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The Maid of the Whispering Hills
by Vingie E. Roe
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He lay silent and thought a moment with strange feelings of new horror surging through him.

Was De Courtenay dead?

Or was it by chance a stone under the braided coat, a hillock where it had been thrown? That strange feeling of starkness never belonged to a human body soft with the pulse of life.

For hours McElroy lay staring into the night sky with its frosting of great northern stars, and passed again over every week, every day,—nay, almost every hour,—since that morning in early spring when she had stepped off the factory-sill to accompany little Francette to the river bank where Bois DesCaut stood facing a tall young woman against the stockade wall.

With dreary insistence his sore heart brought up each sweet memory, each thrill of joy of those warm days. He saw every flush on her open face, every droop of her eyes. Again he saw the white fire in her features that day in the forest glade when she spoke of the Land of the Whispering Hills. He pondered for the first time, lying bound and helpless among savages, of that unbending thing within her which drove her into the wilderness with such resistless force. Granted that she had loved him as he thought during that delirious short space of time, would love have been stronger than that force, or would it have been sacrificed? She was so strong, this strange girl of the long trail, so strong for all things gentle, so unmoving from the way of tenderness. Proving that came the picture of the tot on her shoulder, "dipping as the ships at sea, ma cherie," and the look of her face transfigured. And yet home for her was "the blue sky above, the wind in the pine-tops, the sound of water lapping at the prow of a canoe." So she had said on that last day they spoke together in happiness, passing in diffident joy to the gate to meet De Courtenay's fateful messenger.

Of all women in the vast world she was the one woman. There was never another face with that strange allurement, that baffling light of strength and tenderness.

Sore, sore, indeed, was the heart of the young factor of Fort de Seviere as he lay under the stars and listened to the death-wail in the darkened camp.

Nowhere was there a fire.

Desolation sat upon the Nakonkirhirinons.

Along toward dawn, presaged by the westward wheeling of the big stars, tom-toms began to beat throughout the maze of lodges. They beat oddly into the air, cold with the chill of the coming day.

McElroy's thoughts had left the great country of the Hudson Bay and travelled back along the winding waterways, across the lakes, and at last out on that heaving sea which bore away from his homeland. Once more he had been in the smoke of London town, had looked into the loving eyes of his mother and gripped the hand of his tradesman father. Once more he had wondered what the future held.

The sudden striking up of the tom-toms answered him.

This.

This was to be the end of his eager advance in the Company's favour, the end of that good glass of life whose red draught he had drunk with wholesome joy, the end of love that had but dawned for him to sink into aching darkness.

He sighed wearily. So poignant was his sense of loss and the pain of it that the end was a weariness rather than a new pain.

The thing that hurt was the fact that he himself had juggled the cards of fate to this sorry dealing.

The sudden rage concerning De Courtenay had spent itself. There remained only the deep anger of the man who has lost in the game of love. And yet, what right had he to cherish even this wholesome anger against his rival when the maid had chosen of her own free will? As well hold grudge to the great Power whose wisdom had given the man such marvellous beauty. As he lay in the darkness listening to the unearthly noises he worked it all out with justice.

He alone was to blame for the sorry state of things.

De Courtenay was but a man, and what man, looking upon Maren Le Moyne, could fail to love her?

Therefore, he freed his rival of all blame.

And Maren,—oh, blameless as the winds of heaven was Maren!

What had she given him that he could construe as love?

Only a look, a blush to her cheek, the touch of a warm hand.

In his folly he had hailed himself king of her affections when perchance it was but the kindliness of her womanly heart.

And what maid could be blind to De Courtenay's sparkling grace,—compared to which he was himself a blundering yokel?

Thus in bound darkness he reasoned it all out and strove to wash away the anger from his heart.

And presently there came dawn. First a cold air blowing out of the forest, and then a deeper darkness that presently gave way to faint, shadowy light.

Here and there tall figures came looming, ghostly-fashion, out of chaos, to take slow shape and form, to resolve themselves into tapering lodges, into hunched and huddled groups.

And with light came action.

McElroy saw that around the central lodge before the gate there was a solid pack of prostrate Indians covering the ground like a cloth, and from this centre came the tom-toms and the wailing.

It was the lodge of the chief and within lay the stark body of the murdered Negansahima.

As the faint light grew, one by one the warriors rose out of the mass like smoke spirals, drawing away to disappear among the tepees. Soon there came the sound of falling poles and McElroy knew that they were striking the camp.

For what?

Why, surely, for one thing.

A chief must go to the great Hunting Ground from his own country; in his own country must his bones seek rest.

They would journey back up the long and difficult trail down which they had just come to that vague region from which they hailed.

But what of him, and of De Courtenay, if he was yet alive?

He wondered why they had been reserved.

The light came quickly and he looked eagerly around on the moving camp.

With quickness and precision the whole long village was reduced in a few minutes to rolled coverings, gathered and tied utensils, stacked packs of furs, and ranged canoes already in the water lining the shore.

He could not help a feeling of regret for this wild people, coming but few suns back with their rich peltry, their pomp, and their hopes of gain, as they prepared for the back trail, the whole tribe in deepest mourning.

Of all the tents, that one before the post gate alone stood, silent reproach to the white man's ways.

Around it still knelt a solid pack, wailing and beating the drums.

As the grey light turned whiter, he turned his stiffened neck for a glance at the thing against his shoulder.

He looked into the smiling eyes of Alfred de Courtenay.

"Bonjour, M'sieu," whispered that ardent venturer; "you nuzzled my arm all night. Apparently we are fellows in captivity, as we have been opposed in war,—and love."

"Aye, M'sieu," whispered back McElroy, not relishing the turn of the sentence but passing it by; "and a sorry man am I for this state of events. I owe you my regrets,—not for what I did, mark you,—but for the way and the time and place. Had I waited and proceeded as a gentleman, we should not be in this devilish plight, nor that fine old chief a victim to our blunder."

"Tish!" said De Courtenay lightly; "'tis all in a day's march. And, besides, I have,—memories,—to shorten the way."

The pacing guard came back and the two men fell silent.

At that moment a stentorian call pealed above the dismantled camp, and there began a vast surge of the mass of Nakonkirhirinons toward the waiting canoes, a dragging of goods and chattels, a hurry of crying children, a scurrying of squaws. In the midst of it the flaps of the big lodge were opened and, amid redoubled wailing, a stark wedge of the length of a tall man came headforemost out, carried on the shoulders of six gigantic warriors; and walking beside it, bareheaded in the new day, was Edmonton Ridgar, his face pale and downcast. He paid no heed to the two men on the ground, though one was his factor and his friend.



CHAPTER XV LONG TRAIL

The women changed their wail as the procession started for the waiting canoes, and from all the long camp there drew in a horde of savages, their eagle feathers slanting in the light, bare shoulders shining under unhidden paint, skin garments and gaudy shirts alike cast to the winds.

They surged along chanting their unearthly song, and the mass of them swept by where lay the two men.

Not a glance was given them, no taunts, no jeers with which the tribes of the North-west were wont to torment their captives.

The swish of the moccasined feet was as the sound of many waters.

"No time for play," thought McElroy; "that will come later,—when we have reached the Pays d'en Haut."

For he knew now that he and De Courtenay were to be taken along.

The body of Negansahima was placed in the first canoe, covered with a priceless robe of six silver foxskins laced together; the six big warriors, their halfnaked bodies painted black, manned the paddles, and at the prow there stood the sad figure of Edmonton Ridgar.

At one side had drawn out old Quamenoka and his Assiniboines, their way lying to the west. They raised a chant as the first canoe circled out and headed down the stream. Behind it fell in five canoe-loads of Bois-Brules, their attachment a mystery, and the river became alive with the great flotilla.

Not until the death-boat had passed the far bend did the pacing Indian give way to a dozen naked giants, who lifted the captives with ceremony and carried them down the slope.

As he swung between his captors McElroy looked back at the closed gates of De Seviere and a sharp pain struck at his heart, a childish hurt that the post he had loved should watch his exit from the light of life with unmoved front. It seemed almost that the bastioned wall was sensate, as if the small portholes here and there were living eyes, cold and hard with indifference, nay, even a-glitter with selfishness.

But quick on the sense of hurt came the knowledge which is part of every man in the wilderness; and he knew well that every face in the little fort was drawn with the tragedy, that from those blank portholes looked human eyes, sick with the thing they could not avert, that whoever had taken charge within was only working for the safety of the greatest number, and with the thought his weakness passed.

Only one more pang assailed him.

He gave one swift thought to Maren Le Moyne. Where in Fort de Seviere was she, and what was in her heart?

Then he was swung, still bound, into the bottom of a canoe, saw De Courtenay tossed into another, felt the careless feet of Nakonkirhirinons as the paddlemen stepped in, and existence became a thing of gliding motion, the lapping of water on birchbark, and the passing of a long strip of cloud-flecked sky, pink and blue and gold with the new day.

Lulled by the rocking of the fragile craft that shot forward like a thing of life beneath the paddles dipping in perfect unison, McElroy lay its a sort of apathy for hours, watching the sliding strip of sky and the bending bodies of the Indians. He knew that the end awaited him somewhere ahead, but it was far ahead, very far, even many leagues beyond York factory, and his mind, again dropping into the dulness of his early awakening, refused to concern itself with aught save the blue sky and the sound of water lapping on birchbark. That sound was sweet to his befuddled brain, suggesting something vaguely pleasant.

Ah, yes, it was the deep voice of the maid of the long trail speaking of the streams and the waving grass of that visionary Land of the Whispering Hills.

He fell to wondering at broken intervals if she would ever reach it, to see drowsy visions of the tall form leading its band of venturers into the wilderness beyond Lac a la Croix, penetrating that country which tried the hearts of men, and with the visions came a sadness.

She would go without love, mourning her cavalier of the curls, and who would be responsible for the desolation of the heart he would fain have made happy but himself?

McElroy sighed, and the visions faded.

When he again awakened it was evening and camp had been made. Fires danced and crackled all up and down the reach of shore set like a half-moon of pearl in a sea of emerald, where the forest shouldered down to the stream, and the smell of cooking meat was poignantly sweet. Women were busy at the work of the camp, carrying wood, mending the fires, tending the kettles swung from forked sticks, and scolding the scrambling children.

Here and there a half-naked Indian stalked silently, his long feather slanting in the light, but for the most part the warriors were gathered in a silent mass a little way apart where the big tepee had been set up.

The clouds were gone from his brain, and he was keenly conscious of hunger.

He was still bound, though not so tightly, some of the thongs having been taken off entirely, and he found that he could sit up with comparative ease, though his hands were still fast behind him and his ankles tied.

There was no pacing guard this time, distance and possession making such precaution needless, for well the Nakonkirhirinons knew that none from the little post on the Assiniboine would attempt rescue in face of so great a horde as an entire tribe.

McElroy sat up and looked around.

One of the first things he encountered was the face of the cavalier, still smiling and looking very much as it had looked in the dawn.

Like that encounter, too, De Courtenay was the first to speak in this.

"Aha, my fighter of the H. B. C.," he laughed from his seat against a towering maple, "have your laggard wits come in from wool-gathering?"

He, too, was more comfortably bound, and McElroy noticed that there were little rubbed creases in the sleeves of the gay blue coat where the numbing bonds had cut. The sparkling spirit was as high in his handsome face as it had been that long past morning morning by the well. The factor wondered if there was in heaven or earth anything with power to dim it.

He was to see, and marvel at, the test.

"Aye," he answered the cheerful query; "it has been a weary day, M'sieu, it would seem, with my senses drifting out and in at ragged intervals of which I have only vague impressions. How has it fared with you?"

"Much as another day. There has been plenty to see and enjoy, even from under the feet of our hasty friends of the paddles."

"Enjoy! Holy Mother! Have you not been thinking over your sins, M'sieu?"

"Sins? I have none. Who thinks of sins while the red blood runs? Rather have I dreamed dreams of,—memories. Ah, no, M'sieu, it has not been a weary day to me, but one of swift emotions, of riots of colour in a strip of racing sky when the sun turned his palette for a gorgeous spread. The sunset was stupendous at its beginning. Now the darker greys come with so much forest."

McElroy fell silent, biting his lip.

Sorry as he felt for the plight of his rival, the old anger was close to his heart, and it seemed that the rascal knew it and probed for a weak spot with his smiling allusions to his memories. Memories of what but of the red lips of a girl?

The young factor, too, had memories of those red lips, though they gave him only a pain so bitter as not to be borne.

Almost it forced from his heart the gentle justice he had striven so hard to keep in sight.

As he sat thinking and staring at the twilight river rippling below, a man came from the forest at the back of the camp and passed near on his way to the fires.

It was Bois DesCaut, and he did not lift his evil eyes.

The white lack on his temple gleamed with a sinister distinctness amid his black hair.

"Double foe," thought McElroy; "I am to pay for my own words and Maren's blow."

As the trapper passed he sidled swiftly near the Nor'wester and something dropped from a legstrap. It was a small knife, and it tumbled with seeming carelessness close to De Courtenay's knee.

"So," thought McElroy again; "by all rights that should have been for me."

DesCaut went on into the heart of the camp among the women, and De Courtenay began moving ever so cautiously toward the priceless bit of steel.

With that hidden in one's garments what not of hope might rise within a daring heart?

What not, indeed! Life and liberty and escape and a home-coming to a rival's very hearthstone, and more,—soft lips and arms of a woman.

The cavalier was smiling still as he edged inch by inch along the little way, his back against the maple.

"See you, M'sieu," he whispered; "how loyal are the servants of the North-west Company?"

McElroy did not answer. Bitterness was rife within him. Even his one friend in the wilderness, Edmonton Ridgar, on whose sound heart he would have risked his soul, had passed him by without a look.

Verily, life had suddenly been stripped, as the hapless birch, of all its possessions.

He was thinking grimly of these things when a young squaw came lightly up from somewhere and stopped for a second beside De Courtenay. She looked keenly at him, and stooping, picked up the knife.

"Another turn to the wheel, M'sieu," said that intrepid venturer; "what next?"

As if his thought had reached out among the shadows of the wood where stood the death tepee and touched its object, Edmonton Ridgar appeared among the lodges. He was bare-headed, and McElroy saw that his face was deep-lined and anxious, filled with a sadness at which he could but marvel and he passed within a stone's throw without so much as a glance at his superior.

No captive was this man, passing where he listed, but McElroy noticed the keen eyes watching his every move.

What was he among this silent tribe with their war-paint and their distrust of white men?

It was a hopeless puzzle, and the factor laid it grimly aside. Next to the closed and impregnable front of his own post what time he passed from its sight, this cold aloofness of his chief trader cut to inmost soul.

But these things were that life of the great North-west whose unspeakable lure thralled men's souls to the death, and he was content.

It was chance and daring and danger which drew him in the beginning to the country, love of the wild and breath of the vast reaches, something within which pushed him forward among these savage peoples, even as the same thing pushed Maren Le Moyne toward the Whispering Hills, sent De Courtenay to the Saskatchewan.

At any rate he was very hungry, and when a bent and withered crone of a squaw brought food and loosed his right hand, the young factor tossed up his head to get the falling hair out of his eyes and fell to with a relish.

"Faugh!" said De Courtenay with the first mouthful; "I wonder, M'sieu, is there nothing we can do to hasten the end? Many meals of this would equal the stake."

Whereat the gallant smilingly tossed the meat and its birchbark platter at the woman's feet.

"If you would not prefer starvation, I would suggest that you crawl for that, M'sieu," said McElroy gravely; but the wrinkled hag gathered it up, and left them to the night that was fast settling over the forest.

Thus began the long trail up to the waters of Churchill and beyond into that unknown region where few white men had yet penetrated, and fewer still returned.



CHAPTER XVI TRAVEL

Day followed day. Summer was upon the land, early summer, with the sweet winds stirring upon the waters, with gauze-winged creatures flitting above the shallows where willow and vine-maple fringed the edges and silver fish leaped to their undoing, with fleecy clouds floating in a sapphire sky, and birds straining their little throats in the forest.

McElroy and De Courtenay were loosed of their bonds and given paddles in the canoes, a change which was welcomed gladly.

At night a guard paced their sleeping-place and the strictest surveillance was kept over them.

Down the Assiniboine, into Red River, and across Portage la Prairie went the great flotilla, green shores winding past in an endless pageant of foliage, all hands falling to at the portages and trailing silently for many pipes, one behind the other, all laden with provisions and packs of furs, the canoes upturned and carried on heads and shoulders.

Of unfailing spirits was Alfred de Courteray.

"'Od's blood, M'sieu," he would laugh, oddly mixing his dialect, "but this is seeing the wilderness with a vengeance! Though there is no lack of variety to speed the days, yet I would I were back in my post of Brisac on the Saskatchewan, with a keg of good-liquor on the table and my hearty voyaguers shouting their chansons outside, my clerks and traders making merry within. Eh, M'sieu, is it not a better picture?"

"For you, no doubt. For me, I had rather contemplate a prayer-book and recall my mother's teaching in these days," answered McElroy simply.

"What it is to have sins upon one's conscience!" sighed the venturer. "Verily, it must preclude all pleasant thoughts." And he fell to humming a gay French air.

Presently the foaming river, growing swifter as it neared the great lake, leaped and plunged into the wide surface of Winnipeg, shooting its burdens out upon the glassy breast of the lake like a spreading fan.

Here the blue sky was mirrored faithfully below with its lazy clouds, the green shores rimmed away to right and left, and the swarming canoes, with their gleaming paddles, made a picture well worth looking at.

The Nakonkirhirinons were going back to the Pays d'en Haut by another way than that by which they had come.

Hugging the western shore, the flotilla strung out into the formation of a wedge, with the canoe of the dead chief at the apex, and went on, day after day, in comparative silence.

With the passing of the sleeping green shores, the ceaseless slide of the quiet waters, a tender peace began to come into McElroy's soul.

With the gliding days he could think of Maren without the poignant pain which had been unbearable at the beginning, could linger in thought over each detail of her wondrous beauty, the clear dark eyes, sane and earnest and full of the hope of the dreamer, the full red mouth with its sweetness of curled corners, the black hair banded above the smooth brow, the rounded figure under the faded garment, the shoulders swinging with the free walk after the fashion of a man.

Verily, the wilderness held healing as well as hurt.

So followed each other the dawns and the summer noons and the marvellous twilights, with pageantry of light and colour and soft winds attuned to the songs of birds, and the two men neared the mystery of Fate.



CHAPTER XVII THE COMPELLING POWER

Back in De Seviere the gloom of the forest in bleak winter sat heavily on every cabin.

Women went about with misty eyes and men were oddly silent.

Not one of all his people who did not love the whole-hearted factor with his ready laugh, his sympathy in all the little life of the post, his unfailing justice; not one who did not strive to keep away the haunting visions of leaping flames above fagots, and all the ugly scenes that imagination, abetted by grim reality, could conjure up.

On that fateful morning when the rising sun saw the slim canoes of the Nakonkirhirinons trailing around the lower bend, Maren Le Moyne stood by the little window in the small room to the east of the Baptiste cabin and covered her face with her hands.

Great breaths lifted her breast, breaths that fluttered her open lips and could not fill the gasping lungs beneath, that sounded in the little room like tearless tearing sobs.

"Heavenly Mother!" she gasped between them; "Thou who art woman...Mary..."

But the prayer hung aborted between the shuddering sighs.... Who shall say that it is not such a cry, torn from the depths of the spirit by instinct groping for its god, which reaches swiftest the Eternal Infinite?

Until the last sound had faded into the morning, until the last little ripple had widened to the shores and died among the willows, until the screaming birds, startled from the edges of the river, had settled into quiet, she stood so, fainting in her Gethsemane. She alone of all the post had remained away from the great gate where was gathered the populace at the nearest vantage point.

Silence of the young day hung in the palisade, a silence that cut the soul with its tragic portent.

Even little Francette Moline, weeping openly, pressed close in the mass and jerked with unconscious savagery of spirit the short ears of the husky at her heels,—that Loup whom no man dared to touch save only the master his fierce spirit must needs acknowledge. It had been DesCaut by brutality. Now it was the little maid by love.

Strange cat of the woods, Francette could be as riotous in her tenderness as in her enmity.

In the bastions Dupre and Garcon and Gifford watched the scene with the grim quiet of men born in the wilderness, while at the portholes trapper and voyageur and the venturers from Grand Portage handled their guns and waited.

None knew what might happen, for these Indians were not to be judged by any standard they knew.

Henri Baptiste held the trembling Marie in his arm, while Mora and Anon and Ninette clung together in a white-faced group. A little way aside Micene Bordoux comforted a frightened woman and held a child by the hand.

Big Bard McLellan stood by a porthole, his eyes always pensive with his own sadness, gazing with grave sorrow to where McElroy swung down the slope between his captors.

Thus they watched his going, and he had been spared that sick pain had he known.

When it was over, Prix Laroux turned back to the deserted factory and stood hesitating on its step.

This was one of the crises which so commonly confronted the fur industry in the North-west.

What had he a right to do?

The simple man considered carefully. What right but the right of humanity to do the best for the many could send a servant into the seat of power?

And yet who among them all was fitted?

Not the clerks, youths from the Bay, not the traders nor the trappers.

With a daring heart the venturer from Grand Portage went in across the sill.

To a man the men of De Seviere rallied to him and council was held.

Everywhere in the trading-room, the living-room behind, were evidences of the factor and Ridgar. It seemed as if the two men had but just stepped out-were not in hostile hands drifting down the river toward an unspeakable fate.

In the midst of the grave-faced council another step sounded on the sill and once again Maren Le Moyne stood looking in at the factory door, though this time there was no eager interest on her face, only a drawn tenseness which cut to the heart of her leader like a knife.

"Come in, Maren," he said in aching sympathy.

"Men," she said straightly, "is there none among you who will turn a hand to save his factor?"

Over every face her eyes travelled slowly, hot and burning.

In every face she read the same thing,—a pitying wonder at the folly of her words.

"Aye," spoke up Henri Corlier, grizzled and weathered by his years of loyal service to the Great Company, "not a man among us, Ma'amselle, but would give his life if it would serve. It would not serve."

"And you?" her gaze shifted feverishly to Laroux; "you, Prix?"

"'Tis useless, Maren. What would you have us do?"

"Do?"

She straightened by the door, and the hand on the lintel gripped until the nails went white.

"Do? Anything save sit with closed gates in safety while savages burn your factor at the stake! The Hudson's Bay brigade comes from York this very month. What easier than to meet it and get help of men and guns?"

"Nay," said Laroux gently; "you do but dream, Maren."

Whereat the girl turned abruptly from the doorway and went down among the cabins.

Here and there in the doorways groups of women stood together, their voices hushed and trouble in their eyes.

As Maren passed, seeing nothing to right or left, they looked in pity upon her.

The heart of this woman was drifting with the canoes,—but with which man?

"'Tis the gay Nor'wester with his golden curls," whispered Tessa Bibye sympathetically.

"The Nor'wester? 'Tis little you know, truly, Tessa," said the young wife of old Corlier. "What maid in her senses would look twice at yonder be-laced dandy when a man like Anders McElroy stood near?"

"Aye, an' may the Good God have mercy on our factor!" whimpered a withered old woman, wife of a trapper, making the sign of the cross; "nor hold back His mercy from the other!"

Night seemed to fall early on Fort de Seviere, waiting sadly for its healing touch on fevered hearts.

Throughout the long day a waiting hush had lain upon the post, an expectancy of ill.

Over the dark forest the stars came out on a velvet sky, and a little wind came out of the south, nightbirds called from the depths, and peace spread over the Northland like a blanket.

While the twilight lasted with its gorgeous phantasmagoria there were none of the accustomed sounds of pleasure in the post,—no fiddle squeaked by the stockade wall, no happy laughter wafted from the cabins. Even the sleepy children seemed to feel the strangeness and hushed their peevish crying.

Night and darkness and loneliness held sway, and in one heart the shadows of the world were gathered.

What was the meaning of this Life whose gift was Pain, where was the glory of existence?

By the window to the east Maren Le Moyne stood in the darkness, with her hands upon her breast and her face set after the manner of the dreamer who follows his visions in simpleness of soul.

Once again a great call was sounding from the wilderness, as that which lured her to the Whispering Hills had sounded since she could remember, once more the Long Trail beckoned, and once more she answered, simply and without fear.

She waited for the depth of night.

Long she stood at the little window, facing the east like some worshipper, even until the wheeling stars spelled the mid hour.

To Marie she gave one thought,—child-like Marie with her dependence and her loving heart. But Marie, to whom she had been all things, was safe in the care of Henri. There remained only the dream of the Whispering Hills and the illusive figure of a man,—an old man, sturdy of form and with blue eyes set in swarthy darkness.

Poignant was the pain that assailed her at that memory. Would she ever reach that shadowy country, ever fulfil the quest that was hers from the beginning? Did she not wrong that ghostly figure which seemed to gaze with reproach across the years? Her own blood called, and she turned aside to follow the way of a stranger, an alien whose kiss had brought her all sorrow.

And yet she was helpless as the water flowing to the sea. The primal quest must wait. Her being turned to this younger man as the needle to the pole, even though his words were false, his kiss a betrayal.

When the mid hour hung in silence over the wilderness a figure came out of the darkness and stood at the gate beside that watcher, Cif Bordoux, who paced its length with noiseless tread.

A strange figure it was, clad in garments that shone misty white in the shadow, whose fringes fluttered in the warm wind and whose glowing plastron glittered in the starlight.

"Cif Bordoux," said the figure, "I would go without."

Wondering and startled, Bordoux would have refused if he dared; but this was the leader of the Long Trail and her word had been his law for many moons, nor had he ever questioned her wisdom.

Therefore he drew the bolts and opened the gate the width of a man's body, and Maren Le Moyne slipped outside the palisade into the night.

A rifle hung in her arm and a pouch of bullets dangled at her knee.

Swiftly and silently she pushed a canoe into the water at the landing, stepped in, and with one deep dip of a paddle sent the frail craft out to midstream. She did not turn her head for a farewell glance toward the post, but set her face toward the way that led to the Pays d'en Haut and the man who journeyed thither.

Deep and even her paddle took the sweet waters and the current shot her forward like a racer. The dark shores flowed by in a long black ribbon of soft shadow, their leaning grasses and foliage playing with the ripples in endless dip and lift. No fear was in her, scarce any thought of what she did, only an obeying of the call which simplified all things.

McElroy was in danger, and she followed him.

That was all she knew, save the mighty sorrow of his falseness which never left her day or night.

He had taught her love in that one passionate embrace in the forest, and it was for all time.

What mattered it that he had turned from her for another? That was the sorry tangle of the threads of Fate,—she had naught to do with it.

Love was born in her and it set a new law unto her being, the law of service.

Every fibre in her revolted at thought of his death. If it was to be done beneath the pitying Heaven, he should be saved. He must be helped to escape. The other was insupportable. Nothing mattered in all the world save that. Therefore she set herself, alone and fearless, to follow the tribe of the Nakonkirhirinons to the far North if need be, to hang on their flank like a wolverine, to take every chance the good God might send. Chief of these was her hope of the Hudson's Bay brigade which should be coming into the wilderness at this time of year. Somewhere she must meet them and demand their help.

There was no rebellion in her, no hope of gain in what she did. Love was of her own soul alone, since that evening by the factory when she had seen the factor bend his head and kiss the little Francette.

No more did she think of his words in the forest, no more did she dream of the wondrous glory of that first kiss.

Far apart and impersonal was McElroy now,—only she loved him with that vast idolatry which seeks naught but the good of its idol.

Even if he loved Francette he must be saved for that happiness.

Therefore she knelt in a cockleshell alone on a rushing river and sped through, a wilderness into appalling danger.

Such was the compelling power of that love which had come tardily to her.



CHAPTER XVIII "I AM A STONE TO YOUR FOOT, MA'AMSELLE"

At dawn Maren shot her craft into a little cove, opal and pearl in the pageantry of breaking light, and drawing it high on shore, went gathering little sticks for a micmac fire.

The bullet pouch held small allowance of food. She would eat and sleep for a few hours.

Deep and ghostly with white mist-wraiths was the forest, shouldering close to the living water, pierced with pine, shadowy with trembling maple, waist-high with ferns. She looked about with the old love of the wild stirring dumbly under the greater feeling that weighted her soul with iron and wondered vaguely what had come over the woods and the waters that their familiar faces were changed.

With her arms full of dead sticks she came back to the canoe,—and face to face with Marc Dupre. His canoe lay at the cove's edge and his eyes were anguished in a white face.

"Ma'amselle," he said simply, "I came."

No word was ready on the maid's lips. She stood and looked at him, with the little sticks in her arms, and suddenly she saw what was in his eyes, what made his lips ashen under the weathered tan.

It was the same thing that had changed for her the face of the waters and the wood. She had learned in that moment to read a man better than she had read aught in her life beside the sign of leaf and wind.

"Oh, M'sieu!" she cried out sharply; "God forbid!"

The youth came forward and took the sticks from her, dropping them on the ground and holding both her hands in a trembling clasp.

"Forbid?" he said and his voice quivered; "Ma'amselle, I love you. Though my heart is full of dread, I am at your feet. By the voice of my own soul I hear the cry of yours. We are both past help, it seems, Ma'amselle,-yet am I that stone to your foot which we pledged yonder by the stockade wall. You will let me go the long trail with you? You will give me to be your stay in this? You will let me do all a man can do to help you take the factor from the Nakonkirhirinons?"

The infinite sadness in Dupre's voice was as a wind across a harp of gold, and it struck to Maren's heart with unbearable pain.

Her eyes, looking straight into his, filled slowly with tears, and his white face danced grotesquely before her vision.

"M'sieu," she said quite simply, "I would to God it had been given me to love you. We have ever seen eye to eye save in that wherein we should have. And I know of nothing dearer than this love you have given me. If you would risk your life and more, M'sieu, I shall count your going one of the gifts of God."

"I cannot ask you to return, Ma'amselle,—too well do I know you,—nor to consider all you must risk for, this,—life and death and the certain slander of the settlement,—though by all the standards of manhood I should do so. The heart in me is faithful echo of your own. This trail must be travelled,—therefore we travel it together. And, oh, Ma'amselle! Think not of my love as that of a man! Rather do I adore the ground beneath your foot, worship at the shrine of your pure and gentle spirit! See!"

With all the prodigal fire of his wild French blood, the youth dropped on his knee and, catching the fringe on the buckskin garment, pressed it to his lips.

For once Maren, unused to tears, could speak no word.

She only drew him up, her grip like a man's upon his wrists, and turned to the making of the fire.

Dupre drew up his canoe and took a snared wild hen from the bow.

* * * * * * * * *

"I think, Ma'amselle," said the youth when Maren awaked some hours later from a heavy sleep, during which Dupre had killed the little smoke of the fire and kept silent watch from the shore, "that we had best leave your canoe here and take mine. It is much the better craft."

"So I see. Mine was but the first I could put my hands upon in the darkness."

"'Tis that of old Corlier, and sadly lacking in repair. If you will steer, Ma'amselle?"

Thus set forth as forlorn a hope as ever lost itself in that vast region of hard living and daily tragedy, with the strength of the man set behind the woman's wisdom in as delicate a compliment as ever breathed itself in silken halls, and the blind courage of the dreamer urged it on..

At the forks of Red River they passed the signs of a landing.

Here had the Indians summarily sent ashore all of the Nor'westers who had been with De Courtenay and who had followed in the uncertainty of fear, not daring to desert lest they be overtaken and massacred.

All, that is, save Bois DesCaut and the lean, hawk-faced Runners of the Burnt Woods.

Thanking their gods, the North-west servants had lost no time in taking advantage of the fact that they were not wanted, leaving their Montreal master to whatever fate might befall him.

Dupre went ashore and examined the reach of land, the trampled grass, a broken bush or two.

"Ten men, I think," he said, returning, "and all in tremendous haste. The Nor'westers escaping, I have no doubt. Would our captives were among them."

"No such fortune, M'sieu," said Maren calmly, "Heard you not the cry before the gate in that unhallowed scramble what time they took the factor and the venturer? 'Twas 'a skin for a skin.' There are many guards."

The summer day dreamed by in drowsy beauty, like a woman or a rose full-blown, and Maren, who would at another time have seen each smallest detail of its perfection through the eye of love, saw only the rushing water ahead and counted time and distance.

Dupre, kneeling in the bow, his lithe brown arms bare to the shoulder, where the muscles lifted and fell like waves, was silent. Sadness sat upon him like a garment, yet lightened by a holy joy.

Odd servers of Love, these two, who knew only its pain without its pleasure, yet who were standing on the threshold of its Holy of Holies.

Of nights they sat together at the tiny fire of a few laid sticks and talked at intervals in a strange companionship.

Never again did they speak of love, nor even so much as skirt its fringes, though the young trapper read with wistful eyes its working in the woman's face. Out of her eyes had gone a certain light to be replaced by another, as if a star had passed near a smouldering world and gone on, changed by the contact, its radiance darkened by a deeper glow.

The firm cheeks, dusky as sunset, had lost something of their contour.

Like comrades, too, they shared the work and the watches, the girl standing guard with rifle and ball while Dupre snatched heavy sleep, herself dropping down like the veriest old wolf of the North on mossy bank or green grass for the rest they sternly shortened.

"'Tis near the time of the Hudson's Bay brigade, is it not, M'sieu?" she would ask sometimes. "Think you we shall meet them surely if we skirt the eastern shore of Winnipeg?"

And Dupre would always answer, "Assuredly. By the third week in July they will be at the upper bend where the river comes down from York. The Nakonkirhirinons will hold to the west, going up Nelson River and west through the chain of little lakes that lie to the south of Winnipeg, thence gaining Deer River and that Reindeer Lake which sends them forth into their unknown region beyond the Oujuragatchousibi. We, then, will make straight for the eastern shore, skirting upward to the interception of the ways, and we will surely meet the brigade."

"And they will surely lend help, think you, to a factor of the Company in such grave plight?"

"Surely, Ma'amselle."

So the hours of day and darkness slipped by with dip of paddle and with portage, with snatched rest and fare of the wild.

In a plentiful forest and on an abundant stream Dupre was at no loss for food. Trout, sparkling and fresh from the icy water, roasted on forked sticks stuck in the ground beside a bed of coals, made fare for an epicure, and the young trapper, watching Maren as she knelt to tend them, shielding her face with her hand, thought wistfully of a cabin where the fire leaped on the hearth and where this woman passed back and forth at the tasks of home.

"'Tis too great a thing to ask of le bon Dieu," he said in his heart; "'tis not permitted even that one dream of such joy,—'twould be heaven robbed of its glory."

So he fished and hunted for her, as the primal man has hunted and fished for his woman since time began, tended her fires and guarded her sleep, and the wistful sadness within him grew with the passing days.

Down that northbound river the lone canoe with its two people hurried after the great flotilla, silent and determined, like a starved wolf on the flanks of a caribou herd.

Out on the breast of the great blue lake it, too, was shot by the rushing waters, lone little cockleshell, to head its prow to the eastward, where the green shore curved away, to take its infinitesimal chance of victory against all odds.

When the sun came out of the eastern forest, a golden ball in a cloud of fire, it saw the light craft already cutting the cool waters of Winnipeg. When it sank into the western woods the bobbing dot was still shooting forward.

Child of the wilderness by birth was Dupre, child of the wilderness by dream and desire was Maren, and its simple courage was inborn in both.

The Indians were a day and night ahead, hurrying by dawn and dusk to the north, that the body of the dead chief, cured like a mummy by the smoke curling from the big tepee at every stop, might have burial, the earth-bound spirit begin its journey to the shadowy hunting-grounds.

When McElroy took his last look backward at the blue lake from the northern end, Maren and Dupre were making their last camp before the Big Bend on the eastern shore.

"How soon, think you, M'sieu?" she asked that night, standing beside the little fire; "how soon will they come,—the H. B. C.'s from York?"

"To-morrow, most like, or in a few days at most."

This evening luck had deserted his fishing, so the trapper took a rifle and went into the woods after a fool-hen. Thoughts kept him company; thoughts of love and its strangeness, of the odd decrees of Fate and the helplessness of man. How all the world had changed with its coming, this love which hail been born in an hour what time he had listened to a woman's voice beside the stockade wall, and how the very soul within him had changed also.

Where had been lightness and the recklessness of youth there was now a wistful tenderness so vast that it covered his life as the pearly mist covered the world at dawn.

Where he had taken all of joy that post and settlement, friend and foe could give, lived for naught but his sparkling pleasures, he was now possessed of a great yearning to give to this woman, this goddess of the black braids; to give, only to give to her; to give of his strength, of his overwhelming love; aye, of even his heart's blood itself as he had told her in the beginning.

He was long in finding a fat grouse this evening, and when he returned night was thick on forest and shore.

Light of tread in his moccasins, Dupre came quietly out not far from the blaze of the small fire, and stopped among the shoulder-high brush that fringed the forest.

In the glow of the fire Maren knelt before a green stake set upright in the earth, from a fork of which there hung a black iron crucifix, its ivory Christ gleaming in the light. On either side of this pitiful altar there flamed, in lieu of candles, a fagot taken from the pine.

On her knees, her hanging hands clasped and her face, raised to the Symbol, she spoke, and the deep voice was sweet with its sliding minors.

"Jesu mia," she said softly, "forgive Thou our sins—Ours. Teach me Thy lesson,—me with pain that will not cease. For him,—Oh, Thou Lord of Heaven, comfort him living,—shrive him Thyself in dying! Let not the unspeakable happen! Send, send Thou that help without which I am helpless, and failing that, send me the strength of him who wrestled with the Angel, the wisdom of Solomon! Not for my love, O Christ, but for him, grant that I may find help to save him from death! And more,—deliver also that venturer who, but for my thoughtless words of the red flower, would be now safe on the Saskatchewan. These I implore, in mercy. And for this last I beg in humbleness of spirit complete,—Grant Thou peace to the friend whose eyes eat into my heart with pity! Peace, peace, Jesu of the Seven Scars, have mercy on him, for he is good to his foundations! I beg for him peace and forgetting of unhappy me! Reward him in some better fate, this youth of the tender heart, of the great regard! Save us, Thou Lamb Jesus—"

In the dark eyes there was a shine of tears, the lips, with their curled corners, were trembling. The face upturned in the fitful light was all tenderness. The calm brown hands clasped before her were all strength.

Marc Dupre, in the forest's edge, felt his breast heave with an emotion beyond control as he stood so, looking upon the scene, listening to the sliding voice. Darkness hid the wilderness, out on the face of the lake a fish leaped with a slap, and a nightbird called shrilly off to the south. With aching throat the trapper turned softly back into the woods. When he came later along the shore, with heavier step than was his wont, the fagot and the forked stake were gone, there was no black crucifix, and Maren waited by the fire, water brought from the lake in Dupre's small pail, the little sticks ready for the roasting.

"Let me have the grouse, M'sieu," she said; "the hunt was long?"

But Dupre did not answer.



CHAPTER XIX THE HUDSON'S BAY BRIGADE

The two days that followed were heavy ones to Maren.

No farther did they dare venture lest they pass to the west and miss the brigade coming down from the north and entering the lake at the northeast extremity.

So they waited on the shore in anxiety of spirit, watching the bright waters with eyes that ached with the intensity of the vigil, and Dupre hunted in the forest and over the sand dunes, among the high meadows that broke the heavy woods in this region, and down along the reaches of the water.

"Farther with each day!" thought Maren to herself. "Holy Mother, send the brigade!"

And Dupre echoed the thought in sadness of soul.

"More pain for her heart in each hour's delay. Would the trial were done!"

About three of the clock on the first day of waiting there came sounds of singing and a string of canoes rounded a bend of the shore at the south.

"M'sieu!" cried Maren swiftly; "who comes?"

Dupre, tinkering at the canoe overturned on the pebbly beach, straightened and looked in the direction she indicated.

He looked long with hand to eye, and presently turned quietly.

"Nor'westers, I think, Ma'amselle. They come from Fort William to the Wilderness."

Fort William!

Back along the trail went memory with mention of the post on the distant shore of Lake Superior. How oft had she peeped with fascinated eyes from behind her father's forge at sturdy men in buckskins who spoke with the blacksmith about the wonders of the country of the Red River, and they had come from Fort William. She saw again the bustle and activity of Grand Portage, the comfortable house of the Baptistes. Once more she felt the old yearning for the unknown.

And this was it,—this gleaming stretch of inland sea, one man who stood by her and another who betrayed her with a kiss, yet who drew her after him as the helpless leaf, fallen to the stream, is whirled into the white destruction of the rapids.

Aye, verily, this was the unknown.

She was looking down the lake with the sun on her uncovered head, on the soft whiteness of the doeskin garment, and to young Dupre she had never seemed so near the divine, so far and unattainable.

"Ma'amselle," he said presently, "if these newcomers speak us, heed you not what I may say. There are times in the open ways when a man must lie for the good of himself—or others."

The girl turned her eyes from the canoes, some twenty of them, to his face. It was grave and quiet.

"Assuredly," she said after a moment's scrutiny. "Had I best hide in the bushes, M'sieu?"

"No, they have seen us."

Sweeping forward, the brigade of the Nor'westers, for such it proved to be, headed near in a circle and the head canoe turned in to shore.

"Friend?" called a man in the prow; whom Dupre knew for a wintering partner by the name of McIntosh of none too savoury report.

"Hudson's Bay trapper, M'sieu," he said politely, going a step nearer the water. "I wait, with Madame my wife, the coming of our brigade from York, now one day overdue."

"Ah,—my mistake. I had thought the H. B. C.'s this fortnight gone down. As ever, they are a trifle behind."

While he addressed Dupre his bold eyes were fastened on Maren, where she hung a dressed fish on a split prong.

"Not behind, M'sieu," said the young man gently. "They but take the time of certainty. A Saulteur passing this way at daylight reported them as at McMillan's Landing."

"Then your waiting is short. I am glad,—for Madame. So lone a camp must be hard for a woman."

With the words the Nor'wester scanned the girl's face with a glance that pierced her consciousness, though her eyes were fixed on her task. Not a tinge of deeper colour came to her cheeks. There was no betrayal of the part Dupre had assigned her, and with a word of parting the canoe swung out to its place, though McIntosh's eyes clung boldly to her beauty so long as he could see her.

"Ah-h,—a close shave!" thought the trapper as he picked up a splinter and once more fell to upon the boat.

Twenty-four hours later there came out of the north the thrice blessed brigade of the H. B. C., bound down the lake to Grand Rapids, where the canoes would separate into two parties, one going up the Saskatchewan to Cumberland House, the other down to the country of the Assiniboine.

Eager as a hound for the quarry Maren stood forth beside Dupre to hail them.

Head of the brigade was Mr. Thomas Mowbray, a gentleman of fine presence and of gentle manners.

In answer to the hail from shore he came to, and presently he stood in the prow of his boat listening to an appeal that lightened his grave eyes.

"Men we must have, M'sieu," Maren was saying passionately; "men of the Hudson's Bay. Against all odds we go of a truth, but strategy and wit accomplish much, and the Nakonkirhirinons have no thought of rescue. Besides, the farther north they get the less keen will be their vigilance. With men, M'sieu, we may retake, by strategy alone of course, the factor of Fort de Seviere. Therefore have we come across your way, In the Name of Mary, M'sieu, I beg that you refuse me not!"

She was like some young priestess as she stood in the westering light on the green-fringed shore, one hand caught in the buckskin fringe at her throat and her eyes on Mr. Mowbray's upright face.

"Upon my word, Madame—?" he said when she had finished.

"Ma'amselle, M'sieu," she corrected simply.

"Ma'amselle,—your pardon,—upon my word, have I never seen such appalling courage! Do you not know that you go upon a quest as hopeless as death? This tribe,—I have heard a deal too much about them, and once they came to York two seasons back,—are unlike any others of the Indians of the country. Ruled by a peculiar justice which takes 'a skin for a skin'—not ten or an hundred as do the Blackfeet or the Sioux,—they yet surpass all others in the cruelty of that taking. Have you not heard tales of this surpassing cruelty, Ma'amselle?"

"Aye, we have heard. It hastens our going. M'sieu the factor awaits that cruelty in its extremest manner with the reaching of the Pays d'en Haut."

"Mother of God!" said Mr. Mowbray wonderingly. "And yet,—I see!"

"And he is Hudson's Bay, M'sieu," said the girl sharply; "a good factor. Would the Company not make an effort to save such, think you?"

Mr. Mowbray stood a moment, many moments, thinking with a line drawn deep between his eyes. Out on the burnished water the canoes lay idly, the red kerchiefs of the trappers making bright points of colour against the blue background.

Presently he said slowly

"What you ask is against all precedent, Ma'amselle, and I may lose my head for tampering with my orders,—but I will see what can be done."

The brigade drew in, and when dusk fell upon the wilderness a dozen fires kept company with the lone little spiral from Dupre's camp.

Sitting upon the shingle with her hands clasped hard on her knees, Maren shook her head when the young trapper brought her the breast of a grouse, roasted brown, along with tea and pemmican from the packs of the H. B. men.

"I thank you, my friend," she said uncertainly; "but I cannot—not now. Not until I know, M'sieu. Without many hands at the paddles how can we overtake the Nakonkirhirinons?"

Thus she sat, alone among men, staring into the fire, and it seemed as if the heart in her breast would burst with its anxiety. A woman was at all times a thing of overwhelming interest in the wilderness, and such a woman as this drew every eye in the brigade to feast upon her beauty, each according to the nature of the man, either furtively, with tentative admiration, or openly, with boldness of daring.

And presently, after the meal was over, she saw Mr. Mowbray gather his men in a group. For a few moments he spoke to them, and a ripple of words, of ejaculations and exclamations, went across the assemblage like a wave.

"Nom de Dieu! Not alone?"

"To the Pay d'en Haut,—those two?"

"A woman? Mother of God!"

Wondering eyes turned to the figure in the glow of the fire, to the brown hands hard clasped, the face with its flame-lit eyes.

"Five men and a good canoe I send with them," said Mowbray quietly; "who goes? Know you it is a quest of death."

"Who goes, M'sieu?" cried a French trader. "I! 'Tis worth a year of the fur trade!"

"And I!"

"And I!"

"And I!"

Once more she had made her appeal to man, man in the abstract, and once more he had come to her, this maid of dreams.

Mr. Mowbray had lost half his brigade had he not fixed on those who were the strongest among the volunteers, the best canoe-men, the best shots.

Such were these men of the wilderness, excitable, ready for any hazard, drawn by the longest odds, and to serve a woman gave the last zest to danger.

Seldom enough did a woman appeal to them in such romantic wise.

"Brilliers,—Alloybeau,—Wilson," picked out Mr Mowbray, with a finger pointing his words; "McDonald,—Frith,—make ready the fourth canoe, Take store of pemmican and all things necessary for light travel and quick. From to-morrow you will answer to Ma'amselle. When she is through with you report to me, either at Cumberland or York, according to the time."

And he left his men to walk over and seat himself beside Maren Le Moyne on the shingle.

It was dark of the moon and the night was thick with stars and forest sounds. Out on the lake beyond the ranged canoes at the water's edge, the fish were slapping.

"Ma'amselle," said Mr. Mowbray gravely, "I have detailed you five men, a canoe, and stores. May God grant that they may serve your purpose."

A long sigh escaped the girl's lips.

"And may He forever hold you in His grace, M'sieu!" she said tremulously; "and bless you at the hour of death!"

"And now, Ma'amselle," he said gently, "tell me more of this strange adventure. How comes it that a young maid, alone but for a youthful trapper, goes to the Pays d'en Haut after a factor, of the Company? Why did this duty not fall to the men of the post?"

"They said, as you, M'sieu, but an hour back, that it was a quest of death. They love life. I love the factor."

She made her explanation simply, in all innocence, looking gravely into the fire, and Mr. Mowbray gasped inwardly.

"I see. So Anders McElroy is your lover. A fine man, worthy of the love of such a woman, and blessed above men in its possessing if I may make so bold, Ma'amselle."

"Nay,—you mistake."

Maren shook her head.

"Not my lover. I but said that I love the factor He does not love me, M'sieu."

"What? Heaven above us! What was that? Does not love you! And yet you go into the Pays d'en Haut after the North Indians? You speak in riddles."

"Why, what plainer? Life would die in me, M'sieu, did I leave him to death by torture. I can do no less."

Mr. Mowbray sat in silence, amazed beyond speech.

When he rose an hour later to go to his camp he laid a hand on the beaded shoulder wet with the night dew.

"Ma'amselle," he said, "I have seen a glimpse of God through the blind eyes of a woman. May Destiny reward you."

Thus it came that before the dawn reddened the east the camp of the brigade broke up for the start to the south and west, and one big canoe with six men waited at the shore for one woman, who held both the hands of Mr. Mowbray in her own and thanked him without words.

As the lone craft shot forth upon the steel-blue waters the leader of the Hudson's Bay brigade looked after the figure in the bow, glimmering whitely in the mists, and an unaccustomed tightness gripped his throat.

He had two daughters of his own, sheltered safe in London,—two maids as far from this woman of the wild as darkness from the light, soft, gentle creatures, and yet he wondered if either were half so gentle, so truly tender.

Ere the paddles dipped, the men in the canoes with one accord, touched off by some quick-blooded French adventurer, set up a chanson,—a beating rhythmic song of Love going into Battle,—and every throat took it up.

It flowed across the lightening face of the waters, circled around the lone canoe and the woman therein, and seemed to waft her forward with the God-speed of the wilderness.

She lifted her hand above her without turning her head, and it shone pale in the mist, an eerie beacon, and thus the boat passed from view in the greyness, though as the paddles dipped for the start the song still rung forth, beating along the shore.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Men," said Maren Le Moyne at the first stop, "this is a trail of great hazard. There is in it neither gift nor gain, only a mighty risk. Yet I have asked you forth upon it as men of the H. B. C. because the man I would save is a factor of the Great Company."

"Ma'amselle," said Bitte Alloybeau, a splendid black-browed fellow, "it is enough."

"Aye,—and more." So was bound their simple allegiance.



CHAPTER XX THE WOLF AND THE CARIBOU

Northward along Nelson River went the concourse of the Nakonkirhirinons, turning westward into the chain of little lakes above Winnipeg of which Dupre had spoken, sweeping forward over portage and dalle, and after them came the lone canoe, leaping the leagues like a loup-garou, for it never rested.

Day and night it shot forward, pulled by sturdy arms, half its people sleeping curled between thwarts, the other half manning the paddles, stopping for snatched rations, reading the signs of passing. So it crept forward upon the thing it sought, untiring, eager, absurd in its daring and its hope.

Like an embodiment of that very absurdity of courage so dear to the hearts of these men, the girl sat in the prow, taking a hand in the work with the best of them, beaconing the way as she had done before her venturers of Grand Portage, firing them with her calm certainty, binding them to her more firmly with each day.

To each bit of courtesy done eagerly to her there was her grave "I thank you,"—at each portage and line her hand to the rope, her shoulder to the pack, and all in the simple unconsciousness of her womanhood that made her what she was,—a leader.

Before forty-eight hours had passed they would have followed her to the brink of death,—to the Pays d'en Haut, to the heart of an hostile camp.

They fixed their eyes on her shining braids, bare to the sun, and anticipated her commands, obeyed her few words implicitly, and who shall say that many a dream did not weave itself around her in the summer days, for every man in the boat was young.

Who knew?

Perhaps the Nakonkirhirinons had already yielded to the savage wrath that takes a "skin for a skin,"—perhaps they had passed somewhere in the forest, hidden from view from the water, the too well-known blackened stake, the trodden circle. Perhaps there was no factor of Fort de Seviere.

Only Marc Dupre, nearest Maren in every change and arrangement, had no such thoughts. Dreams enough he wove in all surety, but they had to do with the blinding heights of sacrifice, the wistful valleys of renunciation.

His heart was full to overflowing with idolatry. From shadow and fireglow his dark eyes looked upon her with a love that had passed far beyond the need of word or touch, that buoyed her up and supported her in strength and purity, like the silver cloud beneath the feet of the Madonna.

And Maren, too, dreamed her dreams, for she had dreamed since the days of the forge in Grand Portage, and they were sad as death. No more did she list the sound of a western wind in the bending grass of a far country, the rush of virgin rivers, the whisper of pine-clad hills. The joy of the great quest was dead within her, the love of forest and stream, the lure of trail and trace. Sadness sat upon her like a garment. She only knew the pain that had birth that night in De Seviere when she sought McElroy to disclaim the giver of the red flower and found him kissing the red-rose cheek of the little Francette.

So went forth this little barque o' dreams.

Meanwhile what of the two men who journeyed ahead?

With each day they lost a little of the love of life, for with the cunning which gave them their hazy fame the Nakonkirhirinons were tightening the screws of cruelty.

Work beyond a man's strength was meted out to them. Alone in a long canoe heavily laden, McElroy and De Courtenay were forced to keep the pace set by the boats, each of which carried five men. Blisters came in their hands, broke and rose again, sweat poured from their straining bodies, and if they fell slow a spear-prod from the boat behind sent them forward.

How much more exquisite could be made the torture of a victim already worn to the ragged edge, how much sooner the scream be wrung from his throat. With each passing league that brought them nearer the end of the journey could be seen the fiendish eagerness rearing in the glittering eyes.

Turn and turn they took, these two, of the hindmost seat in the canoe, for the back of each was unspeakable from the spear-prods. Without a word McElroy took his punishment as the lagging became more pronounced from arms overtaxed at the paddles, but the long-haired adventurer from the Saskatchewan taunted them to their faces.

Taunt and fling were unavailing. Of an unearthly poise were these savages from the distant north. With grinning good humour they withheld their anger, knowing full well that time would doubly repay.

Here and there among them appeared those worst monsters of the wilds, INDIANS WITH BLUE EYES AND SQUARED-OUT TOES.

Far up ahead went forward the canoe of the dead chief, with Edmonton Ridgar sitting in silence among the blackened warriors.

Never once did he glance backward, never once at the night camps did he come near his factor.

Throughout the long days McElroy pondered this in his heart and turned it over and over without satisfaction. Unable to form any conclusion he fell to thinking of their friendship and of the gentle nature of the man, the unbending faith of him.

It was all a sorry riddle.

"Brace up, M'sieu," De Courtenay would laugh, even in the midst of exhaustion; "sing,—smile,—perhaps it will be only the stake, not something worse. Console yourself, as do I, with—memories."

And McElroy would say nothing, trying in his heart to hold back his wrath against this man for whose death he was to be responsible.

So went the uneven chase. Day's march of the savages and night's rest on the green shores, mummying fires in the big tepee and the captives lying in the sleep of exhaustion with one guard pacing the lodge opening,—day's pursuit of the lone canoe, brief landings for tea made at a micmac fire, scanning of lake and river and forest, night's unceasing forging ahead with Maren asleep in the prow, her head on Dupre's blanket.

When the last hard portage was made which carried them into Deer River, the girl looked to the west with a sudden fire of the old passion in her eyes.

"So, M'sieu?" she said to Dupre, "it lies yonder, the Land of the Whispering Hills? Would God our course lay there!"

And Dupre, wondering, answered, "Aye, at the Athabasca," for it was to McElroy alone that she had uncovered her soul concerning the great quest.

In Deer River the signs began to be plainer and fresher, showing the passing of the Indians,—here a camp but two days deserted, there scraps of refuse not yet cleared away by forest scavengers, and the pursuers knew they drew close to danger and excitement.

All day the men of Mowbray's brigade bent to the paddles in growing eagerness, and at the evening's stop Maren spoke to them, gathered around with cold rations in their hands, for no fire was lighted now.

"To-morrow we will overtake the Nakonkirhirinons," she said simply, as if that meant no more than speaking a brother brigade of Hudson's Bays, "and then will come the time of action. At night-camp we will make our effort of deliverance. You, Alloybeau, and you, McDonald, will keep within my call whatever happens, while Frith and Brilliers and Wilson will stay with the canoe, ready for instant flight. M'sieu," she laid a hand on Dupre's arm and her voice deepened softly, "is scout and captain and he goes at my side. More I cannot say until we know the lie of land to-morrow."

So they again took boat, this little band of venturers than whom there were no more daring threaders of the wilderness in all the vast unknown country; and Maren sat in the prow, her hands idle in her lap, for she had paddled since four by the sun.

Beside her, huddled half under the feet of Wilson on the foremost thwart, Dupre watched the stars as they came out in a turquoise sky, for the sleep that was due him would not come. He thought of the morrow and what it would bring, and the sadness in his heart grew with the deepening shades.

The fringed garment of white doeskin lay under his elbow and a fold of it brushed his cheek, and, boy that he was, its touch brought the quick tears to his eyes.

"Ma'amselle," he said presently, when the turquoise had faded to purple and the purple to velvet black, with the stars like a dowager's diamonds thickset upon it, "Ma'amselle, what think you is behind the stars?"

Maren turned her face to him like a sweet young moon, pale in the night.

"Behind the stars? Why, Heaven, M'sieu, where all is glory; Heaven assuredly."

"Aye. Where all is glory. Yes, for those who keep the holy mandates, whose hearts are pure as that heaven itself. For such as you. Oh, Holy Mother!—" his voice fell to a whisper; "there is no heaven, Ma'amselle, so pure as the white heart of you! But for him whose days have gone like the butterfly's flight from one prodigal joy to the next, whose heart has known neither love of God nor love of a good woman, save for a little space, whose tongue has boasted and blasphemed, and whose life has been worth no jot of good,—what, think you, a waits so lost a man as this?"

The light "whoosh,—sst—whoosh" of the dipping paddles, the occasional rattle of a handle on a gunwale, formed a blending background against which his low words were distinguishable only to the girl beside him.

She looked long into his upturned face. The wistfulness sat heavy upon it. The youthfulness of this dashing trapper of the posts and settlements came out plain in the starlight. She saw again the pliant strength beneath the slender grace, caught the suggestion of contradicting forces that she had felt one day in Marie's doorway when young Dupre swung up the main way of Fort de Seviere, and beneath it all she saw that which had caused her to say on that first morning of the long trail when he faced her in the hidden cove, "Would it had been given me to love you, M'sieu!"

All this passed through her aching heart, and presently she said with a little catch in her deep voice,

"What awaits a man like this? A man who has done all these things and who speaks of their folly, who thinks of God in the nighttimes, whose heart turns with longing to that land behind the stars, and who gives,"—she paused a moment,—"I cannot say the rest,—But—but—Oh, there awaits this man the smile of that Christ of the Seven Scars, the loving tears of Our Lady of Sorrows, the very grace of the Good God!"

"Truly,—Ma'amselle?" asked Marc Dupre wistfully, "in your heart—not out of its goodness?"

"In my heart of hearts I think this, M'sieu."

They fell silent for a long time, while the stars travelled with them in the broken water and the ripples lapped and sucked at the shores and the swift stream hurried to the bay.

At length the trapper tentatively raised his hand and touched the bare arm of Maren where it shone brown beneath the white of the fringed sleeve.

"I thank you for those words, Ma'amselle," he said simply; "they are healing as the Confessional to my ragged soul."



CHAPTER XXI TIGHTENED SCREWS

"M'sieu," said De Courtenay, "what think you? It would seem that something stirs in this camp of squaws and old men. Gaiety and festive garb appear. Behold yonder brave with a double allowance of painted feathers and more animation than seems warrantable. What's to do?"

The man was worn to the bone with the day's work, yet the old brilliance played whimsically in his eyes. This day a wearing burden of skin packs had been added to the canoe, ladening it to the water's lip, and the vicious prodding from behind had been in consequence of redoubled vigour.

McElroy, reclining beside him on his face,—to lie on his back was unbearable,—to one side of the camp, looked at the scene before them.

Surely it seemed as if something was toward.

Here and there among the Indians appeared strangers. More Bois-Brules, lean half-breeds more to be feared than any Indian from the Mandane country to the polar regions, decked half after the manner of white man and savage, all more animated than was the wont of these sullen Runners of the Burnt Woods, they passed back and forth among the fires, and presently McElroy caught the gleam of liquid that shone like rubies or topaz in the evening light.

"Aha!" he said, "these Bois-Brules that have joined our captors appear to have had dealings with the whites. Yonder is the source of your discovered animation. Whiskey, as I live, and circling fast among the braves. It bodes ill for us, my friend."

"So? Why so?"

"Because never was redskin yet who could hold fire-water and himself at the same time. No matter how determined they are to reach their stamping-ground before the ceremonies of our despatch, their determination will evaporate like morning mists before the sun in the warmth of the spirit, or I know not Indian nature. Prepare for something, M'sieu."

As the evening fell and the fires leaped against the darkness, sounds increased in the camp. Groups of warriors gathered and broke, voices rose; and shrill yells began to cut above the melee of the noise.

From time to time a brave would come running out of the bustle and, stopping near, glare ferociously at the captives. Twice a hatchet came flittering through the firelight, its bright blade flashing as it circled, to fall perilously close, and several times a squaw or two prodded one or the other with a moccasined toe.

Once a young brave, his black eyes alight with devilishness, sprang out from the bushes behind and caught McElroy's face in a pinching clasp of fingers. With one bound the factor was on his feet and had dealt the stripling a blow which sent him sprawling with his oiled head in a squaw's fire. Instantly his long feather was ablaze and his yelp of dismay brought forth a storm of derisive yells of laughter.

McElroy sat quietly down again.

"It has begun, M'sieu," he said grimly.

All night the liquor circled among the savages, as the spirit fired the brains in their narrow skulls the uproar became worse. A huge fire was built in the centre of the camp, tom-toms placed beside it in the hands of old men, and, forming in a giant circle, the braves began a dance.

At first it was the stamp-dance*, harmless enough, with bending forms and palms extended to the central fire and the ceaseless "Ah-a, ah-a-a, ah-a," capable of a thousand intonations and the whole gamut of suggestion and portent, blood-chilling in its slow excitement.

*I have witnessed this.—V. R.

Without the circle the squaws fought and quarrelled over the portion of liquor doled out to them by their lords, and their clamour was worse than the rest.

No sleep came to the two white men lying at the foot of a tree to the west of the camp, with a guard pacing slowly between them and liberty.

Instead, thoughts were seething like dalle's foam in the mind of each.

If only this giant guard might drink deep enough of the libations of the others,—who knew?—there might be the faint chance of escape for which they had watched ceaselessly since leaving Red River.

But, with the irony of fate, this one Indian became the model warrior of the tribe. As the confusion and uproar grew in intensity, one after another joined the dancing circle, until it seemed that every brave in the camp was leaping around the fire. Blue-eyed Indians, Bois-Brules, Nakonkirhirinons, they circled and uttered the monotonous "Ah-a, ah-a," and in the light could be seen the white lock on the temple of Bois DesCaut.

"I should have killed him long ago," thought McElroy simply, "as one kills a wolf,—for the good of the settlement."

As they lay watching the unearthly orgy at the fire a plan slowly took shape in McElroy's mind. They were unbound as they had been for many days, the silent guard proving sufficient surety for their retention, and they were two to one in the wild confusion of the growing excitement. What easier than a swift grapple in the dusk, one man locked in combat with the sentinel and one lost in the forest and the night? It was a desperate chance, but they were desperate men with the post, the hatchet, and the matete before them. As the thought grew it took on proportions of possibility and the factor threw up his head with the old motion, shaking out of his eyes the falling sun-burnt hair.

"M'sieu," he said, in a low voice, carefully modulated to the careless tone of weary speech which was their habit of nights; "M'sieu, I have a plan."

The cavalier looked up quickly.

"Ah!" he said; "a plan? Of what,—conduct at the stake? The etiquette of the ceremony of the Feast of Flame?"

"Peace!" replied McElroy sternly; "you jest, M'sieu. We are in sore straits and a drowning man snatches at straws. It is this. The fire of liquor is rising out there. Hear it in the rising note of the blended voices. How long, think you, will they be content with the dance and the chanting, the tom-toms and the empty fire? How long before we are dragged in, to be the centre of affairs? In this plan of mine there is room for one of us, a bare chance of escape. This guard behind,—he is a powerful man, but, with every warrior wild in the circling mass yonder, he might be engaged for the moment needed for one to dart into the darkness and take to the river. Once there, the mercy of night and bending bushes might aid him. What think you?"

"Truly 'tis worth the try. My blood answers the risk. At the most it would but hasten things. But give the word and we'll at it."

"Nay,—we must understand each other, lest we bungle. As the plan was mine, I take the choice of parts. There is a stain upon my conscience, M'sieu." McElroy spoke simply from his heart, as was his wont. "Throughout this long journey it has lain heavy. Though I hold against you one grave offence, yet I grieve deeply that it was through my hasty anger you were brought to such sorry plight. As I am at fault, so would I heal that fault. This the way I find given me. When I spring for our friend of the painted feather, do you, M'sieu, waiting for nothing, take to the bush with all the speed there is in you. And before we part know that, were we free, I would punish you as man to man for that moment before the gate of De Seviere with all pleasure."

"Ah! You refer to Ma'amselle Le Moyne? By what right?"

"By the right of love, whose advances were more than half-reciprocated before the advent of your accursed red flowers,—the right of man to fight for his woman."

"Nom de Dieu!" De Courtenay threw back his head and laughed, the flecks of light from the fire flittering across his handsome features. "You speak a lost cause, my friend! She was mine since that first morning by your well when the high head bent to my hand. What a woman she is,—Maid of the Long Trail, Spirit of the Woods and Lakes! A lioness with a dove's heart! I have seen the Queen of the World in this God-forsaken wilderness; therefore is it worth while."

"Stop!" cried McElroy sharply; "let the old wound be. Only make ready to act at once."

"Aye,—I am ready now."

"Then rise with me,—swiftly as possible,—when I count to three. One—"

The two men strained their bodies, leaning forward, for both had risen to sit facing the fire when the dance began.

"Two,—" breathed McElroy, "ready, M'sieu,—three!"

With one accord they leaped to their feet, and the factor in a flash was upon the Indian just passing behind him. He had leaped high, for the Nakonkirhirinon was taller than a common man, and he clutched the muscled neck in a grasp of steel, pressing his shoulder against his adversary's face, to still the outcry he knew would come.

The orgy at the fire was lifting its tone of riot into one of savagery and menace, the tom-toms beat more swiftly with gaining excitement, and the yapping yells were growing more frequent.

It was an auspicious moment and the heart of McElroy throbbed with a savage pleasure, but suddenly he felt other hands disputing his grip on the astonished Indian, who was raining blows upon him having dropped his gun in the first shock. Over the bare shoulder of the warrior, shining like bronze in a gleam of light, he saw the face of De Courtenay, its blue eyes alight.

In a flash his grip was torn from behind, and, as the Indian reared his head and threw back his great shoulders, lifting him clear of the earth, he heard the joyous voice of the cavalier.

"Run!" it cried, as he fell clear; "run! And tell Maren Le Moyne that her name is last upon my lips,—her face last before—"

Out above the words there rang the shrill cry of the guard, his mouth uncovered by McElroy's shaking off.

The Indian had whirled and grappled with De Courtenay, and, before McElroy could tear him loose, fighting like a madman, out from the yelling circle there poured an avalanche of lunatics, jerked from Gehenna by that ringing cry.

Foremost was Bois DesCaut, his evil eyes glinting like a witch's omen.

Yelling, jumping, flaming with the liquor of the Bois-Brules, they fell upon the two men and dragged them, half-falling, half-running, toward the circle, into it, and up to the fire.

"Ho-ho! ho-ho-o! Ha-ha! ha-ha-a! ha-ha!"

Faces wild as the devil's dreams pushed close, hands plucked at them, and suddenly a dozen painted braves caught up handfuls of live coals and flung them upon them.

In the midst of it McElroy looked stupidly at De Courtenay.

"For the love of God!" he said, "why did you not run?"

"Why didn't you?"

The cavalier was laughing.

"I could not, M'sieu," he added; "the charm of the hazard was too great."

And that was the last word he offered the man who would have delivered him, turning to face the savages.

"Dogs!" he cried in French; "dogs and sons of dogs!"

Stooping suddenly, he snatched a horned headdress from the crown of an aged medicine man, scooped it full of glowing brands, and tossed its contents straight into the wild faces before him.

Then he straightened, crossed his arms, and smiled upon them in contempt.

Pandemonium was loose.

In breathless swiftness the captives were stripped to the skin, tied hand and foot, and fastened to stakes set hastily up on either side the fire.

"It begins to look, M'sieu," called De Courtenay, across the space and the roaring flames, "as if the Nor'westers and the Hudson's Bays must scratch up a new wintering partner and a fresh factor,—though, 'ods blood! this one is fresh enough! Will they cure us as as they have Negansahima?"

At mention of the dead chief a dozen missiles cut the night air and struck the speaker. One, a lighted torch, landed full in his face, and McElroy groaned aloud.

If De Courtenay hoped by his taunts and his jeers to reach a swifter end, he was mistaken in that hope. No fire was kindled at their stakes, no sudden stroke of death maul or tomahawk followed his words. The Nakonkirhirinons had keener tortures, torments of a finer fibre than mere physical suffering, and the Bois-Brules' liquor had stirred the hidden resources.

Again the dancing commenced, but this time it was not the harmless measure of the stamp-dance. Instead of the bending bodies, the rhythmic stamping of soft-shod feet, the extended palms, there were unspeakable leapings, writhings, and grimaces revolting in their horror, brandishing of knives, and yelling that was incessant.

McElroy closed his eyes and forced his mind to the Petition for Mercy.

Through the tenor of the beautiful words there cut from time to time De Courtenay's voice, cool, contemptuous, a running fire of invective, now in French, now in English, and again in the Assiniboine tongue, which was familiar to the Nakonkirhirinons, they being friends with that tribe.

As the hubbub rose with the liquor two slabs were brought, rough sections of trees hastily smoothed with axe and hatchet, of the height of a man and the thickness thereof, with a slight margin at top and sides. These were set up behind the stakes that held them, thus forming a background, and the two naked forms stood out in the firelight like pictures in white frames.

A wise old sachem, hideously painted, drew a line on the ground at thirty feet, facing the central fire, and with a bony finger picked out a certain number of warriors.

Full fifty there seemed to McElroy when he opened his eyes to see them ranged before the line, all armed with knives that shone in the glow, and (grim irony of fate!) in the blades of some there was a familiar stamp—H. B. C.!

"Ah! Yuagh!" called the sachem, and two young men stepped forward, toe on the line, glanced each at a framed picture, drew up an arm, and, "Whut-t-t t-e-e-p," whined two knives that flittered through the light and struck quivering, one with its cool kiss on McElroy's cheek, the other just in the edge of the slab at De Courtenay's shoulder.

A shout of derision greeted this throw, and two more took the place of the retiring braves, this time a Runner of the Burnt Woods, wearing the garments of the white man, but smeared with bars of red and yellow paint across the cheeks, and a white renegade.

"A Nor'wester's man once," thought McElroy; "another DesCaut."

Again the "whut-t" of the whimpering blades, again the little impact in the wood behind, this time with more indifferent aim; for never was white man yet who sank or rose to Indian level in the matter of spear or tomahawk.

They were brave men, these two, and they faced the singing knives without a quiver of muscle, a droop of eye, while the joy of the savages, at last turned loose, rose and rose in its wildness.

For an hour the mob at the line threw and shifted, the vast circle sitting or standing in every attitude of keenest enjoyment. The slabs bristled with steel, to be cleaned and decorated anew, while the fire in the centre leaped and crackled with an hundred voices.

A stone's-throw away the grim tepee of the dead chief glimmered now out of the shadow, now in, and to the east behind a rocky bluff, through which led a narrow gorge, the river hurried to the north.

Blood-painted brilliant splotches here and there against the white pictures, but neither man was limp in his bonds, neither fair head drooped, neither pair of blue eyes flinched. De Courtenay's long curls hung like cords of gold against his bare shoulder, enhancing the great beauty of him, while his brilliant smile flashed with uncanny steadiness. McElroy's face was grave, lips tight, eyes narrow, and forehead furrowed with the thought he strove in vain to make connected.

Suddenly every shade of colour drained out of his countenance, leaving it white as the virgin slab behind.

On the outskirts of the concourse, just at the edge of shadow and light, Edmonton Ridgar stood apart and the look on his face was of mortal agony. As his eyes met those of his factor all doubt was swept away. This was his friend, McElroy knew in that one swift moment, even as he watched his torture, his friend on whose faith and goodness he would stake his soul anew. It was strange what a keen joy surged through him with that subtle knowledge, what smart of tear-mist stung his eyes.

Long their gaze clung, filled with unspeakable things, things that were high as Heaven itself, that pass only between men clean of heart on the Calvaries of earth.

Then, as gleaming eyes began to follow the fixed look of McElroy, heads to turn with waving of feathers on scalp-locks, the factor with an effort took his eyes from Ridgar's.

"Dog-eaters!" De Courtenay was laughing. "Birds of carrion! Old men! Squaws of the North!"

And above the hubbub the ritual chanting in his brain turned into an Act of Thanksgiving.



CHAPTER XXII "CHOOSE, WHITE WOMAN!"

Another day had gone into the great back country of time, from which the hand of God alone can pluck them and their secrets. Soft haze of blue and gold hung over forest and stream, sweet breath of summer fondled the high carpet of interlaced tree-tops, blew down the waters and wimpled the bending grasses, and the wolf had sighted the caribou herd.

In a shelter of spruce within sight of the Indian smoke the lone canoe and its people lay hidden, awaiting the coming of night.

"Now, Ma'amselle," said Dupre earnestly, "do you remain close here with Frith and Wilson and Alloybeau while Brilliers and McDonald go with me to reconnoitre."

Maren knelt beside a fallen log binding up the heavy ropes of her hair. Before her were spread the meagre adjuncts of her toilet, in all conscience slim enough for any masculine runner of the forest,—a dozen little pegs hand-whittled from hard wood and polished to finest gloss by contact with the shining braids.

She looked up at him with eyes that were unreadable to his simple understanding.

"Remain?" she said; "and send you into my danger alone? You know me not, M'sieu."

Purple dusk was thick upon the underworld of lesser growth beneath the towering woods. In its half-light the trapper saw that her face, usually of so sad a calm, was glowing with excitement.

"Brilliers," she said, rising and fastening the last strand, "bring me the brown no-wak-wa berries from the pail yonder."

She stood crushing the ripe fruit in her hands and looked into the faces of her little band. In every countenance she read what she had read in men's faces all of her life, the dumb longing to serve, and it lifted her heart with tenderness.

"My men," she said presently, "remember we are Hudson's Bays, and that we have behind us the Great Company which punishes guilt and upholds loyalty, and that we go to rescue a factor of the Company. Alloybeau and McDonald go with me, flanking either side. You, Frith, take up position a hundred yards inland to cover what retreat may happen. Wilson and Brilliers stand at the canoe, and, M'sieus, keep hand at prow ready for instant action. We know not what may happen. I, who am most concerned, go first. You, Marc Dupre, go with me."

Her voice dropped as it ever did of late when she spoke to this good friend.

"And now we wait only for full darkness."

"You must go, Ma'amselle?" said Alloybeau miserably. "Cannot another make the first scouting? Send me."

"And me!" Frith pushed softly forward. "At the last, Ma'amselle, we are old women. We cannot let you go."

"Cannot?" said Maren sharply. "Do Mr. Mowbray's men so soon forget his orders? I am good as a man, M'sieus. See!"

She held up her right arm, with the fringed sleeve falling loose. The muscle sprang up magnificently.

"Fear not for me,—and yet,—I thank you! Now we wait."

One hour,—two,—passed and the last light crept, afraid, out of the forest to linger a trembling moment on the waters and be drawn up to the darkening sky.

At last the maid arose, tall and quiet, save for the excitement in her eyes, and one by one her chosen followers stepped noiselessly after.

Silent as the wood around, the forlorn hope crept forward.

"Here, Frith," commanded Maren, when they had reached a vantage point of higher ground, "and here you, Alloybeau and McDonald, separate. If during this night the good God shall deliver into our hands Mr. McElroy and the venturer from Montreal, you will hear a panther's far-off call. Make for the canoe, for that will mean swift flight. If, on the other hand, aught should befall us ahead, a night-hawk will cry once. Hide and wait. Wait one day, two, three. There is always hope. So. We go now."

Thus they separated, that small band, as hopeless together as apart in case of discovery, and at last Dupre followed alone, his heart heavy within him and a grip in his throat of tears. On through the leafy forest, parting the lacing vines, holding each branch that it might not swish to place, they went, far from safety and the commonplace of life, and a prescience of disaster weighed on the trapper's soul like lead.

At last it grew more than he could bear, and he reached a hand to Maren's shoulder, a tentative hand, hesitating, as if it felt its touch blasphemy.

"Ma'amselle," he faltered, "forgive me! But, oh! without confession this night I am sick to my heart's core! I lied to you back at the cove, though with a clean conscience, for it is love,—love of a man warm and wild that tears my soul to tatters! I love you with all love, of saint and sinner, of Heaven and earth, and I would have you know it!"

His low voice was shaking, as was his whole slim body, and Maren felt it in the hand on her shoulder.

"As a man, Ma'amselle, I would give my life for one touch of your lips! As a lost monk I would kiss your garment's hem! See!"

He dropped to his knee and, catching her beaded skirt, pressed it to his lips again and again, passionately, swept away by his French blood.

"As I live I love you as the dog loves his master! I am naught save the dust under your feet, the thorn you brush in the forest, yet like them I catch and cling! Forgive, Ma'amselle, and if the future is fair for you, think sometimes in the dusk of Marc Dupre!"

"Hush!" said Maren, catching the hand at her knee, a shaking hand more slender than her own; "hush, my friend! You break my heart anew. I know the inmost grace of you, the glory of the love you tell, and be it of heaven or earth, of angel or man, I would to the Good God there was yet life enough within me to buy it with my own! I have seen naught so holy, so worth all price, in the years of my life. It is dear to my heart as that life itself. Dear as yourself, my more than friend."

In all tenderness she stooped from her fair height and laid her arm around the shoulders of the youth, drew his head against the beadwork of McElroy's gift, and kissed him upon the lips,—once, twice, yearningly, as a mother kisses a weakling child.

At that moment there came, borne on a waking breeze of the night, the sound of the tom-toms, the yapping of many throats.

"The gods beckon," she said sadly; "this life and love is all awry and we who are bound against our will must but abide the end."

"Aye," whispered young Dupre, from the warm depths of her shoulder, and his voice was like gold for joy; "aye,—the end."

He rose swiftly.

"Forgive the passion that could forget the great business of the night," he said, and they went forward, though Maren's fingers still rested in his clasp.

Through the thinning wood which neared the stream presently there came a glow and then the shine of a great fire ahead, with massed figures that leaped and sprang, fantastic as a witch's carnival, and a roar of frightful voices.

"Stay now, Ma'amselle!" begged Dupre, at last, for he had caught a sight that shook him through and through; "stay you here in the wood while I go forward!"

But his protest was lost on the maid. Eagerly she was pushing on, hid by the shadows,—nearer and nearer, until suddenly she stopped and stared upon the scene, the fingers in his clasp gripping Dupre's hand like steel.

"God! God! God!" breathed Maren Le Moyne at the forest's edge as she looked once more upon the face of the factor of Fort de Seviere.

Unspeakable was that scene. All reason had fled from the North savages.

What small veneer of docility had been spread over them by their three years' dealing with the Hudson's Bays and their intercourse with the quiet and tractable Assiniboines, had vanished. They were themselves as nature made them, cruel to the point of art.

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