"Wal, I guess y've found me. What then?"
Nick squared himself, and his expression was as relentless as that of the older man.
Ralph paid no heed to the taunting inquiry. He looked over at Aim-sa, who had shrunk away. Now she answered his look with one that was half-pleading, half-amused. She realized the feud which was between the men, but she did not understand the rugged, forceful natures which she had so stirred.
"Say, gal," Ralph said abruptly. "Ther's jest us two. Ye gave yourself to me that night, maybe you've give yourself to him since. Which is it, him or me? Ye'll choose right here. Choose!"
Nick turned and looked at her with strained, anxious eyes. Ralph's face belied his outward calm.
"An' what if Aim-sa loves neither?" the woman asked, with a laugh in which there was no mirth, and some fear.
"Then she's lied."
Ralph's teeth shut with a snap.
Aim-sa looked from one to the other. She was beginning to understand, and with understanding came a great dread. She longed to flee, but knew that to do so would be impossible.
"Aim-sa loves both," she said at last.
There was a long, deathly silence. The brooding solitude of the wild was never more pronounced than at that moment.
Then Ralph looked into the face of his brother, and Nick returned his gaze.
"You hear?" said Ralph. "She is an Injun, I guess, an' don't know no better. Maybe we'd best settle it for her."
Ralph threw off his buckskin shirt. Nick removed his heavy clothing.
"Stand aside, woman," said Ralph. "Ye'll wait by, an' your man'll claim ye."
"Knives?" said Nick, through his clenched teeth.
And then again silence reigned.
THE BATTLE IN THE WILD
The woman shrank back. The last trace of levity had vanished from her eyes. Their blue depths gazed out upon the strange scene with horror and dread. In that moment she understood the power she had wielded with these two men, and a thrill of regret shook her frame. She saw in the eyes of both the cruel purpose which was in their hearts. It was death for one of them. Even in that moment of suspense, she found herself speculating which of them it would be.
There was no sentiment in her thoughts. These two were nothing to her. She would regret the death of either as she would regret the death of any strong, healthy man; but that was all. Her horror was a natural revulsion at the prospect of seeing death dealt out in the ruthless manner that these men contemplated.
Just for one instant the desire to stay the combatants rose uppermost in her mind. She stepped forward again and raised a protesting hand.
"Are you brothers or wolves of the forest that you'd kill each other? If you fight for Aim-sa, she'll have neither of you."
Her words rang out clear and incisive. In her excitement she had forgotten the halting phrases of the White Squaw, and spoke fluently enough. Nick was ominously silent. Ralph answered her.
"Stand back, an' remember ye're the squaw of him as wins ye in fair fight."
Then he cried out to his brother:
"Are ye ready?"
Nick made no audible reply. His face looked the words his lips did not frame. He was ready, and the passion in him was more than willing. Once, before he closed with his opponent, he glanced round at Aim-sa. It may have been that he sought one look of encouragement, one smile; it may have been. But the beautiful face he looked upon had no smile for either. It was dead white under its tanning, and the blue eyes were widely staring. Ralph did not take his eyes from his brother's face, and the fierce light in them was as the gleam in the eyes of the timber-wolf prowling at night around a camp-fire in the forest.
For a moment a heavy cloud spread itself over the face of the sun, and the grey daylight of winter again covered the mountains. Instantly the forest lost its look of spring, and the air returned to the chill of the darker months. The bald break in the forest looked more cheerless than a waste ground in a city, and those who stood about to fight for life became savage images that looked something less than human. Nick, larger than his brother, was a tower of thew and muscle. As he stood there, clad in a cotton shirt and trousers belted at the waist, he was the figure of a perfect man. His shaggy head was thrown back, but his handsome face was distorted by its expression of hate. Ralph was the smaller by inches, but his muscles were as fine-tempered steel. There was even more of the wild in his expression than in that of his brother. The ferocity in his face was wolfish, and not good to look upon.
Both had bared their hunting-blades, long knives at once vicious and coldly significant.
There was no further word. The men bent low and moved circling round each other. Their attitudes were much those of wrestlers seeking an advantageous "holt." By common consent they avoided the tree, keeping to the oozing soil of the open.
Ralph displayed the more activity. His lesser stature inclined to a quickness his brother did not possess. He sought to use art to draw the impetuosity of the other, and kept up a series of feints. But strangely enough Nick displayed a control which was surprising. He had a full appreciation of the life and death struggle. He had faced it too often with the dumb adversaries of the forest. It was Ralph who became incautious. His fury could not long be held in check, and his cunning at the start of the fight soon gave place to a wild and slashing onslaught, while Nick fought on the defensive, reading in his brother's eyes the warning of every contemplated attack.
But Ralph's swift movements harassed Nick; they pressed him sorely, and often drove him to extremity in his defence. For long he kept distance, knowing that while the other was wasting strength his own was being carefully husbanded.
Ten minutes passed. Still they had not come together. Ralph charged in with upraised knife; the blow was warded, and he passed on only to swing round on the instant and repeat the attack from the opposite direction. But always Nick faced him, grim, determined, and with deadly purpose. Once the latter slipped; the footing was none too secure. Instantly Ralph hurled himself upon him and his blade scored his brother's arm, leaving a trail of blood from elbow to wrist. That one touch let loose Nick's pent-up fury and he allowed himself to be drawn.
The two came together with a terrific impact. Nick slipped again. This time he could not save himself. His feet shot from under him and he went down backwards. In his fall he seized Ralph's knife-arm at the wrist, and the same time aimed a slashing blow at his face. But Ralph's agility was as furious as it was full of force. In turn he caught Nick by the wrist, and, with a great wrench, sought to dislocate his shoulder.
As well try to tear a limb from the parent oak. Ralph's effort died out, and they lay upon the ground fighting to free their weapons. Now the life and death struggle had begun. It was a hideous battle, silent, ominous. But the horror of it lay, not in the deadly intent, the flashing steel, the grim silence. These men were brothers; brothers whose affection had stood them through years of solitary labours, trials, and privations, but which had changed to a monstrous hatred because a woman had come into their lives.
As the moments swept by, the brothers rolled and writhed, with every faculty at terrible tension. Now Ralph was uppermost; now Nick sought to drive the downward blow. Now Ralph strained to twist his knife-arm free from the iron grip that held it; now Nick slashed vainly at the air, seeking to sever the sinewy limb that threatened above his face.
It required only the smallest slip, the briefest relaxation of the tense-drawn muscles on the part of either, and death awaited the unfortunate. For long neither yielded one iota, but the struggle was too fierce to last. Human strength has but narrow limits of endurance when put forth to its uttermost. Given no slip, no accident, there could be only one conclusion to the battle. Victory must inevitably be with the man of superior muscle. Neither fought with a fine skill; for, used as they both were to the knife, their antagonists of the forest only possessed Nature's weapons, which left the hunter with the balance of power.
Already the breathing of the combatants had become painfully heavy; but while Ralph struggled with all the fierceness of his passion, and put forth his whole strength, Nick reserved a latent force for the moment when opportunity arrived. And that moment was nearing.
Ralph was under and Nick's great weight held him down, for the sinuous struggles of the other had lost their vim. Suddenly, with a mighty effort, the younger man wrenched his knife-arm free, and a cry, hoarse, fierce, sounded deep in his throat. But his effort had cost him his hold upon his brother. There was a wicked gleam of steel as both men struck.
Ralph, striking upwards, was at a disadvantage. His blade, aimed at the neck and shoulder, struck Nick's cheek, laid the flesh open to the lower jaw, glanced, and buried itself in the muscle of the shoulder. Nick's blade smote with a fearful gash into the side of his brother's throat.
It was over.
Ralph lay quivering and silent upon the ground. Nick rose staggering and dazed.
He moved away like a man in a dream. His arms hung limply at his sides, and his eyes looked out across the wide woodland valley with an uncomprehending stare. His face was almost unrecognizable under the flow of blood from his wound. Once, as he stood, one hand went up mechanically to his face, then it dropped again without having accomplished its purpose. And all the while his vacant eyes stared out upon—nothing.
Presently he sat down. His actions were almost like collapse, and he remained where he sat, still, silent, like an image. The moments passed. The quiet was intense. A faint murmur of flowing waters came up from the river beyond.
Suddenly he moved. Then in a moment he seemed to break out into passionate life. The stony stare had gone from his eyes. Intelligence looked out; intelligence such as one might find in one whose mind is on the verge of losing its balance; a fearful, anxious, hunted intelligence, face to face with an unending horror.
He moved to where his brother was lying, and stood shaking in every limb; he had realized the work of his hands. He dashed the blood from his face. The vivid stain dyed his fingers and the touch of the warm tide only seemed to add to his terror. He went up to the still form and looked down. Then he backed away, slowly, step by step, but still unable to withdraw his fascinated gaze.
Suddenly a cry broke from his lips. It was bitter, heartrending. Then a quick word followed.
His question remained uncompleted. His head turned swiftly, and he looked stupidly about him. The clearing was empty of all save himself and that other lying upon the ground at his feet, and, beyond, the carcass of the dead grizzly. A dreadful fear leapt to his brain; he moved tottering. His action gained swiftness suddenly. He ran to the forest edge, and, with hungry eyes, gazed in beyond the sparse fringe of scrub. There was nothing there. He moved away to the right and ran in amongst the low-growing bush, only to reappear with more feverish haste, and eyes whose fiery glance seemed to shoot in every direction at once. On he went, round the edge of the entire clearing; in and out, like some madman running purposelessly in search of some phantasy of his brain. There was no one there but himself, and the two still forms upon the ground. Aim-sa was gone!
But he did not pause. His brain was in a tumult, there was no reasoning in it. He searched everywhere. Bush that could conceal nothing bigger than a beetle was examined; to his distorted fancy the lightning-stricken tree presented a hiding-place. Further he penetrated into the woods, but always only to return to his brother's side, distraught, weary from loss of blood.
Gone! Aim-sa was gone!
At last he stood, an awesome figure, bloodstained, dishevelled. He was at his brother's side as he had been a dozen times during his mad search. It was as though he returned to the dead for company. But now, at last, he moved away no more. He looked upon the pallid face and staring, sightless eyes, and the red pool in which the body weltered.
There was a long pause, and the quiet set his pulses beating and his ears drumming. Presently he turned away. But as by a magnet drawn, he turned quickly again and his eyes once more rested upon his brother's body. Then all in a moment a stifled cry broke from his lips, and, throwing himself upon his knees, he thrust his arms about the dead.
Suffering as he was, he raised the body and nursed the almost severed head. He muttered hoarsely, and his face was bent low till his own dripping wound shed its sluggish tide to mingle with the blood of the man he had slain.
Now, in his paroxysm of awful remorse, the woman was forgotten, and he only realized the dread horror he had committed. He had slain his brother! He was a murderer! For what?
At the thought he almost threw the body from him as he sprang to his feet.
"No, no! not murder," he cried, in a choking voice. "It was fair fight."
Then, still looking down, he drew his foot back as though to kick the stiffening clay. But the blow did not come, and, instead, he wrung his hands at his sides like a child in distress. Harsh sobs broke tearless from his lips; his breast heaved with inexpressible agony. Then he flung himself face downwards upon the sodden earth, and his fingers dug into the carpet of dead matter, clawing aimlessly.
The afternoon was well advanced when he moved again. He rose to his feet without any warning, and the change in him was staggering. Now a gaunt, grey-faced man looked out upon the world through eyes which burned with the light of fever. His movements were slow, deliberate. Only his eyes betrayed his condition, telling a tale of a strange new life born within him.
He moved off into the woods, striking down the slope towards the river. He was gone some time; and when he returned his face was cleaned, and a bandage was tied about it. The wound in his shoulder was not severe.
He came none too soon, for, as he neared the clearing, he heard a succession of deep-toned wolf-howls. As he broke the forest fringe, he saw two great timber-wolves steal swiftly back to the depths whence they had just emerged.
Nick cursed them under his breath. Then he went to his brother's side. Here he paused, and, after a moment of mental struggle, stooped and lifted the corpse upon his unwounded shoulder. Then with his gruesome freight he plunged into the forest.
He held the body firmly but tenderly, and walked as rapidly as his burden permitted. He often talked to himself as he went, like a man in deep thought and stirred by violent emotions. Sometimes he slowed his gait, and, at others, he almost ran. His thoughts influenced him strangely.
Once he set his burden down and rested. The forest was getting dark about him, but it suited his mood; it formed a background for his gloomy thoughts. And, while he rested, he fell to talking as though Ralph were living, and merely rested with him. He talked and answered himself, and, later, leaned over his dead, crooning like some woman over her child. The time passed. Again he rose, and once more shouldering the body, now stiff and cold, hastened on.
And as the evening shadows gathered, and the forest gloom deepened, there came the sound of movement about him. At intervals wolfish throats were opened and the dismal forest cries echoed and reechoed in the hollow shadows.
His burden grew heavier. His mind suffered, and his nerves were tense as the wires of a musical instrument. Every jolt found an echoing note upon them, and each note so struck caused him exquisite pain. And now, too, the wolves grew bolder; the scent of blood was in the air and taunted their hungry bellies till they began to lose their fear of the man.
Nick stopped and looked about him. The evening shadows were fast closing in. In the gloom he saw eyes looking out upon him, eyes in pairs, like coals of fire surrounded by dark, lank, shadowy forms. One shadow stood out more distinctly than the others, and he unslung his rifle and fired pointblank at it. There was a howl of pain. Then followed several fierce yelps, and stealing forms crowded thick and fast upon the creature that had bitten the dust.
With a thrill of strange dread Nick shouldered his burden again and proceeded on his way. His steps were no longer steady, but hurried and uncertain. In his haste he frequently stumbled, but he was strong, and he had a haunting fear of what lay behind him, and so he put forth a great effort.
The twilight deepened; black shadows were everywhere about him. Hills rose before him, and valleys sank away at his feet. His fancy now saw the forest crowded with prying eyes. Every tree-trunk became a figure which stood pointing and whispering words of denunciation. And as he beheld this ghostly army of shadows his heart quailed, and the look in his eyes grew more and more fevered. He lurched on under the cold, clammy body without thought of his way, with nervous dews upon his forehead, and shaking limbs.
The wolves still followed. Their cries, vicious, eager, came to him, and he knew that the meal he had provided was devoured, and they hungered yet, and thirsted for the blood they scented upon the air. He sped on, staggering, and his mind grew dizzy. But he knew that he had entered his valley, and beyond lay the dugout which henceforth was his alone.
His intolerable burden had worn him down. He feared it as he feared the dark shadows of the woods, and the stealing forms which trailed behind him. He longed to throw that which he carried to the ground and run headlong to the shelter of his home. But something held him. It was as if his brother's corpse were endowed with life, a ghostly life, and that it clung with tenacious grip to the back of the living. And the thought grew in his aching brain that he was no longer free to do as he chose, but was being driven by the Thing he carried. At the river he bent to rid himself of the corpse. He purposed to rest ere he bore it up the last hill, but the stiff arms had somehow embraced his neck and clung to him. With a cry of terror he moved forward at a run. Hard on his heels came the loud-voiced throng of timber-wolves.
At last, ahead, he heard the yelping of his own dogs. The noise brought him a measure of relief, for the speeding shadows behind dropped back into the woods, and their voices faded away into the distance.
But the corpse clung, and its weight dragged him back; to his distorted fancy the arms held his neck as in a vise. He gasped painfully as imagination told him that he was being choked. A cold sweat poured down his face and set him shivering, but, like one doomed to his task, he sped on.
Now the open stretched before him and beyond lay the dugout. He saw his dogs rushing to meet him; his five fierce huskies. They came welcoming; then they paused uncertainly and grouped together in a cluster, and their tone suddenly changed to the short-voiced yapping of fear. As he came on he called them by name, seeking solace in their company and in the sound of his own voice. But the only response the dogs made was to move uneasily. Their bushy tails drooped and hung between their legs and they turned back fearfully. Then they began to creep away, slinking in furtive apprehension; then finally they broke into a headlong flight, racing for home in a perfect madness of terror.
And so, with horror staring from his eyes, the man who had killed his brother came to his home again.
Inside the hut he released himself from the icy embrace of the dead man's arms, and laid the poor, cold clay upon the blankets which had been spread for the return of Aim-sa. While he stood brooding over the corpse a sound reached him from, behind. Turning he saw that he had left the door open, and in the opening he beheld the crowding forms of his dogs. They stood snarling fiercely, with bristling manes, their narrow-set eyes gleaming in the dusk like sparks of baleful light.
The sight set him shuddering. Then something seemed to stir within him. His heart felt like stone in his body. A coldness seemed to freeze his blood one minute, and the next in a rush came a wave of fiery passion which drove him to unthinking action. The veins in his head seemed to be bursting, and his brain felt as though gripped in a vise.
Out whipped his revolver, and six chambers were emptied at the figures which barred the doorway. A hubbub of howls followed, then, in a moment, all became quiet. Now the doorway stood clear; the creatures had vanished—all but two. And these lay where they had fallen.
Suddenly a harsh laugh broke the stillness. But though the laugh was his, Nick's lips were unsmiling and his eyes gleamed furiously out into the night.
THE GATHERING OF THE FOREST LEGIONS
Nick kicked the bodies of the two dogs from the doorway. Then, by force of habit, he kindled a fire in the stove, though he had no thought or desire for warmth. His action was mechanical and unheeding. Then he sat down; and, as he sat, he heard the howling of the dogs as, in chorus, they mourned their dead companions.
As the noise continued the man's nerves vibrated with the hideous dole. It rose and fell, in mournful cadence, until he could stand it no longer. So he rose and reloaded his revolver. The action brought him relief. It did more: it brought him a feeling akin to joy. And he passed out into the night.
Forceful action alone could serve him. His dread, the torture of heart and brain, found relief in the thought of taking life. A lust for slaughter was upon him.
He closed the door behind him, and, from the storm porch, peered out beyond. The moon had just risen above the ghostly mountain peak, and its deep, yellow light shone down over the gleaming crests in long shafts of dull fire. Twenty yards away, the three huskies were squatting upon the ground facing each other, as might their blood relations, the timber-wolves. Their long, sharp muzzles were thrown up towards the starlit heavens, and their voices trolled drearily from their cavernous throats, thrilling the air and arousing the mountain echoes.
For a second there was a gleam of light in the darkness of the porch as the moon's rays caught the burnished metal of the man's revolver. Then three shots rang sharply out. Three hideous voices were instantly hushed; three bodies rolled over, falling almost side by side. The labour of the trace would know the huskies no more.
But the man's passion was only rising. He reentered the hut, thrilled with a strange wild joy. A fierceness leapt within him as he seated himself beside the stove and gazed over at the still form of his brother. And up out of the forest came the yelp of famished wolf and starving coyote.
The hunched figure made no move.
Wild thoughts surged through his brain, thoughts which had no sequence, no continuity. He had not eaten the whole day, and though food was now to his hand he heeded it not. He was exhausted and utterly weary of body. But he sought no rest. He was living upon the vitality of his poor strained brain, sapping the tide of reason which flowed none too surely.
The time passed.
The cries of the wolves gathered force and drew nearer. The scent of blood was in the air. That night they were very bold. With muzzles thrown up they snuffed at the scent they loved, and came with licking lips and frothing jowls, fighting fiercely among themselves.
Nick stirred at last.
He rose and took his rifle. His cartridge-belt was still about his waist. Again he passed out into the night. In the shadow of the porch he stood again, and gazed upon the moonlit scene. Down the hill was the darkness of the forest, giving the appearance of an unfathomable pit. Above rose its sides, shimmering in the cold moonlight. Above the forest line the eternal snows glinted like burnished steel, for the yellow rays of the rising moon had given place to the silvery gleam of its maturity. The diamond-studded sky had nothing of darkness in it; a grey light, the sheen of the star myriads too minute to be visible to the naked eye, shone down upon the earth, and the still air had the sharp snap of the spring frost in it. Nick was oblivious to all but the forest cries and the crowd of stealing forms moving from the woodland shelter, and circling upward, ever nearer and nearer towards the feast which lay spread out within sight of their cruel eyes.
Nearer they drew, lean, scraggy, but withal large beasts. And as they came they often paused to send their dismal song out upon the air. Then there was a scuffle, a wicked clipping of keen fangs. Instantly the crowd packed about a fallen comrade. Then later they would scatter and continue their advance in a sort of rude skirmishing order. The man's rifle was at his shoulder; a tongue of flame leapt from its muzzle, and its report rang out bitingly. The foremost wolf fell to the earth, and the ravenous horde behind leapt to the banquet thus provided.
Again and again the rifle spoke its sharp-voiced command, and death followed hard upon its word. At every shot a wolf went down, and the madness rose in the brain behind the eyes that looked out from the porch. Nick's craving for slaughter increased. He emptied his belt and obtained a fresh supply of ammunition, and continued to wage his fiendish warfare. And all the time wolves poured out from the woods until it seemed as if the whole race had gathered in one vast army to assail the little stronghold set high upon the hillside. It was as though Ralph's death had been the signal for the gathering of the forest creatures to avenge him.
And fierce and long the carnage continued. The fearsome pastime was one to thrill the most hardened with horror. The still night air was filled with a nauseating reek, whilst the echoes gave back the death-cries, mingling with the deep-toned bayings of ferocious joy. But never for one instant did the man relax his watchfulness. Never once did his rifle cease its biting greeting to the relentless scavengers of the forest. Short and sharp its words leapt forth, and every word meant death.
The moon passed its meridian and sank lower and lower towards the western peaks; and as it lost power the stars shone more brilliantly and the northern lights hovered in the sky, dancing their fantastic measure slowly, solemnly. The tint of dawn stole gradually above the eastern horizon. The man was still at his post, his unsleeping eyes ever watchful. Longer intervals now elapsed between his deadly shots. The wolves recognized the coming of daylight, and became more chary of breaking cover. Besides, the banquet was nearly over and every guest was gorged.
Dawn grew apace. The silver of the eastern sky changed to gold, deeper and deeper, till the yellow merged into a roseate sheen which shone down upon the cloud mists, and tinged them with the hue of blood. Light was over the darkling forests, and as it brightened the voice of the forest legions died away in the distance, and the battleground was deserted of all but the author of the fearful carnage.
Nick waited in his shelter until the last cry had passed. Then he reluctantly turned back into the hut. He sought no rest. His fevered brain was in a tumult. For a long time he stood beside his brother's corpse, while his mind struggled to regain something of its lost balance. There came to him a hazy recollection of all that had gone before. It was as though he stood viewing the past from some incalculable distance. Events passed phantasmagorically before his memory, yet always their meaning seemed to tantalize and elude him.
And while he stood thus the woman leapt into the foreground of his mental picture. It was the tangible feature he needed upon which he could link the chain of recollection. Now everything became more clear. Now the meaning of his brother's dead body returned to him once more. He remembered all that had happened. His love for Aim-sa arose paramount out of the shadowed recesses of his deranged mind, and merged into that other passion which had gripped him the night long.
Nor was there pity nor penitence in his mood. Remorse had passed from him. Now there was no one to stand between him and his love. He was glad that Ralph was dead. Suddenly, as he stood looking down upon the still form, a harsh laugh broke from him and echoed through the stillness of the room.
He moved away and replenished the stove; and then, returning, he wrapped his brother in the blankets on which he lay. Moving the blanket-wrapped body aside, he exposed the floor where the treasure had been buried. Suddenly he brushed his tangled hair aside from his forehead. A sigh, which was almost a gasp, escaped him. His lips moved, and he muttered audibly:
"Ay, she'll come to me agin, I guess, same as she's done before. Yes, an' it's all hers, 'cause it's all mine now. By Gar! ther's a deal ther'—a mighty deal. An' it's ours. Hers an' mine."
Again he passed a hand across his forehead, and his action was uncertain, as of a man who finds it difficult to think, and having thought fails to obtain reassurance. He passed out of the hut, and presently returned with a shovel and pick.
Now the hut resounded with the dull thud of the pick as it was driven deep into the hard-trodden earth. There was a feverish haste and unnecessary energy in the manner of his work. At first what he intended was not quite clear. He seemed to be digging at random. Then he laid his pick aside and plied the shovel, and gradually his purpose became plain. A long, narrow trench was cleared, and its outline was that of a grave. Again the pick was set to work, and again the shovel cleared the debris. The ground was hard with the years of tramping it had endured, and it took a long time to dig to a sufficient depth. But at last the grave was completed.
Nick seized the body in its blanket shroud and flung it into the hole. There was neither pause nor hesitancy in anything he did, only his eyes peered furtively about. As the first part of the burial was accomplished, a panic seized him and he shovelled the soil back as though his life depended on his speed. He packed the dry clay down with his feet; nor did he rest till the grave was filled to the top.
Then he paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. The tension of his nerves was slightly relaxed. He went outside the hut to drink in a deep breath of the purer mountain air before he proceeded further. And while he stood leaning against the doorway he listened as though expecting the sound of some one approaching. He scanned the outlook carefully, but there was no sign of living creature about. The wolves had gone as surely as if their visit had been a ghostly hallucination which daylight had dispelled.
He returned to his labours with his spirit more easy and his brain less fevered. He thought of Aim-sa and that which he meant to bestow upon her.
Near by where he had buried his brother's body was the spot where the treasure had been placed for safety. Here he began to dig. The work was easy. The soil was light and loose, and gave beneath the sharp edge of the shovel. He cleared several shovelfuls out, and then stooped to rake for the chest with his fingers. He knew that it had been buried only a few inches below the surface. He raked long and diligently, but, wherever he tried it, the earth gave beneath the pressure of his strong fingers, nor yielded up any indication of the chest. He rose and resorted once more to the shovel, and a look of disquiet stole into his face. He opened a wider surface, thinking he had missed the spot. He dug deeper, but no chest appeared, and his look changed to one of absolute fear.
Again he raked, but without result. Again he dug, but now deeper and deeper. Still there was no chest, and as he widened the hole he found himself working upon the hard soil which had never before been disturbed. An awful fear gripped him. He sought out the spot where the soil was easy. He knew that this was where he had buried the chest. His actions became hurried and more and more energetic. He dug furiously, scattering the earth wildly in his alarm, and all the time conviction was forcing itself upon him, and he muttered as he worked.
But all his efforts were in vain, and, after an hour's fruitless search, he flung down the shovel with a bitter cry. Then he stood gazing blankly before him with eyes that seemed to scorch in his head. His face twitched, and his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. Then his lips parted and he gasped rather than spoke.
The veins at his temples beat visibly. In his ears was a sound as of rushing waters. He saw nothing. He scarcely knew where he was, only he was conscious of something in his head which was strained to the verge of breaking. When, at last, movement came to him, every nerve in his body seemed to draw up with a jolt, and a cry, like the roar of a maddened bull, burst from his quivering lips. He rushed headlong from the hut.
Out into the glittering daylight he went, heedless of his course, heedless of his surroundings. He rushed down the hill and plunged into the woods. On he went, without pause, without hesitation, blindly, madly. On, on, running, stumbling, slipping upon the sodden earth, tripping over projecting roots and rotting stumps.
His mind was a blank. He saw, but comprehended not; he felt, but the sense had no meaning. He heard with clarion-like distinctness, but that which he heard sang upon his ear-drums and penetrated no further. His way was the way of the blindfold, his staring eyes beheld nothing real; he saw the name of Aim-sa blazing in letters of fire before him, and a hazy picture of her lovely face. All recollection of his loss had suddenly passed from him, utterly blotted out of his thought as though he had never known it. He knew not that he had ever had a brother whose death had been the work of his own hand. The hut behind him might never have existed, the forest about him might have been the open prairie, the sodden ground a carpet of fine texture, the snow-covered clearings dusty plains; he knew nothing, nothing. He moved, ran, walked; he was a living organism without a governing power of mind.
Noon came. The silent forest looked down upon his frenzied progress. The trees nodded gently in the breeze, whispering solemnly to each other in their pitying tones. Owls watched him with staring, unmeaning eyes; deer fled as he came rushing into the calm of their sylvan retreats. A grizzly stood erect as he passed, meditating a protest at the strange disturbance, but remained staring in amazement as the wild human figure went by, oblivious and unheeding.
The afternoon saw him still struggling, but now wearily, and in a state of collapse. His headlong course had taken the inevitable turn. He had swung round in a great circle, and was heading again for the hillside where the dugout stood. Now he often fell as he went, for his feet lagged and caught in every unevenness of the ground. Once he lay where he fell, and remained so long motionless that it seemed as if he would rise no more. But as the afternoon waned and the evening shadows gathered, there came the wild cries of the wolves from somewhere close behind. Though he felt no fear of them, he staggered to his feet and dragged wearily on towards the hut. It was the forest instinct obeyed mechanically.
He came to the hut; he passed the door. Again it was habit that guided him. He kept on, and went round to the door of the lean-to. It stood wide open and he plunged within, and fell headlong upon his blankets. Nor did he stir again; only there came the sound of his stertorous breathing to indicate that he slept.
Black night closed down. The forest cries awoke and their chorus rang out as the moon mounted in the heavens. The wolfish legions hovered at the edge of the woods and snuffed hungrily at the air. But the scent of blood had passed, and they came not too near.
Nick's slumber of exhaustion was haunted by painful, incoherent dreams. With the curious freakishness of a disordered mind, he was beset by a vision of the dark, ferret face of Victor Gagnon. The trader seemed to be hovering threateningly over his rude couch, and, behind him, less distinct, but always recognizable, was the fair Aim-sa. The whole night the sleeper was depressed by some dreadful threat which centred about the vision of these two, and when at length he awoke it was with the effect of his dreams hard upon him.
The fair fresh daylight was streaming in through the open door. Nick roused himself. He turned uneasily, shivering with the cold, for he had slept where he had fallen. Suddenly he sat up. Then with a leap he was on his feet and wide-awake, and the name of Victor Gagnon fell from his lips. A frenzied, unreasoning desire to take the trader's life possessed him.
His body was refreshed and the blank of memory had passed from him. A gleam of reason shot athwart the racked brain. It was only for an instant, then it was gone again. But that instant sufficed. He remembered that Gagnon knew of the treasure, the only person except himself who knew of it. Victor had robbed him. A wild laughter shook him. Ay, that was it. Victor was the thief; he should die. After that—Aim-sa.
His untutored brain had broken under the strain of recent events. Horror had driven him to the verge of the abyss in the depths of which lurked insanity; his final loss had plunged him headlong down. He was mad!
WHERE THE LAWS OF MIGHT ALONE PREVAIL
Two men occupied the back room of Victor Gagnon's store. The proprietor, small, alert, with eye and brain working swiftly, and an expression on his dark face indicating the angry nature of his thoughts. He was sitting with his feet on the stove rail and his hands spread out to the warmth. The other man was beside the parchment-covered window. He was immensely tall, and was clad in grey wolfskin from head to foot. His broad shoulders were broadened by the fur covering till he looked a giant. He had just thrown back a cavernous hood from his head, and it now hung down his back. His fur cap was removed, thus displaying a coarse mane of long black hair, and a face as sombre and strong as the world to which he belonged.
The room was untidy. The bed stood at one end, and the tumbled blankets upon it looked as though they had not been straightened for weeks. A small table supported the remains of a frugal meal and the floor about it was littered with food and crumbs. Everywhere were signs of half-breed slovenliness.
For some moments silence had reigned. The North, that Land of Silence, makes men sparing of words, and even women only talk when it is necessary. Just now, there was that between these two men which held every thought to the main issue.
Victor's attention was for the moment upon a rough-hewn chest which was standing on the floor at the big man's feet.
"An' why didn't she come right along with you?"
"Mebbe cos she's smarter nor any o' us; mebbe cos I jest didn't want her to. There's somethin' 'tween you an' me, Victor, that needs some parley."
The big man spoke quite calmly, but his very calmness was portentous.
"Smarter?" said Victor contemptuously, ignoring the latter part of the other's remark.
"That's what I said," went on the giant, in dispassionate tones. "Davia reckoned as it wa'n't jest safe to light right out lest them fellers found they'd been robbed o' their wad. She's stayin' around to put 'em off'n the trail. They're dead sweet on her an' ain't likely to 'spect who's got the stuff while she's around."
Victor nodded approvingly. His face was less angry. He knew Davia would serve him well. A silence fell again. The stove roared under the forced draught of the damper. Then the big man spoke as though he had not broken off.
"But that ain't on'y the reason, I guess. I wanted her to stay. You an' me are goin' to talk, Victor Gagnon."
The trader glanced angrily at the man with the hood.
"See here, Jean Leblaude, you allus had a crank in yer head, an' I don't cotton to cranks anyhow."
"But you'll cotton to this," replied Jean drily.
"It's nigh on to three year since you an' sister Davi' took on together," he went on, ignoring the interruption, and speaking with great feeling. "Guess you said as you'd marry her when you was independent o' the company. It was allus the company. Didn't want no married traders on their books. An' you hadn't no cash pappy. That's how you sed. Mebbe it's different now. Wal? When are you goin' to make her a de—your wife?"
There was a look in Jean's eyes that brooked no denial or evasion. He had driven straight to the point, nor was there any likelihood of his drawing back.
"You're pretty rough," said Victor, with an unpleasant laugh. He was inwardly raging, but, like all men of no great moral strength, feared the direct challenge of the other.
"We ain't polished folk hereabouts," retorted Jean. "We've played the dirty game o' the White Squaw for you' clear out. Davi's most as dead sick of it as me, but wher' she went into it fer a frolic an' to please you, I had my notions, I guess. I come clear away down from Peace River nigh on two summers ago jest fer to see that you acted squar' by that misguided girl. An' that's why I done all your dirty work in this White Squaw racket. Now we've got the boodle you're goin' to hitch up wi' Davi', or—"
"Or—what?" broke in Victor contemptuously.
"Or not one blazin' cent o' the stuff in this chest'll you touch."
Victor sprang from his seat and his eyes shone furiously.
"You—you—" But his fury was baffled by the solemn, determined stare of the other. A moment more and he dropped back in his seat.
Then the great Jean lowered his eyes to the hewn chest upon the floor. The lid had been forced open and the bags of gold dust, so carefully arranged by the Westleys, were displayed within. Presently he looked back at the angry figure bending towards the stove.
"Guess I'll git blankets out o' your store," he said.
Victor remained rapt in moody silence.
"Ther' ain't room fer two to sleep comfort'ble in that bed o' yourn," he added significantly, as the other showed no inclination to speak.
At last Victor looked up and the dark half-breed blood slowly mounted and flushed his narrow face.
"You're goin' to stop here—wher' the stuff is?"
The trader looked long into the cavernous moose-eyes of the Hooded Man while he choked down the rage which consumed him. He knew that he was a prisoner in his own store. Resistance would be utterly useless against such a man as Jean Leblaude.
In his scheme for obtaining wealth Victor had omitted to take into consideration one of the great factors of a life of wrong-doing. A man may not engage in crime with those whom he has wronged.
Victor had sought to obtain good service, forgetting the manner in which he had treated the sister of Jean. The ways of the half-breed are loose in the matter of morals. Davia, he knew, loved him. She was a strong, passionate woman, therefore he had not bothered about Jean. That Jean could possibly have scruples or feelings, had never entered his head. Davia had given her love, then what business of her brother's was the manner in which he, Victor, chose to accept it? This is how he argued when he fully realized the position in which he had thrust himself. But his argument went no further.
Jean was a man strong and purposeful. He had waited long for such an opportunity, and he was not the one to forego his advantage without enforcing his will. If Victor wanted his share of the proceeds of the robbery he must fulfil the promise, which, in a passionate moment, he had bestowed. Davia was as clay in his hands. Jean was different. He was possessed of all the cunning of the half-breed nature, but, looked at from a half-breed point of view, he was a good man, an honest man. A half-breed will shoot an enemy down in his tracks, while yet he is a good father and husband, or a dutiful son. He is a man of much badness and some good. Jean was a little above the average. Possibly it was because his affections were centred upon but one creature in the world, his sister Davia, that he felt strongly in her cause. He knew that, at last, he held Victor in a powerful grip, and he did not intend to relax it.
Jean was as good as his word and took up his abode in Victor's store. Nor would he permit the removal of the treasure under any pretext. This brother of Davia's understood the trader; he did not watch him; it was the chest that contained the money that occupied his vigilance.
Victor was resourceful and imaginative, but the stolid purpose of the other defied his best schemes. He meant to get away with the money, but the bulldog watchfulness of Jean gave him no opportunity. He was held prisoner by his greed, and it seemed as if, in the end, he would be forced to bend to the other's will.
And no word came from Davia. No word that could cause alarm, or tell them of the dire tragedy being enacted in the mountains. And the two men, one for ever scheming and the other watching, passed their time in moody silence.
It was the third day after the foregoing events had taken place, and midday. Victor was in the store standing in the doorway gazing out across the mighty foothills which stretched far as the eyes could reach to the east. He was thinking, casting about in his mind for a means of getting away with the money. Jean was at his post in the inner room.
It was an unbeautiful time of the year. The passing of winter in snow regions is like the moulting season of fowls, or the season when the furred world sheds its coat. The dazzling whiteness of the earth is superseded by a dirty drab-grey. The snow lasts long, but its hue is utterly changed. And now Victor was looking out upon a scene that was wholly dispiriting to the mind used to the brilliancy of the northern winter.
The trader's thoughts were moving along out over the stretch of country before him, for in that southeastern direction lay the town of Edmonton, which was his goal. It would be less than a fortnight before the melting snow would practically inundate the land, therefore what he had to do must be done at once. And still no feasible scheme presented itself.
He moved impatiently and a muttered curse escaped him. He asked himself the question again and again while his keen, restless eyes moved eagerly over the scene before him. He took a chew of tobacco and rolled it about in his mouth with the nervous movement of a man beset. He could hear Jean moving heavily about the room behind him, and he wondered what he was doing. But he did not turn to see.
Once let him get upon the trail with the "stuff," and Jean and his sister could go hang. They would never get him, he told himself. He had not lived in these latitudes for five and twenty years for nothing. But he ever came back to the pitiful admission that he was not yet on the trail, nor had he got the treasure. And time was passing.
Suddenly his eyes settled themselves upon a distant spot beyond the creek. Something had caught his attention, and that something was moving. The sounds of Jean's lumbering movements continued. Victor no longer heeded them. His attention was fixed upon that movement on the distant slope.
And gradually his brow lightened and something akin to a smile spread over his features. Then he moved back to his counter, and, procuring a small calendar, glanced hastily at the date. His look of satisfaction deepened, and his smile became one of triumph. Surely the devil was with him. Here, in the blackest moment of his despair, was the means he had sought. Yonder moving object was the laden dog-train coming up from Edmonton, with his half-yearly supplies. Now he would see whose wits were the sharpest, his or those of the pig-headed Jean, the man who had dared to dictate to Victor Gagnon. The trader laughed silently.
Gagnon's plan had come to him in a flash. The moment he had recognized that the company's dog-train was approaching he had realized the timeliness of its coming. It would be at his door within an hour and a half.
Jean's voice calling him broke in upon his meditations. He was about to pass the summons by unheeded. Then he altered his mind. Better not force his gaoler to seek him. His eyes might see what he had seen, and his suspicions might be aroused if he thought that he, Victor, had seen the dog-train coming and had said nothing. So he turned and obeyed the call with every appearance of reluctance.
Jean eyed his prisoner coldly as he drew up beside him.
"Wal, I've waited fer you to say as ye'll marry Davi', an' ye ain't had the savvee to wag yer tongue right, I'm goin' to quit. The snow's goin' fast. They dogs o' mine is gettin saft fer want o' work. I'm goin' to light right out o' here, Victor, an' the boodle's goin' wi' me."
Jean was the picture of strong, unimaginative purpose. But Victor had that in his mind which made him bold.
"Ye've held me prisoner, Jean. Ye've played the skunk. Guess you ain't goin' now. Neither is my share o' the contents o' that chest. Savvee? If ye think o' moving that wad we're goin' to scrap. I ain't no coyote."
Jean thought for awhile. His lean face displayed no emotion. His giant figure dwarfed the trader almost to nothing, but he seemed to weigh the situation well before he committed himself.
At last he grunted, which was his way of announcing that his decision was taken.
"I'll have they dogs hitched this afternoon," he said slowly, and with meaning.
"An' I'll set right here by the door," said Gagnon. "Guess the door'll let you pass, but it ain't big enough fer the chest to git through."
Victor sat himself down as he said and deliberately pulled out a large revolver. This he laid across his lap. And then the two men eyed each other. Jean was in no way taken aback. In fact nothing seemed to put him out of his deliberate manner. He allowed the challenge to pass and went out. But he returned almost immediately and thrust his head in through the doorway.
"Ther' won't be no need fer scrappin' yet awhile," he said. "I 'lows I've changed my way o' thinkin'. The company's dog-train is comin' up the valley, I guess. When they've gone, we'll see."
And Victor smiled to himself when the giant had once more departed. Then he put his pistol away.
"Wal, that's settled," he said to himself. "The boodle stops right here. Now we'll see, Jean Leblaude, who's runnin' this layout. Ther's whiskey aboard that train. Mebbe you ain't like to fergit that. You'll taste sure. As ye jest sed, 'we'll see.'"
The trader knew his man. The great Jean had all the half-breed's weaknesses as well as a more than usual supply of their better qualities. Sober he was more than dangerous, now that he had shown his real intentions, for he was a man not likely to be turned from his purpose. But Victor knew his fondness for drink, and herein lay the kernel of his plan. With him it was a case of now or never. He must throw everything to the winds for that money, or be burdened with a wife he did not want, and a brother-in-law he wanted less, with only a third of that which his greedy heart thirsted for. No, he would measure swords with Jean, and though his blade was less stout than that of the stolid giant he relied upon its superior keenness and lightness. He meant to win.
The company's dog-train came up. Two sleds, each hauled by ten great huskies. They were laden down with merchandise: groceries, blankets, implements, medicines and a supply of spirits, for medicinal purposes only. Just the usual freight which comes to every trader in the wild. Such stuff as trappers and Indians need and are willing to take in part payment for their furs. But Victor only cared for the supply of spirits just then. He paid unusual attention, however, to the condition of the dogs.
The train was escorted by two half-breeds, one driving each sled. These were experienced hands, servants who had grown old in the service of the company. Men whose responsibility began when they hit the trail, and ceased when they arrived at their destination.
Pierre was a grizzled veteran, and his was the charge of the journey. Ambrose was his assistant. Victor understood these men, and made no delay in displaying his hospitality when the work of unloading was completed. A ten-gallon keg of Hudson's Bay Rum was part of the consignment, and this was tapped at once by the wily trader.
The four men were gathered in the back room of the store when Victor turned on the tap and the thick brown stream gurgled forth from the cask. He poured out a tot for each of the train drivers. Then he stood uncertainly and looked over at Jean. The latter had seated himself over against the stove and appeared to take little interest in what was going on. Victor stood with one foot tapping the floor impatiently. He had been quick to notice that Jean's great eyes had stolen in the direction of the little oaken keg. At last he threw the tin beaker aside as if in disgust. He played his part consummately.
"'Tain't no go, boys. I'm not drinkin'. Thet's what. Look at him," he cried, pointing at Jean. "We've had words, I guess. Him an' me, an' he's that riled as he don't notion suppin' good thick rum wi' us. Wal, I guess it'll keep, what you boys can't do in. Ther's the pannikin, ther's the keg. Jest help yourselves, lads, when you fancy. I ain't tastin' with bad blood runnin' in this shack."
"What, no drink?" cried old Pierre, his face beaming with oily geniality. "Dis no lak ole time, Victor. What's de fuss? Mebbe I tink right. Squaw, Vic, squaw."
The old boy chuckled heartily at his pleasantry. He was a French-Canadian half-breed and spoke with a strong foreign accent. Ambrose joined in the laugh.
"Ho, Jean, man," cried the latter. "No bad blood, I'm guessin'. Ther's good thick rum, lad, an' I mind you're a'mighty partial most gener'ly."
Victor had started the ball rolling, and he knew that neither Pierre nor Ambrose were likely to let it rest until they had had all the rum they wanted. Everything had been made snug for the night so they only had their own pleasure to consider. As Ambrose's challenge fell upon his ears Jean looked up. His eyes were very bright and they rested longingly upon the keg on their way to the driver's face. He shook his head, but there was not much decision in the movement.
Pierre seeing the action stepped up to him and shook a warning finger in his face.
"Hey, you, Jean-le-gros, pig-head. We come lak Hell, four hundred mile to see you. We bring you drink, everyting. You not say 'How.' We not welcome. Bah, I spit! In my Quebec we lak our frien's to come. We treat. All is theirs. Bah, I spit again."
Jean looked slightly abashed. Then Ambrose chimed in.
"Out of the durned way, froggy," he said, swinging Pierre aside by the shoulder, "you don't understand our ways, I guess. Ther' ain't no slobberin' wi' white folk. Here you, Vic, hold out yer hand, man, and shake wi' Jean. We're goin' to hev a time to-night, or I'll quit the road for ever."
Victor shrugged. Then he picked up a pannikin and filled it with rum. He held it out in his left hand towards Jean while he offered his right in token of friendship. Jean eyed the outstretched hand. Then he looked at the rum, and the insidious odour filled his nostrils. The temptation was too great, as Victor knew it would be, for him. He thrust one great hand into the trader's and the two men shook; then he took the drink and gulped it down.
The armistice was declared, and Victor, in imagination, already saw the treasure his.
Now the pannikin passed round merrily. The room reeked with the pungent odour of the spirit and all was apparently harmonious. Victor resigned his post as dispenser of liquor to Ambrose, and began his series of stock entertainments. He drank as little as possible himself, though he could not openly shirk his drink, and he always kept one eye upon Jean to see that he was well supplied; and so the time slipped by.
After the first taste Jean became a different man; he laughed and jested in his slow, coarse fashion, and, with him, all seemed good-fellowship. Pierre and Ambrose soon began to get drunk and Victor's voice, as he sang, was mostly drowned by the rolling tones of these hoary-headed old sinners as they droned out the choruses of his songs.
Now, as the merriment waxed, Victor was able to shirk his drink deliberately. Jean seemed insatiable, and soon his great body swayed in a most drunken fashion, and he clung to his seat as if fearing to trust his legs. He joined in every chorus and never lost an opportunity of addressing Victor in terms of deepest friendliness. And in every pause in the noise he seized upon the chance to burst out into some wild ditty of his own. Victor watched with cat-like vigilance, and what he saw pleased him mightily. Jean was drunk. And he would see to it that before he had done the giant would be hopelessly so.
Evening came on. Ambrose was the first to collapse. The others laughed and left him to his deep dreamless slumber upon the floor. Victor was wearied of it all, but he knew he must see the game out. Jean's eyelids were drooping heavily, and he, too, seemed on the verge of collapse. Only old Pierre, hardened to the ways of his life, flagged not. Suddenly the Frenchman saw Jean's head droop forward. In a moment he was on his unsteady legs and filling a pannikin to the brim. He laughed as he drew Victor's attention, and the latter nodded approval. Then he put it to the giant's lips. The big man supped a little of it, then, his head falling further forward, he upset the pannikin, and the contents poured upon the earthen floor. At the same time, as though utterly helpless, he rolled off his seat and fell to the ground, snoring heavily. Pierre shouted his delight. Only Victor and he were left. They knew how to take their liquor, the old hands. His pride of achievement was great. He would see Victor under the table, too, he told himself. He stood over the trader while the latter drank a bumper. Then he, himself, drank to the dregs. It was the last straw. He swayed and lurched to the outer door. There he stood for a moment, then the cold night air did for him what the rum had been powerless to do. Without warning he fell in a heap upon the doorstep as unconscious as though he had been struck dead.
Victor alone kept his head.
The trader rose from his seat and stretched himself. Then, stealthily, he went the round of the prostrate men. He shook Ambrose, but could not wake him. Jean he stood over for awhile and silently watched the stern face. There was not a shade of consciousness in its expression. He bent down and touched him. Still no movement. He shook him gently, then more roughly. He was like a log. Victor grinned with a fiendish leer.
"Guess he's fixed," he muttered.
Then he went out into the store and came to the door where old Pierre had fallen. The Frenchman was no better than the others.
"Good! By Gar, Jean, my friend, I've done you," he said to himself, as, reassured, he went back to the inner room. He was none too steady himself, but he had all his wits about him. The chest was near the bed. He picked it up and opened it. The treasure was there safe enough. He closed the lid and took it up in his arms, and passed out of the store. Nor did he look back. He was anxious to be gone.
It was the chance of his lifetime, he told himself, as he hastened to deposit the chest in the sled. Now he set about obtaining his blankets and provisions. His journey would be an arduous one, and nobody knew better than he the barrenness of that Northwestern land while the icy grip of winter still clings. A large quantity of the food stuffs which had only arrived that day was returned to the sled, and some of the new blankets. Then he shipped a rifle and ammunition.
Now was the trader to be seen in his true light. Here was emergency, when all veneer fell from him as the green coat of summer falls from the trees at the first breath of winter. His haste was not the swift movements of a man whose nerve is steady. He knew that he had at least twelve hours before any one of the three men were likely to awaken from their drunken stupor. And yet he feared. Nor did he know what he feared. And his nerves made him savage as he handled the dogs. They were living creatures and could feel, so he wantonly belted them with a club lest they should hesitate to obey their new master. The great wolfish creatures had more courage than he had; they took the unjust treatment without open complaint, as is the way of the husky, tacitly resenting it and eying with fierce, contemptuous eyes the cowardly wretch who so treated them. They slunk slowly and with down-drooped tails and bristling manes into their places in the traces, and stood ready for the word to pull. Victor surveyed them with little satisfaction, for now that all was ready to march he was beset with moral apprehensions.
He could not throw off his dread. It may have been that he feared that bleak four hundred mile journey. It may have been the loneliness which he contemplated. It may have been that he recollected the time when those whom he had robbed had saved him from the storm, away back there in the heart of the mountains. He shivered, and started at every night-sound that broke the stillness.
The lead dog lay down in the sloppy snow. Victor flew into a passion, and, running forward, dealt the poor brute a kick that would have been sufficient to break an ordinary dog's ribs. With a wicked snarl the beast rose solemnly to its feet. Suddenly its wolf-ears pricked and it stared out keenly ahead. The man looked too. It seemed to him that he had heard the sound of some one walking. He gazed long and earnestly out into the darkness, but all seemed quite still. He looked at the dog again. Its ears were still pricked, but they were twitching uncertainly, as though not sure of the direction whence the sound had come.
Victor cursed the brute and moved back to the sled. The word "Mush" was hovering on his lips. Suddenly his eyes chanced upon the slumbering form of old Pierre lying in a heap where he had fallen in the doorway. It is impossible to say what made him pause to give a second thought to those he was leaving behind. He had known Pierre for years, and had always been as friendly as his selfish, cruel nature would permit. Perhaps some such feeling now made him hesitate. It might even have been his knowledge of the wild that made him view the helpless figure with some concern. The vagaries of human nature are remarkable. Something held him, then he turned quickly from the sled, and stepping up to the old man's side, stooped, and putting his arms about him, dragged him bodily into the store. Pierre did not rouse but remained quite still where Victor left him. Then the trader went out again. His back was turned as he reached to close the door. It would not quite shut and he pulled it hard. Then, as it still resisted his efforts, he turned away. As he turned he reeled back with a great cry.
Something large and dark faced him. And, even in the darkness, he could make out a shining ring of metal close in front of his face.
Victor's horror-stricken cry was the only sound that came. In the twinkling of an eye the metal ring disappeared. Victor felt two bony hands seize him by the throat. The next instant he was hurled to the ground, and a knee was upon his chest. A weight compressed his lungs and he could scarcely breathe. Then he felt the revolver belt dragged from about his waist and his long sheath-knife withdrawn from its sheath. Then, and not till then, the pressure on his chest relaxed, and the hand that had gripped his throat released its hold. The next moment he was lifted to his feet as though he were a mere puppet, and the voice of Jean Leblaude broke harshly upon his ears.
"Guess your bluff wa'n't wuth a cent, Victor Gagnon. I see'd this comin' the minit you pass'd me the drink. I 'lows ye ken mostly tell a skunk by the stink. I rec'nized you awhiles back. Guess you ain't lightin' out o' here this night. Come right along."
The trader had no choice. Jean had him foul, gripping him with a clutch that was vise-like. The giant's great strength was irresistible when put forth in the deadly earnestness of passion, and just now he could hardly hold his hand from breaking the neck which was so slight beneath his sinewy fingers.
Just for one instant Victor made a faint struggle. As well attempt to resist Doom. Jean shook him like a rat and thrust him before him in the direction of the woods behind the store.
"You'll pay fer this," the trader said, between his teeth.
But Jean gave no heed to his impotent rage. He pushed him along in silence, nor did he pause till the secret huts were reached. He opened the door of one and dragged his captive in. There was no light within. But this seemed no embarrassment to the purposeful man. He strode straight over to one corner of the room and took a long, plaited lariat from the wall. In three minutes Victor was trussed and laid upon the ground bound up like a mummy.
Now Jean lighted a lamp and looked down at his victim; there was not the faintest sign of drink about him, and as Victor noticed this he cursed himself bitterly.
There was an impressive silence. Then Jean's words came slowly. He expressed no emotion, no passion; just the purpose of a strong man who moves relentlessly on to his desired end.
Gagnon realized to the full the calamity which had befallen him.
"Ye'll wait right here till Davi' gits back. She's goin' to git her ears full o' you, I guess. Say, she was sweet on you—mighty sweet. But she's that sensible as it don't worry any. Say, you ain't goin' to marry that gal; ye never meant to. You're a skunk, an' I'd as lief choke the life out o' ye as not. But I'm goin' to pay ye sorer than that. Savvee? Ye'll bide here till Davi' comes. I'll jest fix this wedge in your mouth till I've cleared them drivers out o' the store. I don't fancy to hear your lungs exercisin' when I'm busy."
With easy deftness Jean gagged his prisoner. Then he glanced round the windowless shack to see if there was any weapon or other thing about that could possibly assist the trader to free himself. Having assured himself that all was safe he put out the light and passed out, securing the door behind him.
OUT ON THE NORTHLAND TRAIL
Noon, the following day, saw the dog-train depart on its homeward journey. The way of it was curious and said much for the simplicity of these "old hands" of the northland trail. They were giants of learning in all pertaining to their calling; infants in everything that had to do with the world of men.
Thus Jean Leblaude's task was one of no great difficulty. It was necessary that he should throw dust in their eyes. And such a dust storm he raised about their simple heads that they struck the trail utterly blinded to the events of the previous night.
While they yet slumbered Jean had freed the dogs from their traces, and unloaded the sled which bore the treasure-chest. He had restored everything to its proper place; and so he awaited the coming of the morning. He did not sleep; he watched, ready for every emergency.
When, at last, the two men stirred he was at hand. Rolling Pierre over he shook him violently till the old man sat up, staring about him in a daze. A beaker of rum was thrust against his parched lips, and he drank greedily. The generous spirit warmed the Frenchman's chilled body and roused him. Then Jean performed the same merciful operation upon Ambrose, and the two unrepentant sinners were on their legs again, with racking heads, and feeling very ill.
But Jean cared nothing for their sufferings; he wanted to be rid of them. He gave them no chance to question him; not that they had any desire to do so, in fact it was doubtful if they fully realized anything that was happening. And he launched into his carefully considered story.
"Victor's gone up to the hills 'way back ther'," he said. "Ther's been a herd o' moose come down, from the moose-yard, further north, an' he's after their pelts. Say, he left word fer you to git right on loadin' the furs, an' when ye hit the trail ye're to take three bottles o' the Rye, an' some o' the rum. He says he ain't like to be back fer nigh on three days."
And while he was speaking the two men supped their coffee, and, as they moistened their parched and burning throats, they nodded assent to all Jean had to say. At that moment Victor, or any one else, might go hang. All they thought of was the awful thirst that assailed them.
Breakfast over, the work of loading the sleds proceeded with the utmost dispatch. Thus it was that at noon, without question, without the smallest suspicion of the night's doings, they set out for the weary "long trail."
Jean saw them go. He stood at the door of the store and watched them until they disappeared behind the rising ground of the great Divide. Then his solemn eyes turned away indifferently, and he gazed out into the hazy distance. His gaunt face showed nothing of what was passing in the brain behind it. He rarely displayed emotion of any sort. The Indian blood in his veins preponderated, and much of the stoical calm of the Redskin was his. Now he could wait, undisturbed, for the return of Davia. He felt that he had mastered the situation. He could not make Victor marry the sister he had wronged, but at least he could pay off the wrong in his own way, and to his entire satisfaction. Two years he had waited for the adjustment of these matters. He was glad that he had exercised patience. He might have slain Victor a hundred times over, but he had refrained, vainly hoping to see his sister righted. Besides, he knew that Davia had loved Victor, and women are peculiar. Who might say but that she would have fled from the murderer of her lover? Jean felt well satisfied on the whole. So he stood thinking and waiting with a calm mind.
But the tragedy was working itself out in a manner little suspected, little expected, by him. This he was soon to learn.
The grey spring snow spread itself out on every hand, only was the wood-lined hill, which stretched away to the right and left of him, and behind the hut, bare of the wintry pall. The sky was brilliant in contrast with the greyness of the world beneath it, and the sun shone high in the blue vault. Everywhere was the deadly calm of the Silent North. The presence of any moving forest beast in that brooding picture, however distant, must surely have caught the eye. There was not a living thing to be seen. These woful wastes have much to do with the rugged nature of those who dwell in the north.
Suddenly the whole prospect seemed to be electrified with a thrill of life. The change came with a swift movement of the man's quiet eyes. Nothing had really altered in the picture, nothing had appeared, and yet that swift flash of the eyes had brought a suggestion of something which broke up the solitude as though it had never been.
Awhile, and his attention became fixed upon the long line of woods to the right. Then his ears caught a slight but distinct sound. He stood away from the doorway, and, shading his eyes from the sunlight, looked keenly along the dark shadow of the woods. No wolf or fox could have keener instinct than had this man. A sound of breaking brush, but so slight that it probably would have passed unheeded by any other, had told him that some one approached through these woods.
Suddenly there was movement in the shadow. The next moment a figure stepped out into the open. A figure, dressed in beaded buckskin and blanket clothing. It was Davia.
She came in haste, yet wearily. She looked slight and drooping in her mannish garments, while the pallor of her drawn face was intense. She came up to where Jean stood and would have fallen but for his support. Her journey had been rapid and long, and she was utterly weary of body.
"Quick, let's git inside," she cried, in a choking voice. Then she added hysterically: "He's on the trail."
Without a word Jean led her into the house, and she flung herself into a seat. A little whiskey put new life into her and the colour came back to her face. She was strong, a woman bred to hardship and toil.
Jean waited; then he put a question with characteristic abruptness.
"Who's on the trail?"
"Who? Nick Westley. He's comin' for blood! Victor's blood!" Then Davia sprang to her feet with a look of wild alarm upon her beautiful face. "He's killed his brother!" she added. "He's mad—ravin' mad."
The man did not move a muscle. Only his eyes darkened as he heard the announcement.
"Mad," he said, thoughtfully. "An' he's comin' fer Victor. Wal?"
Davia sat up. Her brother's calmness had a soothing effect upon her.
"Listen, an' I'll tell you."
And she told the story of the mountain tragedy, and the manner in which she watched the madman's subsequent actions until he set out for the store. And the story lost none of its intense horror in her telling.
Jean listened unemotionally and with a judicial air. Only his eyes shoved that he was in any way moved.
When she had finished he asked her, "An' when'll he git here?"
"Can't say," came the swift reply. "Maybe to-night; maybe in an hour; maybe right now. He's big an' strong, an'—an' he's mad, I know it." And a shudder of apprehension passed over her frame.
"Fer Victor? Sure?" Jean asked again presently, like a man weighing up a difficult problem.
"Sure. He don't know you, nor me, at this layout. Ther's only Victor. I guess I don't know how he figgered it, he's that crazy, but it's Victor he's layin' fer, sure. Say, I saw him sling his gun an' his 'six.' An' his belt was heavy with ammunition. I reckon ther's jest one thing fer us to do when a crazy man gits around with a gun. It's time to light out. Wher's Victor?" And her eyes fell upon the treasure-chest.
"Him an' me's changed places. He's back ther'." Jean jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the huts in the wood.
Davia was on her feet in an instant and her eyes sparkled angrily.
"What d'ye mean, Jean?"
The man shrugged. But his words came full of anger.
"He didn't mean marryin' ye."
"Well?" The blue eyes fairly blazed.
"The boodle," with a glance in the direction of the treasure. "He was fer jumpin' the lot."
And Jean told his story. And after that a silence fell.
"It's cursed—it's blood-money!" Davia's voice was hoarse with emotion as she said the words.
"We're goin' to git," he said slowly. And he looked into the woman's eyes as though he would read her very soul.
"An' Victor?" said Davia harshly.
"Come, we'll go to him."
At the door Davia was seized with an overwhelming terror. She gripped Jean's arm forcefully while she peered along the woodland fringe. The man listened.
"Let's git on quick," Davia whispered. And her mouth was dry with her terror.
They found Victor as Jean had left him. The prisoner looked up when the door opened. His eyes brightened at the sight of the woman.
No word was spoken for some moments. In that silence a drama was swiftly working itself out. Victor was calculating his chances. Davia was thinking in a loving woman's unreasoning fashion. And Jean was watching both. At last the giant stooped and removed the gag from his captive's mouth. The questioning eyes of Victor Gagnon looked from one to the other and finally rested upon Davia.
"Wal?" he said.
And Davia turned to Jean.
"Loose him!" she said imperiously.
And Jean knew that trouble had come for his plans. He shook his head. The glance of Victor's eyes as they turned upon Jean was like the edge of a super-sharpened knife. The trader knew that a crisis had arrived. Which was the stronger of these two, the brother or the sister? He waited.
"What are you goin' to do with him?" Davia asked.
She could scarcely withhold the anger which had risen within her.
But Jean did not answer; he was listening to a strange sound which came to him through the open door. Suddenly he stooped again and began to readjust the rope that held his prisoner. He secured hands and feet together in a manner from which Victor was not likely to free himself easily; and yet from which it was possible for him to get loose. Davia followed his movements keenly. At last the giant rose; his task was completed.
"Now," he said, addressing them both. "Say your says—quick."
"You ain't leavin' him here," said the woman, looking squarely into her brother's eyes.
A strange light leapt into Davia's eyes. Jean saw it and went on with a frown.
"I'm easy, dead easy; but I guess I've had enough. He'll shift fer himself. If he'd 'a' acted straight ther'd 'a' been no call fer me to step in. He didn't. He ain't settin' you right, Davi'; he can't even act the thief decent. He'd 'a' robbed you an' me, an' left you what you are. Wal, my way goes."
Then he turned to Victor and briefly told him Davia's story of the mountain tragedy. As he came to the climax the last vestige of the trader's insolence vanished. Nick was on his way to the store armed and—mad. Panic seized upon the listener. His bravado had ever been but the veneer of the surface. His condition returned to the subversive terror which had assailed him when he was caught in the mountain blizzard.
"Now, see you here, Victor," Jean concluded coldly, yet watching the effect he had produced. "Ye owe us a deal more'n ye ken pay easy, but I'm fixin' the reckonin' my way. We're goin', an' the boodle goes wi' us. Savvee?" Davia watched her brother acutely. Nor could she help noticing that the great man was listening while he spoke. "I 'lows you'll git free o' this rope. I mean ye to—after awhiles. Ye'll keep y'r monkey tricks till after we're clear o' here. Then ye'll do best to go dead easy. Fer that crank's comin' right along, an', I 'lows, if I was you I'd as lief lie here and rot, an' feed the gophers wi' my carcass as run up agin him. I tell ye, pard, ther's a cuss hangin' around wher' Nick Westley goes, an' I don't reckon it's like to work itself out easy by a big sight."
Jean finished up with profound emphasis. Then he turned about and faced his sister.
"Now, gal, we're goin'."
"Not while Victor's left here."
Jean stood quite still for a moment. Then his rage suddenly broke forth.
"Not while that skunk's left?" he cried, pointing scornfully at the prostrate man. "Ye'd stop here fer him as has shamed ye; him as 'ud run from ye this minit if he had the chance; him as 'ud rob ye too; him as thinks as much to ye as a coyote. Slut y' are, but y' are my sister, an' I say ye shall go wi' me."
He made a step towards her. Then he brought up to a halt as the long blade of a knife gleamed before his eyes. But he only hesitated a second. His great hand went out, and he caught the woman's wrist as she was about to strike. The next instant he had wrenched the weapon from her grasp and held her.
Now he thrust her out of the hut and secured the door. He believed that what he had done was only right.
As they passed out into the bright spring daylight again a change seemed to come over Davia. Her terror of Nick Westley returned as she noted the alert attitude of her brother. She listened too, and held her breath to intensify her hearing. But Jean did not relax his hold upon her till they were once more within the store. Then he set her to assist in the preparations for their flight. When all was ready, and they stood outside the house while Jean secured the door, Davia made a final appeal.
"Let me stop, Jean," she cried, while a sob broke from her. "I love him. He's mine."
"God's curse on ye, no!" came the swift response, and the man's eyes blazed.
Suddenly a long-drawn cry rose upon the air. It reached a great pitch and died lingeringly away. It was near by and told its tale. And the woman shuddered involuntarily. It was the wolf cry of the mountains; the cry of the human. And, as if in answer, came a chorus from wolfish throats. The last moment had come.
Davia caught Jean's arm as though seeking protection.
"I will go," she cried, and the man took her answer to be a final submission.
The stillness of the day had passed. Life thrilled the air although no life was visible. Davia's fear was written in her face, Jean's expression was inscrutable; only was it sure that he listened.
But Jean was not without the superstitious dread which madness inspires. And as they raced, he bearing the burden of the treasure-chest, for the wood-covered banks of the creek, he was stirred to horror by the familiar sounds that pursued him. It was their coming, at that time, in daylight; and in answer to the human cry that had first broken up the silence of the hills. How came it that the legions of the forest were marching in the wake of that other upon the valley of Little Choyeuse Creek?
Jean halted when they stood upon the rotten ice of the creek. Now he released his sister, and they stood facing each other well screened from view from the store.
The sullen peace of the valley had merged into the deep-toned, continuous howl of hoarse throats. A terrible threat was in the sound. Jean unslung his rifle and looked to his pistol.
"Ther's six in this gun," he said deliberately. "Five of 'em is fer them beasties, if ne'sary. The other's fer you if you git playin' tricks. Mebbe ye'll thank me later fer what I'm doin'. It don't cut no figger anyway."
Then he prodded the ice with his iron-shod staff.
Davia watched him while she listened to the din of the forest world. At length the staff had beaten its way to the water below.
"What are ye doin'?" she asked, quite suddenly.
And Jean's retort was a repetition of her own words.
"It's cursed—it's blood-money!"
She took his meaning, and her cupidity cried out in revolt. But her protest was useless.
"You're not goin'—" she began.
"It goes," cried Jean fiercely, "wher' he ain't like to touch it, 'less Hell gits him. Father Lefleur, at the mission, says as gold's Hell's pavin', an' mebbe this'll git back wher' it come." And with vengeful force he threw back the lid of the chest.
Davia's eyes expressed more than any words could have told. She stood silently by, a mute but eloquent protest, while Jean took the bags of gold dust one by one from the chest, and poured their contents into the water below. When the last bag was emptied he took the packet of bills and fingered them gently. Even his purpose seemed to be shaken by the seductive feel of the familiar paper. Suddenly he thrust them into the hole, and his staff thrust viciously at them as he pushed them under the ice where they would quickly rot. It was done.
"Mebbe the water'll wash the blood off'n it," he exclaimed. "Mebbe."
Davia's eyes looked derisively upon the giant figure as he straightened himself up. She could not understand.
But her look changed to one of horror a moment later, as above the cries of the forest rose the inhuman note of the madman. Both recognized it, and the dreadful tone gripped their hearts. Jean leant forward, and seizing the woman by the arm dragged her off the ice to the cover of the bush.
With hurried strides they made their way through the leafless branches, until they stood where, themselves well under cover, they had a view of the store.
WHO SHALL FATHOM THE DEPTHS OF A WOMAN'S LOVE?
The dull woods look black in the bright sunlight; and beyond, and above, the crystal of the eternal snow gleams with appalling whiteness. No touch of spring can grey those barren, everlasting fields, where foot of man has never trod, and no warmth can penetrate to the rock-bound earth beneath.
All the world seems to be reaching to the sky vault above. Everything is vast; only is the work of human hands puny.
Thus the old log storehouse of Victor Gagnon, now shut up like a deserted fort of older days, without its stockade, is less than a terrier's kennel set at the door of a giant's castle. And yet it breaks up the solitude so that something of the savage magnificence is gone. The forest cries echo and reecho, and, to human ears, the savage din is full of portentous meaning, but it is lost beyond the confines of the valley; and the silent guardians of the peaks above sleep on undisturbed.
A mighty flock of water-fowl speeding their way, droop downwards, with craning necks, at the unusual sounds, to watch the stealing creatures moving at the edge of the woods. The fox, hungering as he always hungers, foremost, lest other scavengers, like himself, shall steal the prize he seeks; a troupe of broad-antlered deer racing headlong down the valley; shaggy wolves, grey or red, lurking within the shadow, as though fearing the open daylight, or perhaps him whose voice has summoned them; these things they see, but their meaning is lost to the feathered wanderers, as they wing their way onward.
The cry of the human floats over the tree-tops and beats itself out upon the solemn hillsides. It has in it a deep-toned note of invitation to the fierce denizens of the forest. A note which they cannot resist; and they answer it, and come from hill and valley, gathering, gathering, with hungry bellies and frothing jowls.
Driving his way through close-growing bush comes the unkempt figure of a man. A familiar figure, but so changed as to be hardly recognizable. His clothes are rent and scored by the horny branches. His feet crush noisily over the pine-cones in moccasins that have rotted from his feet with the journey over melting snow and sodden vegetation. There is a quivering fire burning in his eyes, an uncertain light, like the sun's reflections upon rippling water. He looks neither this way nor that, yet his eyes seem to be flashing in all directions at once. The bloody scar upon his cheek is dreadful to look upon, for it has scarce begun to heal, and the cold has got into it. He is armed, as Davia had said, this strange horrific figure, and at intervals his head is thrown back to give tongue to his wolfish cry. It almost seems as if the Spirit of the Forest has claimed him.
He journeys on through the twilit gloom. The horror of the life gathered about him is no more grim than is the condition of his witless brain. Over hills and through brakes; in valleys and along winding tracks made by the forest lords; now pushing his way through close-growing scrub, now passing like a fierce shadow among the bare, primeval tree-trunks, he moves forward. His goal is ahead, and one instinct, one desire, urges him onward. He knows nought of his surroundings, he sees nought. His chaotic brain is aware only of its mad purpose.
Suddenly the bush parts. There stands the store of Victor Gagnon in the bright light of day. Swift to the door he speeds, but pauses as he finds it locked. The pause is brief. A shot from his pistol shatters the lock, the door flies open at his touch, and he passes within. Then follows a cry that has in it the tone of a baffled creature robbed of its prey; it is like the night cry of the puma that shrinks at the blaze of the camp-fire; it is fierce, terrible. The house is empty.
But the cunning of the madman does not desert him. He sets out to search, peering here, there, and everywhere. As the moments pass, and no living thing is to be seen within, his anger rises like a fierce summer storm. He stands in the centre of the store which is filled with a disordered array of stuffs. His eyes light upon the wooden trap which opens upon the cellar where Victor stores his skins. Once more the fire flares up in his dreadful eyes. An oil-lamp is upon a shelf. He dashes towards it, and soon its dull, yellow flame sheds its feeble rays about. He stoops and prises up the heavy square of wood. Below sees the top rungs of a rough ladder. His poor brain is incapable of argument and with a fierce joy he clambers down into the dank, earthy atmosphere of the cellar.
All is silent again except for the shuffling of his almost bare feet upon the uneven ladder. The last rung is gone, and he drops heavily to the ground. Then, for awhile, silence reigns.
During that silence there comes a figure stealing round the angle at the back of the building. It is a slight, dark figure, and it moves with extreme caution. There is a look on the narrow face which is one of superstitious horror. It is Victor Gagnon escaped from his prison, and he advances haltingly, for he has seen the approach of his uncanny visitor, and he knows not what to do. His inclination is to flee, yet is he held fascinated. He advances no further than the front angle of the building, where he stands shaking with nervous apprehension.
Suddenly he hears a cry that is half-stifled by distance, for it comes from the depths of the cellar within. Then follows a metallic clatter of something falling, which, in turn, is followed again by a cry that is betwixt a fierce exclamation of joy and a harsh laugh. A foreboding wrings the heart of the half-breed trader.
Now he listens with every sense aiding him, and a strange sound comes to his ears. It is a sound like the rushing of water or the sighing of the wind through the skeleton branches of forest-trees. It grows louder, and, in its midst, he hears the stumbling of feet within the house. Something, he knows not what, makes him look about him fearfully, but he remains at his post. He dare not move.
At last he thrusts his head forward and peers round the corner so that he has a full view of the door. Then he learns the meaning of the sound he has heard. Great clouds of smoke are belching through the opening, and are rolling heavily away upon the chill, scented air. His jaws come together, his breath catches, and a look that is the expression of a mind distracted leaps into his eyes. He knows that his store is on fire. He does not leave his lurking-place, for he knows that there is no means of staying the devouring flames. Besides, the man must still be within. Yes, he is certainly still within the building, for he can hear him.
The cries of the wild come up from the forest but Victor no longer heeds them. The hiss and crackle of the burning house permeate his brain. His eyes watch the smoke with a dreadful fascination. He cannot think, he can only watch, and he is gripped by a more overwhelming terror than ever.
Suddenly a fringe of flame pursues the smoke from the door. It leaps, and rushes up the woodwork of the thatch above and shoots along to the pitch of the roof. The rapidity of the mighty tongues is appalling. Still the man is within the building, for Victor can hear his voice as he talks and laughs at the result of his handiwork.
The madman's voice rises high above the roar of the flames. The fire seems to have driven him to the wildest pitch of insensate excitement, and Victor begins to wonder what the end will be.
A moment later he hears distant words come from the burning house. They come in a shout that is like the roar of some wild beast, and they sound high above every other sound. There is in them the passionate ring of one who abandons all to one overpowering desire.
"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! Wait, I'm comin'."
There is an instant's silence which the sound of the hungry flames devours. Then, through the blazing doorway, the great form of Nick Westley rushes headlong, shouting as he comes.
The cry echoes and reechoes, giving fresh spirit to the baying of the wolves that wait in the cover of the woodland. On rushes the man heedless of the excoriating roughnesses of the ground beneath his bare and battered feet. He gazes with staring eyes upon the woods as though he sees the vision of the woman that has inspired his cry. On, he speeds towards the beasts whose chorus welcomes him; on, to the dark woods in which he plunges from view.
* * * * *
Jean Leblaude, standing within cover of the woods which lined the creek, was lost to all sight and sound other than the strange scene enacted at the store. Once or twice he had spoken, but it was more to himself than to Davia, for he was engrossed by what he beheld.
But now, as he saw the man rush with frantic haste and disappear within the woods, he thought of the wealth of skins within the burning house. He was a trapper, and, to his thinking, the loss was irreparable. He loved the rich furs of the North as any woman loves her household goods. As for the store, that was little to him except that Victor was now punished even beyond his, Jean's, hopes. He knew that the trader was ruined. For the rest it would be as it always was in the wild. The valley would simply go back to its primordial condition.
But he watched Victor curiously. He saw him stand out before the wreck of his store, and a world of despair and dejection was in his attitude. A mighty bitterness was in the great Jean's heart for the man he gazed upon, and a sense of triumphant joy flashed through him at the sight.
"See," he said, without turning from his contemplation, and pointing with one arm outstretched. "He's paid, an' paid bad. The teachin's come to him. Maybe he's learned."
There was no reply, and he went on.
"Maybe he's wishin' he'd treated you right, Davi'. Maybe he'd gi' something to marry you now. Maybe. Wal, he's had his chance an' throw'd it." There was an impressive pause. Presently Jean spoke again. "Guess we'll be gittin' on soon. The mission's a good place fer wimmin as hasn't done well in the world, I reckon. An' the Peace River's nigh to a garden. I 'lows Father Lefleur's a straight man, an'll set you on the right trail, Davi'. Yes, I guess we'll be gettin' on."