The bad feeling between the partners was near the explosion point. It was bound to come before the fugitive started on his long trip north. The fellow had a single-track mind. He still intended to take the girl with him. When Whaley interfered, there would be a fight. It could not come too soon to suit West. His brooding had reached the point where he was morally certain that the gambler meant to betray him to the police and set them on his track.
Smoke was rising from the chimney of the hut. No doubt the McRae girl was inside, waiting for them with a heart of fear fluttering in her bosom. Whaley's thin lips set grimly. Soon now it would be a show-down.
There was a moment's delay at the door, each hanging back under pretense of working at the sled. There was always the chance that the one who went first might get a shot in the back.
West glanced at the big mittens on the other's hands, laughed hardily, and pushed into the cabin. A startled grunt escaped him.
"She's gone," he called out.
"Probably in the woods back here—rabbit-shooting likely. She can't have gone far without snowshoes," Whaley said.
The big man picked up the ski Jessie had made. "Looky here."
Whaley examined it. "She might have made a pair of 'em and got away. Hope so."
The yellow teeth of the convict showed in a snarl. "Think I don't see yore game? Playin' up to McRae an' the red-coats. I wouldn't put it by you to sell me out."
The gambler's ice-cold eyes bored into West. Was it to be now?
West was not quite ready. His hands were cold and stiff. Besides, the other was on guard and the fugitive was not looking for an even break.
"Oh, well, no use rowin' about that. I ain't gonna chew the rag with you. It'll be you one way an' me another pretty soon," he continued, shifty eyes dodging.
"About the girl—easy to find out, I say. She sure didn't fly away. Must 'a' left tracks. We'll take a look-see."
Again Whaley waited deferentially, with a sardonic and mirthless grin, to let the other pass first. There were many tracks close to the cabin where they themselves, as well as the girl, had moved to and fro. Their roving glances went farther afield.
Plain as the swirling waters in the wake of a boat stretched the tracks of a snowshoer across the lower end of the lake.
They pushed across to examine them closer, following them a dozen yards to the edge of the ice-field. The sign written there on that white page told a tale to both of the observers, but it said more to one than to the other.
"Some one's been here," West cried with a startled oath.
"Yes," agreed Whaley. He did not intend to give any unnecessary information.
"An' lit out again. Must 'a' gone to git help for the girl."
"Yes," assented the gambler, and meant "No."
What he read from the writing on the snow was this: Some one had come and some one had gone. But the one who had come was not the one who had gone. An Indian had made the first tracks. He could tell it by the shape of the webs and by the way the traveler had toed in. The outward-bound trail was different. Some one lighter of build was wearing the snowshoes, some one who took shorter steps and toed out.
"See. She run out to meet him. Here's where her feet kept sinkin' in," West said.
The other nodded. Yes, she had hurried to meet him but that was not all he saw. There was the impression of a knee in the snow. It was an easy guess that the man had knelt to take off the shoes and adjust them to the girl's feet.
"An' here's where she cut off into the woods," the convict went on. "She's hidin' up there now. I'm hittin' the trail after her hot-foot."
Whaley's derisive smile vanished almost before it appeared. What he knew was his own business. If West wanted to take a walk in the woods, it was not necessary to tell him that a man was waiting for him there behind some tree.
"Think I'll follow this fellow," Whaley said, with a lift of the hand toward the tracks that led across the lake. "We've got to find out where he went. If the Mounted are hot on our trail, we want to know it."
"Sure." West assented craftily, eyes narrowed to conceal the thoughts that crawled through his murderous brain. "We gotta know that."
He believed Whaley was playing into his hands. The man meant to betray him to the police. He would never reach them. And he, Bully West, would at last be alone with the girl, nobody to interfere with him.
The gambler was used to taking chances. He took one now and made his first mistake in the long duel he had been playing with West. The eagerness of the fellow to have him gone was apparent. The convict wanted him out of the way so that he could go find the girl. Evidently he thought that Whaley was backing down as gracefully as he could.
"I'll start right after him. Back soon," the gambler said casually.
"Yes, soon," agreed West.
Their masked eyes still clung to each other, wary and watchful. As though without intent Whaley backed away, still talking to the other. He wanted to be out of revolver range before he turned. West also was backing clumsily, moving toward the sled. The convict wheeled and slid rapidly to it.
Whaley knew his mistake now. West's rifle lay on the sled and the man was reaching for it.
The man on the ice-field did the only thing possible. He bent low and traveled fast. When the first shot rang out he was nearly a hundred fifty yards away. He crumpled down into the snow and lay still.
West's hands were cold, his fingers stiff. He had not been sure of his aim. Now he gave a whoop of triumph. That was what happened to any one who interfered with Bully West. He fired again at the still huddled heap on the lake.
Presently he would go out there and make sure the man was dead. Just now he had more important business, an engagement to meet a girl in the woods back of the house.
"Got him good," he told himself aloud. "He sure had it comin' to him, the damned traitor."
To find the McRae girl could not be difficult. She had left tracks as she waded away in the deep snow. There was no chance for her to hide. Nor could she have gone far without webs. The little catamount might, of course, shoot him. He had to move carefully, not to give her an opportunity.
As he went forward he watched every tree, every stick of timber behind which she might find cover to ambush him. He was not of a patient temperament, but life in the wilds had taught him to subdue when he must his gusty restlessness. Now he took plenty of time. He was in a hurry to hit the trail with his train and be off, but he could not afford to be in such great haste as to stop a bullet with his body.
He called to her. "Where you at, Dawn? I ain't aimin' to hurt you none. Come out an' quit devilin' me."
Then, when his wheedling brought no answer, he made the forest ring with threats of what he would do to her when he caught her unless she came to him at once.
Moving slowly forward, he came to the end of the tracks that had been made in the snow. They ended abruptly, in a thicket of underbrush. His first thought was that she must be hidden here, but when he had beat through it half a dozen times, he knew this was impossible. Then where was she?
He had told Whaley that she could not fly away. But if she hadn't flown, what had become of her? There were no trees near enough to climb without showing the impressions of her feet in the snow as she moved to the trunk. He had an uneasy sense that she was watching him all the time from some hidden place near at hand. He looked up into the branches of the trees. They were heavy with snow which had not been shaken from them.
West smothered a laugh and an oath. He saw the trick now. She must have back-tracked carefully, at each step putting her feet in exactly the same place as when she had moved forward. Of course! The tracks showed where she had brushed the deep drifts occasionally when the moccasin went in the second time.
It was slow business, for while he studied the sign he must keep a keen eye cocked against the chance of a shot from his hidden prey.
Twice he quartered over the ground before he knew he had reached the place where the back-tracking ceased. Close to the spot was a pine. A pile of snow showed where a small avalanche had plunged down. That must have been when she disturbed it on the branches in climbing.
His glance swept up the trunk and came to a halt. With his rifle he covered the figure crouching close to it on the far side.
"Come down," he ordered.
He was due for one of the surprises of his life. The tree-dweller slid down and stood before him. It was not Jessie McRae, but a man, an Indian, the Blackfoot who had ridden out with the girl once to spoil his triumph over the red-coat Beresford.
For a moment he stood, stupefied, jaw fallen and mouth open. "Whad you doin' here?" he asked at last.
"No food my camp. I hunt," Onistah said.
"Tha's a lie. Where's the McRae girl?"
The slim Indian said nothing. His face was expressionless as a blank wall.
West repeated the question. He might have been talking to a block of wood for all the answer he received. His crafty, cruel mind churned over the situation.
"Won't talk, eh? We'll see about that. You got her hid somewheres an' I'm gonna find where. I'll not stand for yore Injun tricks. Drop that gun an' marche-back to the cabin. Un'erstand?"
Onistah did as he was told.
They reached the cabin. There was one thing West did not get hold of in his mind. Why had not the Blackfoot shot him from the tree? He had had a score of chances. The reason was not one the white man would be likely to fathom. Onistah had not killed him because the Indian was a Christian. He had learned from Father Giguere that he must turn the other cheek.
West, revolver close at hand, cut thongs from the caribou skins. He tied his captive hand and foot, then removed his moccasins and duffles. From the fire he raked out a live coal and put it on a flat chip. This he brought across the room.
"Changed yore mind any? Where's the girl?" he demanded.
Onistah looked at him, impassive as only an Indian can be.
"Still sulky, eh? We'll see about that."
The convict knelt on the man's ankles and pushed the coal against the naked sole of the brown foot.
An involuntary deep shudder went through the Blackfoot's body. The foot twitched. An acrid odor of burning flesh filled the room. No sound came from the locked lips.
The tormentor removed the coal. "I ain't begun to play with you yet. I'm gonna give you some real Apache stuff 'fore I'm through. Where's the girl? I'm gonna find out if I have to boil you in grease."
Still Onistah said nothing.
West brought another coal. "We'll try the other foot," he said.
Again the pungent acrid odor rose to the nostrils.
"How about it now?" the convict questioned.
No answer came. This time Onistah had fainted.
"IS A' WELL WI' YOU, LASS?"
Jessie's shoes crunched on the snow-crust. She traveled fast. In spite of Onistah's assurance her heart was troubled for him. West and Whaley would study the tracks and come to at least an approximation of the truth. She did not dare think of what the gorilla-man would do to her friend if they captured him.
And how was it possible that they would not find him? His footsteps would be stamped deep in the snow. He could not travel fast. Since he had become a Christian, the Blackfoot, with the simplicity of a mind not used to the complexities of modern life, accepted the words of Jesus literally. He would not take a human life to save his own.
She blamed herself for escaping at his expense. The right thing would have been to send him back again for her father. But West had become such a horrible obsession with her that the sight of him even at a distance had put her in a panic.
From the end of the lake she followed the trail Onistah had made. It took into the woods, veering sharply to the right. The timber was open. Even where the snow was deep, the crust was firm enough to hold.
In her anxiety it seemed that hours passed. The sun was still fairly high, but she knew how quickly it sank these winter days.
She skirted a morass, climbed a long hill, and saw before her another lake. On the shore was a camp. A fire was burning, and over this a man stooping.
At the sound of her call, the man looked up. He rose and began to run toward her. She snowshoed down the hill, a little blindly, for the mist of glad tears brimmed her eyes.
Straight into Beresford's arms she went. Safe at last, she began to cry. The soldier petted her, with gentle words of comfort.
"It's all right now, little girl. All over with. Your father's here. See! He's coming. We'll not let anything harm you."
McRae took the girl into his arms and held her tight. His rugged face was twisted with emotion. A dam of ice melted in his heart. The voice with which he spoke, broken with feeling, betrayed how greatly he was shaken.
"My bairn! My wee dawtie! To God be the thanks."
She clung to him, trying to control her sobs. He stroked her hair and kissed her, murmuring Gaelic words of endearment. A thought pierced him, like a sword-thrust.
He held her at arm's length, a fierce anxiety in his haggard face. "Is a' well wi' you, lass?" he asked, almost harshly.
She understood his question. Her level eyes met his. They held no reservations of shame. "All's well with me, Father. Mr. Whaley was there the whole time. He stood out against West. He was my friend." She stopped, enough said.
"The Lord be thankit," he repeated again, devoutly.
Tom Morse, rifle in hand, had come from the edge of the woods and was standing near. He had heard her first call, had seen her go to the arms of Beresford direct as a hurt child to those of its mother, and he had drawn reasonable conclusions from that. For under stress the heart reveals itself, he argued, and she had turned simply and instinctively to the man she loved. He stood now outside the group, silent. Inside him too a river of ice had melted. His haunted, sunken eyes told the suffering he had endured. The feeling that flooded him was deeper than joy. She had been dead and was alive again. She had been lost and was found.
"Where have you been?" asked Beresford. "We've been looking for days."
"In a cabin on Bull Creek. Mr. Whaley took me there, but West followed."
"How did you get away?"
"We were out of food. They went hunting. West took my snowshoes. Onistah came. He saw them coming back and gave me his shoes. He went and hid in the woods. But they'll see his tracks. They'll find him. We must hurry back."
"Yes," agreed McRae. "I'm thinkin' if West finds the lad, he'll do him ill."
Morse spoke for the first time, his voice dry as a chip. "We'd better hurry on, Beresford and I. You and Miss McRae can bring the sled."
McRae hesitated, but assented. There might be desperate need of haste. "That'll be the best way. But you'll be carefu', lad. Yon West's a wolf. He'd as lief kill ye baith as look at ye."
The younger men were out of sight over the brow of the hill long before McRae and Jessie had the dogs harnessed.
"You'll ride, lass," the father announced.
She demurred. "We can go faster if I walk. Let me drive. Then you can break trail where the snow's soft."
"No. You'll ride, my dear. There's nae sic a hurry. The lads'll do what's to be done. On wi' ye."
Jessie got into the cariole and was bundled up to the tip of the nose with buffalo robes, the capote of her own fur being drawn over the head and face. For riding in the sub-Arctic winter is a freezing business.
"Marche," ordered McRae.
[Footnote: Most of the dogs of the North were trained by trappers who talked French and gave commands in that language. Hence even the Anglo-Saxon drivers used in driving a good many words of that language. (W.M.R.)]
Cuffy led the dogs up the hill, following the trail already broken. The train made good time, but to Jessie it seemed to crawl. She was tortured with anxiety for Onistah. An express could not have carried her fast enough. It was small comfort to tell herself that Onistah was a Blackfoot and knew every ruse of the woods. His tracks would lead straight to him and the veriest child could follow them. Nor could she persuade herself that Whaley would stand between him and West's anger. To the gambler Onistah was only a nitchie.
The train passed out of the woods to the shore of the lake. Here the going was better. The sun was down and the snow-crust held dogs and sled. A hundred fifty yards from the cabin McRae pulled up the team. He moved forward and examined the snow.
With a heave Jessie flung aside the robes that wrapped her and jumped from the cariole. An invisible hand seemed to clutch tightly at her throat. For what she and her father had seen were crimson splashes in the white. Some one or something had been killed or wounded here. Onistah, of course! He must have changed his mind, tried to follow her, and been shot by West as he was crossing the lake.
She groaned, her heart heavy.
McRae offered comfort. "He'll likely be only wounded. The lads wouldna hae moved him yet if he'd no' been livin'."
The train moved forward, Jessie running beside Angus.
Morse came to the door. He closed it behind him.
"Onistah?" cried Jessie.
"He's been—hurt. But we were in time. He'll get well."
"West shot him? We saw stains in the snow."
"No. He shot Whaley."
"Whaley?" echoed McRae.
"Yes. Wanted to get rid of him. Thought your daughter was hidden in the woods here. Afraid, too, that Whaley would give him up to the North-West Mounted."
"Then Whaley's dead?" the Scotchman asked.
"No. West hadn't time right then to finish the job. Pretty badly hurt, though. Shot in the side and in the thigh."
"We came too soon. He couldn't finish his deviltry. He lit out over the hill soon as he saw us."
They went into the house.
Jessie walked straight to where Onistah lay on the balsam boughs and knelt beside him. Beresford was putting on one of his feet a cloth soaked in caribou oil.
"What did he do to you?" she cried, a constriction of dread at her heart.
A ghost of a smile touched the immobile face of the native. "Apache stuff, he called it."
"West burned his feet to make him tell where you were," Beresford told her gently.
"Oh!" she cried, in horror.
"Good old Onistah. He gamed it out. Wouldn't say a word. West saw us coming and hit the trail."
"Is he—is he—?"
"I mean Onistah."
"Suffering to beat the band, but not a whimper out of him. He's not permanently hurt—be walking around in a week or two."
"You poor boy!" the girl cried softly, and she put her arm under the Indian's head to lift it to an easier position.
The dumb lips of the Blackfoot did not thank her, but the dark eyes gave her the gratitude of a heart wholly hers.
All that night the house was a hospital. The country was one where men had learned to look after hurts without much professional aid. In a rough way Angus McRae was something of a doctor. He dressed the wounds of both the injured, using the small medical kit he had brought with him.
Whaley was a bit of a stoic himself. The philosophy of his class was to take good fortune or ill undemonstratively. He was lucky to be alive. Why whine about what must be?
But as the fever grew on him with the lengthening hours, he passed into delirium. Sometimes he groaned with pain. Again he fell into disconnected babble of early days. He was back again with his father and mother, living over his wild and erring youth.
"... Don't tell Mother. I'll square it all right if you keep it from her.... Rotten run of cards. Ninety-seven dollars. You'll have to wait, I tell you.... Mother, Mother, if you won't cry like that ..."
McRae used the simple remedies he had. In themselves they were, he knew, of little value. He must rely on good nursing and the man's hardy constitution to pull him through.
With Morse and Beresford he discussed the best course to follow. It was decided that Morse should take Onistah and Jessie back to Faraway next day and return with a load of provisions. Whaley's fever must run its period. It was impossible to tell yet whether he would live or die, but for some days at least it would not be safe to move him.
NOT GOING ALONE
"Morse, I've watched ye through four-five days of near-hell. I ken nane I'd rather tak wi' me as a lone companion on the long traverse. You're canny an' you're bold. That's why I'm trustin' my lass to your care. It's a short bit of a trip, an' far as I can see there's nae danger. But the fear's in me. That's the truth, man. Gie me your word you'll no' let her oot o' your sight till ye hand her ower to my wife at Faraway."
Angus clamped a heavy hand on the young man's shoulder. His blue eyes searched steadily those of the trader.
"I'll not let her twenty yards from me any time. That's a promise, McRae," the trader said quietly.
Well wrapped from the wind, Onistah sat in the cariole.
Jessie kissed the Scotchman fondly, laughing at him the while. "You're a goose, Father. I'm all right. You take good care of yourself. That West might come back here."
"No chance of that. West will never come back except at the end of a rope. He's headed for the edge of the Barrens, or up that way somewhere," Beresford said. "And inside of a week I'll be north-bound on his trail myself."
Jessie was startled, a good deal distressed. "I'd let him go. He'll meet a bad end somewhere. If he never comes back, as you say he won't, then he'll not trouble us."
The soldier smiled grimly. "That's not the way of the Mounted. Get the fellow you're sent after. That's our motto. I've been assigned the job of bringing in West and I've got to get him."
"You don't mean you're going up there alone to bring back that—that wolf-man?"
"Oh, no," the trooper answered lightly. "I'll have a Cree along as a guide."
"A Cree," she scoffed. "What good will he be if you find West? He'll not help you against him at all."
"Not what he's with me for. I'm not supposed to need any help to bring back one man."
"It's—it's just suicide to go after him alone," she persisted. "Look what he did to the guard at the prison, to Mr. Whaley, to Onistah! He's just awful—hardly human."
"The lad's under orders, lass," McRae told her. "Gin they send him into the North after West, he'll just have to go. He canna argy-bargy aboot it."
Jessie gave up, reluctantly.
The little cavalcade started. Morse drove. The girl brought up the rear.
Her mind was still on the hazard of the journey Beresford must take. When Morse stopped to rest the dogs for a few moments, she tucked up Onistah again and recurred to the subject.
"I don't think Win Beresford should go after West alone except for a Cree guide. The Inspector ought to send another constable with him. Or two more. If he knew that man—how cruel and savage he is—"
Tom Morse spoke quietly. "He's not going alone. I'll be with him."
She stared. "You?"
"Yes. Sworn in as a deputy constable."
"But—he didn't say you were going when I spoke to him about it a little while ago."
"He didn't know. I've made up my mind since."
In point of fact he had come to a decision three seconds before he announced it.
Her soft eyes applauded him. "That'll be fine. His friends won't worry so much if you're with him. But—of course you know it'll be a horrible trip—and dangerous."
"No picnic," he admitted.
She continued to look at him, her cheeks flushed and her face vivid. "You must like Win a lot. Not many men would go."
"We're good friends," Morse answered dryly. "Anyhow, I owe West something on my own account."
The real reason why he was going he had not given. During the days she had been lost he had been on the rack of torture. He did not want her to suffer months of such mental distress while the man she loved was facing alone the peril of his grim work in the white Arctic desert.
They resumed the journey.
Jessie said no more. She would not mention the subject again probably. But it would be a great deal in her thoughts. She lived much of the time inside herself with her own imagination. This had the generosity and the enthusiasm of youth. She wanted to believe people fine and good and true. It warmed her to discover unexpected virtues in them.
Mid-afternoon brought them to Faraway. They drove down the main street of the village to McRae's house while the half-breeds cheered from the door of the Morse store.
Jessie burst into the big family room where Matapi-Koma sat bulging out from the only rocking-chair in the North woods.
"Oh, Mother—Mother!" the girl cried, and hugged the Cree woman with all the ardent young savagery of her nature.
The Indian woman's fat face crinkled to an expansive smile. She had stalwart sons of her own, but no daughters except this adopted child. Jessie was very dear to her.
In a dozen sentences the girl poured out her story, the words tumbling pell-mell over each other in headlong haste.
Matapi-Koma waddled out to the sled. "Onistah stay here," she said, and beamed on him. "Blackfoot all same Cree to Matapi-Koma when he friend Jessie. Angus send word nurse him till he well again."
Tom carried the Indian into the house so that his feet would not touch the ground. Jessie had stayed in to arrange the couch where Fergus usually slept.
She followed Morse to the door when he left. "We'll have some things to send back to Father when you go. I'll bring them down to the store to-morrow morning," she said. "And Mother wants you to come to supper to-night. Don't you dare say you're too busy."
He smiled at the intimate feminine fierceness of the injunction. The last few hours had put them on a somewhat different footing. He would accept such largesse as she was willing to offer. He recognized the spirit in which it was given. She wanted to show her appreciation of what he had done for her and was about to do for the man she loved. Nor would Morse meet her generosity in a churlish spirit.
"I'll be here when the gong rings," he told her heartily.
"Let's see. It's nearly three now. Say five o'clock," she decided.
"At five I'll be knockin' on the door."
She flashed at him a glance both shy and daring. "And I'll open it before you break through and bring it with you."
The trader went away with a queer warmth in his heart he had not known for many a day. The facts did not justify this elation, this swift exhilaration of blood, but to one who has starved for long any food is grateful.
Jessie flew back into the house. She had a busy two hours before her. "Mother, Mr. Morse is coming to dinner. What's in the house?"
"Fergus brought a black-tail in yesterday."
"Good. I know what I'll have. But first off, I want a bath. Lots of hot water, and all foamy with soap. I've got to hurry. You can peel the potatoes if you like. And fix some of those young onions. They're nice. And Mother—I'll let you make the biscuits. That's all. I'll do the rest."
The girl touched a match to the fire that was set in her room. She brought a tin tub and hot water and towels. Slim and naked she stood before the roaring logs and reveled in her bath. The sense of cleanliness was a luxury delicious. When she had dressed herself from the soles of her feet up in clean clothes, she felt a new and self-respecting woman.
She did not pay much attention to the psychology of dress, but she knew that when she had on the pretty plaid that had come from Fort Benton, and when her heavy black hair was done up just right, she had twice the sex confidence she felt in old togs. Jessie would have denied indignantly that she was a coquette. None the less she was intent on conquest. She wanted this quiet, self-contained American to like her.
The look she had seen in his red-brown eyes at times tantalized her. She could not read it. That some current of feeling about her raced deep in him she divined, but she did not know what it was. He had a way of letting his steady gaze rest on her disturbingly. What was he thinking? Did he despise her? Was he, away down out of sight, the kind of man toward women that West and Whaley were? She wouldn't believe it. He had never taken an Indian woman to live with him. There was not even a rumor that he had ever taken an interest in any Cree girl. Of course she did not like him—not the way she did Win Beresford or even Onistah—but she was glad he held himself aloof. It would have greatly disappointed her to learn of any sordid intrigue involving him.
Jessie rolled up her sleeves and put on a big apron. She saw that the onions and the potatoes were started and the venison ready for broiling. From a chest of drawers she brought one of the new white linen tablecloths of which she was inordinately proud. She would not trust any one but herself to set the table. Morse had come from a good family. He knew about such things. She was not going to let him go away thinking Angus McRae's family were barbarians, even though his wife was a Cree and his children of the half-blood.
On the table she put a glass dish of wild-strawberry jam. In the summer she had picked the fruit herself, just as she had gathered the saskatoon berries sprinkled through the pemmican she was going to use for the rubaboo.
"M" FOR MORSE
Two in the village bathed that day. The other was Tom Morse. He discarded his serviceable moccasins, his caribou-skin capote with the fur on, his moose-skin trousers, and his picturesque blanket shirt. For these he substituted the ungainly clothes of civilization, a pair of square-toed boots, a store suit, a white shirt.
This was not the way Faraway dressed for gala occasions, but in several respects the trader did not choose to follow the habits of the North. At times he liked to remind himself that he was an American and not a French half-breed born in the woods.
As he had promised, he was at the McRaes' by the appointed hour. Jessie opened to his knock.
The girl almost took his breath. He had not realized how attractive she was. In her rough outdoor costumes she had a certain naive boyishness, a very taking quality of vital energy that was sexless. But in the house dress she was wearing now, Jessie was wholly feminine. The little face, cameo-fine and clear-cut, the slender body, willow-straight, had the soft rounded curves that were a joy to the eye. He had always thought of her as dark, but to his surprise he found her amazingly fair for one of the metis blood.
A dimpled smile flashed him welcome. "You did come, then?"
"Is it the wrong night? Weren't you expectin' me?" he asked in pretended alarm.
"I was and I wasn't. It wouldn't have surprised me if you had decided you were too busy to come."
"Not when Miss Jessie McRae invites me."
"She invited you once before," the girl reminded him.
"Then she asked me because she thought she ought. Is that why I'm asked this time?"
She laughed. "You mustn't look a gift dinner in the mouth."
They were by this time in the big family room. She relieved him of his coat. He walked over to the couch upon which Onistah lay.
"How goes it? Tough sleddin'?" he asked.
The bronze face of the Blackfoot was immobile. He must still have been in great pain from the burnt feet, but he gave no sign of it.
"Onistah find good friends," he answered simply.
Tom looked round the room, and again there came to him the sense of home. Logs roared and snapped in the great fireplace. The table, set with the dishes and the plated silver McRae had imported from the States, stirred in him a pleasure that was almost poignant. The books, the organ, the quaint old engravings Angus had brought with him when he crossed the ocean: all of these touched the trader nearly. He was in exile, living a bachelor life under the most primitive conditions. The atmosphere of this house penetrated to every fiber of his being. It filled him with an acute hunger. Here were love and friendly intercourse and all the daily, homely routine that made life beautiful.
And here was the girl that he loved, vivid, vital, full of charm. The swift deftness and grace of her movements enticed him. The inflections of her warm, young voice set his pulses throbbing as music sometimes did. An ardent desire of her flooded him. She was the most winsome creature under heaven—but she was not for him.
Matapi-Koma sat at the head of the table, a smiling and benignant matron finished in copper. She had on her best dress, a beaded silk with purple satin trimmings, brought by a Red River cart from Winnipeg, accompanied with a guarantee from the trader that Queen Victoria had none better. The guarantee was worth what it was worth, but Matapi-Koma was satisfied. Never had she seen anything so grand. That Angus McRae could afford to buy it for her proved him a great chief.
Jessie waited on the table herself. She set upon it such a dinner as neither of her guests had eaten in years. Venison broiled to a turn, juicy, succulent mallard ducks from the cold storage of their larder, mashed potatoes with gravy, young boiled onions from Whoop-Up, home-made rubaboo of delicious flavor, hot biscuits and wild-strawberry jam! And finally, with the tea, a brandy-flavored plum pudding that an old English lady at Winnipeg had taught Jessie how to make.
Onistah ate lying on the couch. Afterward, filled to repletion, with the sense of perfect contentment a good dinner brings, the two young men stuffed their pipes and puffed strata of smoke toward the log rafters of the room. Jessie cleared the table, then sat down and put the last stitches in the gun-case she had been working at intermittently for a month. It was finished, but she had not till now stitched the initials into the cloth.
As the swift fingers of the girl flashed back and forth, both men watched, not too obviously, the profile shadowed by the dark, abundant, shining hair. The picture of her was an intimate one, but Tom's tricky imagination tormented him with one of still nearer personal association. He saw her in his own house, before his own fireside, a baby clinging to her skirt. Then, resolutely, he put the mental etching behind him. She loved his friend Beresford, a man out of a thousand, and of course he loved her. Had he not seen her go straight to his arms after her horrible experience with West?
Matapi-Koma presently waddled out of the room and they could hear the clatter of dishes.
"I told her I'd help her wash them if she'd wait," explained Jessie. "But she'd rather do them now and go to bed. My conscience is clear, anyhow." She added with a little bubble of laughter, "And I don't have to do the work. Is that the kind of a conscience you have, Mr. Morse?"
"If I were you my conscience would tell me that I couldn't go and leave my guests," he answered.
She raked him with a glance of merry derision. "Oh, I know how yours works. I wouldn't have it for anything. It's an awf'lly bossy one. It's sending you out to the Barrens with Win Beresford just because he's your friend."
"Not quite. I have another reason too," he replied.
"Yes, I know. You don't like West. Nobody does. My father doesn't—or Fergus—or Mr. Whaley—but they're not taking the long trail after him as you are. You can't get out of it that way."
She had not, of course, hit on the real reason for going that supplemented his friendship for the constable and he did not intend that she should.
"It doesn't matter much why I'm going. Anyhow, it'll be good for me. I'm gettin' soft and fat. After I've been out in the deep snows a month or so, I'll have taken up my belt a notch or two. It's time I wrestled with a blizzard an' tried livin' on lean rabbit."
[Footnote 7: Rabbit is about the poorest meat in the North. It is lean and stringy, furnishes very little nourishment and not much fat, and is not a muscle-builder. In a country where, oil and grease are essentials, such food is not desirable. The Indians ate great quantities of them. (W.M.R.)]
Her gaze swept his lean, hard, compact body. "Yes, you look soft," she mocked. "Father said something of that sort when he looked at that door there you came through."
Tom had been watching her stitching. He offered a comment now, perhaps, to change the subject. It is embarrassing for a modest man to talk about himself.
"You're workin' that 'W' upside down," he said.
"Am I? Who said, it was a 'W'?"
"I guessed it might be."
"You're a bad guesser. It's an 'M.' 'M' stands for McRae, doesn't it?"
"Yes, and 'W' for Winthrop," he said with a little flare of boldness.
A touch of soft color flagged her cheeks. "And 'I' for impudence," she retorted with a smile that robbed the words of offense.
He was careful not to risk outstaying his welcome. After an hour he rose to go. His good-bye to Matapi-Koma and Onistah was made in the large living-room.
Jessie followed him to the outside door.
He gave her a word of comfort as he buttoned his coat, "Don't you worry about Win. I'll keep an eye on him."
"Thank you. And he'll keep one on you, I suppose."
He laughed. That reversal of the case was a new idea to him. The prettiest girl in the North was not holding her breath till he returned safely. "I reckon," he said. "We'll team together fine."
"Don't be foolhardy, either of you," she cautioned.
"No," he promised, and held out his hand. "Good-bye, if I don't see you in the mornin'."
He did not know she was screwing up her courage and had been for half an hour to do something she had never done before. She plunged at it, a tide of warm blood beating into her face beneath the tan.
"'M' is for Morse too, and 'T' for Tom," she said.
With the same motion she thrust the gun-case into his hand and him out of the door.
He stood outside, facing a closed door, the bit of fancy-work in his mittens. An exultant electric tingle raced through his veins. She had given him a token of friendship he would cherish all his life.
THE LONG TRAIL
For four days Whaley lay between life and death. There were hours when the vital current in him ebbed so low that McRae thought it was the beginning of the end. But after the fifth day he began definitely to mend. His appetite increased. The fever in him abated. The delirium passed away. Just a week from the time he had been wounded, McRae put him on the cariole and took him to town over the hard crust of the snow.
Beresford returned from Fort Edmonton a few hours later, carrying with him an appointment for Morse as guide and deputy constable.
"Maintiens le droit," said the officer, clapping his friend on the shoulder. "You're one of us now. A great chance for a short life you've got. Time for the insurance companies to cancel any policies they may have on you."
Morse smiled. He was only a deputy, appointed temporarily, but it pleased him to be chosen even in this capacity as a member of the most efficient police force in the world. "Maintiens le droit" was the motto of the Mounted. Tom did not intend that the morale of that body should suffer through him if he could help it.
Angus McRae had offered his dog-train for the pursuit and Beresford had promptly accepted. The four dogs of the Scotch trapper were far and away better than any others that could be picked up in a hurry. They had stamina, and they were not savage and wolfish like most of those belonging to the Indians and even to the Hudson's Bay Company.
Supplies for the trip had been gathered by Morse. From the Crees he had bought two hundred pounds of dried fish for the dogs. Their own provisions consisted of pemmican, dried caribou meat, flour, salt, tea, and tobacco.
All Faraway was out to see the start. The travelers would certainly cover hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles before their return. Even in that country of wide spaces, where men mushed far when the rivers and lakes were closed, this was likely to prove an epic trip.
Beresford cracked the long lash and Cuffy leaned forward in the traces. The tangle of dogs straightened out and began to move. A French voyageur lifted his throat in a peculiar shout that was half a bark. Indians and half-breeds snowshoed down the street beside the sled. At the door of the McRae house stood Angus, his wife, and daughter.
"God wi' you haith," the trapper called.
Jessie waved a scarf, and Beresford, who had spent the previous evening with her, threw up a hand in gay greeting.
The calvacade drew to the edge of the woods. Morse looked back. A slim figure, hardly distinguishable in the distance, still stood in front of the McRae house fluttering the scarf.
A turn in the trail hid her. Faraway was shut out of view.
For four or five miles the trappers stayed with them. It was rather a custom of the North to speed travelers on their way in this fashion. At the edge of the first lake the Indians and half-breeds said good-bye and turned back.
Morse moved onto the ice and broke trail. The dogs followed in tandem—Cuffy, Koona, Bull, and Caesar. They traveled fast over the ice and reached the woods beyond. The timber was not thick. Beyond this was a second lake, a larger one. By the time they had crossed this, the sun was going down.
The men watched for a sheltered place to camp and as soon as they found one, they threw off the trail to the edge of the woods, drawing up the sledge back of them as a wind-break. They gathered pine for fuel and cut balsam boughs for beds. It had come on to snow, and they ate supper with their backs to the drive of the flakes, the hoods of their furs drawn over their heads.
The dogs sat round in a half-circle watching them and the frozen fish thawing before the fire. Their faces, tilted a little sideways, ears cocked and eyes bright, looked anxiously expectant. When the fish were half-thawed, Morse tossed them by turn to the waiting animals, who managed to get rid of their supper with a snap and a gulp. Afterward they burrowed down in the snow and fell asleep.
On the blazing logs Beresford had put two kettles filled with snow. These he refilled after the snow melted, until enough water was in them. Into one kettle he put a piece of fat caribou meat. The other was to make tea.
Using their snowshoes as shovels, they scraped a place clear and scattered balsam boughs on it. On this they spread an empty flour sack, cut open at the side. Tin plates and cups served as dish.
Their supper consisted of soggy bannocks, fat meat, and tea. While they ate, the snow continued to fall. It was not unwelcome, for so long as this lasted the cold could not be intolerable. Moreover, snow makes a good white blanket and protects against sudden drops in temperature.
They changed their moccasins and duffles and pulled on as night-wear long buffalo-skin boots, hood, mufflers, and fur mits. A heavy fur robe and a blanket were added. Into these last they snuggled down, wrapping themselves up so completely that a tenderfoot would have smothered for lack of air.
Before they retired, they could hear the ice on the lake cracking like distant thunder. The trees back of them occasionally snapped from the cold with reports that sounded like pistol shots.
In five minutes both men were asleep. They lay with their heads entirely covered, as the Indians did. Not once during the night did they stir. To disarrange their bedding and expose the nose or the hands to the air would be to risk being frozen.
Morse woke first. He soon had a roaring fire. Again there were two kettles on it, one for fat meat and the other for strong tea. No fish were thawing before the heat, for dogs are fed only once a day. Otherwise they get sleepy and sluggish, losing the edge of their keenness.
They were off to an early start. There was a cold head wind that was uncomfortable. For hours they held to the slow, swinging stride of the webs. Sometimes the trail was through the forest, sometimes in and out of brush and small timber. Twice during the day they crossed lakes and hit up a lively pace. Once they came to a muskeg, four miles across, and had to plough over the moss hags while brush tangled their feet and slapped their faces.
Cuffy was a prince of leaders. He seemed to know by some sixth sense the best way to wind through underbrush and over swamps. He was master of the train and ruled by strength and courage as well as intelligence. Bull had ideas of his own, but after one sharp brush with Cuffy, from which he had emerged ruffled and bleeding, the native dog relinquished claim to dominance.
The travelers made about fifteen miles before noon. They came to a solitary tepee, built on the edge of a lake with a background of snow-burdened spruce. This lodge was constructed of poles arranged cone-shaped side by side, the chinks between plastered with moss wedged in to fill every crevice. A thin wisp of smoke rose from an open space in the top.
At the sound of the yelping dogs a man lifted the moose-skin curtain that served as a door. He was an old and wrinkled Cree. His face was so brown and tough and netted with seams that it resembled a piece of alligator leather. From out of it peered two very small bright eyes.
"Ugh! Ugh!" he grunted.
This appeared to be all the English that he knew. Beresford tried him in French and discovered he had a smattering of it. After a good many attempts, the soldier found that he had seen no white man with a dog-train in many moons. The Cree lived there alone, it appeared, and trapped for a living. Why he was separated from all his kin and tribal relations the young Canadian could not find out at the time. Later he learned that the old fellow was an outcast because he had once shown the white feather in a battle with Blackfeet fifty years earlier.
Before they left, the travelers discovered that he knew two more words of English. One was rum, the other tobacco. He begged for both. They left him a half-foot of tobacco. The scant supply of whiskey they had brought was for an emergency.
Just before night fell, Morse shot two ptarmigan in the woods. These made a welcome addition to their usual fare.
Though both the men were experienced in the use of snowshoes, their feet were raw from the chafing of the thongs. Before the camp-fire they greased the sore places with tallow. In a few days the irritation due to the webs would disappear and the leg muscles brought into service by this new and steady shuffle would harden and grow fit.
They had built a wind-break of brush beside the sled and covered the ground with spruce boughs after clearing away the snow. Here they rested after supper, drying socks, duffles, and moccasins, which were wet with perspiration, before the popping fire.
Beresford pulled out his English briar pipe and Tom one picked from the Company stock. Smoke wreathed their heads while they lounged indolently on the spruce bed and occasionally exchanged a remark. They knew each other well enough for long silences. When they talked, it was because they had something to say.
The Canadian looked at his friend's new gun-case and remarked with a gleam in his eye:
"I spoke for that first, Tom. Had miners on it, I thought."
The American laughed sardonically. "It was a present for a good boy," he explained. "I've a notion somebody was glad I was mushin' with you on this trip. Maybe you can guess why. Anyhow, I drew a present out of it."
"I see you did," Beresford answered, grinning.
"I'm to look after you proper an' see you're tucked up."
"Oh, that's it?"
"That's just it."
The constable looked at him queerly, started to say something, then changed his mind.
A PICTURE IN A LOCKET
It was characteristic of McRae that he had insisted on bringing Whaley to his own home to recuperate. "It's nursin' you need, man, an' guid food. Ye'll get baith at the hoose."
The trader protested, and was overruled. His Cree wife was not just now able to look after him. McRae's wife and daughter made good his promise, and the wounded man thrived under their care.
On an afternoon Whaley lay on the bed in his room smoking. Beside him sat Lemoine, also puffing at a pipe. The trapper had brought to the ex-gambler a strange tale of a locket and a ring he had seen bought by a half-breed from a Blackfoot squaw who claimed to have had it eighteen years. He had just finished telling of it when Jessie knocked at the door and came into the room with a bowl of caribou broth.
Whaley pretended to resent this solicitude, but his objection was a fraud. He liked this girl fussing over him. His attitude toward her was wholly changed. Thinking of her as a white girl, he looked at her with respect.
"No more slops," he said. "Bring me a good caribou steak and I'll say thank you."
"You're to eat what Mother sends," she told him.
Lemoine had risen from the chair on which he had been sitting. He stared at her, a queer look of puzzled astonishment in his eyes. Jessie became aware of his gaze and flashed on him a look of annoyance.
"Have you seen a ghost, Mr. Lemoine?" she asked.
"By gar, maybeso, Miss Jessie. The picture in the locket, it jus' lak you—same hair, same eyes, same smile."
"What picture in what locket?"
"The locket I see at Whoop-Up, the one Pierre Roubideaux buy from old Makoye-kin's squaw."
"A picture of a Blackfoot?"
"No-o. Maybe French—maybe from the 'Merican country. I do not know."
Whaley took the pipe from his mouth and sat up, the chill eyes in his white face fixed and intent. "Go back to Whoop-Up, Lemoine. Buy that locket and that ring for me from Pierre Roubideaux. See Makoye-kin—and his squaw. Find out where she got it—and when. Run down the whole story."
The trapper took off a fur cap and scratched his curly poll. "Mais—pourquois? All that will take money, is it not so?"
"I'll let you have the money. Spend what you need, but account for it to me afterward."
Jessie felt the irregular beat of a hammer inside her bosom. "What is it you think, Mr. Whaley?" she cried softly.
"I don't know what I think. Probably nothing to it. But there's a locket. We know that. With a picture that looks like you, Lemoine here thinks. We'd better find out whose picture it is, hadn't we?"
"Yes, but—Do you mean that maybe it has something to do with me? How can it? The sister of Stokimatis was my mother. Onistah is my cousin. Ask Stokimatis. She knows. What could this woman of the picture be to me?"
Jessie could not understand the fluttering pulse in her throat. She had not doubted that her mother was a Blackfoot. All the romance of her clouded birth centered around the unknown father who had died when she was a baby. Stokimatis had not been very clear about that. She had never met the man, according to the story she had told Sleeping Dawn. Neither she nor those of her tribal group knew anything of him. Was there a mystery about his life? In her childish dreams Jessie had woven one. He was to her everything desirable, for he was the tie that bound her to all the higher standards of life she craved.
"I don't know. Likely it's all a mare's nest. Find Stokimatis, Lemoine, and bring her back with you. Well see what she can tell us. And get the locket and the ring, with the story back of them."
Again Lemoine referred to the cost. He would have to take his dog-train to Whoop-Up, and from there out to the creek where Pierre Roubideaux was living. Makoye-kin and his family might be wintering anywhere within a radius of a hundred miles. Was there any use in going out on such a wild-hare chase?
Whaley thought there was and said so with finality. He did not give his real reason, which was that he wanted to pay back to McRae and his daughter the debt he owed. They had undoubtedly saved his life after he had treated her outrageously. There was already one score to his credit, of course. He had saved her from West. But he felt the balance still tipped heavily against him. And he was a man who paid his debts.
It was this factor of his make-up—the obligation of old associations laid upon him—that had taken him out to West with money, supplies, and a dog-train to help his escape.
Jessie went out to find her father. Her eagerness to see him outflew her steps. This was not a subject she could discuss with Matapi-Koma. The Cree woman would not understand what a tremendous difference it made if she could prove her blood was wholly of the superior race. Nor could Jessie with tact raise such a point. It involved not only the standing of Matapi-Koma herself, but also of her sons.
The girl found McRae in the storeroom looking over a bundle of assorted pelts—marten, fox, mink, and beaver. The news tumbled from her lips in excited exclamations.
"Oh, Father, guess! Mr. Lemoine saw a picture—a Blackfoot woman had it—old Makoye-kin's wife—and she sold it. And he says it was like me—exactly. Maybe it was my aunt—or some one. My father's sister! Don't you think?"
"I'll ken what I think better gin ye'll just quiet doon an' tell me a' aboot it, lass."
She told him. The Scotchman took what she had to say with no outward sign of excitement. None the less his blood moved faster. He wanted no change in the relations between them that would interfere with the love she felt for him. To him it did not matter whether she was of the pure blood or of the metis. He had always ignored the Indian in her. She was a precious wildling of beauty and delight. By nature she was of the ruling race. There was in her nothing servile or dependent, none of the inertia that was so marked a mental characteristic of the Blackfoot and the Cree. Her slender body was compact of fire and spirit. She was alive to her finger-tips.
None the less he was glad on her account. Since it mattered to her that she was a half-blood, he would rejoice, too, if she could prove the contrary. Or, if she could trace her own father's family, he would try to be glad for her.
With his rough forefinger he touched gently the tender curve of the girl's cheek. "I'm thinkin' that gin ye find relatives across the line, auld Angus McRae will be losin' his dawtie."
She flew into his arms, her warm, young face pressed against his seamed cheek.
"Never—never! You're my father—always that no matter what I find. You taught me to read and nursed me when I was sick. Always you've cared for me and been good to me. I'll never have any real father but you," she cried passionately.
He stroked her dark, abundant hair fondly. "My lass, I've gi'en ye all the love any yin could gi'e his ain bairn. I doot I've been hard on ye at times, but I'm a dour auld man an' fine ye ken my heart was woe for ye when I was the strictest."
She could count on the fingers of one hand the times when he had said as much. Of nature he was a bit of Scotch granite externally. He was sentimental. Most of his race are. But he guarded the expression of it as though it were a vice.
"Maybe Onistah has heard his mother say something about it," Jessie suggested.
"Like enough. There'll be nae harm in askin' the lad."
But the Blackfoot had little to tell. He had been told by Stokimatis that Sleeping Dawn was his cousin, but he had never quite believed it. Once, when he had pressed his mother with questions, she had smiled deeply and changed the subject. His feeling was, and had always been, that there was some mystery about the girl's birth. Stokimatis either knew what it was or had some hint of it.
His testimony at least tended to support the wild hopes flaming in the girl's heart.
Lemoine started south for Whoop-Up at break of day.
INTO THE LONE LAND
Into Northern Lights the pursuers drove after a four-day traverse. Manders, of the Mounted, welcomed them with the best he had. No news had come to him from the outside for more than two months, and after his visitors were fed and warmed, they lounged in front of a roaring log fire while he flung questions at them of what the world and its neighbor were doing.
Manders was a dark-bearded man, big for the North-West Police. He had two hobbies. One was trouble in the Balkans, which he was always prophesying. The other was a passion for Sophocles, which he read in the original from a pocket edition. Start him on the chariot race in "Elektra" and he would spout it while he paced the cabin and gestured with flashing eyes. For he was a Rugby and an Oxford man, though born with the wanderlust in his heart. Some day he would fall heir to a great estate in England, an old baronetcy which carried with it manors and deer parks and shaven lawns that had taken a hundred years to grow. Meanwhile he lived on pemmican and sour bannocks. Sometimes he grumbled, but his grumbling was a fraud. He was here of choice, because he was a wild ass of the desert and his ears heard only the call of adventure. Of such was the North-West Mounted.
Presently, when the stream of his curiosity as to the outside began to dry, Beresford put a few questions of his own. Manders could give him no information. He was in touch with the trappers for a radius of a hundred miles of which Northern Lights was the center, but no word had come to him of a lone traveler with a dog-train passing north.
"Probably striking west of here," the big black Englishman suggested.
Beresford's face twisted to a wry, humorous grimace. East, west, or north, they would have to find the fellow and bring him back.
The man-hunters spent a day at Northern Lights to rest the dogs and restock their supplies. They overhauled their dunnage carefully, mended the broken moose-skin harness, and looked after one of the animals that had gone a little lame from a sore pad. From a French half-breed they bought additional equipment much needed for the trail. He was a gay, good-looking youth in new fringed leather hunting-shirt, blue Saskatchewan cap trimmed with ribbons, and cross belt of scarlet cloth. His stock in trade was dog-shoes, made of caribou-skin by his wife, and while in process of tanning soaked in some kind of liquid that would prevent the canines from eating them off their feet.
The temperature was thirty-five below zero when they left the post and there were sun dogs in the sky. Manders had suggested that they had better wait a day or two, but the man-hunters were anxious to be on the trail. They had a dangerous, unpleasant job on hand. Both of them wanted it over with as soon as possible.
They headed into the wilds. The road they made was a crooked path through the white, unbroken forest. They saw many traces of fur-bearing animals, but did not stop to do any hunting. The intense cold and the appearance of the sky were whips to drive them fast. In the next two or three days they passed fifteen or twenty lakes. Over these they traveled rapidly, but in the portages and the woods they had to pack the snow, sometimes cut out obstructing brush, and again help the dogs over rough or heavy places.
The blizzard caught them the third day. They fought their way through the gathering storm across a rather large lake to the timber's edge. Here they cleared away a space about nine feet square and cut evergreen boughs from the trees to cover it. At one side of this, Morse built the fire while Beresford unharnessed the dogs and thawed out a mess of frozen fish for them. Presently the kettles were bubbling on the fire. The men ate supper and drew the sled up as a barricade against the wind.
The cold had moderated somewhat and it had come on to snow. All night a sleety, wind-driven drizzle beat upon them. They rose from an uncomfortable night to a gloomy day.
They consulted about what was best to do. Their camp was in a poor place, among a few water-logged trees that made a poor, smoky fire. It had little shelter from the storm, and there was no evidence of fair weather at hand.
"Better tackle the next traverse," Morse advised. "Once we get across the lake we can't be worse off than we are here."
"Righto!" assented Beresford.
They packed their supplies, harnessed the dogs, and were off. Into the storm they drove, head down, buffeted by a screaming wind laden with stinging sleet that swept howling across the lake. All about them they heard the sharp reports of cracking ice. At any moment a fissure might open, and its width might be an inch or several yards. In the blinding gale they could see nothing. Literally, they had to feel their way.
Morse went ahead to test the ice, Cuffy following close at his heels. The water rushes up after a fissure and soon freezes over. The danger is that one may come to it too soon.
This was what happened. Morse, on his snowshoes, crossed the thinly frozen ice safely. Cuffy, a step or two behind the trail-breaker, plunged through into the water. The prompt energy of Beresford saved the other dogs. He stopped them instantly and threw his whole weight back to hold the sled. The St. Bernard floundered in the water for a few moments and tried to reach Morse. The harness held Cuffy back. Beresford ran to the edge of the break and called him. A second or two later he was helping to drag the dog back upon the firm ice.
In the bitter cold the matted coat of the St. Bernard, froze stiff. Cuffy knew his danger. The instant the sled, was across the crack, he plunged at the load and went forward with such speed that he seemed almost to drag the other dogs with him.
Fortunately the shore was near, not more than three or four miles away. Within half an hour land was reached. A forest came down to the edge of the lake. From the nearer trees Morse sliced birch bark. An abundance of fairly dry wood was at hand. Before a roaring fire Cuffy lay on a buffalo robe and steamed. Within an hour he was snuggling a contented nose up to Beresford's caressing hand.
Fagged out, the travelers went to bed early. Long before daybreak they were up. The blizzard had died down during the night. It left behind a crusted trail over which the dogs moved fast. The thermometer had again dropped sharply and the weather was bitter cold. Before the lights of an Indian village winked at them through the trees, they had covered nearly forty miles. In the wintry afternoon darkness they drove up.
The native dogs were barking a welcome long before they came jingling into the midst of the tepees. Bucks, squaws, and papooses tumbled out to see them with guttural exclamations of greeting. Some of the youngsters and one or two of the maidens had never before seen a white man.
A fast and furious melee interrupted conversation. The wolfish dogs of the village were trying out the mettle of the four strangers. The snarling and yelping drowned all other sounds until the gaunt horde of sharp-muzzled; stiff-haired brutes had been beaten back by savage blows from the whip and by quick thrusts of a rifle butt.
The head man of the group invited the two whites into the largest hut. Morse and Beresford sat down before a smoky fire and carried on a difficult dialogue. They divided half a yard of tobacco among the men present and gave each of the women a small handful of various-colored beads.
They ate sparingly of a stew made of fish, the gift of their hosts. In turn the officers had added to the menu a large piece of fat moose which was devoured with voracity.
The Indians, questioned, had heard a story of a white man traveling alone through the Lone Lands with a dog-train. He was a giant of a fellow and surly, the word had gone out. Who he was or where he was going they did not know, but he seemed to be making for the great river in the north. That was the sum and substance of what Beresford learned from them about West by persistent inquiry.
After supper, since it was so bitterly cold outside, the man-hunters slept in the tepee of the chief. Thirteen Indians too slept there. Two of them were the head man's wives, six were his children, one was a grandchild. Who the rest of the party were or what relation they bore to him, the guests did not learn.
The place was filthy and the air was vile. Before morning both the young whites regretted they had not taken chances outside.
"Not ever again," Beresford said with frank disgust after they had set out next day. "I'll starve if I have to. I'll freeze if I must. But, by Jove! I'll not eat Injun stew or sleep in a pot-pourri of nitchies. Not good enough."
Tom grinned. "While I was eatin' the stew, I thought I could stand sleepin' there even if I gagged at the eats, and while I was tryin' to sleep, I made up my mind if I had to choose one it would be the stew. Next time we're wrastlin' with a blizzard, we'll know enough to be thankful for our mercies. We'll be able to figure it might be a lot worse."
That afternoon they killed a caribou and got much-needed fresh meat for themselves and the dogs. Unfortunately, while carrying the hind-quarters to the sled, Beresford slipped and strained a tendon in the left leg. He did not notice it much at the time, but after an hour's travel the pain increased. He found it difficult to keep pace with the dogs.
They were traversing a ten-mile lake. Morse proposed that they camp as soon as they reached the edge of it.
"Better get on the sled and ride till then," he added.
Beresford shook his head. "No, I'll carry on all right. Got to grin and bear it. The sled's overloaded anyhow. You trot along and I'll tag. Time you've got the fires built and all the work done, I'll loaf into camp."
Tom made no further protest. "All right. Take it easy. I'll unload and run back for you."
The Montanan found a good camp-site, dumped the supplies, and left Cuffy as a guard. With the other dogs he drove back and met the officer. Beresford was still limping doggedly forward. Every step sent a shoot of pain through him, but he set his teeth and kept moving.
None the less he was glad to see the empty sled. He tumbled on and let the others do the work.
At camp he scraped the snow away with a shoe while Morse cut spruce boughs and chopped wood for the fire.
Beresford suffered a good deal from his knee that night. He did not sleep much, and when day came it was plain he could not travel. The camp-site was a good one. There was plenty of wood, and the shape of the draw in which they were located was a protection from the cold wind. The dogs would be no worse for a day or two of rest. The travelers decided to remain here as long as might be necessary.
Tom went hunting. He brought back a bag of four ptarmigan late in the afternoon. Fried, they were delicious. The dogs stood round in a half-circle and caught the bones tossed to them. Crunch— crunch—crunch. The bones no longer were. The dogs, heads cocked on one side, waited expectantly for more tender tidbits.
"Saw deer tracks. To-morrow I'll have a try for one," Morse said.
The lame man hobbled down to the lake next day, broke the ice, and fished for jack pike. He took back to camp with him all he could carry.
On the fourth day his knee was so much improved that he was able to travel slowly. They were glad to see that night the lights of Fort Desolation, as one of the Mounted had dubbed the post on account of its loneliness.
THE MAN-HUNTERS READ SIGN
In the white North travelers are few and far. It is impossible for one to pass through the country without leaving a record of his progress written on the terrain and in the minds of the natives. The fugitive did not attempt concealment. He had with him now an Indian guide and was pushing into the Barren Lands. There was no uncertainty about his movements. From Fort Chippewayan he had swung to the northwest in the line of the great frozen lakes, skirting Athabasca and following the Great Slave River to the lake of the same name. This he crossed at the narrowest point, about where the river empties into it, and headed for the eastern extremity of Lake La Martre.
On his heels, still far behind, trod the two pursuers, patient, dogged, and inexorable. They had left far in the rear the out-forts of the Mounted and the little settlements of the free traders. Already they were deep in the Hudson's Bay Company trapping-grounds. Ahead of them lay the Barrens, stretching to the inlets of the Arctic Ocean.
The days were drawing out and the nights getting shorter. The untempered sun of the Northland beat down on the cold snow crystals and reflected a million sparks of light. In that white field the glare was almost unbearable. Both of them wore smoked glasses, but even with these their eyes continually smarted. They grew red and swollen. If time had not been so great an element in their journey, they would have tried to travel only after sunset. But they could not afford this. West would keep going as long and as fast as he could.
Each of them dreaded snow-blindness. They knew the sign of it—a dreadful pain, a smarting of the eyeballs as though hot burning sand were being flung against them. In camp at night they bathed their swollen lids and applied a cool and healing salve.
Meanwhile the weeks slipped into months and still they held like bulldogs to the trail of the man they were after.
The silence of the wide, empty white wastes surrounded them, except for an occasional word, the whine of a dog, and the slithering crunch of the sled-runners. From unfriendly frozen deserts they passed, through eternal stillness, into the snow wilderness that seemed to stretch forever. When they came to forests, now thinner, smaller, and less frequent, they welcomed them as they would an old friend.
"He's headin' for Great Bear, looks like," Morse suggested one morning after an hour in which neither of them had spoken.
"I was wondering when you'd chirp up, Tom," Beresford grinned cheerfully. "Sometimes I think I'm fed up for life on the hissing of snowshoe runners. The human voice sure sounds good up here. Yes, Great Bear Lake. And after that, where?"
"Up the lake, across to the Mackenzie, and down it to the ocean, I'd say. He's makin' for the whaling waters. Herschel Island maybe. He's hoping to bump into a whaler and get down on it to 'Frisco."
"Your guess is just as good as any," the Canadian admitted. "He's cut out a man-sized job for himself. I'll say that for him. It's a five-to-one bet he never gets through alive, even if we don't nab him."
"What else can he do? He's got to keep going or be dragged back to be hanged. I'd travel too if I were in his place."
"So would I. He's certainly hitting her up. Wish he'd break his leg for a week or two," the constable said airily.
They swung into a dense spruce swamp and jumped up a half-grown bear. He was so close to them that Tom, who was breaking trail, could see his little shining eyes. Morse was carrying his rifle, in the hope that he might see a lynx or a moose. The bear turned to scamper away, but the intention never became a fact. A bullet crashed through the head and brought the animal down.
An hour later they reached an Indian camp on the edge of a lake. On stages, built well up from the ground, drying fish were hanging out of reach of the dogs. These animals came charging toward the travelers as usual, lean, bristling, wolfish creatures that never had been half-tamed.
Beresford lashed them back with the whip. Indians came out from the huts, matted hair hanging over their eyes. After the usual greetings and small presents had been made, the man-hunters asked questions.
"Great Bear Lake—wah-he-o-che (how far)?"
The head man opened his eyes. Nobody in his right mind went to the great water at this time of year. It was maybe fifteen, maybe twenty days' travel. Who could tell? Were all the fair skins mad? Only three days since another dog-train had passed through driven by a big shaggy man who had left them no presents after he had bought fish. Three whites in as many days, and before that none but voyageur half-breeds in twice that number of years.
The trooper let out a boyish whoop. "Gaining fast. Only three days behind him, Tom. If our luck stands up, he'll never reach the Great Bear."
There was reason back of Beresford's exultant shout. At least one of West's dogs had bleeding feet. This the stained snow on the trail told them. Either the big man had no shoes for the animals or was too careless to use them when needed, the constable had suggested to his friend.
"It's not carelessness," Morse said. "It's his bullying nature. Likely he's got the shoes, only he won't put 'em on. He'll beat the poor brute over the head instead and curse his luck when he breaks down. He's too bull-headed to be a good driver."
On the fourth day after this they came upon one of the minor tragedies of sub-Arctic travel. The skeleton of a dog lay beside the trail. Its bones had been picked clean by its ravenous cannibal companions.
"Three left," Beresford commented. "He'll be figuring on picking up another when he meets any Indians or Eskimos."
"If he does it won't be any good to work with his train. I believe we've got him. He isn't twenty-five miles ahead of us right now."
"I'd put it at twenty. In about three days now the fireworks will begin."
It was the second day after this that they began to notice something peculiar about the trail they were following. Hitherto it had taken a straight line, except when the bad terrain had made a detour advisable. Now it swayed uncertainly, much as a drunken man staggers down a street.
"What's wrong with him? It can't be liquor. Yet if he's not drunk, what's got into him?" the soldier asked aloud, expecting no answer that explained this phenomenon.
Tom shook his head. "See. The Indian's drivin' now. He follows a straight enough line. You can tell he's at the tail line by the shape of the webs. And West's still lurchin' along in a crazy way. He fell down here. Is he sick, d' you reckon?"
"Give it up. Anyhow, he's in trouble. We'll know soon enough what it is. Before night now we'll maybe see them."
Before they had gone another mile, the trail in the snow showed another peculiarity. It made a wide half-circle and was heading south again.
"He's given up. What's that mean? Out of grub, d' you think?" Beresford asked.
"No. If they had been, he'd have made camp and gone hunting. We crossed musk-ox sign to-day, you know."
"Righto. Can't be that. He must be sick."
They kept their eyes open. At any moment now they were likely to make a discovery. Since they were in a country of scrubby brush they moved cautiously to prevent an ambush. There was just a possibility that the fugitive might have caught sight of them and be preparing an unwelcome surprise. But it was a possibility that did not look like a probability.
"Something gone 'way off in his plans," Morse said after they had mushed on the south trail for an hour. "Looks like he don't know what he's doing. Has he gone crazy?"
"Might be that. Men do in this country a lot. We don't know what a tough time he's been through."
"I'll bet he's bucked blizzards aplenty in the last two months. Notice one thing. West's trailin' after the guide like a lamb. He's makin' a sure-enough drunk track. See how the point of his shoe caught the snow there an' flung him down. The Cree stopped the sled right away so West could get up. Why did he do that? And why don't West ever stray a foot outa the path that's broke? That's not like him. He's always boss o' the outfit—always leadin'."
Beresford was puzzled, too. "I don't get the situation. It's been pretty nearly a thousand miles that we've been following this trail—eight hundred, anyhow. All the way Bully West has stamped his big foot on it as boss. Now he takes second place. The reason's beyond me."
His friend's mind jumped at a conclusion. "I reckon I know why he's followin' the straight and narrow path. The guide's got a line round his waist and West's tied to it."
The sun's rays, reflected from the snow in a blinding, brilliant glare, smote Morse full in the eyes. For days the white fields had been very trying to the sight. There had been moments when black spots had flickered before him, when red-hot sand had been flung against his eyeballs if he could judge by the burning sensation.
He knew now, in a flash, what was wrong with West.
To Beresford he told it in two words.
The constable slapped his thigh. "Of course. That's the answer."
Night fell, the fugitives still not in sight. The country was so rough that they might be within a mile or two and yet not be seen.
"Better camp, I reckon," Morse suggested.
"Yes. Here. We'll come up with them to-morrow."
They were treated that evening to an indescribably brilliant pyrotechnic display in the heavens. An aurora flashed across the sky such as neither of them had ever seen before. The vault was aglow with waves of red, violet, and purple that danced and whirled, with fickle, inconstant flashes of gold and green and yellow bars. A radiant incandescence of great power lit the arch and flooded it with light that poured through the cathedral windows of the Most High.
At daybreak they were up. Quickly they breakfasted and loaded. The trail they followed was before noon a rotten one, due to a sudden rise in the temperature, but it still bore south steadily.
They reached the camp where West and his guide had spent the night. Another chapter of the long story of the trail was written here. The sled and the guide had gone on south, but West had not been with them. His webs went wandering off at an angle, hesitant and uncertain. Sometimes they doubled across the track he had already made.
Beresford was breaking trail. His hand shot straight out. In the distance there was a tiny black speck in the waste of white. It moved.
Even yet the men who had come to bring the law into the Lone Lands did not relax their vigilance. They knew West's crafty, cunning mind. This might be a ruse to trap them. When they left the sled and moved forward, it was with rules ready. The hunters stalked their prey as they would have done a musk ox. Slowly, noiselessly, they approached.
The figure was that of a huge man. He sat huddled in the snow, his back to them. Despair was in the droop of the head and the set of the bowed shoulders.
One of the dogs howled. The big torso straightened instantly. The shaggy head came up. Bully West was listening intently. He turned and looked straight at them, but he gave no sign of knowing they were there. The constable took a step and the hissing of the shoe-runner sounded.
"I'm watchin' you, Stomak-o-sox," the heavy voice of the convict growled. "Can't fool me. I see every step you're takin'."
It was an empty boast, almost pathetic in its futility. Morse and Beresford moved closer, still without speech.
West broke into violent, impotent cursing. "You're there, you damned wood Cree! Think I don't know? Think I can't see you? Well, I can. Plain as you can see me. You come here an' get me, or I'll skin you alive like I done last week. Hear me?"
The voice rose to a scream. It betrayed terror—the horrible deadly fear of being left alone to perish in the icy wastes of the North.
Beresford crept close and waved a hand in front of the big man's eyes. West did not know it. He babbled vain and foolish threats at his guide.
The convict had gone blind—snow-blind, and Stomak-o-sox had left him alone to make a push for his own life while there was still time.
West grinned up at the officer, his yellow canines showing like tusks. His matted face was an unlovely sight. In it stark, naked fear struggled with craftiness and cruelty.
"Good you came back—good for you. I ain't blind. I been foolin' you all along. Wanted, to try you out. Now we'll mush. Straight for the big lake. North by west like we been going. Un'erstand, Stomak-o-sox? I'll not beat yore head off this time, but if you ever try any monkey tricks with Bully West again—" He let the threat die out in a sound of grinding teeth.
Beresford spoke. His voice was gentle. Vile though this murderer was, there was something pitiable in his condition. One cannot see a Colossus of strength and energy stricken to helplessness without some sense of compassion.
"It's not Stomak-o-sox. We're two of the North-West Mounted. You're under arrest for breaking prison and for killing Tim Kelly."
The information stunned West. He stared up out of sightless eyes. So far as he had known, no member of the Mounted was within five hundred miles of him. Yet the law had stretched out its long arm to snatch him back from this Arctic waste after he had traveled nearly fifteen hundred miles. It was incredible that there could exist such a police force on earth.
"Got me, did you?" he growled. He added the boast that he could not keep back. "Well, you'd never 'a' got me if I hadn't gone blind—never in this world. There ain't any two of yore damned spies could land Bully West when he's at himself."
He broke into a string of curses. "No, our grub's runnin' low. That wood Cree slipped away with all we had. Wish I'd killed him last week when I skinned him with the dog-whip."
"How long have you been blind?"
"It's been comin' on two-three days. This damned burnin' glare from the snow. Yesterday they give out completely. I tied myself by a line to the Injun. Knew I couldn't trust him. After all I done for him too."
"Did you know he was traveling south with you—had been since yesterday afternoon?"
"No, was he?" Again West fell into his natural speech of invective. "When I meet up with him, I'll sure enough fill him full o' slugs," he concluded savagely.
"You're not likely to meet him again. We've come to take you back to prison."
Morse brought the train up and the hungry man was fed. They treated his eyes with the simple remedies the North knows and bound them with a handkerchief to keep out the fierce light reflected from the snow.
Afterward, they attached him by a line to the driver. He stumbled along behind. Sometimes he caught his foot or slipped and plunged down into the snow. Nobody had ever called him a patient man. Whenever any mishap occurred, he polluted the air with his vile speech.
They made slow progress, for the pace had to be regulated to suit the prisoner.
Day succeeded day, each with its routine much the same as the one before. They made breakfast, broke camp, packed, and mushed. The swish of the runners sounded from morning till night fell. Food began to run scarce. Once they left the blind man at the camp while they hunted wood buffalo. It was a long, hard business. They came back empty-handed after a two-day chase, but less than a mile from camp they sighted a half-grown polar bear and dropped it before the animal had a chance to move.
One happy hour they got through the Land of Little Sticks and struck the forests again.
They had a blazing fire again for the first time in six weeks. Brush and sticks and logs went into it till it roared furiously.
Morse turned from replenishing it to notice that West had removed the bandage from his eyes.
"Better keep it on," the young man advised.
"I was changin' it. Too tight. Gives me a headache," the convict answered sulkily.
"Can you see anything at all yet?"
"Not a thing. Looks to me like I never would."
Tom turned his head for him, so that he faced the blaze squarely. "No light at all?"
"Nope. Don't reckon I ever will see."
"Maybe you will. I've known' cases of snow-blindness where they couldn't see for a month an' came out all right."
"Hurts like blazes," growled the big fellow.
"I know. But not as bad as it did, does it? That salve has helped some."
The two young fellows took care of the man as though he had been a brother. They bathed his eyes, fed him, guided him, encouraged him. He was a bad lot—the worst that either of them had known. But he was in trouble and filled with self-pity. Never ill before, a giant of strength and energy, his condition now apparently filled him with despair.
He would sit hunched down before the fire, head bowed in his hands, a mountain of dole and woe. Sometimes he talked, and he blamed every one but himself for his condition. He never had had a square deal. Every one was against him. It was a rotten world. Then he would fall to cursing God and man.
In some ways he was less trouble than if he had been able to see. He was helpless and had to trust to them. His safety depended on their safety. He could not strike at them without injuring himself. No matter how much he cringed at the thought of being dragged back to punishment, he shrank still more from the prospect of death in the snow wastes. The situation galled him. Every decent word he gave them came grudgingly, and he still snarled and complained and occasionally bullied as though he had the whip hand.
"A nice specimen of ursus horribilis," Beresford murmured to his companion one day. "Thought he was game, anyhow, but he's a yellow quitter. Acts as though we were to blame for his blindness and for what's waiting for him at the end of the journey. I like a man to stand the gaff when it's prodding him."
Morse nodded. "Look out for him. I've got a notion in the back o' my head that he's beginning to see again. He'd kill us in a holy minute if he dared. Only his blindness keeps him from it. What do you say? Shall we handcuff him nights?"
"Not necessary," the constable said. "He can't see a thing. Watch him groping for that stick."
"All his brains run to cunning. Don't forget that. Why should he have to feel so long for that stick? He laid it down himself a minute ago. Tryin' to slip one over on us maybe."
The Canadian looked at the lean, brown face of his friend and grinned. "I've a notion our imaginations too are getting a bit jumpy. We've had one bully time on this trip—with the reverse English. It's all in the day's work to buck blizzards and starve and freeze, though I wouldn't be surprised if our systems were pretty well fed up with grief before we caught Mr. Bully West. Since then—well, you couldn't call him a cheerful traveling companion, could you? A dozen times a day I want to rip loose and tell him how much I don't think of him."
"We'll keep an eye on him. If necessary, it'll be the bracelets for him. I'd hate to have the Inspector send in a report to headquarters, 'Constable Beresford missing in the line of duty.' I've a prejudice against being shot in the back."
"That's one of the reasons I'm here—to see you're not if I can help it."
Beresford's boyish face lit up. He understood what his friend meant. "Say, Faraway isn't New York or London or even Toronto. But how'd you like to be sitting down to one of Jessie McRae's suppers? A bit of broiled venison done to a juicy turn, potatoes, turnips, hot biscuits spread with raspberry jam. By jove, it makes the mouth water."
"And a slice of plum puddin' to top off with," suggested Morse, bringing his own memory into play. "Don't ask me how I'd like it. That's a justifiable excuse for murder. Get busy on that rubaboo. Our guest's howlin' for his dinner."
The faint suspicions of Morse made the officers more wary. They watched their prisoner a little closer. Neither of them quite believed that he was recovering his sight. It was merely a possibility to be guarded against.
But the guess of Morse had been true. It had been a week since flashes of light had first come to West faintly. He began to distinguish objects in a hazy way. Every day he could see better. Now he could tell Morse from Beresford, one dog from another. Give him a few more days and he would have as good vision as before he had gone blind.
All this he hid cunningly, as a miser does his gold. For his warped, cruel brain was planning death to these two men. After that, another plunge into the North for life and freedom.
THE WILD BEAST LEAPS
Tom Morse was chopping wood. He knew how to handle an axe. His strokes fell sure and strong, with the full circling sweep of the expert.
The young tree crashed down and he began to lop off its branches. Halfway up the trunk he stopped and raised his head to listen.
No sound had come to him. None came now. But dear as a bell he heard the voice of Win Beresford calling.
It was not a cry that had issued from his friend's throat. Tom knew that. But it was real. It had sprung out of his dire need from the heart, perhaps in the one instant of time left him, and it had leaped silently across space straight to the heart of his friend.
Tom kicked into his snowshoes and began to run. He held the axe in his hand, gripped near the haft. A couple of hundred yards, perhaps, lay between him and camp, which was just over the brow of a small hill. The bushes flew past as he swung to his stride. Never had he skimmed the crust faster, but his feet seemed to be weighted with lead. Then, as he topped the rise, he saw the disaster he had dreaded.
The constable was crumpling to the ground, his body slack and inert, while the giant slashed at him with a dub of firewood he had snatched from the ground. The upraised arm of the soldier broke the force of the blow, but Morse guessed by the way the arm fell that the bone had snapped.
At the sound of the scraping runners, West whirled. He lunged savagely. Even as Tom ducked, a sharp pain shot through his leg from the force of the glancing blow. The axe-head swung like a circle of steel. It struck the convict's fur cap. The fellow went down like an ox in a slaughter-house.
Tom took one look at him and ran to his friend. Beresford was a sorry sight. He lay unconscious, head and face battered, the blood from his wounds staining the snow.
The man-hunters had come into the wilderness prepared for emergencies. Jessie McRae had prepared a small medicine case as a present for the constable. Morse ran to the sled and found this. He unrolled bandages and after he had washed the wounds bound them. As he was about to examine the arm, he glanced up.
For a fraction of a second West's wolfish eyes glared at him before they took on again the stare of blindness. The man had moved. He had hitched himself several yards nearer a rifle which stood propped against a balsam.
The revolver of the deputy constable came to light. "Stop right where you're at. Don't take another step."
The convict snarled rage, but he did not move. Some sure instinct warned him what the cold light in the eyes of his captor meant, that if he crept one inch farther toward the weapon he would die in his tracks.
"He—he jumped me," the murderer said hoarsely.
"Liar! You've been shammin' for a week to get a chance at us. I'd like to gun you now and be done with it."
"Don't." West moistened dry lips. "Honest to God he jumped me. Got mad at somethin' I said. I wouldn't lie to you, Tom."
Morse kept him covered, circled round him to the rifle, and from there to the sled. One eye still on the desperado, he searched for the steel handcuffs. They were gone. He knew instantly that some time within the past day or two West had got a chance to drop them in the snow.
He found rawhide thongs.
"Lie in the snow, face down," he ordered. "Hands behind you and crossed at the wrists."
Presently the prisoner was securely tied. Morse fastened him to the sled and returned to Beresford.
The arm was broken above the wrist, just as he had feared. He set it as best he could, binding it with splints.
The young officer groaned and opened his eyes. He made a motion to rise.
"Don't get up," said Morse. "You've been hurt."
"Hurt?" Beresford's puzzled gaze wandered to the prisoner. A flash of understanding lit it. "He asked me—to light—his pipe—and when I—turned—he hit—me—with a club," the battered man whispered.
"About how I figured it."
"Not yet, old pal. We'll make a fight for it," the Montanan answered.
"I'm sick." The soldier's head sank down. His eyes closed.
All the splendid, lithe strength of his athletic youth had been beaten out of him. To Morse it looked as though he were done for. Was it possible for one to take such a terrific mauling and not succumb? If he were at a hospital, under the care of expert surgeons and nurses, with proper food and attention, he might have a chance in a hundred. But in this Arctic waste, many hundred miles from the nearest doctor, no food but the coarsest to eat, it would be a miracle if he survived.
The bitter night was drawing in. Morse drove West in front of him to bring back the wood he had been cutting. He made the man prepare the rubaboo for their supper. After the convict had eaten, he bound his hands again and let him lie down in his blankets beside the fire.
Morse did not sleep. He sat beside his friend and watched the fever mount in him till he was wildly delirious. Such nursing as was possible he gave.
The prisoner, like a chained wild beast, glowered at him hungrily. Tom knew that if West found a chance to kill, he would strike. No scruple would deter him. The fellow was without conscience, driven by the fear of the fate that drew nearer with every step southward. His safety and the desire of revenge marched together. Beresford was out of the way. It would be his companion's turn next.
After a time the great hulk of a man fell asleep and snored stertorously. But Tom did not sleep. He dared not. He had to keep vigilant guard to save both his friend's life and his own. For though West's hands were tied, it would be the work of only a minute to burn away with a live coal the thongs that bound them.