"Yes, me lie!"
"You—you lied to me!"
His head dropped lower. He heard the sobbing breath of the woman, and gently his arm crooked itself, and his fingers rose slowly, very slowly, toward the hilt of his hunting knife.
"Yes—Mees Cummins—me lie—"
There came a sudden swift, sobbing movement, and the woman was at Jan's feet, clasping his hand to her bosom as she had clasped it once before when he had gone out to face death for her. But this time the snow veil was very thick before Jan's eyes, and he did not see her face. Only he heard.
"Bless you, dear Jan, and may God bless you evermore! For you have been good to me, Jan—so good—to me—"
And he went out into the day again a few moments later, leaving her alone in her great grief, for Jan was a man in the wild and mannerless ways of a savage world, and he knew not how to comfort in the fashion of that other world which had other conceptions and another understanding of what was to him the "honor of the Beeg Snows." A week later the woman announced her intention of returning to her people, for the dome of the earth had grown sad and lonely and desolate to her now that Cummins was forever gone. Sometimes the death of a beloved friend brings with it the sadness that spread like a pall over Jan and those others who had lived very near to contentment and happiness for nearly two years, only each knew that this grief of his would be as enduring as life itself. For a brief space the sweetest of all God's things had come among them, a pure woman who brought with her the gentleness and beauty and hallowed thoughts of civilization in place of its iniquities, and the pictures in their hearts were imperishable.
The parting was as simple and as quiet as when the woman had come. They went to the little cabin where the sledge dogs stood harnessed. Hatless, silent, crowding back their grief behind grim and lonely countenances, they waited for Cummins' wife to say good-bye. The woman did not speak. She held up her child for each man to kiss, and the baby babbled meaningless things into the bearded faces that it had come to know and love, and when it came to Williams' turn he whispered, "Be a good baby, be a good baby." And when it was all over the woman crushed the child to her breast and dropped sobbing upon the sledge, and Jan cracked his whip and shouted hoarsely to the dogs, for it was Jan who was to drive her to civilization. Long after they had disappeared beyond the clearing those who remained stood looking at the cabin; and then, with a dry, strange sob in his throat, Williams led the way inside. When they came out Williams brought a hammer with him, and nailed the door tight.
"Mebby she'll come back some day," he said.
That was all, but the others understood.
For nine days Jan raced his dogs into the South. On the tenth they came to Le Pas. It was night when they stopped before the little log hotel, and the gloom hid the twitching in Jan's face.
"You will stay here—to-night?" asked the woman.
"Me go back—now," said Jan.
Cummins' wife came very close to him. She did not urge, for she, too, was suffering the torture of this last parting with the "honor of the Beeg Snows." It was not the baby's face that came to Jan's now, but the woman's. He felt the soft touch of her lips, and his soul burst forth in a low, agonized cry.
"The good God bless you, and keep you, and care for you evermore, Jan," she whispered. "Some day we will meet again."
And she kissed him again, and lifted the child to him, and Jan turned his tired dogs back into the grim desolation of the North, where the Aurora was lighting his way feebly, and beckoning to him, and telling him that the old life of centuries and centuries ago was waiting for him there.
Father Brochet had come south from Fond du Lac, and Weyman, the Hudson's Bay Company doctor, north through the Geikee River country. They had met at Severn's cabin, on the Waterfound. Both had come on the same mission—to see Severn; one to keep him from dying, if that was possible, one to comfort him in the last hour, if death came. Severn insisted on living. Bright-eyed, hollow-cheeked, with a racking cough that reddened the gauze handkerchief the doctor had given him, he sat bolstered up in his cot and looked out through the open door with glad and hopeful gaze. Weyman had arrived only half an hour before. Outside was the Indian canoeman who had helped to bring him up.
It was a glorious day, such as comes in its full beauty only in the far northern spring, where the air enters the lungs like sharp, warm wine, laden with the tang of spruce and balsam, and the sweetness of the bursting poplar-buds.
"It was mighty good of you to come up," Severn was saying to the doctor. "The company has always been the best friend I've ever had—except one—and that's why I've hung to it all these years, trailing the sledges first as a kid, you know, then trapping, running, and—oh, Lord!"
He stopped to cough, and the little black-frocked missioner, looking across at Weyman, saw him bite his lips.
"That cough hurts, but it's better," Severn apologized, smiling weakly. "Funny, ain't it, a man like me coming down with a cough? Why, I've slept in ice a thousand times, with snow for a pillow and the thermometer down to fifty. But this last winter it was cold, seventy or lower, an' I worked in it when I ought to have been inside, warming my toes. But, you see, I wanted to get the cabin built, an' things all cleared up about here, before SHE came. It's the cold that got me, wasn't it, doc?"
"That's it," said Weyman, rolling and lighting a cigarette. Then he laughed, as the sick man finished another coughing spell, and said:
"I never thought you'd have a love affair, Bucky!"
"Neither did I," chuckled Severn. "Ain't it a wonder, doc? Here I'm thirty-eight, with a hide on me like leather, an' no thought of a woman for twenty years, until I saw HER. I don't mean it's a wonder I fell in love, doc—you'd 'a' done that if you'd met her first. The wonder of it is that she fell in love with me." He laughed softly. "I'll bet Father Brochet'll go in a heap himself when he marries us! It's goin' to happen next month. Did you ever see her, father—Marie La Corne, over at the post on Split Lake?"
Severn dropped his head to cough, but Weyman say the sudden look of horror that leaped into the little priest's face.
"Marie La Corne!"
"Yes, at Split Lake."
Severn looked up again. He had missed what Weyman had seen.
"Yes, I've seen her."
Bucky Severn's eyes lit up with pleasure.
"She's—she's beautiful, ain't she?" he cried in hoarse whisper. "Ain't it a wonder, father? I come up there with a canoe full of supplies, last spring about this time, an'—an' at first I hardly dast to look at her; but it came out all right. When I told her I was coming over here to build us a home, she wanted me to bring her along to help; but I wouldn't. I knew it was goin' to be hard this winter, and she's never goin' to work—never so long as I live. I ain't had much to do with women, but I've seen 'em and I've watched 'em an' she's never goin' to drudge like the rest. If she'll let me, I'm even goin' to do the cookin' an' the dish-washing and scrub the floors! I've done it for twenty-five years, an' I'm tough. She ain't goin' to do nothin' but sew for the kids when they come, an' sing, an' be happy. When it comes to the work that there ain't no fun in, I'll do it. I've planned it all out. We're goin' to have half an arpent square of flowers, an' she'll love to work among 'em. I've got the ground cleared—out there—you kin see it by twisting your head through the door. An' she's goin' to have an organ. I've got the money saved, an' it's coming to Churchill on the next ship. That's goin' to be a surprise—'bout Christmas, when the snow is hard an' sledging good. You see—"
He stopped again to cough. A hectic flush filled his hollow cheeks, and there was a feverish glow in his eyes. As he bent his head, the priest looked at Weyman. The doctor's lips were tense. His cigarette was unlighted.
"I know what it means for a woman to die a workin'," Severn went on. "My mother did that. I can remember it, though I was only a kid. She was bent an' stoop-shouldered, an' her hands were rough and twisted. I know now why she used to hug me up close and croon funny things over me when father was away. When I first told my Marie what I was goin' to do, she laughed at me; but when I told her 'bout my mother, an' how work an' freezin' an' starvin' killed her when I needed her most, Marie jest put her hand up to my face an' looked queer—an' then she burst out crying like a baby. She understands, Marie does! She knows what I'm goin' to do—"
"You mustn't talk any more, Bucky," warned the doctor, feeling his pulse. "It'll hurt you."
"Hurt me!" Severn laughed hysterically, as If what the doctor had said was a joke. "Hurt me? It's what's going to put me on my feet, doc. I know it now, I been too much alone this last winter, with nothin' but my dogs to talk to when night come. I ain't never been much of a talker, but she got me out o' that. She used to tease me at first, an' I'd get red in the face an' almost bust. An' then, one day, it come, like a bung out of a hole, an' I've had a hankerin' to talk ever since. Hurt me!"
He gave an incredulous chuckle, which ended in a cough.
"Do you know, I wish I could read better 'n I can!" he said suddenly, leaning almost eagerly toward Father Brochet. "She knows I ain't great shucks at that. She's goin' to have a school just as soon as she comes, an' I'm goin' to be the scholar. She's got a packful of books an' magazines an' I'm goin' to tote over a fresh load every winter. I'd like to surprise her. Can't you help me to—"
Weyman pressed him back gently.
"See here, Bucky, you've got to lie down and keep quiet," he said. "If you don't, it will take you a week longer to get well. Try and sleep a little, while Father Brochet and I go outside and see what you've done."
When they went out, Weyman closed the door after them. He spoke no word as he turned and looked upon what Bucky Severn had done for the coming of his bride. Father Brochet's hand touched the doctor's and it was cold and trembling.
"How is he?" he asked.
"It is the bad malady," said Weyman softly. "The frost has touched his lungs. One does not feel the effect of that until spring comes. Then—a cough—and the lungs begin literally to slough away."
"That there is no hope—absolutely none. He will die within two days."
As he spoke, the little priest straightened himself and lifted his hands as if about to pronounce a benediction.
"Thank God!" he breathed. Then, as quickly, he caught himself. "No, I don't mean that. God forgive me! But—it is best." Weyman stared incredulously into his face.
"It is best," repeated the other, as gently as if speaking a prayer. "How strangely the Creator sometimes works out His ends! I came straight here from Split Lake. Marie La Corne died two weeks ago. It was I who said the last prayer over her dead body!"
HIS FIRST PENITENT
In a white wilderness of moaning storm, in a wilderness of miles and miles of black pine-trees, the Transcontinental Flier lay buried in the snow. In the first darkness of the wild December night, engine and tender had rushed on ahead to division headquarters, to let the line know that the flier had given up the fight, and needed assistance. They had been gone two hours, and whiter and whiter grew the brilliantly lighted coaches in the drifts and winnows of the whistling storm. From the black edges of the forest, prowling eyes might have looked upon scores of human faces staring anxiously out into the blackness from the windows of the coaches.
In those coaches it was growing steadily colder. Men were putting on their overcoats, and women snuggled deeper in their furs. Over it all, the tops of the black pine-trees moaned and whistled in sounds that seemed filled both with menace and with savage laughter.
In the smoking-compartment of the Pullman sat five men, gathered in a group. Of these, one was Forsythe, the timber agent; two were traveling men; the fourth a passenger homeward bound from a holiday visit; and the fifth was Father Charles. The priest's pale, serious face lit up in surprise or laughter with the others, but his lips had not broken into a story of their own. He was a little man, dressed in somber black, and there was that about him which told his companions that within his tight-drawn coat of shiny black there were hidden tales which would have gone well with the savage beat of the storm against the lighted windows and the moaning tumult of the pine-trees.
Suddenly Forsythe shivered at a fiercer blast than the others, and said:
"Father, have you a text that would fit this night—and the situation?"
Slowly Father Charles blew out a spiral of smoke from between his lips, and then he drew himself erect and leaned a little forward, with the cigar between his slender white fingers.
"I had a text for this night," he said, "but I have none now, gentlemen. I was to have married a couple a hundred miles down the line. The guests have assembled. They are ready, but I am not there. The wedding will not be to-night, and so my text is gone. But there comes another to my mind which fits this situation—and a thousand others—'He who sits in the heavens shall look down and decide.' To-night I was to have married these young people. Three hours ago I never dreamed of doubting that I should be on hand at the appointed hour. But I shall not marry them. Fate has enjoined a hand. The Supreme Arbiter says 'No,' and what may not be the consequences'?"
"They will probably be married to-morrow," said one of the traveling men. "There will be a few hours' delay—nothing more."
"Perhaps," replied Father Charles, as quietly as before. "And—perhaps not. Who can say what this little incident may not mean in the lives of that young man and that young woman—and, it may be, in my own? Three or four hours lost in a storm—what may they not mean to more than one human heart on this train? The Supreme Arbiter plays His hand, if you wish to call it that, with reason and intent. To someone, somewhere, the most insignificant occurrence may mean life or death. And to-night—this—means something."
A sudden blast drove the night screeching over our heads, and the whining of the pines was almost like human voices. Forsythe sucked a cigar that had gone out.
"Long ago," said Father Charles, "I knew a young man and a young woman who were to be married. The man went West to win a fortune. Thus fate separated them, and in the lapse of a year such terrible misfortune came to the girl's parents that she was forced into a marriage with wealth—a barter of her white body for an old man's gold. When the young man returned from the West he found his sweetheart married, and hell upon earth was their lot. But hope lingers in your hearts. He waited four years; and then, discouraged, he married another woman. Gentlemen, three days after the wedding his old sweetheart's husband died, and she was released from bondage. Was not that the hand of the Supreme Arbiter? If he had waited but three days more, the old happiness might have lived.
"But wait! One month after that day the young man was arrested, taken to a Western State, tried for murder, and hanged. Do you see the point? In three days more the girl who had sold herself into slavery for the salvation of those she loved would have been released from her bondage only to marry a murderer!"
There was silence, in which all five listened to that wild moaning of the storm. There seemed to be something in it now—something more than the inarticulate sound of wind and trees. Forsythe scratched a match and relighted his cigar.
"I never thought of such things in just that light," he said.
"Listen to the wind," said the little priest. "Hear the pine-trees shriek out there! It recalls to me a night of years and years ago—a night like this, when the storm moaned and twisted about my little cabin, and when the Supreme Arbiter sent me my first penitent. Gentlemen, it is something which will bring you nearer to an understanding of the voice and the hand of God. It is a sermon on the mighty significance of little things, this story of my first penitent. If you wish, I will tell it to you."
"Go on," said Forsythe.
The traveling men drew nearer.
"It was a night like this," repeated Father Charles, "and it was in a great wilderness like this, only miles and miles away. I had been sent to establish a mission; and in my cabin, that wild night, alone and with the storm shrieking about me, I was busy at work sketching out my plans. After a time I grew nervous. I did not smoke then, and so I had nothing to comfort me but my thoughts; and, in spite of my efforts to make them otherwise, they were cheerless enough. The forest grew to my door. In the fiercer blasts I could hear the lashing of the pine-trees over my head, and now and then an arm of one of the moaning trees would reach down and sweep across my cabin roof with a sound that made me shudder and fear. This wilderness fear is an oppressive and terrible thing when you are alone at night, and the world is twisting and tearing itself outside. I have heard the pine-trees shriek like dying women, I have heard them wailing like lost children, I have heard them sobbing and moaning like human souls writhing in agony—"
Father Charles paused, to peer through the window out into the black night, where the pine-trees were sobbing and moaning now. When he turned, Forsythe, the timber agent, whose life was a wilderness life, nodded understandingly.
"And when they cry like that," went on Father Charles, "a living voice would be lost among them as the splash of a pebble is lost in the roaring sea. A hundred times that night I fancied that I heard human voices; and a dozen times I went to my door, drew back the bolt, and listened, with the snow and the wind beating about my ears.
"As I sat shuddering before my fire, there came a thought to me of a story which I had long ago read about the sea—a story of impossible achievement and of impossible heroism. As vividly as if I had read it only the day before, I recalled the description of a wild and stormy night when the heroine placed a lighted lamp in the window of her sea-bound cottage, to guide her lover home in safety. Gentlemen, the reading of that book in my boyhood days was but a trivial thing. I had read a thousand others, and of them all it was possibly the least significant; but the Supreme Arbiter had not forgotten.
"The memory of that book brought me to my feet, and I placed a lighted lamp close up against my cabin window. Fifteen minutes later I heard a strange sound at the door, and when I opened it there fell in upon the floor at my feet a young and beautiful woman. And after her, dragging himself over the threshold on his hands and knees, there came a man.
"I closed the door, after the man had crawled in and fallen face downward upon the floor, and turned my attention first to the woman. She was covered with snow. Her long, beautiful hair was loose and disheveled, and had blown about her like a veil. Her big, dark eyes looked at me pleadingly, and in them there was a terror such as I had never beheld in human eyes before. I bent over her, intending to carry her to my cot; but in another moment she had thrown herself upon the prostrate form of the man, with her arms about his head, and there burst from her lips the first sounds that she had uttered. They were not much more intelligible than the wailing grief of the pine-trees out in the night, but they told me plainly enough that the man on the floor was dearer to her than life.
"I knelt beside him, and found that he was breathing in a quick, panting sort of way, and that his wide-open eyes were looking at the woman. Then I noticed for the first time that his face was cut and bruised, and his lips were swollen. His coat was loose at the throat, and I could see livid marks on his neck.
"'I'm all right,' he whispered, struggling for breath, and turning his eyes to me. 'We should have died—in a few minutes more—if it hadn't been for the light in your window!'
"The young woman bent down and kissed him, and then she allowed me to help her to my cot. When I had attended to the young man, and he had regained strength enough to stand upon his feet, she was asleep. The man went to her, and dropped upon his knees beside the cot. Tenderly he drew back the heavy masses of hair from about her face and shoulders. For several minutes he remained with his face pressed close against hers; then he rose, and faced me. The woman—his wife—knew nothing of what passed between us during the next half-hour. During that half-hour gentlemen, I received my first confession. The young man was of my faith. He was my first penitent."
It was growing colder in the coach, and Father Charles stopped to draw his thin black coat closer to him. Forsythe relighted his cigar for the third time. The transient passenger gave a sudden start as a gust of wind beat against the window like a threatening hand.
"A rough stool was my confessional, gentlemen," resumed Father Charles. "He told me the story, kneeling at my feet—a story that will live with me as long as I live, always reminding me that the little things of life may be the greatest things, that by sending a storm to hold up a coach the Supreme Arbiter may change the map of the world. It is not a long story. It is not even an unusual story.
"He had come into the North about a year before, and had built for himself and his wife a little home at a pleasant river spot ten miles distant from my cabin. Their love was of the kind we do not often see, and they were as happy as the birds that lived about them in the wilderness. They had taken a timber claim. A few months more, and a new life was to come into their little home; and the knowledge of this made the girl an angel of beauty and joy. Their nearest neighbor was another man, several miles distant. The two men became friends, and the other came over to see them frequently. It was the old, old story. The neighbor fell in love with the young settler's wife.
"As you shall see, this other man was a beast. On the day preceding the night of the terrible storm, the woman's husband set out for the settlement to bring back supplies. Hardly had he gone, when the beast came to the cabin. He found himself alone with the woman.
"A mile from his cabin, the husband stopped to light his pipe. See, gentlemen, how the Supreme Arbiter played His hand. The man attempted to unscrew the stem, and the stem broke. In the wilderness you must smoke. Smoke is your company. It is voice and companionship to you. There were other pipes at the settlement, ten miles away; but there was also another pipe at the cabin, one mile away. So the husband turned back. He came up quietly to his door, thinking that he would surprise his wife. He heard voices—a man's voice, a woman's cries. He opened the door, and in the excitement of what was happening within neither the man nor the woman saw nor heard him. They were struggling. The woman was in the man's arms, her hair torn down, her small hands beating him in the face, her breath coming in low, terrified cries. Even as the husband stood there for the fraction of a second, taking in the terrible scene, the other man caught the woman's face to him, and kissed her. And then—it happened.
"It was a terrible fight; and when it was over the beast lay on the floor, bleeding and dead. Gentlemen, the Supreme Arbiter BROKE A PIPE-STEM, and sent the husband back in time!"
No one spoke as Father Charles drew his coat still closer about him. Above the tumult of the storm another sound came to them—the distant, piercing shriek of a whistle.
"The husband dug a grave through the snow and in the frozen earth," concluded Father Charles; "and late that afternoon they packed up a bundle and set out together for the settlement. The storm overtook them. They had dropped for the last time into the snow, about to die in each other's arms, when I put my light in the window. That is all; except that I knew them for several years afterward, and that the old happiness returned to them—and more, for the child was born, a miniature of its mother. Then they moved to another part of the wilderness, and I to still another. So you see, gentlemen, what a snow-bound train may mean, for if an old sea tale, a broken pipe-stem—"
The door at the end of the smoking-room opened suddenly. Through it there came a cold blast of the storm, a cloud of snow, and a man. He was bundled in a great bearskin coat, and as he shook out its folds his strong, ruddy face smiled cheerfully at those whom he had interrupted.
Then, suddenly, there came a change in his face. The merriment went from it. He stared at Father Charles. The priest was rising, his face more tense and whiter still, his hands reaching out to the stranger.
In another moment the stranger had leaped to him—not to shake his hands, but to clasp the priest in his great arms, shaking him, and crying out a strange joy, while for the first time that night the pale face of Father Charles was lighted up with a red and joyous glow.
After several minutes the newcomer released Father Charles, and turned to the others with a great hearty laugh.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you must pardon me for interrupting you like this. You will understand when I tell you that Father Charles is an old friend of mine, the dearest friend I have on earth, and that I haven't seen him for years. I was his first penitent!"
Peter God was a trapper. He set his deadfalls and fox-baits along the edge of that long, slim finger of the Great Barren, which reaches out of the East well into the country of the Great Bear, far to the West. The door of his sapling-built cabin opened to the dark and chilling gray of the Arctic Circle; through its one window he could watch the sputter and play of the Northern Lights; and the curious hissing purr of the Aurora had grown to be a monotone in his ears.
Whence Peter God had come, and how it was that he bore the strange name by which he went, no man had asked, for curiosity belongs to the white man, and the nearest white men were up at Fort MacPherson, a hundred or so miles away.
Six or seven years ago Peter God had come to the post for the first time with his furs. He had given his name as Peter God, and the Company had not questioned it, or wondered. Stranger names than Peter's were a part of the Northland; stranger faces than his came in out of the white wilderness trails; but none was more silent, or came in and went more quickly. In the gray of the afternoon he drove in with his dogs and his furs; night would see him on his way back to the Barrens, supplies for another three months of loneliness on his sledge.
It would have been hard to judge his age—had one taken the trouble to try. Perhaps he was thirty-eight. He surely was not French. There was no Indian blood in him. His heavy beard was reddish, his long thick hair distinctly blond, and his eyes were a bluish-gray.
For seven years, season after season, the Hudson's Bay Company's clerk had written items something like the following in his record-books:
Feb. 17. Peter God came in to-day with his furs. He leaves this afternoon or to-night for his trapping grounds with fresh supplies.
The year before, in a momentary fit of curiosity, the clerk had added:
Curious why Peter God never stays in Fort MacPherson overnight.
And more curious than this was the fact that Peter God never asked for mail, and no letter ever came to Fort MacPherson for him.
The Great Barren enveloped him and his mystery. The yapping foxes knew more of him than men. They knew him for a hundred miles up and down that white finger of desolation; they knew the peril of his baits and his deadfalls; they snarled and barked their hatred and defiance at the glow of his lights on dark nights; they watched for him, sniffed for signs of him, and walked into his clever deathpits.
The foxes and Peter God! That was what this white world was made up of—foxes and Peter God. It was a world of strife between them. Peter God was killing—but the foxes were winning. Slowly but surely they were breaking him down—they and the terrible loneliness. Loneliness Peter God might have stood for many more years. But the foxes were driving him mad. More and more he had come to dread their yapping at night. That was the deadly combination—night and the yapping. In the day-time he laughed at himself for his fears; nights he sweated, and sometimes wanted to scream. What manner of man Peter God was or might have been, and of the strangeness of the life that was lived in the maddening loneliness of that mystery-cabin in the edge of the Barren, only one other man knew.
That was Philip Curtis.
Two thousand miles south, Philip Curtis sat at a small table in a brilliantly lighted and fashionable cafe. It was early June, and Philip had been down from the North scarcely a month, the deep tan was still in his face, and tiny wind and snow lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes. He exuded the life of the big outdoors as he sat opposite pallid-cheeked and weak-chested Barrow, the Mica King, who would have given his millions to possess the red blood in the other's veins.
Philip had made his "strike," away up on the Mackenzie. That day he had sold out to Barrow for a hundred thousand. To-night he was filled with the flush of joy and triumph.
Barrow's eyes shone with a new sort of enthusiasm as he listened to this man's story of grim and fighting determination that had led to the discovery of that mountain of mica away up on the Clearwater Bulge. He looked upon the other's strength, his bronzed face and the glory of achievement in his eyes, and a great and yearning hopelessness burned like a dull fire in his heart. He was no older than the man who sat on the other side of the table—perhaps thirty-five; yet what a vast gulf lay between them! He with his millions; the other with that flood of red blood coming and going in his body, and his wonderful fortune of a hundred thousand! Barrow leaned a little over the table, and laughed. It was the laugh of a man who had grown tired of life, in spite of his millions. Day before yesterday a famous specialist had warned him that the threads of his life were giving way, one by one. He told this to Curtis. He confessed to him, with that strange glow in his eyes,—a glow that was like making a last fight against total extinguishment,—that he would give up his millions and all he had won for the other's health and the mountain of mica.
"And if it came to a close bargain," he said, "I wouldn't hold out for the mountain. I'm ready to quit—and it's too late."
Which, after a little, brought Philip Curtis to tell so much as he knew of the story of Peter God. Philip's voice was tuned with the winds and the forests. It rose above the low and monotonous hum about them. People at the two or three adjoining tables might have heard his story, if they had listened. Within the immaculateness of his evening dress, Barrows shivered, fearing that Curtis' voice might attract undue attention to them. But other people were absorbed in themselves. Philip went on with his story, and at last, so clearly that it reached easily to the other tables, he spoke the name of Peter God.
Then came the interruption, and with that interruption a strange and sudden upheaval in the life of Philip Curtis that was to mean more to him than the discovery of the mica mountain. His eyes swept over Barrow's shoulder, and there he saw a woman. She was standing. A low, stifled cry had broken from her almost simultaneously with his first glimpse of her, and as he looked, Philip saw her lips form gaspingly the name he had spoken—Peter God!
She was so near that Barrow could have turned and touched her. Her eyes were like luminous fires as she stared at Philip. Her face was strangely pale. He could see her quiver, and catch her breath. And she was looking at him. For that one moment she had forgotten the presence of others.
Then a hand touched her arm. It was the hand of her elderly escort, in whose face were anxiety and wonder. The woman started and took her eyes from Philip. With her escort she seated herself at a table a few paces away, and for a few moments Philip could see she was fighting for composure, and that it cost her a struggle to keep her eyes from turning in his direction while she talked in a low voice to her companion.
Philip's heart was pounding like an engine. He knew that she was talking about him now, and he knew that she had cried out when he had spoken Peter God's name. He forgot Barrow as he looked at her. She was exquisite, even with that gray pallor that had come so suddenly into her cheeks. She was not young, as the age of youth is measured. Perhaps she was thirty, or thirty-two, or thirty-five. If some one had asked Philip to describe her, he would have said simply that she was glorious. Yet her entrance had caused no stir. Few had looked at her until she had uttered that sharp cry. There were a score of women under the brilliantly lighted chandeliers possessed of more spectacular beauty, Barrow had partly turned in his seat, and now, with careful breeding, he faced his companion again.
"Do you know her?" Philip asked.
Barrow shook his head.
"No." Then he added: "Did you see what made her cry out like that?"
"I believe so," said Philip, and he turned purposely so that the four people at the next table could hear him. "I think she twisted her ankle. It's an occasional penance the women make for wearing these high-heeled shoes, you know."
He looked at her again. Her form was bent toward the white-haired man who was with her. The man was staring straight over at Philip, a strange searching look in his face as he listened to what she was saying. He seemed to question Philip through the short distance that separated them. And then the woman turned her head slowly, and once more Philip met her eyes squarely—deep, dark, glowing eyes that thrilled him to the quick of his soul. He did not try to understand what he saw in them. Before he turned his glance to Barrow he saw that color had swept back into her face; her lips were parted; he knew that she was struggling to suppress a tremendous emotion.
Barrow was looking at him curiously—and Philip went on with his story of Peter God. He told it in a lower voice. Not until he had finished did he look again in the direction of the other table. The woman had changed her position slightly, so that he could not see her face. The uptilt of her hat revealed to him the warm soft glow of shining coils of brown hair. He was sure that her escort was keeping watch of his movements.
Suddenly Barrow drew his attention to a man sitting alone a dozen tables from them.
"There's DeVoe, one of the Amalgamated chiefs," he said. "He has almost finished, and I want to speak to him before he leaves. Will you excuse me a minute—or will you come along and meet him?"
"I'll wait," said Philip.
Ten seconds later, the woman's white-haired escort was on his feet. He came to Philip's table, and seated himself casually in Barrow's chair, as though Philip were an old friend with whom he had come to chat for a moment.
"I beg your pardon for the imposition which I am laying upon you," he said in a low, quiet voice. "I am Colonel McCloud. The lady with me is my daughter. And you, I believe, are a gentleman. If I were not sure of that, I should not have taken advantage of your friend's temporary absence. You heard my daughter cry out a few moments ago? You observed that she was—disturbed?"
"I could not help it. I was facing her. And since then I have thought that I—unconsciously—was the cause of her perturbation. I am Philip Curtis, Colonel McCloud, from Fort MacPherson, two thousand miles north of here, on the Mackenzie River. So you see, if it is a case of mistaken identity—"
"No—no—it is not that," interrupted the older man. "As we were passing your table we—my daughter—heard you speak a name. Perhaps she was mistaken. It was—Peter God."
"Yes. I know Peter God. He is a friend of mine."
Barrow was returning. The other saw him over Philip's shoulder, and his voice trembled with a sudden and subdued excitement as he said quickly:
"Your friend is coming' back. No one but you must know that my daughter is interested in this man—Peter God. She trusts you. She sent me to you. It is important that she should see you to-night and talk with you alone. I will wait for you outside. I will have a taxicab ready to take you to our apartments. Will you come?"
He had risen. Philip heard Barrow's footsteps behind him.
"I will come," he said.
A few minutes later Colonel McCloud and his daughter left the cafe. The half-hour after that passed with leaden slowness to Philip. The fortunate arrival of two or three friends of Barrow gave him an opportunity to excuse himself on the plea of an important engagement, and he bade the Mica King good-night. Colonel McCloud was waiting for him outside the cafe, and as they entered a taxicab, he said:
"My daughter is quite unstrung to-night, and I sent her home. She is waiting for us. Will you have a smoke, Mr. Curtis?"
With a feeling that this night had set stirring a brew of strange and unforeseen events for him, Philip sat in a softly lighted and richly furnished room and waited. The Colonel had been gone a full quarter-hour. He had left a box half filled with cigars on a table at Philip's elbow, pressing him to smoke. They were an English brand of cigar, and on the box was stamped the name of the Montreal dealer from whom they had been purchased.
"My daughter will come presently," Colonel McCloud had said.
A curious thrill shot through Philip as he heard her footsteps and the soft swish of her skirt. Involuntarily he rose to his feet as she entered the room. For fully ten seconds they stood facing each other without speaking. She was dressed in filmy gray stuff. There was lace at her throat. She had shifted the thick bright coils of her hair to the crown of her head; a splendid glory of hair, he thought. Her cheeks were flushed, and with her hands against her breast, she seemed crushing back the strange excitement that glowed in her eyes. Once he had seen a fawn's eyes that looked like hers. In them were suspense, fear—a yearning that was almost pain. Suddenly she came to him, her hands outstretched. Involuntarily, too, he took them. They were warm and soft. They thrilled him—and they clung to him.
"I am Josephine McCloud," she said. "My father has explained to you? You know—a man—who calls himself—God?"
Her fingers clung more tightly to his, and the sweetness of her hair, her breath, her eyes were very close as she waited.
"Yes, I know a man who calls himself Peter God."
"Tell me—what he is like?" she whispered. "He is tall—like you?"
"No. He is of medium height."
"And his hair? It is dark—dark like yours?"
"No. It is blond, and a little gray."
"And he is young—younger than you?"
"He is older."
"And his eyes—are dark?"
He felt rather than heard the throbbing of her heart as she waited for him to reply. There was a reason why he would never forget Peter God's eyes.
"Sometimes I thought they were blue, and sometimes gray," he said; and at that she dropped his hands with a strange little cry, and stood a step back from him, a joy which she made no effort to keep from him flaming in her face.
It was a look which sent a sudden hopelessness through Curtis—a stinging pang of jealousy. This night had set wild and tumultuous emotions aflame in his breast. He had come to Josephine McCloud like one in a dream. In an hour he had placed her above all other women in the world, and in that hour the little gods of fate had brought him to his knees in the worship of a woman. The fact did not seem unreal to him. Here was the woman, and he loved her. And his heart sank like a heavily weighted thing when he saw the transfiguration of joy that came into her face when he said that Peter God's eyes were not dark, but were sometimes blue and sometimes gray.
"And this Peter God?" he said, straining to make his voice even. "What is he to you?"
His question cut her like a knife. The wild color ebbed swiftly out of her cheeks. Into her eyes swept a haunting fear which he was to see and wonder at more than once. It was as if he had done something to frighten her. "We—my father and I—are interested in him," she said. Her words cost her a visible effort. He noticed a quick throbbing in her throat, just above the filmy lace. "Mr. Curtis, won't you pardon this—this betrayal of excitement in myself? It must be unaccountable to you. Perhaps a little later you will understand. We are imposing on you by not confiding in you what this interest is, and I beg you to forgive me. But there is a reason. Will you believe me? There is a reason."
Her hands rested lightly on Philip's arm. Her eyes implored him.
"I will not ask for confidences which you are not free to give," he said gently.
He was rewarded by a soft glow of thankfulness.
"I cannot make you understand how much that means to me," she cried tremblingly. "And you will tell us about Peter God? Father—"
Colonel McCloud had reentered the room.
With the feeling of one who was not quite sure that he was awake, Philip paused under a street lamp ten minutes after leaving the McCloud apartments, and looked at his watch. It was a quarter of two o'clock. A low whistle of surprise fell from his lips. For three hours he had been with Colonel McCloud and his daughter. It had seemed like an hour. He still felt the thrill of the warm, parting pressure of Josephine's hand; he saw the gratitude in her eyes; he heard her voice, low and tremulous, asking him to come again to-morrow evening. His brain was in a strange whirl of excitement, and he laughed—laughed with gladness which he had not felt before in all the days of his life.
He had told a great many things about Peter God that night; of the man's life in the little cabin, his loneliness, his aloofness, and the mystery of him. Philip had asked no questions of Josephine and her father, and more than once he had caught that almost tender gratitude in Josephine's eyes. And at least twice he had seen the swift, haunting fear—the first time when he told of Peter God's coming and goings at Port MacPherson, and again when he mentioned a patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police that had passed Peter God's cabin while Philip was there, laid up during those weeks of darkness and storm with a fractured leg.
Philip told how tenderly Peter God nursed him, and how their acquaintance grew into brotherhood during the long gray nights when the stars gleamed like pencil-points and the foxes yapped incessantly. He had seen the dewy shimmer of tears in Josephine's eyes. He had noted the tense lines in Colonel McCloud's face. But he had asked them no questions, he had made no effort to unmask the secret which they so evidently desired to keep from him.
Now, alone in the cool night, he asked himself a hundred questions, and yet with a feeling that he understood a great deal of what they had kept from him. Something had whispered to him then—and whispered to him now—that Peter God was not Peter God's right name, and that to Josephine McCloud and her father he was a brother and a son. This thought, so long as he could think it without a doubt, filled his cup of hope to overflowing. But the doubt persisted. It was like a spark that refused to go out. Who was Peter God? What was Peter God, the half-wild fox-hunter, to Josephine McCloud? Yes—he could be but that one thing! A brother. A black sheep. A wanderer. A son who had disappeared—and was now found. But if he was that, only that, why would they not tell him? The doubt sputtered up again.
Philip did not go to bed. He was anxious for the day, and the evening that was to follow. A woman had unsettled his world. His mica mountain became an unimportant reality. Barrow's greatness no longer loomed up for him. He walked until he was tired, and it was dawn when he went to his hotel. He was like a boy living in the anticipation of a great promise—restless, excited, even feverishly anxious all day. He made inquiries about Colonel James McCloud at his hotel. No one knew him, or had even heard of him. His name was not in the city directory or the telephone directory. Philip made up his mind that Josephine and her father were practically strangers in the city, and that they had come from Canada—probably Montreal, for he remembered the stamp on the box of cigars.
That night, when he saw Josephine again, he wanted to reach out his arms to her. He wanted to make her understand how completely his wonderful love possessed him, and how utterly lost he was without her. She was dressed in simple white—again with that bank of filmy lace at her throat. Her hair was done in those lustrous, shimmering coils, so bright and soft that he would have given a tenth of his mica mountain to touch them with his hands. And she was glad to see him. Her eagerness shone in her eyes, in the warm flush of her cheeks, in the joyous tremble of her voice.
That night, too, passed like a dream—a dream in paradise for Philip. For a long time they sat alone, and Josephine herself brought him the box of cigars, and urged him to smoke. They talked again about the North, about Fort MacPherson—where it was, what it was, and how one got to it through a thousand miles or so of wilderness. He told her of his own adventures, how for many years he had sought for mineral treasure and at last had found a mica mountain.
"It's close to Fort MacPherson," he explained.
"We can work it from the Mackenzie. I expect to start back some time in August."
She leaned toward him, last night's strange excitement glowing for the first time in her eyes.
"You are going back? You will see Peter God?"
In her eagerness she laid a hand on his arm.
"I am going back. It would be possible to see Peter God."
The touch of her hand did not lighten the weight that was tugging again at his heart.
"Peter God's cabin is a hundred miles from Fort MacPherson," he added. "He will be hunting foxes by the time I get there."
"You mean—it will be winter."
"Yes. It is a long journey. And"—he was looking at her closely as he spoke—"Peter God may not be there when I return. It is possible he may have gone into another part of the wilderness."
He saw her quiver as she drew back.
"He has been there—for seven—years," she said, as if speaking to herself. "He would not move—now!"
"No; I don't think he would move now."
His own voice was low, scarcely above a whisper, and she looked at him quickly and strangely, a flush in her cheeks.
It was late when he bade her good-night. Again he felt the warm thrill of her hand as it lay in his. The next afternoon he was to take her driving.
The days and weeks that followed these first meetings with Josephine McCloud were weighted with many things for Philip. Neither she nor her father enlightened him about Peter God. Several times he believed that Josephine was on the point of confiding in him, but each time there came that strange fear in her eyes, and she caught herself.
Philip did not urge. He asked no questions that might be embarrassing. He knew, after the third week had passed, that Josephine could no longer be unconscious of his love, even though the mystery of Peter God restrained him from making a declaration of it. There was not a day in the week that they did not see each other. They rode together. The three frequently dined together. And still more frequently they passed the evenings in the McCloud apartments. Philip had been correct in his guess—they were from Montreal. Beyond that fact he learned little.
As their acquaintance became closer and as Josephine saw in Philip more and more of that something which he had not spoken, a change developed in her. At first it puzzled and then alarmed him. At times she seemed almost frightened. One evening, when his love all but trembled on his lips, she turned suddenly white.
It was the middle of July before the words came from him at last. In two or three weeks he was starting for the North. It was evening, and they were alone in the big room, with the cool breeze from the lake drifting in upon them. He made no effort to touch her as he told her of his love, but when he had done, she knew that a strong man had laid his heart and his soul at her feet.
He had never seen her whiter. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. There was a silence in which he did not breathe. Her answer came so low that he leaned forward to hear.
"I am sorry," she said. "It is my fault—that you love me. I knew. And yet I let you come again and again. I have done wrong. It is not fair—now—for me to tell you to go—without a chance. You—would want me if I did not love you? You would marry me if I did not love you?"
His heart pounded. He forgot everything but that he loved this woman with a love beyond his power to reason.
"I don't think that I could live without you now, Josephine," he cried in a low voice. "And I swear to make you love me. It must come. It is inconceivable that I cannot make you love me—loving you as I do."
She looked at him clearly now. She seemed suddenly to become tense and vibrant with a new and wonderful strength.
"I must be fair with you," she said. "You are a man whose love most women would be proud to possess. And yet—it is not in my power to accept that love, or give myself to you. There is another to whom you must go."
"And that is—"
It was she who leaned forward now, her eyes burning, her bosom rising and falling with the quickness of her breath.
"You must go to Peter God," she said. "You must take a letter to him—from me. And it will be for him—for Peter God—to say whether I am to be your wife. You are honorable. You will be fair with me. You will take the letter to him. And I will be fair with you. I will be your wife, I will try hard to care for you—if Peter God—says—"
Her voice broke. She covered her face, and for a moment, too stunned to speak, Philip looked at her while her slender form trembled with sobs. She had bowed her head, and for the first time he reached out and laid his hand upon the soft glory of her hair. Its touch set aflame every fiber in him. Hope swept through him, crushing his fears like a juggernaut. It would be a simple task to go to Peter God! He was tempted to take her in his arms. A moment more, and he would have caught her to him, but the weight of his hand on her head roused her, and she raised her face, and drew back. His arms were reaching out. She saw what was in his eyes.
"Not now," she said. "Not until you have gone to him. Nothing in the world will be too great a reward for you if you are fair with me, for you are taking a chance. In the end you may receive nothing. For if Peter God says that I cannot be your wife, I cannot. He must be the arbiter. On those conditions, will you go?"
"Yes, I will go," said Philip.
It was early in August when Philip reached Edmonton. From there he took the new line of rail to Athabasca Landing; it was September when he arrived at Fort McMurray and found Pierre Gravois, a half-breed, who was to accompany him by canoe up to Fort MacPherson. Before leaving this final outpost, whence the real journey into the North began, Philip sent a long letter to Josephine.
Two days after he and Pierre had started down the Mackenzie, a letter came to Fort McMurray for Philip. "Long" La Brie, a special messenger, brought it from Athabasca Landing. He was too late, and he had no instructions—and had not been paid—to go farther.
Day after day Philip continued steadily northward. He carried Josephine's letter to Peter God in his breast pocket, securely tied in a little waterproof bag. It was a thick letter, and time and again he held it in his hand, and wondered why it was that Josephine could have so much to say to the lonely fox-hunter up on the edge of the Barren.
One night, as he sat alone by their fire in the chill of September darkness, he took the letter from its sack and saw that the contents of the bulging envelope had sprung one end of the flap loose. Before he went to bed Pierre had set a pail of water on the coals. A cloud of steam was rising from it. Those two things—the steam and the loosened flap—sent a thrill through Philip. What was in the letter? What had Josephine McCloud written to Peter God?
He looked toward sleeping Pierre; the pail of water began to bubble and sing—he drew a tense breath, and rose to his feet. In thirty seconds the steam rising from the pail would free the rest of the flap. He could read the letter, and reseal it.
And then, like a shock, came the thought of the few notes Josephine had written to him. On each of them she had never failed to stamp her seal in a lavender-colored wax. He had observed that Colonel McCloud always used a seal, in bright red. On this letter to Peter God there was no seal! She trusted him. Her faith was implicit. And this was her proof of it. Under his breath he laughed, and his heart grew warm with new happiness and hope. "I have faith in you," she had said, at parting; and now, again, out of the letter her voice seemed to whisper to him, "I have faith in you."
He replaced the letter in its sack, and crawled between his blankets close to Pierre.
That night had seen the beginning of his struggle with himself. This year, autumn and winter came early in the North country. It was to be a winter of terrible cold, of deep snow, of famine and pestilence—the winter of 1910. The first oppressive gloom of it added to the fear and suspense that began to grow in Philip.
For days there was no sign of the sun. The clouds hung low. Bitter winds came out of the North, and nights these winds wailed desolately through the tops of the spruce under which they slept. And day after day and night after night the temptation came upon him more strongly to open the letter he was carrying to Peter God.
He was convinced now that the letter—and the letter alone—held his fate, and that he was acting blindly. Was this justice to himself? He wanted Josephine. He wanted her above all else in the world. Then why should he not fight for her—in his own way? And to do that he must read the letter. To know its contents would mean—Josephine. If there was nothing in it that would stand between them, he would have done no wrong, for he would still take it on to Peter God. So he argued. But if the letter jeopardized his chances of possessing her, his knowledge of what it contained would give him an opportunity to win in another way. He could even answer it himself and take back to her false word from Peter God, for seven frost-biting years along the edge of the Barren had surely changed Peter God's handwriting. His treachery, if it could be called that, would never be discovered. And it would give him Josephine.
This was the temptation. The power that resisted it was the spirit of that big, clean, fighting North which makes men out of a beginning of flesh and bone. Ten years of that North had seeped into Philip's being. He hung on. It was November when he reached Port MacPherson, and he had not opened the letter.
Deep snows fell, and fierce blizzards shot like gunblasts from out of the Arctic. Snow and wind were not what brought the deeper gloom and fear to Fort MacPherson. La mort rouge, smallpox,—the "red death,"—was galloping through the wilderness. Rumors were first verified by facts from the Dog Rib Indians. A quarter of them were down with the scourge of the Northland. From Hudson's Bay on the east to the Great Bear on the west, the fur posts were sending out their runners, and a hundred Paul Reveres of the forests were riding swiftly behind their dogs to spread the warning. On the afternoon of the day Philip left for the cabin of Peter God, a patrol of the Royal Mounted came in on snowshoes from the South, and voluntarily went into quarantine.
Philip traveled slowly. For three days and nights the air was filled with the "Arctic dust" snow that was hard as flint and stung like shot; and it was so cold that he paused frequently and built small fires, over which he filled his lungs with hot air and smoke. He knew what it meant to have the lungs "touched"—sloughing away in the spring, blood-spitting, and certain death.
On the fourth day the temperature began to rise; the fifth it was clear, and thirty degrees warmer. His thermometer had gone to sixty below zero. It was now thirty below.
It was the morning of the sixth day when he reached the thick fringe of stunted spruce that sheltered Peter God's cabin. He was half blinded. The snow-filled blizzards cut his face until it was swollen and purple. Twenty paces from Peter God's cabin he stopped, and stared, and rubbed his eyes—and rubbed them again—as though not quite sure his vision was not playing him a trick.
A cry broke from his lips then. Over Peter God's door there was nailed a slender sapling, and at the end of that sapling there floated a tattered, windbeaten red rag. It was the signal. It was the one voice common to all the wilderness—a warning to man, woman and child, white or red, that had come down through the centuries. Peter God was down with the smallpox!
For a few moments the discovery stunned him. Then he was filled with a chill, creeping horror. Peter God was sick with the scourge. Perhaps he was dying. It might be—that he was dead. In spite of the terror of the thing ahead of him, he thought of Josephine. If Peter God was dead—
Above the low moaning of the wind in the spruce tops he cursed himself. He had thought a crime, and he clenched his mittened hands as he stared at the one window of the cabin. His eyes shifted upward. In the air was a filmy, floating gray. It was smoke coming from the chimney. Peter God was not dead.
Something kept him from shouting Peter God's name, that the trapper might come to the door. He went to the window, and looked in. For a few moments he could see nothing. And then, dimly, he made out the cot against the wall. And Peter God sat on the cot, hunched forward, his head in his hands. With a quick breath Philip turned to the door, opened it, and entered the cabin. Peter God staggered to his feet as the door opened. His eyes were wild and filled with fever.
"You—Curtis!" he cried huskily. "My God, didn't you see the flag?"
Philip's half-frozen features were smiling, and now he was holding out a hand from which he had drawn his mitten.
"Lucky I happened along just now, old man. You've got it, eh?"
Peter God shrank back from the other's outstretched hand.
"There's time," he cried, pointing to the door.
"Don't breathe this air. Get out. I'm not bad yet—but it's smallpox, Curtis!"
"I know it," said Philip, beginning to throw off his hood and coat. "I'm not afraid of it. I had a touch of it three years ago over on the Gray Buzzard, so I guess I'm immune. Besides, I've come two thousand miles to see you, Peter God—two thousand miles to bring you a letter from Josephine McCloud."
For ten seconds Peter God stood tense and motionless. Then he swayed forward.
"A letter—for Peter God—from Josephine McCloud?" he gasped, and held out his hands.
An hour later they sat facing each other—Peter God and Curtis. The beginning of the scourge betrayed itself in the red flush of Peter God's face, and the fever in his eyes. But he was calm. For many minutes he had spoken in a quiet, even voice, and Philip Curtis sat with scarcely a breath and a heart that at times had risen in his throat to choke him. In his hand Peter God held the pages of the letter he had read.
Now he went on:
"So I'm going to tell it all to you, Curtis—because I know that you are a man. Josephine has left nothing out. She has told me of your love, and of the reward she has promised you—if Peter God sends back a certain word. She says frankly that she does not love you, but that she honors you above all men—except her father, and one other. That other, Curtis, is myself. Years ago the woman you love—was my wife."
Peter God put a hand to his head, as if to cool the fire that was beginning to burn him up.
"Her name wasn't Mrs. Peter God," he went on, and a smile fought grimly on his lips. "That's the one thing I won't tell you, Curtis—my name. The story itself will be enough.
"Perhaps there were two other people in the world happier than we. I doubt it. I got into politics. I made an enemy, a deadly enemy. He was a blackmailer, a thief, the head of a political ring that lived on graft. Through my efforts he was exposed, And then he laid for me—and he got me.
"I must give him credit for doing it cleverly and completely. He set a trap for me, and a woman helped him. I won't go into details. The trap sprung, and it caught me. Even Josephine could not be made to believe in my innocence; so cleverly was the trap set that my best friends among the newspapers could find no excuse for me.
"I have never blamed Josephine for what she did after that. To all the world, and most of all to her, I was caught red-handed. I knew that she loved me even as she was divorcing me. On the day the divorce was given to her, my brain went bad. The world turned red, and then black, and then red again. And I—"
Peter God paused again, with a hand to his head.
"You came up here," said Philip, in a low voice.
"Not—until I had seen the man who ruined me," replied Peter God quietly. "We were alone in his office. I gave him a fair chance to redeem himself—to confess what he had done. He laughed at me, exulted over my fall, taunted me. And so—I killed him."
He rose from his chair and stood swaying. He was not excited.
"In his office, with his dead body at my feet, I wrote a note to Josephine," he finished. "I told her what I had done, and again I swore my innocence. I wrote her that some day she might hear from me, but not under my right name, as the law would always be watching for me. It was ironic that on that human cobra's desk there lay an open Bible, open at the Book of Peter, and involuntarily I wrote the words to Josephine—PETER GOD. She has kept my secret, while the law has hunted for me. And this—"
He held the pages of the letter out to Philip.
"Take the letter—go outside—and read what she has written," he said. "Come back in half an hour. I want to think."
Back of the cabin, where Peter God had piled his winter's fuel, Philip read the letter; and at times the soul within him seemed smothered, and at times it quivered with a strange and joyous emotion.
At last vindication had come for Peter God, and before he had read a page of the letter Philip understood why it was that Josephine had sent him with it into the North. For nearly seven years she had known of Peter God's innocence of the thing for which she had divorced him. The woman—the dead man's accomplice—had told her the whole story, as Peter God a few minutes before had told it to Curtis; and during those seven years she had traveled the world seeking for him—the man who bore the name of Peter God.
Each night she had prayed God that the next day she might find him, and now that her prayer had been answered, she begged that she might come to him, and share with him for all time a life away from the world they knew.
The woman breathed like life in the pages Philip read; yet with that wonderful message to Peter God she pilloried herself for those red and insane hours in which she had lost faith in him. She had no excuse for herself, except her great love; she crucified herself, even as she held out her arms to him across that thousand miles of desolation. Frankly she had written of the great price she was offering for this one chance of life and happiness. She told of Philip's love, and of the reward she had offered him should Peter God find that in his heart love had died for her. Which should it be?
Twice Philip read that wonderful message he had brought into the North, and he envied Peter God the outlaw.
The thirty minutes were gone when he entered the cabin. Peter God was waiting for him. He motioned him to a seat close to him.
"You have read it?" he asked.
Philip nodded. In these moments he did not trust himself to speak. Peter God understood. The flush was deeper in his face; his eyes burned brighter with the fever; but of the two he was the calmer, and his voice was steady.
"I haven't much time, Curtis," he said, and he smiled faintly as he folded the pages of the letter, "My head is cracking. But I've thought it all out, and you've got to go back to her—and tell her that Peter God is dead."
A gasp broke from Philip's lips. It was his only answer.
"It's—best," continued Peter God, and he spoke more slowly, but firmly. "I love her, Curtis. God knows that it's been only my dreams of her that have kept me alive all these years. She wants to come to me, but it's impossible. I'm an outlaw. The law won't excuse my killing of the cobra. We'd have to hide. All our lives we'd have to hide. And—some day—they might get me. There's just one thing to do. Go back to her. Tell her Peter God is dead. And—make her happy—if you can."
For the first time something rose and overwhelmed the love in Philip's breast.
"She wants to come to you," he cried, and he leaned toward Peter God, white-faced, clenching his hands. "She wants to come!" he repeated. "And the law won't find you. It's been seven years—and God knows no word will ever go from me. It won't find you. And if it should, you can fight it together, you and Josephine."
Peter God held out his hands.
"Now I know I need have no fear in sending you back," he said huskily. "You're a man. And you've got to go. She can't come to me, Curtis. It would kill her—this life. Think of a winter here—madness—the yapping of the foxes—"
He put a hand to his head, and swayed.
"You've got to go. Tell her Peter God is dead—"
Philip sprang forward as Peter God crumpled down on his bunk.
After that came the long dark hours of fever and delirium. They crawled along into days, and day and night Philip fought to keep life in the body of the man who had given the world to him, for as the fight continued he began more and more to accept Josephine as his own. He had come fairly. He had kept his pledge. And Peter God had spoken.
"You must go. You must tell her Peter God is dead."
And Philip began to accept this, not altogether as his joy, but as his duty. He could not argue with Peter God when he rose from his sick bed. He would go back to Josephine.
For many days he and Peter God fought with the "red death" in the little cabin. It was a fight which he could never forget. One afternoon—to strengthen himself for the terrible night that was coming—he walked several miles back into the stunted spruce on his snowshoes. It was mid-afternoon when he returned with a haunch of caribou meat on his shoulder. Three hundred yards from the cabin something stopped him like a shot. He listened. From ahead of him came the whining and snarling of dogs, the crack of a whip, a shout which he could not understand. He dropped his burden of meat and sped on. At the southward edge of a level open he stopped again. Straight ahead of him was the cabin. A hundred yards to the right of him was a dog team and a driver. Between the team and the cabin a hooded and coated figure was running in the direction of the danger signal on the sapling pole.
With a cry of warning Philip darted in pursuit. He overtook the figure at the cabin door. His hand caught it by the arm. It turned—and he stared into the white, terror-stricken face of Josephine McCloud!
"Good God!" he cried, and that was all.
She gripped him with both hands. He had never heard her voice as it was now. She answered the amazement and horror in his face.
"I sent you a letter," she cried pantingly, "and it didn't overtake you. As soon as you were gone, I knew that I must come—that I must follow—that I must speak with my own lips what I had written. I tried to catch you. But you traveled faster. Will you forgive me—you will forgive me—"
She turned to the door. He held her.
"It is the smallpox," he said, and his voice was dead.
"I know," she panted. "The man over there—told me what the little flag means. And I'm glad—glad I came in time to go in to him—as he is. And you—you—must forgive!"
She snatched herself free from his grasp. The door opened. It closed behind her. A moment later he heard through the sapling door a strange cry—a woman's cry—a man's cry—and he turned and walked heavily back into the spruce forest.
"Why, you ornery little cuss," said Falkner, pausing with a forkful of beans half way to his mouth. "Where in God A'mighty's name did YOU come from?"
It was against all of Jim's crude but honest ethics of the big wilderness to take the Lord's name in vain, and the words he uttered were filled more with the softness of a prayer than the harshness of profanity. He was big, and his hands were hard and knotted, and his face was covered with a coarse red scrub of beard. But his hair was blond, and his eyes were blue, and just now they were filled with unbounded amazement. Slowly the fork loaded with beans descended to his plate, and he said again, barely above a whisper:
"Where in God A'mighty's name DID you come from?"
There was nothing human in the one room of his wilderness cabin to speak of. At the first glance there was nothing alive in the room, with the exception of Jim Falkner himself. There was not even a dog, for Jim had lost his one dog weeks before. And yet he spoke, and his eyes glistened, and for a full minute after that he sat as motionless as a rock. Then something moved—at the farther end of the rough board table. It was a mouse—a soft, brown, bright-eyed little mouse, not as large as his thumb. It was not like the mice Jim had been accustomed to see in the North woods, the larger, sharp-nosed, rat-like creatures which sprung his traps now and then, and he gave a sort of gasp through his beard.
"I'm as crazy as a loon if it isn't a sure-enough down-home mouse, just like we used to catch in the kitchen down in Ohio," he told himself. And for the third time he asked. "Now where in God A'mighty's name DID YOU come from?"
The mouse made no answer. It had humped itself up into a little ball, and was eyeing Jim with the keenest of suspicion.
"You're a thousand miles from home, old man," Falkner addressed it, still without a movement. "You're a clean thousand miles straight north of the kind o' civilization you was born in, and I want to know how you got here. By George—is it possible—you got mixed up in that box of stuff SHE sent up? Did you come from HER?"
He made a sudden movement, as if he expected an answer, and in a flash the mouse had scurried off the table and had disappeared under his bunk.
"The little cuss!" said Falkner. "He's sure got his nerve!"
He went on eating his beans, and when he had done he lighted a lamp, for the half Arctic darkness was falling early, and began to clear away the dishes. When he had done he put a scrap of bannock and a few beans on the corner of the table.
"I'll bet he's hungry, the little cuss," he said. "A thousand miles—in that box!"
He sat down close to the sheet-iron box stove, which was glowing red-hot, and filled his pipe. Kerosene was a precious commodity, and he had turned down the lamp wick until he was mostly in gloom. Outside a storm was wailing down across the Barrens from the North. He could hear the swish of the spruce-boughs overhead, and those moaning, half-shrieking sounds that always came with storm from out of the North, and sometimes fooled even him into thinking they were human cries. They had seemed more and more human to him during the past three days, and he was growing afraid. Once or twice strange thoughts had come into his head, and he had tried to fight them down. He had known of men whom loneliness had driven mad—and he was terribly lonely. He shivered as a piercing blast of wind filled with a mourning wail swept over the cabin.
And that day, too, he had been taken with a touch of fever. It burned more hotly in his blood to-night, and he knew that it was the loneliness—the emptiness of the world about him, the despair and black foreboding that came to him with the first early twilights of the Long Night. For he was in the edge of that Long Night. For weeks he would only now and then catch a glimpse of the sun. He shuddered.
A hundred and fifty miles to the south and east there was a Hudson's Bay post. Eighty miles south was the nearest trapper's cabin he knew of. Two months before he had gone down to the post, with a thick beard to cover his face, and had brought back supplies—and the box. His wife had sent up the box to him, only it had come to him as "John Blake" instead of Jim Falkner, his right name. There were things in it for him to wear, and pictures of the sweet-faced wife who was still filled with prayer and hope for him, and of the kid, their boy. "He is walking now," she had written to him, "and a dozen times a day he goes to your picture and says 'Pa-pa—Pa-pa'—and every night we talk about you before we go to bed, and pray God to send you back to us soon."
"God bless 'em!" breathed Jim.
He had not lighted his pipe, and there was something in his eyes that shimmered and glistened in the dull light. And then, as he sat silent, his eyes clearing, he saw that the little mouse had climbed back to the edge of the table. It did not eat the food he had placed there for it, but humped itself up in a tiny ball again, and its tiny shining eyes looked in his direction.
"You're not hungry," said Jim, and he spoke aloud. "YOU'RE lonely, too—that's it!"
A strange thrill shot through him at the thought, and he wondered again if he was mad at the longing that filled him—the desire to reach out and snuggle the little creature in his hand, and hold it close up to his bearded face, and TALK TO IT! He laughed, and drew his stool a little more into the light. The mouse did not run. He edged nearer and nearer, until his elbows rested on the table, and a curious feeling of pleasure took the place of his loneliness when he saw that the mouse was looking at him, and yet seemed unafraid.
"Don't be scairt," he said softly, speaking directly to it. "I won't hurt you. No, siree, I'd—I'd cut off a hand before I'd do that. I ain't had any company but you for two months. I ain't seen a human face, or heard a human voice—nothing—nothing but them shrieks 'n' wails 'n' baby-cryings out there in the wind. I won't hurt you—" His voice was almost pleading in its gentleness. And for the tenth time that day he felt, with his fever, a sickening dizziness in his head. For a moment or two his vision was blurred, but he could still see the mouse—farther away, it seemed to him.
"I don't s'pose you've killed anyone—or anything," he said, and his voice seemed thick and distant to him. "Mice don't kill, do they? They live on—cheese. But I have—I've killed. I killed a man. That's why I'm here."
His dizziness almost overcame him, and he leaned heavily against the table. Still the little mouse did not move. Still he could see it through the strange gauze veil before his eyes.
"I killed—a man," he repeated, and now he was wondering why the mouse did not say something at that remarkable confession. "I killed him, old man, an' you'd have done the same if you'd been in my place. I didn't mean to. I struck too hard. But I found 'im in my cabin, an' SHE was fighting—fighting him until her face was scratched an' her clothes torn,—God bless her dear heart!—fighting him to the last breath, an' I come just in time! He didn't think I'd be back for a day—a black-hearted devil we'd fed when he came to our door hungry. I killed him. And they've hunted me ever since. They'll put a rope round my neck, an' choke me to death if they catch me—because I came in time to save her! That's law!
"But they won't find me. I've been up here a year now, and in the spring I'm going down there—where you come from—back to the Girl and the Kid. The policemen won't be looking for me then. An' we're going to some other part of the world, an' live happy. She's waitin' for me, she an' the kid, an' they know I'm coming in the spring. Yessir, I killed a man. An' they want to kill me for it. That's the law—Canadian law—the law that wants an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, an' where there ain't no extenuatin' circumstance. They call it murder. But it wasn't—was it?"
He waited for an answer. The mouse seemed going farther and farther away from him. He leaned more heavily on the table.
"It wasn't—was it?" he persisted.
His arms reached out; his head dropped forward, and the little mouse scurried to the floor. But Falkner did not know that it had gone.
"I killed him, an' I guess I'd do it again," he said, and his words were only a whisper. "An' to-night they're prayin' for me down there—she 'n the kid—an' he's sayin', 'Pa-pa—Pa-pa'; an' they sent you up—to keep me comp'ny—"
His head dropped wearily upon his arms. The red stove crackled, and turned slowly black. In the cabin it grew darker, except where the dim light burned on the table. Outside the storm wailed and screeched down across the Barren. And after a time the mouse came back. It looked at Jim Falkner. It came nearer, until it touched the unconscious man's sleeve. More daringly it ran over his arm. It smelled of his fingers.
Then the mouse returned to the corner of the table, and began eating the food that Falkner had placed there for it.
The wick of the lamp had burned low when Falkner raised his head. The stove was black and cold. Outside, the storm still raged, and it was the shivering shriek of it over the cabin that Falkner first heard. He felt terribly dizzy, and there was a sharp, knife-like pain just back of his eyes. By the gray light that came through the one window he knew that what was left of Arctic day had come. He rose to his feet, and staggered about like a drunken man as he rebuilt the fire, and he tried to laugh as the truth dawned upon him that he had been sick, and that he had rested for hours with his head on the table. His back seemed broken. His legs were numb, and hurt when he stepped on them. He swung his arms a little to bring back circulation, and rubbed his hands over the fire that began to crackle in the stove.
It was the sickness that had overcome him—he knew that. But the thought of it did not appall him as it had yesterday, and the day before. There seemed to be something in the cabin now that comforted and soothed him, something that took away a part of the loneliness that was driving him mad. Even as he searched about him, peering into the dark corners and at the bare walls, a word formed on his lips, and he half smiled. It was a woman's name—Hester. And a warmth entered into him. The pain left his head. For the first time in weeks he felt DIFFERENT. And slowly he began to realize what had wrought the change. He was not alone. A message had come to him from the one who was waiting for him miles away; something that lived, and breathed, and was as lonely as himself. It was the little mouse.
He looked about eagerly, his eyes brightening, but the mouse was gone. He could not hear it. There seemed nothing unusual to him in the words he spoke aloud to himself.
"I'm going to call it after the Kid," he chuckled, "I'm goin' to call it Little Jim. I wonder if it's a girl mouse—or a boy mouse?"
He placed a pan of snow-water on the stove and began making his simple preparations for breakfast. For the first time in many days he felt actually hungry. And then all at once he stopped, and a low cry that was half joy and half wonder broke from his lips. With tensely gripped hands and eyes that shone with a strange light he stared straight at the blank surface of the log wall—through it—and a thousand miles away. He remembered THAT day—years ago—the scenes of which came to him now as though they had been but yesterday. It was afternoon, in the glorious summer, and he had gone to Hester's home. Only the day before Hester had promised to be his wife, and he remembered how fidgety and uneasy and yet wondrously happy he was as he sat out on the big white veranda, waiting for her to put on her pink muslin dress, which went go well with the gold of her hair and the blue of her eyes. And as he sat there, Hester's maltese pet came up the steps, bringing in its jaws a tiny, quivering brown mouse. It was playing with the almost lifeless little creature when Hester came through the door.
He heard again the low cry that came from her lips then. In an instant she had snatched the tiny, limp thing from between the cat's paws, and had faced him. He was laughing at her, but the glow in her blue eyes sobered him. "I didn't think you—would take pleasure in that, Jim," she said. "It's only a mouse, but it's alive, and I can feel its poor little heart beating!"
They had saved it, and he, a little ashamed at the smallness of the act, had gone with Hester to the barn and made a nest for it in the hay. But the wonderful words that he remembered were these: "Perhaps some day a little mouse will help you, Jim!" Hester had spoken laughingly. And her words had come true!
All the time that Falkner was preparing and eating his breakfast he watched for the mouse, but it did not appear. Then he went to the door. It swung outward, and it took all his weight to force it open. On one side of the cabin the snow was drifted almost to the roof. Ahead of him he could barely make out the dark shadow of the scrub spruce forest beyond the little clearing he had made. He could hear the spruce-tops wailing and twisting in the storm, and the snow and wind stung his face, and half blinded him.
It was dark—dark with that gray and maddening gloom that yesterday would have driven him still nearer to the merge of madness. But this morning he laughed as he listened to the wailings in the air and stared out into the ghostly chaos. It was not the thought of his loneliness that come to him now, but the thought that he was safe. The Law could not reach him now, even if it knew where he was. And before it began its hunt for him again in the spring he would be hiking southward, to the Girl and the Baby, and it would still be hunting for him when they three would be making a new home for themselves in some other part of the world. For the first time in months he was almost happy. He closed and bolted the door, and began to WHISTLE. He was amazed at the change in himself, and wonderingly he stared at his reflection in the cracked bit of mirror against the wall. He grinned, and addressed himself aloud.
"You need a shave," he told himself. "You'd scare fits out of anything alive! Now that we've got company we've got to spruce up, an' look civilized."
It took him an hour to get rid of his heavy beard. His face looked almost boyish again. He was inspecting himself in the mirror when he heard a sound that turned him slowly toward the table. The little mouse was nosing about his tin plate. For a few moments Falkner watched it, fearing to move. Then he cautiously began to approach the table. "Hello there, old chap," he said, trying to make his voice soft and ingratiating. "Pretty late for breakfast, ain't you?"
At his approach the mouse humped itself into a motionless ball and watched him. To Falkner's delight it did not run away when he reached the table and sat down. He laughed softly.
"You ain't afraid, are you?" he asked. "We're goin' to be chums, ain't we? Yessir, we're goin' to be chums!"
For a full minute the mouse and the man looked steadily at each other. Then the mouse moved deliberately to a crumb of bannock and began nibbling at its breakfast.
For ten days there was only an occasional lull in the storm that came from out of the North. Before those ten days were half over, Jim and the mouse understood each other. The little mouse itself solved the problem of their nearer acquaintance by running up Falkner's leg one morning while he was at breakfast, and coolly investigating him from the strings of his moccasin to the collar of his blue shirt. After that it showed no fear of him, and a few days later would nestle in the hollow of his big hand and nibble fearlessly at the bannock which Falkner would offer it. Then Jim took to carrying it about with him in his coat pocket. That seemed to suit the mouse immensely, and when Jim went to bed nights, or it grew too warm for him in the cabin, he would hang the coat over his bunk, with the mouse still in it, so that it was not long before the little creature made up its mind to take full possession of the pocket. It intimated as much to Falkner on the tenth and last day of the storm, when it began very business-like operations of building a nest of paper and rabbits' fur in the coat pocket. Jim's heart gave a big and sudden jump of delight when he saw the work going on.
"Bless my soul, I wonder if it's a girl mouse an' we're goin' to have BABIES!" he gasped.
After that he did not wear the coat, through fear of disturbing the nest. The two became more and more friendly, until finally the mouse would sit on Jim's shoulder at meal time, and nibble at bannock. What little trouble the mouse caused only added to Falkner's love for it.
"He's a human little cuss," he told himself one day, as he watched the mouse busy at work caching away scraps of food, which it carried through a crack in the sapling floor. "He's that human I've got to put all my grab in the tin cans or we'll go short before spring!" His chief trouble was to keep his snowshoes out of his tiny companion's reach. The mouse had developed an unholy passion for babiche, the caribou skin thongs used in the webs of his shoes, and one of the webs was half eaten away before Falkner discovered what was going on. At last he was compelled to suspend the shoes from a nail driven in one of the roof-beams.
In the evening, when the stove glowed hot, and a cotton wick sputtered in a pan of caribou grease on the table, Falkner's chief diversion was to tell the mouse all about his plans, and hopes, and what had happened in the past. He took an almost boyish pleasure in these one-sided entertainments—and yet, after all, they were not entirely one-sided, for the mouse would keep its bright, serious-looking little eyes on Falkner's face; it seemed to understand, if it could not talk.
Falkner loved to tell the little fellow of the wonderful days of four or five years ago away down in the sunny Ohio valley where he had courted the Girl and where they lived before they moved to the farm in Canada. He tried to impress upon Little Jim's mind what it meant for a great big, unhandsome fellow like himself to be loved by a tender slip of a girl whose hair was like gold and whose eyes were as blue as the wood-violets. One evening he fumbled for a minute under his bunk and came back to the table with a worn and finger-marked manila envelope, from which he drew tenderly and with almost trembling care a long, shining tress of golden hair.
"That HERS," he said proudly, placing it on the table close to the mouse. "An' she's got so much of it you can't see her to the hips when she takes it down; an' out in the sun it shines like—like—glory!"
The stove door crashed open, and a number of coals fell out upon the floor. For a few minutes Falkner was busy, and when he returned to the table he gave a gasp of astonishment. The curl and the mouse were gone! Little Jim had almost reached its nest with its lovely burden when Falkner captured it.
"You little cuss!" he breathed reverently. "Now I know you come from her! I know it!"
In the weeks that followed the storm Falkner again followed his trap-lines, and scattered poison-baits for the white foxes on the Barren. Early in January the second great storm of that year came from out of the North. It gave no warning, and Falkner was caught ten miles from camp. He was making a struggle for life before he reached the shack. He was exhausted, and half blinded. He could hardly stand on his feet when he staggered up against his own door. He could see nothing when he entered. He stumbled over a stool, and fell to the floor. Before he could rise a strange weight was upon him. He made no resistance, for the storm had driven the last ounce of strength from his body.
"It's been a long chase, but I've got you now, Falkner," he heard a triumphant voice say. And then came the dreaded formula, feared to the uttermost limits of the great Northern wilderness: "I warn you! You are my prisoner, in the name of His Majesty, the King!"
Corporal Carr, of the Royal Mounted of the Northwest, was a man without human sympathies. He was thin faced, with a square, bony jaw, and lips that formed a straight line. His eyes were greenish, like a cat's, and were constantly shifting. He was a beast of prey, as much as the wolf, the lynx, or the fox—and his prey was men. Only such a man as Carr, alone would have braved the treacherous snows and the intense cold of the Arctic winter to run him down. Falkner knew that, as an hour later he looked over the roaring stove at his captor. About Carr there was something of the unpleasant quickness, the sinuous movement, of the little white ermine—the outlaw of the wilderness. His eyes were as merciless. At times Falkner caught the same red glint in them. And above his despair, the utter hopelessness of his situation, there rose in him an intense hatred and loathing of the man.
Falkner's hands were then securely tied behind him.
"I'd put the irons on you," Carr had explained a hard, emotionless voice, "only I lost them somewhere back there."
Beyond that he had not said a dozen words. He had built up the fire, thawed himself out, and helped himself to food. Now, for the first time, he loosened up a bit.
"I've had a devil of a chase," he said bitterly, a cold glitter in his eyes as he looked at Falkner. "I've been after you three months, and now that I've got you this accursed storm is going to hold me up! And I left my dogs and outfit a mile back in the scrub."
"Better go after 'em," replied Falkner. "If you don't there won't be any dogs an' outfit by morning."
Corporal Carr rose to his feet and went to the window. In a moment he turned.
"I'll do that," he said. "Stretch yourself out on the bunk. I'll have to lace you down pretty tight to keep you from playing a trick on me."
There was something so merciless and brutal in his eyes and voice that Falkner felt like leaping upon him, even with his hands tied behind his back.
He was glad, however, that Carr had decided to go. He was, filled with an overwhelming desire to be rid of him, if only for an hour.
He went to the bunk and lay down. Corporal Carr approached, pulling a roll of babiche cord from his pocket.
"If you don't mind you might tie my hands in front instead of behind," suggested Falkner. "It's goin' to be mighty unpleasant to have 'em under me, if I've got to lay here for an hour or two."
"Not on your life I won't tie 'em in front!" snapped Carr, his little eyes glittering. And then he gave a cackling laugh, and his eyes were as green as a cat's. "An' it won't be half so unpleasant as having something 'round your NECK!" he joked.
"I wish I was free," breathed Falkner, his chest heaving. "I wish we could fight, man t' man. I'd be willing to hang then, just to have the chance to break your neck. You ain't a man of the Law. You're a devil."
Carr laughed the sort of laugh that sends a chill up one's back, and drew the caribou-skin cord tight about Falkner's ankles.
"Can't blame me for being a little careful," he said in his revolting way. "By your hanging I become a Sergeant. That's my reward for running you down."
He lighted the lamp and filled the stove before he left the cabin. From the door he looked back at Falkner, and his face was not like a man's, but like that of some terrible death-spirit, ghostly, and thin, and exultant in the dim glow of the lamp. As he opened the door the roar of the blizzard and a gust of snow filled the cabin. Then it closed, and a groaning curse fell from Falkner's lips. He strained fiercely at the thongs that bound him, but after the first few minutes he lay still breathing hard, knowing that every effort he made only tightened the caribou-skin cord that bound him.
On his back, he listened to the storm. It was filled with the same strange cries and moaning sound that had almost driven him to madness, and now they sent through him a shivering chill that he had not felt before, even in the darkest and most hopeless hours of his loneliness and despair. A breath that was almost a sob broke from his lips as a vision of the Girl and the Kid came to shut out from his ears the moaning tumult of the wind. A few hours before he had been filled with hope—almost happiness, and now he was lost. From such a man as Carr there was no hope for mercy, or of escape. Flat on his back, he closed his eyes, and tried to think—to scheme something that might happen in his favor, to foresee an opportunity that might give him one last chance. And then, suddenly, he heard a sound. It traveled over the blanket that formed a pillow for his head. A cool, soft little nose touched his ear, and then tiny feet ran swiftly over his shoulder, and halted on his breast. He opened his eyes, and stared.
"You little cuss!" he breathed. A hundred times he had spoken those words, and each time they were of increasing wonder and adoration. "You little cuss!" he whispered again, and he chuckled aloud.
The mouse was humped on his breast in that curious little ball that it made of itself, and was eyeing him, Jim thought, in a questioning sort of way, "What's the matter with you?" it seemed to ask. "Where are your hands?"
And Jim answered:
"They've got me, old man. Now what the dickens are we going to do?"
The mouse began investigating. It examined his shoulder, the end of his chin, and ran along his arm, as far as it could go.
"Now what do you think of that!" Falkner exclaimed softly. "The little cuss is wondering where my hands are!" Gently he rolled over on his side.
"There they are," he said, "hitched tighter 'n bark to a tree!"
He wiggled his fingers, and in a moment he felt the mouse. The little creature ran across the opened palm of his hand to his wrist, and then every muscle in Falkner's body grew tense, and one of the strangest cries that ever fell from human lips came from his. The mouse had found once more the dried hide-flesh of which the snowshoe webs were made. It had found babiche. And it had begun TO GNAW!
In the minutes that followed Falkner scarcely breathed. He could feel the mouse when it worked. Above the stifled beating of his heart he could hear its tiny jaws. In those moments he knew that his last hope of life hung in the balance. Five, ten minutes passed, and not until then did he strain at the thongs that bound his wrists. Was that the bed that had snapped? Or was it the breaking of one of the babiche cords? He strained harder. The thongs were loosening; his wrists were freer; with a cry that sent the mouse scurrying to the floor he doubled himself half erect, and fought like a madman. Five minutes later and he was free.
He staggered to his feet, and looked at his wrists. They were torn and bleeding. His second thought was of Corporal Carr—and a weapon. The man-hunter had taken the precaution to empty the chambers of Falkner's revolver and rifle and throw his cartridges out in the snow. But his skinning-knife was still in its sheath and belt, and he buckled it about his waist. He had no thought of killing Carr, though he hated the man almost to the point of murder. But his lips set in a grim smile as he thought of what he WOULD do.
He knew that when Carr returned he would not enter at once into the cabin. He was the sort of man who would never take an unnecessary chance. He would go first to the little window—and look in. Falkner turned the lamp-wick lower, and placed the lamp on the table directly between the window and the bunk. Then he rolled his blankets into something like a human form, and went to the window to see the effect. The bunk was in deep shadow. From the window Corporal Carr could not see beyond the lamp. Then Falkner waited, out of range of the window, and close to the door.
It was not long before he heard something above the wailing of the storm. It was the whine of a dog, and he knew that a moment later the Corporal's ghostly face was peering in at the window. Then there came the sudden, swift opening of the door, and Carr sprang in like a cat, his hand on the butt of his revolver, still obeying that first governing law of his merciless life—caution, Falkner was so near that he could reach out and touch Carr, and in an instant he was at his enemy's throat. Not a cry fell from Carr's lips. There was death in the terrible grip of Falkner's hands, and like one whose neck had been broken Carr sank to the floor. Falkner's grip tightened, and he did not loosen it until Carr was black in the face and his jaw fell open. Then Falkner bound him hand and foot with the babiche thongs, and dragged him to the bunk.