subject. "I was thinkin' o' that
white crittur you got yarnin' about when you come around our shanty.
Jest whar's that Moosefoot Reserve, an'--an' the bit o' forest whar her
lodge is located? Maybe I'd fancy to know. I 'lows I was kind o' struck
on that yarn."

The trader saw the eager face, and the excitement in the eyes which
looked into his, and, in a moment, his merry mood died out. His dark
face became serious, and his keen black eyes looked sharply back into
Nick's expressive countenance. He answered at once in characteristic
fashion.

"The Reserve's nigh on to a hund'ed an' fifty miles from here, I guess.
Lies away ther' to the nor'east, down in the Foothills. The bluff lies
beyond." Then he paused and a flash of thought shot through his active
brain. There was a strange something looking out of Nick's eyes which he
interpreted aright. Inspiration leapt, and he gripped it, and held it.

"Say," he went on, "you ain't thinkin' o' makin' the Reserve, Nick?"
Then he turned swiftly and looked at Ralph. The quieter man was gazing
heavily at his brother. And as Victor turned back again to Nick his
heart beat faster.

Nick lowered his eyes when he found himself the object of the double
scrutiny. He felt as though he would like to have withdrawn his
questions, and he shifted uneasily. But Victor waited for his answer and
he was forced to go on.

"Oh," he said, with a shamefaced laugh, "I was on'y jest thinkin'. I
'lows that yarn was a real good one."

There was a brief silence while swift thought was passing behind
Victor's dark face. Then slowly, and even solemnly, came words which
gripped the hearts of his two guests.

"It wa'n't no yarn. I see that White Squaw wi' my own two eyes."

Nick started to his feet. The "punch" had fired him almost beyond
control. His face worked with nervous twitchings. He raised one hand up
and swung it forcefully down as though delivering a blow.

"By Gar!" he cried, "then I go an' find her; I go an' see for myself."

And as he spoke a strange expression looked out of Victor's eyes.

Ralph removed his pipe from his lips.

"Good, Nick," he said emphatically. "The dogs are fresh. Guess a long
trail'll do 'em a deal o' good. When'll we start?"

Nick looked across at his brother. He was doubtful if he had heard
aright. He had expected strong opposition from the quiet, steady-going
Ralph. But, instead, the elder man gave unhesitating approval. Just for
one instant there came a strange feeling in his heart; a slight doubt, a
sensation of disappointment, something foreign to his nature and
unaccountable, something which took all pleasure from the thought of his
brother's company. It was quite a fleeting sensation, however, for the
next moment it was gone; his honest nature rose superior to any such
jealousy and he strode across the room and gripped Ralph's hand.

"Say, we'll start at daylight, brother. Jest you an' me," he blurted
out, in the fulness of his large heart. "We'll hunt that white crittur
out, we'll smell her out like Injun med'cine-men, an' we'll bring her
back wi' us. Say, Ralph, we'll treat her like an angel, this dandy,
queer thing. By Gar! We'll find her, sure. Shake again, brother." They
wrung each other forcefully by the hand. "Shake, Victor." And Nick
turned and caught the trader's slim hand in his overwhelming grasp.

His enthusiasm was at boiling point. The brew of essences had done its
work. Victor's swift-moving eyes saw what was passing in the thoughts of
both his guests. And, like the others, his enthusiasm rose. But there
was none of the simple honesty of these men in Victor. The half-breed
cunning was working within him; and the half-breed cunning is rarely
clean.

And so the night ended to everybody's satisfaction. Ralph was even more
quiet than usual. Victor Gagnon felt that the stars were working in his
best interests; and he blessed the lucky and innocent thought that had
suggested to him the yarn of the White Squaw. As for Nick, his delight
was boisterous and unrestrained. He revelled openly in the prospect of
the morrow's journey.

Nor had broad daylight power to shake the purpose of the night. Too long
had the trappers brooded upon the story of the White Squaw. Victor knew
his men so well too; while they breakfasted he used every effort to
encourage them. He literally herded them on by dint of added detail and
well-timed praise of the woman's beauty.

And after the meal the sled was prepared. Victor was chief adviser. He
made them take a supply of essences and "trade." He told them of the
disposition of Man-of-the-Snow-Hill, the Moosefoot chief, assuring them
he would sell his soul for strong drink. No encouragement was left
ungiven, and, well before noon, the dogs stood ready in the traces.

A hearty farewell; then out upon the white trail Nick strung the willing
beasts, and the flurry of loose surface-snow that flew in their wake hid
the sled as the train glided away to the far northeast.

Victor stood watching the receding figures till the hiss of the runners
died down in the distance, and the driving voice of Nick became lost in
the grey solitude. The northern trail held them and he felt safe. He
moved out upon the trampled snow, and, passing round to the back of the
store, disappeared within the pine wood which backed away up the slope
of the valley.

Later he came to where three huts were hidden away amongst the vast
tree-trunks. They were so placed, and so disguised, as to be almost
hidden until the wanderer chanced right upon them. These habitations
were a part of Victor's secret life. There was a strange mushroom look
about them; low walls of muck-daubed logs supported wide-stretching
roofs of reeds, which, in their turn, supported a thick covering of
soot-begrimed snow. He paused near by and uttered a low call, and
presently a tall girl emerged from one of the doors. She walked slowly
toward him with proud, erect carriage, while at her heels followed two
fierce husky dogs, moving with all the large dignity of honoured guards.
The woman was taller than the trader, and her beauty of figure was in no
wise hidden by the blanket clothing she wore. They talked earnestly
together for some time, and then, in answer to a further summons from
Victor, they were joined by a tall, gaunt man, with the solemn cast of
face of an Indian, and a pair of eyes as darkly brooding as those of a
moose. Although he was very dark-skinned he was plainly of the bastard
race of his companions, and a certain resemblance between himself and
the woman spoke of relationship.

The three talked long and seriously, and finally Victor returned alone
to the store. Again he took up his stand in the doorway and remained
gazing out upon the valley of the Little Choyeuse Creek, and the more
distant crags of the foothills beyond.

His face was serious; serious even for the wild, where all levity seems
out of place, and laughter jars upon the solemnity of the life and death
struggle for existence which is for ever being fought out there. On his
brow was a pucker of deep thought, whilst his eyes shone with a look
which seemed to have gathered from his surroundings much of the cunning
which belongs to the creatures of the forest. His usual expression of
good-fellowship had passed; and in its place appeared a hungry,
avaricious look which, although always there, was generally hidden
behind a superficial geniality. Victor had hitherto lived fairly
honestly because there was little or no temptation to do otherwise where
his trading-post was stationed. But it was not his nature to do so. And
as he stood gazing out upon the rugged picture before him he knew he was
quite unobserved; and so the rough soul within him was laid bare to the
grey light of the world.



CHAPTER IV.

THE HOODED MAN


The mere suggestion of the possibility of a woman's presence had rudely
broken up the even calm of Ralph and Nick Westley's lives. To turn back
to the peace of their mountain home without an effort to discover so
fair and strange a creature as this White Squaw would have been
impossible.

These men had known no real youth. They had fought the battle of life
from the earliest childhood, they had lived lives as dispassionate and
cold as the glaciers of their mountain home. Recreation was almost
unknown to them. Toil, unremitting, arduous, had been their lot. Thus
Nature had been defied; and now she was coming back on them as
inevitably as the sun rises and sets, and the seasons come and go. They
failed to realize their danger; they had no understanding of the
passions that moved them, and so they hurried headlong upon the trail
that was to lead them they knew not whither, but which was shadowed by
disaster every foot of the way. To them temptation was irresistible for
they had never known the teaching of restraint; it was the passionate
rending of the bonds which had all too long stifled their youth.

Even the dogs realized the change in their masters. Nick's lash fell
heavily and frequently, and the hardy brutes, who loved the toil of the
trace, and the incessant song of the trailing sled, fell to wondering at
the change, and the pace they were called upon to make. It was not their
nature to complain; their pride was the stubborn, unbending pride of
savage power, and their reply to the wealing thong was always the reply
their driver sought. Faster and faster they journeyed as the uncooling
ardour of their master's spirits rose.

The snow lay thick and heavy, and every inch of the wild, unmeasured
trail had to be broken. The Northland giants thronged about them,
glistening in their impenetrable armour and crested by the silvery
burnish of their glacial headpieces. They frowned vastly, yet with a
sublime contempt, at the puny intrusion of their solitude. But the fiery
spirit impelling the brothers was a power which defied the overwhelming
grandeur of the mountain world, and rendered insignificant the trials
they encountered. The cry was "On!" and the dogs laboured as only these
burden-bearers of the North can labour.

The dark day ripened; and, as the dull sun crept out from behind the
greyness, and revealed the frost in the air, the temperature dropped
lower and lower. And the animal world peeped furtively out upon the
strange sight of creatures like themselves toiling at the command of
beings whose voices had not even the power to smite the mountainsides
with boastful defiance as theirs were wont to do.

Then the daylight waned. The sky returned to its greyness as the night
shades rose, and a bitter breeze shuddered through the woods and along
the valleys. The sounds of the forest rose in mournful cadence, and, as
the profundity of the mountain night settled heavily upon the world, the
timber-wolf, the outlaw of the region, moved abroad, lifting his voice
in a cry half-mournful, half-exultant.

Camp was pitched well clear of the forest and a large fire kindled; and
the savage night-prowlers drew forth from the woodland shadows. The men
proceeded silently with their various tasks. Ralph prepared their own
food, and soon a savoury odour tickled the nostrils of those beyond the
circle of the firelight. Nick thawed out the dogs' evening meal and
distributed it impartially, standing over the hungry beasts with a club
to see that each got the full benefit of his portion. It was a strange
sight for the furtive eyes that looked on, and a tantalizing one, but
they dared not draw near, for the fire threatened them, and, besides,
they possessed a keen instinct of caution.

After supper the men rested in spells, one always sitting up by the fire
whilst the other slept in the comfort of his fur-lined "Arctic bag." And
presently the blackness about lightened, and the dark shadows prowling
became visible to the eyes of the sentry. The moon had risen, but was
still hidden somewhere behind the great mountains. Its light had effect,
that was all. And as the night wore on the shadows grew bolder and their
presence kept the sentry ever on the alert. For the most part he sat
still, swathed to the eyes in his furs; he huddled down over the fire
smoking, every now and then pausing to thaw the nicotine in the stem of
his pipe. But his eyes seemed to be watching in every direction at once.
Nor was the vaguest shadow lost to their quick flashing glances.

The dogs, sleeping in their snow-burrows, rested their muscles, dreaming
peacefully of happy hunting-grounds. Their safety was assured under the
watchful eyes of their masters; the forest world had no terrors for
them.

Towards dawn Nick was on the watch. The aspect of the night had quite
changed. The moon, large, full, brilliant, was directly overhead, and
the stars, like magnificent dewdrops, hung richly in the sky. Away to
the north, just clear of a stretch of heaven-high peaks, the
scintillating shafts of the northern lights shuddered convulsively, like
skeleton arms outstretched to grasp the rich gems which hung just beyond
their reach. The moving shadows had changed to material forms. Lank,
gaunt, hungry-looking beasts crowded just beyond the fire-lit circle;
shaggy-coated creatures, with manes a-bristle and baleful eyes which
gazed angrily upon the camp.

Nick saw all these; could have counted them, so watchful was he. The
wolves were of small account, but there were other creatures which
needed his most vigilant attention. Twice in the night he had seen two
green-glowing eyes staring down upon him from among the branches of one
of the trees on the edge of the forest. He knew those eyes, as who of
his calling would not; a puma was crouching along the wide-spreading
bough.

He stealthily drew his gun towards him. He was in the act of raising it
to his shoulder when the eyes were abruptly withdrawn. The time passed
on. He knew that the puma had not departed, and he waited, ready. The
eyes reappeared. Up leapt the rifle, but ere his hand had compressed the
trigger a sound from behind arrested him. His head turned instantly,
and, gazing through the light, drifting fire smoke, he beheld the
outline of a monstrous figure bearing down upon the camp in an almost
human manner. In size the newcomer dwarfed the trapper; it came slowly
with a shuffling gait. Suddenly it dropped to all-fours and came on
quicker. Nick hesitated only for a second. His mouth set firmly and his
brows contracted. He knew that at all hazards he must settle the puma
first. He glanced at the sleeping Ralph. He was about to rouse him; then
he changed his mind and swung round upon the puma, leaving the fire
between himself and the other. He took a long and deadly aim. The
glowing eyes offered a splendid target and he knew he must not miss. A
report rang out, followed almost instantaneously by a piteous,
half-human shriek of pain; then came the sound of a body falling, and
the eyes had vanished. After firing Nick swung round to the figure
beyond the fire. It loomed vast in the yellow light and was reared to
its full height not ten yards away. A low, snarling growl came from it,
and the sound was dreadful in its suppressed ferocity. Ralph was now
sitting up gazing at the oncoming brute,--a magnificent grizzly. Nick
stooped, seized a blazing log from the fire, and dashed out to meet the
intruder.

It was a strange and impressive sight, this encounter of man and beast.
But Nick, with his wide experience, was master of the situation. He
boldly went up to within two yards of his savage and fearless foe and
dashed the burning brand into the creature's face. Down dropped the
grizzly upon all-fours again, and, with a roar of pain and terror,
ambled hastily away into the forest.

"B'ar?" questioned Ralph, from the shelter of his fur bag.

"Yes--an' puma," replied Nick unconcernedly, as he returned to his seat
to await the coming of morning.

And so the long night passed, and the slow day broke over the bleak,
pitiless world. The dogs awoke, and clambered from their warm, snowy
couches. The routine of the "long trail" obtained, and once more the
song of the sled rang out at the heels of the eager beasts.

Nor was the short day and long weary night in such a region without
effect upon the men. A feeling of superstitious uneasiness seized upon
Nick. He said nothing, he was possibly too ashamed of it to do so, but
the dread steadily grew, and no effort of his seemed to have power to
dispel it. As he moved along beside his dogs he would shoot swift,
fearful glances at the heights above, or back over the trail, or on
ahead to some deep, dark gorge they might be approaching. He grew
irritable. The darkness of the woods would sometimes hold his attention
for hours, while the expression of his eyes would tell of the strange
thoughts passing behind them. And Ralph, though more unemotional than
his brother, was scarcely less affected. It was startling in such men,
yet was it hardly to be wondered at in so overpowering a waste.

It was still the morning of the second day. Nick's whip had been silent
for a long time. His eyes were gazing out afar. Sometimes up at the
lowering sky, where the peaks were lost in a sea of dark cloud,
sometimes down, with a brooding fire, into the forest depths. Ralph had
observed the change in his brother and sympathy prompted him to draw up
alongside him.

"What's ailin' ye?" he asked.

Nick shook his head; he could not say that anything ailed him.

"Thought, maybe ther' was somethin' amiss," went on his brother,
half-apologetically. He felt himself that he must talk.

Then Nick was seized with a desire to confide in the only lifelong
friend he had ever known.

"Ther' ain't nothin' amiss, zac'ly," he said. And he got no farther.

"Hah!"

Ralph looked round sharply. It seemed as if something were stirring
about him. He waited expectantly. There was nothing unusual in sight. A
wild panorama of snowy grandeur; mountain and valley and wood, that was
all.

They traipsed on in silence, but now they journeyed side by side. Both
men were strangely moved. Both had heard of the "Dread of the Wild," but
they would have scoffed at the idea of its assailing them. But the
haunting clung, and at each step they felt that the next might be the
signal for a teeming spirit life to suddenly break up the dreadful calm.

They passed a hollow where the snow was unusually deep and soft. The
dogs laboured wearily. They reached the rising end of it, and toiled up
the sharp ascent. The top was already in sight and a fresh vista of the
interminable peaks broke up their view. Without apparent reason Nick
suddenly drew up and a sharp exclamation broke from him. The dogs lay
down in the traces, and both men gazed back into the hollow they had
left. Nick towered erect, and, with eyes staring, pointed at a low hill
on the other side of it.

Ralph followed the direction of the outstretched arm. And as he looked
he held his breath, for something seemed to grip his throat.

Then a moment later words, sounding hoarse and stifled, came from the
depths of his storm-collar.

"Who--who is it?"

Nick did not answer. Both were staring out across the hollow at the tall
motionless figure of a man, and their eyes were filled with an
expression of painful awe. The figure was aggressively distinct,
silhouetted as it was against a barren, snow-clad crag. They might have
been gazing at a statue, so still the figure stood. It was enveloped in
fur, so far as the watchers could tell, but what impressed them most was
the strange hood which covered the head. The figure was too distant for
them to have distinguished the features of the face had they been
visible, but, as it was, they were lost within the folds of the grey
hood.

There came an ominous click from behind. Ralph turned suddenly and
seized his brother's arm as he was in the act of raising his rifle to
his shoulder. The gun was lowered, and the intense face of Nick scowled
at the author of the interruption.

"It's--it ain't a human crittur," he said hoarsely.

"It's a man," retorted Ralph, without releasing his hold.

And the two brothers became silent.

They stood watching for a long time. Neither spoke again, they had
nothing to say. Their thoughts occupied them with strange apprehension
while the dogs sprawled in the snow in the spiritless manner of their
kind when the labour of the traces is not demanded of them. The figure
on the hill stood quite still. The silence of the wild was profound. No
wind stirred to relieve it, and even under their warm furs the two men
watching shivered as with cold.

At last the movement they had awaited came. The Hooded Man turned
towards them. One long arm was raised and he pointed away at a tall
hill. Then his arm moved, and he seemed to be pointing out certain
landmarks for his own benefit. Again, on a sudden, as he fronted the
direction where the brothers stood, he dropped his arm, and, a moment
later, disappeared on the other side of the hill. The two men remained
gazing out across the hollow for some while longer, but as the Hooded
Man did not return they turned back to their dogs and continued their
journey.

Nick shook his head in a dissatisfied manner. Ralph said nothing for
awhile. He was beginning to doubt his own assertion.

The dogs leapt at their breast-draws and the sled moved forward. The two
men ran side by side. When Nick at length spoke it was to reiterate his
fears.

"Ther' wa'n't no face showed," he said abruptly.

"No," replied Ralph. Then he added thoughtfully: "He hadn't no dogs,
neither."

"He was alone, seemly. Ther' wa'n't no camp outfit."

Ralph shook his head and brushed away the ice about his mouth with the
back of his beaver mitt.

There was a painful atmosphere of disquiet about the two men. Their
backward glances spoke far louder than words. Had their mission been in
the nature of their ordinary calling they would possibly have felt
nothing but curiosity, and their curiosity would have led them to
investigate further, but as it was, all their inclinations tended in the
opposite direction. "The Dread of the Wild" had come to them.

When they camped at midday things were no better. They had seen nothing
more to disturb them, but the thoughts of both had turned upon the
night, so long and drear, which was to come; and the "dread" grew
stronger.

After the noon meal Nick harnessed the dogs while Ralph stowed the
chattels. They were on a hillside overlooking a wide valley of unbroken
forest. All was ready for a start and Nick gave a wide, comprehensive
glance around. The magic word "Mush," which would send the dogs headlong
at their breast harness, hovered on his lips, but ere he gave it
utterance it changed into an ejaculation of horror.

"By Gar!" Then after a thrilling pause, "The Hood!"

Ralph, standing ready to break the sled out, turned.

"Hey!" he ejaculated; and horror was in his tone, too.

There, in the hazy distance, more than three miles away, was the dim
figure of the Hooded Man racing over the snow. His course lay on the far
side of the valley and he was to the rear of them.

Nick turned back to the dogs, the command "Mush!" rang out with biting
emphasis, and the dogs and men, as though both were animated by the same
overwhelming fear, raced down the virgin trail. Their pace was a
headlong flight.

Night came, and they camped in the open. The night was blacker, and
longer, more weary and shadowy than the first, by reason of the "dread"
which had now become the "Dread of the Hooded Man." Even thoughts of the
White Squaw took a secondary place in the minds of the brothers, for, at
every turn, they felt that their steps were dogged by that other strange
creature of the wild. When morning came they knew, without looking, that
somewhere, coldly surveying their camp, the grey-hooded figure would be
watching and waiting for them to move on. And sure enough, as the eager
eyes looked out over the snow and forest, the grim, silent figure was
there, watching, watching; but no nearer to them.

That night they came to the Moosefoot Reserve, and both men experienced
such nervous relief as they had never before known. They camped within
sight of the Indian teepees and log huts, but they waited for morning
before they approached the chief.

Over their fire they discussed their plans with seriousness. Neither of
them could speak the Moosefoot language, but they could talk both Sioux
and Cree, and they did not doubt but there would be interpreters about
the chief.

"We'll see him first thing, I guess," said the eager Nick. "Guess them
two black foxes'll fix him good. He'll git a goodish bit o' trade for
'em."

"An' we'll promise him powder, an' slugs, an' essences," said the
cautious Ralph. "We'll get his yarn first an' pay after," he added, as
he sipped his coffee.

Nick nodded.

"We'll fin' that crittur, sure," he said.

And he sat gazing upon the pictures his mind conjured up as he watched
the flaming logs. In every tongue of flame he beheld the glowing face
Victor had told them of, and, as the smoke rolled up into the black
vault of night, he seemed to see the elusive form of the White Squaw
floating in its midst. Ralph's slower imagination was less
fantastically, but no less deeply, stirred.

At daybreak they sought Man-of-the-Snow-Hill's lodge. They found him a
grizzled wreck of extreme age. He was surrounded by his medicine-men,
his young chiefs and his squaws. And by the gathering in the
smoke-begrimed hut they knew that their approach had been made known.

Perfect silence reigned as the white men entered. An Indian silence;
such silence as it would be hard to find anywhere but in the primitive
dwelling. The atmosphere of the place was heavy with the pungent odours
of Killi-ka-nik. Both men and women were smoking it in pipes of red clay
with reed stems, and they passed this sign of friendship from one to
another in solemn fashion. All were clad in the parti-coloured blanket,
and sat hunched upon their quarters more like beasts than human
creatures, yet with that perfect air of dignity which the Indian seldom
loses.

Man-of-the-Snow-Hill alone differed in his dress and attitude. He was
wrapped in a large buffalo robe, and was stretched out upon a pile of
skins to ease his rheumatics, while, spread out before him, were a
number of charms and much "med'cine," which had been so set by his wise
men to alleviate his ailments. In the centre of the throng a fire
smouldered, and the smoke therefrom rose sullenly upon the dense air and
drifted out through a hole in the flat roof. Man-of-the-Snow-Hill
blinked his watery eyes as the strangers entered, and passed his pipe to
his favourite squaw, a buxom, sleepy-eyed beauty who sat upon his right.
Then he grunted intelligently as he saw the visitors deposit their pile
of presents upon the floor, and, in the manner of the neche, seat
themselves beside it.

Ralph spoke his greeting in Indian fashion.

"How," he said.

"How!" replied Man-of-the-Snow-Hill, in a thin, reedy voice. And his
followers echoed the sentiment in chorus.

Then the aged chief held out his hand in further greeting. And each
neche in turn shook the white men by the hand.

The visitors filled and lighted their pipes, and passed their plugs of
tobacco to the others. Then Ralph began to speak in Cree.

"We come far to speak with Man-of-the-Snow-Hill," he began.

The watery-eyed chief shook his head, grunting. The squaws laughed, and
the med'cine-men closed their eyes in sign of not understanding the
tongue in which he spoke. Then a young chief harangued his comrades. He
could understand the tongue and would interpret. The old chief nodded
approval and continued to gaze greedily at the presents.

Now the conversation proceeded quite smoothly.

"We wish to speak with the great Man-of-the-Snow-Hill in private," Ralph
said. "We have much to say, and many presents."

The chief blinked with satisfaction, and grunted appreciation. His lined
face lit up. He waved one shaking arm and his followers reluctantly
departed. All except the interpreter and the chief squaw.

Then Ralph went on. Nick had care of the presents, and on him the
cunning old chief kept his eyes. He opened a large bag of beads and
emptied some on a spread of cheap print. The squaw's eyes smiled
greedily.

"We wish the great chief well," said Ralph, using all the flowery
embellishments of the Cree tongue, "and we would live in peace. We have
tobacco, beads, skins, prints, and blankets. And we would lay them all
at the feet of the great man, the mighty hunter, if he would help us to
find that which we seek."

Ralph signed to his brother and Nick laid out an array of presents and
passed them with due solemnity to the old man.

"Ow-ow!" grunted Man-of-the-Snow-Hill, as he waved the things away to
his squaw. He was not satisfied, and his eyes watered as though he were
weeping.

Then Ralph went on.

"We have come on the 'long trail' through the mountains. And we seek the
White Squaw of the Moosefoot Indians."

The chief remained quite calm, but his bleared old eyes shot a sidelong
gleam at the speaker in which there was little friendliness. No other
movement was allowed to give evidence of disquiet. It is part of the
upbringing of the neche to eschew all outward signs of emotion. The Sun
Dance, when the braves are made, is the necessary education in this
direction. Ralph saw the look but failed to take its meaning. The squaw
watched the white men with keen interest. Nick was groping about in the
depths of a gunny-sack.

Ralph plunged into the fantastic story which he and Nick had prepared.
The language of the Cree helped him, for the natural colouring of the
Indian tongues is as flowery as that of any Eastern race.

"We come from beyond the mountains, from the hunting-grounds of forest
and river where the great fathers of the Moosefoot Indians dwelt. We
come to tell the White Squaw that the land cries out for her, and the
return of the children of the Moose. We come to speak with her of these
things, for the time has come when she must leave her forest home and
return to her own land. Man-of-the-Snow-Hill must show us the way. We
have many presents which we will give him."

"It is well," said the great man, closing his eyes while the water oozed
from between the compressed lids. "The white men are the friends of the
Moosefoot people, and they have many presents. Have they fire-water?"

Nick produced some bottles and the great man reached for them greedily.
But the other withheld them.

"What will Man-of-the-Snow-Hill do for the fire-water?" Ralph asked.

The interpreter passed the word.

"He will send his favourite squaw to guide the white men," he answered
at once. "He can do no more."

A dozen bottles of vanilla essence passed over to the chief. A number of
other presents were handed to him. Then without a word the squaw arose
and accompanied the white men out.

And without further delay the brothers continued their journey. Fleet of
foot, untiring, silent as only an Indian woman can be, the squaw led the
way. North, north; always north they travelled, over hill, through
forest and deep white valley, without let-up to their eager speed. The
superstitious dread which had hitherto so afflicted the white men now
fell away from them. Night came on swift and silent, and camp was
pitched on the edge of a dense forest.

Ere the daylight had quite died out the squaw took the two men to the
crest of a hill. She looked out across the virgin carpet of towering
pines below them and pointed with one blanket-covered arm outstretched.
She was silent while she indicated several points in the vast panorama
before her. Then she tried to tell them something.

But her language was the language of her tribe, and neither of the men
could understand her. Then she spoke in the language of signs, which all
Indians speak so well.

She raised her hand, pointing eastward, till it reached a point directly
overhead. Then she pointed to her feet, and her hand moved slowly in a
northern direction, after which she made a running movement with her
feet. Then she bent her body and appeared to be gazing about her,
searching. Finally she pointed to two very large trees which stood out
apart from their fellows. Then again came the motion of running, which
finished quickly, and she pointed first to Nick's face and then to
herself. After that she stood motionless, with arms folded over her
bosom. And the two men read her meaning.

At daylight they were to start out northward and travel until midday.
Then they were to halt and search the outskirts of the forest until they
found two mammoth trees standing apart. The space between them was the
mouth of a pathway into the heart of the forest. They were to traverse
this path a short distance, and they would discover the White Squaw.

Ralph nodded his head slowly in token of comprehension. He waited to see
if she had aught further to say. But the woman remained standing where
she was, slightly aloof and with her arms folded. Her sleepy eyes were
watching the last dying gleam of daylight away in the west. Suddenly,
out upon the still air, came a doleful cry. It was long-drawn-out and
mournful, but it travelled as mountain cries will travel. It came waving
upon the air with a certain rise and fall in it like the rippling of
water. It rose up, up, and then lingeringly died out. The men listened,
and looked in the direction whence it came, and, as they looked, a
feeling of awe swept over them. In a rush the old "dread" awoke, and
their gaze was filled with the expression of it.

Out to the west the forest lay gloomy, brooding; and within a few
hundred yards of them stood the mighty sentry trees which the squaw had
pointed out. But now between them, breaking up the dead white carpet
which covered the earth, the tall form of the Hooded Man stood
silhouetted. Grim and ghostly he looked, as, motionless, he gazed upon
the watchers.

With the instinct of self-defence which the wild teaches so insistently,
Nick unslung his rifle. Ere Ralph could stay him the shot rang out,
echoing away over the tree-tops. The figure had disappeared, and the
unblemished carpet of snow was as it had been before. Nick stood aghast,
for he was a dead shot. Ralph gazed helplessly at the spot where the man
had stood.

Suddenly Nick gasped.

"It--it ain't human."

And Ralph had no answer to make.

Then presently they turned to where the Moosefoot squaw had stood. She,
too, had gone; vanished as completely as had the Hooded Man. There was
the trail of her snow-shoes ruffling the snow, and the men ran following
it as far as the forest edge; but here they stood. They could follow no
further. Night was upon them. Slowly they returned to camp.

The next day they continued their journey with almost fanatical
persistence. They found no sentry-trees such as the squaw had described.
Forest, yes, but where in that region could they fail to find forest?
The abode of the White Squaw was nowhere to be found.

That night they decided upon their next move in the quiet, terse manner
of men who cannot bring themselves to speak of the strange feelings
which possess them; who are ashamed of their own weakness, and yet must
acknowledge it to themselves.

"An' to-morrow--" said Nick, glancing apprehensively around beyond the
fire, over which they were sitting, fighting the deadly cold of the
night.

"To-morrow?" echoed Ralph.

"Where?" asked Nick, looking away towards the south.

Ralph followed the direction of his brother's gaze.

"Um." And he nodded.

"What--south?"

"South."

"An' the Wh--"

Ralph shook his head, and smoked on solemnly.



CHAPTER V.

THE WHITE SQUAW


Down the sharp incline Nick ran beside his dogs; Ralph was close behind.
They were home once more in their own silent valley, and were pushing on
to avoid the coming snow-storm which the leaden hue of the sky
portended. So the dogs were rushed along at a great pace, for the dugout
was beyond, a full hour distant.

It had been a weary journey, that return from the quest of the White
Squaw. But the weariness had been mental. The excitement of their going
had eaten up their spirit, and left them with a feeling of distressing
lassitude. They were sobered; and, as men recovering from drunkenness,
they felt ashamed, and their tempers were uncertain.

But as the string of huskies raced down into the valley they knew so
well, yelping a joyful greeting to the familiar objects about them, the
men began to feel better, and less like those who are detected in
unworthy actions.

The dogs emerged upon their original outward-bound trail and pursued it
along the edge of the forest. They needed no urging, and even set a pace
which taxed all their masters' speed. The sight of the familiar scenes
had banished the "Dread of the Wild" from the minds of the two men, and
their spirits rose as they approached the frost-bound river below their
home. There were no stealing glances into the gloomy shelter of the
woods, no nervous backward turns of the head. They looked steadily ahead
for the glad sight of their home; and the snap of the crisp snow under
the heavy-footed dogs, and the eager, steady pull on the traces brought
a cheerful light to their eyes such as had not been there for days.

But although they had failed to discover the White Squaw, she was by no
means forgotten. A certain sense of relief had followed their first
moments of keen disappointment, but it was only a revulsion of their
strained nerves; thoughts of her which were, perhaps, less fiery and
reckless, but consequently more enduring, still possessed them.

Ralph was especially calm. He had thought the whole thing over in his
deliberate fashion, and, finally, admitted to himself that what had
happened was for the best. Nick was less easy. His disappointment had
slightly soured an already hasty, but otherwise kindly, disposition. He
needed something of his brother's calm to balance him. But, however, in
both cases, somewhere deep down in their hearts the fateful flame so
strangely kindled was still burning; a deep, strong, unquenchable fire.

They were almost home. Before them lay the frozen waterway. Beyond that,
and above, rose the hill, on the face of which stood their shack; and
about them was the brooding silence, still and portentous, but familiar.

The lead-dog plunged down the bank and the rest followed, whilst Ralph
and Nick steadied the laden sled. The brief passage was made, and Nick's
whip drove the fierce, willing beasts at the ascent beyond. Then, ere
the sled had left the river, and while the dogs still struggled in their
harness to lift its nose over what was almost a cut-bank, and when
Nick's attention was most needed, the whip suddenly became idle, and his
stock of driving-curses changed to a shout of alarmed surprise.

Down he dropped upon his knees; and, with head bent low, examined the
disturbed surface of the snow. In an instant Ralph was at his side. The
dogs had ceased to pull and crouched down in their traces. A strange and
wonderful thing had happened. In their absence their valley had been
invaded, and the indications were those of human agency.

Nick pointed, and his outstretched forefinger moved slowly over a
footprint indicating the sharp, clean outline which the surface of the
snow still retained. A moccasin-covered foot had trodden there; and the
mark left was small, smaller than that of an ordinary man. And the two
heads, almost touching, bent over it in silent scrutiny.

Presently Ralph raised his eyes and looked ahead. Step by step he traced
the marks on up the hill in the direction of the dugout, and, at last,
silent speculation gave place to tense, low-spoken words.

"Injun moccasins," he said.

"Guess so, by the seamin'."

"'Tain't a buck neche, neither."

"No."

There was an impressive pause, and the silent land seemed weighted down
as with an atmosphere of gloomy presage. Nick broke it, and his voice
had in it a harsh ring. The fire of passion was once more alight in his
eyes.

"It's a squaw's," he added.

"Yes, sure; a squaw's," and Ralph swallowed a deep breath as though his
surroundings stifled him.

A thrill of emotion moved both men. There had leapt within them, in one
great, overwhelming tide, all the old reckless craze for the shadowy
creature of Victor's story. At the mere suggestion of a squaw's presence
in that valley their blood-tide surged through their veins like a
torrent of fire, and their pulses were set beating like sledge-hammers.
A squaw! A squaw! That was their cry. Why not the White Squaw?

Whilst Ralph gazed on ahead Nick still bent over the footprint. The
delicate shape, the deep hollow of the ball of the foot, the round cup
which marked the heel, and, between them, the narrow, shallow
indentation which formed the high-arched instep. In fancy he built over
the marks the tall, lithe, straight-limbed creature Victor had told them
of. He saw the long flowing hair which fell in a shower upon her
shoulders; and the beautiful eyes blue as the summer sky. In a moment
his tanned face was transformed and became radiant.

Ralph, the quiet and thoughtful, was no less moved. But he turned from
his brother, hugging his own anticipations to himself, and concealing
them behind a grim mask of impassivity. His eyes were bright with the
same insistent idea, but he told himself that the thing was impossible.
He told himself that She lived in the north, and not even the chase of
the far-travelling moose could have brought her hither from her forest
home. These things he said in his caution, but he did not listen to the
voice of his doubt, and his heart beat in great bounding pulsations.

Suddenly Nick sprang from the ground, and short and sharp came his
words.

"Let's git on."

"Ay," replied Ralph, and he turned back to the sled.

And again the dogs laid foot to the ground; and again the voice of Nick
roused the hollow echoes of the shimmering peaks; again the song of the
sled-runners rose and fell in cadence brisk and sharp on the still, cold
air. But all the world was changed to the men. The stillness was only
the stillness which appeals to the physical senses. There was a
sensation of life in the air; a feeling of living surroundings; a
certain knowledge that they were no longer alone in their valley. A
woman was present; _the_ woman.

The widening break of the forest gave place to a broad sloping expanse
of snow-land. It was the hill down which they had travelled many
thousands of times. Above, more snow-laden forest, and above that the
steel of the glacier which rose till its awful limits plunged into the
grey world of cloud. The dugout was not yet in view; there was a scored
and riven crag, black and barren, impervious to the soft caresses of
velvety snow, to be passed ere the home which was theirs would be
sighted. Besides, as yet neither of the men had turned their eyes from
the trailing footprints to look ahead. Thus they came to the higher
ground.

Now the barren crag seemed to thrust itself out, an impassable barrier;
a mute protest at further progress; a grim, silent warning that the home
beyond was no longer for them, no longer the home they had always known.
And the hard-breathing dogs toiled on, straining at their
breast-harness, with bodies heaving forward, heads bent low, and
quarters drooped to give them surer purchase. They, too, as though by
instinct, followed the footprints. As the marks swung out to pass the
jutting cliff the lead-dog followed their course; Nick, on the right of
them, moved wide, and craned to obtain a first view of the hut. Suddenly
he gave a great shout. The dogs dropped in their harness and crouched,
snarling and snapping, their jaws clipping together with the sound of
castanets, whilst their wiry manes rose upon their shoulders bristling
with ferocity which had in it something of fear. Ralph reached his
brother's side and peered beyond the cliff.

And as he looked his breath suddenly ceased, and one hand clutched his
brother's arm with a force that bruised the softer flesh, and in silence
the two men gaped at the vision which they beheld. There was what seemed
an endless pause while the men and dogs alike focused their gaze upon
the strange apparition.

A figure, calm, serene, stood before the door of the dugout, from which
the logs had been removed. Like a sentry "at ease" the figure stood
resting gracefully, leaning upon the muzzle of a long rifle. Fur crowned
the head which was nobly poised, and a framing of flowing dark hair
showed off to perfection the marble-like whiteness of the calm,
beautiful face. The robes were characteristic of the Northern Indians;
beads, buckskin and fur. A tunic reached to the knees, and below that
appeared "chaps," which ended where woollen stockings surmounted
moosehide moccasins.

A wild, picturesque figure was this creature of the mountain solitude;
and, to the wondering eyes of the two men, something which filled them
with superstitious awe and a primitive gladness that was almost
overpowering. The dogs alone seemed to resent the intrusion. There was
no joy in their attitude which was one of angry protest.

Nick broke the silence.

"White--white," he murmured, without knowledge that he spoke aloud.

Ralph's face was working. His excitement, slow to rise, now overwhelmed
him, and he answered in a similar tone.

"That hair," he muttered. "Dark, dark; an' them chaps wi' beads of Injun
patte'n. An' the muzzle-loadin' weapin."

Nick took up the argument as his brother broke off.

"It's a squaw, too."

"Her eyes, he says, was blue," Ralph murmured, breathing hard.

"An' she was leanin' on a gun," Nick added softly.

"It's--"

"By Gar! It is!"

Nick turned to the dogs with the wild impetuosity of a man who knows not
the meaning of patience. His fiery orders fairly hurled the brutes at
their task, and the sled leapt forward. On, on, they sped, till they
halted within a few yards of the silent figure.

The woman showed no signs of fear, a matter which both men set down to
the fact that she was a queen among her own people. She still stood in
the position in which she had watched their approach. There was not a
quiver of the delicate eyelids, not a tremor of the perfect mouth.
Proud, haughty, and masked by the impassivity of the Indian races, she
awaited the coming of the strangers.

And as men and dogs halted there was an awkwardness. How should they
address her? They consulted, and their whisperings were loud enough to
reach her ears. They did not attempt to suppress their tones unduly.
This woman, they knew, did not understand the tongue of the whites, and
probably knew only the language of the Moosefoot people. Therefore they
spoke unguardedly. They admitted to each other the woman's identity.
Ralph was for speaking to her in Cree; Nick for the language of signs.
And while they talked the woman looked on. Had they been keenly
observant they would have seen the shadow of an occasional smile curl
the corners of her beautiful lips. As it was they saw only the superb
form, and eyes so wondrously blue, shining like sapphires from an oval
face framed with waves of black hair.

At last Ralph advanced toward her.

"You're welcome to our shack," he said, in Cree.

The woman shook her beautiful head, but smiled upon him; and the simple
soul felt the blood rush from heart to head.

"Try signs," said Nick impatiently. "How's the White Squaw o' the
Moosefoots goin' to savvee a low-down bat like Cree. I sed so 'fore."

The blue eyes were turned on Nick with a deep inscrutable smile. Nick
felt that life at her feet was the only life possible.

And Ralph resorted to signs, while Nick alternated his attention between
his idolatrous, silent worship of the lovely woman and clubbing his dogs
into quiescence. Their angry protests seemed to express something more
abiding than mere displeasure at the intrusion of a stranger. They
seemed to feel a strong instinctive antagonism toward this beautiful
woman.

Ralph persisted with his signs. The woman read them easily and replied
in her own sign-language, which was wonderful to behold. Ralph and Nick
read it as though they were listening to a familiar tongue.

She told them that she was Aim-sa, which is the Moosefoot for
"Blue-Sky"; and that she was the White Squaw, the queen of her people.
She indicated that she was out on a "long trail" hunting, and that she
had found herself in this valley, with a snow-storm coming on. She had
seen the dugout and had sought its shelter, intending to remain there
until the storm had passed. She made it clear to them that a bull moose
and four cows had entered the valley. She had trailed them for many
days. She asked the brothers if, when the storm had passed, they would
join her in the hunt.

And to all she said Ralph replied in his less perfect signs, prompted by
Nick with blundering impetuosity; and, at the end of the parley, a
perfect harmony prevailed. Two great rough men, with hearts as simple
and trusting as those of infants, led this stranger into their home, and
made it clear that the place was hers for so long as she chose to accept
their hospitality.

A fire was kindled. A meal was cooked. The hut grew warm and comforting.
The dogs outside yelped pitifully and often snuffed angrily at the sill
of the door. And the White Squaw calmly accepted the throne of that
silent world, which had so long known only the joint rule of the two
brothers. She looked out upon her subjects with eyes which drove them
wild with adoration, but which said nothing but that which she chose to
convey. Nor did her features betray one single thought that might chance
to be passing in the brain behind. She wore an impenetrable mask of
reserve while she watched the effect of the womanly power she wielded.

And that night saw a change in the ordering of the trappers' household.
The two men talked it over after their meal. Ralph broached the subject.

He waved his arm, the bowl of his pipe gripped in his horny hand, while
its stem indicated the entire hut.

"Hers," he said. And his eyes were dragged from the object of his
solicitude and turned upon Nick.

His brother nodded as he puffed at his pipe.

"The shed," Ralph went on. "The huskies must burrow in the snow."

Again Nick nodded.

"Wants sweepin' some," observed Ralph again.

"Yup. We'll fix it."

"Best git to it."

"Ay."

And so the brothers moved out of their home, and went to live in the
place which had been given over to the dogs. They would have done more,
far more, in their love for the woman who had so strangely come into
their midst. They felt that it was little enough that they must lie
where the dogs were wont to herd. They needed little comfort, and she
must have the best they could give. And so the brothers moved out of
their home.

The snow fell that night; a silent, irresistible mountain snow-storm,
without a breath of wind, in flakes as big as a tennis-ball. Down they
ambled, seeming to loiter in indolent playfulness on the way. And up,
up, mounted the earth's white carpet, thicker and thicker, softer and
softer. And at daylight the men confronted eight feet of snow, through
which they had to dig their way. They cleared the dugout that their
priceless treasure, the wondrous creature who had come to them, might
see the light of day. And as they laboured the snow continued to fall;
and at night. The next day, and the next, they cleared while the forest
below was being slowly buried, and all the world about them seemed to be
choked with the gentle horror.

But Ralph and his brother, Nick, feared nothing. They loved the labour;
for was it not on behalf of the beautiful White Squaw?



CHAPTER VI.

THE WEIRD OF THE WILD


For five days the snow fell without ceasing. Then the weather cleared
and the sun shone forth, and the temperature, which had risen while the
ghostly snow filled the air, dropped with a rush many degrees below
zero.

Again the call of the forest came to the two men, claiming them as it
ever claims those who are bred to the craft of trap and fur; and for the
first time in their lives, the call was hearkened to by unwilling ears,
ears which sought to turn from the alluring cry, ears that craved only
for the seductive tones of love. But habit was strong upon these
woodsmen, and they obeyed the voice which had always ruled their lives,
although with the skeleton of rebellion in their hearts.

The days passed, and March, the worst month of the mountain winter, was
rapidly nearing; and with it a marked change came over the routine of
the Westleys' home. Hitherto Ralph and Nick were accustomed to carry out
their work singly, each scouring the woodlands and valleys in a
direction which was his alone, each making his own bag of furs, which,
in the end, would be turned over to the partnership; but Aim-sa joined
them in their hunting, and, somehow, it came about that the men found it
necessary to work together.

They no longer parted at daybreak to meet again when the stealing night
shades fell. It became the custom for a party of three to set out from
the hut, and the skilled trappers found themselves willingly deferring
to a woman in the details of their craft, the craft of which they were
acknowledged masters.

But this was not the only change that took place with the coming of the
White Squaw. For a woman of the wild, for a woman who had been bred in
the mysterious depths of the northern forests, away from her fellow
creatures, shut off from all associations of men, Aim-sa displayed a
wondrous knowledge of those arts which women practise for the
subjugation of the opposite sex. She set herself the task of
administering to her companions' welfare in the manner which has been
woman's from the first. She took to herself the bothersome duties with
which no man, however self-reliant, loves to be burdened. She went
further. She demanded and accepted the homage of each of the brothers,
not impartially, but favouring first one and then the other, with the
quiet enjoyment of a woman who looks on at the silent rivalry of two men
who seek her smiles.

And as the days lengthened, and the winter crept on toward spring, the
peace of the house was slowly but surely undermined. Eve had appeared in
the Garden.

The calm that still remained was as the smooth surface of water about to
boil. Beneath it was chaos which must soon break out into visible
tumult. The canker of jealousy fastened itself like a secret growth upon
the uncultured hearts of the men, sapping and undermining that which was
best in their natures.

And Aim-sa looked on with eyes which smiled inscrutably; with silent
tongue, and brain ever busy. In due course she showed signs of beginning
to understand her comrades' language. She even essayed to speak it
herself; and, as she stumbled prettily over the words, and placed them
wrongly, she became more and more a source of delight, an object of
adoration to the poor souls who had been so suddenly born to this new
life. With keen appreciation she saw these things while she listened to
their speech between themselves, and her great, deep eyes would wear
many varying expressions, chief among which was the dark, abiding smile.

There could be no doubt that what she saw she interpreted aright. She
was too clever in everything else to do otherwise. Nick, impatient,
headstrong, could never long conceal his feelings. His eyes would
express displeasure the moment the quieter Ralph chanced to monopolize
Aim-sa's attention. Every smile she bestowed upon the elder brother
brought a frown to the younger man's brow. Every act or look which could
be interpreted into an expression of regard for his brother fired his
soul with feelings of aversion and anger till he was well-nigh
distracted. Nor was Ralph any less disturbed. In his undemonstrative way
he watched Nick, and suffered the acutest pangs of jealousy at what he
believed was Aim-sa's marked preference. But the woman continued to stir
the fire she had kindled with a childlike naiveté which was less of the
wild than of the drawing-room.

And as day succeeded day, and week followed week, the companionship of
these men became forced. The old tacit understanding was replaced by a
feverish desire to talk; and this forced conversation only helped to
widen the rift which was already gaping between them.

One night the friction almost resulted in a blaze.

Ralph was lying prone upon his back, buried to the neck in his "Arctic
bag." He was smoking, as was his custom, while waiting for sleep to
come. An oil lamp reeked upon the earthen floor and threw its bilious
rays little further than the blankets spread out upon either side of it.
For a long time Ralph had lain silently gazing up at the frosted rafters
above him, while his brother sat cross-legged at work restringing his
snow-shoes with strands of rawhide. Suddenly Ralph turned his face
towards him in silent contemplation. He watched Nick's heavy hands with
eyes that wore a troubled look. Then he abruptly broke the long silence.

"Victor don't know as she's here," he said.

Nick looked up, glanced round the room, shook his head, and bent over
his work again.

"No," he answered shortly.

"Maybe he won't jest laff."

"No."

Again came Nick's monosyllabic reply.

"Guess we'd best let him know."

There was a pause. Ralph waited for his brother to speak. As no answer
came he went on.

"Who's goin' to tell him?"

Still there was no reply. The silence was broken only by the "ping" of
the rawhide strands which Nick tested as he drew tight.

"We need some fixin's fer her," Ralph went on, a moment later. "Wimmin,
I 'lows, has fancies. Now, maybe, Victor's got a mighty fine show o'
print stuffs. A bit o' Turkey red wouldn't come amiss, I dessay.
Likewise beads."

"Maybe."

"Why don't you take the dogs an' run in?"

Nick's hands suddenly became motionless; his eyes were raised until they
looked into the face of his brother. His seared, weather-beaten skin
flushed a desperate hue, and his eyes were alight and shining angrily.
His lips twitched with the force of the passion stirring within him, and
for some seconds he held himself not daring to trust to speech.

When at last he answered it was in a tone of fiery abruptness.

"Guess not," he said. And it was Ralph's turn to hold back the anger
which rose within him.

"Why?"

"Say, brother," said Nick, with a biting distinctness, "quit right
there. Ther' ain't no need fer another word."

For a moment Ralph peered into the other's face; but he remained silent.
Then he turned over upon his pillow with a sound very like a muttered
curse. And from that moment the gulf between them became impassable.
Aim-sa was a subject henceforth tabooed from their conversation. Each
watched the other with distrust, and even hatred, full grown within him.

And soon there came a further disturbing element in that mountain home.
It awoke all the dormant atmosphere of mystery, which, in the minds of
the two men, surrounded the lovely Aim-sa. It awoke afresh the "Dread of
the Wild" that had assailed them on their journey north.

It came in the early morning, when the world about them was cloaked in
the grey shroud of daylight mists; when the silent forests above and
below them were rendered even more ghostly and sepulchral by reason of
the heavy vapour which depressed all on which it settled. Nick was
standing, rifle in hand, preparing to sling it across his back. Ralph
was stooping to adjust his snow-shoes. Aim-sa had been left within the
hut.

A gentle breeze, like the icy breath of some frozen giant on the peak
above the hut, came lazily down the hillside. It broke the fog into a
turmoil of protest. The heavy vapour rolled in huge waves, sought to
return to its settled calm, then slowly lifted from the flustered
tree-tops. Another breath, a little stronger than the first, shot
forcefully into the heart of the morning fog and scattered it
mercilessly. Then the whole grey expanse solemnly lifted. Up it rose;
nor did it pause until the lower hills were bared, and the wintry sun
shone splendidly down upon the crystal earth.

And as the air cleared the keen eyes of Nick flashed out in a swift
survey of the prospect. Suddenly his breathing was sharply indrawn. His
rifle never reached his shoulder, but remained gripped in his hand. His
eyes had become riveted upon a low hill far out across the valley. It
looked as though it rose sheer out of the forest below, but the watching
man knew full well that it was only a spur of the giant that backed it.
It was the summit of this clear-cut hill, and what was visible upon it,
that held his fascinated attention. Suddenly a half-whispered word
escaped him and Ralph was beside him in a moment.

"Look!" And Nick's arm was outstretched pointing.

And Ralph looked in time to see the ghostly form of the Hooded Man as it
slowly passed from view over the hill.

"The Hood!" exclaimed Ralph, in awestruck tones.

"Ay."

"What's--what's he doin' here?" Ralph asked, more of himself than of his
brother. Then he added: "He's on our trail."

There was a slight pause.

"It's somethin' on her account," Nick said, at last, with uneasy
conviction.

As if actuated by a common thought, both turned and looked back at the
hut. Nor was their uneasiness lessened when they beheld Aim-sa standing
directly behind them, gazing out across the woodland hollow with eyes
distended with a great fear. So absorbed was she that she did not
observe the men's scrutiny, and only was her attention drawn to them
when she heard Nick's voice addressing her. Then her lids drooped in
confusion and she hastily turned back to the house. But Nick was not to
be denied.

"Ye've seen him," he said sharply; "him wi' the hood?" And he made a
motion with his hand which described the stranger's headgear.

Aim-sa nodded, and Nick went on.

"We seen him up north. On the trail to the Moosefoot."

The woman again nodded. She quite understood now, and her eyes
brightened suddenly as she turned their dazzling depths of blue upon her
questioner. She understood these men as they little thought she
understood them.

"It is the Spirit--the Great Spirit," she said, in her broken speech.
"The Spirit of--Moosefoot Indian. Him watches Aim-sa--Queen of
Moosefoot. She--White Squaw."

Ralph turned away uneasily. These mysterious allusions troubled him.
Nick could not withdraw his fascinated gaze. Her strange eyes held him
captive.

They took her words without a doubt. They accepted all she said without
question. They never doubted her identity with the White Squaw.
Primitive superstition deeply moved them.

"You was scared when you see him just now?" said Ralph, questioningly.

Aim-sa nodded.

"He come to--take me," she said, halting over the words. "The
Moosefoot--they angry--Aim-sa stay away."

"Hah!"

Nick thrust his rifle out towards her.

"Here take it. It shoots good. When 'The Hood' comes, shoot--savvee?"

Aim-sa took the gun and turned back to the hut. And the men passed out
into the forest.

Aim-sa left the hut soon after the brothers had departed. For long she
stood just beyond the door as though not sure of what she contemplated
doing.

And as she stood her eyes travelled acutely over the silent valley. At
last, however, she moved leisurely down the hill. Her easy gait lasted
just so long as she was in the open; the moment she entered the forest
her indifference vanished and she raced along in the dark shadow with
all the speed she could summon. The silence, the heavy, depressing
atmosphere, the labyrinth of trees so dark and confusing; these things
were no deterrent to her. Her object was distinct in her mind and she
gave heed to nothing else. She ran on over the snow with the silent
movements of some ghostly spirit, and with a swiftness which told of the
Indian blood in her veins. Her dilating eyes flashed about her with the
searching gaze of one who expects to see something appear, while not
knowing whence it will come. Her flowing hair trailed from under her cap
with the speed of her going, and the biting air stung her face into a
brilliant glow. Her direction was plainly in her mind, for, though
dodging her way through trees, she never deviated from a certain course;
all her thoughts, all her attention, were centred upon the object of her
quest.

Nor did she pause till she came to the low hill which stood on the far
side of the valley. As she came to the edge of the forest which skirted
its base she drew up and stood for a moment hesitating. Once she raised
a hand to her mouth as though about to give voice to a prolonged
mountain call, but she desisted, and, instead, set out to round the
hill, always keeping to the shadow of the forest edge.

At length she stopped. Her hand went up to her mouth and her head was
thrown back, and out upon the still air rang a cry so mournful that even
the forest gloom was rendered more cheerless by its sound. High it rose,
soaring upwards through the trees until the valley rang with its
plaintive wail. As if recognizing the distressful howl of their kind,
the cry came back to her from the deep-toned throats of prowling
timber-wolves. The chorus rang in her ears from many directions as she
listened, but the sound? had little effect. As they died down she still
waited in an attitude of attention.

The moments slipped by. Presently she again sent the call hurtling
through the trees. Again came the chorus; again she waited. And the
sounds of the chorus were nearer at hand, and a crackling of undergrowth
warned her of the presence of the savage creatures she had summoned. The
deep blue eyes were alert and watchful, but she showed no signs of fear;
nor did she move. Suddenly a less stealthy and more certain crackling of
the bush made itself heard; and the roving eyes became fixed in one
direction. Beneath the shadow of the laden boughs a tall grey figure
appeared moving towards her. But this was not all, for several slinking,
stealing forms were moving about amongst the barren tree-trunks;
hungry-looking creatures these, with fierce burning eyes and small
pricked ears, with ribs almost bursting through the coarse hides which
covered their low, lank bodies.

But all the woman's attention was centred upon the form of the
other--the hooded figure she had seen in the morning. He came with long,
regular strides, a figure truly calculated to inspire awe. Even now,
near as he was to her, there was no sign of his face to be seen. He was
clad in the folds of grey wolfskin, and a cowl-like hood utterly
concealed his face, while leaving him free to see from within.

As the man came up Aim-sa plunged into voluble speech.

They talked together long and earnestly; their tones were of dictation
on the part of the woman and subservience on the part of the man. Then
the Spirit of the Moosefoot Indians moved away, and the White Squaw
retraced her steps to the dugout.

A look of triumph was in Aim-sa's blue eyes as she returned through the
forest. She gave no heed to the slinking forms that dogged her steps.
She saw nothing of the forest about her; all her interest was in the
dugout and those who lived there.

When she came to the house she received a shock. Nick had returned
during her absence. He had come for the dog sled, and had since brought
the vast carcass of a grizzly into camp. Now he was stripping the rich
fur from the forest king's body. The five huskies, with shivering bodies
and jowls dripping saliva, were squatting around upon their haunches
waiting for the meal they hoped would soon be theirs.

The man, still kneeling over his prize, greeted Aim-sa without pausing
in his work.

"Wher'?" he asked, sparing his words lest he should confuse her.

The unconcern of the query reassured her.

"The forest," replied Aim-sa easily, pointing away down the hill.

There was a long pause while the woodsman plied his knife with rough but
perfect skill. The thick fur rolled under his hands. The snick, snick of
his knife alternated with the sound of tearing as he pulled the pelt
from the under-flesh. Aim-sa watched, interested, then, as Nick made no
further remark, she went on. She pointed back at the forest.

"The wolves--they very thick. Many, many--an' hungry."

"They've left the open. Guess it's goin' to storm, sure," observed the
man indifferently. He wrenched the fur loose from the fore paws.

"Yes--it storm--sure." And Aim-sa gazed critically up at the sky. The
usual storm sentries hung glittering upon either side of the sun, and
the blue vault was particularly steely.

Nick rose from his gory task. He drew the fur away and spread it out on
the roof of the dugout to freeze. Then he cut some fresh meat from the
carcass, and afterwards dragged the remainder down the hill and left it
for the dogs. The squabble began as soon as he returned to Aim-sa. A
babel of fierce snarling and yapping proceeded as the ruthless beasts
tore at the still warm flesh. And in less than a minute other voices
came up from the woods, heralding the approach of some of the famished
forest creatures. Nick gave no heed. The dogs must defend their own.
Such is the law of the wild. He had Aim-sa to himself, and he knew not
how long it would be before his brother returned.

And Aim-sa was in no way loth to linger by this great trapper's side. It
pleased her to talk in her halting fashion to him. He had more to say
than his brother; he was a grand specimen of manhood. Besides, his
temperament was wilder, more fierce, more like the world in which he
lived.

She hearkened to the sounds of the snarling wolves and her blue eyes
darkened with the latent savagery that was in her nature.

"The dogs--they fight. Hah!" she said. And a smile of delight was in her
eyes.

"Let 'em fight," said Nick, carelessly. Then he turned upon her with a
look there was no mistaking. His whole attitude was expressive of
passionate earnestness as he looked down into the blue worlds which
confronted him.

She taunted him with a glance of intense meaning. And, in an instant,
the fire in his soul blazed into an overwhelming conflagration.

"You're that beautiful, Aim-sa," he cried. Then he paused as though his
feelings choked him. "Them blue eyes o' yours goes right clear through
me, I guess. Makes me mad. By Gar! you're the finest crittur in the
world."

He looked as though he would devour the fair form which had raised such
a storm within his simple heart. She returned his look with a
fearlessness which still had some power to check his untutored passion.
Her smile, too, was not wholly devoid of derision; but that was lost
upon him.

"Aim-sa--beautiful. Ah! yes--yes, I know. You speak love to me. You
speak love to White Squaw."

"Ay, love," cried Nick, the blood mounting with a rush to his strong
face. "Guess you don't know love, my girl. Not yet. But mebbe you will.
Say, Aim-sa, I'll teach it ye. I'll teach it ye real well, gal. You'll
be my squaw, an' we'll light right out o' here. I've got half share in
our pile, an' it ain't a little. Jest say right here as ye'll do it, an'
I'll fix things, an' hitch up the dogs."

Nick paused in his eloquence. The squaw's eyes danced with delight, and
he read the look to suit himself. Already he anticipated a favourable
answer. But he was quickly undeceived. Aim-sa merely revelled in the
passion she had aroused, like a mischievous child with a forbidden
plaything. She enjoyed it for a moment, then her face suddenly became
grave, and her eyelids drooped over the wonderful eyes which he thought
had told him so much. And her answer came with a shake of the head.

"Aim-sa loves not. She must not. The Moosefoot--she is Queen."

"Curses on the Moosefoot, I say," cried Nick, with passionate impulse.

Aim-sa put up her hand.

"The man--'The Hood.' Fear the Spirit."

A chill shot down through Nick's heart as he listened. But his passion
was only checked for the moment. The next and he seized the woman in his
powerful arms and drew her to his breast, and kissed her not too
unwilling lips. The kiss maddened him, and he held her tight, while he
sought her blindly, madly. He kissed her cheeks, her hair, her eyes, her
lips, and the touch of her warm flesh scorched his very soul. Nor is it
possible to say how long he would have held her had she not, by a
subtle, writhing movement, slipped from within his enfolding arms. Her
keen ears had caught a sound which did not come from the fighting dogs.
It was the penetrating forest cry in the brooding mountain calm.

"Remember--'The Hood,'" Aim-sa warned him. And the next moment had
vanished within the dugout.

Now Nick knew that he too had heard the cry, and he stood listening,
while his passion surged through his veins and his heart beat in mighty
pulsations. As he gazed over the forest waste, he expected to see the
mysterious hooded figure.

But what he beheld brought an angry flush to his cheeks. He did not see
"The Hood," but Ralph walking slowly up the hill.

And a harsh laugh which had no mirth in it broke from him. Then a frown
settled darkly upon his brow. What, he asked himself, had Ralph returned
for? He bore no burden of skins.

And when Ralph looked up and saw Nick whom he believed to be miles away,
his heart grew bitter within him. He read the look on the other's face.
He saw the anger, and a certain guiltiness of his own purpose made him
interpret it aright. And in a flash he resolved upon a scheme which, but
for what he saw, would never have presented itself to him.

And as the gleaming sun-dogs, drooping so heavily yet angrily in the
sky, heralded the coming storm of elements, so did that meeting of the
two brothers threaten the peace of the valley.



CHAPTER VII.

IN THE STORMING NIGHT


The love of these men for the fair creature of the wild had risen to
fever-heat with the abruptness of tropical sunshine. It was no passing
infatuation, but the deep-rooted, absorbing passion of strong simple
men; a passion which dominated their every act and thought; a passion
which years alone might mellow into calm affection, but which nothing
could eradicate. It had come into their lives at a time when every
faculty was at its ripest; henceforth everything would be changed. The
wild, to them, was no longer the wild they had known; it was no longer
theirs alone. Their life had gathered to itself a fresh meaning; a
meaning drawn from association with Woman, and from which it could never
return to the colourless existence of its original solitude.

With the return of Ralph to the camp the day progressed in sullen
silence. Neither of the men would give way an inch; neither would return
to the forest to complete his day's work, and even Aim-sa found their
morose antagonism something to be feared. Each watched the other until
it seemed impossible for the day to pass without the breaking of the
gathering storm. But, however, the time wore on, and the long night
closed down without anything happening to precipitate matters.

The evening was passed in the woman's company. Ralph sat silent,
brooding. While Nick, with the memory of the wild moments during which
he had held Aim-sa in his embrace fresh upon him, held a laboured
conversation with her. To him there was a sense of triumph as he sat
smoking his blackened pipe, listening to the halting phrases of the
woman, and gazing deeply into her wonderful blue eyes. And in the
ecstasy of recollection he forgot Ralph and all but his love. There was
no generosity in his heart; he had given himself up to the delights of
his passion. He claimed the fair Aim-sa to himself, and was ready to
uphold his claim so long as he had life.

All that long evening he heeded nothing of the dark expression of
Ralph's face. The furtive glances from his brother's eyes were lost upon
him, and even had he seen them their meaning would have had no terrors
for him. With all the blind selfishness of a first love he centred his
faculties upon obtaining Aim-sa's regard, and lived in the fool's
paradise of a reckless lover.

And all the time Ralph watched, and planned. The bitterness of his heart
ate into the uttermost part of his vitals, the canker mounted even to
his brain. The deep fire of hatred was now blazing furiously, and each
moment it gathered destructive force. All that was good in the man was
slowly devoured, and only a shell of fierce anger remained.

But what Nick failed to observe Aim-sa saw as plainly as only a woman
can see such things. Her bright eyes saw the fire she had kindled, and
from sheer wantonness she fanned the flame with all the art of which she
was mistress.

Slowly the hours passed. It was Nick who at last rose and gave the
signal for departure. It was an unwritten law between these two that
when one left Aim-sa's presence they both left it. Therefore Ralph
followed suit, and they retired to their sleeping-apartment.

Outside the night was fine, but the threat of storm hung heavily in the
air. The temperature had risen, a sure indication of the coming
blizzard. Ralph was the last to leave the woman's presence, and, ere he
closed the door, he looked back at the smiling face, so beautiful to
him, so seductively fair in his eyes; and the memory of the picture he
looked upon remained with him. He saw the dull-lit interior, with its
rough woodsman's belongings; the plastered walls of logs, coarse and
discoloured; the various utensils hanging suspended from five-inch
spikes driven in the black veins of timber; the blazing stove and
crooked stovepipe; the box of tin dishes and pots; the sides of bacon
hanging from the roof; the pile of sacks containing biscuit and dried
fish, the latter for the dogs; the outspread blankets which formed the
woman's bed; and in the midst of it all the dazzling presence of Aim-sa,
fair as the twilight of a summer evening.

The door closed softly, and as it closed Aim-sa rose from her blankets.
Her expression had changed, and while the men went to their humble
couches she moved about with feverish haste, attentive to the least
sound, but always hurried, and with a look of deep anxiety in her alert
eyes.

No word was spoken as the men rolled into their blankets. The thick wall
shut out all sound from within the hut. The night was intensely still
and silent. Not even was there a single wolf-howl to awaken the echoes
of the towering hills. It was as though all nature was at rest.

Nick was soon asleep. Not even the agitation of mind caused by a first
love could keep him long awake when the hour for sleep came around. With
Ralph it was different. His nature was intenser. His disposition was
capable of greater disturbance than was that of the more impetuous Nick.
He remained awake; awake and alert. He smoked in the darkness more from
habit than enjoyment. Although he could see nothing his eyes constantly
wandered in the direction of the man beside him, and he listened for the
heavy breathing which should tell him of the slumber which would endure
till the first streak of dawn shot athwart the sky. Soon it came; and
Nick snored heavily.

Then, without sound, Ralph sat up in his blankets. He bent his head
towards the sleeper, and, satisfied, rose softly to his feet. Opening
the door he looked out. All was profoundly quiet and black. Not a star
shone in the sky, nor was there a sign of the dancing northern lights.
And while he stood he heard for the first time that night the cry of
some distant forest creature; but the timber-wolves kept silent in the
depths below the hut. He drew the door to behind him and moved out into
the night.

Cold as it was he was consumed by a perfect fever of agitation. His
thoughts were in a state of chaos, but the one dominant note which rang
out with clarion-like distinctness was that which drew him towards
Aim-sa's door. And thither he stole softly, silently, with the tiptoeing
of a thief, and with the nervous quakings of a wrong-doer. His face was
wrought with fear, with hope, with the eagerness of expectancy.

He passed from the deeper shadows in which the lean-to was bathed, and
stood at the angle of the house. He paused, and a flurrying of the snow
at his feet warned him that he had stepped close to the burrow of one of
Nick's huskies. He moved quickly aside, and the movement brought him
beyond the angle. Then he stood stock-still, held motionless as he saw
that the door of the dugout was open and the light of the oil-lamp
within was illuminating the beaten snow which fronted the house. He held
his breath. Again and again he asked himself the meaning of the strange
phenomenon.

From where he stood he could see only the light; the doorway was hidden
by the storm-porch. But, as he strained his eyes in the direction and
craned forward, he became aware of a shadow on the snow where the lamp
threw its dull rays. Slowly he scanned the outline of it, and his mind
was moved by speculation. The shadow was uncertain, and only that which
was nearest the door was recognizable. Here there was no mistake; some
one was standing in the opening, and that some one could only be Aim-sa.

He was filled with excitement and his heart beat tumultuously; a frenzy
of delight seized upon him, and he stepped forward swiftly. A moment
later he stood confronting her.

Just for one moment Aim-sa's face took on a look of dismay, but it
passed before Ralph had time to read it. Then she smiled a glad welcome
up at the keen eyes which peered down into her own, and her voice broke
the silence in a gentle, suppressed tone.

"Quiet--quiet. The night. The storm is near. Aim-sa watches."

Ralph turned his face out upon the blackness of the valley, following
the direction of the woman's gaze.

"Ay, storm," he said mechanically, and his heart pounded within his
breast, and his breath came and went heavily. Then, in the pause which
followed, he started and looked towards the lean-to as a sound came from
that direction. He was half-fearful of his sleeping brother.

Aim-sa's eyes turned towards the rugged features before her, and her
gaze was of an intensity such as Ralph could not support in silence.
Words blundered unbidden to his lips, uncontrolled, and he spoke as a
man who scarce knows what he is saying. His mind was in the throes of a
fever, and his speech partook of the irrelevance of delirium.

"You must live with me," he said, his brows frowning with the intensity
of his passion. "You must be my wife. The white man takes a squaw, an'
he calls her 'wife,' savvee? Guess he ain't like the Injuns that has
many squaws. He jest takes one. You'll be my squaw, an' we'll go away
from here."

A smile was in the woman's blue eyes, for her memory went back to the
words Nick had spoken to her that morning.

Ralph went on.

"Guess I love you that bad as makes me crazy. Ther' ain't nothin' to
life wi'out you." His eyes lowered to the ground; then they looked
beyond her, and he gazed upon the disordered condition of the room
without observing it. "Nick don't need me here. He can have the shack
an' everything, 'cep' my haf share o' the money. Guess we'll trail north
an' pitch our camp on the Peace River. What say?"

Aim-sa's eyes were still smiling. Every word Nick had spoken was vivid
in her memory. She looked as though she would laugh aloud, but she held
herself in check, and the man took her smile for one of acquiescence and
became bolder. He stretched out his hand and caught hers in his shaking
grasp.

"The white man loves--Aim-sa," the woman said, softly, while she yielded
her two hands to him.

"Love? Ay, love. Say, ther' ain't nothin' in the world so beautiful as
you, Aim-sa, an' that's a fac'. I ain't never seen nothin' o' wimmin
before, 'cep' my mother, but I guess now I've got you I can't do wi'out
you, you're that soft an' pictur'-like. Ye've jest got to say right here
that you're my squaw, an' everything I've got is yours, on'y they things
I leave behind to Nick."

"Ah," sighed the woman, "Nick--poor Nick. He loves--Aim-sa, too. Nick is
great man."

"Nick loves you? Did he get tellin' ye so?"

There was a wild, passionate ring in Ralph's question.

The squaw nodded, and the man's expression suddenly changed. The
passionate look merged into one of fiery anger, and his eyes burned with
a low, dark fire. Aim-sa saw the sudden change, but she still smiled in
her soft way.

"An' you?"

The voice of the man was choking with suppressed passion. His whole body
trembled with the chaos of feeling which moved him.

The woman shook her head.

"An' what did ye say?" he went on, as she remained silent.

"Nick is great. No, Aim-sa not loves Nick."

Ralph sighed with relief, and again the fiery blood swept through his
veins. He stepped up close to her and she remained quite still. The blue
eyes were raised to his face and Aim-sa's lips parted in a smile. The
effect was instantaneous. Ralph seized her in a forceful embrace, and
held her to him whilst he gasped out the passionate torrent of his love
amidst an avalanche of kisses. And they stood thus for long, until the
man calmed and spoke with more practical meaning.

"An' we go together?" he asked.

Aim-sa nodded.

"Now?"

The woman shook her head.

"No--sunrise. I wait here."

Again they stood; he clasping her unresisting form, while the touch of
her flowing hair intoxicated him, and the gentle rise and fall of her
bosom drove all thought wild within him.

They stood for many minutes; till at last the still night was stirred by
the rustling herald of the coming storm. The long-drawn-out sigh of the
wind, so sad, so weird in the darkness of night would have passed
unheeded by the man, but Aim-sa was alert, and she freed herself from
his embrace.

"At sunrise," she said. "Now--sleep." And she made a sign as of laying
her head upon a pillow.

Ralph stood irresolute. Suddenly Aim-sa started. Her whole bearing
changed. A swift, startled gaze shot from beneath her long, curling
lashes in the direction of the distant hills. A tiny glimmer of light
had caught her attention and she stepped back on the instant and passed
into the hut, closing the door softly but quickly behind her. And when
she had disappeared Ralph stood as one dazed.

The significance of Aim-sa's abrupt departure was lost upon him. For him
there was nothing unusual in her movements. She had been there, he had
held her in his arms, he had kissed her soft lips. He had tasted of
love, and the mad passion had upset his thoughtful nature. His mind and
his feelings were in a whirl and he thrilled with a delicious joy. His
thoughts were so vivid that all sense of that which was about him, all
caution, was obscured by them. At that moment there was but one thing
that mattered to him,--Aim-sa's love. All else was as nothing.

So it came that the faint light on the distant hills burned steadily;
and he saw it not. So it came that a shadowy figure moved about at the
forest edge below him; and he saw it not. So it came that the light
breath from the mountain-top was repeated only more fiercely; and he
heeded it not. In those moments he was living within himself; his
thoughts were his world, and those thoughts were of the woman he had
kissed and held in his arms.

Nothing gave him warning of the things which were doing about him. He
saw no tribulation in the sea upon which he had embarked. He loved; that
was all he knew. Presently like a sleep-walker he turned and moved
around towards the deeper shadow of the lean-to. Then, when he neared
the door of the shed in which his brother was, he seemed to partially
awake to his surroundings. He knew that he must regain his bed without
disturbing Nick. With this awakening he pulled himself together.
To-morrow at sunrise he and the squaw were to go away, and long he lay
awake, thinking, thinking.

Now the shadow hovering at the forest edge became more distinct as it
neared the house; it came slowly, stealing warily up the snow-clad hill.
There was no scrunch of footsteps, the snow muffled all such sounds. It
drew nearer, nearer, a tall, grey, ghostly shadow that seemed to float
over the white carpet which was everywhere spread out upon the earth.
And as it came the wind rose, gusty and patchy, and the hiss of rising
snow sounded stingingly upon the night air, and often beat with the
force of hail against the front of the dugout.

Within a few yards of the hut the figure came to a halt. Thus it stood,
immovable, a grey sombre shadow in the darkness of night. Then, after a
long pause, high above the voice of the rising wind the howl of the wolf
rang out. It came like a cry of woe from a lost soul; deep-toned, it
lifted upon the air, only to fall and die away lost in the shriek of the
wind. Thrice came the cry. Then the door of the dugout opened and Aim-sa
looked out into the relentless night.

The figure moved forward again. It drew near to the door, and, in the
light, the grey swathing of fur became apparent, and the cavernous hood
lapping about the head identified the Spirit of the Moosefoot Indians.
Then followed a low murmur of voices. And again the woman moved back
into the hut. The grey figure waited, and a moment later Aim-sa came to
him again. Shortly after the door closed and the Spirit moved silently
away.

All was profoundly dark. The darkness of the night was a darkness that
could be felt, for the merciless blizzard of the northern latitudes was
raging at its full height. The snow-fog had risen and all sign of trail
or footstep was swept from the icy carpet. It was a cruel night, and
surely one fit for the perpetration of cruel deeds.

And so the night passed. The elements warring with the fury of wildcats,
with the shrieking of fiends, with the roaring of artillery, with the
merciless severity of the bitter north. And while the storm swept the
valley the two brothers slept; even Ralph, although torn by such
conflicting emotions, was lulled, and finally won to sleep by the raging
elements whose voices he had listened to ever since his cradle days.

But even his slumbers were broken, and strange visions haunted his night
hours. There was none of the peacefulness of his usual repose--the
repose of a man who has performed his allotted daylight task. He tossed
and twisted within his sleeping-bag. He talked disjointedly and flung
his arms about; and, finally, while yet it was dark, he awoke.

Springing into a sitting posture, he peered about him in the darkness.
Everything came back to his mind with a rush. He remembered his
appointment at sunrise, and he wondered how long he had slept. Again he
crept to the shed door. Again he looked out and finally passed out. Nick
still slumbered heavily.

The fury of the elements was unabated and they buffeted him; but he
looked around and saw the grey daylight illuminating the snow-fog, and
he knew that though sunrise was near it was not yet. He passed around
the hut, groping with his hands upon the building until he came to the
door. Here he paused. He would awake Aim-sa that she might prepare for
her flight with him. There was much to be done. He was about to knock
but altered his mind and tried the latch. It yielded to his touch and
the door swung back.

He did not pause to wonder, although he knew that it was Aim-sa's custom
to secure the door. He passed within, and in a hoarse whisper called out
the name that was so dear to him. There came no answer and he stood
still, his senses tense with excitement. He called again, again. Still
there was no answer. Now he closed the door, which creaked over the snow
covering the sill. He stood listening lest Nick should be moving on the
other side of the wall, and to ascertain if Aim-sa had awakened and was
fearful at the intrusion. But no sound except the rage of the storm came
to him.

His impatience could no longer be restrained; he plunged his hand into
the pocket of his buckskin shirt and drew out a box of matches. A moment
later a light flashed out, and in one sweeping, comprehensive glance
around him he realized the truth. The hut was empty. "Gone, gone," he
muttered, while, in rapid survey, his eyes glanced from one familiar
object to another.

Everything was out of place, there were signs of disorder everywhere;
and the woman was gone.

Suddenly the wind rushed upon the house with wild violence and set
everything in the place a-clatter. He lit the lamp. Then he seemed to
collect himself and went over and felt the stove. It was ice cold. The
blankets were laid out upon the floor in the usual spread of the
daytime. They had not been slept in.

Into his eyes there leapt a strange, wild look. The truth was forcing
itself upon him, and his heart was racked with torment.

"She's gone," he muttered again, "an'," as an afterthought, "it's
storming terrible. Wher'? Why?"

He stood again for awhile like a man utterly at a loss. Then he began to
move, not quietly or with any display of stealth. He was no longer the
self-contained trapper, but a man suddenly bereft of that which he holds
most dear. He ran noisily from point to point, prying here, there, and
everywhere for some sign which could tell him whither she had gone. But
there was nothing to help him, nothing that could tell him that which he
would know. She had gone, vanished, been spirited away in the storm.

He was suddenly inspired. It was the realization of the condition of the
night which put the thought into his head. With a bound he sprang back
to the door and flung it open. To an extent the storm-porch was
sheltered, and little drift-snow had blown in to cover the traces of
footsteps. Down he dropped upon hands and knees. Instantly all his
trailing instincts were bent upon his task. Yes, there were footprints,
many, many. There were his own, large moccasins of home manufacture.
There were Aim-sa's, clear, delicate, and small. And whose were those
other two? He ran his finger over the outline as though to impress the
shape more certainly upon his mind.

"Wide toe," he muttered, "long heel, an' high instep. Large, large, too.
By G----, they're Injun!"

He gave out the last words in a shout which rang high above the noise of
the storm; he sprang to his feet and dashed out around to the lean-to.
At the door he met his brother. Nick had been roused by his brother's
cry.

Seeing the expression of Ralph's face the larger man stood.

"By Gar!" he cried. Then he waited, fearing he knew not what.

"She's gone," shouted Ralph. "Gone, gone, can't ye hear?" he roared.
"Gone, an' some darned neche's been around. She's gone, in the blizzard.
Come!"

And he seized Nick by the arm and dragged him round to the door of the
dugout.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE UNQUENCHABLE FIRE


An interminable week of restless inaction and torture followed Aim-sa's
disappearance. Seven long, weary days the blizzard raged and held the
two brothers cooped within their little home. The brief, grey daylight
dragged to its howling end, and the seemingly endless nights brought
them little relief. The only inhabitants of the hut on the wild hillside
that offered no complaint, and even seemed to welcome the change, were
Nick's huskies. They displayed a better temper since the going of the
White Squaw, although the change in their attitude was unheeded by their
masters.

The antagonism of the men was no longer masked by sullen silence. It
broke out into open hostility almost the moment their loss was
discovered, and it took the form of bickering and mutual reprisal. Nick
laid the charge of her departure at Ralph's door. Applying all the most
unreasonable arguments in support of his belief. Ralph retaliated with a
countercharge, declaring that Nick had caused her flight by thrusting
his unwelcome attentions upon her. And every word they uttered on the
subject added fuel to the fire of their hatred, and often they were
driven to the verge of blows.

Nick had no reason in him; and, in his anger, Ralph was little better.
But where a certain calmness came to the latter when away from his
brother, Nick continued to fume with his mind ever set upon what he
regarded as only _his_ loss. Thus it came that Ralph saw ahead,
hazily it is true, but he saw that the time had come when they must
part. It was impossible for them to continue to shelter under the same
roof, the roof which had covered them since the days of their earliest
recollections.

But though he saw this necessity, he did not broach the subject, for,
like his brother, he looked forward to the abatement of the storm so
that he might set out in search of the lost one. Besides, he felt that
until Aim-sa was found he could not part from Nick. Even in his hatred
for his brother, even in his calmest moments, jealousy supervened. Were
they to part, Nick might be the one to find her, and then--No, they must
wait till the storm had passed, afterwards it would be time to act.
Meanwhile, by tacit consent, they continued to live in the lean-to,
reserving the dugout for the object of their love, against her return.

At length the weather cleared. The search began at once. Each day they
set out for the forest and hills with hope buoying their hearts; and
each night they returned with downcast looks, despair in their hearts,
and with their brooding anger against each other a dark flame leaping
within them.

Sometimes, in stolen moments, they visited the place Aim-sa had lived
in. Every day Ralph would clean up the dugout and leave it ready for the
White Squaw's occupation when she returned. Every article of furniture
had its allotted place, the place which she had selected. With the
utmost deliberation he would order everything, and never had their
mountain home been so tenderly cared for. Then Nick would come. His
brother's handiwork would drive him to a frenzy of anger, and he would
reset the place to his own liking, at which Ralph's exasperation would
break out in angry protest.

The metamorphosis of these men could not have been more complete. They
hated themselves, they grew to hate the home which was theirs, the wild
in which they lived. They set their traps and hunted because it was
their habit to do so, but always with only secondary thought for their
calling. The chief object of their lives was to find the woman who had
taught them the meaning of love.

Winter was waning. The soft snow in the forest was melting rapidly.
Every morning found their valley buried beneath a pall of white fog. The
sun's power was rapidly increasing, and already a slush of snow-water
was upon the ice-bound river. The overpowering heights of the valley
gleamed and sparkled in the cheery daylight; the clear mountain air drew
everything nearer, and the stifling sense, inspired by the crush of
towering hills, was exaggerated as the sun rose in the heavens and
revealed the obscurer recesses of the stupendous world. And now, too,
the forest grew dank and moist, and the steady dripping of the melting
snow upon the branches became like a heavy rainfall within the gloomy
depths.

One day Ralph returned home first. He was cooking the supper. The sun
was dipping behind the western mountain-tops, and the red gold
reflection swept in a rosy flush over the crystal summits. The winter
sky had given place to the deeper hue of spring, and, in place of the
heavy grey cloud-caps, fleecy puffs of white, little less dazzling than
the snowy hills themselves, dotted the azure vault above. The forest was
alive with the cries of the feathered world, as they sought their rest
in their newly-built nests. It was not the bright chatter of gay
song-birds such as belong to warmer climes, but the hoarse cries of
water-fowl, and the harsh screams of the preying lords of wing and air.
The grey eagle in his lofty eyrie; the gold-crested vulture-hawk;
creatures that live the strenuous life of the silent lands, fowl that
live by war. The air was very still; the prospect perfect with a wild
rugged beauty.

The train dogs were lying about lazily, but their attitude was
deceptive. Their fierce eyes were only partially closed, and they
watched the cook at his work, waiting for their share in the meal.

Presently a sharp snarl broke from one of them, and he sprang to his
feet and walked round his neighbour in a hectoring fashion. Ralph just
glanced up from his work, his attitude expressing indifference. The
second dog rose leisurely, and a silent argument over some old-time
dispute proceeded in true husky fashion. They walked round and round
each other, seeming almost to tiptoe in their efforts to browbeat. Their
manes bristled and their fangs bared to the gums, but never a sound came
from their deep-toned throats. And such is ever the way of the husky,
unless stirred to the wildest fury. The other dogs paid no heed; the
smell which emanated from Ralph's cooking-pot held them. Those who
wished to fight could do so; their indifference plainly said so.

Ralph went to the shed and returned with some fresh logs. As he reached
the fire he paused. The disputing dogs had attracted his attention. A
quick spring in and out, a slash of the bared fangs, and the shoulder of
one dog was laid open. The other brutes were on their feet in an
instant. The scent of blood had greater attraction for their wolfish
senses than the smell of cooking food. They gathered round with licking
lips. Ralph stepped back from the fire and raised aloft one of the logs
he had brought. The next moment it was hurtling through the air. It took
the combatants somewhere in the midst. They parted, with a howl of pain,
and the spectators hurriedly returned to their contemplation of the
fire. In a moment temporary peace was restored. Ralph stood to see that
hostilities were definitely postponed, then he went on with his work.

Suddenly, up out of the valley came the sound of Nick's voice. It
trolled harshly up the hillside, giving out strange echoes which
confused the melody he essayed. The listening man recognized the words
of "The Red River Valley," but the tune was obscured.

The unusual outburst held Ralph silent, wondering. Nick was not given to
singing at any time, and the events of the last few days were not likely
to inspire him. What had caused the change?

The voice sounded nearer. In spite of the tunelessness of the song,
Ralph thought he detected a joyousness in the tone which was unusual. A
shiver passed down his back, and his thoughts flew at once to Aim-sa.

Gazing down the hill he saw Nick emerge from the forest and face the
slope at a swinging pace. His powerful limbs moved easily, with a
springiness of stride that was not natural to a man accustomed to the
labours of the "long trail." His face was no longer bathed in desponding
gloom; his eyes were shining, and his strong features had upon them an
expression of triumph. He brought with him an atmosphere as fresh and
joyous as the dawn of a mountain summer sky.

Over his shoulder were slung several moist pelts, newly taken from the
carcasses of golden foxes, and in his hand he carried two large traps,
which he was bringing home for repair. But these things were passed
unheeded by his brother; it was the voice, and the look upon his face
that unpleasantly fixed Ralph's attention. But a further astonishment
came to the waiting man. Nick shouted a greeting as he came.

"A great day, Ralph," he cried. "Two o' the finest yeller-bellies I've
seed. Most as big as timber-wolves."

Ralph nodded, but said no word. He knew without being told that it was
not the pleasure of such a catch which had urged Nick to cordiality. He
watched the coming of his brother with his quiet, steady eyes, and what
he beheld beat his heart down, down, as though with the fall of a
sledge-hammer.

As Nick's overtures met with no response, he said no more, but came and
stood beside the spluttering fire, while his eyes searched the gloomy
face of his brother. Then, with an impatient movement, he threw his
traps down and removed the pelts from his shoulder. He passed over to
the dugout and spread the reeking hides upon the roof, well out of reach
of the dogs; then he returned in silence to the fire.

His coming had been the signal for a renewal of hostilities among the
dogs, and now a sharp clip of teeth drew his attention. The two beasts
Ralph had separated were at it again. Nick seized a pole and trounced
them impartially till they scattered out of his reach.

A portentous silence followed. Nick was casting about in his mind for
something agreeable to say. He felt good. So good that he did not want
to tell Ralph what was in his mind. He wanted to be sociable, he wanted
to break through the icy barrier which had risen between them; he felt
that he could afford to do so. But ideas were not forthcoming. He had
but one thought in his brain, and when, at last, he spoke it was to
blurt out the very thing he would withheld.

"I've seen her," he said, in a voice tense with emotion.

And Ralph had known it from the moment he had heard his brother singing.
He looked up from his cooking-pot, and his fork remained poised above
the black iron lid. At last his answer came in a hoarse whisper.

"Her?"

"Yes, I spoke to her, I guess."

"Spoke to her?"

And the whites of the elder man's eyes had become bloodshot as he stood
up from his crouching attitude over the fire.

His stolid face was unmoved, only his eyes gave expression to that which
passed behind them. There was a dangerous look in their sunken depths
which the depressed brows accentuated. He looked into his brother's
face, and, for awhile, the supper was forgotten.

"Yes, spoke to her," said Nick, emphatically. "She ain't gone from us.
She ain't left this valley. She's scairt o' the Moosefoots. That
all-fired 'Hood.' She said as they were riled that she'd stopped in the
white man's lodge. Said they'd made med'cine an' found out where she'd
gone. Say, that 'Hood' is the very devil, I'm thinkin'. She's scairt to
death o' him."

But though Ralph listened to his brother's words he seemed to pay little
heed. The blow had fallen on him with stunning force. Nick had seen
Aim-sa; he had been with her that day, perhaps all day. And at the
thought he broke out in a sweat. Something seemed to rise up in his
throat and choke him.

"You look that glad. Maybe you've had a good time."

Ralph's words came as though he were thinking aloud.

The devil stirred in Nick's heart.

"Glad, man? Glad? Ay, I am that, surely. She said as she'd been on the
watch fer me ever since the storm quit. She said as she wanted to hunt
wi' me."

"You?"

"An' why not? I ain't lyin', I guess. I 'lows she ain't like to say they
things fer passin' time. She was allus easy an' free wi' me. Mebbe
you're kind o' quiet. Wimmin mostly likes them as ken talk."

Ralph's eyes darkened. His set face became more rigid. Then suddenly a
harsh laugh broke from his unmoving lips.

"Guess you're crazed, Nick. That woman's foolin' ye."

Then he swung about as the sound of a violent struggle came from among
the dogs. It was the saving interruption. Another moment and the
brooding hate of the two men would have broken loose. Nick turned, too.
And he was just in time; for one of the huskies was down and the rest of
the train were upon him, bent on tearing out the savage life. Nick
clubbed them right and left, nor did he desist till the torn beast was
upon his feet again, ready to face his antagonists with undiminished
courage. The husky knows no other termination to a quarrel than the
fight to the death.

It took Nick some minutes to restore peace among his dogs, and by the
time this was accomplished his own feelings had calmed. Ralph,
recognizing the danger of his mood, had gripped himself sternly, and
returned to his cooking.

And so the crisis was passed and the disaster temporarily averted. But
in their hearts both men knew that the savage wild, ingrained in their
natures, would not always be so easily stifled. Unless they parted, a
dire calamity must surely befall.



CHAPTER IX.

TO THE DEATH


The forest gloom is broken by gladdening beams of sunlight. They sketch
a mazy fretwork pattern of light and shade on the dank underlay of
rotting vegetation which the melting snow has laid bare. The air is
weighted down with heavy, resinous odours, and an enervating warmth has
descended to the depths of the lower forests. But Winter has not yet
spread its wings for its last flight. Spring's approach has been
heralded by its feathered trumpeters, garbed in their sober plumage. It
is on its way, that is all. The transition of the seasons is at hand.
Winter still resists, and the gentle legions of Spring have yet to fight
out their annual battle. The forests are astir with wild, furred life;
the fierce life which emphasizes the solitude of the mountain world. The
pine-cones scrunch under the feet of the prowling beast as he moves
solemnly upon his dread way; there is a swish of bush or a snapping of
wood as some startled animal seeks cover; or a heavy crashing of
branches, as the mighty-antlered moose, solemn-eyed, unheeding, thrusts
himself through the undergrowth.

Ralph was bending over a large trap. It was still set although the bait
had been removed. It had been set at the mouth of a narrow track where
it opened out in a small, snow-covered clearing. The blood stains of the
raw meat with which it had been baited were still moist, but the flesh
itself had been taken. He turned from his inspection. There were
footprints in the snow, evidently the tracks of a timber-wolf. His face
expressed his disgust as he rebaited the trap. Wolves were the pest of
his life. Their skins were almost worthless, and they were as cunning as
any dog-fox. A trap had no terrors for them. He moved away to continue
on his journey. Suddenly he drew up and scanned the white carpet. His
trailing instincts were keenly alert.

The snow was disturbed by other marks than those made by the wolf. In
places the ground was laid bare, and broken pine-cones were displayed
upon its surface as though some great weight had crushed them. Moose
suggested itself. He looked keenly at the marks. No, the snow displayed
no imprint of cloven hoofs. It looked as though it had been raked by a
close-set harrow. To him there was much significance in what he saw.
Only one creature could have left such a track. There was but one animal
in that forest world that moved with shambling gait, and whose paws
could rake the snow in such a manner. That animal was the grizzly, the
monarch of the mountain forest.

The man looked further over the snow, and, in a few moments, had learned
all he wished to know. There were two distinct trails, one approaching,
the other departing. But there was a curious difference between them.
The approach had evidently been at a slovenly, ambling pace. The raking
of the trailing feet showed this. But the departing track displayed
every sign of great haste. The snow had been flurried to an extent that
had obliterated all semblance of footprints.

Ralph unslung his rifle. Ahead of him was the track, ahead of him also
was a further break in the forest where the sun shone down with dazzling
brilliancy. He passed on and looked up at the perfect sky. Then he took
the direction of the track. It struck out for the northeast.

"I wonder if Nick's lit on it," he muttered. "It 'ud be his luck,
anyway."

He further examined the tracks, and the whiteness of the snow warned him
they were quite fresh.

"Ain't been made more'n an hour," he added, in further soliloquy.
"Guess, I'll trail him."

And he set off hot-foot through the forest.

The trail was well marked, and he followed it with ease. And as he moved
slowly on his mind had much leisure from his task. The direction the
bear had taken was towards the country over which Nick was working. Also
Ralph could not help recollecting that the northeast was the direction
in which lay the Moosefoot camp. True there were many miles of wild
country between him and the Indians, but the knowledge of the direction
he was taking quickly turned his thoughts into other channels, and his
quarry no longer solely occupied his mind. His eyes followed the trail,
his thoughts went on miles ahead.

It was three days since Nick had first told Ralph of his meeting with
Aim-sa. And ever since the latter had sought her himself, but his search
had been in vain. And each of those three days Nick had returned to camp
happy and smiling in a manner which maddened his brother. Now he thought
of these things. He told himself, with warped reasoning, that Nick had
gone behind his back, that he had taken undue advantage in his winning
of Aim-sa's regard. He forgot, or admitted not, his own doings, his own
secret meeting with her on the night of her flight from the dugout.

Such was his mood as he traversed the forest paths. Through dell and
brake; through endless twilight maze of black tree-trunks; over
moss-grown patches, and roots and stumps reeking with the growth of rank
fungus. But his eyes never lost the indications of his quarry, and at
intervals he paused listening for some sound which should tell him of
the beast's proximity.

A frozen creek crossed his way. The surface was covered with the watery
slush of melting snow, and great cracks ran in many directions through
the ice.

He crossed it and the forest closed about him again. The beast he was
trailing had paused here, had moved roundabout as though seeking the
direction he required. Ralph followed the creature's movements,
understanding with the acuteness of his forest breeding.

Suddenly he started and a half-stifled cry broke from him. He dashed
forward to a point where the snow had drifted and was now disturbed. He
halted, and looked down. Other footprints mingled with those of the
bear. They were small, and had been made by moccasin-shod feet. He had
seen such footprints before. He knew the owner of the feet which had
made these imprints. Aim-sa's were such as these--Aim-sa's!

His eyes took in every detail slowly, fondly. Where was she now? He must
follow. Then he remembered. Something else was following, not him, but
her. He straightened himself up, and a muttered exclamation broke from
his lips. Now he understood. Away there, back in the distant woods, the
bear must have scented the woman's presence and was tracking her down.
She had gone on through the forest, unknowing of the danger that lurked
behind her, which was hard upon her trail.

Forgetful of Nick, forgetful of all else, Ralph pursued the double
trail. Danger threatened the woman he loved, for aught he knew had
already overtaken her. To his credit be it said, that, as he raced over
the sodden carpet of the forest, not one selfish thought possessed him.
Aim-sa was in danger, and so he went headlong to the rescue. His quiet
eyes were lit with a fiery determination such as one might have expected
in the eyes of Nick, but not in those of Ralph. His soul was afire with
anxiety. Aim-sa was an expert in forest-craft, but she was a woman. So
he hasted.

The world about him might have been bathed in the blackness of night for
all he heeded it; only the track of footsteps stood out to his gaze like
a trail of fire. His speed was great; nor was he conscious how great. He
no longer walked, but ran, and thought nothing of distance, nor the
passing of time. The trail of pursuer and pursued still lit, red-hot,
before him, and the cry of his heart still rang out--On! On!

It was noon when his speed slackened. Nor was it weariness that checked
him. Once in the echoing wood he had heard the distant sound of breaking
undergrowth. The prospect about him had changed. The forest had become a
tangled maze of low-growing shrub, dotted with giant growths of maple,
spruce, and blue-gum. It was a wider, deeper hollow than any hitherto
passed, and the air was warmer. It was the valley of a wide,
swift-flowing river.

The declivity was abrupt, and the rush of the river, too swift to
succumb to the grip of winter, sounded faintly up from below. Suddenly
he halted listening, and the sound of breaking undergrowth came to him
again and again; he waited for the cry of the human, but it did not
come. With beating heart he hurried on, his mind was easier and his
thoughts centred upon the killing of the grizzly. His rifle was ready to
hand and he looked for a sight of the dark fur through the bush ahead.

Now his movements became almost Indian-like in their stealth. Bending
low to avoid the rustling branches, he crept on, silently and swiftly.
He no longer followed the tracks. He had turned off, meaning to come up
with his quarry against the wind. At every opening in the bush he
paused, his keen eyes alert for a sign of his prey. But the leafless
branches of the scrub, faintly tinged with the signs of coming spring,
alone confronted him; only that, and the noise of breaking brushwood
ahead.

It quickly became plain to him that the bear was no longer advancing,
but was moving about uncertainly; and as he realized this, his heart was
gripped with a terrible fear. Had the brute come up with his prey? Had
the tragedy been played out? He dashed forward, throwing all caution to
the winds; but ere he had gone fifty yards he came to a halt, like one
paralyzed.

His eyes, which had been peering ever ahead, had suddenly dropped to the
ground. It seemed as though they could no longer face that which they
looked upon. For a moment his face worked as might that of a man in
great pain. Then its expression changed and a flush mounted to his brow;
a flush of indescribable rage. Again his eyes were raised and a devilish
look peered out from them.

An opening not two acres in extent lay before him. In its midst was a
blackened tree-trunk, limbless, riven; a forest giant blasted by some
mountain storm. Nick was standing beside it; his gun rested against its
blackened sides, and, upon a fallen bough, scarcely a yard away, Aim-sa
was seated. They were in deep converse, and Ralph was near enough to
hear the sound of their voices, but not to distinguish their words. As
he strained his tingling ears to catch the tenor of their speech, he
could hear the movements of the bear in the adjacent woods.

The two in the open seemed all unconscious of what was going on so near
them. Nick was gazing upon the woman, his heart laid bare in his eyes.
And Aim-sa was smiling up into his face with all the arch coquetry of
her sex, with that simple, trusting look which, however guileful, must
ever appeal to the strong man.

For awhile Ralph looked on. The exquisite torture of his heart racked
him, but he did not turn away to shut out the sight. Rather it seemed as
if he preferred to thus harass himself. It was the working of his own
angry passion which held him, feeding itself, fostering, nursing itself,
and goading him to fury.

Suddenly the sound of movement close at hand broke the spell which held
him. He looked, and saw the bear less than twenty yards off.

He gripped his rifle, and his first thought was to slay. It was the
hunter's instinct which rose within him. But something held him, and his
weapon did not move from his side; somewhere in his heart a harsh voice
whispered to him, and he listened to words of evil counsel. Then a
revulsion of feeling swept over him, and he shook himself as though to
get rid of something which clung about him and oppressed him. But the
moment passed, leaving him undecided, his brain maddened with bitter
thoughts.

The dark form in the bush beyond moved. There came no sound, and the
waiting man wondered if his eyes deceived him. No cat could have moved
more silently upon its prey. Not a twig creaked. It moved on stealthily,
inexorably, till it paused at the edge of the opening.

Ralph's eyes turned upon the dead tree. Nick's back was turned, and
Aim-sa was intent upon her companion. She seemed to be hanging upon his
every word. And Ralph's heart grew harder within him. His hand held his
rifle in a nervous clutch and his finger-nails scored the stock. A shout
from him would avert disaster; a shot would arrest that terrible
advance. But the shout remained unborn; the trigger still waited the
compressing hand. And the unconscious brother stood with death stealing
upon him from beyond the fringe of the woods.

Solemnly the great grizzly advanced. Once in the open he made no pause.
The lumbering beast looked so clumsy that the inexperienced might have
been forgiven a smile of ridicule. Its ears twitched backward and
forward, its head lolled to its gait, and though its eyes shone with a
baleful ferocity they seemed to gaze anywhere but at its intended
victims.

Ralph stood watching, with lips compressed and jaws set, and a cruel
frown darkening his brow. But his heart was beating in mighty
pulsations, and somewhere within him a conflict was raging, in which
Evil had attacked in overwhelming force, and Good was being beaten back.

Within ten yards of the tree the bear halted and reared itself upon its
haunches. Thus for a moment it towered in terrible menace.

It was the last chance. Ralph's lips moved as though to shout, but only
a low muttered curse came from them. Suddenly the air was split with a
piercing scream. Aim-sa stood erect, one arm was outstretched pointing,
the other rested against the tree as though she would steady herself.
Her eyes were staring in terror at the huge brute as it came towards
them.

Nick swung round. He was too late. There was no time to reach his rifle.
His right hand plunged at his belt, and he drew a long hunting-knife
from its sheath, and thrust himself, a shield, before Aim-sa.

The cry smote the savage heart of Ralph, smote it with the sear of
white-hot iron. A wave of horror passed over him. It was not of his
brother he thought, but of the woman he loved. Nick's death would only
be the forerunner of hers. In a flash his rifle sprang to his shoulder.
A second passed while his keen eyes ran over the sights, the compressing
hand was upon the trigger. A puff of smoke. A sharp report. The grizzly
swung round with a lurch. He had not stopped, he merely changed the
direction of his steps and came straight for the forest where Ralph
stood.

But the magnificent brute only took a few strides. Ralph went out to
meet him, but, ere he came up, the creature tottered. Then, reeling, it
dropped upon all fours, only, the next instant, to roll over upon its
side, dead.

Ralph gave one glance at the body of the great bear; the next moment its
presence was forgotten. He passed on, and confronted those whom he had
unwillingly rescued. The depression of his brows, and the glint of his
eyes and merciless set of his jaws, all gave warning of a danger that
dwarfed to insignificance that which had just passed.

"I 'lows I hadn't reckoned to find you wi' company," Ralph said,
addressing his brother with a quietness that ill-concealed the storm
underlying his words. "Mebbe I didn't calc'late to find you, anyway."

There was no mistaking the challenge in his look. Nick saw it. His
impetuous temper rose in response. The bear was forgotten. Neither
alluded to it. The two men faced each other with the concentrated
jealous hatred of weeks' growth uppermost in their hearts.

"Wal, I guess y've found me. What then?"

Nick squared himself, and his expression was as relentless as that of
the older man.

Ralph paid no heed to the taunting inquiry. He looked over at Aim-sa,
who had shrunk away. Now she answered his look with one that was
half-pleading, half-amused. She realized the feud which was between the
men, but she did not understand the rugged, forceful natures which she
had so stirred.

"Say, gal," Ralph said abruptly. "Ther's jest us two. Ye gave yourself
to me that night, maybe you've give yourself to him since. Which is it,
him or me? Ye'll choose right here. Choose!"

Nick turned and looked at her with strained, anxious eyes. Ralph's face
belied his outward calm.

"An' what if Aim-sa loves neither?" the woman asked, with a laugh in
which there was no mirth, and some fear.

"Then she's lied."

Ralph's teeth shut with a snap.

Aim-sa looked from one to the other. She was beginning to understand,
and with understanding came a great dread. She longed to flee, but knew
that to do so would be impossible.

"Aim-sa loves both," she said at last.

There was a long, deathly silence. The brooding solitude of the wild was
never more pronounced than at that moment.

Then Ralph looked into the face of his brother, and Nick returned his
gaze.

"You hear?" said Ralph. "She is an Injun, I guess, an' don't know no
better. Maybe we'd best settle it for her."

"That's so."

Ralph threw off his buckskin shirt. Nick removed his heavy clothing.

"Stand aside, woman," said Ralph. "Ye'll wait by, an' your man'll claim
ye."

"Knives?" said Nick, through his clenched teeth.

"Knives."

And then again silence reigned.



CHAPTER X.

THE BATTLE IN THE WILD


The woman shrank back. The last trace of levity had vanished from her
eyes. Their blue depths gazed out upon the strange scene with horror and
dread. In that moment she understood the power she had wielded with
these two men, and a thrill of regret shook her frame. She saw in the
eyes of both the cruel purpose which was in their hearts. It was death
for one of them. Even in that moment of suspense, she found herself
speculating which of them it would be.

There was no sentiment in her thoughts. These two were nothing to her.
She would regret the death of either as she would regret the death of
any strong, healthy man; but that was all. Her horror was a natural
revulsion at the prospect of seeing death dealt out in the ruthless
manner that these men contemplated.

Just for one instant the desire to stay the combatants rose uppermost in
her mind. She stepped forward again and raised a protesting hand.

"Are you brothers or wolves of the forest that you'd kill each other? If
you fight for Aim-sa, she'll have neither of you."

Her words rang out clear and incisive. In her excitement she had
forgotten the halting phrases of the White Squaw, and spoke fluently
enough. Nick was ominously silent. Ralph answered her.

"Stand back, an' remember ye're the squaw of him as wins ye in fair
fight."

Then he cried out to his brother:

"Are ye ready?"

Nick made no audible reply. His face looked the words his lips did not
frame. He was ready, and the passion in him was more than willing. Once,
before he closed with his opponent, he glanced round at Aim-sa. It may
have been that he sought one look of encouragement, one smile; it may
have been. But the beautiful face he looked upon had no smile for
either. It was dead white under its tanning, and the blue eyes were
widely staring. Ralph did not take his eyes from his brother's face, and
the fierce light in them was as the gleam in the eyes of the timber-wolf
prowling at night around a camp-fire in the forest.

For a moment a heavy cloud spread itself over the face of the sun, and
the grey daylight of winter again covered the mountains. Instantly the
forest lost its look of spring, and the air returned to the chill of the
darker months. The bald break in the forest looked more cheerless than a
waste ground in a city, and those who stood about to fight for life
became savage images that looked something less than human. Nick, larger
than his brother, was a tower of thew and muscle. As he stood there,
clad in a cotton shirt and trousers belted at the waist, he was the
figure of a perfect man. His shaggy head was thrown back, but his
handsome face was distorted by its expression of hate. Ralph was the
smaller by inches, but his muscles were as fine-tempered steel. There
was even more of the wild in his expression than in that of his brother.
The ferocity in his face was wolfish, and not good to look upon.

Both had bared their hunting-blades, long knives at once vicious and
coldly significant.

There was no further word. The men bent low and moved circling round
each other. Their attitudes were much those of wrestlers seeking an
advantageous "holt." By common consent they avoided the tree, keeping to
the oozing soil of the open.

Ralph displayed the more activity. His lesser stature inclined to a
quickness his brother did not possess. He sought to use art to draw the
impetuosity of the other, and kept up a series of feints. But strangely
enough Nick displayed a control which was surprising. He had a full
appreciation of the life and death struggle. He had faced it too often
with the dumb adversaries of the forest. It was Ralph who became
incautious. His fury could not long be held in check, and his cunning at
the start of the fight soon gave place to a wild and slashing onslaught,
while Nick fought on the defensive, reading in his brother's eyes the
warning of every contemplated attack.

But Ralph's swift movements harassed Nick; they pressed him sorely, and
often drove him to extremity in his defence. For long he kept distance,
knowing that while the other was wasting strength his own was being
carefully husbanded.

Ten minutes passed. Still they had not come together. Ralph charged in
with upraised knife; the blow was warded, and he passed on only to swing
round on the instant and repeat the attack from the opposite direction.
But always Nick faced him, grim, determined, and with deadly purpose.
Once the latter slipped; the footing was none too secure. Instantly
Ralph hurled himself upon him and his blade scored his brother's arm,
leaving a trail of blood from elbow to wrist. That one touch let loose
Nick's pent-up fury and he allowed himself to be drawn.

The two came together with a terrific impact. Nick slipped again. This
time he could not save himself. His feet shot from under him and he went
down backwards. In his fall he seized Ralph's knife-arm at the wrist,
and the same time aimed a slashing blow at his face. But Ralph's agility
was as furious as it was full of force. In turn he caught Nick by the
wrist, and, with a great wrench, sought to dislocate his shoulder.

As well try to tear a limb from the parent oak. Ralph's effort died out,
and they lay upon the ground fighting to free their weapons. Now the
life and death struggle had begun. It was a hideous battle, silent,
ominous. But the horror of it lay, not in the deadly intent, the
flashing steel, the grim silence. These men were brothers; brothers
whose affection had stood them through years of solitary labours,
trials, and privations, but which had changed to a monstrous hatred
because a woman had come into their lives.

As the moments swept by, the brothers rolled and writhed, with every
faculty at terrible tension. Now Ralph was uppermost; now Nick sought to
drive the downward blow. Now Ralph strained to twist his knife-arm free
from the iron grip that held it; now Nick slashed vainly at the air,
seeking to sever the sinewy limb that threatened above his face.

It required only the smallest slip, the briefest relaxation of the
tense-drawn muscles on the part of either, and death awaited the
unfortunate. For long neither yielded one iota, but the struggle was too
fierce to last. Human strength has but narrow limits of endurance when
put forth to its uttermost. Given no slip, no accident, there could be
only one conclusion to the battle. Victory must inevitably be with the
man of superior muscle. Neither fought with a fine skill; for, used as
they both were to the knife, their antagonists of the forest only
possessed Nature's weapons, which left the hunter with the balance of
power.

Already the breathing of the combatants had become painfully heavy; but
while Ralph struggled with all the fierceness of his passion, and put
forth his whole strength, Nick reserved a latent force for the moment
when opportunity arrived. And that moment was nearing.

Ralph was under and Nick's great weight held him down, for the sinuous
struggles of the other had lost their vim. Suddenly, with a mighty
effort, the younger man wrenched his knife-arm free, and a cry, hoarse,
fierce, sounded deep in his throat. But his effort had cost him his hold
upon his brother. There was a wicked gleam of steel as both men struck.

Ralph, striking upwards, was at a disadvantage. His blade, aimed at the
neck and shoulder, struck Nick's cheek, laid the flesh open to the lower
jaw, glanced, and buried itself in the muscle of the shoulder. Nick's
blade smote with a fearful gash into the side of his brother's throat.

It was over.

Ralph lay quivering and silent upon the ground. Nick rose staggering and
dazed.

He moved away like a man in a dream. His arms hung limply at his sides,
and his eyes looked out across the wide woodland valley with an
uncomprehending stare. His face was almost unrecognizable under the flow
of blood from his wound. Once, as he stood, one hand went up
mechanically to his face, then it dropped again without having
accomplished its purpose. And all the while his vacant eyes stared out
upon--nothing.

Presently he sat down. His actions were almost like collapse, and he
remained where he sat, still, silent, like an image. The moments passed.
The quiet was intense. A faint murmur of flowing waters came up from the
river beyond.

Suddenly he moved. Then in a moment he seemed to break out into
passionate life. The stony stare had gone from his eyes. Intelligence
looked out; intelligence such as one might find in one whose mind is on
the verge of losing its balance; a fearful, anxious, hunted
intelligence, face to face with an unending horror.

He moved to where his brother was lying, and stood shaking in every
limb; he had realized the work of his hands. He dashed the blood from
his face. The vivid stain dyed his fingers and the touch of the warm
tide only seemed to add to his terror. He went up to the still form and
looked down. Then he backed away, slowly, step by step, but still unable
to withdraw his fascinated gaze.

Suddenly a cry broke from his lips. It was bitter, heartrending. Then a
quick word followed.

"Wher's--"

His question remained uncompleted. His head turned swiftly, and he
looked stupidly about him. The clearing was empty of all save himself
and that other lying upon the ground at his feet, and, beyond, the
carcass of the dead grizzly. A dreadful fear leapt to his brain; he
moved tottering. His action gained swiftness suddenly. He ran to the
forest edge, and, with hungry eyes, gazed in beyond the sparse fringe of
scrub. There was nothing there. He moved away to the right and ran in
amongst the low-growing bush, only to reappear with more feverish haste,
and eyes whose fiery glance seemed to shoot in every direction at once.
On he went, round the edge of the entire clearing; in and out, like some
madman running purposelessly in search of some phantasy of his brain.
There was no one there but himself, and the two still forms upon the
ground. Aim-sa was gone!

But he did not pause. His brain was in a tumult, there was no
reasoning in it. He searched everywhere. Bush that could conceal
nothing bigger than a beetle was examined; to his distorted fancy the
lightning-stricken tree presented a hiding-place. Further he
penetrated into the woods, but always only to return to his brother's
side, distraught, weary from loss of blood.

Gone! Aim-sa was gone!

At last he stood, an awesome figure, bloodstained, dishevelled. He was
at his brother's side as he had been a dozen times during his mad
search. It was as though he returned to the dead for company. But now,
at last, he moved away no more. He looked upon the pallid face and
staring, sightless eyes, and the red pool in which the body weltered.

There was a long pause, and the quiet set his pulses beating and his
ears drumming. Presently he turned away. But as by a magnet drawn, he
turned quickly again and his eyes once more rested upon his brother's
body. Then all in a moment a stifled cry broke from his lips, and,
throwing himself upon his knees, he thrust his arms about the dead.

Suffering as he was, he raised the body and nursed the almost severed
head. He muttered hoarsely, and his face was bent low till his own
dripping wound shed its sluggish tide to mingle with the blood of the
man he had slain.

Now, in his paroxysm of awful remorse, the woman was forgotten, and he
only realized the dread horror he had committed. He had slain his
brother! He was a murderer! For what?

At the thought he almost threw the body from him as he sprang to his
feet.

"No, no! not murder," he cried, in a choking voice. "It was fair fight."

Then, still looking down, he drew his foot back as though to kick the
stiffening clay. But the blow did not come, and, instead, he wrung his
hands at his sides like a child in distress. Harsh sobs broke tearless
from his lips; his breast heaved with inexpressible agony. Then he flung
himself face downwards upon the sodden earth, and his fingers dug into
the carpet of dead matter, clawing aimlessly.

The afternoon was well advanced when he moved again. He rose to his feet
without any warning, and the change in him was staggering. Now a gaunt,
grey-faced man looked out upon the world through eyes which burned with
the light of fever. His movements were slow, deliberate. Only his eyes
betrayed his condition, telling a tale of a strange new life born within
him.

He moved off into the woods, striking down the slope towards the river.
He was gone some time; and when he returned his face was cleaned, and a
bandage was tied about it. The wound in his shoulder was not severe.

He came none too soon, for, as he neared the clearing, he heard a
succession of deep-toned wolf-howls. As he broke the forest fringe, he
saw two great timber-wolves steal swiftly back to the depths whence they
had just emerged.

Nick cursed them under his breath. Then he went to his brother's side.
Here he paused, and, after a moment of mental struggle, stooped and
lifted the corpse upon his unwounded shoulder. Then with his gruesome
freight he plunged into the forest.

He held the body firmly but tenderly, and walked as rapidly as his
burden permitted. He often talked to himself as he went, like a man in
deep thought and stirred by violent emotions. Sometimes he slowed his
gait, and, at others, he almost ran. His thoughts influenced him
strangely.

Once he set his burden down and rested. The forest was getting dark
about him, but it suited his mood; it formed a background for his gloomy
thoughts. And, while he rested, he fell to talking as though Ralph were
living, and merely rested with him. He talked and answered himself, and,
later, leaned over his dead, crooning like some woman over her child.
The time passed. Again he rose, and once more shouldering the body, now
stiff and cold, hastened on.

And as the evening shadows gathered, and the forest gloom deepened,
there came the sound of movement about him. At intervals wolfish throats
were opened and the dismal forest cries echoed and reëchoed in the
hollow shadows.

His burden grew heavier. His mind suffered, and his nerves were tense as
the wires of a musical instrument. Every jolt found an echoing note upon
them, and each note so struck caused him exquisite pain. And now, too,
the wolves grew bolder; the scent of blood was in the air and taunted
their hungry bellies till they began to lose their fear of the man.

Nick stopped and looked about him. The evening shadows were fast closing
in. In the gloom he saw eyes looking out upon him, eyes in pairs, like
coals of fire surrounded by dark, lank, shadowy forms. One shadow stood
out more distinctly than the others, and he unslung his rifle and fired
pointblank at it. There was a howl of pain. Then followed several fierce
yelps, and stealing forms crowded thick and fast upon the creature that
had bitten the dust.

With a thrill of strange dread Nick shouldered his burden again and
proceeded on his way. His steps were no longer steady, but hurried and
uncertain. In his haste he frequently stumbled, but he was strong, and
he had a haunting fear of what lay behind him, and so he put forth a
great effort.

The twilight deepened; black shadows were everywhere about him. Hills
rose before him, and valleys sank away at his feet. His fancy now saw
the forest crowded with prying eyes. Every tree-trunk became a figure
which stood pointing and whispering words of denunciation. And as he
beheld this ghostly army of shadows his heart quailed, and the look in
his eyes grew more and more fevered. He lurched on under the cold,
clammy body without thought of his way, with nervous dews upon his
forehead, and shaking limbs.

The wolves still followed. Their cries, vicious, eager, came to him, and
he knew that the meal he had provided was devoured, and they hungered
yet, and thirsted for the blood they scented upon the air. He sped on,
staggering, and his mind grew dizzy. But he knew that he had entered his
valley, and beyond lay the dugout which henceforth was his alone.

His intolerable burden had worn him down. He feared it as he feared the
dark shadows of the woods, and the stealing forms which trailed behind
him. He longed to throw that which he carried to the ground and run
headlong to the shelter of his home. But something held him. It was as
if his brother's corpse were endowed with life, a ghostly life, and that
it clung with tenacious grip to the back of the living. And the thought
grew in his aching brain that he was no longer free to do as he chose,
but was being driven by the Thing he carried. At the river he bent to
rid himself of the corpse. He purposed to rest ere he bore it up the
last hill, but the stiff arms had somehow embraced his neck and clung to
him. With a cry of terror he moved forward at a run. Hard on his heels
came the loud-voiced throng of timber-wolves.

At last, ahead, he heard the yelping of his own dogs. The noise brought
him a measure of relief, for the speeding shadows behind dropped back
into the woods, and their voices faded away into the distance.

But the corpse clung, and its weight dragged him back; to his distorted
fancy the arms held his neck as in a vise. He gasped painfully as
imagination told him that he was being choked. A cold sweat poured down
his face and set him shivering, but, like one doomed to his task, he
sped on.

Now the open stretched before him and beyond lay the dugout. He saw his
dogs rushing to meet him; his five fierce huskies. They came welcoming;
then they paused uncertainly and grouped together in a cluster, and
their tone suddenly changed to the short-voiced yapping of fear. As he
came on he called them by name, seeking solace in their company and in
the sound of his own voice. But the only response the dogs made was to
move uneasily. Their bushy tails drooped and hung between their legs and
they turned back fearfully. Then they began to creep away, slinking in
furtive apprehension; then finally they broke into a headlong flight,
racing for home in a perfect madness of terror.

And so, with horror staring from his eyes, the man who had killed his
brother came to his home again.

Inside the hut he released himself from the icy embrace of the dead
man's arms, and laid the poor, cold clay upon the blankets which had
been spread for the return of Aim-sa. While he stood brooding over the
corpse a sound reached him from, behind. Turning he saw that he had left
the door open, and in the opening he beheld the crowding forms of his
dogs. They stood snarling fiercely, with bristling manes, their
narrow-set eyes gleaming in the dusk like sparks of baleful light.

The sight set him shuddering. Then something seemed to stir within him.
His heart felt like stone in his body. A coldness seemed to freeze his
blood one minute, and the next in a rush came a wave of fiery passion
which drove him to unthinking action. The veins in his head seemed to be
bursting, and his brain felt as though gripped in a vise.

Out whipped his revolver, and six chambers were emptied at the figures
which barred the doorway. A hubbub of howls followed, then, in a moment,
all became quiet. Now the doorway stood clear; the creatures had
vanished--all but two. And these lay where they had fallen.

Suddenly a harsh laugh broke the stillness. But though the laugh was
his, Nick's lips were unsmiling and his eyes gleamed furiously out into
the night.



CHAPTER XI.

THE GATHERING OF THE FOREST LEGIONS


Nick kicked the bodies of the two dogs from the doorway. Then, by force
of habit, he kindled a fire in the stove, though he had no thought or
desire for warmth. His action was mechanical and unheeding. Then he sat
down; and, as he sat, he heard the howling of the dogs as, in chorus,
they mourned their dead companions.

As the noise continued the man's nerves vibrated with the hideous dole.
It rose and fell, in mournful cadence, until he could stand it no
longer. So he rose and reloaded his revolver. The action brought him
relief. It did more: it brought him a feeling akin to joy. And he passed
out into the night.

Forceful action alone could serve him. His dread, the torture of heart
and brain, found relief in the thought of taking life. A lust for
slaughter was upon him.

He closed the door behind him, and, from the storm porch, peered out
beyond. The moon had just risen above the ghostly mountain peak, and its
deep, yellow light shone down over the gleaming crests in long shafts of
dull fire. Twenty yards away, the three huskies were squatting upon the
ground facing each other, as might their blood relations, the
timber-wolves. Their long, sharp muzzles were thrown up towards the
starlit heavens, and their voices trolled drearily from their cavernous
throats, thrilling the air and arousing the mountain echoes.

For a second there was a gleam of light in the darkness of the porch as
the moon's rays caught the burnished metal of the man's revolver. Then
three shots rang sharply out. Three hideous voices were instantly
hushed; three bodies rolled over, falling almost side by side. The
labour of the trace would know the huskies no more.

But the man's passion was only rising. He reentered the hut, thrilled
with a strange wild joy. A fierceness leapt within him as he seated
himself beside the stove and gazed over at the still form of his
brother. And up out of the forest came the yelp of famished wolf and
starving coyote.

The hunched figure made no move.

Wild thoughts surged through his brain, thoughts which had no sequence,
no continuity. He had not eaten the whole day, and though food was now
to his hand he heeded it not. He was exhausted and utterly weary of
body. But he sought no rest. He was living upon the vitality of his poor
strained brain, sapping the tide of reason which flowed none too surely.

The time passed.

The cries of the wolves gathered force and drew nearer. The scent of
blood was in the air. That night they were very bold. With muzzles
thrown up they snuffed at the scent they loved, and came with licking
lips and frothing jowls, fighting fiercely among themselves.

Nick stirred at last.

He rose and took his rifle. His cartridge-belt was still about his
waist. Again he passed out into the night. In the shadow of the porch he
stood again, and gazed upon the moonlit scene. Down the hill was the
darkness of the forest, giving the appearance of an unfathomable pit.
Above rose its sides, shimmering in the cold moonlight. Above the forest
line the eternal snows glinted like burnished steel, for the yellow rays
of the rising moon had given place to the silvery gleam of its maturity.
The diamond-studded sky had nothing of darkness in it; a grey light, the
sheen of the star myriads too minute to be visible to the naked eye,
shone down upon the earth, and the still air had the sharp snap of the
spring frost in it. Nick was oblivious to all but the forest cries and
the crowd of stealing forms moving from the woodland shelter, and
circling upward, ever nearer and nearer towards the feast which lay
spread out within sight of their cruel eyes.

Nearer they drew, lean, scraggy, but withal large beasts. And as they
came they often paused to send their dismal song out upon the air. Then
there was a scuffle, a wicked clipping of keen fangs. Instantly the
crowd packed about a fallen comrade. Then later they would scatter and
continue their advance in a sort of rude skirmishing order. The man's
rifle was at his shoulder; a tongue of flame leapt from its muzzle, and
its report rang out bitingly. The foremost wolf fell to the earth, and
the ravenous horde behind leapt to the banquet thus provided.

Again and again the rifle spoke its sharp-voiced command, and death
followed hard upon its word. At every shot a wolf went down, and the
madness rose in the brain behind the eyes that looked out from the
porch. Nick's craving for slaughter increased. He emptied his belt and
obtained a fresh supply of ammunition, and continued to wage his
fiendish warfare. And all the time wolves poured out from the woods
until it seemed as if the whole race had gathered in one vast army to
assail the little stronghold set high upon the hillside. It was as
though Ralph's death had been the signal for the gathering of the forest
creatures to avenge him.

And fierce and long the carnage continued. The fearsome pastime was one
to thrill the most hardened with horror. The still night air was filled
with a nauseating reek, whilst the echoes gave back the death-cries,
mingling with the deep-toned bayings of ferocious joy. But never for one
instant did the man relax his watchfulness. Never once did his rifle
cease its biting greeting to the relentless scavengers of the forest.
Short and sharp its words leapt forth, and every word meant death.

The moon passed its meridian and sank lower and lower towards the
western peaks; and as it lost power the stars shone more brilliantly and
the northern lights hovered in the sky, dancing their fantastic measure
slowly, solemnly. The tint of dawn stole gradually above the eastern
horizon. The man was still at his post, his unsleeping eyes ever
watchful. Longer intervals now elapsed between his deadly shots. The
wolves recognized the coming of daylight, and became more chary of
breaking cover. Besides, the banquet was nearly over and every guest was
gorged.

Dawn grew apace. The silver of the eastern sky changed to gold, deeper
and deeper, till the yellow merged into a roseate sheen which shone down
upon the cloud mists, and tinged them with the hue of blood. Light was
over the darkling forests, and as it brightened the voice of the forest
legions died away in the distance, and the battleground was deserted of
all but the author of the fearful carnage.

Nick waited in his shelter until the last cry had passed. Then he
reluctantly turned back into the hut. He sought no rest. His fevered
brain was in a tumult. For a long time he stood beside his brother's
corpse, while his mind struggled to regain something of its lost
balance. There came to him a hazy recollection of all that had gone
before. It was as though he stood viewing the past from some
incalculable distance. Events passed phantasmagorically before his
memory, yet always their meaning seemed to tantalize and elude him.

And while he stood thus the woman leapt into the foreground of his
mental picture. It was the tangible feature he needed upon which he
could link the chain of recollection. Now everything became more clear.
Now the meaning of his brother's dead body returned to him once more. He
remembered all that had happened. His love for Aim-sa arose paramount
out of the shadowed recesses of his deranged mind, and merged into that
other passion which had gripped him the night long.

Nor was there pity nor penitence in his mood. Remorse had passed from
him. Now there was no one to stand between him and his love. He was glad
that Ralph was dead. Suddenly, as he stood looking down upon the still
form, a harsh laugh broke from him and echoed through the stillness of
the room.

He moved away and replenished the stove; and then, returning, he wrapped
his brother in the blankets on which he lay. Moving the blanket-wrapped
body aside, he exposed the floor where the treasure had been buried.
Suddenly he brushed his tangled hair aside from his forehead. A sigh,
which was almost a gasp, escaped him. His lips moved, and he muttered
audibly:

"Ay, she'll come to me agin, I guess, same as she's done before. Yes,
an' it's all hers, 'cause it's all mine now. By Gar! ther's a deal
ther'--a mighty deal. An' it's ours. Hers an' mine."

Again he passed a hand across his forehead, and his action was
uncertain, as of a man who finds it difficult to think, and having
thought fails to obtain reassurance. He passed out of the hut, and
presently returned with a shovel and pick.

Now the hut resounded with the dull thud of the pick as it was driven
deep into the hard-trodden earth. There was a feverish haste and
unnecessary energy in the manner of his work. At first what he intended
was not quite clear. He seemed to be digging at random. Then he laid his
pick aside and plied the shovel, and gradually his purpose became plain.
A long, narrow trench was cleared, and its outline was that of a grave.
Again the pick was set to work, and again the shovel cleared the débris.
The ground was hard with the years of tramping it had endured, and it
took a long time to dig to a sufficient depth. But at last the grave was
completed.

Nick seized the body in its blanket shroud and flung it into the hole.
There was neither pause nor hesitancy in anything he did, only his eyes
peered furtively about. As the first part of the burial was
accomplished, a panic seized him and he shovelled the soil back as
though his life depended on his speed. He packed the dry clay down with
his feet; nor did he rest till the grave was filled to the top.

Then he paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. The tension of his
nerves was slightly relaxed. He went outside the hut to drink in a deep
breath of the purer mountain air before he proceeded further. And while
he stood leaning against the doorway he listened as though expecting the
sound of some one approaching. He scanned the outlook carefully, but
there was no sign of living creature about. The wolves had gone as
surely as if their visit had been a ghostly hallucination which daylight
had dispelled.

He returned to his labours with his spirit more easy and his brain less
fevered. He thought of Aim-sa and that which he meant to bestow upon
her.

Near by where he had buried his brother's body was the spot where the
treasure had been placed for safety. Here he began to dig. The work was
easy. The soil was light and loose, and gave beneath the sharp edge of
the shovel. He cleared several shovelfuls out, and then stooped to rake
for the chest with his fingers. He knew that it had been buried only a
few inches below the surface. He raked long and diligently, but,
wherever he tried it, the earth gave beneath the pressure of his strong
fingers, nor yielded up any indication of the chest. He rose and
resorted once more to the shovel, and a look of disquiet stole into his
face. He opened a wider surface, thinking he had missed the spot. He dug
deeper, but no chest appeared, and his look changed to one of absolute
fear.

Again he raked, but without result. Again he dug, but now deeper and
deeper. Still there was no chest, and as he widened the hole he found
himself working upon the hard soil which had never before been
disturbed. An awful fear gripped him. He sought out the spot where the
soil was easy. He knew that this was where he had buried the chest. His
actions became hurried and more and more energetic. He dug furiously,
scattering the earth wildly in his alarm, and all the time conviction
was forcing itself upon him, and he muttered as he worked.

But all his efforts were in vain, and, after an hour's fruitless search,
he flung down the shovel with a bitter cry. Then he stood gazing blankly
before him with eyes that seemed to scorch in his head. His face
twitched, and his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. Then his
lips parted and he gasped rather than spoke.

"It's gone!"

The veins at his temples beat visibly. In his ears was a sound as of
rushing waters. He saw nothing. He scarcely knew where he was, only he
was conscious of something in his head which was strained to the verge
of breaking. When, at last, movement came to him, every nerve in his
body seemed to draw up with a jolt, and a cry, like the roar of a
maddened bull, burst from his quivering lips. He rushed headlong from
the hut.

Out into the glittering daylight he went, heedless of his course,
heedless of his surroundings. He rushed down the hill and plunged into
the woods. On he went, without pause, without hesitation, blindly,
madly. On, on, running, stumbling, slipping upon the sodden earth,
tripping over projecting roots and rotting stumps.

His mind was a blank. He saw, but comprehended not; he felt, but the
sense had no meaning. He heard with clarion-like distinctness, but that
which he heard sang upon his ear-drums and penetrated no further. His
way was the way of the blindfold, his staring eyes beheld nothing real;
he saw the name of Aim-sa blazing in letters of fire before him, and a
hazy picture of her lovely face. All recollection of his loss had
suddenly passed from him, utterly blotted out of his thought as though
he had never known it. He knew not that he had ever had a brother whose
death had been the work of his own hand. The hut behind him might never
have existed, the forest about him might have been the open prairie, the
sodden ground a carpet of fine texture, the snow-covered clearings dusty
plains; he knew nothing, nothing. He moved, ran, walked; he was a living
organism without a governing power of mind.

Noon came. The silent forest looked down upon his frenzied progress. The
trees nodded gently in the breeze, whispering solemnly to each other in
their pitying tones. Owls watched him with staring, unmeaning eyes; deer
fled as he came rushing into the calm of their sylvan retreats. A
grizzly stood erect as he passed, meditating a protest at the strange
disturbance, but remained staring in amazement as the wild human figure
went by, oblivious and unheeding.

The afternoon saw him still struggling, but now wearily, and in a state
of collapse. His headlong course had taken the inevitable turn. He had
swung round in a great circle, and was heading again for the hillside
where the dugout stood. Now he often fell as he went, for his feet
lagged and caught in every unevenness of the ground. Once he lay where
he fell, and remained so long motionless that it seemed as if he would
rise no more. But as the afternoon waned and the evening shadows
gathered, there came the wild cries of the wolves from somewhere close
behind. Though he felt no fear of them, he staggered to his feet and
dragged wearily on towards the hut. It was the forest instinct obeyed
mechanically.

He came to the hut; he passed the door. Again it was habit that guided
him. He kept on, and went round to the door of the lean-to. It stood
wide open and he plunged within, and fell headlong upon his blankets.
Nor did he stir again; only there came the sound of his stertorous
breathing to indicate that he slept.

Black night closed down. The forest cries awoke and their chorus rang
out as the moon mounted in the heavens. The wolfish legions hovered at
the edge of the woods and snuffed hungrily at the air. But the scent of
blood had passed, and they came not too near.

Nick's slumber of exhaustion was haunted by painful, incoherent dreams.
With the curious freakishness of a disordered mind, he was beset by a
vision of the dark, ferret face of Victor Gagnon. The trader seemed to
be hovering threateningly over his rude couch, and, behind him, less
distinct, but always recognizable, was the fair Aim-sa. The whole night
the sleeper was depressed by some dreadful threat which centred about
the vision of these two, and when at length he awoke it was with the
effect of his dreams hard upon him.

The fair fresh daylight was streaming in through the open door. Nick
roused himself. He turned uneasily, shivering with the cold, for he had
slept where he had fallen. Suddenly he sat up. Then with a leap he was
on his feet and wide-awake, and the name of Victor Gagnon fell from his
lips. A frenzied, unreasoning desire to take the trader's life possessed
him.

His body was refreshed and the blank of memory had passed from him. A
gleam of reason shot athwart the racked brain. It was only for an
instant, then it was gone again. But that instant sufficed. He
remembered that Gagnon knew of the treasure, the only person except
himself who knew of it. Victor had robbed him. A wild laughter shook
him. Ay, that was it. Victor was the thief; he should die. After
that--Aim-sa.

His untutored brain had broken under the strain of recent events. Horror
had driven him to the verge of the abyss in the depths of which lurked
insanity; his final loss had plunged him headlong down. He was mad!



CHAPTER XII.

WHERE THE LAWS OF MIGHT ALONE PREVAIL


Two men occupied the back room of Victor Gagnon's store. The proprietor,
small, alert, with eye and brain working swiftly, and an expression on
his dark face indicating the angry nature of his thoughts. He was
sitting with his feet on the stove rail and his hands spread out to the
warmth. The other man was beside the parchment-covered window. He was
immensely tall, and was clad in grey wolfskin from head to foot. His
broad shoulders were broadened by the fur covering till he looked a
giant. He had just thrown back a cavernous hood from his head, and it
now hung down his back. His fur cap was removed, thus displaying a
coarse mane of long black hair, and a face as sombre and strong as the
world to which he belonged.

The room was untidy. The bed stood at one end, and the tumbled blankets
upon it looked as though they had not been straightened for weeks. A
small table supported the remains of a frugal meal and the floor about
it was littered with food and crumbs. Everywhere were signs of
half-breed slovenliness.

For some moments silence had reigned. The North, that Land of Silence,
makes men sparing of words, and even women only talk when it is
necessary. Just now, there was that between these two men which held
every thought to the main issue.

Victor's attention was for the moment upon a rough-hewn chest which was
standing on the floor at the big man's feet.

"An' why didn't she come right along with you?"

"Mebbe cos she's smarter nor any o' us; mebbe cos I jest didn't want her
to. There's somethin' 'tween you an' me, Victor, that needs some
parley."

The big man spoke quite calmly, but his very calmness was portentous.

"Smarter?" said Victor contemptuously, ignoring the latter part of the
other's remark.

"That's what I said," went on the giant, in dispassionate tones. "Davia
reckoned as it wa'n't jest safe to light right out lest them fellers
found they'd been robbed o' their wad. She's stayin' around to put 'em
off'n the trail. They're dead sweet on her an' ain't likely to 'spect
who's got the stuff while she's around."

Victor nodded approvingly. His face was less angry. He knew Davia would
serve him well. A silence fell again. The stove roared under the forced
draught of the damper. Then the big man spoke as though he had not
broken off.

"But that ain't on'y the reason, I guess. I wanted her to stay. You an'
me are goin' to talk, Victor Gagnon."

The trader glanced angrily at the man with the hood.

"See here, Jean Leblaude, you allus had a crank in yer head, an' I don't
cotton to cranks anyhow."

"But you'll cotton to this," replied Jean drily.

"Eh?"

"It's nigh on to three year since you an' sister Davi' took on
together," he went on, ignoring the interruption, and speaking with
great feeling. "Guess you said as you'd marry her when you was
independent o' the company. It was allus the company. Didn't want no
married traders on their books. An' you hadn't no cash pappy. That's how
you sed. Mebbe it's different now. Wal? When are you goin' to make her a
de--your wife?"

There was a look in Jean's eyes that brooked no denial or evasion. He
had driven straight to the point, nor was there any likelihood of his
drawing back.

"You're pretty rough," said Victor, with an unpleasant laugh. He was
inwardly raging, but, like all men of no great moral strength, feared
the direct challenge of the other.

"We ain't polished folk hereabouts," retorted Jean. "We've played the
dirty game o' the White Squaw for you' clear out. Davi's most as dead
sick of it as me, but wher' she went into it fer a frolic an' to please
you, I had my notions, I guess. I come clear away down from Peace River
nigh on two summers ago jest fer to see that you acted squar' by that
misguided girl. An' that's why I done all your dirty work in this White
Squaw racket. Now we've got the boodle you're goin' to hitch up wi'
Davi', or--"

"Or--what?" broke in Victor contemptuously.

"Or not one blazin' cent o' the stuff in this chest'll you touch."

Victor sprang from his seat and his eyes shone furiously.

"You--you--" But his fury was baffled by the solemn, determined stare of
the other. A moment more and he dropped back in his seat.

Then the great Jean lowered his eyes to the hewn chest upon the floor.
The lid had been forced open and the bags of gold dust, so carefully
arranged by the Westleys, were displayed within. Presently he looked
back at the angry figure bending towards the stove.

"Guess I'll git blankets out o' your store," he said.

Victor remained rapt in moody silence.

"Ther' ain't room fer two to sleep comfort'ble in that bed o' yourn," he
added significantly, as the other showed no inclination to speak.

At last Victor looked up and the dark half-breed blood slowly mounted
and flushed his narrow face.

"You're goin' to stop here--wher' the stuff is?"

"I guess."

The trader looked long into the cavernous moose-eyes of the Hooded Man
while he choked down the rage which consumed him. He knew that he was a
prisoner in his own store. Resistance would be utterly useless against
such a man as Jean Leblaude.

In his scheme for obtaining wealth Victor had omitted to take into
consideration one of the great factors of a life of wrong-doing. A man
may not engage in crime with those whom he has wronged.

Victor had sought to obtain good service, forgetting the manner in which
he had treated the sister of Jean. The ways of the half-breed are loose
in the matter of morals. Davia, he knew, loved him. She was a strong,
passionate woman, therefore he had not bothered about Jean. That Jean
could possibly have scruples or feelings, had never entered his head.
Davia had given her love, then what business of her brother's was the
manner in which he, Victor, chose to accept it? This is how he argued
when he fully realized the position in which he had thrust himself. But
his argument went no further.

Jean was a man strong and purposeful. He had waited long for such an
opportunity, and he was not the one to forego his advantage without
enforcing his will. If Victor wanted his share of the proceeds of the
robbery he must fulfil the promise, which, in a passionate moment, he
had bestowed. Davia was as clay in his hands. Jean was different. He was
possessed of all the cunning of the half-breed nature, but, looked at
from a half-breed point of view, he was a good man, an honest man. A
half-breed will shoot an enemy down in his tracks, while yet he is a
good father and husband, or a dutiful son. He is a man of much badness
and some good. Jean was a little above the average. Possibly it was
because his affections were centred upon but one creature in the world,
his sister Davia, that he felt strongly in her cause. He knew that, at
last, he held Victor in a powerful grip, and he did not intend to relax
it.

Jean was as good as his word and took up his abode in Victor's store.
Nor would he permit the removal of the treasure under any pretext. This
brother of Davia's understood the trader; he did not watch him; it was
the chest that contained the money that occupied his vigilance.

Victor was resourceful and imaginative, but the stolid purpose of the
other defied his best schemes. He meant to get away with the money, but
the bulldog watchfulness of Jean gave him no opportunity. He was held
prisoner by his greed, and it seemed as if, in the end, he would be
forced to bend to the other's will.

And no word came from Davia. No word that could cause alarm, or tell
them of the dire tragedy being enacted in the mountains. And the two
men, one for ever scheming and the other watching, passed their time in
moody silence.

It was the third day after the foregoing events had taken place, and
midday. Victor was in the store standing in the doorway gazing out
across the mighty foothills which stretched far as the eyes could reach
to the east. He was thinking, casting about in his mind for a means of
getting away with the money. Jean was at his post in the inner room.

It was an unbeautiful time of the year. The passing of winter in snow
regions is like the moulting season of fowls, or the season when the
furred world sheds its coat. The dazzling whiteness of the earth is
superseded by a dirty drab-grey. The snow lasts long, but its hue is
utterly changed. And now Victor was looking out upon a scene that was
wholly dispiriting to the mind used to the brilliancy of the northern
winter.

The trader's thoughts were moving along out over the stretch of country
before him, for in that southeastern direction lay the town of Edmonton,
which was his goal. It would be less than a fortnight before the melting
snow would practically inundate the land, therefore what he had to do
must be done at once. And still no feasible scheme presented itself.

He moved impatiently and a muttered curse escaped him. He asked himself
the question again and again while his keen, restless eyes moved eagerly
over the scene before him. He took a chew of tobacco and rolled it about
in his mouth with the nervous movement of a man beset. He could hear
Jean moving heavily about the room behind him, and he wondered what he
was doing. But he did not turn to see.

Once let him get upon the trail with the "stuff," and Jean and his
sister could go hang. They would never get him, he told himself. He had
not lived in these latitudes for five and twenty years for nothing. But
he ever came back to the pitiful admission that he was not yet on the
trail, nor had he got the treasure. And time was passing.

Suddenly his eyes settled themselves upon a distant spot beyond the
creek. Something had caught his attention, and that something was
moving. The sounds of Jean's lumbering movements continued. Victor no
longer heeded them. His attention was fixed upon that movement on the
distant slope.

And gradually his brow lightened and something akin to a smile spread
over his features. Then he moved back to his counter, and, procuring a
small calendar, glanced hastily at the date. His look of satisfaction
deepened, and his smile became one of triumph. Surely the devil was with
him. Here, in the blackest moment of his despair, was the means he had
sought. Yonder moving object was the laden dog-train coming up from
Edmonton, with his half-yearly supplies. Now he would see whose wits
were the sharpest, his or those of the pig-headed Jean, the man who had
dared to dictate to Victor Gagnon. The trader laughed silently.

Gagnon's plan had come to him in a flash. The moment he had recognized
that the company's dog-train was approaching he had realized the
timeliness of its coming. It would be at his door within an hour and a
half.

Jean's voice calling him broke in upon his meditations. He was about to
pass the summons by unheeded. Then he altered his mind. Better not force
his gaoler to seek him. His eyes might see what he had seen, and his
suspicions might be aroused if he thought that he, Victor, had seen the
dog-train coming and had said nothing. So he turned and obeyed the call
with every appearance of reluctance.

Jean eyed his prisoner coldly as he drew up beside him.

"Wal, I've waited fer you to say as ye'll marry Davi', an' ye ain't had
the savvee to wag yer tongue right, I'm goin' to quit. The snow's goin'
fast. They dogs o' mine is gettin saft fer want o' work. I'm goin' to
light right out o' here, Victor, an' the boodle's goin' wi' me."

Jean was the picture of strong, unimaginative purpose. But Victor had
that in his mind which made him bold.

"Ye've held me prisoner, Jean. Ye've played the skunk. Guess you ain't
goin' now. Neither is my share o' the contents o' that chest. Savvee? If
ye think o' moving that wad we're goin' to scrap. I ain't no coyote."

Jean thought for awhile. His lean face displayed no emotion. His giant
figure dwarfed the trader almost to nothing, but he seemed to weigh the
situation well before he committed himself.

At last he grunted, which was his way of announcing that his decision
was taken.

"I'll have they dogs hitched this afternoon," he said slowly, and with
meaning.

"An' I'll set right here by the door," said Gagnon. "Guess the door'll
let you pass, but it ain't big enough fer the chest to git through."

Victor sat himself down as he said and deliberately pulled out a large
revolver. This he laid across his lap. And then the two men eyed each
other. Jean was in no way taken aback. In fact nothing seemed to put him
out of his deliberate manner. He allowed the challenge to pass and went
out. But he returned almost immediately and thrust his head in through
the doorway.

"Ther' won't be no need fer scrappin' yet awhile," he said. "I 'lows
I've changed my way o' thinkin'. The company's dog-train is comin' up
the valley, I guess. When they've gone, we'll see."

And Victor smiled to himself when the giant had once more departed. Then
he put his pistol away.

"Wal, that's settled," he said to himself. "The boodle stops right here.
Now we'll see, Jean Leblaude, who's runnin' this layout. Ther's whiskey
aboard that train. Mebbe you ain't like to fergit that. You'll taste
sure. As ye jest sed, 'we'll see.'"

The trader knew his man. The great Jean had all the half-breed's
weaknesses as well as a more than usual supply of their better
qualities. Sober he was more than dangerous, now that he had shown his
real intentions, for he was a man not likely to be turned from his
purpose. But Victor knew his fondness for drink, and herein lay the
kernel of his plan. With him it was a case of now or never. He must
throw everything to the winds for that money, or be burdened with a wife
he did not want, and a brother-in-law he wanted less, with only a third
of that which his greedy heart thirsted for. No, he would measure swords
with Jean, and though his blade was less stout than that of the stolid
giant he relied upon its superior keenness and lightness. He meant to
win.

The company's dog-train came up. Two sleds, each hauled by ten great
huskies. They were laden down with merchandise: groceries, blankets,
implements, medicines and a supply of spirits, for medicinal purposes
only. Just the usual freight which comes to every trader in the wild.
Such stuff as trappers and Indians need and are willing to take in part
payment for their furs. But Victor only cared for the supply of spirits
just then. He paid unusual attention, however, to the condition of the
dogs.

The train was escorted by two half-breeds, one driving each sled. These
were experienced hands, servants who had grown old in the service of the
company. Men whose responsibility began when they hit the trail, and
ceased when they arrived at their destination.

Pierre was a grizzled veteran, and his was the charge of the journey.
Ambrose was his assistant. Victor understood these men, and made no
delay in displaying his hospitality when the work of unloading was
completed. A ten-gallon keg of Hudson's Bay Rum was part of the
consignment, and this was tapped at once by the wily trader.

The four men were gathered in the back room of the store when Victor
turned on the tap and the thick brown stream gurgled forth from the
cask. He poured out a tot for each of the train drivers. Then he stood
uncertainly and looked over at Jean. The latter had seated himself over
against the stove and appeared to take little interest in what was going
on. Victor stood with one foot tapping the floor impatiently. He had
been quick to notice that Jean's great eyes had stolen in the direction
of the little oaken keg. At last he threw the tin beaker aside as if in
disgust. He played his part consummately.

"'Tain't no go, boys. I'm not drinkin'. Thet's what. Look at him," he
cried, pointing at Jean. "We've had words, I guess. Him an' me, an' he's
that riled as he don't notion suppin' good thick rum wi' us. Wal, I
guess it'll keep, what you boys can't do in. Ther's the pannikin, ther's
the keg. Jest help yourselves, lads, when you fancy. I ain't tastin'
with bad blood runnin' in this shack."

"What, no drink?" cried old Pierre, his face beaming with oily
geniality. "Dis no lak ole time, Victor. What's de fuss? Mebbe I tink
right. Squaw, Vic, squaw."

The old boy chuckled heartily at his pleasantry. He was a
French-Canadian half-breed and spoke with a strong foreign accent.
Ambrose joined in the laugh.

"Ho, Jean, man," cried the latter. "No bad blood, I'm guessin'. Ther's
good thick rum, lad, an' I mind you're a'mighty partial most gener'ly."

Victor had started the ball rolling, and he knew that neither Pierre nor
Ambrose were likely to let it rest until they had had all the rum they
wanted. Everything had been made snug for the night so they only had
their own pleasure to consider. As Ambrose's challenge fell upon his
ears Jean looked up. His eyes were very bright and they rested longingly
upon the keg on their way to the driver's face. He shook his head, but
there was not much decision in the movement.

Pierre seeing the action stepped up to him and shook a warning finger in
his face.

"Hey, you, Jean-le-gros, pig-head. We come lak Hell, four hundred mile
to see you. We bring you drink, everyting. You not say 'How.' We not
welcome. Bah, I spit! In my Quebec we lak our frien's to come. We treat.
All is theirs. Bah, I spit again."

Jean looked slightly abashed. Then Ambrose chimed in.

"Out of the durned way, froggy," he said, swinging Pierre aside by the
shoulder, "you don't understand our ways, I guess. Ther' ain't no
slobberin' wi' white folk. Here you, Vic, hold out yer hand, man, and
shake wi' Jean. We're goin' to hev a time to-night, or I'll quit the
road for ever."

Victor shrugged. Then he picked up a pannikin and filled it with rum. He
held it out in his left hand towards Jean while he offered his right in
token of friendship. Jean eyed the outstretched hand. Then he looked at
the rum, and the insidious odour filled his nostrils. The temptation was
too great, as Victor knew it would be, for him. He thrust one great hand
into the trader's and the two men shook; then he took the drink and
gulped it down.

The armistice was declared, and Victor, in imagination, already saw the
treasure his.

Now the pannikin passed round merrily. The room reeked with the pungent
odour of the spirit and all was apparently harmonious. Victor resigned
his post as dispenser of liquor to Ambrose, and began his series of
stock entertainments. He drank as little as possible himself, though he
could not openly shirk his drink, and he always kept one eye upon Jean
to see that he was well supplied; and so the time slipped by.

After the first taste Jean became a different man; he laughed and jested
in his slow, coarse fashion, and, with him, all seemed good-fellowship.
Pierre and Ambrose soon began to get drunk and Victor's voice, as he
sang, was mostly drowned by the rolling tones of these hoary-headed old
sinners as they droned out the choruses of his songs.

Now, as the merriment waxed, Victor was able to shirk his drink
deliberately. Jean seemed insatiable, and soon his great body swayed in
a most drunken fashion, and he clung to his seat as if fearing to trust
his legs. He joined in every chorus and never lost an opportunity of
addressing Victor in terms of deepest friendliness. And in every pause
in the noise he seized upon the chance to burst out into some wild ditty
of his own. Victor watched with cat-like vigilance, and what he saw
pleased him mightily. Jean was drunk. And he would see to it that before
he had done the giant would be hopelessly so.

Evening came on. Ambrose was the first to collapse. The others laughed
and left him to his deep dreamless slumber upon the floor. Victor was
wearied of it all, but he knew he must see the game out. Jean's eyelids
were drooping heavily, and he, too, seemed on the verge of collapse.
Only old Pierre, hardened to the ways of his life, flagged not. Suddenly
the Frenchman saw Jean's head droop forward. In a moment he was on his
unsteady legs and filling a pannikin to the brim. He laughed as he drew
Victor's attention, and the latter nodded approval. Then he put it to
the giant's lips. The big man supped a little of it, then, his head
falling further forward, he upset the pannikin, and the contents poured
upon the earthen floor. At the same time, as though utterly helpless, he
rolled off his seat and fell to the ground, snoring heavily. Pierre
shouted his delight. Only Victor and he were left. They knew how to take
their liquor, the old hands. His pride of achievement was great. He
would see Victor under the table, too, he told himself. He stood over
the trader while the latter drank a bumper. Then he, himself, drank to
the dregs. It was the last straw. He swayed and lurched to the outer
door. There he stood for a moment, then the cold night air did for him
what the rum had been powerless to do. Without warning he fell in a heap
upon the doorstep as unconscious as though he had been struck dead.

Victor alone kept his head.

The trader rose from his seat and stretched himself. Then, stealthily,
he went the round of the prostrate men. He shook Ambrose, but could not
wake him. Jean he stood over for awhile and silently watched the stern
face. There was not a shade of consciousness in its expression. He bent
down and touched him. Still no movement. He shook him gently, then more
roughly. He was like a log. Victor grinned with a fiendish leer.

"Guess he's fixed," he muttered.

Then he went out into the store and came to the door where old Pierre
had fallen. The Frenchman was no better than the others.

"Good! By Gar, Jean, my friend, I've done you," he said to himself, as,
reassured, he went back to the inner room. He was none too steady
himself, but he had all his wits about him. The chest was near the bed.
He picked it up and opened it. The treasure was there safe enough. He
closed the lid and took it up in his arms, and passed out of the store.
Nor did he look back. He was anxious to be gone.

It was the chance of his lifetime, he told himself, as he hastened to
deposit the chest in the sled. Now he set about obtaining his blankets
and provisions. His journey would be an arduous one, and nobody knew
better than he the barrenness of that Northwestern land while the icy
grip of winter still clings. A large quantity of the food stuffs which
had only arrived that day was returned to the sled, and some of the new
blankets. Then he shipped a rifle and ammunition.

Now was the trader to be seen in his true light. Here was emergency,
when all veneer fell from him as the green coat of summer falls from the
trees at the first breath of winter. His haste was not the swift
movements of a man whose nerve is steady. He knew that he had at least
twelve hours before any one of the three men were likely to awaken from
their drunken stupor. And yet he feared. Nor did he know what he feared.
And his nerves made him savage as he handled the dogs. They were living
creatures and could feel, so he wantonly belted them with a club lest
they should hesitate to obey their new master. The great wolfish
creatures had more courage than he had; they took the unjust treatment
without open complaint, as is the way of the husky, tacitly resenting it
and eying with fierce, contemptuous eyes the cowardly wretch who so
treated them. They slunk slowly and with down-drooped tails and
bristling manes into their places in the traces, and stood ready for the
word to pull. Victor surveyed them with little satisfaction, for now
that all was ready to march he was beset with moral apprehensions.

He could not throw off his dread. It may have been that he feared that
bleak four hundred mile journey. It may have been the loneliness which
he contemplated. It may have been that he recollected the time when
those whom he had robbed had saved him from the storm, away back there
in the heart of the mountains. He shivered, and started at every
night-sound that broke the stillness.

The lead dog lay down in the sloppy snow. Victor flew into a passion,
and, running forward, dealt the poor brute a kick that would have been
sufficient to break an ordinary dog's ribs. With a wicked snarl the
beast rose solemnly to its feet. Suddenly its wolf-ears pricked and it
stared out keenly ahead. The man looked too. It seemed to him that he
had heard the sound of some one walking. He gazed long and earnestly out
into the darkness, but all seemed quite still. He looked at the dog
again. Its ears were still pricked, but they were twitching uncertainly,
as though not sure of the direction whence the sound had come.

Victor cursed the brute and moved back to the sled. The word "Mush" was
hovering on his lips. Suddenly his eyes chanced upon the slumbering form
of old Pierre lying in a heap where he had fallen in the doorway. It is
impossible to say what made him pause to give a second thought to those
he was leaving behind. He had known Pierre for years, and had always
been as friendly as his selfish, cruel nature would permit. Perhaps some
such feeling now made him hesitate. It might even have been his
knowledge of the wild that made him view the helpless figure with some
concern. The vagaries of human nature are remarkable. Something held
him, then he turned quickly from the sled, and stepping up to the old
man's side, stooped, and putting his arms about him, dragged him bodily
into the store. Pierre did not rouse but remained quite still where
Victor left him. Then the trader went out again. His back was turned as
he reached to close the door. It would not quite shut and he pulled it
hard. Then, as it still resisted his efforts, he turned away. As he
turned he reeled back with a great cry.

Something large and dark faced him. And, even in the darkness, he could
make out a shining ring of metal close in front of his face.

Victor's horror-stricken cry was the only sound that came. In the
twinkling of an eye the metal ring disappeared. Victor felt two bony
hands seize him by the throat. The next instant he was hurled to the
ground, and a knee was upon his chest. A weight compressed his lungs and
he could scarcely breathe. Then he felt the revolver belt dragged from
about his waist and his long sheath-knife withdrawn from its sheath.
Then, and not till then, the pressure on his chest relaxed, and the hand
that had gripped his throat released its hold. The next moment he was
lifted to his feet as though he were a mere puppet, and the voice of
Jean Leblaude broke harshly upon his ears.

"Guess your bluff wa'n't wuth a cent, Victor Gagnon. I see'd this comin'
the minit you pass'd me the drink. I 'lows ye ken mostly tell a skunk by
the stink. I rec'nized you awhiles back. Guess you ain't lightin' out o'
here this night. Come right along."

The trader had no choice. Jean had him foul, gripping him with a clutch
that was vise-like. The giant's great strength was irresistible when put
forth in the deadly earnestness of passion, and just now he could hardly
hold his hand from breaking the neck which was so slight beneath his
sinewy fingers.

Just for one instant Victor made a faint struggle. As well attempt to
resist Doom. Jean shook him like a rat and thrust him before him in the
direction of the woods behind the store.

"You'll pay fer this," the trader said, between his teeth.

But Jean gave no heed to his impotent rage. He pushed him along in
silence, nor did he pause till the secret huts were reached. He opened
the door of one and dragged his captive in. There was no light within.
But this seemed no embarrassment to the purposeful man. He strode
straight over to one corner of the room and took a long, plaited lariat
from the wall. In three minutes Victor was trussed and laid upon the
ground bound up like a mummy.

Now Jean lighted a lamp and looked down at his victim; there was not the
faintest sign of drink about him, and as Victor noticed this he cursed
himself bitterly.

There was an impressive silence. Then Jean's words came slowly. He
expressed no emotion, no passion; just the purpose of a strong man who
moves relentlessly on to his desired end.

Gagnon realized to the full the calamity which had befallen him.

"Ye'll wait right here till Davi' gits back. She's goin' to git her ears
full o' you, I guess. Say, she was sweet on you--mighty sweet. But she's
that sensible as it don't worry any. Say, you ain't goin' to marry that
gal; ye never meant to. You're a skunk, an' I'd as lief choke the life
out o' ye as not. But I'm goin' to pay ye sorer than that. Savvee? Ye'll
bide here till Davi' comes. I'll jest fix this wedge in your mouth till
I've cleared them drivers out o' the store. I don't fancy to hear your
lungs exercisin' when I'm busy."

With easy deftness Jean gagged his prisoner. Then he glanced round the
windowless shack to see if there was any weapon or other thing about
that could possibly assist the trader to free himself. Having assured
himself that all was safe he put out the light and passed out, securing
the door behind him.



CHAPTER XIII.

OUT ON THE NORTHLAND TRAIL


Noon, the following day, saw the dog-train depart on its homeward
journey. The way of it was curious and said much for the simplicity of
these "old hands" of the northland trail. They were giants of learning
in all pertaining to their calling; infants in everything that had to do
with the world of men.

Thus Jean Leblaude's task was one of no great difficulty. It was
necessary that he should throw dust in their eyes. And such a dust storm
he raised about their simple heads that they struck the trail utterly
blinded to the events of the previous night.

While they yet slumbered Jean had freed the dogs from their traces, and
unloaded the sled which bore the treasure-chest. He had restored
everything to its proper place; and so he awaited the coming of the
morning. He did not sleep; he watched, ready for every emergency.

When, at last, the two men stirred he was at hand. Rolling Pierre over
he shook him violently till the old man sat up, staring about him in a
daze. A beaker of rum was thrust against his parched lips, and he drank
greedily. The generous spirit warmed the Frenchman's chilled body and
roused him. Then Jean performed the same merciful operation upon
Ambrose, and the two unrepentant sinners were on their legs again, with
racking heads, and feeling very ill.

But Jean cared nothing for their sufferings; he wanted to be rid of
them. He gave them no chance to question him; not that they had any
desire to do so, in fact it was doubtful if they fully realized anything
that was happening. And he launched into his carefully considered story.

"Victor's gone up to the hills 'way back ther'," he said. "Ther's been a
herd o' moose come down, from the moose-yard, further north, an' he's
after their pelts. Say, he left word fer you to git right on loadin' the
furs, an' when ye hit the trail ye're to take three bottles o' the Rye,
an' some o' the rum. He says he ain't like to be back fer nigh on three
days."

And while he was speaking the two men supped their coffee, and, as they
moistened their parched and burning throats, they nodded assent to all
Jean had to say. At that moment Victor, or any one else, might go hang.
All they thought of was the awful thirst that assailed them.

Breakfast over, the work of loading the sleds proceeded with the utmost
dispatch. Thus it was that at noon, without question, without the
smallest suspicion of the night's doings, they set out for the weary
"long trail."

Jean saw them go. He stood at the door of the store and watched them
until they disappeared behind the rising ground of the great Divide.
Then his solemn eyes turned away indifferently, and he gazed out into
the hazy distance. His gaunt face showed nothing of what was passing in
the brain behind it. He rarely displayed emotion of any sort. The Indian
blood in his veins preponderated, and much of the stoical calm of the
Redskin was his. Now he could wait, undisturbed, for the return of
Davia. He felt that he had mastered the situation. He could not make
Victor marry the sister he had wronged, but at least he could pay off
the wrong in his own way, and to his entire satisfaction. Two years he
had waited for the adjustment of these matters. He was glad that he had
exercised patience. He might have slain Victor a hundred times over, but
he had refrained, vainly hoping to see his sister righted. Besides, he
knew that Davia had loved Victor, and women are peculiar. Who might say
but that she would have fled from the murderer of her lover? Jean felt
well satisfied on the whole. So he stood thinking and waiting with a
calm mind.

But the tragedy was working itself out in a manner little suspected,
little expected, by him. This he was soon to learn.

The grey spring snow spread itself out on every hand, only was the
wood-lined hill, which stretched away to the right and left of him, and
behind the hut, bare of the wintry pall. The sky was brilliant in
contrast with the greyness of the world beneath it, and the sun shone
high in the blue vault. Everywhere was the deadly calm of the Silent
North. The presence of any moving forest beast in that brooding picture,
however distant, must surely have caught the eye. There was not a living
thing to be seen. These woful wastes have much to do with the rugged
nature of those who dwell in the north.

Suddenly the whole prospect seemed to be electrified with a thrill of
life. The change came with a swift movement of the man's quiet eyes.
Nothing had really altered in the picture, nothing had appeared, and yet
that swift flash of the eyes had brought a suggestion of something which
broke up the solitude as though it had never been.

Awhile, and his attention became fixed upon the long line of woods to
the right. Then his ears caught a slight but distinct sound. He stood
away from the doorway, and, shading his eyes from the sunlight, looked
keenly along the dark shadow of the woods. No wolf or fox could have
keener instinct than had this man. A sound of breaking brush, but so
slight that it probably would have passed unheeded by any other, had
told him that some one approached through these woods.

He waited.

Suddenly there was movement in the shadow. The next moment a figure
stepped out into the open. A figure, dressed in beaded buckskin and
blanket clothing. It was Davia.

She came in haste, yet wearily. She looked slight and drooping in her
mannish garments, while the pallor of her drawn face was intense. She
came up to where Jean stood and would have fallen but for his support.
Her journey had been rapid and long, and she was utterly weary of body.

"Quick, let's git inside," she cried, in a choking voice. Then she added
hysterically: "He's on the trail."

Without a word Jean led her into the house, and she flung herself into a
seat. A little whiskey put new life into her and the colour came back to
her face. She was strong, a woman bred to hardship and toil.

Jean waited; then he put a question with characteristic abruptness.

"Who's on the trail?"

"Who? Nick Westley. He's comin' for blood! Victor's blood!" Then Davia
sprang to her feet with a look of wild alarm upon her beautiful face.
"He's killed his brother!" she added. "He's mad--ravin' mad."

The man did not move a muscle. Only his eyes darkened as he heard the
announcement.

"Mad," he said, thoughtfully. "An' he's comin' fer Victor. Wal?"

Davia sat up. Her brother's calmness had a soothing effect upon her.

"Listen, an' I'll tell you."

And she told the story of the mountain tragedy, and the manner in which
she watched the madman's subsequent actions until he set out for the
store. And the story lost none of its intense horror in her telling.

Jean listened unemotionally and with a judicial air. Only his eyes
shoved that he was in any way moved.

When she had finished he asked her, "An' when'll he git here?"

"Can't say," came the swift reply. "Maybe to-night; maybe in an hour;
maybe right now. He's big an' strong, an'--an' he's mad, I know it." And
a shudder of apprehension passed over her frame.

"Fer Victor? Sure?" Jean asked again presently, like a man weighing up a
difficult problem.

"Sure. He don't know you, nor me, at this layout. Ther's only Victor. I
guess I don't know how he figgered it, he's that crazy, but it's Victor
he's layin' fer, sure. Say, I saw him sling his gun an' his 'six.' An'
his belt was heavy with ammunition. I reckon ther's jest one thing fer
us to do when a crazy man gits around with a gun. It's time to light
out. Wher's Victor?" And her eyes fell upon the treasure-chest.

"Him an' me's changed places. He's back ther'." Jean jerked a thumb over
his shoulder to indicate the huts in the wood.

Davia was on her feet in an instant and her eyes sparkled angrily.

"What d'ye mean, Jean?"

The man shrugged. But his words came full of anger.

"He didn't mean marryin' ye."

"Well?" The blue eyes fairly blazed.

"The boodle," with a glance in the direction of the treasure. "He was
fer jumpin' the lot."

"Hah! An'--?"

And Jean told his story. And after that a silence fell.

"It's cursed--it's blood-money!" Davia's voice was hoarse with emotion
as she said the words.

Jean started.

"We're goin' to git," he said slowly. And he looked into the woman's
eyes as though he would read her very soul.

"An' Victor?" said Davia harshly.

"Come, we'll go to him."

At the door Davia was seized with an overwhelming terror. She gripped
Jean's arm forcefully while she peered along the woodland fringe. The
man listened.

"Let's git on quick," Davia whispered. And her mouth was dry with her
terror.

They found Victor as Jean had left him. The prisoner looked up when the
door opened. His eyes brightened at the sight of the woman.

No word was spoken for some moments. In that silence a drama was swiftly
working itself out. Victor was calculating his chances. Davia was
thinking in a loving woman's unreasoning fashion. And Jean was watching
both. At last the giant stooped and removed the gag from his captive's
mouth. The questioning eyes of Victor Gagnon looked from one to the
other and finally rested upon Davia.

"Wal?" he said.

And Davia turned to Jean.

"Loose him!" she said imperiously.

And Jean knew that trouble had come for his plans. He shook his head.
The glance of Victor's eyes as they turned upon Jean was like the edge
of a super-sharpened knife. The trader knew that a crisis had arrived.
Which was the stronger of these two, the brother or the sister? He
waited.

"What are you goin' to do with him?" Davia asked.

She could scarcely withhold the anger which had risen within her.

But Jean did not answer; he was listening to a strange sound which came
to him through the open door. Suddenly he stooped again and began to
readjust the rope that held his prisoner. He secured hands and feet
together in a manner from which Victor was not likely to free himself
easily; and yet from which it was possible for him to get loose. Davia
followed his movements keenly. At last the giant rose; his task was
completed.

"Now," he said, addressing them both. "Say your says--quick."

"You ain't leavin' him here," said the woman, looking squarely into her
brother's eyes.

"That's so."

A strange light leapt into Davia's eyes. Jean saw it and went on with a
frown.

"I'm easy, dead easy; but I guess I've had enough. He'll shift fer
himself. If he'd 'a' acted straight ther'd 'a' been no call fer me to
step in. He didn't. He ain't settin' you right, Davi'; he can't even act
the thief decent. He'd 'a' robbed you an' me, an' left you what you are.
Wal, my way goes."

Then he turned to Victor and briefly told him Davia's story of the
mountain tragedy. As he came to the climax the last vestige of the
trader's insolence vanished. Nick was on his way to the store armed
and--mad. Panic seized upon the listener. His bravado had ever been but
the veneer of the surface. His condition returned to the subversive
terror which had assailed him when he was caught in the mountain
blizzard.

"Now, see you here, Victor," Jean concluded coldly, yet watching the
effect he had produced. "Ye owe us a deal more'n ye ken pay easy, but
I'm fixin' the reckonin' my way. We're goin', an' the boodle goes wi'
us. Savvee?" Davia watched her brother acutely. Nor could she help
noticing that the great man was listening while he spoke. "I 'lows
you'll git free o' this rope. I mean ye to--after awhiles. Ye'll keep
y'r monkey tricks till after we're clear o' here. Then ye'll do best to
go dead easy. Fer that crank's comin' right along, an', I 'lows, if I
was you I'd as lief lie here and rot, an' feed the gophers wi' my
carcass as run up agin him. I tell ye, pard, ther's a cuss hangin'
around wher' Nick Westley goes, an' I don't reckon it's like to work
itself out easy by a big sight."

Jean finished up with profound emphasis. Then he turned about and faced
his sister.

"Now, gal, we're goin'."

"Not while Victor's left here."

Jean stood quite still for a moment. Then his rage suddenly broke forth.

"Not while that skunk's left?" he cried, pointing scornfully at the
prostrate man. "Ye'd stop here fer him as has shamed ye; him as 'ud run
from ye this minit if he had the chance; him as 'ud rob ye too; him as
thinks as much to ye as a coyote. Slut y' are, but y' are my sister, an'
I say ye shall go wi' me."

He made a step towards her. Then he brought up to a halt as the long
blade of a knife gleamed before his eyes. But he only hesitated a
second. His great hand went out, and he caught the woman's wrist as she
was about to strike. The next instant he had wrenched the weapon from
her grasp and held her.

Now he thrust her out of the hut and secured the door. He believed that
what he had done was only right.

As they passed out into the bright spring daylight again a change seemed
to come over Davia. Her terror of Nick Westley returned as she noted the
alert attitude of her brother. She listened too, and held her breath to
intensify her hearing. But Jean did not relax his hold upon her till
they were once more within the store. Then he set her to assist in the
preparations for their flight. When all was ready, and they stood
outside the house while Jean secured the door, Davia made a final
appeal.

"Let me stop, Jean," she cried, while a sob broke from her. "I love him.
He's mine."

"God's curse on ye, no!" came the swift response, and the man's eyes
blazed.

Suddenly a long-drawn cry rose upon the air. It reached a great pitch
and died lingeringly away. It was near by and told its tale. And the
woman shuddered involuntarily. It was the wolf cry of the mountains; the
cry of the human. And, as if in answer, came a chorus from wolfish
throats. The last moment had come.

Davia caught Jean's arm as though seeking protection.

"I will go," she cried, and the man took her answer to be a final
submission.

The stillness of the day had passed. Life thrilled the air although no
life was visible. Davia's fear was written in her face, Jean's
expression was inscrutable; only was it sure that he listened.

But Jean was not without the superstitious dread which madness inspires.
And as they raced, he bearing the burden of the treasure-chest, for the
wood-covered banks of the creek, he was stirred to horror by the
familiar sounds that pursued him. It was their coming, at that time, in
daylight; and in answer to the human cry that had first broken up the
silence of the hills. How came it that the legions of the forest were
marching in the wake of that other upon the valley of Little Choyeuse
Creek?

Jean halted when they stood upon the rotten ice of the creek. Now he
released his sister, and they stood facing each other well screened from
view from the store.

The sullen peace of the valley had merged into the deep-toned,
continuous howl of hoarse throats. A terrible threat was in the sound.
Jean unslung his rifle and looked to his pistol.

"Ther's six in this gun," he said deliberately. "Five of 'em is fer them
beasties, if ne'sary. The other's fer you if you git playin' tricks.
Mebbe ye'll thank me later fer what I'm doin'. It don't cut no figger
anyway."

Then he prodded the ice with his iron-shod staff.

Davia watched him while she listened to the din of the forest world. At
length the staff had beaten its way to the water below.

"What are ye doin'?" she asked, quite suddenly.

And Jean's retort was a repetition of her own words.

"It's cursed--it's blood-money!"

She took his meaning, and her cupidity cried out in revolt. But her
protest was useless.

"You're not goin'--" she began.

"It goes," cried Jean fiercely, "wher' he ain't like to touch it, 'less
Hell gits him. Father Lefleur, at the mission, says as gold's Hell's
pavin', an' mebbe this'll git back wher' it come." And with vengeful
force he threw back the lid of the chest.

Davia's eyes expressed more than any words could have told. She stood
silently by, a mute but eloquent protest, while Jean took the bags of
gold dust one by one from the chest, and poured their contents into the
water below. When the last bag was emptied he took the packet of bills
and fingered them gently. Even his purpose seemed to be shaken by the
seductive feel of the familiar paper. Suddenly he thrust them into the
hole, and his staff thrust viciously at them as he pushed them under the
ice where they would quickly rot. It was done.

"Mebbe the water'll wash the blood off'n it," he exclaimed. "Mebbe."

Davia's eyes looked derisively upon the giant figure as he straightened
himself up. She could not understand.

But her look changed to one of horror a moment later, as above the cries
of the forest rose the inhuman note of the madman. Both recognized it,
and the dreadful tone gripped their hearts. Jean leant forward, and
seizing the woman by the arm dragged her off the ice to the cover of the
bush.

With hurried strides they made their way through the leafless branches,
until they stood where, themselves well under cover, they had a view of
the store.



CHAPTER XIV.

WHO SHALL FATHOM THE DEPTHS OF A WOMAN'S LOVE?


The dull woods look black in the bright sunlight; and beyond, and above,
the crystal of the eternal snow gleams with appalling whiteness. No
touch of spring can grey those barren, everlasting fields, where foot of
man has never trod, and no warmth can penetrate to the rock-bound earth
beneath.

All the world seems to be reaching to the sky vault above. Everything is
vast; only is the work of human hands puny.

Thus the old log storehouse of Victor Gagnon, now shut up like a
deserted fort of older days, without its stockade, is less than a
terrier's kennel set at the door of a giant's castle. And yet it breaks
up the solitude so that something of the savage magnificence is gone.
The forest cries echo and reëcho, and, to human ears, the savage din is
full of portentous meaning, but it is lost beyond the confines of the
valley; and the silent guardians of the peaks above sleep on
undisturbed.

A mighty flock of water-fowl speeding their way, droop downwards, with
craning necks, at the unusual sounds, to watch the stealing creatures
moving at the edge of the woods. The fox, hungering as he always
hungers, foremost, lest other scavengers, like himself, shall steal the
prize he seeks; a troupe of broad-antlered deer racing headlong down the
valley; shaggy wolves, grey or red, lurking within the shadow, as though
fearing the open daylight, or perhaps him whose voice has summoned them;
these things they see, but their meaning is lost to the feathered
wanderers, as they wing their way onward.

The cry of the human floats over the tree-tops and beats itself out upon
the solemn hillsides. It has in it a deep-toned note of invitation to
the fierce denizens of the forest. A note which they cannot resist; and
they answer it, and come from hill and valley, gathering, gathering,
with hungry bellies and frothing jowls.

Driving his way through close-growing bush comes the unkempt figure of a
man. A familiar figure, but so changed as to be hardly recognizable. His
clothes are rent and scored by the horny branches. His feet crush
noisily over the pine-cones in moccasins that have rotted from his feet
with the journey over melting snow and sodden vegetation. There is a
quivering fire burning in his eyes, an uncertain light, like the sun's
reflections upon rippling water. He looks neither this way nor that, yet
his eyes seem to be flashing in all directions at once. The bloody scar
upon his cheek is dreadful to look upon, for it has scarce begun to
heal, and the cold has got into it. He is armed, as Davia had said, this
strange horrific figure, and at intervals his head is thrown back to
give tongue to his wolfish cry. It almost seems as if the Spirit of the
Forest has claimed him.

He journeys on through the twilit gloom. The horror of the life gathered
about him is no more grim than is the condition of his witless brain.
Over hills and through brakes; in valleys and along winding tracks made
by the forest lords; now pushing his way through close-growing scrub,
now passing like a fierce shadow among the bare, primeval tree-trunks,
he moves forward. His goal is ahead, and one instinct, one desire, urges
him onward. He knows nought of his surroundings, he sees nought. His
chaotic brain is aware only of its mad purpose.

Suddenly the bush parts. There stands the store of Victor Gagnon in the
bright light of day. Swift to the door he speeds, but pauses as he finds
it locked. The pause is brief. A shot from his pistol shatters the lock,
the door flies open at his touch, and he passes within. Then follows a
cry that has in it the tone of a baffled creature robbed of its prey; it
is like the night cry of the puma that shrinks at the blaze of the
camp-fire; it is fierce, terrible. The house is empty.

But the cunning of the madman does not desert him. He sets out to
search, peering here, there, and everywhere. As the moments pass, and no
living thing is to be seen within, his anger rises like a fierce summer
storm. He stands in the centre of the store which is filled with a
disordered array of stuffs. His eyes light upon the wooden trap which
opens upon the cellar where Victor stores his skins. Once more the fire
flares up in his dreadful eyes. An oil-lamp is upon a shelf. He dashes
towards it, and soon its dull, yellow flame sheds its feeble rays about.
He stoops and prises up the heavy square of wood. Below sees the top
rungs of a rough ladder. His poor brain is incapable of argument and
with a fierce joy he clambers down into the dank, earthy atmosphere of
the cellar.

All is silent again except for the shuffling of his almost bare feet
upon the uneven ladder. The last rung is gone, and he drops heavily to
the ground. Then, for awhile, silence reigns.

During that silence there comes a figure stealing round the angle at the
back of the building. It is a slight, dark figure, and it moves with
extreme caution. There is a look on the narrow face which is one of
superstitious horror. It is Victor Gagnon escaped from his prison, and
he advances haltingly, for he has seen the approach of his uncanny
visitor, and he knows not what to do. His inclination is to flee, yet is
he held fascinated. He advances no further than the front angle of the
building, where he stands shaking with nervous apprehension.

Suddenly he hears a cry that is half-stifled by distance, for it comes
from the depths of the cellar within. Then follows a metallic clatter of
something falling, which, in turn, is followed again by a cry that is
betwixt a fierce exclamation of joy and a harsh laugh. A foreboding
wrings the heart of the half-breed trader.

Now he listens with every sense aiding him, and a strange sound comes to
his ears. It is a sound like the rushing of water or the sighing of the
wind through the skeleton branches of forest-trees. It grows louder,
and, in its midst, he hears the stumbling of feet within the house.
Something, he knows not what, makes him look about him fearfully, but he
remains at his post. He dare not move.

At last he thrusts his head forward and peers round the corner so that
he has a full view of the door. Then he learns the meaning of the sound
he has heard. Great clouds of smoke are belching through the opening,
and are rolling heavily away upon the chill, scented air. His jaws come
together, his breath catches, and a look that is the expression of a
mind distracted leaps into his eyes. He knows that his store is on fire.
He does not leave his lurking-place, for he knows that there is no means
of staying the devouring flames. Besides, the man must still be within.
Yes, he is certainly still within the building, for he can hear him.

The cries of the wild come up from the forest but Victor no longer heeds
them. The hiss and crackle of the burning house permeate his brain. His
eyes watch the smoke with a dreadful fascination. He cannot think, he
can only watch, and he is gripped by a more overwhelming terror than
ever.

Suddenly a fringe of flame pursues the smoke from the door. It leaps,
and rushes up the woodwork of the thatch above and shoots along to the
pitch of the roof. The rapidity of the mighty tongues is appalling.
Still the man is within the building, for Victor can hear his voice as
he talks and laughs at the result of his handiwork.

The madman's voice rises high above the roar of the flames. The fire
seems to have driven him to the wildest pitch of insensate excitement,
and Victor begins to wonder what the end will be.

A moment later he hears distant words come from the burning house. They
come in a shout that is like the roar of some wild beast, and they sound
high above every other sound. There is in them the passionate ring of
one who abandons all to one overpowering desire.

"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! Wait, I'm comin'."

There is an instant's silence which the sound of the hungry flames
devours. Then, through the blazing doorway, the great form of Nick
Westley rushes headlong, shouting as he comes.

"Aim-sa! Aim-sa!"

The cry echoes and reëchoes, giving fresh spirit to the baying of the
wolves that wait in the cover of the woodland. On rushes the man
heedless of the excoriating roughnesses of the ground beneath his bare
and battered feet. He gazes with staring eyes upon the woods as though
he sees the vision of the woman that has inspired his cry. On, he speeds
towards the beasts whose chorus welcomes him; on, to the dark woods in
which he plunges from view.

                   *       *       *       *       *

Jean Leblaude, standing within cover of the woods which lined the creek,
was lost to all sight and sound other than the strange scene enacted at
the store. Once or twice he had spoken, but it was more to himself than
to Davia, for he was engrossed by what he beheld.

But now, as he saw the man rush with frantic haste and disappear within
the woods, he thought of the wealth of skins within the burning house.
He was a trapper, and, to his thinking, the loss was irreparable. He
loved the rich furs of the North as any woman loves her household goods.
As for the store, that was little to him except that Victor was now
punished even beyond his, Jean's, hopes. He knew that the trader was
ruined. For the rest it would be as it always was in the wild. The
valley would simply go back to its primordial condition.

But he watched Victor curiously. He saw him stand out before the wreck
of his store, and a world of despair and dejection was in his attitude.
A mighty bitterness was in the great Jean's heart for the man he gazed
upon, and a sense of triumphant joy flashed through him at the sight.

"See," he said, without turning from his contemplation, and pointing
with one arm outstretched. "He's paid, an' paid bad. The teachin's come
to him. Maybe he's learned."

There was no reply, and he went on.

"Maybe he's wishin' he'd treated you right, Davi'. Maybe he'd gi'
something to marry you now. Maybe. Wal, he's had his chance an' throw'd
it." There was an impressive pause. Presently Jean spoke again. "Guess
we'll be gittin' on soon. The mission's a good place fer wimmin as
hasn't done well in the world, I reckon. An' the Peace River's nigh to a
garden. I 'lows Father Lefleur's a straight man, an'll set you on the
right trail, Davi'. Yes, I guess we'll be gettin' on."

Still there was no answer.

Suddenly the giant swung round and looked at the spot where Davia had
been standing. She had vanished.

And Jean, solemn-eyed as any moose, stared stupidly at the place where
her feet had rested. He stood long without moving, and slowly thought
straightened itself out in his uncouth brain. He began to understand.
The complexity of a woman's character had been an unknown quantity to
him. But he was no further from understanding them than any other man.
Now an inner consciousness told him that the punishment of Victor had
been the undoing of his schemes. Davia had seen the trader bereft of
all, homeless, penniless; and she had gone to him.

He turned back at last and looked towards the store; it was almost burnt
out now. But he heeded it not, for he saw two figures in deep converse,
close by, in the open, and one of them was a woman. As he watched he saw
Davia pass a large pistol to the man; and then he knew that her love for
her faithless lover was greater than any other passion that moved her.
He knew that that weapon had been given for defence against himself.

That evening the setting sun shone down upon a solitary camp-fire on the
Northland trail, and beside it sat a large man crouching for warmth. He
was smoking; and as he smoked he thought much. All the days he had lived
he had never known a woman's love. He muttered as he kicked the sticks
of his fire together, and spat into the blaze as it leapt up.

"Maybe it's a fine thing. Maybe they're queer critturs. Mostly saft an'
gentle an'--um--I wonder--"

The sun sank abruptly, and the brief twilight gave place to a night that
was little less than day. The northern lights danced their mystic
measure in the starlit vault to the piping of the Spirit of the North.
The hush of the Silent Land was only broken by the cries which came up
from the dark valleys and darker forests. And the lonely giant, Jean
Leblaude, slept the light slumber of the journeyer in the wild; the
slumber that sees and hears when danger is abroad, and yet rests the
body. He dreamed not, though all his schemes had gone awry, for he was
weary.



CHAPTER XV.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE WILD


"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! I come!"

The cry rings against the mountainsides, shuddering and failing; then it
is lost in the vastness, like the sound of a pebble pitched into rushing
waters. The woodland chorus takes it up in its own wolfish tongue, and
it plunges forth again, magnified by the din of a thousand echoes.

High up to the lair of the mountain lion it rises; where the mighty
crags, throne-like, o'ershadow the lesser woods; where the royal beast,
lording it over an inferior world, stealthily prowls and lashes its
angry tail at the impudence of such a disturbance in its vast domain.
Its basilisk stare looks out from its furtive, drooping head, and its
commands ring out in a roar of magnificent displeasure.

Even to loftier heights still the cry goes up; and the mighty grey eagle
ruffles its angry feathers, shakes out its vast wings, and screams
invective in answer to this loud-voiced boast of wingless creatures.
Then, in proud disdain, it launches itself out upon the air, and with a
mighty swoop downwards, screaming defiance as its outstretched pinions
brush the sleek coat of the mountain lion, it passes on over the
creaking tree-tops to learn the real cause of the hubbub.

Down the valley, away to the east, the timid deer gather, snuffing at
the breeze, fearful, protesting, yet fascinated. The caribou pauses in
his headlong race to listen; only, a moment later, to speed on the
faster.

"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! Wait, I come!"

The cry is more muffled. The dark canopy of forest deadens it, till the
sound is like a voice crying out from the depths of the earth. For the
man is travelling with the fierce directness of one who is lured on by
the haunting vision of that which is his whole desire. The riven
mountains have no meaning for him. He looks straight out, nor
tree-trunk, nor bush, nor jutting rock bars his vision; there beyond,
ever beyond, is that which alone he seeks. It moves as he moves;
beckoning, calling, smiling. But always, like a will-o'-the-wisp, it
eludes him, and draws forth the cry from his throat. The sweet, mocking
face; the profound blue eyes, sparkling with laughter or brooding in
perfect seriousness; the parted lips about the glistening teeth so
luscious in their suggestion; the dark flowing hair, like a soft curtain
of wondrous texture falling in delicate folds upon rounded
shoulders--these things he sees. Always ahead the vision speeds, always
beyond. The man's efforts avail nothing.

The wolves upon his trail lope slowly over the forest bed of oozing
vegetation; with careless stride, but with relentless intent, the
creatures openly seek their prey. For blood is upon the air, and they
come with the patter of thousands of feet, singing their dolorous chorus
with all the deep meaning of the savage primordial beast. But the man
heeds them not. He is deaf to their raucous song as he is blind to the
mighty encompassing hills. What cares he if the earth links up with the
blue heavens above him? What cares he for the everlasting silence of
those heights, or the mute Spirits which repose upon the icy beds of the
all-time glaciers? He is beyond the knowledge of Storm or Calm. He knows
nought of the meaning of the awesome voice of Nature. The vision is all
to him, and he gazes upon it with hungry, dreadful eyes. His heart is
starving; his mind is empty of all but the pangs of his all-mastering
desire. If need be he will pursue to the ends of the earth. He has been
to the depths of hell for her; he has felt the withering blast of
satanic fires. There is nought for him but possession; possession of the
woman he seeks.

To his distraught fancy, his cries receive answer, and he stumbles
blindly on. Meanwhile the wolves draw ever nearer and nearer, as their
courage rises in response to the voice of their famished bellies. So the
strange pursuit goes on, on; over hills and through valleys, now scaling
barren, snow-clad rocks, now clambering drearily down jagged rifts of
earth; over Nature's untrodden trails, or along beaten paths made by the
passage of forest beasts. Through clearing and brake, and over the
rotting ice which fills the bed of the mountain torrent. On, on into
Nature's dim recesses, where only the forest creatures lord it, and the
feet of man have never been set.

At length the forests disappear and the magnificent heights rear their
snowy crests thousands of feet skywards. The valleys are left, and
behind him and below the forests form but a dark shadow of little
meaning. The greatness is about him; the magnitude of the higher
mountain world. As he faces the unfathomed heights he again treads the
snow, for the warm embrace of Spring has not yet enfolded the higher
lands, and the gracious influence of the woods is no longer to be felt.

He pauses, breathing hard, and the expression of his wounded face is not
pleasant. The flesh is blue, and the eyes are as fierce as the crouching
puma's. He looks about him as one in a daze. The baying of the wolves
comes up from below. They still dog him, for the blood trail holds them
fast. A ledge stretches away, winding upwards; a mass of tumbled rocks
foot one towering, solitary pine, and beyond is blank snow.

For the moment he is lost, his vision has deserted him. It may be that
weariness has overcome the power of his illusion, for he stares vacantly
about. He looks back, and the breadth of what he sees conveys no
meaning. The woods, with the sound of life coming up to him in deadly
monotony of tone; the hills, beyond, rising till the sun, like a ball of
deep red fire, seems to rest upon their now lurid glacial fields, but is
powerless to break their icy bondage; these things he sees but heeds
not. Beyond, far into the hazy distance, stretch hills in their
hundreds; incalculable, remote, all bearing the ruddy tint of sunset; a
ghostly array, chaotic, overwhelming to the brain of man. But the scene
has no significance to him. His eyes are the eyes of a man dead to all
but the illusion of a disordered brain. He sees as one partially blinded
by the sun.

Suddenly he starts. A sound such as he craves has come to him again. He
wheels to the right, whither the ledge winds round the crag. He peers
out; again he sees, and with a cry he rushes on. A moving figure is upon
the road; a smiling figure, a beckoning figure.

Up rises the way, a toilsome path and rugged; slippery and biting to the
unshod feet. He feels no pain; there is the figure. He presses on; and
the hungry legions move out from the forest below and follow boldly upon
his trail.

He rounds the bend. The call trembles down the mountainside, and its
music is strangely soothing and sweet to his ears. Quite abruptly a
broad plateau spreads out before him. It is edged on one side by a sheer
drop to unimaginable depths, on the other the uprising crags overhang in
horrible menace. The plateau is strewn with bleaching bones, and from
beneath the overhanging rocks comes a fetid stench. Now the figure is
lost again, and the dreadful straining eyes search vainly for the fair
face and beckoning hand. His heart labours and great pain is in his
chest. For he is high up in the mountain air, and every breath is an
effort.

Nor does he see the crouching object to his right, lying low to the
ground, with muscles quivering and eyes shooting green fire upon him.
There is no movement in the savage body but the furious, noiseless
lashing of the tail, and the bristling of the hair at its shoulders. But
suddenly a strange thing happens. The creature shrinks back, and draws
slowly away. Its awful eyes are averted as though in a fear it is
powerless to contend with. Its anger is lost in an arrant cowardice, and
the beast slinks within a low-mouthed cavern. What is it that has power
to put fear into the heart of the monarch of the mountainside, unless it
is the madness which peers out of the man's dreadful eyes.

And the man moves on unconscious of any lurking danger. As he passes,
the spell of his presence passes also. A roar comes from the depths of
the cavern, and is answered by the wolves as they crowd up to the edge
of the plateau. But though their reply is bold they hesitate to advance
further. For they know who dwells where the broken, bleaching bones lie,
and fear is in their hearts. They snuff at the air with muzzles
up-thrown, and their mangy coats bristle with sullen anger. The crowd
increases, the courage of the coward begins to rise within them. A
fierce argument arises, and the debate takes the form of a vicious
clipping of huge fangs. A mighty roar interrupts them, seeming to quell
their warlike spirit. For a moment silence reigns.

Then as if by chance, one great dog-wolf is driven out upon the
battleground. He is a leader, high of shoulder, broad of chest, with
jaws like the iron fangs of a trap, and limbs that are so lean that the
muscles stand out upon them like knots of rope. And his action is a
signal to the crowd of savage poltroons behind. With one accord they
send their fierce battle-cry out upon the still air, and leap, like the
rush of an avalanche, to the lair of the mountain lion. Out from his
shelter springs the royal beast, and close upon his heels comes his
mate. Side by side they stand, ready for the battle though the odds be a
million to one against them.

Their sleek bodies are a-quiver with rage, their tails whip the earth in
their fury, while their eyes, like coals of green fire, shine with a
malevolence such as no words can describe.

Again the wolves hesitate. Their outstretched tails droop and are
pressed between their legs; their backs are hunched, and they turn their
long, narrow heads from the green glitter of the two pairs of terrible
eyes. But the pause is brief, and the noise has died only for a second.
One wolf moves a step forward, hunger overpowering his fears. As before,
it is a signal. The whole pack leap to the fray; struggling, howling,
fighting as they come ripping at comrade and foe alike. The battle is
swift; so swift that it is almost impossible to realize that it is over.
The pack, leaping and baying, pass on, following the blood trail of the
man, leaving more bones upon the plateau, more blood upon the trodden
snow; and the royal dwellers of that little plain have vanished as
though they had never been.

The path has taken a downward slope and the man looks ahead for the fair
face, hungrily, feverishly. Again it has vanished. His heart cries out
bitterly, and his despairing voice echoes through the barren hills.

As he advances the path declines lower and lower, till out of the
shadowy depths the tree-tops seem climbing to meet him. The air he
breathes is denser now, and respiration is easier. As the path declines
its mountainous sides rise higher and higher until overhead only a
narrow streak of sky is revealed, like a soft-toned ribbon set in a
background of some dun-coloured material. Ahead is a barrier of snow and
ice, while below him, down in the depths of the gorge, the earth is
clear of the wintry pall and frowns up in gloomy contrast. The sparse
vegetation, too, has changed its appearance. Here towers the silent,
portentous pine, but of a type vaster than can be seen in any other
corner of the earth. The man hastens on with all the speed his weary
limbs will permit, stumbling as he goes, for the frost of the high
altitudes has entered his bones, and he cannot now feel the touch of the
broken earth. But his yearning heart is ceaseless in its despairing cry.
Where--where is She? The trees come up higher and higher and the gloom
closes in upon him as he reaches the barrier.

Now he pauses under a mighty archway. Below, it is black with age and
full of crowding shadows; the superstructure alone is hung with snowy
frost curtains, and these help to emphasize the forbidding nature of the
dark, narrow under-world. Down, down he goes, as though he were
journeying to the very bowels of the earth, heedless of the place,
heedless of all but the phantom he seeks. Again his surroundings have
changed. The barrenness is emphasized by skeleton-like trees of such
size as no man has ever seen before. High up aloft there is foliage upon
them, but so meagre, so torn and wasted as to suggest a wreck of
magnificent life. These gigantic trunks are few in number, but so huge
that the greatest elm would appear a sapling beside them, and yet their
wondrous size would not be properly estimated. They are the primordial
pines, survivors from an unknown period. They shelter nothing but
barrenness, and stand out alone like solemn sentries, the watchmen for
all time of the earth's most dim and secret recesses, where storms
cannot reach, and scarcely the forest beasts dare penetrate.

Again the poor benighted brain finds relief. Down beside these monsters
his eyes are gladdened once more with the fleeting vision. He sees the
figure moving ahead, but slowly now; no longer is she the gay laughing
creature he has hitherto followed, she moves wearily, as though
exhausted by the journey she has taken. His heart thrills with hope and
joy, for now he knows that he is overtaking her. Her face is hidden from
him, and even her fair form has taken on something of the hue of her
dark surroundings.

"Aim-sa! Aim-sa!" he cries aloud. And again "Aim-sa!"

The gorge rings solemnly with the hoarse echoes, and the place is filled
with discordant sounds which come back to his straining ears mingling
with the cries of the wolves that still follow on his trail.

The figure pauses, looks round, then continues her slow-paced movement;
but she does not answer. Still he sees her, she is there. And now he
knows that he must come up with her. He toils on.

He talks to himself, muttering as he goes; and a train of incoherent
thought passes through his brain. He tells himself that the journey is
over. She has brought him to the home which shall be theirs. The heart
of the wild, where the mountains rise sheer to the sky above; where no
man comes, where a dark peace reigns, and has ever reigned. Where snow
is not, and summer and winter are alike. It is the fitting home for a
tortured spirit.

The figure no longer moves now, but turns and faces him. The sweet
familiar features seem to bend toward him out of the deep shadows and
the grim surroundings. He shakes back his shaggy hair; he holds himself
proudly erect as he approaches the woman he loves. He summons all his
failing strength. His knees forget their weariness, his torn feet are
unconscious of their injuries. The haunting cry of the wolves comes down
to him from behind, but he heeds only the beckoning phantom.

Every trailing stride lessens the distance between them.

He sees her stoop as though to adjust her moccasin. She moves again, but
she does not stand erect. A half-articulate cry breaks from him. She is
coming to him. Now he sees that her head is bowed as though in deep
humility. A cry breaks from him, then all is silent. Suddenly she lifts
her head and her tall figure stands erect, gazing upon him with sombre,
steady eyes, eyes which seem to have caught something of the dull hue of
that awesome gorge. His heart leaps with joy. How tall she is; what a
superb form. She moves toward him, her body swaying gracefully to the
rhythm of her gait. Her arms are stretched out appealingly; and he sees
that she is clad in the rich furs of the North, clad as though for a
journey. He tells himself, with a thrill of mad desire, that she is
ready for their journey, the journey of life they will travel together.

Now the wolf cries come louder and more fierce. If he is deaf to them
the woman is not. Her head turns sharply and a fierce light leaps into
her eyes. The change is lost upon the man. He stretches out his arms and
staggers towards her. They come together, and he feels the soft touch of
her fur robes upon his face and hands. Her arms close about him and her
warm breath fans his fevered cheek, as he is drawn, willingly, closer
and closer to her bosom.

But what is this? The embrace draws tight, tighter and yet tighter; he
becomes rigid in her arms, he cannot breathe, and life seems to be going
from him. He feels his ribs cracking under the pressure; he cannot cry
out; he cannot struggle. Now comes the sound of something ripping, of
flesh being torn by ruthless claws. A quiver of nerves, a sigh, and the
man is still.

Down the path of that woful gorge in a headlong rush comes the
wolf-pack. A great figure with lolling body looks up. Its broad head and
short muzzle are poised alertly. So it stands, and under its merciless
fore paws is the mangled corpse of Nick Westley. It is a monstrous
grizzly, monstrous even for its kind. It turns from its victim with
shambling but swiftly moving gait, growling and snarling with terrible
ferocity as it goes, but never hesitating. This shaggy monarch is no
coward, but he is cunning as any fox, and, unlike the mountain lion,
knows the limitation of his powers. He knows that even his gigantic
strength could not long make stand against the oncoming horde. What he
leaves behind will check the fanged legions while he makes good his
escape.

The pack pours like a hideous flood over the spot where the last act of
Nick Westley's tragedy has been played out. A brief but fiendish tumult,
and little remains to tell of the sorry drama. The impassive mountains,
unmoved spectators, give no sign. The stupendous reticence of the
wilderness, like the fall of a mighty curtain, closes over the scene,
taking the story into its inviolable keeping.

THE END.





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