Ralph signed to his brother and Nick laid out an array of presents and passed them with due solemnity to the old man.
"Ow-ow!" grunted Man-of-the-Snow-Hill, as he waved the things away to his squaw. He was not satisfied, and his eyes watered as though he were weeping.
Then Ralph went on.
"We have come on the 'long trail' through the mountains. And we seek the White Squaw of the Moosefoot Indians."
The chief remained quite calm, but his bleared old eyes shot a sidelong gleam at the speaker in which there was little friendliness. No other movement was allowed to give evidence of disquiet. It is part of the upbringing of the neche to eschew all outward signs of emotion. The Sun Dance, when the braves are made, is the necessary education in this direction. Ralph saw the look but failed to take its meaning. The squaw watched the white men with keen interest. Nick was groping about in the depths of a gunny-sack.
Ralph plunged into the fantastic story which he and Nick had prepared. The language of the Cree helped him, for the natural colouring of the Indian tongues is as flowery as that of any Eastern race.
"We come from beyond the mountains, from the hunting-grounds of forest and river where the great fathers of the Moosefoot Indians dwelt. We come to tell the White Squaw that the land cries out for her, and the return of the children of the Moose. We come to speak with her of these things, for the time has come when she must leave her forest home and return to her own land. Man-of-the-Snow-Hill must show us the way. We have many presents which we will give him."
"It is well," said the great man, closing his eyes while the water oozed from between the compressed lids. "The white men are the friends of the Moosefoot people, and they have many presents. Have they fire-water?"
Nick produced some bottles and the great man reached for them greedily. But the other withheld them.
"What will Man-of-the-Snow-Hill do for the fire-water?" Ralph asked.
The interpreter passed the word.
"He will send his favourite squaw to guide the white men," he answered at once. "He can do no more."
A dozen bottles of vanilla essence passed over to the chief. A number of other presents were handed to him. Then without a word the squaw arose and accompanied the white men out.
And without further delay the brothers continued their journey. Fleet of foot, untiring, silent as only an Indian woman can be, the squaw led the way. North, north; always north they travelled, over hill, through forest and deep white valley, without let-up to their eager speed. The superstitious dread which had hitherto so afflicted the white men now fell away from them. Night came on swift and silent, and camp was pitched on the edge of a dense forest.
Ere the daylight had quite died out the squaw took the two men to the crest of a hill. She looked out across the virgin carpet of towering pines below them and pointed with one blanket-covered arm outstretched. She was silent while she indicated several points in the vast panorama before her. Then she tried to tell them something.
But her language was the language of her tribe, and neither of the men could understand her. Then she spoke in the language of signs, which all Indians speak so well.
She raised her hand, pointing eastward, till it reached a point directly overhead. Then she pointed to her feet, and her hand moved slowly in a northern direction, after which she made a running movement with her feet. Then she bent her body and appeared to be gazing about her, searching. Finally she pointed to two very large trees which stood out apart from their fellows. Then again came the motion of running, which finished quickly, and she pointed first to Nick's face and then to herself. After that she stood motionless, with arms folded over her bosom. And the two men read her meaning.
At daylight they were to start out northward and travel until midday. Then they were to halt and search the outskirts of the forest until they found two mammoth trees standing apart. The space between them was the mouth of a pathway into the heart of the forest. They were to traverse this path a short distance, and they would discover the White Squaw.
Ralph nodded his head slowly in token of comprehension. He waited to see if she had aught further to say. But the woman remained standing where she was, slightly aloof and with her arms folded. Her sleepy eyes were watching the last dying gleam of daylight away in the west. Suddenly, out upon the still air, came a doleful cry. It was long-drawn-out and mournful, but it travelled as mountain cries will travel. It came waving upon the air with a certain rise and fall in it like the rippling of water. It rose up, up, and then lingeringly died out. The men listened, and looked in the direction whence it came, and, as they looked, a feeling of awe swept over them. In a rush the old "dread" awoke, and their gaze was filled with the expression of it.
Out to the west the forest lay gloomy, brooding; and within a few hundred yards of them stood the mighty sentry trees which the squaw had pointed out. But now between them, breaking up the dead white carpet which covered the earth, the tall form of the Hooded Man stood silhouetted. Grim and ghostly he looked, as, motionless, he gazed upon the watchers.
With the instinct of self-defence which the wild teaches so insistently, Nick unslung his rifle. Ere Ralph could stay him the shot rang out, echoing away over the tree-tops. The figure had disappeared, and the unblemished carpet of snow was as it had been before. Nick stood aghast, for he was a dead shot. Ralph gazed helplessly at the spot where the man had stood.
Suddenly Nick gasped.
"It—it ain't human."
And Ralph had no answer to make.
Then presently they turned to where the Moosefoot squaw had stood. She, too, had gone; vanished as completely as had the Hooded Man. There was the trail of her snow-shoes ruffling the snow, and the men ran following it as far as the forest edge; but here they stood. They could follow no further. Night was upon them. Slowly they returned to camp.
The next day they continued their journey with almost fanatical persistence. They found no sentry-trees such as the squaw had described. Forest, yes, but where in that region could they fail to find forest? The abode of the White Squaw was nowhere to be found.
That night they decided upon their next move in the quiet, terse manner of men who cannot bring themselves to speak of the strange feelings which possess them; who are ashamed of their own weakness, and yet must acknowledge it to themselves.
"An' to-morrow—" said Nick, glancing apprehensively around beyond the fire, over which they were sitting, fighting the deadly cold of the night.
"To-morrow?" echoed Ralph.
"Where?" asked Nick, looking away towards the south.
Ralph followed the direction of his brother's gaze.
"Um." And he nodded.
"An' the Wh—"
Ralph shook his head, and smoked on solemnly.
THE WHITE SQUAW
Down the sharp incline Nick ran beside his dogs; Ralph was close behind. They were home once more in their own silent valley, and were pushing on to avoid the coming snow-storm which the leaden hue of the sky portended. So the dogs were rushed along at a great pace, for the dugout was beyond, a full hour distant.
It had been a weary journey, that return from the quest of the White Squaw. But the weariness had been mental. The excitement of their going had eaten up their spirit, and left them with a feeling of distressing lassitude. They were sobered; and, as men recovering from drunkenness, they felt ashamed, and their tempers were uncertain.
But as the string of huskies raced down into the valley they knew so well, yelping a joyful greeting to the familiar objects about them, the men began to feel better, and less like those who are detected in unworthy actions.
The dogs emerged upon their original outward-bound trail and pursued it along the edge of the forest. They needed no urging, and even set a pace which taxed all their masters' speed. The sight of the familiar scenes had banished the "Dread of the Wild" from the minds of the two men, and their spirits rose as they approached the frost-bound river below their home. There were no stealing glances into the gloomy shelter of the woods, no nervous backward turns of the head. They looked steadily ahead for the glad sight of their home; and the snap of the crisp snow under the heavy-footed dogs, and the eager, steady pull on the traces brought a cheerful light to their eyes such as had not been there for days.
But although they had failed to discover the White Squaw, she was by no means forgotten. A certain sense of relief had followed their first moments of keen disappointment, but it was only a revulsion of their strained nerves; thoughts of her which were, perhaps, less fiery and reckless, but consequently more enduring, still possessed them.
Ralph was especially calm. He had thought the whole thing over in his deliberate fashion, and, finally, admitted to himself that what had happened was for the best. Nick was less easy. His disappointment had slightly soured an already hasty, but otherwise kindly, disposition. He needed something of his brother's calm to balance him. But, however, in both cases, somewhere deep down in their hearts the fateful flame so strangely kindled was still burning; a deep, strong, unquenchable fire.
They were almost home. Before them lay the frozen waterway. Beyond that, and above, rose the hill, on the face of which stood their shack; and about them was the brooding silence, still and portentous, but familiar.
The lead-dog plunged down the bank and the rest followed, whilst Ralph and Nick steadied the laden sled. The brief passage was made, and Nick's whip drove the fierce, willing beasts at the ascent beyond. Then, ere the sled had left the river, and while the dogs still struggled in their harness to lift its nose over what was almost a cut-bank, and when Nick's attention was most needed, the whip suddenly became idle, and his stock of driving-curses changed to a shout of alarmed surprise.
Down he dropped upon his knees; and, with head bent low, examined the disturbed surface of the snow. In an instant Ralph was at his side. The dogs had ceased to pull and crouched down in their traces. A strange and wonderful thing had happened. In their absence their valley had been invaded, and the indications were those of human agency.
Nick pointed, and his outstretched forefinger moved slowly over a footprint indicating the sharp, clean outline which the surface of the snow still retained. A moccasin-covered foot had trodden there; and the mark left was small, smaller than that of an ordinary man. And the two heads, almost touching, bent over it in silent scrutiny.
Presently Ralph raised his eyes and looked ahead. Step by step he traced the marks on up the hill in the direction of the dugout, and, at last, silent speculation gave place to tense, low-spoken words.
"Injun moccasins," he said.
"Guess so, by the seamin'."
"'Tain't a buck neche, neither."
There was an impressive pause, and the silent land seemed weighted down as with an atmosphere of gloomy presage. Nick broke it, and his voice had in it a harsh ring. The fire of passion was once more alight in his eyes.
"It's a squaw's," he added.
"Yes, sure; a squaw's," and Ralph swallowed a deep breath as though his surroundings stifled him.
A thrill of emotion moved both men. There had leapt within them, in one great, overwhelming tide, all the old reckless craze for the shadowy creature of Victor's story. At the mere suggestion of a squaw's presence in that valley their blood-tide surged through their veins like a torrent of fire, and their pulses were set beating like sledge-hammers. A squaw! A squaw! That was their cry. Why not the White Squaw?
Whilst Ralph gazed on ahead Nick still bent over the footprint. The delicate shape, the deep hollow of the ball of the foot, the round cup which marked the heel, and, between them, the narrow, shallow indentation which formed the high-arched instep. In fancy he built over the marks the tall, lithe, straight-limbed creature Victor had told them of. He saw the long flowing hair which fell in a shower upon her shoulders; and the beautiful eyes blue as the summer sky. In a moment his tanned face was transformed and became radiant.
Ralph, the quiet and thoughtful, was no less moved. But he turned from his brother, hugging his own anticipations to himself, and concealing them behind a grim mask of impassivity. His eyes were bright with the same insistent idea, but he told himself that the thing was impossible. He told himself that She lived in the north, and not even the chase of the far-travelling moose could have brought her hither from her forest home. These things he said in his caution, but he did not listen to the voice of his doubt, and his heart beat in great bounding pulsations.
Suddenly Nick sprang from the ground, and short and sharp came his words.
"Let's git on."
"Ay," replied Ralph, and he turned back to the sled.
And again the dogs laid foot to the ground; and again the voice of Nick roused the hollow echoes of the shimmering peaks; again the song of the sled-runners rose and fell in cadence brisk and sharp on the still, cold air. But all the world was changed to the men. The stillness was only the stillness which appeals to the physical senses. There was a sensation of life in the air; a feeling of living surroundings; a certain knowledge that they were no longer alone in their valley. A woman was present; the woman.
The widening break of the forest gave place to a broad sloping expanse of snow-land. It was the hill down which they had travelled many thousands of times. Above, more snow-laden forest, and above that the steel of the glacier which rose till its awful limits plunged into the grey world of cloud. The dugout was not yet in view; there was a scored and riven crag, black and barren, impervious to the soft caresses of velvety snow, to be passed ere the home which was theirs would be sighted. Besides, as yet neither of the men had turned their eyes from the trailing footprints to look ahead. Thus they came to the higher ground.
Now the barren crag seemed to thrust itself out, an impassable barrier; a mute protest at further progress; a grim, silent warning that the home beyond was no longer for them, no longer the home they had always known. And the hard-breathing dogs toiled on, straining at their breast-harness, with bodies heaving forward, heads bent low, and quarters drooped to give them surer purchase. They, too, as though by instinct, followed the footprints. As the marks swung out to pass the jutting cliff the lead-dog followed their course; Nick, on the right of them, moved wide, and craned to obtain a first view of the hut. Suddenly he gave a great shout. The dogs dropped in their harness and crouched, snarling and snapping, their jaws clipping together with the sound of castanets, whilst their wiry manes rose upon their shoulders bristling with ferocity which had in it something of fear. Ralph reached his brother's side and peered beyond the cliff.
And as he looked his breath suddenly ceased, and one hand clutched his brother's arm with a force that bruised the softer flesh, and in silence the two men gaped at the vision which they beheld. There was what seemed an endless pause while the men and dogs alike focused their gaze upon the strange apparition.
A figure, calm, serene, stood before the door of the dugout, from which the logs had been removed. Like a sentry "at ease" the figure stood resting gracefully, leaning upon the muzzle of a long rifle. Fur crowned the head which was nobly poised, and a framing of flowing dark hair showed off to perfection the marble-like whiteness of the calm, beautiful face. The robes were characteristic of the Northern Indians; beads, buckskin and fur. A tunic reached to the knees, and below that appeared "chaps," which ended where woollen stockings surmounted moosehide moccasins.
A wild, picturesque figure was this creature of the mountain solitude; and, to the wondering eyes of the two men, something which filled them with superstitious awe and a primitive gladness that was almost overpowering. The dogs alone seemed to resent the intrusion. There was no joy in their attitude which was one of angry protest.
Nick broke the silence.
"White—white," he murmured, without knowledge that he spoke aloud.
Ralph's face was working. His excitement, slow to rise, now overwhelmed him, and he answered in a similar tone.
"That hair," he muttered. "Dark, dark; an' them chaps wi' beads of Injun patte'n. An' the muzzle-loadin' weapin."
Nick took up the argument as his brother broke off.
"It's a squaw, too."
"Her eyes, he says, was blue," Ralph murmured, breathing hard.
"An' she was leanin' on a gun," Nick added softly.
"By Gar! It is!"
Nick turned to the dogs with the wild impetuosity of a man who knows not the meaning of patience. His fiery orders fairly hurled the brutes at their task, and the sled leapt forward. On, on, they sped, till they halted within a few yards of the silent figure.
The woman showed no signs of fear, a matter which both men set down to the fact that she was a queen among her own people. She still stood in the position in which she had watched their approach. There was not a quiver of the delicate eyelids, not a tremor of the perfect mouth. Proud, haughty, and masked by the impassivity of the Indian races, she awaited the coming of the strangers.
And as men and dogs halted there was an awkwardness. How should they address her? They consulted, and their whisperings were loud enough to reach her ears. They did not attempt to suppress their tones unduly. This woman, they knew, did not understand the tongue of the whites, and probably knew only the language of the Moosefoot people. Therefore they spoke unguardedly. They admitted to each other the woman's identity. Ralph was for speaking to her in Cree; Nick for the language of signs. And while they talked the woman looked on. Had they been keenly observant they would have seen the shadow of an occasional smile curl the corners of her beautiful lips. As it was they saw only the superb form, and eyes so wondrously blue, shining like sapphires from an oval face framed with waves of black hair.
At last Ralph advanced toward her.
"You're welcome to our shack," he said, in Cree.
The woman shook her beautiful head, but smiled upon him; and the simple soul felt the blood rush from heart to head.
"Try signs," said Nick impatiently. "How's the White Squaw o' the Moosefoots goin' to savvee a low-down bat like Cree. I sed so 'fore."
The blue eyes were turned on Nick with a deep inscrutable smile. Nick felt that life at her feet was the only life possible.
And Ralph resorted to signs, while Nick alternated his attention between his idolatrous, silent worship of the lovely woman and clubbing his dogs into quiescence. Their angry protests seemed to express something more abiding than mere displeasure at the intrusion of a stranger. They seemed to feel a strong instinctive antagonism toward this beautiful woman.
Ralph persisted with his signs. The woman read them easily and replied in her own sign-language, which was wonderful to behold. Ralph and Nick read it as though they were listening to a familiar tongue.
She told them that she was Aim-sa, which is the Moosefoot for "Blue-Sky"; and that she was the White Squaw, the queen of her people. She indicated that she was out on a "long trail" hunting, and that she had found herself in this valley, with a snow-storm coming on. She had seen the dugout and had sought its shelter, intending to remain there until the storm had passed. She made it clear to them that a bull moose and four cows had entered the valley. She had trailed them for many days. She asked the brothers if, when the storm had passed, they would join her in the hunt.
And to all she said Ralph replied in his less perfect signs, prompted by Nick with blundering impetuosity; and, at the end of the parley, a perfect harmony prevailed. Two great rough men, with hearts as simple and trusting as those of infants, led this stranger into their home, and made it clear that the place was hers for so long as she chose to accept their hospitality.
A fire was kindled. A meal was cooked. The hut grew warm and comforting. The dogs outside yelped pitifully and often snuffed angrily at the sill of the door. And the White Squaw calmly accepted the throne of that silent world, which had so long known only the joint rule of the two brothers. She looked out upon her subjects with eyes which drove them wild with adoration, but which said nothing but that which she chose to convey. Nor did her features betray one single thought that might chance to be passing in the brain behind. She wore an impenetrable mask of reserve while she watched the effect of the womanly power she wielded.
And that night saw a change in the ordering of the trappers' household. The two men talked it over after their meal. Ralph broached the subject.
He waved his arm, the bowl of his pipe gripped in his horny hand, while its stem indicated the entire hut.
"Hers," he said. And his eyes were dragged from the object of his solicitude and turned upon Nick.
His brother nodded as he puffed at his pipe.
"The shed," Ralph went on. "The huskies must burrow in the snow."
Again Nick nodded.
"Wants sweepin' some," observed Ralph again.
"Yup. We'll fix it."
"Best git to it."
And so the brothers moved out of their home, and went to live in the place which had been given over to the dogs. They would have done more, far more, in their love for the woman who had so strangely come into their midst. They felt that it was little enough that they must lie where the dogs were wont to herd. They needed little comfort, and she must have the best they could give. And so the brothers moved out of their home.
The snow fell that night; a silent, irresistible mountain snow-storm, without a breath of wind, in flakes as big as a tennis-ball. Down they ambled, seeming to loiter in indolent playfulness on the way. And up, up, mounted the earth's white carpet, thicker and thicker, softer and softer. And at daylight the men confronted eight feet of snow, through which they had to dig their way. They cleared the dugout that their priceless treasure, the wondrous creature who had come to them, might see the light of day. And as they laboured the snow continued to fall; and at night. The next day, and the next, they cleared while the forest below was being slowly buried, and all the world about them seemed to be choked with the gentle horror.
But Ralph and his brother, Nick, feared nothing. They loved the labour; for was it not on behalf of the beautiful White Squaw?
THE WEIRD OF THE WILD
For five days the snow fell without ceasing. Then the weather cleared and the sun shone forth, and the temperature, which had risen while the ghostly snow filled the air, dropped with a rush many degrees below zero.
Again the call of the forest came to the two men, claiming them as it ever claims those who are bred to the craft of trap and fur; and for the first time in their lives, the call was hearkened to by unwilling ears, ears which sought to turn from the alluring cry, ears that craved only for the seductive tones of love. But habit was strong upon these woodsmen, and they obeyed the voice which had always ruled their lives, although with the skeleton of rebellion in their hearts.
The days passed, and March, the worst month of the mountain winter, was rapidly nearing; and with it a marked change came over the routine of the Westleys' home. Hitherto Ralph and Nick were accustomed to carry out their work singly, each scouring the woodlands and valleys in a direction which was his alone, each making his own bag of furs, which, in the end, would be turned over to the partnership; but Aim-sa joined them in their hunting, and, somehow, it came about that the men found it necessary to work together.
They no longer parted at daybreak to meet again when the stealing night shades fell. It became the custom for a party of three to set out from the hut, and the skilled trappers found themselves willingly deferring to a woman in the details of their craft, the craft of which they were acknowledged masters.
But this was not the only change that took place with the coming of the White Squaw. For a woman of the wild, for a woman who had been bred in the mysterious depths of the northern forests, away from her fellow creatures, shut off from all associations of men, Aim-sa displayed a wondrous knowledge of those arts which women practise for the subjugation of the opposite sex. She set herself the task of administering to her companions' welfare in the manner which has been woman's from the first. She took to herself the bothersome duties with which no man, however self-reliant, loves to be burdened. She went further. She demanded and accepted the homage of each of the brothers, not impartially, but favouring first one and then the other, with the quiet enjoyment of a woman who looks on at the silent rivalry of two men who seek her smiles.
And as the days lengthened, and the winter crept on toward spring, the peace of the house was slowly but surely undermined. Eve had appeared in the Garden.
The calm that still remained was as the smooth surface of water about to boil. Beneath it was chaos which must soon break out into visible tumult. The canker of jealousy fastened itself like a secret growth upon the uncultured hearts of the men, sapping and undermining that which was best in their natures.
And Aim-sa looked on with eyes which smiled inscrutably; with silent tongue, and brain ever busy. In due course she showed signs of beginning to understand her comrades' language. She even essayed to speak it herself; and, as she stumbled prettily over the words, and placed them wrongly, she became more and more a source of delight, an object of adoration to the poor souls who had been so suddenly born to this new life. With keen appreciation she saw these things while she listened to their speech between themselves, and her great, deep eyes would wear many varying expressions, chief among which was the dark, abiding smile.
There could be no doubt that what she saw she interpreted aright. She was too clever in everything else to do otherwise. Nick, impatient, headstrong, could never long conceal his feelings. His eyes would express displeasure the moment the quieter Ralph chanced to monopolize Aim-sa's attention. Every smile she bestowed upon the elder brother brought a frown to the younger man's brow. Every act or look which could be interpreted into an expression of regard for his brother fired his soul with feelings of aversion and anger till he was well-nigh distracted. Nor was Ralph any less disturbed. In his undemonstrative way he watched Nick, and suffered the acutest pangs of jealousy at what he believed was Aim-sa's marked preference. But the woman continued to stir the fire she had kindled with a childlike naivete which was less of the wild than of the drawing-room.
And as day succeeded day, and week followed week, the companionship of these men became forced. The old tacit understanding was replaced by a feverish desire to talk; and this forced conversation only helped to widen the rift which was already gaping between them.
One night the friction almost resulted in a blaze.
Ralph was lying prone upon his back, buried to the neck in his "Arctic bag." He was smoking, as was his custom, while waiting for sleep to come. An oil lamp reeked upon the earthen floor and threw its bilious rays little further than the blankets spread out upon either side of it. For a long time Ralph had lain silently gazing up at the frosted rafters above him, while his brother sat cross-legged at work restringing his snow-shoes with strands of rawhide. Suddenly Ralph turned his face towards him in silent contemplation. He watched Nick's heavy hands with eyes that wore a troubled look. Then he abruptly broke the long silence.
"Victor don't know as she's here," he said.
Nick looked up, glanced round the room, shook his head, and bent over his work again.
"No," he answered shortly.
"Maybe he won't jest laff."
Again came Nick's monosyllabic reply.
"Guess we'd best let him know."
There was a pause. Ralph waited for his brother to speak. As no answer came he went on.
"Who's goin' to tell him?"
Still there was no reply. The silence was broken only by the "ping" of the rawhide strands which Nick tested as he drew tight.
"We need some fixin's fer her," Ralph went on, a moment later. "Wimmin, I 'lows, has fancies. Now, maybe, Victor's got a mighty fine show o' print stuffs. A bit o' Turkey red wouldn't come amiss, I dessay. Likewise beads."
"Why don't you take the dogs an' run in?"
Nick's hands suddenly became motionless; his eyes were raised until they looked into the face of his brother. His seared, weather-beaten skin flushed a desperate hue, and his eyes were alight and shining angrily. His lips twitched with the force of the passion stirring within him, and for some seconds he held himself not daring to trust to speech.
When at last he answered it was in a tone of fiery abruptness.
"Guess not," he said. And it was Ralph's turn to hold back the anger which rose within him.
"Say, brother," said Nick, with a biting distinctness, "quit right there. Ther' ain't no need fer another word."
For a moment Ralph peered into the other's face; but he remained silent. Then he turned over upon his pillow with a sound very like a muttered curse. And from that moment the gulf between them became impassable. Aim-sa was a subject henceforth tabooed from their conversation. Each watched the other with distrust, and even hatred, full grown within him.
And soon there came a further disturbing element in that mountain home. It awoke all the dormant atmosphere of mystery, which, in the minds of the two men, surrounded the lovely Aim-sa. It awoke afresh the "Dread of the Wild" that had assailed them on their journey north.
It came in the early morning, when the world about them was cloaked in the grey shroud of daylight mists; when the silent forests above and below them were rendered even more ghostly and sepulchral by reason of the heavy vapour which depressed all on which it settled. Nick was standing, rifle in hand, preparing to sling it across his back. Ralph was stooping to adjust his snow-shoes. Aim-sa had been left within the hut.
A gentle breeze, like the icy breath of some frozen giant on the peak above the hut, came lazily down the hillside. It broke the fog into a turmoil of protest. The heavy vapour rolled in huge waves, sought to return to its settled calm, then slowly lifted from the flustered tree-tops. Another breath, a little stronger than the first, shot forcefully into the heart of the morning fog and scattered it mercilessly. Then the whole grey expanse solemnly lifted. Up it rose; nor did it pause until the lower hills were bared, and the wintry sun shone splendidly down upon the crystal earth.
And as the air cleared the keen eyes of Nick flashed out in a swift survey of the prospect. Suddenly his breathing was sharply indrawn. His rifle never reached his shoulder, but remained gripped in his hand. His eyes had become riveted upon a low hill far out across the valley. It looked as though it rose sheer out of the forest below, but the watching man knew full well that it was only a spur of the giant that backed it. It was the summit of this clear-cut hill, and what was visible upon it, that held his fascinated attention. Suddenly a half-whispered word escaped him and Ralph was beside him in a moment.
"Look!" And Nick's arm was outstretched pointing.
And Ralph looked in time to see the ghostly form of the Hooded Man as it slowly passed from view over the hill.
"The Hood!" exclaimed Ralph, in awestruck tones.
"What's—what's he doin' here?" Ralph asked, more of himself than of his brother. Then he added: "He's on our trail."
There was a slight pause.
"It's somethin' on her account," Nick said, at last, with uneasy conviction.
As if actuated by a common thought, both turned and looked back at the hut. Nor was their uneasiness lessened when they beheld Aim-sa standing directly behind them, gazing out across the woodland hollow with eyes distended with a great fear. So absorbed was she that she did not observe the men's scrutiny, and only was her attention drawn to them when she heard Nick's voice addressing her. Then her lids drooped in confusion and she hastily turned back to the house. But Nick was not to be denied.
"Ye've seen him," he said sharply; "him wi' the hood?" And he made a motion with his hand which described the stranger's headgear.
Aim-sa nodded, and Nick went on.
"We seen him up north. On the trail to the Moosefoot."
The woman again nodded. She quite understood now, and her eyes brightened suddenly as she turned their dazzling depths of blue upon her questioner. She understood these men as they little thought she understood them.
"It is the Spirit—the Great Spirit," she said, in her broken speech. "The Spirit of—Moosefoot Indian. Him watches Aim-sa—Queen of Moosefoot. She—White Squaw."
Ralph turned away uneasily. These mysterious allusions troubled him. Nick could not withdraw his fascinated gaze. Her strange eyes held him captive.
They took her words without a doubt. They accepted all she said without question. They never doubted her identity with the White Squaw. Primitive superstition deeply moved them.
"You was scared when you see him just now?" said Ralph, questioningly.
"He come to—take me," she said, halting over the words. "The Moosefoot—they angry—Aim-sa stay away."
Nick thrust his rifle out towards her.
"Here take it. It shoots good. When 'The Hood' comes, shoot—savvee?"
Aim-sa took the gun and turned back to the hut. And the men passed out into the forest.
Aim-sa left the hut soon after the brothers had departed. For long she stood just beyond the door as though not sure of what she contemplated doing.
And as she stood her eyes travelled acutely over the silent valley. At last, however, she moved leisurely down the hill. Her easy gait lasted just so long as she was in the open; the moment she entered the forest her indifference vanished and she raced along in the dark shadow with all the speed she could summon. The silence, the heavy, depressing atmosphere, the labyrinth of trees so dark and confusing; these things were no deterrent to her. Her object was distinct in her mind and she gave heed to nothing else. She ran on over the snow with the silent movements of some ghostly spirit, and with a swiftness which told of the Indian blood in her veins. Her dilating eyes flashed about her with the searching gaze of one who expects to see something appear, while not knowing whence it will come. Her flowing hair trailed from under her cap with the speed of her going, and the biting air stung her face into a brilliant glow. Her direction was plainly in her mind, for, though dodging her way through trees, she never deviated from a certain course; all her thoughts, all her attention, were centred upon the object of her quest.
Nor did she pause till she came to the low hill which stood on the far side of the valley. As she came to the edge of the forest which skirted its base she drew up and stood for a moment hesitating. Once she raised a hand to her mouth as though about to give voice to a prolonged mountain call, but she desisted, and, instead, set out to round the hill, always keeping to the shadow of the forest edge.
At length she stopped. Her hand went up to her mouth and her head was thrown back, and out upon the still air rang a cry so mournful that even the forest gloom was rendered more cheerless by its sound. High it rose, soaring upwards through the trees until the valley rang with its plaintive wail. As if recognizing the distressful howl of their kind, the cry came back to her from the deep-toned throats of prowling timber-wolves. The chorus rang in her ears from many directions as she listened, but the sound? had little effect. As they died down she still waited in an attitude of attention.
The moments slipped by. Presently she again sent the call hurtling through the trees. Again came the chorus; again she waited. And the sounds of the chorus were nearer at hand, and a crackling of undergrowth warned her of the presence of the savage creatures she had summoned. The deep blue eyes were alert and watchful, but she showed no signs of fear; nor did she move. Suddenly a less stealthy and more certain crackling of the bush made itself heard; and the roving eyes became fixed in one direction. Beneath the shadow of the laden boughs a tall grey figure appeared moving towards her. But this was not all, for several slinking, stealing forms were moving about amongst the barren tree-trunks; hungry-looking creatures these, with fierce burning eyes and small pricked ears, with ribs almost bursting through the coarse hides which covered their low, lank bodies.
But all the woman's attention was centred upon the form of the other—the hooded figure she had seen in the morning. He came with long, regular strides, a figure truly calculated to inspire awe. Even now, near as he was to her, there was no sign of his face to be seen. He was clad in the folds of grey wolfskin, and a cowl-like hood utterly concealed his face, while leaving him free to see from within.
As the man came up Aim-sa plunged into voluble speech.
They talked together long and earnestly; their tones were of dictation on the part of the woman and subservience on the part of the man. Then the Spirit of the Moosefoot Indians moved away, and the White Squaw retraced her steps to the dugout.
A look of triumph was in Aim-sa's blue eyes as she returned through the forest. She gave no heed to the slinking forms that dogged her steps. She saw nothing of the forest about her; all her interest was in the dugout and those who lived there.
When she came to the house she received a shock. Nick had returned during her absence. He had come for the dog sled, and had since brought the vast carcass of a grizzly into camp. Now he was stripping the rich fur from the forest king's body. The five huskies, with shivering bodies and jowls dripping saliva, were squatting around upon their haunches waiting for the meal they hoped would soon be theirs.
The man, still kneeling over his prize, greeted Aim-sa without pausing in his work.
"Wher'?" he asked, sparing his words lest he should confuse her.
The unconcern of the query reassured her.
"The forest," replied Aim-sa easily, pointing away down the hill.
There was a long pause while the woodsman plied his knife with rough but perfect skill. The thick fur rolled under his hands. The snick, snick of his knife alternated with the sound of tearing as he pulled the pelt from the under-flesh. Aim-sa watched, interested, then, as Nick made no further remark, she went on. She pointed back at the forest.
"The wolves—they very thick. Many, many—an' hungry."
"They've left the open. Guess it's goin' to storm, sure," observed the man indifferently. He wrenched the fur loose from the fore paws.
"Yes—it storm—sure." And Aim-sa gazed critically up at the sky. The usual storm sentries hung glittering upon either side of the sun, and the blue vault was particularly steely.
Nick rose from his gory task. He drew the fur away and spread it out on the roof of the dugout to freeze. Then he cut some fresh meat from the carcass, and afterwards dragged the remainder down the hill and left it for the dogs. The squabble began as soon as he returned to Aim-sa. A babel of fierce snarling and yapping proceeded as the ruthless beasts tore at the still warm flesh. And in less than a minute other voices came up from the woods, heralding the approach of some of the famished forest creatures. Nick gave no heed. The dogs must defend their own. Such is the law of the wild. He had Aim-sa to himself, and he knew not how long it would be before his brother returned.
And Aim-sa was in no way loth to linger by this great trapper's side. It pleased her to talk in her halting fashion to him. He had more to say than his brother; he was a grand specimen of manhood. Besides, his temperament was wilder, more fierce, more like the world in which he lived.
She hearkened to the sounds of the snarling wolves and her blue eyes darkened with the latent savagery that was in her nature.
"The dogs—they fight. Hah!" she said. And a smile of delight was in her eyes.
"Let 'em fight," said Nick, carelessly. Then he turned upon her with a look there was no mistaking. His whole attitude was expressive of passionate earnestness as he looked down into the blue worlds which confronted him.
She taunted him with a glance of intense meaning. And, in an instant, the fire in his soul blazed into an overwhelming conflagration.
"You're that beautiful, Aim-sa," he cried. Then he paused as though his feelings choked him. "Them blue eyes o' yours goes right clear through me, I guess. Makes me mad. By Gar! you're the finest crittur in the world."
He looked as though he would devour the fair form which had raised such a storm within his simple heart. She returned his look with a fearlessness which still had some power to check his untutored passion. Her smile, too, was not wholly devoid of derision; but that was lost upon him.
"Aim-sa—beautiful. Ah! yes—yes, I know. You speak love to me. You speak love to White Squaw."
"Ay, love," cried Nick, the blood mounting with a rush to his strong face. "Guess you don't know love, my girl. Not yet. But mebbe you will. Say, Aim-sa, I'll teach it ye. I'll teach it ye real well, gal. You'll be my squaw, an' we'll light right out o' here. I've got half share in our pile, an' it ain't a little. Jest say right here as ye'll do it, an' I'll fix things, an' hitch up the dogs."
Nick paused in his eloquence. The squaw's eyes danced with delight, and he read the look to suit himself. Already he anticipated a favourable answer. But he was quickly undeceived. Aim-sa merely revelled in the passion she had aroused, like a mischievous child with a forbidden plaything. She enjoyed it for a moment, then her face suddenly became grave, and her eyelids drooped over the wonderful eyes which he thought had told him so much. And her answer came with a shake of the head.
"Aim-sa loves not. She must not. The Moosefoot—she is Queen."
"Curses on the Moosefoot, I say," cried Nick, with passionate impulse.
Aim-sa put up her hand.
"The man—'The Hood.' Fear the Spirit."
A chill shot down through Nick's heart as he listened. But his passion was only checked for the moment. The next and he seized the woman in his powerful arms and drew her to his breast, and kissed her not too unwilling lips. The kiss maddened him, and he held her tight, while he sought her blindly, madly. He kissed her cheeks, her hair, her eyes, her lips, and the touch of her warm flesh scorched his very soul. Nor is it possible to say how long he would have held her had she not, by a subtle, writhing movement, slipped from within his enfolding arms. Her keen ears had caught a sound which did not come from the fighting dogs. It was the penetrating forest cry in the brooding mountain calm.
"Remember—'The Hood,'" Aim-sa warned him. And the next moment had vanished within the dugout.
Now Nick knew that he too had heard the cry, and he stood listening, while his passion surged through his veins and his heart beat in mighty pulsations. As he gazed over the forest waste, he expected to see the mysterious hooded figure.
But what he beheld brought an angry flush to his cheeks. He did not see "The Hood," but Ralph walking slowly up the hill.
And a harsh laugh which had no mirth in it broke from him. Then a frown settled darkly upon his brow. What, he asked himself, had Ralph returned for? He bore no burden of skins.
And when Ralph looked up and saw Nick whom he believed to be miles away, his heart grew bitter within him. He read the look on the other's face. He saw the anger, and a certain guiltiness of his own purpose made him interpret it aright. And in a flash he resolved upon a scheme which, but for what he saw, would never have presented itself to him.
And as the gleaming sun-dogs, drooping so heavily yet angrily in the sky, heralded the coming storm of elements, so did that meeting of the two brothers threaten the peace of the valley.
IN THE STORMING NIGHT
The love of these men for the fair creature of the wild had risen to fever-heat with the abruptness of tropical sunshine. It was no passing infatuation, but the deep-rooted, absorbing passion of strong simple men; a passion which dominated their every act and thought; a passion which years alone might mellow into calm affection, but which nothing could eradicate. It had come into their lives at a time when every faculty was at its ripest; henceforth everything would be changed. The wild, to them, was no longer the wild they had known; it was no longer theirs alone. Their life had gathered to itself a fresh meaning; a meaning drawn from association with Woman, and from which it could never return to the colourless existence of its original solitude.
With the return of Ralph to the camp the day progressed in sullen silence. Neither of the men would give way an inch; neither would return to the forest to complete his day's work, and even Aim-sa found their morose antagonism something to be feared. Each watched the other until it seemed impossible for the day to pass without the breaking of the gathering storm. But, however, the time wore on, and the long night closed down without anything happening to precipitate matters.
The evening was passed in the woman's company. Ralph sat silent, brooding. While Nick, with the memory of the wild moments during which he had held Aim-sa in his embrace fresh upon him, held a laboured conversation with her. To him there was a sense of triumph as he sat smoking his blackened pipe, listening to the halting phrases of the woman, and gazing deeply into her wonderful blue eyes. And in the ecstasy of recollection he forgot Ralph and all but his love. There was no generosity in his heart; he had given himself up to the delights of his passion. He claimed the fair Aim-sa to himself, and was ready to uphold his claim so long as he had life.
All that long evening he heeded nothing of the dark expression of Ralph's face. The furtive glances from his brother's eyes were lost upon him, and even had he seen them their meaning would have had no terrors for him. With all the blind selfishness of a first love he centred his faculties upon obtaining Aim-sa's regard, and lived in the fool's paradise of a reckless lover.
And all the time Ralph watched, and planned. The bitterness of his heart ate into the uttermost part of his vitals, the canker mounted even to his brain. The deep fire of hatred was now blazing furiously, and each moment it gathered destructive force. All that was good in the man was slowly devoured, and only a shell of fierce anger remained.
But what Nick failed to observe Aim-sa saw as plainly as only a woman can see such things. Her bright eyes saw the fire she had kindled, and from sheer wantonness she fanned the flame with all the art of which she was mistress.
Slowly the hours passed. It was Nick who at last rose and gave the signal for departure. It was an unwritten law between these two that when one left Aim-sa's presence they both left it. Therefore Ralph followed suit, and they retired to their sleeping-apartment.
Outside the night was fine, but the threat of storm hung heavily in the air. The temperature had risen, a sure indication of the coming blizzard. Ralph was the last to leave the woman's presence, and, ere he closed the door, he looked back at the smiling face, so beautiful to him, so seductively fair in his eyes; and the memory of the picture he looked upon remained with him. He saw the dull-lit interior, with its rough woodsman's belongings; the plastered walls of logs, coarse and discoloured; the various utensils hanging suspended from five-inch spikes driven in the black veins of timber; the blazing stove and crooked stovepipe; the box of tin dishes and pots; the sides of bacon hanging from the roof; the pile of sacks containing biscuit and dried fish, the latter for the dogs; the outspread blankets which formed the woman's bed; and in the midst of it all the dazzling presence of Aim-sa, fair as the twilight of a summer evening.
The door closed softly, and as it closed Aim-sa rose from her blankets. Her expression had changed, and while the men went to their humble couches she moved about with feverish haste, attentive to the least sound, but always hurried, and with a look of deep anxiety in her alert eyes.
No word was spoken as the men rolled into their blankets. The thick wall shut out all sound from within the hut. The night was intensely still and silent. Not even was there a single wolf-howl to awaken the echoes of the towering hills. It was as though all nature was at rest.
Nick was soon asleep. Not even the agitation of mind caused by a first love could keep him long awake when the hour for sleep came around. With Ralph it was different. His nature was intenser. His disposition was capable of greater disturbance than was that of the more impetuous Nick. He remained awake; awake and alert. He smoked in the darkness more from habit than enjoyment. Although he could see nothing his eyes constantly wandered in the direction of the man beside him, and he listened for the heavy breathing which should tell him of the slumber which would endure till the first streak of dawn shot athwart the sky. Soon it came; and Nick snored heavily.
Then, without sound, Ralph sat up in his blankets. He bent his head towards the sleeper, and, satisfied, rose softly to his feet. Opening the door he looked out. All was profoundly quiet and black. Not a star shone in the sky, nor was there a sign of the dancing northern lights. And while he stood he heard for the first time that night the cry of some distant forest creature; but the timber-wolves kept silent in the depths below the hut. He drew the door to behind him and moved out into the night.
Cold as it was he was consumed by a perfect fever of agitation. His thoughts were in a state of chaos, but the one dominant note which rang out with clarion-like distinctness was that which drew him towards Aim-sa's door. And thither he stole softly, silently, with the tiptoeing of a thief, and with the nervous quakings of a wrong-doer. His face was wrought with fear, with hope, with the eagerness of expectancy.
He passed from the deeper shadows in which the lean-to was bathed, and stood at the angle of the house. He paused, and a flurrying of the snow at his feet warned him that he had stepped close to the burrow of one of Nick's huskies. He moved quickly aside, and the movement brought him beyond the angle. Then he stood stock-still, held motionless as he saw that the door of the dugout was open and the light of the oil-lamp within was illuminating the beaten snow which fronted the house. He held his breath. Again and again he asked himself the meaning of the strange phenomenon.
From where he stood he could see only the light; the doorway was hidden by the storm-porch. But, as he strained his eyes in the direction and craned forward, he became aware of a shadow on the snow where the lamp threw its dull rays. Slowly he scanned the outline of it, and his mind was moved by speculation. The shadow was uncertain, and only that which was nearest the door was recognizable. Here there was no mistake; some one was standing in the opening, and that some one could only be Aim-sa.
He was filled with excitement and his heart beat tumultuously; a frenzy of delight seized upon him, and he stepped forward swiftly. A moment later he stood confronting her.
Just for one moment Aim-sa's face took on a look of dismay, but it passed before Ralph had time to read it. Then she smiled a glad welcome up at the keen eyes which peered down into her own, and her voice broke the silence in a gentle, suppressed tone.
"Quiet—quiet. The night. The storm is near. Aim-sa watches."
Ralph turned his face out upon the blackness of the valley, following the direction of the woman's gaze.
"Ay, storm," he said mechanically, and his heart pounded within his breast, and his breath came and went heavily. Then, in the pause which followed, he started and looked towards the lean-to as a sound came from that direction. He was half-fearful of his sleeping brother.
Aim-sa's eyes turned towards the rugged features before her, and her gaze was of an intensity such as Ralph could not support in silence. Words blundered unbidden to his lips, uncontrolled, and he spoke as a man who scarce knows what he is saying. His mind was in the throes of a fever, and his speech partook of the irrelevance of delirium.
"You must live with me," he said, his brows frowning with the intensity of his passion. "You must be my wife. The white man takes a squaw, an' he calls her 'wife,' savvee? Guess he ain't like the Injuns that has many squaws. He jest takes one. You'll be my squaw, an' we'll go away from here."
A smile was in the woman's blue eyes, for her memory went back to the words Nick had spoken to her that morning.
Ralph went on.
"Guess I love you that bad as makes me crazy. Ther' ain't nothin' to life wi'out you." His eyes lowered to the ground; then they looked beyond her, and he gazed upon the disordered condition of the room without observing it. "Nick don't need me here. He can have the shack an' everything, 'cep' my haf share o' the money. Guess we'll trail north an' pitch our camp on the Peace River. What say?"
Aim-sa's eyes were still smiling. Every word Nick had spoken was vivid in her memory. She looked as though she would laugh aloud, but she held herself in check, and the man took her smile for one of acquiescence and became bolder. He stretched out his hand and caught hers in his shaking grasp.
"The white man loves—Aim-sa," the woman said, softly, while she yielded her two hands to him.
"Love? Ay, love. Say, ther' ain't nothin' in the world so beautiful as you, Aim-sa, an' that's a fac'. I ain't never seen nothin' o' wimmin before, 'cep' my mother, but I guess now I've got you I can't do wi'out you, you're that soft an' pictur'-like. Ye've jest got to say right here that you're my squaw, an' everything I've got is yours, on'y they things I leave behind to Nick."
"Ah," sighed the woman, "Nick—poor Nick. He loves—Aim-sa, too. Nick is great man."
"Nick loves you? Did he get tellin' ye so?"
There was a wild, passionate ring in Ralph's question.
The squaw nodded, and the man's expression suddenly changed. The passionate look merged into one of fiery anger, and his eyes burned with a low, dark fire. Aim-sa saw the sudden change, but she still smiled in her soft way.
The voice of the man was choking with suppressed passion. His whole body trembled with the chaos of feeling which moved him.
The woman shook her head.
"An' what did ye say?" he went on, as she remained silent.
"Nick is great. No, Aim-sa not loves Nick."
Ralph sighed with relief, and again the fiery blood swept through his veins. He stepped up close to her and she remained quite still. The blue eyes were raised to his face and Aim-sa's lips parted in a smile. The effect was instantaneous. Ralph seized her in a forceful embrace, and held her to him whilst he gasped out the passionate torrent of his love amidst an avalanche of kisses. And they stood thus for long, until the man calmed and spoke with more practical meaning.
"An' we go together?" he asked.
The woman shook her head.
"No—sunrise. I wait here."
Again they stood; he clasping her unresisting form, while the touch of her flowing hair intoxicated him, and the gentle rise and fall of her bosom drove all thought wild within him.
They stood for many minutes; till at last the still night was stirred by the rustling herald of the coming storm. The long-drawn-out sigh of the wind, so sad, so weird in the darkness of night would have passed unheeded by the man, but Aim-sa was alert, and she freed herself from his embrace.
"At sunrise," she said. "Now—sleep." And she made a sign as of laying her head upon a pillow.
Ralph stood irresolute. Suddenly Aim-sa started. Her whole bearing changed. A swift, startled gaze shot from beneath her long, curling lashes in the direction of the distant hills. A tiny glimmer of light had caught her attention and she stepped back on the instant and passed into the hut, closing the door softly but quickly behind her. And when she had disappeared Ralph stood as one dazed.
The significance of Aim-sa's abrupt departure was lost upon him. For him there was nothing unusual in her movements. She had been there, he had held her in his arms, he had kissed her soft lips. He had tasted of love, and the mad passion had upset his thoughtful nature. His mind and his feelings were in a whirl and he thrilled with a delicious joy. His thoughts were so vivid that all sense of that which was about him, all caution, was obscured by them. At that moment there was but one thing that mattered to him,—Aim-sa's love. All else was as nothing.
So it came that the faint light on the distant hills burned steadily; and he saw it not. So it came that a shadowy figure moved about at the forest edge below him; and he saw it not. So it came that the light breath from the mountain-top was repeated only more fiercely; and he heeded it not. In those moments he was living within himself; his thoughts were his world, and those thoughts were of the woman he had kissed and held in his arms.
Nothing gave him warning of the things which were doing about him. He saw no tribulation in the sea upon which he had embarked. He loved; that was all he knew. Presently like a sleep-walker he turned and moved around towards the deeper shadow of the lean-to. Then, when he neared the door of the shed in which his brother was, he seemed to partially awake to his surroundings. He knew that he must regain his bed without disturbing Nick. With this awakening he pulled himself together. To-morrow at sunrise he and the squaw were to go away, and long he lay awake, thinking, thinking.
Now the shadow hovering at the forest edge became more distinct as it neared the house; it came slowly, stealing warily up the snow-clad hill. There was no scrunch of footsteps, the snow muffled all such sounds. It drew nearer, nearer, a tall, grey, ghostly shadow that seemed to float over the white carpet which was everywhere spread out upon the earth. And as it came the wind rose, gusty and patchy, and the hiss of rising snow sounded stingingly upon the night air, and often beat with the force of hail against the front of the dugout.
Within a few yards of the hut the figure came to a halt. Thus it stood, immovable, a grey sombre shadow in the darkness of night. Then, after a long pause, high above the voice of the rising wind the howl of the wolf rang out. It came like a cry of woe from a lost soul; deep-toned, it lifted upon the air, only to fall and die away lost in the shriek of the wind. Thrice came the cry. Then the door of the dugout opened and Aim-sa looked out into the relentless night.
The figure moved forward again. It drew near to the door, and, in the light, the grey swathing of fur became apparent, and the cavernous hood lapping about the head identified the Spirit of the Moosefoot Indians. Then followed a low murmur of voices. And again the woman moved back into the hut. The grey figure waited, and a moment later Aim-sa came to him again. Shortly after the door closed and the Spirit moved silently away.
All was profoundly dark. The darkness of the night was a darkness that could be felt, for the merciless blizzard of the northern latitudes was raging at its full height. The snow-fog had risen and all sign of trail or footstep was swept from the icy carpet. It was a cruel night, and surely one fit for the perpetration of cruel deeds.
And so the night passed. The elements warring with the fury of wildcats, with the shrieking of fiends, with the roaring of artillery, with the merciless severity of the bitter north. And while the storm swept the valley the two brothers slept; even Ralph, although torn by such conflicting emotions, was lulled, and finally won to sleep by the raging elements whose voices he had listened to ever since his cradle days.
But even his slumbers were broken, and strange visions haunted his night hours. There was none of the peacefulness of his usual repose—the repose of a man who has performed his allotted daylight task. He tossed and twisted within his sleeping-bag. He talked disjointedly and flung his arms about; and, finally, while yet it was dark, he awoke.
Springing into a sitting posture, he peered about him in the darkness. Everything came back to his mind with a rush. He remembered his appointment at sunrise, and he wondered how long he had slept. Again he crept to the shed door. Again he looked out and finally passed out. Nick still slumbered heavily.
The fury of the elements was unabated and they buffeted him; but he looked around and saw the grey daylight illuminating the snow-fog, and he knew that though sunrise was near it was not yet. He passed around the hut, groping with his hands upon the building until he came to the door. Here he paused. He would awake Aim-sa that she might prepare for her flight with him. There was much to be done. He was about to knock but altered his mind and tried the latch. It yielded to his touch and the door swung back.
He did not pause to wonder, although he knew that it was Aim-sa's custom to secure the door. He passed within, and in a hoarse whisper called out the name that was so dear to him. There came no answer and he stood still, his senses tense with excitement. He called again, again. Still there was no answer. Now he closed the door, which creaked over the snow covering the sill. He stood listening lest Nick should be moving on the other side of the wall, and to ascertain if Aim-sa had awakened and was fearful at the intrusion. But no sound except the rage of the storm came to him.
His impatience could no longer be restrained; he plunged his hand into the pocket of his buckskin shirt and drew out a box of matches. A moment later a light flashed out, and in one sweeping, comprehensive glance around him he realized the truth. The hut was empty. "Gone, gone," he muttered, while, in rapid survey, his eyes glanced from one familiar object to another.
Everything was out of place, there were signs of disorder everywhere; and the woman was gone.
Suddenly the wind rushed upon the house with wild violence and set everything in the place a-clatter. He lit the lamp. Then he seemed to collect himself and went over and felt the stove. It was ice cold. The blankets were laid out upon the floor in the usual spread of the daytime. They had not been slept in.
Into his eyes there leapt a strange, wild look. The truth was forcing itself upon him, and his heart was racked with torment.
"She's gone," he muttered again, "an'," as an afterthought, "it's storming terrible. Wher'? Why?"
He stood again for awhile like a man utterly at a loss. Then he began to move, not quietly or with any display of stealth. He was no longer the self-contained trapper, but a man suddenly bereft of that which he holds most dear. He ran noisily from point to point, prying here, there, and everywhere for some sign which could tell him whither she had gone. But there was nothing to help him, nothing that could tell him that which he would know. She had gone, vanished, been spirited away in the storm.
He was suddenly inspired. It was the realization of the condition of the night which put the thought into his head. With a bound he sprang back to the door and flung it open. To an extent the storm-porch was sheltered, and little drift-snow had blown in to cover the traces of footsteps. Down he dropped upon hands and knees. Instantly all his trailing instincts were bent upon his task. Yes, there were footprints, many, many. There were his own, large moccasins of home manufacture. There were Aim-sa's, clear, delicate, and small. And whose were those other two? He ran his finger over the outline as though to impress the shape more certainly upon his mind.
"Wide toe," he muttered, "long heel, an' high instep. Large, large, too. By G——, they're Injun!"
He gave out the last words in a shout which rang high above the noise of the storm; he sprang to his feet and dashed out around to the lean-to. At the door he met his brother. Nick had been roused by his brother's cry.
Seeing the expression of Ralph's face the larger man stood.
"By Gar!" he cried. Then he waited, fearing he knew not what.
"She's gone," shouted Ralph. "Gone, gone, can't ye hear?" he roared. "Gone, an' some darned neche's been around. She's gone, in the blizzard. Come!"
And he seized Nick by the arm and dragged him round to the door of the dugout.
THE UNQUENCHABLE FIRE
An interminable week of restless inaction and torture followed Aim-sa's disappearance. Seven long, weary days the blizzard raged and held the two brothers cooped within their little home. The brief, grey daylight dragged to its howling end, and the seemingly endless nights brought them little relief. The only inhabitants of the hut on the wild hillside that offered no complaint, and even seemed to welcome the change, were Nick's huskies. They displayed a better temper since the going of the White Squaw, although the change in their attitude was unheeded by their masters.
The antagonism of the men was no longer masked by sullen silence. It broke out into open hostility almost the moment their loss was discovered, and it took the form of bickering and mutual reprisal. Nick laid the charge of her departure at Ralph's door. Applying all the most unreasonable arguments in support of his belief. Ralph retaliated with a countercharge, declaring that Nick had caused her flight by thrusting his unwelcome attentions upon her. And every word they uttered on the subject added fuel to the fire of their hatred, and often they were driven to the verge of blows.
Nick had no reason in him; and, in his anger, Ralph was little better. But where a certain calmness came to the latter when away from his brother, Nick continued to fume with his mind ever set upon what he regarded as only his loss. Thus it came that Ralph saw ahead, hazily it is true, but he saw that the time had come when they must part. It was impossible for them to continue to shelter under the same roof, the roof which had covered them since the days of their earliest recollections.
But though he saw this necessity, he did not broach the subject, for, like his brother, he looked forward to the abatement of the storm so that he might set out in search of the lost one. Besides, he felt that until Aim-sa was found he could not part from Nick. Even in his hatred for his brother, even in his calmest moments, jealousy supervened. Were they to part, Nick might be the one to find her, and then—No, they must wait till the storm had passed, afterwards it would be time to act. Meanwhile, by tacit consent, they continued to live in the lean-to, reserving the dugout for the object of their love, against her return.
At length the weather cleared. The search began at once. Each day they set out for the forest and hills with hope buoying their hearts; and each night they returned with downcast looks, despair in their hearts, and with their brooding anger against each other a dark flame leaping within them.
Sometimes, in stolen moments, they visited the place Aim-sa had lived in. Every day Ralph would clean up the dugout and leave it ready for the White Squaw's occupation when she returned. Every article of furniture had its allotted place, the place which she had selected. With the utmost deliberation he would order everything, and never had their mountain home been so tenderly cared for. Then Nick would come. His brother's handiwork would drive him to a frenzy of anger, and he would reset the place to his own liking, at which Ralph's exasperation would break out in angry protest.
The metamorphosis of these men could not have been more complete. They hated themselves, they grew to hate the home which was theirs, the wild in which they lived. They set their traps and hunted because it was their habit to do so, but always with only secondary thought for their calling. The chief object of their lives was to find the woman who had taught them the meaning of love.
Winter was waning. The soft snow in the forest was melting rapidly. Every morning found their valley buried beneath a pall of white fog. The sun's power was rapidly increasing, and already a slush of snow-water was upon the ice-bound river. The overpowering heights of the valley gleamed and sparkled in the cheery daylight; the clear mountain air drew everything nearer, and the stifling sense, inspired by the crush of towering hills, was exaggerated as the sun rose in the heavens and revealed the obscurer recesses of the stupendous world. And now, too, the forest grew dank and moist, and the steady dripping of the melting snow upon the branches became like a heavy rainfall within the gloomy depths.
One day Ralph returned home first. He was cooking the supper. The sun was dipping behind the western mountain-tops, and the red gold reflection swept in a rosy flush over the crystal summits. The winter sky had given place to the deeper hue of spring, and, in place of the heavy grey cloud-caps, fleecy puffs of white, little less dazzling than the snowy hills themselves, dotted the azure vault above. The forest was alive with the cries of the feathered world, as they sought their rest in their newly-built nests. It was not the bright chatter of gay song-birds such as belong to warmer climes, but the hoarse cries of water-fowl, and the harsh screams of the preying lords of wing and air. The grey eagle in his lofty eyrie; the gold-crested vulture-hawk; creatures that live the strenuous life of the silent lands, fowl that live by war. The air was very still; the prospect perfect with a wild rugged beauty.
The train dogs were lying about lazily, but their attitude was deceptive. Their fierce eyes were only partially closed, and they watched the cook at his work, waiting for their share in the meal.
Presently a sharp snarl broke from one of them, and he sprang to his feet and walked round his neighbour in a hectoring fashion. Ralph just glanced up from his work, his attitude expressing indifference. The second dog rose leisurely, and a silent argument over some old-time dispute proceeded in true husky fashion. They walked round and round each other, seeming almost to tiptoe in their efforts to browbeat. Their manes bristled and their fangs bared to the gums, but never a sound came from their deep-toned throats. And such is ever the way of the husky, unless stirred to the wildest fury. The other dogs paid no heed; the smell which emanated from Ralph's cooking-pot held them. Those who wished to fight could do so; their indifference plainly said so.
Ralph went to the shed and returned with some fresh logs. As he reached the fire he paused. The disputing dogs had attracted his attention. A quick spring in and out, a slash of the bared fangs, and the shoulder of one dog was laid open. The other brutes were on their feet in an instant. The scent of blood had greater attraction for their wolfish senses than the smell of cooking food. They gathered round with licking lips. Ralph stepped back from the fire and raised aloft one of the logs he had brought. The next moment it was hurtling through the air. It took the combatants somewhere in the midst. They parted, with a howl of pain, and the spectators hurriedly returned to their contemplation of the fire. In a moment temporary peace was restored. Ralph stood to see that hostilities were definitely postponed, then he went on with his work.
Suddenly, up out of the valley came the sound of Nick's voice. It trolled harshly up the hillside, giving out strange echoes which confused the melody he essayed. The listening man recognized the words of "The Red River Valley," but the tune was obscured.
The unusual outburst held Ralph silent, wondering. Nick was not given to singing at any time, and the events of the last few days were not likely to inspire him. What had caused the change?
The voice sounded nearer. In spite of the tunelessness of the song, Ralph thought he detected a joyousness in the tone which was unusual. A shiver passed down his back, and his thoughts flew at once to Aim-sa.
Gazing down the hill he saw Nick emerge from the forest and face the slope at a swinging pace. His powerful limbs moved easily, with a springiness of stride that was not natural to a man accustomed to the labours of the "long trail." His face was no longer bathed in desponding gloom; his eyes were shining, and his strong features had upon them an expression of triumph. He brought with him an atmosphere as fresh and joyous as the dawn of a mountain summer sky.
Over his shoulder were slung several moist pelts, newly taken from the carcasses of golden foxes, and in his hand he carried two large traps, which he was bringing home for repair. But these things were passed unheeded by his brother; it was the voice, and the look upon his face that unpleasantly fixed Ralph's attention. But a further astonishment came to the waiting man. Nick shouted a greeting as he came.
"A great day, Ralph," he cried. "Two o' the finest yeller-bellies I've seed. Most as big as timber-wolves."
Ralph nodded, but said no word. He knew without being told that it was not the pleasure of such a catch which had urged Nick to cordiality. He watched the coming of his brother with his quiet, steady eyes, and what he beheld beat his heart down, down, as though with the fall of a sledge-hammer.
As Nick's overtures met with no response, he said no more, but came and stood beside the spluttering fire, while his eyes searched the gloomy face of his brother. Then, with an impatient movement, he threw his traps down and removed the pelts from his shoulder. He passed over to the dugout and spread the reeking hides upon the roof, well out of reach of the dogs; then he returned in silence to the fire.
His coming had been the signal for a renewal of hostilities among the dogs, and now a sharp clip of teeth drew his attention. The two beasts Ralph had separated were at it again. Nick seized a pole and trounced them impartially till they scattered out of his reach.
A portentous silence followed. Nick was casting about in his mind for something agreeable to say. He felt good. So good that he did not want to tell Ralph what was in his mind. He wanted to be sociable, he wanted to break through the icy barrier which had risen between them; he felt that he could afford to do so. But ideas were not forthcoming. He had but one thought in his brain, and when, at last, he spoke it was to blurt out the very thing he would withheld.
"I've seen her," he said, in a voice tense with emotion.
And Ralph had known it from the moment he had heard his brother singing. He looked up from his cooking-pot, and his fork remained poised above the black iron lid. At last his answer came in a hoarse whisper.
"Yes, I spoke to her, I guess."
"Spoke to her?"
And the whites of the elder man's eyes had become bloodshot as he stood up from his crouching attitude over the fire.
His stolid face was unmoved, only his eyes gave expression to that which passed behind them. There was a dangerous look in their sunken depths which the depressed brows accentuated. He looked into his brother's face, and, for awhile, the supper was forgotten.
"Yes, spoke to her," said Nick, emphatically. "She ain't gone from us. She ain't left this valley. She's scairt o' the Moosefoots. That all-fired 'Hood.' She said as they were riled that she'd stopped in the white man's lodge. Said they'd made med'cine an' found out where she'd gone. Say, that 'Hood' is the very devil, I'm thinkin'. She's scairt to death o' him."
But though Ralph listened to his brother's words he seemed to pay little heed. The blow had fallen on him with stunning force. Nick had seen Aim-sa; he had been with her that day, perhaps all day. And at the thought he broke out in a sweat. Something seemed to rise up in his throat and choke him.
"You look that glad. Maybe you've had a good time."
Ralph's words came as though he were thinking aloud.
The devil stirred in Nick's heart.
"Glad, man? Glad? Ay, I am that, surely. She said as she'd been on the watch fer me ever since the storm quit. She said as she wanted to hunt wi' me."
"An' why not? I ain't lyin', I guess. I 'lows she ain't like to say they things fer passin' time. She was allus easy an' free wi' me. Mebbe you're kind o' quiet. Wimmin mostly likes them as ken talk."
Ralph's eyes darkened. His set face became more rigid. Then suddenly a harsh laugh broke from his unmoving lips.
"Guess you're crazed, Nick. That woman's foolin' ye."
Then he swung about as the sound of a violent struggle came from among the dogs. It was the saving interruption. Another moment and the brooding hate of the two men would have broken loose. Nick turned, too. And he was just in time; for one of the huskies was down and the rest of the train were upon him, bent on tearing out the savage life. Nick clubbed them right and left, nor did he desist till the torn beast was upon his feet again, ready to face his antagonists with undiminished courage. The husky knows no other termination to a quarrel than the fight to the death.
It took Nick some minutes to restore peace among his dogs, and by the time this was accomplished his own feelings had calmed. Ralph, recognizing the danger of his mood, had gripped himself sternly, and returned to his cooking.
And so the crisis was passed and the disaster temporarily averted. But in their hearts both men knew that the savage wild, ingrained in their natures, would not always be so easily stifled. Unless they parted, a dire calamity must surely befall.
TO THE DEATH
The forest gloom is broken by gladdening beams of sunlight. They sketch a mazy fretwork pattern of light and shade on the dank underlay of rotting vegetation which the melting snow has laid bare. The air is weighted down with heavy, resinous odours, and an enervating warmth has descended to the depths of the lower forests. But Winter has not yet spread its wings for its last flight. Spring's approach has been heralded by its feathered trumpeters, garbed in their sober plumage. It is on its way, that is all. The transition of the seasons is at hand. Winter still resists, and the gentle legions of Spring have yet to fight out their annual battle. The forests are astir with wild, furred life; the fierce life which emphasizes the solitude of the mountain world. The pine-cones scrunch under the feet of the prowling beast as he moves solemnly upon his dread way; there is a swish of bush or a snapping of wood as some startled animal seeks cover; or a heavy crashing of branches, as the mighty-antlered moose, solemn-eyed, unheeding, thrusts himself through the undergrowth.
Ralph was bending over a large trap. It was still set although the bait had been removed. It had been set at the mouth of a narrow track where it opened out in a small, snow-covered clearing. The blood stains of the raw meat with which it had been baited were still moist, but the flesh itself had been taken. He turned from his inspection. There were footprints in the snow, evidently the tracks of a timber-wolf. His face expressed his disgust as he rebaited the trap. Wolves were the pest of his life. Their skins were almost worthless, and they were as cunning as any dog-fox. A trap had no terrors for them. He moved away to continue on his journey. Suddenly he drew up and scanned the white carpet. His trailing instincts were keenly alert.
The snow was disturbed by other marks than those made by the wolf. In places the ground was laid bare, and broken pine-cones were displayed upon its surface as though some great weight had crushed them. Moose suggested itself. He looked keenly at the marks. No, the snow displayed no imprint of cloven hoofs. It looked as though it had been raked by a close-set harrow. To him there was much significance in what he saw. Only one creature could have left such a track. There was but one animal in that forest world that moved with shambling gait, and whose paws could rake the snow in such a manner. That animal was the grizzly, the monarch of the mountain forest.
The man looked further over the snow, and, in a few moments, had learned all he wished to know. There were two distinct trails, one approaching, the other departing. But there was a curious difference between them. The approach had evidently been at a slovenly, ambling pace. The raking of the trailing feet showed this. But the departing track displayed every sign of great haste. The snow had been flurried to an extent that had obliterated all semblance of footprints.
Ralph unslung his rifle. Ahead of him was the track, ahead of him also was a further break in the forest where the sun shone down with dazzling brilliancy. He passed on and looked up at the perfect sky. Then he took the direction of the track. It struck out for the northeast.
"I wonder if Nick's lit on it," he muttered. "It 'ud be his luck, anyway."
He further examined the tracks, and the whiteness of the snow warned him they were quite fresh.
"Ain't been made more'n an hour," he added, in further soliloquy. "Guess, I'll trail him."
And he set off hot-foot through the forest.
The trail was well marked, and he followed it with ease. And as he moved slowly on his mind had much leisure from his task. The direction the bear had taken was towards the country over which Nick was working. Also Ralph could not help recollecting that the northeast was the direction in which lay the Moosefoot camp. True there were many miles of wild country between him and the Indians, but the knowledge of the direction he was taking quickly turned his thoughts into other channels, and his quarry no longer solely occupied his mind. His eyes followed the trail, his thoughts went on miles ahead.
It was three days since Nick had first told Ralph of his meeting with Aim-sa. And ever since the latter had sought her himself, but his search had been in vain. And each of those three days Nick had returned to camp happy and smiling in a manner which maddened his brother. Now he thought of these things. He told himself, with warped reasoning, that Nick had gone behind his back, that he had taken undue advantage in his winning of Aim-sa's regard. He forgot, or admitted not, his own doings, his own secret meeting with her on the night of her flight from the dugout.
Such was his mood as he traversed the forest paths. Through dell and brake; through endless twilight maze of black tree-trunks; over moss-grown patches, and roots and stumps reeking with the growth of rank fungus. But his eyes never lost the indications of his quarry, and at intervals he paused listening for some sound which should tell him of the beast's proximity.
A frozen creek crossed his way. The surface was covered with the watery slush of melting snow, and great cracks ran in many directions through the ice.
He crossed it and the forest closed about him again. The beast he was trailing had paused here, had moved roundabout as though seeking the direction he required. Ralph followed the creature's movements, understanding with the acuteness of his forest breeding.
Suddenly he started and a half-stifled cry broke from him. He dashed forward to a point where the snow had drifted and was now disturbed. He halted, and looked down. Other footprints mingled with those of the bear. They were small, and had been made by moccasin-shod feet. He had seen such footprints before. He knew the owner of the feet which had made these imprints. Aim-sa's were such as these—Aim-sa's!
His eyes took in every detail slowly, fondly. Where was she now? He must follow. Then he remembered. Something else was following, not him, but her. He straightened himself up, and a muttered exclamation broke from his lips. Now he understood. Away there, back in the distant woods, the bear must have scented the woman's presence and was tracking her down. She had gone on through the forest, unknowing of the danger that lurked behind her, which was hard upon her trail.
Forgetful of Nick, forgetful of all else, Ralph pursued the double trail. Danger threatened the woman he loved, for aught he knew had already overtaken her. To his credit be it said, that, as he raced over the sodden carpet of the forest, not one selfish thought possessed him. Aim-sa was in danger, and so he went headlong to the rescue. His quiet eyes were lit with a fiery determination such as one might have expected in the eyes of Nick, but not in those of Ralph. His soul was afire with anxiety. Aim-sa was an expert in forest-craft, but she was a woman. So he hasted.
The world about him might have been bathed in the blackness of night for all he heeded it; only the track of footsteps stood out to his gaze like a trail of fire. His speed was great; nor was he conscious how great. He no longer walked, but ran, and thought nothing of distance, nor the passing of time. The trail of pursuer and pursued still lit, red-hot, before him, and the cry of his heart still rang out—On! On!
It was noon when his speed slackened. Nor was it weariness that checked him. Once in the echoing wood he had heard the distant sound of breaking undergrowth. The prospect about him had changed. The forest had become a tangled maze of low-growing shrub, dotted with giant growths of maple, spruce, and blue-gum. It was a wider, deeper hollow than any hitherto passed, and the air was warmer. It was the valley of a wide, swift-flowing river.
The declivity was abrupt, and the rush of the river, too swift to succumb to the grip of winter, sounded faintly up from below. Suddenly he halted listening, and the sound of breaking undergrowth came to him again and again; he waited for the cry of the human, but it did not come. With beating heart he hurried on, his mind was easier and his thoughts centred upon the killing of the grizzly. His rifle was ready to hand and he looked for a sight of the dark fur through the bush ahead.
Now his movements became almost Indian-like in their stealth. Bending low to avoid the rustling branches, he crept on, silently and swiftly. He no longer followed the tracks. He had turned off, meaning to come up with his quarry against the wind. At every opening in the bush he paused, his keen eyes alert for a sign of his prey. But the leafless branches of the scrub, faintly tinged with the signs of coming spring, alone confronted him; only that, and the noise of breaking brushwood ahead.
It quickly became plain to him that the bear was no longer advancing, but was moving about uncertainly; and as he realized this, his heart was gripped with a terrible fear. Had the brute come up with his prey? Had the tragedy been played out? He dashed forward, throwing all caution to the winds; but ere he had gone fifty yards he came to a halt, like one paralyzed.
His eyes, which had been peering ever ahead, had suddenly dropped to the ground. It seemed as though they could no longer face that which they looked upon. For a moment his face worked as might that of a man in great pain. Then its expression changed and a flush mounted to his brow; a flush of indescribable rage. Again his eyes were raised and a devilish look peered out from them.
An opening not two acres in extent lay before him. In its midst was a blackened tree-trunk, limbless, riven; a forest giant blasted by some mountain storm. Nick was standing beside it; his gun rested against its blackened sides, and, upon a fallen bough, scarcely a yard away, Aim-sa was seated. They were in deep converse, and Ralph was near enough to hear the sound of their voices, but not to distinguish their words. As he strained his tingling ears to catch the tenor of their speech, he could hear the movements of the bear in the adjacent woods.
The two in the open seemed all unconscious of what was going on so near them. Nick was gazing upon the woman, his heart laid bare in his eyes. And Aim-sa was smiling up into his face with all the arch coquetry of her sex, with that simple, trusting look which, however guileful, must ever appeal to the strong man.
For awhile Ralph looked on. The exquisite torture of his heart racked him, but he did not turn away to shut out the sight. Rather it seemed as if he preferred to thus harass himself. It was the working of his own angry passion which held him, feeding itself, fostering, nursing itself, and goading him to fury.
Suddenly the sound of movement close at hand broke the spell which held him. He looked, and saw the bear less than twenty yards off.
He gripped his rifle, and his first thought was to slay. It was the hunter's instinct which rose within him. But something held him, and his weapon did not move from his side; somewhere in his heart a harsh voice whispered to him, and he listened to words of evil counsel. Then a revulsion of feeling swept over him, and he shook himself as though to get rid of something which clung about him and oppressed him. But the moment passed, leaving him undecided, his brain maddened with bitter thoughts.
The dark form in the bush beyond moved. There came no sound, and the waiting man wondered if his eyes deceived him. No cat could have moved more silently upon its prey. Not a twig creaked. It moved on stealthily, inexorably, till it paused at the edge of the opening.
Ralph's eyes turned upon the dead tree. Nick's back was turned, and Aim-sa was intent upon her companion. She seemed to be hanging upon his every word. And Ralph's heart grew harder within him. His hand held his rifle in a nervous clutch and his finger-nails scored the stock. A shout from him would avert disaster; a shot would arrest that terrible advance. But the shout remained unborn; the trigger still waited the compressing hand. And the unconscious brother stood with death stealing upon him from beyond the fringe of the woods.
Solemnly the great grizzly advanced. Once in the open he made no pause. The lumbering beast looked so clumsy that the inexperienced might have been forgiven a smile of ridicule. Its ears twitched backward and forward, its head lolled to its gait, and though its eyes shone with a baleful ferocity they seemed to gaze anywhere but at its intended victims.
Ralph stood watching, with lips compressed and jaws set, and a cruel frown darkening his brow. But his heart was beating in mighty pulsations, and somewhere within him a conflict was raging, in which Evil had attacked in overwhelming force, and Good was being beaten back.
Within ten yards of the tree the bear halted and reared itself upon its haunches. Thus for a moment it towered in terrible menace.
It was the last chance. Ralph's lips moved as though to shout, but only a low muttered curse came from them. Suddenly the air was split with a piercing scream. Aim-sa stood erect, one arm was outstretched pointing, the other rested against the tree as though she would steady herself. Her eyes were staring in terror at the huge brute as it came towards them.
Nick swung round. He was too late. There was no time to reach his rifle. His right hand plunged at his belt, and he drew a long hunting-knife from its sheath, and thrust himself, a shield, before Aim-sa.
The cry smote the savage heart of Ralph, smote it with the sear of white-hot iron. A wave of horror passed over him. It was not of his brother he thought, but of the woman he loved. Nick's death would only be the forerunner of hers. In a flash his rifle sprang to his shoulder. A second passed while his keen eyes ran over the sights, the compressing hand was upon the trigger. A puff of smoke. A sharp report. The grizzly swung round with a lurch. He had not stopped, he merely changed the direction of his steps and came straight for the forest where Ralph stood.
But the magnificent brute only took a few strides. Ralph went out to meet him, but, ere he came up, the creature tottered. Then, reeling, it dropped upon all fours, only, the next instant, to roll over upon its side, dead.
Ralph gave one glance at the body of the great bear; the next moment its presence was forgotten. He passed on, and confronted those whom he had unwillingly rescued. The depression of his brows, and the glint of his eyes and merciless set of his jaws, all gave warning of a danger that dwarfed to insignificance that which had just passed.
"I 'lows I hadn't reckoned to find you wi' company," Ralph said, addressing his brother with a quietness that ill-concealed the storm underlying his words. "Mebbe I didn't calc'late to find you, anyway."
There was no mistaking the challenge in his look. Nick saw it. His impetuous temper rose in response. The bear was forgotten. Neither alluded to it. The two men faced each other with the concentrated jealous hatred of weeks' growth uppermost in their hearts.