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The Maid of the Whispering Hills
by Vingie E. Roe
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The work of the day was visible upon the captives tied to their stakes on either side the fire. Half-clothed, for they had been thrown into a lodge to recuperate for the night's festivities, they stood in weariness, that from time to time drooped one head or the other, only to lift again with taunt and jeer.

De Courtenay, his thin face between the curls thinner, was still facing the mob with the smile that would not down. McElroy was as Maren had ever known him, patient and strong, and from time to time he tossed up the light hair falling in his eyes.

"We are none too soon," she said tensely; "tonight it must end. Go you around to the east, M'sieu, between the camp and the river. Look for the lodge of the dead chief, for there will be the trader, Ridgar. Look for him and read his face,—whether or no he will help us. I will skirt to the north."

"I—Ma'amselle! Stay far from their sight, for love of Heaven!"

"Sh! Go, my friend;" and Maren turned into the darkness.

"Mary Mother, now do thou befriend!" she whispered, as she felt her way forward. With touch of tree trunk and slipping moccasin, lithe bend and sway and turning, as sure in the forest as any savage, this Maid of the Trail took into her hands the saving of a man. It was simple. Wit must play the greater part, wit that invades a sleeping camp, risks its life, and laughs at its victory. So would she work in the late hours when revelry had worked its own undoing. Now she would learn the camp and the safest side of it, the place of the captives and a way of escape. With thought and eager plan she pushed from her mind the look of McElroy's body.

She would—

In the darkness she stopped with inheld breath. Her groping foot had touched an object, a soft object that stirred and rolled over on its side and presently sat up. So near it was that she could feel the movements of its garments, which fact told her it was human.

Then, without warning, a hand shot out and caught her knee in a grip of steel. With all her strength the girl tore away, leaping backward. But a tangle of vines snatched at her foot and she fell crashing forward with a figure prone upon her, and in the darkness she fought silently for life.

As in the camp of the Nakonkirhirinons the thin veneer had slipped away, so now in the forest its heavier counterpart fell from this woman and she turned savage as the thing with which she fought.

Of superb stature and strength, she was a match for the man, and two pairs of hands searched for a throat, two bodies strained and struggled for the mastery. It seemed that the noise of the conflict, the snapping of dry dead wood, the swish and crash of leafy brush, must draw attention from the camp, but it was too engrossed in its own mad hilarity to heed so small a sound.

Over and over strained the strangely-met foes in silence, and presently they struggled up, barehanded, face to face, for Maren had dropped her rifle when she fell. As they whirled into a more open space the light from the fire struck through the foliage and glistened on a tuft of white hair on the swarthy temple before her.

"Hola! DesCaut!" gasped the girl.

"Oho! I win!"

For, with the sudden illumination, she forgot for a moment the present and DesCaut; for it was the turncoat awaked from a drunken sleep apart, who pushed swiftly forward, took the moment's advantage of her hesitation, and pinioned her arms to her sides.

She might still have had a chance, for she was as strong as he, but that he raised his voice in a call for help.

Thus it was that, in less time than the telling, Maren Le Moyne, rescuer, leader of the long trail, was dragged, fast bound by a dozen gripping hands, into the firelit space in the great circle, a captive under the eyes of the man she had come to save.

Stumbling, jerked this way and that, one white shoulder gleaming against the brown stain of throat and face where the doeskin garment was pulled awry, she came into the central space before the great fire.

Every inch an Indian woman she looked, with the no-wak-wa berries darkening her bright cheeks, her moccasins and beaded garment belted with wampum got from the Indians by Henri, save for one thing, no Indian woman in all the wilderness wrapped her braids around her head and pinned them with whittled pegs. There alone had she blundered.

As the renegades loosed her and dropped away, leaving her alone in the appalling light, for one instant she flung her hands over her face.

The quick disaster stunned her.

There was no longer hope within her for the moment. But, with the rise of the roar of triumph, that part of her nature which joyed in the facing of odds snatched down her hands, lifted her head, and set the old fires sparkling in her eyes.

"White! White! White!" was the cry lifting on all sides. "A white woman of the Settlements! Wis-kend-jac has sent the White Doe! A sign! A sign! The Great Spirit would know the slayer of Negansahima!"

"The White Doe shall choose!"



CHAPTER XXIII THE PAINTED POST

When McElroy's eyes fell upon the woman he loved the breath was stopped in his throat. For a moment it seemed he would suffocate with the surge of emotions that choked him. Then a great sigh filled his lungs and a cry was forced from him which pierced the uproar like an arrow.

"Maren!" he cried, in anguish; "Maren!"

It drew her eyes as the pole the faithful needle, and across the fire they stared wide-eyed at each other.

Then De Courtenay's silver voice cut them apart.

"Again, Ma'amselle!" he cried, with the old magic of his smile. "Do you bring by any chance a red flower to the council of the Nakonkirhirinons?"

But the Indians closed in around her, pulling and plucking at her with eager fingers, and they saw her fighting among them like a man.

McElroy for the first time loosed his tongue in blasphemy and cursed like a madman, tugging at the bonds which held him.

"'Tis all in a day's march, M'sieu," said De Courtenay, "and the sweet spirit of Ma'amselle is like to cross the Styx with us."

But for the first time, also, there was in his tone a note of weariness, a breath of sadness that sang under the light words with infinite pathos.

The new attraction drew the crowd, and the old ones were left in solitude, while the Nakonkirhirinons surged and scrambled for a look at the white woman fallen from a clear sky, leagues from where they had seen her. Half-breeds, dissolute renegades, and Indians, they pushed and peered and in many a face was already burning the excitement of her beauty, especially those of the savage Bois-Brules.

McElroy prayed aloud to God for the heavens to fall, for some great disaster.

But soon it became apparent that something of importance was to take place. A hundred headmen gathered in knots and there was dissension and brawling and once near a riot, while the girl stood in a circle of malodorous, leering humans with her back against a tree, warding off hands with man-like blows.

There was no order in the tribe. Negansahima, whose iron hand had ruled with power and justice above the average, was dead. The new chief had not yet come into power with fitting ceremony, and thus the old men of the tribe were for the moment authority, and, as too many cooks spoil the broth, so too many rulers breed dissension.

But finally a conclusion was reached.

A hundred hands scurried into preparation and the shouts were filled with anticipation.

In the open space a post was set up, tall as a man's head and some two feet thick, adzed flat on one side and painted in two sections, perpendicularly, one half in red, the other in black. A medicine man, hideous in adornments of buffalo horns and bearskin, approached De Courtenay and with a feather painted on his bare breast a circle of black with little red flames within.

McElroy was decorated in like manner, save that his circle was red and it enclosed a death-maul, a dozen little arrows, and two knives.

Thus was foreshadowed the manner of their death.

Then arose a babble of voices.

"The White Doe! The White Doe that runs in the forest! Now shall She who Follows decide!"

And into the midst of the vast circle once more Maren Le Moyne was brought. She stood panting as they drew back and left her, and McElroy looked upon her as he had never looked upon living being in all his days.

There was the same high head, shining in the light, the same tall form sweet in its rounded womanhood, the same strong shoulders, and from them hung the white garment that he had carried to her door that day, in spring. He had wondered then if he would ever see it cling to the swelling breast, set up the round throat from its foamy fringe. And thus he saw it again as he had dreamed, though, Holy Mother! in what sad plight!

She had told him she would wear it. She had relied upon it to help her get to De Courtenay! Of what depth and glory must be the love that sent her after the savages! Even in the stress of the moment the old pain came back an hundredfold. But events went forward and he had soon no time to think.

They drew a line upon the earth as they had done before, squabbling over its distance from the painted post; Bois-Brules, their keen eyes gleaming, haggling for a greater stretch, and presently Maren stood upon that line and they had pressed into her hand a bright new hatchet, one of those bought from McElroy himself in the first days of trading.

Then an Indian, naked and painted like a fiend, whose toes turned out, stepped forth and spoke in good English.

"Woman Who Follows," he said distinctly, "one of these two dogs is a murderer,—having killed the Great Chief when his people came in peace to trade at the Fort. Therefore, one of them must die. The Nakonkirhirinons take a skin for a skin,—not two skins for one. So did the Great Chief teach his people. But none know which hand is red with his blood. For two sleeps and a sun have the braves given them the tests,—the Test of the Flying Knives, the Test of the Pine Splinters, the Test of the Little Lines, but neither has shown Colour of the Dog's Blood. Therefore, justice waits. Now has Wiskend-jac, the Great Spirit, sent the White Doe from the forest to decide. Throw, White Woman, and where the tomahawk strikes shall Death sit. Hi-a-wo!"

The renegade stepped back and a silence like death itself fell upon the assembly.

Then did the colour drain out of the soft cheeks under the berry stain and the girl from Grand Portage stand fingering the bright hatchet in her hand. Her eyes went to McElroy's face and then to that of the cavalier leaning forward between his swinging curls, and both men saw the shine that was like light behind black marble, so mystic was it and thrilling, beginning to flicker in them.

"Bravo!" cried De Courtenay, his brilliant face aglow with the splendid hazard. "Bravo! We are akin, Ma'amselle,—both venturers, and my blood leaps to your spirit! Throw, Sweetheart, throw! And may the gods of Chance guide your hand!"

"Think not of me, Maren!" cried McElroy, in deadly earnest. "You owe me naught! Throw for M'sieu, whose peril is my doing!"

For many moments she stood so, fingering the white handle of the weapon, and there was no sound in all the vast assemblage save the crackle of the flames. Then they saw her muscles tauten throughout her whole young body, saw her draw herself up to her full height, and again for a second's space she stood still. In that moment she had deliberately put herself back in the surging turmoil of Grand Portage, was listening to the words of old Pierre Vernaise: "Well done, Little Maid! Again now! Into the cleft! Into the cleft! Ah-a! Little One, well done! Alas, but you beat your old teacher!"—was feeling again the surge of a childhood triumph which scorned to bring nearer that wilderness of her dreams.

With a swift motion her arm shot up and forward and the tomahawk left her hand, flying straight as an arrow for the target. It struck with a clean impact and stood, the handle a little raised and the point well set in the green wood. There was a rush of the medicine men, who seemed to act as judges, and then a silence. Peering, bending near to look closer, they gathered with confusion of voices and presently stepped back, that all might see.

Neither in black nor red, but directly between the two, the blade cleaved cleanly down the dividing-line.

They surged forward, gathering round like flies with buzzing and excitement, examining it from all sides, while the girl stood upon the line with her hands shut hard beside her.

She did not glance again at the two men beside the fire.

A sachem pulled out the hatchet and carried it back to her, while the circle formed and widened again.

Again she stood at poise, again they saw the tension of her body, again the little wait, while the two men held their breath and De Courtenay's eyes were shining like stars.

"A fitting close!" he was saying to himself, in that joy which was of his venturer's soul and knew not time or place. "Heart of my Life! What a close to a merry span!"

Again the swift, sure motion, unmeasured of the brain, coming out of habit and pure instinct, again the "thud" of the strike, again the rush, and again the wondering buzz of talk.

Once more the hatchet stood upon the line between the black and the red, directly in its own cleft!

There was wondering comment, gesticulation, and swarthy faces turned upon the woman on the line.

Once more the sachem in his waving feathers and tinkling ornaments drew the blade from the post and gravely carried it back to her.

Excitement was riding high in the eager faces bending forward on all sides, and everywhere a growing admiration. A tribe of prowess themselves, the Nakonikirhirinons knew a clever feat when they saw it.

For the third time the tall woman in the beaded garment took the hatchet and squared her shoulders.

"What does it mean?" McElroy was thinking wildly; "why does she not save him while there is time?" And, even as the words went through his brain, something snapped therein and he was conscious of the circle of faces in the forest edge waving in grotesque undulations, of the arm of Maren as it straightened forward, of the flash of the hatchet as it flew for the painted post, and then of great darkness sewn with a thousand stars.

As Maren had raised her hand for the throw, from somewhere out of the darkness behind the fire a stone death-maul had hurtled, aimed at her wrist, but he who threw was sorry of sight as a drunken man, for it struck the head of McElroy instead and he sagged down against the moosehide thongs, even as the hatchet once more clicked snugly in its former cleft.

Then from all the concourse there went up a shout, half in anger and half in wild applause.

"Nik-o-men-wa!" they cried; "the Thrower of the Seven Tribes! But the White Doe plays with the decree of Gitche Manitou! Bring the spear! Fetch forth the spears, oh, Men of Wisdom!"

But in the midst of the excitement a figure walked slowly forth in the light and held up a hand for silence.

It was Edmonton Ridgar.

Reluctantly they obeyed, sullenly, as if bound by a bond against their will.

In the sudden hush he spoke.

"What do ye here, my brothers?" he asked, and waited.

There was no reply from the mass before him.

"Wherefore is the spirit of my Father vexed that it disturbs my watch inside the death-lodge?"

The small rustling of the excited crowd ceased in every quarter.

They stilled themselves in a peculiar manner.

"Oh, ye sachems and Men of Wisdom," he said, turning to the headmen gathered together, "come ye to the tepee of Negansahima and behold what ye have done!"

Slowly, as he had come, the chief trader of De Seviere turned about and passed out of the light. One by one, in utter silence, their faces changed in a moment into masks of uneasiness, the sachems and medicine men rose and followed. In the wavering shadows thrown by the central fire the big tepee stood in awesome majesty. Ridgar raised the flap and entered, dropping it as the savages filed in to the number of all it would hold.

"See!" he said dramatically.

Over the bier of piled skins which held the wrapped and smoke-dried figure of the dead chief there danced upon the darkness, eerie in pale-green living fire, the ghost of the crested and sweeping head-dress that he had worn in life.

There was never a word among them, but, with one accord, after one awe-struck look at the ghostly thing, they fled the lodge in a mass.

For several moments Ridgar stood in the darkness as those outside peered fearfully in, and, when the last moccasin had slipped silently away, he reached up and took down the fearsome thing, folding it beside the chief.

"We were wise together, old friend," he said sadly; "would I had your knowledge and your power."

Outside the word was spreading wildly.

"The spirit of Negansahima rests not in the lodge! The medicine men have not dreamed true! Silence in the camp while They who Dream repair to the forest fastnesses and seek true wisdom!"

And while the sachems and the headmen, the beaters of the tom-toms, and those who tended the Sacred fires of the Dreamers formed into procession and slowly filed out into the forest, Edmonton Ridgar drew a long breath of relief. Maren had postponed the sure culmination of the tests by her clever feat, he had postponed it a little longer by his own. Full well he knew that the girl could not go on forever after the manner of her beginning. She knew the hatchet, but would she know the spear, the arrow, and the Test of the Flaming Ring? Sooner or later she would fail, and then would come the last orgy of the rites of a Skin for a Skin. He thought of the whimsical fate which so oddly gave the "Pro pelle cutem" of the H. B. C. to this unknown tribe of the North, and flayed one with the other.

This night was the last wherein there lay one chance of help for the two men and this woman who had so strangely followed from the post, and he lay in the darkness of the death-lodge watching the hushing of the camp, the loosing of the captives, the carrying of his factor, a limp figure, to the lodge of captives on the edge, the leading thither of De Courtenay and Maren.

"Fool woman!" he said in his heart; "sweet, brave, loving fool with the woman's heart and the man's simple courage!"



CHAPTER XXIV THE STONE TO THE FOOT OF LOVE

Long Ridgar lay in the darkness listening to the hushed sounds that came from lodge and dying fire—vague, awed sounds, that presently died into silence as night took toll of humanity and sleep settled among the savages.

Here and there low gutturals droned into the stillness, and at the west there was oath and whispered comment where the Bois-Brules camped together. Not wholly under the spell of mystery were these half-breeds, but restless and suspicious under the conflicting promptings of their mixed blood. Slower than the Indians were they to obey the mandate of silence and peace that the Spirits of Dreams might descend upon the forest, but at last they were quiet, the tires burned down to red heaps of coals, then to white ashes, the great fire in the centre flamed and died and flamed again like some vindictive spirit striving for vengeance in the grip of death, and the utter stillness of the solitude fell thick as a garment on all the wilderness. It seemed to Ridgar that only himself in all the earth was awake and watching, save perhaps the two guards pacing without a sound the lodge of the captives, and those two within, so oddly brought near.

As for McElroy, his friend of friends, an aching fear tugged in his heart that he had waited too long for the chance to help, that the patient strength was sapped at last, that the end had come. He had seen the flight of the maul, the sagging of the sturdy figure.

Who had thrown it, if not that brute DesCaut? Who save DesCaut was so keen on the trail of the factor and the girl? True, De Courtenay was his latest master, and his spoiling of Maren's aim might as easily send the blade into the black as the red, but in either case he would cause her to decide the death she was trying so bravely to postpone.

DesCaut, surely.

The stars wheeled in their endless march, the well-known ones of the forenight giving place to strangers of the after hours, and Ridgar had begun to move with the caution of the hunted, inch by inch, out from the shelter of the lodge, when he felt a hand steal from the darkness and touch him with infinite care. He lay still and presently a voice whispered,

"M'sieu Ridgar?

"Aye?" breathed Ridgar.

"'Tis I,—Marc Dupre from De Seviere."

"Voila! Another! Are there more of you?"

"I would know first, M'sieu,—where is your heart, with savage or Hudson's Bay?"

"Fair question, truly. I but now am started for yonder lodge on quest of their deliverance, though without hope. Your appearance lends me that."

"Sacre! 'Tis done already. Listen, M'sieu, with all your ears. Just beyond earshot, up the river to the south there lies a big canoe, with at its nose for instant action two men of Mowbray's brigade, while a hundred yards inland another waits, armed and ready to cover a hurried flight. There needs but loosing of those yonder, M'sieu, and here are we. Two Indians pace the lodge.... You one, me one. What easier?

"Many things, my young hot-blood. Yet it is our only way. Here are death-mauls,—two. Take you,—they make no sound, provided a practised hand is behind. Strike near and ease the fall, there are those who sleep lightly here. Even the earth has ears to-night."

"Think you Ma'amselle is bound?" whispered Dupre next; "I could not see for the swinging of the factor's body."

"No," replied the trader; "both she and the Nor'wester walked free. But how, for love of Heaven, comes she here?" he added.

Dupre sighed softly in the darkness.

"For love," he said; "for love of a man."

"I had guessed as much,—how how did she pass the many miles of lake and stream and forest? And how overtake us?"

"I brought her. By day and night also, without camp, have we come, aided by canoe-men from Mr. Mowbray's brigade, which we met on the eastern shore of Winnipeg coming down from York, bound for the Assiniboine and Cumberland House."

"But for which man? She is unreadable, that woman, though love lives naked in her face."

But a sudden ache had gripped the throat of the young trapper and he did not answer.

"Let us be off, M'sieu," he whispered; "now is the time."

"Aye,—if ever."

Slowly, inch by inch, lifting their bodies that they might not rustle the loose earth and trampled leaves of the camp, Ridgar and Dupre drew forth into the shadows.

Meantime, within the skin tepee, where all three had been summarily placed, Maren Le Moyne sat with her head upon her arms and her arms crossed on her drawn-up knees. Across the opening, just inside the flap, the body of McElroy lay inert, though she knew that a low breath rose and fell within him, for she had laid a hand upon his breast. Beside her, close in the darkness, De Courtenay sat upright and alert, as if no forty hours of torture had hail their will of him. She could hear his quick breathing.

Anguish rode her soul like a thousand imps and the slow tears were falling, bitter as aloes, the symbol of defeat. Every fibre of her being trembled with love of the man stretched beyond; she longed with all the passion of her nature to gather the tawny head in her arms, to kiss the silent lips, the closed eyes. Through the dim cloud that seemed to envelop him since that night at the factory steps, holding her from him like bars of iron, she heard again the ringing sweetness of his voice:

"From this day forth you are mine! Mine only and against the whole world! I have taken you and you are mine!"

False as Lucifer, but, O bon Dieu! sweet as salvation to the lost

A hundred feelings tore at her heart,—bitterness and unbearable scorn of her own blundering, and wild protest against failure, but chief of all was the love that drew her to this man like running water to the sea.

Now that death was near, so near that even now it might be calling his earnest spirit out of the darkness, she would do more—a thousandfold!—to give him life. Only life, the gentle, strong soul of him safe in the sturdy body!

And she had but hastened the end she had come to avert!

"Jesu mia," she prayed, from the shelter of her arms, "help! Help Thou—Lord of Heaven, give him to be spared!"

And not once did she think of the great quest, broken by a meagre waiting by the way; no thought crossed her mind in this crisis of the Land of the Whispering Hills, of an old man, dreaming his dreams in the wilderness.

Thus had love set aside like a bauble the thing for which her life had been lived, for which she had grown and prepared herself in the attainments of men.

She had felt the magic touch of the great mystery, and henceforth she was captive, servant to its will, and its mandate had been service. And here was the end—

A hand touched her shoulder, a hand infinitely soft of pressure, infinitely gentle.

"Ma'amselle," whispered the cavalier in her ear, "one more turn of the wheel of Fate,—and we take the plunge together. Kin are we, truly; kin of the tribe of Daring Hearts. A lioness are you, oh, maid with the Madonna face! No woman, but a creature of the wild, superb in courage and unknown to fear! I saw it in your face that day in De Seviere,—the something alien to the common race, the spark, the light; oh, I know not what it is, save that it is Divine and yet splendidly of the earth! We are matched in heart. Venturers both, and like true venturers we shall take the longest trail with a laugh and our hands together,—and trust to the Aftermath to give us largess of that love which has its beginning in such glorious wise. Pledge me, oh, my Queen of the World!"

With a grace beyond compare he drew her into his arms, silent and velvet soft, light and inimitable in his love way.

In utter astonishment Maren felt his silken curls sweep her cheek, his lips on hers. Her tears were wet on his face. She put up her hands and pushed him loose.

"M'sieu!" she said, "what do you do?"

"Do? Why, bow to the One Woman of my heart," he said; "my Maid of the Red Flower, whom love has led to share my fate."

"In all pity! M'sieu, you do mistake most grievously!"

"What? Was it not confession at the post gate when this painted rabble fell upon us? Or is it still the maiden within fearing the word of love? In such short space, Sweetheart, there is no time for girlish fears. Be strong in that as in the courage of the lone trail. Speak!"

"Speak?" said Maren, with her old calmness; "of a surety, M'sieu. Though I have thrilled at your careless bravery, your laughing daring which, as you say truly, is kin of my heart,—though I have taken your red flowers, yet there is in me no spark of love for you, no thought beyond the admiration of a true son of fortune. That alone, M'sieu."

De Courtenay was staring at her in the blackness of the lodge, his arm fallen loose about her shoulders.

"Name of God!" he whispered wonderingly, "it is not love? Then what, in the living world, has brought you over the waste to this camp of hostile savages?"

"This," said Maren, and she reached a hand to the body of McElroy.

"Sancta Maria! This factor? This heavy-blooded man?... But he did speak of half-requited—Oh, Saints of Heaven! What a jest of the world! The threads of tragedy are tangled into a farce!"

De Courtenay threw up his head and took a silent laugh at the ways of Fate.

"Three fools together! And the riddle's key too late! At least I can set it straight for one—"

He broke his laughing whisper to listen to new sounds without, a dull blow, muffled and heavy, the slight whisper of garments sliding against garments, the crunch and rustle of a body eased down to earth,—nay, two blows, coming at a little interval, and from either end the beat walked by the two guards, and from the southern end there came a grunt, a cry choked in the throat that uttered it. Instantly the venturer was up and at the flap, peering outside. A figure loomed against the stars, paced slowly by with an audible step, passed and turned and passed again.

It was Marc Dupre, an eagle feather, snatched from the quivering form of the guard lying in the darkness by the wall of the lodge, slanting from his head against the heavens.

A little way beyond at the ashes of a fire a warrior stirred, lifted a head, and peered toward the tepee of captives; then, satisfied that all was well, lay down again to slumber. Back and forth, back and forth paced the solitary watcher. De Courtenay within was quivering from head to foot with the knowledge that something was happening. As he stood so the pacing figure halted a moment before the opening.

"S-s-t!" it whispered; "warn Ma'amselle!" then walked away.

Swift on the words another figure crept noiselessly to the lodge door.

"M'sieu," said Edmonton Ridgar, beneath his breath, "give me the factor's shoulders. Do you take his feet and follow,—softly, for your life. Bring the maid."

De Courtenay stepped back, groped for Maren, took her head in his hands, and brought her ear up to his lips.

"Rescue!" he breathed; "Ridgar and Dupre. We carry our friend of the fort here. Follow."

He loosed her and bent to lift McElroy.

With all her courage leaping at the turn, Maren quietly raised the flap and in a moment they were all outside among the sleeping camp.

With measured tread Dupre came up to them, walked with them as they moved silently back, and was on the turn when Maren touched his arm.

"This way," she whispered; "straight ahead."

One more step,—two,—the youth took beside her. It seemed that the heart within him was breaking in his agony. The shadows of the wood were drawing very near, the chances of escape multiplying with every step.

Another sweet moment of nearness and the misty white figure beside him would fade into the darkness forever, pass forever out of his sight.

Dearer than all the joys of Paradise was that black head, that wondrous face with its strength and its tenderness so adoringly mingled. The one supreme thing in all the universe was this woman,—and she was passing. With an involuntary motion he touched her softly and she stopped instantly, even at that great moment. It thrilled through him, that quick perception of his desire.

"Ma'amselle," he whispered, "fare thee well!"

She caught his hand swiftly, pulling him forward. "Eh?" she said. "What mean you?"

There was startled anxiety in her voice and the heart of Dupre leaped exultantly.

"Naught," he lied bravely, "save that I must hang behind for a moment or so to cover any sound with my sentry's step, but I cannot part from you even so small a space without,—God-speed. Hurry now, Ma'amselle! They pass from sight!"

He pushed her gently after, but she turned against his hand.

"Come!" she commanded; "I will not leave you!"

"Nay,—how long, think you, before utter silence awakes that mob? You must be at the water's edge before I follow. Go now,—quick, for love of Heaven!"

He pushed her away and turned back toward the camp, pacing slowly by the huddled heap that attested Ridgar's hand, past the empty lodge, and on to the northern turn, where lay that other figure prone upon the earth, yet still quivering in every muscle. He died hardly, this strong North warrior, and Dupre almost regretted the need, though the trapper of the Pays d'en Haut took without thought whatever of life menaced his own and considered the deed accomplishment.

Back and forth, back and forth he walked the beat of the watcher and a holy joy played over his soul like a light from the beyond. He turned his mind to that hour in the woods, to the memory of the lips of Maren Le Moyne, the warm sweetness of her beaded breast, the tender affection of her embrace, and the present faded into that land of dreams wherein walk those who love greatly.

Meanwhile Ridgar and De Courtenay pushed silently forward with the limp body of McElroy swinging between, while the girl stepped softly in their trail, straining her ears for sounds from the camp, and carrying the only weapon among them, a rifle which Ridgar had taken from the Indian he had killed.

"To the east," she whispered, "down the little defile to the river, then south along the shore,—it is shingled and open,—to the canoe. Walk fast as you can, M'sieu."

It was riskful going through the strip of woods, but when they entered the little canon that cleft a ridge of cliffs, rising impudently out of a level land, they mended their pace. Here was solid, dry rock beneath them, walls of rock on either side, and a narrow strip of star-strewn sky above.

"Thank God!" Ridgar was saying, under his breath, "the distance widens!"

But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than a cold chill shot through him, and Maren pushed forward with compelling hands on De Courtrnay's shoulders.

"Hurry, M'sieu!" she cried; "they have awakened!"

"Hi! Hi! Hi-a! He-a! Hi!"

Danger was waking in the camp behind, first with one sharp cry, then another and another, until throat after throat took up the sound and the yapping turned into a roar.

They were but half-way through the narrow gorge. The two men broke into a stumbling run. Ridgar was going backwards, half-turned to see ahead, and suddenly his foot struck a loose pebble and he fell headlong. De Courtenay stumbled, and in the scramble to right themselves they lost more time than they could spare. Before they were up and started, a shrill voice came into the gorge, yelling its "Hi! Hi! Hi-a!"

De Courtenay suddenly stopped.

"'Tis useless!" he said breathlessly; "We'll never make it! Here,—do you take my place, Ma'amselle!"

He caught Maren's shoulder and pushed her forward.

"Take his knees,—so! You are strong,—give me the rifle. Make haste, Ridgar,—Ma'amselle!"

He bowed in the darkness.

"The last turn of the wheel, Ma'amselle,—and I take the plunge alone. All in the day's march!"

With the last words he turned back to face the way they had come, shook his long curls back across his shoulder, and lifted the rifle to his cheek.

The footsteps of Ridgar and Maren were echoing down the rocky gap.

It had been a promising escape, a neat plan well carried out, and there was but one thing lacking to its fulfilment,—another step to pace the deserted lodge of captives.

Across in the darkness among the Bois-Brules one ear had lain close to the tell-tale earth, one evil face peered unsleeping among the dusky shapes of the camp, a swarthy face with a white lock on its temple.

Keener than all the rest, Bois DesCaut, driven by personal hate, listened to all the sounds of night.

And he had heard a changing in the steps that passed and repassed, that separated and came together, before that lodge across the sleeping mob,—a change, a little silence, and then the steps again that presently thinned to ONE,—one step that paced evenly, with a measured tread, a moccasined step like that of an Indian, yet somehow alien in its firmness and swing.

One step where there should have been two,—and the half-breed trapper raised himself and gave the first "Hi! Hi!"

Like startled wolves they were up all around him in a moment and down on that empty tepee with its one sentry!

A torch flared redly with the sudden revealing of a slim youth in buckskins and two Nakonkirhirinon warriors deep in the Great Sleep.

What was there for Marc Dupre in that moment of roused fury,—that tense moment of awaking rage, of baffled rights of payment?

What but death too swift and unrestrained for torture?

A dozen weapons reached him from as many crowding hands and he went down on the last earth her feet had trod, the spot where she had last touched his hand.

Her golden voice, sweet with its sliding minors, was in his ears, the sweetness of her lips on his.

"A stone to your foot, Ma'amselle," he whispered, as the darkness broke and the stars began to dance on a sky of blood-red fire; "serve you with my life,—no better fate,—oh, I love you! I—a stone to your foot,—Ma'amselle!"

And at that moment Maren Le Moyne, straining every muscle of her young body to save the man she loved, looked swiftly back, having left the defile to stagger, stumbling, southward to where Mowbray's men waited with the canoe.

She saw the sudden flaming of the torch, the slim, boyish figure in its buckskins, the ring of faces, and the flash of weapons; saw the forms close in and the slim boy go down like a reed in the winter storm, and a cry broke from her lips as De Courtenay's rifle began to sound in the gorge.

With tears on her cheeks and her face drawn hard, she raised her head and gave a panther's far-off call.



CHAPTER XXV ANSWERED PRAYERS

Out of the forest at the signal came running Alloybeau and McDonald and Frith, alert, ready for anything, wondering beyond wonder at the call that meant deliverance. Not one of them had thought to see again this strange, intrepid woman who pierced the forbidden places and wound men like Mr. Mowbray around her fingers. It would have been a toss-up for men to attempt what she had done.

She was coming to the canoe, and she was victorious. Yet they knew that death was up and at her heels, from the sound of the shots.

The big canoe was in the water, the men were ready, paddle in hand, with Wilson knee-deep in the stream ready to push off, when along the reach of shore there came that sorry ending to the gallant venture,—Ridgar and the girl, staggering, stumbling, trying to make what haste they could, with swinging roughly between them the apparently lifeless body of the factor of Fort de Seviere.

Breathless and exhausted they reached the boat. Brilliers and Wilson reached for their burden, threw it into the bottom, and hauled Maren on her knees among the thwarts.

There was a shove, a word, a dip of the paddles, and the canoe shot out to the deeper waters, and none aboard her saw the form of Edmonton Ridgar draw back into the shelter of tangled vines on shore.

"Give me a blade!"

From the rocking bottom Maren was reaching for a paddle, got it, thrust by some one into her hands, and was cleaving water with the best of them, deep stroke after deep stroke, the rush and suck of the eddy in her ears.

In the cold blue darkness the stream whispered and warned like some old witch at her cauldron, the night was clammy, and behind the new fires flared against the towering trees.

A babble of voices told of pursuit,—shouts and gutturals that strung out from the camp all through the gorge and were beginning to flow with the river.

"Only a matter of time,—a little time," thought Wilson, at the prow, but never a word was uttered in the canoe.

Exerting every atom of strength, calling on all the will-power aboard, they shot forward into the night and the current.

The noise behind increased, as the tones of a bell blown by the wind increase when the wind sets in one's direction.

"Not now!" Maren was saying to herself. "Not now,—when we are so far toward the winning! Not now,—oh, Friend of my heart! why was that price demanded? Holy Mary rest him, that young Marc Dupre—and send deliverance for this—"

Ahead the river swept around a turn. Keeping close to the shore they caught shallow water and cut round into a wider opening.

The cries behind veered and deadened, and suddenly Wilson in the prow raised his blade.

Maren leaned behind him and looked into the shadows.

On every side dark shapes covered the face of the stream like water-bugs, from every side there came the "whoo-sh-st-whoo-sh" of dipping paddles, the little plank and rattle of their shafts against gunwales.

They had glided into the midst of a flotilla of canoes travelling at night and in silence.

The maid from Grand Portage threw up her head.

"In among them," she whispered, "quick! Deep as we can!"

"But, Ma'amselle," whispered back Wilson, "they may be Indians."

"What matters? A chance is a chance, and who would not risk its turning?"

Unconsciously she was quoting that kinsman whose dauntless courage and love of venture had found its last thrill in covering her retreat in the gorge.

"In among them! Deep!"

Softly, as one of their number, the fugitive craft crept out to midstream and forward, usurping boldly place and speed.

Leaning low at each stroke the little company strained eye and ear for sight and sound, but, look as they might, they saw no eagle feathers against the stars, heard no word or whisper.

Barely had they reached their uncertain sanctuary when the light of torches shot southward across the bend and next moment circled, a far-reaching arm, to spread out and illumine the river broadcast as the Nakonkirhirinons swept into view, their savage faces peering under the raised flambeaux, their eyes like fiery points—searching their prey.

It fell on all the river, that light, on the running waters disturbed by myriad blades of white ash, on the banked background of the trees, on the drooping foliage at the stream's edge,—frail triflers of the wilderness, stooping from the sweet winds of Heaven to the water's wanton kiss,—and on a swarm of canoes, each manned by full complement of men, most of whose faces were eagle-featured and dark, blackeyed and high-cheekboned, though here and there were the fair hair and white skin of white men.

Odd, indeed, was the effect of this tableau on the Indians under the torches. They had come for one lone canoe,—to find a horde; for one man and one woman,—to fall upon a brigade.

They halted and the distance widened between.

And then the flotilla parted at a word of command from the darkness ahead and a boat came back among them. It passed close to the fugitives, and Maren saw a tall man with a square chin, who stood up in it.

When it reached the fringe it went on out into the open water toward the halted canoes of the Nakonkirhirinons, on whose eager faces sat a sort of stupid awe.

"What do yez want?" called the tall man sternly, as he swept face to face with the foremost canoe in which stood a headman of the tribe. "Whyfore is all this bally-hoo wid th' lights?"

There was no answer and he roared at them like a lion

"Can yez not shpake, ye haythen?"

Whereat a canoe glided from the back shadows and the voice of Bois DesCaut came in its broken English,

"A boat,—M'sieu,—we seek a boat that but now escaped from camp with a murderer aboard,—one who killed in cold blood the chief Negansahima back at the post of De Seviere. My brothers travel to the Pays d'en Haut that justice may be done. We only seek the murderer."

The tall man stood in silence a moment and glared at the scene, at the excited faces, the gleaming eyes, the shifting glance of the spokesman.

"A likely sthory!" he said presently. "An' who, may I make bould to ask, is this murderer?"

DesCaut squirmed a moment in silence.

"Who,—did ye say?"

"A man, M'sieu,—a-a-trapper."

"One lone man? Troth I commend his valour in evadin' such a rabble o' hell-spawn! An' what from did he escape,—th' sthake an' th' stretchline?"

"Justice, M'sieu,—his life for the chief's."

"Ho-ho! From th' looks o' yer fri'nds, me lad, I'm thinkin' 'twill be justice wid her eyes shut!... But ye may turrn back an' search the forest,—we have no sthrangers in our party."

DesCaut glowered at him a moment and spoke to the headmen around in their speech. There were threatening gutturals and gestures.

The flotilla was small compared to that of the tribe back at the gorge, they would know, at any rate.

"They say, if M'sieu will let one canoe go through his people with the torches, all will be well. Otherwise,—five hundred warriors, M'sieu, can take their will with two hundred."

"Aye?" said the tall man, jerking his head around. He had been scanning the mass of his own craft, packed behind him, fading into the shadows out of the light. There was a peculiar look in his eyes when he faced DesCaut again, a thrust to his square jaw. In that backward look he had caught sight of the brown face of Maren Le Moyne, the white garment, glittering with its beads,—but he had seen, too, the crown of braids, wrapped round her head after the manner of the white woman.

"Go yer ways," he said; "we thravel fast on urgent business,—ye cannot throuble us wid yer lookin' an' pokin'. Tell yer fri'nds—No."

At this there was commotion among the Indians. A hurried consultation took place, with indrawing of canoes under the flambeaux, waving arms, and angry gestures.

"Then, M'sieu,—we come,—make way!" It was DesCaut, important and ugly.

"No, ye don't, me lad. Shwing back The Little Devil, bhoys!"

The leader's canoe shifted sidewise and another craft, heavy, lumbersome, and vastly bigger than the light boats of the rest poked its nose into its place,—and that nose was brass and round with a gaping maw,—a small cannon, scarcely big enough for the name, but a roaring braggart for all that.

"Belch, me darlin', if ye have th' belly-ache!" cried this tall man, and, without more warning, there was a tremendous flash and detonation, a mighty flying of the clear waters just under the bows of the foremost canoes of the Indians.

There was hiss and sputter of the torches, an upward leap of canoe and savage, capsize and panic and fear, and the night screamed with many voices.

"Formation again, lads!" called the sturdy voice of the leader. "We do be wastin' time wid these haythen!"

The canoe rounded, passed up between the others, which closed in behind, and the cannon-boat lumbered into place in the rear.

As he passed the strangers in their midst the tall man looked hard at Maren, the five men, and leaned out a bit to see what lay in the bottom.

"A close shave!" he said; "kape close in the middle an' shpake me at camp in the marnin'."

The mass of dark objects, drawing out of the light, moved forward and, with a rush of intuition, the girl knew that all danger was past and that safety hovered over them like the luminous wings of an angel.

"Holy Master!" she cried within, "Thou didst answer my prayer,—but at what cost! Oh, Lord of Heaven, what cost!"

Then she dropped her blade and, under cover of the darkness, sat back upon her heels, covered her face with her hands, and wept.

In the silence that had fallen deep again, save for the lessening tumult behind, her weeping sounded to the outermost canoe low and awful, hard and terrible as the weeping of a man.

She did not even feel if the breath was still in McElroy.

Friendship was taking its toll of love.



CHAPTER XXVI SANCTUARY

"'Twas yer leader I meant, lassie, should rayport to me. Is it he I saw yez rollin' out like a bag o' beans?"

"Nay, M'sieu," said Maren Le Moyne, standing before the tall man in the flush of dawn at the morning camp, her eyes red-rimmed and the curling corners of her mouth drooped and sad; "what poor leader there is among us has been myself."

"Eh?"

All along the river bank were little fires, their blue smoke curling up to the blue sky above, the bustle and fuss of preparation for the morning meal. At one place in the centre of camp two women, their appearance that of great fatigue, were languidly directing the work of a couple of Indians. An abundance of truck was everywhere—utensils for cooking, clothing, and blankets out of all reason to one used to the trail.

These things had not escaped Maren as she came through them in search of the leader. They all set his status in her mind, told her much of the history of her rescuers.

"Eh?" he said in surprise again; "you the leader? An' whatlike was the evil hap that placed ye in among that rabble o' painted beauties, may I ask? An' how comes a slip of a lass"—he looked her over from head to heel with his sharp grey eyes; "—well, not so much a slip, still a colleen—like you wid th' command o' men in this part o' th' world?"

"Of a surety you may ask, M'sieu, and it will be my happiness to tell you, since but for you and your quick help, given without knowledge, we should be now in sorry plight.

"The man you saw taken from the canoe is Monsieur Anders McElroy, Factor of Fort de Seviere on the Assiniboine, and of the Hudson's Bay Company."

"Faith of me fathers! Say ye so! A man of our own men!"

"Aye. Then you are also of the Company? Good! Surely have we fallen on the lap of fortune.... Those Indians, Nakonkirhirinons from the far north and strangers in this country, came to De Seviere to trade. For two—three dais, maybe more,—I have lost track of time, M'sieu,—they passed up and down at the trading,—camped on the shore, and all seemed well, though they were wild and shy as partridges. One man among them seemed to wear the cloak of civilisation,—Negansahima the chief.

"Then one day at dusk,—it was a soft day, gold and sweet, M'sieu, and soft, with all the post at the great gate watching the Indians,—there were many,—four or five hundred warriors and as many women and children,—this day there was,—a tragedy. Something happened,—a trifle."

The girl stopped a moment and a sigh caught her breath.

"Just a trifle—but two men fought at the gate, the factor and another—a Nor'wester from the Saskatchewan,—a long-haired venturer,—a man from Montreal, but a brave man, M'sieu, oh, a very brave man! They fought and there was the discharge of a pistol,—and—the shot went wild. It slew the good chief, M'sieu. There was uproar,—they swarmed upon the two and bound them."

Maren's eyes were growing large with the remembered excitement of that moment.

The tall Irishman was watching her keenly.

"They bound them and struck away to the north, taking them along, and the burden of their cry was, 'A skin for a skin!'

"They brought them so far,—they would have reached their own country but for a band of Bois-Brules, who joined them some suns back with that red liquor whose touch is hell to an Indian. They had gone wild, M'sieu; wild!"

She was very weary and she shuddered a bit at the word.

"And,—so,—that is all,—save that we had done that much toward escaping when you found us."

She ceased and looked gravely into his face.

"Howly Moses! I see,—I see! But ye have left a wide rent in th' tale. Wherefore are yez here yerself, lassie?"

"I?" said Maren, swaying where she stood. "I followed, M'sieu."

"Followed? From the Assiniboine? Alone?"

"Nay. There was one came with me,—a youth,—a trapper,—my comrade, my friend. He died yonder in that surging purgatory—"

The tears were welling to her weary eyes.

"The Nor'wester, Alfred de Courtenay, also—We only of that venture are escaped alive,—a sorry showing. The five men who man my boat belong to the brigade under Mr. Mowbray, which we met on Winnipeg. Such is our small history, M'sieu, and all we ask is your protection out of the reach of the Nakonkirhirinons. I take him back to De Seviere,—God knows if he will live to reach it. He lies so still. But I must get him back—"

She ceased and passed her hand across her eyes.

"I must get him back,—I must get him back."

"Aye, aye. Ye come with me. Ye need a woman's hand, girl. Ye're well in yerself."

There was a huskiness to the sharp voice and the man took her by the arm, turning her toward the fire and the two women. She stumbled a step or two in the short stretch.

"I must go back to him, M'sieu!" she protested. "He will need—will need—broth—and a wet cloth to his bruised head—"

"We'll see to him, don't ye fret. It's shlape ye need yerself. Sheila, whativer do ye think o' this! Here's a colleen shlipped through the fingers of those bow-legged signboards and fair done wid heroism an' strategy, an' Lord knows what all, an' off her feet wid tire! Do ye take her an' feed her. Put her to bed on th' blankets an' do for her like yerself knows how, darlint! 'Tis an angel unaware, I'm thinkin'—an' her on Deer River!"

One of the women, a little creature with dark hair and blue eyes, Irish eyes "rubbed in with a smutty finger," came forward and looked up into Maren's stained face, streaked with her tears, her eyes dazed and all but closing with the weariness that had only laid its hand upon her in the last few moments, but whose sudden touch was heavy as lead.

"Say ye so!" she said wonderingly; "a girl! So this was what caused the rumpus in the night! But come, dearie, 'tis rest ye want, sure!"

She laid her and on Maren's arm and there was in its gentle touch something which broke down the last quivering strand of strength within the girl, striving to stand upright.

"Yes, Madame," she said dreamily. "Yes, but he must have—he must have—broth—and a bandage,—wet"

"Sure, sure,—he shall,—but come to the blankets!"

As Maren went down with a long sigh, her limbs shirking the last task of straightening themselves upon the softness of the unwonted couch, the little woman looked up across her at the man with a world of questions in her face.

"Poor darlin'!" she said softly. "Whativer is it, Terence?"

"A heroine, if all she says be thrue, an' as unconscious of it as a new-born babe!"

When Maren awoke the sun was straight overhead and some one had been calling from a distance for a very long time.

"Come, come, asthore! Opin yer eyes! That's it! A little more, now. Wake up, for love av Heaven, or we'll all be overtaken be th' Injuns!"

Ah! Indians! At that she opened her eyes and looked into the pretty blue ones she remembered last.

The little woman was kneeling beside her with an arm about her shoulder, trying to lift her heavy head and falling short in the endeavour.

Maren was too much in her muscled height for the bird-like creature. She sat up at once and looked around. The canoes were in the water, all the miscellaneous luggage had been put aboard, and every one was ready for a new start. Only herself, the blanket bed, and the little woman were unready.

Just below, her own canoe, with Brilliers, Wilson, Frith, McDonald, and Alloybeau in place, waited her presence. She could see, from the elevation of the shore, the stretched form of McElroy in the bottom, a bright blanket beneath him and his fair head pillowed on a roll of leaves. A shelter of boughs hid his face, and for one moment her heart stopped while the river and the woods, the people and the boats whirled together in a senseless blur.

She sprang to her feet.

"Is he—" she faltered thickly, "is he—"

"No, no, dearie! He is like he was, only they have fixed him a bit av a shelther from th' sun. Do ye dhrink this now," she coaxed in her pretty voice; "dhrink it, asthore,—ye'll nade it f'r th' thrip."

She held up a bowl of broth, steaming and sweet as the flesh-pots of Egypt, and Maren took it from her.

"But—did M'sieu—Oh, I have slept when I should have tended him!"

"Ye poor girl. Dhrink,—he has been fed like a babe be me own hands. There!"

There were tears in the little woman's eyes, and Maren took the bowl and drained it clear.

"You are good, Madame," she said, with a long breath. "Merci! How good to those in need! But now am I right as a trivet and shamed that I must fail at the last. Are you ready?"

She picked up the blankets, smiled at the tall man who came for them, and walked with them down to the canoes.

"In th' big boat, lass, wid th' women," said the leader; "'tis more roomy-like."

"I thank you, M'sieu, but I have my place. I cannot leave it." And she stepped in her own canoe.

"Did ye iver behold such a shmile, Terence?" cried the little woman, when the flotilla had strung into shape and the green summer shores were slipping past. "'Tis like the look av th' Virgin in th' little Chapel av St. Joseph beyant Belknap's skirts,—so sad and yet as fair as light!"

And so began with the slipping green shores, the airy summer sky laced with its vanity of fleecy clouds, the backward journey to safety and De Seviere.

The large party travelled at forced time, short camps and long pulls, for, as the little woman told Maren at the next stop, they were hurrying south to Quebec.

"Where th' ships sail out to th' risin' sun, ochone, and Home calls over th' sea,—the little green isle wid its pigs an' its shanties, its fairs an' its frolics, an' the merry face av th' Father to laugh at its weddin's an' cry over its graves. Home that might make a lass forget such a haythen land as this, though God knew if it would ever get out av th' bad dreams at night!

"An' now will ye be afther tellin' us th' sthory av yer adventures, my dear?"

Maren was cooking a broth of wild hen in the little pail of poor Marc Dupre, across the fire, and the little woman was busy watching a bit of bread baking on a smoothed plank. Her companion, a tall, fair-haired woman with pale eyes, light as the grey-green sheen sometimes seen on the waters before a storm, was reclining in tired idleness beside her. This woman had not spoken to Maren, but her cold eyes followed her now with an odd persistence.

"Or is it too wild and sad? If it gives ye pain, don't say a word,—though, wurra! 'tis woild I am to hear!"

Maren looked up, and once more the smile that was stranger to her features played over them in its old-time beauty.

"Nay,—why should I not tell so good a heart as yours?" said the girl simply, and she began at the beginning and told the sorry tale through to its end.

"And so he died, this young trapper with the soul of pearl, and I alone go back to De Seviere with—with M'sieu the factor," she concluded heavily.

"Mother av Heavin! An' which,—forgive me lass,—which man av the three did ye love? For 'tis only love could be behind such deeds as these!"

The ready tears were swimming in the Irishwoman's blue eyes, straight from her warm heart, and she was leaning forward in the intensity of her sympathy and excitement.

"Which, Madame? Why, M'sieu the factor, surely."

And Maren looked into the red heart of the fire.

With a sudden impulse this daughter of Erin dropped her plank in the ashes, and coming swiftly forward, fell on her knees with her arms around the girl's neck.

"Saints be praised!" she cried, weeping openly. "Saints be praised, ye have him safe! An' there can nothin' ha'arm ye now, with us goin' yer ways so close! An' there'll be a weddin' av coorse whin th' poor lad comes round! F'r a flip av ale I'd command Terence to turn aside an' go triumphant entry-in' to this blessid fort av yours and witness th' ceremonies!"

Maren smiled sadly and laid her hand on the black head tucked into her neck. It was a caress, that touch, tender and infinitely sweet, for with the quick heart of her she knew the little woman to be of the gold of earth, and she was conscious of a longing to keep her near, who was so soon to sail "into the risin' sun" and who had been so short a time her friend.

Friend, assuredly, for friendship was not a thing of time, but hearts alike, and they had turned together with the first look.

So they sat a while, these two from the ends of the earth, and the warm Irish heart cleared itself of tears, like April weather, to come up laughing in another moment.

"An' to think ye niver told us your name, asthore!" she said, wiping her eyes; "nor yer home place! Were ye raised in this post av haythins?"

"Maren Le Moyne of Grand Portage. My father—was a smith."

"Of Grand Portage! An' ye are so far inland! I am Sheila O'Halloran, av all Oirland, an' wife to Terence th' same,—yer fri'nd for always, asthore, f'r niver will I be forgettin' this time!"

She turned to the fair woman, smiling and alight.

"Did ye iver dhrame av such romance, my dear?" she asked. "An' isn't it just wonderful to find a real live heroine in th' wilderness?"

The woman was toying with a bunch of grass, winding the slim green blades around her pale fingers, and she looked back with peculiar straightness.

"It is all very wonderful, Sheila, and commands admiration, of course; but, for my part, a strange woman alone on the rivers with a party of men must have something beside her own word to vouch for her before I should take her in with open arms. You are too ready to believe anything. How do you know this venturess is not a—Jezebel?"

For a moment an awful silence fell upon the three, and they could hear the myriad sounds of the evening camp round about.

Then Maren, her eyes wide in amaze, said stupidly:

"Eh,—Madame?"

And the Irishwoman cried: "Frances! For shame!"

But the other was very much composed.

"I am right, all the same,—what woman of modesty would follow a man to the wilderness, confessing brazenly her love? You haven't noticed any hysterics on my part over it,—nor will you. I think it all a very open scandal."

The little woman was flying into a rage of tumbled words and hopeless brogue, but Maren Le Moyne, the blood red to her temples, rose silently, took the pot of broth, and walked away, and never in her life did she hold herself so tall and straight.

As she knelt beside the blanket bed of McElroy, and lifted his helpless head, her eyes were burning sombrely.

"This, too?" she was saying dumbly, within herself. "Is this, too, part of the lesson of life?"

And all through the days that followed, long warm days, with the songs of birds from the gliding shores, the ripple of waters beneath the prow of a canoe, she sat beside the unconscious man and looked at him with dumb yearning.

For love of him,—what would she not have done, what would she not do still for love of him,—he who had sold her for a kiss; and for it there came something,—she could not define it,—something that seemed to live in the atmosphere, to taint the glory of the sunshine, to speak under every word and whisper.

Never again did she cook at the fire with the others, but had her own on the outskirts, and Sheila O'Halloran came and cooked with her, talked and comforted and hovered about Anders McElroy where he lay in a silence like death, his fair face flushed with fever and his strong hands plucking at everything within their reach.

"Don't ye worry, dear, he'll not die. 'Twouldn't be accordin' to th' rights av life,—not afther all ye've done f'r him. He'll opin his blessid eyes some day an' know ye, an' Heaven itself will not be like thim f'r glory."

But Maren only looked tragically down upon him.

What would they say, those eyes that she had thought so earnest, so all-deserving in their eager honesty, if they should open to her alone?

Would they lie as they had done before, with the thought of Francette behind their blue clearness?

Ah, well,—it was all in the day's march.

This day at noon camp she came upon, close to a fallen tree, a wee red flower nodding on its slender stalk. She sighed and broke it.

"In memory of a brave man," she said sadly. "Oh, a very brave man!"



CHAPTER XXVII RETURN

Eastward through the little lakes, across the portages where McElroy was carried by means of pole and blanket swung from sturdy shoulders, they went at hurried pace, and never a man of Maren's small command but watched the sadness of her face, that seemed to grow with the days and to feel an aching counterpart of it within his own heart.

"Take my coat for your head, Ma'amselle," when she rested among the thwarts,—"Let me, Ma'amselle," when she would do some little task. Thus they served her from the old desire that sight of her face had ever stirred in the breasts of men, she who had never played at the game of love, nor knew its simplest trick.

Southward, presently, up the rivers hurrying to the great bay at the north, and at last out upon the broad waters of Winnipeg, and never for an hour had McElroy's wandering soul come back to his suffering body. Day by day Maren tended him, feeding him as one feeds a helpless babe, shielding him from the sun by her own shadow when the branches gathered at morn withered ere noon, wetting the fair head with its waving sunburnt hair with water dipped from overside, and praying constantly for his life.

As they neared the southern end, where Winnipeg narrows like the neck of a bottle, his tongue loosened from its silence and he began to babble and talk in broken sentences, and it was all about De Courtenay and a remorse that ate the troubled soul.

"I owe you apologies, M'sieu,—'tis a sorry plight and I alone am to blame. And yet I have a score,—gladly would I take my will of you for that one fault,—another time,—another place. Still have I no right, save as one man who,—But I have a plan,—one may escape,—listen—when I grapple with this guard, do you make for the river—with all speed—My God! My God! M'sieu! Why did you not run?" And so he muttered and sighed, and Maren bent above with wide eyes.

Something there was between these two, some enmity that followed even into the land of shadows and yet held them gentlemen through it all, offering and rejecting some chance of escape. A weary, weary tangle.

Again he would fancy himself back in De Seviere and always there was De Courtenay with his smiling face and tantalizing beauty.

"Welcome, M'sieu, to our post! Seldom do we meet so gay a guest!"

Often the wandering words would stumble among his accounts at the factory and he would give directions to the clerks, and then Ridgar's name would come, only to carry him instantly to the camp of the savages on Deer River.

"Edmonton,—friend of my heart,—alone! and you pass me without speech! Ah,—that look! That look! I'd stake my soul—"

And once in the cool twilight of an ended day, with the tall trees above and the river lapping below, he cried out her name,

"Maren!" and once again, "Maren!" with a world of change between the two words.

The first plunged the girl's heart to her throat with its passion, the second chilled her like a cool wind.

And all at once he said, after a pause, "What is it, little one?"

So passed the days of the return.

Hour by hour the bright waters of the lake spoke to the girl with voices of regret and sadness. The blue sky above seemed to mirror the dark face of Marc Dupre, the wind from the shores to be his low voice, each passing shadow among the trees his slender figure returning from the hunt for her.

Her heart was sore that Fate had willed it so, and yet, looking down at the face of this man at her feet, she knew it had to be and that she would do again all that she had done.

And ever before her passed the scornful face of the fair woman who had set the little undertone to all the world.

It troubled her, and for hours together she sat in silence reasoning it all out, while Mowbray's men dipped the shining blades and here and there the voyageurs and Indians who wore no feathers sang snatches of song, now a chanson of the trail and rapid, again a wordless monotony of savage notes.

The evening camps were short spaces of blessed quietude and converse when Sheila O'Halloran sat beside her and they talked of many things,—chiefly the dear little Island whose green sod would soon again receive the feet of "herself an' Terence."

"'Tis thankful I am, me dear, to be out av this forsaken land alive wid me hair on me head instid av on a hoop painted green wid little red arrows on th' stretched shkin inside! 'Tis a sorry counthry an' fit f'r no woman, but whin Terence must come on some mysterious business av th' government,—an' niver, till this minute, accushla, do I know whut it is,—a cryin' shame 'tis, too, wid me, his devoted wife!—I must come along or die. Wurra! Many's th' time I thought I'd do th' thrick here! But now are th' dangers passin' wid ivery mile,—hark to th' men singin'! 'Tis bad business whin men do not sing at th' day's work. 'Tis glad I am f'r safe deliverance from that counthry av nightmares wid its outlandish name,—Athabasca,—where Terence must moon from post to post av th' Hudson's Bay—"

"Athabasca!"

Maren's head was up and she was looking at the little woman with an eager wistfulness.

"The Land of the Whispering Hills!"

"Thrue,—'tis th' Injun word,—but a woild, woild land f'r all that."

"But beautiful, Madame,—oh! it is beautiful, is it not?"

"Fair,—wid high hills an' a great blue lake an' woildness!—Ah!"

But the tall leader was calling and camp was breaking for another stretch.

And under the travelling stars of that night there awoke in the heart of the maid of the trail something of the old love, the old longing for that goal of her life's ambition.

She had turned aside from it, only to be taught a lesson whose scars would stay deep in her soul so long as life lasted.

At last came an hour when the party under O'Halloran must turn to the east, where the bottle-neck of Winnipeg split in two, going down that well-worn way which led to Lake of the Woods, Rainy River, and at last to the wide lakes, whose sparkling waves would waft them on to the great outside world.

There was a scene at parting, when the warmhearted Irishwoman clung to Maren and wept against her bosom, calling her all the hundred words for "darling" in the Celtic and vowing to remember her always.

The fair woman, wife of a Scotchman who acted as some sort of secretary to O'Halloran, sat apart in cold silence.

"M'sieu," said Maren, at the last, "I have no words to thank you for this that you have done. I but cast it into the balance of God, which must hang heavy with your goodness."

She had given her hand to the leader, and that impulsive son of the ould sod kissed it gallantly.

"'Tis little we did, lass, for you and your poor lad yonder, and 'twas in our hearts to do more. But here's luck to you both,—an early weddin' an' sturdy sons!"

And, as the morning sun glittered on the ripples of the departing boats, Maren stood long looking after them, a mist in her eyes and her full lips quivering.

She looked until the gathering dimness hid the waving kerchief of the only woman friend who had ever truly reached her heart.

Then she sat down and took up a paddle.

"Last lap, Messieurs," she said, above the mutter of McElroy at her feet, and they turned toward where the familiar river came rushing to the lake.

The summer lay heavy on the land when they reached the Assiniboine.

Deep green of the forests, deep green of fern and bush and understuff, told of the full tide of the year. Here and there a leaf trailed in the shallows, yellow as gold in an early death.

She thought of the spring, so long past, when she had first come into this sweet land, and it seemed like another time, another life, another person.

This day at dusk they passed the hidden cove where she had found Marc Dupre waiting to build her fire. The abandoned canoe still lay hidden where he left it.

Cool blue dawn, hushed and wide-reaching, still with that stillness which precedes the sunrise, lay over the river, when the lone canoe rounded the lower bend and Anders McElroy, factor of Fort de Seviere, came back to his own again.

In the prow there knelt a weary figure in a soiled and sun-bleached garment of doeskin, its glittering plastron of bright beads broken here and there, the ragged ends of sinews hanging as they were left by briar and branch, and the haggard eyes went with eager swiftness to the stockade standing in its grim invincibility facing the east.

The row of wonted canoes lay upturned upon the shelving shore at the landing, the half-moon at the right still glowered with its puny cannon which had spoken no word to save their master on that fateful day, and all things looked as if but a day had passed between.

The great gate with its studded breast was closed, the bastions at the corners were empty of watchers, for peace folded its wings above the past.

Without sound the boat cut up to the landing, Brilliers leaped out and steadied it to place, and Maren stepped once more upon the familiar slope.

They lifted McElroy, swinging in his blanket, and the tread of the moccasined feet was hollow on the planks.

Thus there passed up to the gate of De Seviere a triumphal procession of victory, whose heart was heavy within it, and whose leader in her tattered dress was the saddest sight of all.

She raised her hand and beat upon the gate, and a voice cried, "Who comes?"

"Open, my brother," she called, for the voice was that of Henri Baptiste, whose turn at the gate it was.

There was an ejaculation, a swift rattle of chains, and the heavy portal swung back, while the blanched face of young Henri stared into the dawn. Maren motioned to the men and they stepped in with their burden.

"Holy Mary! Maren! Maren! Maren!" cried Henri Baptiste, and took both her arms in a gripping clasp. He looked into her face with fear and wonder, as if the girl had returned from the dead, while joy unspeakable began to lighten his features.

"Sister! Holy Mary!"

And then, when the touch of her in the flesh had dispelled his first horror, when the sight of the factor swinging grotesquely in the blanket had taken on the sense of reality, he raised his voice in a stentorian call.

From every door it brought the populace running, half-dressed and startled, and in scant space a ring of faces stared upon the strangers in stupid awe.

"Ma'amselle Le Moyne!" they whispered, fearfully.

"Mother of Heaven! The factor!"

"Our factor! Out of the hands of Death!"

"Mon Dieu! One of them! And the maid!"

And in the midst of the awed and hushed excitement that was growing with each passing moment, there cut the voice of McElroy, babbling from the blanket.

"Throw! Throw, Ma'amselle,—for M'sieu!"

"Hush!" said Maren; "where is Prix Laroux?"

"Here!"

The big fellow was pushing through the gathering crowd, to stand before the weary girl with burning eyes.

"Maren!" he said simply, and could say no more.

"Take him, Prix," she said quietly; "take him to the factory. Get Rette de Lancy's hand above him for care, and Jack for all things else. Take these my men, and give them all the post affords, but chiefly rest at present. They have—"

Here there came a tumult among the listening populace, and Marie rushed through and flung herself upon Maren and there was time for nothing else, save that, as Maren turned with her hanging like a vice about her throat and Henri's arm across her shoulders, there was a streak of crimson, a flash of ornaments in the sun, but now risen above the forest's rim, and some one threw herself upon the unconscious form of McElroy, kissing his face and his helpless hands and weeping terribly.

It was the little Francette. At her heels the great dog, Loup, halted and glowered at the strangers.



CHAPTER XXVIII THE OLD DREAM ONCE MORE

They led her through the new day, between the staring, whispering people, this comer from beyond the grave, to the little new cabin beside the northern wall, across its step and into its sweet, fresh cleanliness of home; and when Henri had shut the door they stood together in a group, their arms inwound, and Marie wept helplessly while Maren looked down with moist and weary eyes.

"There! There! Hush, ma cherie! Hush!" she was saying, but Henri was reading with amaze the change in her glorious face.

"It has been a long trail, Prix, but a longer one beckons with ceaseless insistence. No longer can I sit in idleness. Can we, think you, raise the debt to carry us on at once? My heart is sick for the Athabasca."

Maren stood by the factory door conversing earnestly with Laroux.

From every point of the post curious eyes looked upon her. Here and there groups of women whispered in the doorways, and once and again a laugh, quick hushed, broke on the evening air.

Somehow they struck upon the girl's ears with an ugly sound, reminding her vaguely of the fair woman who travelled eastward with Sheila O'Halloran, and her voice grew more earnest.

Laroux, who had not spoken with her since that one word of the morning at the gate, was dumb of tongue, aching with the old feeling in his heart which had told him faithfully so long ago that all was not well with her.

"At once, Maren," he said huskily, "I will raise the debt. When would you be gone?"

"Soon, my friend,—soon, soon."

"The word shall go round to-night. All shall be ready in forty-eight hours."

He paused a moment and presently, "Maren, maid," he said.

"Yes?"

"Hold you aught against me for the stand I took that day—the duty I saw first?"

"Against you, Prix?—the truest, bravest friend I own? Nay, man,—you are my staff, my hope, my courage. Would I had had your strength these heavy days."

"Would to the good God you had! It shall not fail you again."

Maren held out her hand and Laroux grasped it in a clasp of faith.

"See!" cried Tessa Bibye, peeping eagerly from among the women, "she holds hands with that blackhaired man of her people who spurs the rest. One man or another,—as Francette says,—little cat!—all are fish who come to Ma'amselle's net! The factor, or the cavalier, or a common voyageur.

"Can they not see, these fool men, that the woman is a venturess, playing with all?"

"You lie, Tessa Bibye!"

Micene Bordoux had passed unnoticed. Now she turned her accusing glance on the loose-tongued girl.

"Because you are so small of soul yourself, are your eyes blinded to the greater heights? Ma'amselle is lost in the clouds above you."

She went on, and Maren at the factory door turned to enter.

"Give the word,—and make all haste. Fix all things as you think best."

The great trading-room, lined with its shelves and circled with counters, was empty, save for a clerk, Gifford, who cast accounts in the big book on the factor's desk, and Maren's footsteps rang heavy to her ears as she passed through it to the little room behind, where she could see Rette passing back and forth at her tasks of mercy.

She stopped at the open door and looked within that little room. Here were the things of McElroy's life,—the plain chairs, the table, the shelf with its books, the chest against the western wall, and on the bed, pulled out to get the breeze, lay the man himself prone in his splendid strength.

The light from the setting sun was on his head with its fair hair and flushed face, rolling restlessly from side to side. There was no reason in the earnest blue eyes, and Maren felt a mighty anguish swell and grip her throat as she stood looking on the pathetic scene.

"Come in, Ma'amselle," whispered Rette from her motherly heart, drawn by sight of her haggard face, but Maren's eyes had fallen on a little figure huddled on the far side of the bed with its face buried against McElroy's left hand.

She knew the small head running over with black curls.

"Nay, Rette," she said quietly, "I would speak a moment with you."

The woman came out and closed the door.

"Poor little fool!" she whispered, "she is worn to a shadow with these weeks of weeping, and, now that he is back, will not give over hanging to his hand like one drowning."

"Heed not. Is it in your heart, Rette, to do a deed of kindness for me, to keep a word of faith?"

"With all my heart, Ma'amselle!"

"Then," whispered Maren, apart from the clerk's listening ears, "take you this letter. Keep it until M'sieu the factor is in his right mind, then give it him with your own hands. If he—if he should—burn it, Rette, unopened."

And she gave into the woman's keeping the only letter she had ever written to a man.

It was in French, and the script was fine and finished.

This was what she had said, alone in the little room with its eastern window at the end of the Baptiste cabin:

"MONSIEUR MCELROY, Factor of Fort de Seviere, ave atque vale." (The tender word of Father Tenau when he blessed her that last time in Grand Portage)

"The time has come when I must take my people out of your post, must break their contract and their word. Forgive them, M'sieu, and lay not the fault to them, for I, and I only, am to blame. But the time I promised is too long.... I can no longer hold back the tide of longing which drives me to that land of which we spoke once...." (Here there was a break in the letter, a smudge on the page, as if the quill had caught the paper or a drop of moisture run into the ink.)

"I must go forward, and at once, to the Athabasca. The great quest is strong at my heartstrings again. I thank you, M'sieu, for all kindness done my people, and I promise that, should fortune favour them and me in that far land to which we journey, they shall send what trade lies with them to De Seviere. For one thing I ask,—if it be possible, M'sieu, give to certain men who will be found by word to Mr. Mowbray of York, such stipend as you can, for they were good and faithful,—namely, Frith and Wilson and McDonald, Brilliers and Alloybeau.... Adieu, M'sieu. God send you health. (Signed)

"MAREN LE MOYNE, of Grand Portage."

Laroux was worth his word.

Forty-eight hours later there stood at the portal of Fort de Seviere, ready for the trail, that small band of wanderers who had come into it in the early spring.

They were fuller of hope, more eager to face the wilderness than on that day, for joy after sorrow sat blithely on their faces, turned to the tall young woman at their head. And they were fully equipped for travel. Three canoes held wealth of supplies, while six huskies whined in leash, nervous under new masters, touched with the knowledge of coming change.

Not a man in De Seviere who had not given gladly, nay, vied with his neighbour to give, to the helping of this woman.

Had they not their factor back from death and its torments?

There was God-speed and hearty handclasp from the men, and Maren smiled into their faces, reading their simple hearts.

With the women it was different. They hung, gazing, on the outskirts, calling farewell to Marie, who wept a little at sight of her deserted cabin, to Anon and Mora and Ninette, but there was no reflection of the feeling of their masters for this girl with her weary beauty, her steady, half-tragic eyes. Nor was there great regret over Micene. Too sharp had been her tongue, too keen her perception of their faults.

True, the autumn was near at hand. Winter would come with its myriad foes before they could hope to be ready for it, and Maren, looking far ahead, saw it and its dangers, and her heart sickened a bit with the thought of her people; but the thing within was stronger than all else.

She must leave De Seviere at once. Therefore, she raised her head with her face to the west.

It was early dawn again. It seemed that it had ever been dawn when fateful things had happened in this post, every log and stone of which was suddenly dear to her.

She stood in the opened gate and looked back upon it, on the cabins, the well where De Courtenay had placed his first red flower in her hair, the storehouses, and the factory.

The factory!

With sight of it once more the wave of anguish swept over her. She saw the small plain room at the back, the figure of a man prone in his helplessness, a fair head with blue eyes, pleading in their honest clearness, and her lips trembled.

"Ready?" she said, and the deep voice slipped unsteadily.

"Aye," answered Prix Laroux, and picked up the last pack of chattels.

At that moment there was a flurry among the pressing men around, a sound above the many voices wishing them luck, and little Francette broke through.

"Ma'amselle!" she cried, looking up into Maren's eyes with conflicting expressions on her small face, misery and solemn joy and hatred that strove to soften itself beneath a better emotion; "Ma'amselle,—I would thank you! Oh, bon Dieu! I am not all bad! Here!"

She seized Loup by the ears and dragged him forward, snarling. "Take him, Ma'amselle! I love him! Do you take him,—and—and-understand!"

All her red-rose beauty had gone from the little maid along with her dancing lightness.

These long weeks had turned her into a woman with a woman's heart.

They drew back and looked on with wonder, and then smiles of amusement, but Maren, gazing into the tragic little face, saw deeper.

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