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The Maid of the Whispering Hills
by Vingie E. Roe
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Here had come Anon Bordoux and Mora Le-Clede, drawn by the sight of the factor at the Baptistes' door, their tongues flying in eager question.

"—of such gorgeousness," Marie was saying, "such softness of white doeskin, such wealth of the beading—"

"Marie," said Maren sharply, "is there naught to do save gossip?"

Anon and Mora fell into confused silence, the habit of the trail where this girl's word had been the law falling upon them, but Marie, saucy and not to be daunted, was not so easily hushed.

"Is it not true," she cried, "that the factor brought it but now to the door in plain sight of all?"

Whereon Maren passed, out the open door and the tongues began again, more carefully.

In the distance there flashed a crimson skirt at whose beaded edge there hung a great grey dog, his heavy head waist-high to the little maid who wore it.



CHAPTER VIII FIRST DAWN

Throughout the week that followed Fort de Seviere was gay with the bustle of trading. Packs of furs went up the main way and loads of merchandise went down, carried on the backs of the braves, guns and blankets and many a foot of Spencer's Twist at one beaver a foot, powder and balls in buckskin bags, and all the things of heart's desire that had brought the Assiniboines from the forks of the Saskatchewan.

Kept close to the factory by the bartering, McElroy and Ridgar and the two clerks hardly saw the blue spring sky, nor caught a breath of the scented air of the spring. Within the forest the Saskatoon was blooming and the blueberry bushes were tossing soft heads of foam, while many a tree of the big woods gave forth a breath of spice. It came in at the door and the young factor raised his head many times a day to drink its sweetness in a sort of wistfulness. At dusk he stood on the sill, released from the trade, and looked over his settlement as was his habit, and ever his eyes strayed to that new cabin at the far end, of the northern row.

What was she thinking, that dark-browed girl with the deep eyes that changed as the waters of a lake with each breath of wind, of him and the blundering gift he had carried to her door? What had she done with it, and would he ever see it clinging to those splendid shoulders, falling over the rounded breast?

A feeling of warmth grew at his heart each day with thought of her, and when he saw her swinging down toward the well he felt the blood leap in his veins. The very shine of the sun was different when it struck the tight black braids wrapped round her head.

Verily the little kingdom had brought forth its Princess.

And with her coming there was one heart that burned hot with passion, that fashioned itself after the form of hatred, for little Francette had seen, first a glow in a man's eyes and then a gift in his hand, and she fingered a small, flat blade that hung in her sash with one hand, the while the other strayed on the head of Loup. Dark was the fire that played in her pretty eyes, heavy the anguish that rode her breast.

She hated the memory of that white garment spread out on Maren Le Moyne's bed.

"Tessa," she said one day, sidling up to that Tessa Bibye who had cast a taunt in her teeth, "know you the charm which that doctress of the Crees gave to Marci Varendree when she sickened for love of that half-breed, Tohi Stannard?"

"Oho!" cried Tessa gleefully, "a man again! Who lacks one now, Francette?"

"Nay," said Francette, "but I know of one who sickens inwardly and I would give her the charm."

"Go into the flats of the Beaver House after Marci and her Indian, whither they went," Tessa laughed. "I know not the charm. But it was good, for she got him, and went to the wilds with him. Follow and learn, Francette."

But Francette, with a gesture of disgust, turned away.

The warm spring days passed in a riot of song from the depths outside the post, the Assiniboine rippled and whispered along its shores and over the illimitable stretches of the wilderness there hung the very spirit of the mating-time.

Within the stockade, mothers sat in the doors crooning to the babes that clutched at the sunbeams, dogs slept in the cool shadows of the cabins, and here and there a youth sang a snatch of a love song.

"Verily, Marie, it is good to be here," sighed Micene Bordoux, sitting on her sill with her capable arms folded on her knees, and her eyes, cool and sane and tolerant, roving over the settlement lolling so quietly in the sun. "After the trail the rest is good, and yet I will be eager long before the year has passed to follow Maren,—may Mary give her grace!—into that wilderness which so draws at her heartstrings."

"Oh, Micene!" cried Marie, a trifle vexed, "if only she might forget her dreams! What is it like, the heart of a maid, that turns from thought of love to that of these wild lands, to the mystery of the Whispering Hills that lie, the good God knows where, in that dim and untracked West! I would that Maren might love! Then would we have peace and stop forever at this pleasant place."

Good Micene, with her brave heart and her whole-souled sense, smiled at Marie.

"Love," she said,—"and think you THAT could turn that exalted spirit from its quest? Still the stir of conquest within her bosom, hush the call of that glorious country which we know from rumor, and plain hearsay lies at the heart of the Athabasca?

"Little do you know Maren, Marie, though the same mother gave you birth. There is naught that could turn the maid, and I love her for it. It is that undaunted faith, that steadfast purpose, that white fire in her face which holds at her heels the whole of us, that turns to her the faces of our men, as those legions of France turned to the Holy Maid. Love? She would turn not for it if she could not take it with her."

Micene looked off across the cabins, and there was a warm light in her eyes.

"Nay, Marie," she said, "make ready for the trail the coming spring, for we will surely go."

It was this day, golden and sweet with little winds that wafted from the blossom-laden woods, that Maren Le Moyne, drawn by the dusky depths, passed, out the stockade gate, traversed slowly the length of the Indian camp, stopping here and there to hold out a hand to a frightened pappoose peeking from behind its mother's fringed leggings, to watch a moment at the cooking fires, to smile at a slim young boy brave in a checkered shirt, and entered the forest.

From the door of the factory McElroy saw her go and the call of the spring suddenly became unbearable.

With a word to Ridgar he stepped off the long log step and deliberately followed.

The Irish blood within him lifted his head and sent his heart a-bounding, while the half-holy mysticism that came from the Scottish hills drew his glance upward to the blue sky arching above.

A tumult surged in his breast and every pulse in his body leaped at thought of speech with her, and yet again a diffidence fell upon him that set him trembling.

As the conqueror he went, pushing toward victory, yet humble in his ambition.

He felt a mist in his eyes as he entered the high arched aisles, cool beneath their canopy of young green, and he looked eagerly here and there for sight of a tall form, upright, easy, plain in its dark garb.

Along the river bank he went where he saw a footprint in the soft loam, and presently it turned deeper into the great woods and he swung forward into those depths whose sweetness had called him subtly for these many days.

She was a strong traveller, that straight young creature of the open ways, and a full hour went swiftly before he caught the sight he wanted.

At sight of her he halted and stood a moment in hushed joy, looking with eyes that knew their glory, for with every passing second Anders McElroy was learning that nowhere in all the world, as had said that flaming youth Marc Dupre, was there another woman like this Maren Le Moyne.

She stood in a little glade, cool, high-canopied, where the sunlight came in little spots to play over the soft carpet of the pale forest grass thick-starred with frail white flowers, and her back was to a tree that towered to heaven in its height. At her sides her brown arms hung, palms out in an utter abandon of pleasure, while her lifted face, with its closed eyes, communed with the very Spirit of the Wild. Like some priestess she was, and McElroy felt an odd sensation of unworthiness sweep over him as he stood silent, his sober blue eyes on the beauty of her face. He cast swiftly back across his life. Was there anything there which might forbid him now, when he would go forward to so pure a thing as this maid, dreaming her dreams of prowess in the wilderness?

Nay, he saw no unworthy deed, nothing to spoil the page of a commonplace life spent at his old father's side across the sea, nothing of the so common evils of the settlement. Within him there was that which thanked its Maker unashamed that he had kept himself from one or two temptations which had beset him in these stirring years of service on the fringes of the great country spreading from the bay.

With that thought he went forward, and Maren did not hear his step on the soft grass, so far was she on her well-worn trail of dreams, until he stood near and the feeling of a presence finally brought back the wandering soul.

Then she opened her eyes and they fell full upon the factor, his light head bared to the dancing sun-spots, his blue eyes sober and touched again with that anxiety which had compelled her to take his gift.

There was no sudden start of fear, no little startled breath, for this woman was calm as the dreaming woods and as serene.

"Bon jour, M'sieu," she said, and at sound of her voice, so deep and full of those sliding minors, McElroy felt her power sweep over him in a tumultuous flood.

"Ma'amselle," he said, "Ma'amselle!"

And in the next moment stopped, for the words of love were on his tongue and the wide dark eyes were looking at him wonderingly.

"No longer could I withstand the call of the springtime and the woods," he finished falteringly; "the trading-room and the bargain were grown hateful to me in these warm days with the scent of flower and leaf and heated mould coming in at the door and bidding me come. I left my post, a traitor, Ma'amselle, betrayed by the forest. Too weak am I for courage when the big woods call."

Maren looked at him and the light grew up in her eyes, that little flame that flickered and leaped and gave so baffling a charm to her beauty.

"Ah!" she said softly; "you love it too, the great wilderness?"

"Aye, most truly."

"And you can hear the whisper of the far countries, the ripple of distant streams, the wind in the pines that have never sheltered a white man? You know these things, M'sieu?"

She leaned forward from the great smooth-barked tree and looked at him eagerly.

"They are what brought me over seas," he said quietly, "what sent me to De Seviere, what hold me to the tribes that come each year to my doors."

Maren's lips were parted, the fire of her passion in her flaming face. "Then you know why I come to the woods, why I grieve that the spring is passing, why I can scarcely hold my soul in patience through this delay!"

With the suddenness of her words her breath had leaped to a heaving tumult, the wide eyes, so calm, so cool, had filled first with fire and then with a mist. That clouded them like tears.

"Oh, M'sieu!" she cried tensely; "know you of that country which lies far to the west and which the Indians call the Land of the Whispering Hills?"

"Aye. It lies circling a great lake, blue as the summer skies, its waters forever rippled by the winds of the west which sing in the grassy vales and over the rounded knolls that stud the region,—a land of waving trees, of high coolness, or rich valleys thick with rank grasses and abounding with the pelt animals. It is the country of the Athabasca and from it came last year a band of the Chippewas heavily laden with furs. They told fine tales of its beauty. It is for that land you are bound?"

"For that land, M'sieu," said Maren Le Moyne, and her lips trembled; "for that virgin goddess of the dreams of years! I have seen its hills, its waving grass, wind-blown, its leaping streams,—I have breathed the sweet air of its forests and gazed on its beauties since my early childhood, in dreams, always in dreams, M'sieu, until I could bear the strain no longer. And now, when it beckons almost within my reach, when its very breath seems in my nostrils, I must stop for a year's space! You know, M'sieu,—you comprehend?"

She leaned forward looking earnestly into McElroy's eyes, and a surge of painful ecstasy shot to the man's heart, so near she seemed in the suddenly created sympathy of the moment, so near and gracious, so strong in her pure passion, so infinitely sweet.

"I know," he said, and his voice sounded strange in his ears; "I know every pulse of your heart, Ma'amselle, every longing of your spirit, every pure thought of your mind,—for these many days I have trembled to every vibration that has touched or thrilled you. Oh, Ma'amselle!"

With the surge of that overwhelming thing within him the young man had forgot all things,—that this girl was near a stranger, that he had quaked at his temerity of the gift, forgot all but that she leaned toward him with the mist in her wide eyes, and he strode forward the step between them, his arms reaching out instinctively to enfold her.

With the swiftness of the impulse he swept her into them until the eager face lay on his breast, the smooth black braids pressing his lips with their satiny folds.

For one intoxicating moment he held her, as the primal man takes and holds his woman, tightly against his beating heart as though he would defy the world, lost in a sea of strange new emotions that rolled in golden billows high above his head.

Then from the depths there came a cry that cleared his whirling brain, a very embodiment of startled amaze, of indefinable horror, of mixed intonations.

"M'sieu!"

Maren Le Moyne wrenched herself free and lifted her face to look at him.

It was a warring field.

Upon it lay a great astonishment, a wonder, and a newness. Behind these there came, creeping swiftly with each moment of her startled gaze, an odd excitement that mounted with each panting breath that left his lips, for it was from him that it took its life. Her red mouth dropped apart, showing the gleam of the white teeth between. She looked like a child rudely shaken from its sleep, startled, perhaps vaguely frightened at the strange shapes of familiar things distorted by the vision not yet adjusted.

"M'sieu!" she stammered; "M'sieu!"

And with her voice McElroy felt the arrested blood rush back to his heart again, for it held no anger. Instead it was full of that startled wonder, and it was as gold to him.

"Maren," he said, the emotion choking him; "Maren—" and with that new courage he put both hands on her shoulders and drew her near, looking down into the eyes so near on a level with his own.

Deliberately, slowly, that she might fully catch the meaning of what he was about to do, he drooped his lips until they rested square on the red mouth.

This was the thing he had left the factory for, this was what had drawn him, unconsciously perhaps, to the path along the river's bank, that had made him follow deliberately the light trail of the girl into the woods.

"Maren," he said, so thrilled that his words shook, "from this day forth you are mine. Mine only and against the whole world. I have taken you and you are mine."

He was full of his glory, dominating the dark eyes that had never left his own, and his soul was big within him. He was still very much a boy, this young factor, and the crowning moment of life had him in his grip.

He knew no fear, no thought of her next word or action touched him until she, as deliberately as he had acted, reached up and took both his hands from her shoulders.

"Adieu, M'sieu," said Maren Le Moyne quietly, the excitement of that breathed "M'sieu! M'sieu!" quite lost in the calmness that was her usual characteristic, and turning she walked away down the glen toward the river bank, the little spots of sun dancing on her black head like a leopard's gold as she passed in the checkered shade, and not once did she turn her head to see the factor of De Seviere standing where she had left him beside the forest giant.



CHAPTER IX GOLD FIRE

If that time in the tuneful spring was crowded full to the brim of emotions scarce bearable to McElroy, how much more wonderful was it to Maren Le Moyne, for the first time in her life trembling in all her being from the touch of a man's lips?

To the outward world there was no sign of the tumult within her as she came and went about the business of the new cabin by the stockade wall, but in her virgin heart there stirred strange new things that filled her calm eyes with wonder.

In the seclusion of the little room to the east she spread out on the patchwork quilt the Indian garment and looked at it with a new meaning.

Never before in her life had she thought of a man's eyes as she thought of McElroy's, thrilling to the very tips of her fingers at memory of the blue fire in them, and never before had she been conscious of anything as she was conscious of the flesh on her shoulders where his hands had rested, her lips sealed under the warm caress of his. Verily, there was nowhere another such man as this one who knew the longing of the wild as did she, whose heart responded to the same call of the great wilderness.

Night and day she thought of him, and the memory of that day in the forest glade haunted her like a golden melody newly heard.

Yet something within her held her back from his sight, kept her eyes from that part of the small settlement where stood the factory with its wide doorway. She could not bear to look upon him yet in the newness of this awakening.

And McElroy, deep in the work of the trading, was eaten by a thousand qualms and torments. All those doubts that beset lovers tore at his heart and made of his days a nightmare.

With the cooling of his exalted intoxication what time the touch of the girl's young body had fired him with all confidence, came a thousand condemnations for his blundering haste, his stupid boasting of conquest.

To what depths of scorn might he not now be fallen in the mind of such a girl as Maren Le Moyne with her calm judgment; how far might he not be from the object of his longing!

And the fact that he could catch no sight of her, no matter how often he stepped near the door nor how diligently he sought for a glimpse of the shining braids and plain garment among the women at the well, but added fuel to the fire that scorched him.

But the times were getting very busy at Fort de Seviere. Before the Assiniboines were ready to depart back up the waterways down which they had come, their canoes laden with the wealth of the coming season, other flotillas were on the little waves of the river, other chiefs made their entrance up the main way of the post, and the goods of the Hudson's Bay Company went out in a stream as the priceless pelts came in.

"Lad," said Edmonton Ridgar with that easy probing of the well-known friend, "there is something eating at your mind these days. The trade goes differently from that of last year. It is not so all-absorbing. I fear me that the Nor'westers, with their plundering and their tales of deportation, have entered a wedge of worry."

"'Tis not of the Nor'westers I give a thought, Ridgar," he smiled, accepting the veiled raillery, "for you well know that we of the Company are above them, though it was but yesterday that an Indian brought word of a trapper at Isle a La Crosse being maltreated in the woods by a couple of their sneaking cutthroats and two packs of beaver taken from him for which they laughingly offered him in payment a bundle of mangy skins cast out from the summer's pickings. 'Twas Peter Brins and I'll wager that those two are marked for a long reckoning when the tables turn. And by the same Indian I hear that the young blade from Montreal with his light-haired brigade who stumbled upon us a while back, has reached his post on the Saskatchewan and has taken hold with a high hand, doing his utmost to intercept our Indians and turn the tide of the Company's furs into the trading-rooms of the Nor'westers. I think it will be a bootless process, for we hold our people with the hand of surety."

"Aye, but what of the Nakonkirhirinons, making their initial trip by way of Rapid River and Deer Lake, coming through the country of the Saskatchewan and held by no bond of loyalty? I see trouble ahead if this young De Courtenay gets wind of their coming, for they will be rich in peltry and they are a warlike tribe."

"But they are to celebrate the Peace Dance in the lodges of the Assiniboines. Surely they will come straight to their friends before trusting their trade to any."

Edmonton Ridgar shook his head.

"Hey fear nothing, these Nakonkirhirinons, and would as soon enter trade with one as another, having come for trade, if the values were above those at York and Churchill. I hope they swing eastward to Winipigoos and thus miss that young hot-brain on the Saskatchewan."

"By the way, Ridgar, Pierre Garcon says that Bois DesCaut is at Seven Isles on the Qui Appelle with Henderson. Since telling that wanton lie to the Nor'wester he has not had enough to show his face here. A bad lot Bois, and one to be watched for tricks."

"Aye, a bad lot, but salted with a prudence that savours of cowardice. His tricks are all turncoats that slip danger like an old garment."

But for all Ridgar's hope, at that very moment the great tribe from the far north country, even twelve leagues beyond the Oujuragatchousibi, was swinging down through the wilderness bound for the lodges of the Assiniboines, burdened with a wealth of peltry to make a trader's eyes stand out and clad in all the glory of the visiting tribes, and it was heading straight for the country of the Saskatchewan.

Towering head-dresses swept above their moving columns, pomp and ceremony showed in the panoply of carved spear-heads, feathered shafts, and slung bows of the white ash which decked them on their peaceful mission, while underneath fringed garments of buckskin, stained and beaded with porcupine quills, were bands and stripes of war-paint. They were ready for anything that might happen in this unknown country into which they journeyed at the word of their friends the Assiniboines, given at the buffalo hunt the fall before, above the Great Slave Lake.

Never before had the Nakonkirhirinons been so far in the south.

And long before they reached Deer Lake word had been brought to that new venturer in his post on the Saskatchewan, Alfred de Courtenay, and he was keenly alert.

About the same time a half-breed trapper came into Fort de Seviere, loud in his lamentations, and sought McElroy.

From the flats south of the Capot River, where he had wintered amid a band of Blackfoot Indians, a rare thing for a white man, he had come laden with rich furs from that unopened country, bound for De Seviere, and on the banks of the Qui Appelle three men had come upon him who had shared his lonely campfire. Rollicking fellows they were, brawny of form and light of head, and they had carried much liquor in flasks in their leg-straps, which liquor flowed freely amid songs and fireglow.

In the morning when he awoke late with, Mon Dieu! such a head! there were no three men, who had vanished like dreams of the liquor, likewise there was no well-strapped pack of fat winter beaver!

The man, a French half-breed, whimpered and cursed in impotent wrath, and showed McElroy one of the flasks that had been in the leg-straps of his visitors. It was covered with a fine light wicker weave, of the same pattern as that jug which De Courtenay had left at the post gate that morning in early spring.

"Ridgar," said the factor, showing the thing to him, "our friend from Montreal is taking a high hand with the country. The freedom of the wild has gone to his head."

Indeed it seemed as though that were true, for the tales of the reckless doings of that post of the Nor'westers on the Saskatchewan over which De Courtenay presided became more frequent and always they were characterised by a wildness and folly that were only exceeded by their daring.

The young adventurer had already made a headlong sally into the fringes of that country which came too near his Tom-Thumb garrison, and along which roving bands of the sullen Blackfeet trailed with a watching eye on the white men at the forts, and returned without two of those long curls of which he was so proud, a spear-head pinning them in the trunk of a tree which happened to form a convenient background.

To add to the small resentment against him which began to rankle in McElroy's heart, and which had never really left it since that evening in De Seviere when Maren Le Moyne had passed behind the cabin of the Savilles with some voyageur's tot on her shoulder and the handsome gallant from Montreal had lost his manners staring, one day in this same week a Bois-Brules came to the post gates and asked for one Maren Le Moyne.

He stood without and stubbornly refused to give his message, and at last McElroy himself went to the cabin of the Baptistes.

He had not seen the girl since that day in the forest, and his heart beat to suffocation as he neared the open door and caught the sound of her voice singing a French love song. He stopped on the step, and for a moment his glance took in the interior: By a window to the north she stood at a table, its wooden surface soft and white as doeskin from water and stone, and prepared the meal for ash-cakes, her sleeves, as usual, rolled to her shoulder and the collar of her dress open at the throat.

To the young factor's eyes she was a sight that weakened the knees beneath him and set him quaking with a new fear. He dared not speak and bring her gaze upon him, the memory of his boastful words in the forest was too poignant.

But it needed not speech. Had he but known the wonder that had lived within her all these days he would have understood the force that presently stopped the song on her lips, as if her soul listened unconsciously for tangible knowledge of the presence it already felt near, that slowed her nimble brown fingers in the pan, that presently lifted her head and turned her face to him.

Instantly a warm flush leaped up to the dark cheeks, and McElroy felt its answer in his own.

"Ma'amselle," he stammered, far from that glib "Maren" of the glade, "there is one at the gate who demands speech of you."

The words were commonplace enough and the girl did not get their import for the intensity of her gaze into the eyes whose blue fire had set her first wondering and then a-thrill with these strange emotions.

"Eh, M'sieu?" she smiled, and McElroy, revived through all his being with that smile, repeated his message.

She took her hands from the yellow meal and dusted them on a hempen towel, and was ready to go forth beside him.

That short walk to the stockade gate was silent with the silence of shy new joy, and once the factor glanced sidewise at the drooped lashes above the dusky cheeks.

"Had you expected any messenger, Ma'amselle?" he asked indifferently as they neared the portal with its fringe of peeping women and saw beyond them the tall figure of the Bois-Brule, his lank hair banded back by a red kerchief.

"Nay, M'sieu," replied the girl, and went forward to stand in the gate.

The messenger from the woods asked in good French if she were Maren Le Moyne, and being answered in the affirmative, he took from his hunting shirt a package wrapped in broad green leaves and placed it in her hands.

The leaves were wilted with the heat of the man's body and came easily off in her fingers, disclosing a small square box cunningly made from birchbark and stained after the Indian fashion in brilliant colours. A tiny lid was fastened with a thong of braided grass.

Wonderingly she slipped the little catch and lifted the cover.

Inside upon a bed of dampened moss there lay a wee red flower, the exact counterpart of that one which Alfred de Courtenay had fastened in her hair that morning by the well.

McElroy, at her shoulder, looked down upon it, and instantly the warmth in his heart cooled.

When Maren looked up it was to find his eyes fixed on the messenger whose tall figure swung away up the river's bank toward the north forest, and they were coolly impersonal.

She was unversed in the ways of men where a maid is concerned, this woman of the trail and portage, and she only knew vaguely that something had gone wrong with sight of the little flower.

She stood, holding the box in her hand, among the women craning their necks for a glimpse of the contents, and looked in open perplexity at McElroy until a light laugh from the fringe behind her broke the silence.

"A gift!" cried the little Francette, her childish voice full of a concealed delight; "a gift from the forest; and where do such trinkets come from save the lower branch of the Saskatchewan! It savours of our pretty man of the long gold curls! Mon Dieu! The cavalier has made good time!"

Whereat there was a stirring at the gate, and the peeping fringe drew back while the factor turned on his heel and strode away toward the factory, leaving the tall girl alone at the portal, holding her gift.

There was a devilish light in the dancing eyes of Francette as she flirted away.

But Maren Le Moyne walked slowly back to the cabin, wondering.



CHAPTER X THE SASKATOON

It was at dusk of that same day that McElroy, as near sullen anger as one of his temperament could be, sat alone on the log step of the factory, his pipe unlighted in his lips and his moody eyes on the beaten ground worn hard by the passing feet of moccasined Indians from the four winds.

Edmonton Ridgar, with that keenness which gave him such tact, had shut himself in the living-room, and the two clerks were off among the maids at the cabins.

Once again McElroy had made himself ridiculous by that abrupt turning away because of a small red flower sent a maid by a man he now knew to be his foe and rival in all things of a man's life.

Down by the southern wall an old fiddle squeaked dolefully, and from beyond the stockade came the drowsy call of a bird deep in the forest depths.

On the river bank young Marc Dupre sang as he fumbled at a canoe awaiting the morn when he was to set off up-stream for any word that he might pick up of the coming of the Nakonkirhirinons. There was no moon and the twilight had deepened softly, covering the post with a soft mantle of dreams, when there was a step on the hard earth and the factor turned sharply to behold a little figure in a red kirtle, its curly head hanging a bit as if in shame, and at its side the shadowy form of the great dog Loup.

"M'sieu," said Francette timidly, and the tone was new to that audacious slip of impudence; "M'sieu."

"What is it, little one?" said McElroy gently, his own disgust of his morning's quickness softening his voice that he might not again play the hasty fool, and Francette crept nearer until she stood close to the log step.

The small hands were twisting nervously and the little breast lifting swiftly with an agitation entirely new to her.

Presently she seemed to find the voice that eluded her.

"Oh, M'sieu!" she cried at last, breaking out as if the words were thick crowded in her throat; "a heavy burden has fallen upon me! Is it right, M'sieu, for a maid to die for love of a man, waiting, waiting, waiting for the look, the word that shall crown her bondage? Love lives all round in the post save in the heart that is all the world to Francette! Why should there be happiness everywhere but here?"

With a gesture pathetically dramatic the little maid threw her hands across her heaving breast and gazed at McElroy with big eyes, starry in the dusk.

Her emotion was genuine he could not help but see, even through his astonishment, and he stared at her with awaking sympathy.

"Is there some one who is so much to you, little one?" he asked. "I thought there wasn't a youth in the post—no, nor in any other this side the Red River-who did not pay homage to France Moline's little daughter. Who is of such poor taste? Tell me, and what I can do I will do to remedy the evil."

He was smiling at the little maid's pretty daring in coming straight to the very head of De Seviere with her trouble, and he reached out a hand to draw her down on the step beside him. There was never a woman in distress who did not pull at the strings of his heart, and he longed to soothe her, even while he smiled to himself at her childishness.

But Francette was not so childish, and he was one day to marvel at her artless skill.

At the touch of his hand she came down, not upon the step beside him as he meant, but upon her knees before him, with her two little hands upon his knees and her face of elfin beauty upheld to him in the starlight.

"Oh, M'sieu, there is one who is so much,—oui, even more than all the world, more than life itself,—more than heaven or hell, for whose sake I would die a thousand deaths! One at whose feet I worship, scorning all those youths of the settlement and the posts. See, M'sieu," she leaned forward so close that the fragrance of her curls blew into the man's nostrils and he could see that the little face was pale with a passion that caused him wonder; "see! Today came one from the forest bringing love's message to that tall woman of Grand Portage,—the little red flower in the birchbark case. It spoke its tale and she knew,"—subtle Francette!—"she knew its meaning by the eye of love itself. So would I, who have no words and am a woman, send my message by a flower."

The hands on the factor's knees were trembling with a rigour that shook the whole small form before him.

"See, M'sieu!" she cried, with the sudden sound of tears in the low voice; "read the heart of the little Francette!"

She took from her bosom a fragile object and laid it in his palm, then clasped her hands over her face and bowed until the little head with its running curls was low to the log step.

McElroy strained his eyes to see what he held.

It was a dried spray of the blossoms of the saskatoon.

For a moment he sat in stupid wonder. Then swiftly, more by intuition and that strange sense which recalls a previous happening by a touch, or a smell, than by actual memory, he saw that golden morning when he had stopped by the Molines' cabin and watched the great husky balance on his shaky legs. He had twirled in his fingers the first little spray of the saskatoon, brought in by Henri Corlier to show how the woods were answering the call of the spring.

"Why," he said, astounded beyond measure, "why, Francette,—little one, what does this mean?"

But Francette had lost her tongue and there was no answer from the bowed figure at his knees.

He put out a hand and laid it on her shoulder and it was shaken with sobs,—the sobs of a woman who has cast her all on the throw of the die and in a panic would have it back.

Off in the forest a night bird called to its mate and the squeaky fiddle whined dolorously and a profound pity began to well in the factor's heart. She was such a little maid, such a childish thing, a veritable creature of the sunlight, like those great golden butterflies that danced in the flowered glades of the woods, and she had brought her one great gift to him unasked.

Some thought of Maren Le Moyne and of that reckless cavalier with his curls and his red flowers crept into his voice and made it wondrously tender with sympathy.

"Sh, little one," he comforted, as he had comforted that day on the river bank when she had wept over Loup; "come up and let us talk of this." He lifted her as one would lift a child and strove to raise the weeping eyes from the shelter of her hands, but the small head drooped toward him so near that it was but a step until it lay in the shelter of his shoulder, and he was rocking a bit, unconsciously, as the sobbing grew less pitiful.

"Sh-sh-little one," he said gently; "sh—sh."

Meanwhile Maren Le Moyne sat in the doorway of her sister's cabin with her chin on her hands and stared into the night. Marie and Henri were at the cabin of the Bordoux, laughing and chattering in the gay abandon of youth. She could hear their snatches of songs, their quips and laughter rising now and again in shrill gusts. Also the wailing fiddle seemed a part of the warm night, and the bird that called in the forest.

All the little homely things of the post and the woods crept into her heart, that seemed to her to be opening to a vague knowledge, to be looking down sweet vistas of which she had never dreamed among her other dreams of forest and lake and plain, and, at each distant focus where appeared a new glory of light, there was always the figure of the young factor with his anxious eyes. Strange new thrills raced hotly through her heart and dyed her cheeks in the darkness. She tingled from head to foot at the memory of that day in the glade, and for the first time in her life she read the love-signs in a man. That change in his eyes when he had looked upon De Courtenay's red flower was jealousy. With the thought came a greater fulness of the unexplainable joy that had flooded her all these days. Aye, verily, that red flower had caused him pain,—him,—with his laughing blue eyes and his fair head tilted back ever ready for mirth, with his tender mouth and his strong hands. The very thought of that killed the joy of the other. If love was jealousy, and jealousy was pain, the one must be healed for sake of the other. With this girl to think was to do, and with that last discovery she was upon her feet, straight and lithe as a young animal beside the door. She would go to this man and tell him that the red flower was less than nothing to her, its giver less than it.

At that moment a figure came out of the dusk and stopped before her.

It was her leader, Prix Laroux, silent, a shadow of the shadows.

"Maren," he said, in that deep confidence of trusted friends, "Maren, is all well with you?"

"All is well, Prix," said the girl, her voice tremulous with pleasure, "most assuredly. Thought you aught was wrong?"

"Nay,—only I felt the desire to know."

"Friend," said Maren, reaching out a hand which the man took strongly in both his own; "good, good friend! Ever you are at my back."

"Where you may easily reach me when you will."

"I know. 'Tis you alone have made possible the long trail. Ah! how long until another spring?"

But, when Prix had lounged away into the dusk and the girl had stepped into the soft dust of the roadway, she fell to wondering how it was that mention of the year's wait brought no longer its impatience, its old dissatisfaction.

She was thinking of this as she neared the factory, her light tread muffled in the dust.

"Foolish Francette! What should I do with a gay little girl like you? Play in the sunshine years yet, little one, and think not of the bonds and cares of marriage. How could these little hands lift the heavy kettles, wash the blankets, and do the thousand tasks of a household? You are mistaken, child. It is not love you feel, but the changing fancies of maidenhood. Play in the sun with Loup and wait for the real prince. He will come some day with great beauty and you will give no more thought to me. He must be young, little one, a youth of twenty; not one like me, nearer the mark of another decade. It would not be fitting. Youth to youth, and those of a riper age to each other." He was thinking of a tall form, full and round with womanhood, whose eyes held knowledge of the earth, and yet, had he been able to define their charm, were younger even than Francette's.

The little maid had ceased her weeping long since and the face on McElroy's shoulder, turned out toward the night, was drawn and hard. The black eyes were no longer starry with passion, but glittering with failure. And the man, stupid and good of heart as are all men of his type, congratulated himself that he had talked the nonsense out of her little head.

Suddenly he felt the slender figure shiver in his arms and the curly head brushed his cheek as she raised her face.

"Aye, M'sieu," she whispered, "it is as you say, but only one thing remains. Kiss me, M'sieu, and I go to—forget."

The factor hesitated.

He felt again his one passionate avowal on the lips of his one woman.

This was against the grain.

"Please, M'sieu," begged the childish voice, with a world of coaxing; and, thinking to finish his gentle cure, he bent his head and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

"And now—" he started to admonish, when she threw her arms about his neck, stiffling the words in her garments.

At the corner of the factory Maren Le Moyne stood looking through the twilight at the scene.

When Francette released him there were only they two and he had heard no step nor seen the silent beholder.

When the little French maid slipped away with the husky she fingered the carved toy of a knife in her sash and tossed her short curls in triumph.

Her failure had taken on a hue of victory.



CHAPTER XI LEAVEN AT WORK

"M'sieu," said Marc Dupre, coming up the slope from the river, his buckskins much tattered, showing a swift cross-country run, "I have news of the great tribe. Like the forest leaves in fall in point of numbers they are, and they wear a wealth of wampum and elk teeth, so much that they are rich beyond any other tribe. Their young men are tall and heavy of stature and wonderful in the casting of their great carven spears. Also do they excel in the use of the bow. Warlike and suspicious, scouting every inch of country before them, they come down by way of Dear Lake,—and the young Nor'wester at Fort Brisac has already sent forth his messengers to meet them."

McElroy frowned.

Double anger swelled suddenly within him. In two ways had De Courtenay crossed his plane at opposing angles. It was evidently war that the adventurer wanted, the hot war of the two fur companies coupled to that of man and man for a maid. He stood a while and thought. Then he turned to Dupre.

"You have done well, Dupre," he said shortly. "Get you to your cabin and rest, for I may want your wit again. Only, on the way, send Pierre Garqon to me."

The young man touched his red toque, symbol of safety to all trappers in a land where the universal law is "kill," for no wild animal of the woods bears a crimson head save that animal man who is the greatest killer of all, and turned away. He was draggled and stained from a forced march through forest and up-stream, over portage and rapid, carrying his tiny birchbark craft on his head, snatching a short sleep on a bed of moss, hurrying on that he might learn of the Nakonkirhirinons travelling slowly down from that unknown land to the far north, even many leagues beyond York factory on the shores of the great bay.

As he went toward his own cabin he glanced swiftly at the open door of the Baptistes. Always these days he glanced that way with a sick feeling in the region of his heart. Who was he, Marc Dupre, trapper of the big woods, that he should dare think so often of that woman from Grand Portage, with her wondrous beauty and her tongue that could be like a cold knife-blade or the petal of a lily for softness? And yet he was conscious of a mighty change that had come over him with that day on the flat rock by the stockade when she had talked to him of the trapping,—a change like that which comes to one when he is so fortunate as to be in distant Montreal and sits in the dusk of the great church there among the saints and the incense.

There was no longer pleasure in flipping jests and love words with the red-cheeked maids, and something had happened to the dashing spirit of the youth. All through those long days in the forest, those short blue nights under the velvet sky, one image had stood before him, calm, smiling, quivering with that illusive light which held men's hearts. Never a day that he could win forgetfulness of the face of Maren Le Moyne, and now he glanced toward her doorway. It lay in the sunlight without a foot upon its sill, and Marc sighed unconsciously. He was not to see her, perhaps, to-day.

But suddenly, as he rounded a corner among the cabins, he came full upon her, and his flippant tongue clove to the roof of his mouth without speech.

She came toward him with a bread-pan in her hands and her eyes were cast down. The heart in him ran to water at sight of her, and he stopped.

Once more thought of his unworthiness abased him.

Then she felt his presence and raised her eyes, and the young trapper looked deep into them with that helplessness which draws the look of a child. Deep he looked and long, and the woman looked back, and in that moment there sprang into life the first thrill of that thing which was to lead to the great crisis which she had predicted that day by the stockade.

With it Marc Dupre found his tongue.

"Ma'amselle!" he cried sharply, "what is it? Mon Dieu! What is it?" For the dark eyes, with their light-behind-black-marble splendour, were quenched and dazed and all knowledge seemed stricken from them. The look of them cut to his very soul, quick and sensitive from the working of the great change, made ready as a wind-harp by the silent days of dreams, the nights of visions. To him alone was the devastation within them apparent. He stretched out a timid hand and touched her sleeve.

"What is it, Ma'amselle?" he begged abjectly. "I would heal it with my blood!"

Extravagant, impulsive, the boy was in deadly earnest, and Maren Le Moyne was conscious of it as simply as that she lived.

Just as simply she acknowledged to him what she would have to none other in De Seviere, that something had fallen from a clear sky.

"Nay," she said, and the deep voice was lifeless, "I am beyond help."

Dupre's fingers slipped, trembling, around her arm.

"But I am a stone to your foot, Ma'amselle,—always remember that. When the way becomes too hard there shall be a stone to your foot. I ask no better fate and you have said."

The miserable eyes were not dead to everything. At his swift words they glowed a moment.

"Aye,—I have said, and I thank God, M'sieu, for such friendship. I am rich, indeed."

"Oho! Marc Dupre does better at the lovemaking than at the trapping! His account at the factory suffers from les amours!"

A childish voice broke in upon them, and Francette's impish face peeped round the corner of the nearest cabin.

"Let it be, Marc Dupre," as the youth dropped his and from Maren's arm. "Ma'amselle does not object,—a trapper or a cavalier, all are fish to Ma'amselle's net. Mon Dieu! If all were so attractive as Ma'amselle!"

The little maid sighed in exaggerated dolour.

Dupre flashed round on his moccasined heel and reached her in a stride.

"Aha! It is you, by all the saints!" he said beneath his breath, as he took her none too gently by the shoulder. "I know your tricks."

Aloud he said, "Francette, children should keep from where they are not wanted. Get you back to your mother."

"Children, you say, M'sieu Dupre? Is eighteen so far behind twenty-two? Grow a beard on your cheek before you give yourself the airs of a man. And, anyway, grown men of twice eighteen have been known to love children of that age."

It was a dagger thrust, and it found its mark even as the girl glanced slily at her victim. Maren's full mouth twitched and she looked dully away to the fort gate. Dupre gave Francette an ungallant push. "Begone!" he cried angrily; "you little cat!"

With a ringing laugh the maid danced away in the sunshine, and Dupre faced Maren.

"It is that imp of le diable, Francette?" he asked. "What has she done to you, Ma'amselle?"

But Maren shook her head.

"The maid is not to blame. She is but a child in spirit and what le bon Dieu has seen fit to give her has gone to her head. That is all, save as your quick eye has detected, M'sieu, I have received a heavy hurt."

Suddenly, with that whimsical youthfulness of soul which glimmered at times through her apparent strength, she looked at Dupre with a sort of fright.

"Merci, M'sieu! For what reason does the good God let some things befall?... But I have still a stone. Throughout I will remember that."

In a moment she was gone, walking toward the cabin of Micene Bordoux, and Marc Dupre went on his quest of Pierre, wondering and all a-tremble with pity and thought of that promise.

Where Marc, with the revelation of adoration, had seen sharply, Micene with her good sense felt vaguely that something was wrong with the intrepid leader of the long trail.

"Maren," she said this day, as she took the bread pan which had been borrowed, "I fear there is something troubling you. Is there bad news from Athabasca?"

Always there lay behind Maren's eagerness a fear, sleeping like a hidden fawn but ever ready to quiver into life, a fear of news from the Whispering Hills, news that should make the promise of the trail a sudden void.

"Nay, Micene," smiled Maren, "these latest Indians come from the south."

"And all is well with the plans?"

The vague uneasiness was not stilled in Micene.

"All is well with the plans. There is not a year now."

The girl looked straight in her friend's eyes without a trace of the dazed misery which Marc Dupre had surprised in her own.

Micene smiled back, but that night she lay far into the dark hours thinking of the subtle change in the maid of the trail. With a woman's intuition she knew that the girl had lied, that all was not well with her.

And one other there was of that small party of venturers housed in the new cabins of De Seviere who knew vaguely that something had gone wrong-Prix Laroux, the sturdy prow of that little vessel of progress of which the girl was the beating heart, the unresting engine.

He had felt its coming even before it fell, that mighty shadow which blotted out the heavens and the earth, for to Maren, once given, there was no recalling the gift, and with that day in the glade she had lost possession of her soul and body forever.

Dazed in all the regions of her being, enshadowed in every vista of hope and scarce-tasted joy, she went quietly about the cabin, her mind a dark space in which there flashed sudden, reiterated visions,—now McElroy's blue eyes, anxious and eager as he held up the doeskin dress at the door-sill, burning with fire and truth and passion in the glade in the forest, again tender and diffident what time they walked together to the gate to meet De Courtenay's messenger, and again it was that scene at the factory steps that haunted her,—McElroy with his arms about Francette Moline, the grey husky crouching in the twilight. Throughout the whole sick tangle there went a twisting thread of wonder, of striving for understanding. What was this thing which had come clutching sweetly at her heart, which had stilled the very life in her with holy mystery, and whose swift passing had left her benumbed within as some old woman mumbling in the sun on a door-sill? Where was the glory of the spring? What had come upon the face of the waters, that the light had gone from them? What was this thing that the good God wished her to learn, where was the lesson?

Given to reason and plain judgment of all things, the girl tried to think out her problem, to fathom the meaning of this which had befallen her, and to find if there was any good in it. But everywhere she looked there was the laughing face of the factor with his sunburnt hair and his blue eyes. The spring days were heavy as those steel-grey stretches that pass for the days in winter.

Too dull for sharp pain, she went about in a sort of apathy.

For several days McElroy watched uneasily for her, hoping for a chance meeting. He was anxious to speak about his boyish jealousy, to beg forgiveness for that abrupt leaving at the gate. So close did she stay at the cabin, however, that at last he was forced to go to her. It was twilight again, soft, filled with the breath of the forest, vibrant with the call of birds off in some marshy land to the south, and he found her alone, sitting upon the step, staring into the gathering dusk, listening to the laughter of the young married folk from the cabin next where Marie and Henri were loudest.

A lump rose in his throat as he caught the outline of the braided head bowed lower than he had ever seen it, saw the whole attitude of the strong figure, every line relaxed as if in a great weariness.

"Maren," he said, with the wonder of love in his voice, "Maren—my maid!"

And he strode forward swiftly, stooped, and laid his hand on her shoulder.

With a jerk the drooped head came up. She drew from his touch as if it burned her.

"If you please, M'sieu," she said coldly, "go away."

McElroy sprang back.

"What? Go away! You wish that,—Ma'amselle?"

The tone more than the words drove out of him all daring of her sweet name, took away in a flash all the personal.

"Of a surety,—go away."

The factor stood a moment in amazed silence. Did the red flower mean so much to her, then? Had she accepted its message? And yet he knew in his heart that the look in her eyes, the smile on her lips had told their own tale of awakening to his touch. What but the red flower in its birchbark case had wrought the change?

He thought swiftly of De Courtenay's beauty, of his sparkling grace, his braided blue coat, his wide hat, and the long golden curls sweeping his shoulder. Truly a figure to turn a woman's head. But within him there rose a tide of rage, blind vent of the hurt of love, that boded ill for the dashing Nor'wester on the Saskatchewan.

Sick to the very bottom of his heart, he bowed ever so slightly to the tense figure on the step and strode away in the shadows.

So! Thus ended his one love.

For this he had kept himself from the common lot of the factors in their lonely posts; for this he had never looked with aught save friendly compassion upon the maids of the settlements, the half breed girls of the wilderness, the wild daughters of the forest.

Waiting for this one princess in his small kingdom, he had thrown himself on the out-bearing tide of love only to be stranded on some barren beach, to see her taken from him by some reckless courtier not fit to touch a woman's hand!

Thus they turned apart, these two meant for each other from the beginning, and in each love worked its will of pain.

Maren on the step stared dry-eyed into the night, uncomprehending, unrebelling, and McElroy strode ahead, blind with sudden anguish, scarce knowing which way his steps tended.

And, like a ghoul behind a stone, a small dark face peeped keenly from a corner.

Francette was watching her leaven work.



CHAPTER XII THE NAKONKIRHIRINONS

In the week that followed the waters of the Assiniboine grew black with myriads of canoes. Like the leaves in fall, truly, they came drifting out of the forest, long slim craft, made with a wondrous cunning of birchbark peeled from the tree in one piece, fitted to frames of ash fragile as cockleshell and strong as steel under the practised hand, and smeared in every crinkle and crease and crevasse with the resinous gum of the pine tree. By scores and hundreds and battalions, it seemed to the traders at De Seviere, they poured out of the wilderness, choking the river with their numbers, spilling their contents on the slope under the bastioned walls until a camp was made so vast that it stretched into the forest on each side the clearing of the post and even extended to the marsh at the south.

Half-naked braves stalked in countless numbers among the tepees that went rapidly up, tall fellows, mighty of build and fearless of carriage and of eagle eye, aloof, suspicious, watching the fort, guarding the rich piles of peltry and exchanging a word with none.

These were the great Nakonkirhirinons from that limitless region of the Pays Ten d'en Haut.

If McElroy's heart had not been so full of his own trouble he would have exulted mightily in their coming, for did it not prove one failure for that reckless Nor'wester on the Saskatchewan? They had come, past all his blandishments of trade, to Fort de Seviere, and their coming spelled a number of furs this season far in advance of any other for that small post. If he wondered at first how they had held out against De Courtenay it was all made plain when among the strangers he espied many Assiniboines and saw in the great canoe of the chief Negansahima, old Quamenoka, who had boasted of the coming of this tribe to De Seviere as his work.

He had spoken truly and had evidently made his word good by meeting the approaching columns and returning with them.

To him alone was due the failure of De Courtenay, McElroy felt at once, and determined in his mind on that present which he had promised for this zeal.

With the coming of the strangers Fort de Seviere was put under military rule. The half-moon to the right of the gate, with its small cannon, received a quota of men who strayed carelessly all day within reach of the low rampart; a guard lounged in the great gate, ready at a moment's notice to clang it shut, and seemingly matter-of-course precautions were taken throughout, for these Indians were as uncertain as the flickering north lights crackling in a frosty sky.

There was a scene not to be likened to any other outside the region of the Hudson Bay country, where strange relations existed between white trader and savage, when Edmonton Ridgar met the canoe of the chief at the landing.

Savage delight overspread the eagle features of Negansahima as he beheld the white man.

Towering mightily in the prow of his canoe, the sweeping head-dress of feathers crowning him with a certain majesty, he fixed his keen glance on Ridgar and came gliding toward him across the rippled water.

As the canoe cut cleanly up and stopped just short of scraping on the stones at the edge, obeying the paddles like a thoroughbred the bit, the chief trader of De Seviere stepped forward and held out his arms.

"Who art thou?" he called.

Deep and guttural as thunder from the broad chest, naked under the lines of elk teeth, came the reply,

"Thy father,"

"And master of my goods. The heart of thy son melts as the snow in spring. Wiskendjac has sent thee."

McElroy, standing near, saw the face of his friend illumined with a real affection as the savage landed and, contrary to the custom of the Indians in the lower country, embraced with every sign of joy the lean white man whose skin was nearly as dark as his own and whose greying temples bespoke almost a as many years as the chief's black locks could boast.

In the eyes of both, as they regarded each other, were memories known to no one else. McElroy wondered what they were and what that year, of which Ridgar had spoken only once, had held.

The trader spoke their tongue as easily as he spoke any other that came to the post, naturally and with quiet fluency.

So deep was the apparent pleasure of the meeting that, when the interpreting was done and the ceremonies over, Ridgar went with the Indian among the tepees and no more did McElroy see him until he came to the factory at dusk.

"Mother of Heaven!" he ejaculated, flinging himself down at the table in the living-room where Rette's strong coffee tempted the nostril; "such furs! Beaver in countless packs, all the fat winter skins, no Bordeaux, no Mittain. Fox, also of the best only,—black fox, fine and shining, fox of those far-north regions where they hunt beyond the sun, white as the snow it runs on, and Mon Dieu, McElroy! Seven silvers as I hope for salvation! Verily are they a prize beyond price, these Indians that have come in to us, and I fancy that young Nor'wester is swearing at his luck in losing them. Old Quamenoka struts as if their wealth belonged to his meek Assiniboines.... But the furs! Ermine and nekik and sakwasew and wapistan, all the little fellows that, taken from those virgin north lands, are worth their weight in gold! Nowhere have I seen a common pelt. They are connoisseurs, these wild Nakonkirhirinons, and they carry a king's ransom in their long canoes. White bear and brown arctic wolf and everywhere the best of its kind! To-morrow's trade will be worth while—but keep the guns in evidence and quiet above all things."

"Ah!" said McElroy, "what is there to fear, think you? Is not the chief bound to you by all ties of ceremony and regard?"

"Most assuredly," returned Ridgar quietly, "but those young braves are strung like a singing wire and swift as a girl to take suspicious fright; and there are somewhere near five hundred of them, as near as I can make out from the numbers seething among the lodges. They are in a strange country and watching every leaf and shadow."

Thus the sun went down on De Seviere, with the eager maids and women passing and repassing near the gate to peep out at the rustling throng, at the tepees with their fine skin coverings painted with all the wonders of battle and the chase, at the comely squaws and maidens, the chubby brown children, the dogs snarling and savage, for they had full complement of the grey northern huskies.

To a woman they peeped at the gate from all the cabins of the post, save only that one who had been most eager before when the Indians came, Maren Le Moyne, sitting in idle apathy on her sister's doorstep.

"Ma'amselle," said Marc Dupre, stopping hesitant before her, "have you seen the Nakonkirhirinons?"

"Nay," she said listlessly, "I care not, M'sieu."

And the youth went gloomily away.

"Something there is which preys on her like the blood-sucker on the rabbit's throat. But what? Holy Mother, what?"

His handsome eyes were troubled.

By dawn on the following day the trading had begun. Up the main way passed a line of braves, each laden with his winter's catch of furs, to barter at the trading-room, haggle with the clerks by sign and pantomime, and pass down again with gun and hatchet and axe, kettle and bright blanket, beads, and, most eagerly sought of all, yards of crimson cloth.

There was babble of chatter among the squaws, shrill laughter, and comparison of purchases.

In the trading-room sat the chief with his headmen and old Quamenoka of the Assiniboines, smoking gravely many pipes and listening to the trading. Like some wild eagle of the peaks brought down to earth he seemed, ever alert and watchful behind his stately silence.

For two days the trading progressed finely, and McElroy had so far laid aside his doubts as to take delight in the quality of the rare furs.

Never before had such pelts stacked themselves in the sorting-room.

It was a sight for eyes tired by many springs of common trade.

Then, like a bomb in a peaceful city, came a running word of excitement.

The Nor'wester from the Saskatchewan was among the Nakonkirhirinons! Was at the very gates of De Seviere! When Pierre Garcon brought the news, McElroy flushed darkly to his fair hair and went on with his work.

This was unbearable insolence.

"An', M'sieu," pursued Pierre, "not only the man from Montreal, but, like the treacherous dog he is, among the Nor'westers is that vagabond Bois DesCaut."

"Turncoat?" said the factor.

"Aye."

True enough. When McElroy, after trading hours, strolled down to the gate between the bastions, whom should he behold but the hulking figure of his erstwhile trapper, sulky of appearance, shifty eyes flitting everywhere but toward his old factor. And farther down the bank, among a group of warriors, a brown baby on his shoulder and his long curls shining in the sunset, was that incomparable adventurer, Alfred de Courtenay.

Apparently he had not come for barter, nor for anything save the love of the unusual, the thirst for adventure that had brought him primarily to the wilderness.

"A fine fit of apoplexy would he have, that peppery old uncle at Montreal, Elsworth McTavish, could he see his precious nephew following his whims up and down the land, leaving his post in the hands of his chief trader," thought McElroy, as he looked at the scene before him.

While he stood so, there was a rustle of women behind him and voices that bespoke more eager eyes for the Indians, and he glanced over his shoulder.

Micene Bordoux and Mora LeClede approached, and between them walked Maren Le Moyne. McElroy's heart pounded hard with a quick excitement as he saw the listless droop of the face under the black braids and stopped with a prescience of disaster. His glance went swiftly to the long-haired gallant in the braided coat. Surely were the elements brought together.

It seemed as if Fate was weaving these little threads of destiny, for no sooner did Maren Le Moyne step through the gate among the lodges than her very nearness drew round upon his heel De Courtenay.

His eyes lighted upon her and the sparkling smile lit up his features. With inimitable grace he swung the child from his shoulder, tossed it to a timid squaw watching like a hawk, and, shaking back his curls, came forward.

"Ah, Ma'amselle!" he said, bending before her with his courtly manner, "you see, as I said in the early spring,—I have come back to Fort de Seviere."

"So I see, M'sieu," smiled Maren, with a touch of whimsical amusement at the memory of that morning, and his venturesome spirit. "Have you by chance brought me a red flower?"

"Why else should I come?" he returned, and, with a flourish, brought from his bosom a second birchbark box which he held out to the girl.

Over her face there spread a crimson flood at this swift, literal proving of a secret pact and she stood hesitating, at loss.

The stretch of beach was alive with spectators. Near the wall a group of girls hugged together, with Francette Moline in the centre; down by the canoes Pierre Garcon and Marc Dupre stood, the dark eyes of the latter watching every move, while at the door of the chief's lodge, directly before the fort and between it and the river, Edmonton Ridgar talked in low tones with Negansahima. Indeed, like father and son seemed this strangely assorted pair. Maren remembered afterward how near together they had stood, the wild savage in his elk teeth and scant buckskin garments, an indiscreet band of yellow paint showing a corner above his blanket, and the dark, wiry trader with the grey eyes. Scattered, here and there among the braves were many Bois-Brules, lean Runners of the Burnt Woods, belonging she knew to the North-west Company. Also in that moment she saw the frowning face and ugly eyes of Bois DesCaut beneath the white lock on his temple. Long afterward was the girl to recall that evening scene.

For another moment she hesitated, and then, from sheer loss of poise, reached out her hand. The dancing eyes of the cavalier lit with all the daring of conquest.

"My heart, Ma'amselle," he said gallantly, as he pressed the fragile thing in her palm; and in another second he had stooped and kissed her, as he had kissed many another woman, lightly, delicately, in the face of the populace, joying to the depths of his careless nature in the dare of the thing.

With a cry the girl sprang back, crushing the birchbark case with its red flower into shapeless ruin. There was a muffled word, the flash of a figure, and McElroy the factor had flung himself before her. She caught the thud of a blow upon flesh and in a moment there were two men locked in deadly combat before the post gate. In less time than the telling, a circle of faces drew round, dark faces of Indians and Bois-Brules, light faces of De Courtenay's men, and in all there leaped swift excitement as they saw the combatants. White with passion, his brilliant eyes flaming and dancing with fury, De Courtenay fought like a madman to avenge that blow in the face, while McElroy, flushed and calmer, took with his hands payment for all things,—slighted kindliness, Company thefts, and, above all else, the stolen heart of his one woman.

How it would have ended there is no telling, for these two were evenly matched—what De Courtenay lacked in weight he made up in swiftness and agility,—had it not been for the side arm that hung at his hip, one of those small pistols in use across the water where gentlemen fight at given paces and not across a frozen river or through a mile of brush.

Once, twice, he tried to reach it, and twice did McElroy snatch the groping hand away. Three times he passed swiftly for the inlaid handle and, as if there lay luck in the number, the weapon flashed in the red light.

Swift as was the draw, McElroy was swifter.

With an upward stroke he flung up the hand that held it. There was a shot, ringing down the Assiniboine and echoing in the woods, and little Francette by the stockade wall screamed. With the first flash of metal Maren Le Moyne had gripped her hands until the nails cut raw, standing where she had sprung at the stranger's kiss.

She could no more move than the bastioned wall behind her.

For a moment there was deathly silence after that shot. Then pandemonium broke loose as Negansahima, chief of the Nakonkirhirinons, flung up his arms, the dull metal bands with their inset stones catching the crimson light, and fell into the outstretched arms of Edmonton Ridgar.

A long cry broke from his lips, the death-cry of a warrior.



CHAPTER XIII "A SKIN FOR A SKIN"

For a moment the whole evening scene, red with the late light, was set in the mould of immobility. The two fighting men at sound of that cry following hard upon the shot stopped rigidly, still clasped in the grip of rage, the women staring wide-eyed from the wall, the Bois-Brules, the leaning eager faces of the wild Nakonkirhirinons, the figure of the girl in the foreground, all, all were stricken into stillness by that dirge-like cry. For only the fraction of a second it held, that tense waiting.

Then from nine hundred throats there shot up to the sky, turquoise and pink and calm, such a sound as all the northland knew,—the wild blood-cry of the savage.

It filled the arching aisles of the shouldering forest, rolled down the breast of the river, and echoed in the cabins of the post, and with it there broke loose the leashed wildness of the Indians. There was one vast surging around the lodge where Ridgar knelt with the figure of the chief in his arms, another where a tumbling horde fought to get to the factor and De Courtenay.

At the stockade gate Prix Laroux, swift of foot and strong as twenty men in the exigency of the moment, swept the women into his arms and rushed them within the post. Above the hideous turmoil his voice rose in carrying command,

"Into the post! Into the post,—every man inside! Man the rampart!"

It fell on ears startled into apathy by the suddenness of the tragic happening, and there was a wild confusion of white people pulling out of the mass like threads, all headed for the open gate. Swift as light those guards of the guns on the rampart sprang to place, the watcher of the portal swung the great studded gate ready for the clanging close, and, in a twinkling, so alert to peril do they become who pierce the wilderness, there were without only that howling mass of savages, De Courtenay, McElroy, and Edmonton Ridgar gazing with dimmed vision into the fast glazing eyes of the dying chief.

Only they? Standing where she had leaped at the cavalier's kiss, her eyes wide, her lips apart, was Maren Le Moyne. In the hurrying rush of frantic people she had been forgotten and she was utterly helpless.

As in a dream she saw the leaping forms close in upon the two men who fought for her, knew that those of De Seviere were pouring past her to safety, heard the boom of the great gate as it swung into place, and for her life she could move neither hand nor foot. Her body stood frozen as in those horrid dreams of night when one is conscious, yet held, in a clutch of steel.

Over the heaving heads with their waving eagle feathers she saw the head and shoulders of De Courtenay rise, tipped sidewise so that his long curls swung clear, shining in the light, and already he was bound with thongs of hide.

She saw his handsome face again sparkling with that smile that was so brilliant and that bore such infinite shades of meaning.

Now it was full of devil-may-care, as if he shrugged his shoulders at a loss at cards, and in that second it fell upon her standing in horror.

"Ah, Ma'amselle!" he called, across the surging feathers; "the tune changes! But you have my heart, and I,—I have one kiss! Adieu, my Maid of the Long Trail! The chance was worth its turning."

Then the shining head sank into the mass and she heard no more.

She was conscious only of a giant form lurching, red-eyed and yelling, out of the turmoil, of brown hands that clutched her arms, and of another form which shot past her. For the second time in a few moments one man had reached for her and another flung himself to her rescue. She saw the Indian reel back with a red line spurting across his eyes, felt herself lifted and flung across a shoulder, and knew that the gate behind was swinging open. The next instant she slid down to her feet with her face in the buckskin shirt of Marc Dupre, who leaned shaking against the stockade wall and held her in a grip like steel, while Henri Corlier shot the bolts into place.

Huddled in white groups were the women, some of them already raising their voices in weeping, others silent with the training of the women of the wilderness. The men faced each other with lips drawn tight and breath that came swiftly. Prix Laroux, his dark eyes cool and sharp, looked swiftly over the populace as they stood, for with that first shot every man in Fort de Seviere had rushed to the gate, and in that first moment of getting breath he calculated their strength and their ability.

A leader born himself, he was looking for a leader among McElroy's men; but, with that intrepid factor himself gone and Edmonton Ridgar also, there was nowhere a man with the signs of leadership upon him.

Through Prix's mind this went while they stood listening to the death-wail that was beginning to rise from the tepees without.

Then he quietly took command, knowing himself to be best fitted.

"Corlier," he said quietly, "leave the gate to Cif Bordoux. Take one man and get to the southwest bastion. You, Gifford," turning to that young clerk who worked in the sorting-room, "man the northwest. Garcon and Dupre will take the forward two. The rest will stand ready with guns and ammunition along the four walls and at the gates. We know not what will transpire."

As if their factor spoke, the men of De Seviere turned to obey, feeling that strange compelling which causes men to follow one man to death on the field of battle, and which is surely the gift of God.

Out of his shaking arms Marc Dupre loosed Maren, the trembling lessening as the danger passed. That sight of the defenceless girl among the Indians had shaken him like a leaf in the wind, had nerved his arms with iron, had worked in him both with strength and weakness.

Now he looked into her eyes and said never a word, for once again he saw that they were dazed and void of knowledge.

As he set her upon her own strength, she swayed. Her eyes went round the hushed groups of faces with wild searching. At last they found the face of her leader, and clung there, dark and dull.

"Prix!" she cried. "Prix! Open the gate!"

"I cannot, Maren," he said quietly; "'twould be but madness."

"But they are without!"

All horror was in the cry.

"They are among the Indians!"

"Aye,—and may the good God have mercy on them!"

Laroux hastily made the sign of the cross.

"We must guard the post, Maren."

"But—" She turned her eyes slowly around from face to face and not a woman there but read her secret plain, the open script of love,—but for which man?

"But-they-will—be—" She did not finish the sentence, staring at Laroux. Once she moistened her lips.

"They will—Prix,—as I am your leader, open that gate!"

With sudden reviving the daze went out of her features and the old light came back to her eyes, the far-seeing, undaunted light that had beaconed the long way from Grand Portage. She was every inch the leader again, tall, straight against the logs, her brown arm pointing imperiously to the closed gate.

"Open, I say!"

For a moment Laroux faced her squarely, the man who had tied himself to her hand, pledged himself to forge the way to the Whispering Hills, who followed her compelling leadership as these lesser men had turned to follow his but now. Then he set his will to hers.

"I will not," he said quietly.

With no more words she flung herself upon the gate and tore at the chains, her strong hands able as a man's. As the sight of her in peril had worked for both weakness and strength in Dupre, so had McElroy's plight affected her. That helpless moment was the one defection of her dauntless life.

Now again she was herself, reaching for the thing of the moment, and the roar outside the palisade, constantly rising in volume, in menace and savagery, brushed out of her brain every cloud of shock. Laroux caught her from behind, pinioning her arms.

"Maren," he said quietly, "hear me. Out there are five hundred warriors wild as the heart of the Pays d'en Haut, howling over the body of their dying chief. What would be the opening of the gate but the massacre of all within? Could forty men take the factor from them? There would be but as many more scalps on their belts as there are heads within the post. See you not, Maren?"

In his iron grip the girl stood still, breathing heavily. As he ceased speaking a great sigh came from her lips, a sigh like a sob.

"Aye," she said brokenly, "I see,—I see! Mary Mother! Let me go, Prix. I see."

Laroux loosed her, knowing that the moment was past, and went at once about his duties of throwing the post into a state of defence.

Once more strong and quiet, Maren went to the cabin by the gate. Here Marie knelt at her bed with a crucifix grasped in her shaking hands, her face white as milk and prayers on her trembling lips.

"Maren!" she gasped, with the child's appeal to the stronger nature. "Oh, Maren, what will befall? For love of God, what will befall?"

"Hush, Marie," answered Maren; "'tis but a tragedy of the wild. Naught will befall us of the post."

"But those without? What is that roaring of many throats? Little Jean Bleaureau but now ran past crying that the Nakonkirhirinons were killing the factor"

"No!" Marie jumped at the word like one shot, so wild and sudden it was. "No! No! Not yet!"

Even in the stress of the moment Marie stared open-mouthed at her sister.

"Holy Mother! It is love,—that cry! You love the factor!"

"Hush!" whispered Maren, dry-lipped.

The roar from the river bank had sharpened itself into one point of utterance which pierced the calm heavens in a mingling of native speech, French and broken English from Nakonkirhirinon and halfbreed, and, worse than both, dissolute "white Indian," and its burden was,

"A skin for a skin!"



CHAPTER XIV FELLOW CAPTIVES

After that tense moment of hush following the shot, McElroy had no distinct recollection of what occurred. He was conscious of a sickening knowledge of Negansahima with his banded brown arms stretching into the evening light, of the tepees, of the river beyond, of the face of Edmonton Ridgar, and of all these etched distinctly in that effect of sun and shade which picks out each smallest detail sometimes of a rare evening in early summer. Then the whole scene went out in a smother as an avalanche of bodies descended upon him. He could smell the heavy odour of flesh half-naked, the scent of the hidden paint, he felt arms that fought to grip him and fingers that clutched like talons. Under it all he went down in the grass of the slope, fighting with all his strength, but powerless as a gnat in a pond. Above the turmoil of cries and guttural yells, even while he felt himself crushed at the bottom of that boiling mass, he heard the light voice of De Courtenay ringing clear in his whimsical farewell to Maren Le Moyne. Then he was wrenched up through the mass, something struck him on the head with a sharp blow, a shower of stars fell like a cataract, and the sickening scents in his nostrils faded away.

When he again opened his eyes it was to behold real stars shining down from a velvet sky, to hear the river lapping gently at the landing, and the night birds calling in the forest. From the prairie beyond the fringe of woods to the east there came the yapping of the coyotes, and far to the north a wolf howled.

At first a sense of bewilderment held him. Then in a rush came back the memory of what had happened. He listened intently. Back and forth, back and forth somewhere near went a soft footstep, the swish and glide of a moccasin. He strained his eyes, which smarted terribly, into the darkness, and presently descried a tall form pacing slowly up against the skyline of his vision and back again into the shadows. A single feather slanted against the stars. A guard pacing the place of captives.

With a slight movement McElroy tried to lift a hand.

It was immovable. He tried the other. It likewise refused his will.

So with both feet when he attempted, ever so cautiously, to move them.

He was bound hand and foot, and with cruel tightness, for with that tiny slipping of his muscles there set up all through him such a tingling and aching as was almost unbearable.

His head seemed a lump of lead, glued to whatever it lay upon, and big as a buttertub.

Turning his eyes far as he could to the right, he looked long in that direction. Faintly, after a while, he picked out the straight line of the stockade top, the rising tower at the corner. The line of the wall faded out in darkness the other way, strain as he might. To the left were the ragged tops of the tepees, their two longer sticks pointing above the others.

From the sound of the river, he must be between it and the stockade gate.

Presently his numbed hearing became conscious of a sound somewhere near, a sound that had rung so ceaselessly since his waking that it had seemed the background for the lesser noise of the sentry's slipping moccasin. It was the weird, unending, unbeginning wail of the women, the death-song of the tribe mourning the passing of a chief, the voices of some four hundred squaws blending indescribably.

McElroy listened.

With consciousness of that his mind grew clearer and he began to think.

What a fool he had been!

Once more had he played like an unbalanced boy at the game of love.

What right had he to strike De Courtenay for kissing the woman whom he had won with his red flowers and his curls before the populace? That he himself had fancied for a brief space that she was his was no excuse for plunging like a boy at his rival's throat. If he had held his peace, all would be well now and the old chief would not be lying stiff and stark somewhere in the shadowed camp, the women wailing without fires.

It was no balm to his sore heart that he in his blundering wrath had wrought this fresh disaster. And his post, De Seviere, which he had won by daring service and loyalty to the H. B. C., what would become of it?

Who after him would rule on the Assiniboine?

For well he knew that death, and death thrice,—aye, a million times refined,—awaited so luckless a victim as he whose hand had killed the great chief. But he had not killed Negansahima. It was the gun in De Courtenay's hand. Ah, De Courtenay! Where was De Courtenay? A captive assuredly, if he was one. They had both gone down together under the foam of that angry human sea. And, if he was here, his antagonist must be somewhere near. With exquisite torture, McElroy slowly turned his head to right and left. At the second motion his face brushed something close against his shoulder. It was cloth, a rough surface corrugated and encrusted with ridges,—what but the braid on the blue coat of the Montreal gallant!

There was no start, no answering movement at his touch. The rough surface seemed strangely set and still.

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