Part 1 out of 3
THE DANGER TRAIL
JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
CHAPTER I. The Girl of the Snows
CHAPTER II. Lips That Speak Not
CHAPTER III. The Mysterious Attack
CHAPTER IV. The Warning
CHAPTER V. Howland's Midnight Visitor
CHAPTER VI. The Love of a Man
CHAPTER VII. The Blowing of the Coyote
CHAPTER VIII. The Hour of Death
CHAPTER IX. The Tryst
CHAPTER X. A Race Into the North
CHAPTER XI. The House of the Red Death
CHAPTER XII. The Fight
CHAPTER XIII. The Pursuit
CHAPTER XIV. The Gleam of the Light
CHAPTER XV. In the Bedroom Chamber
CHAPTER XVI. Jean's Story
CHAPTER XVII. Meleese
THE DANGER TRAIL
THE GIRL OF THE SNOWS
For perhaps the first time in his life Howland felt the spirit of
romance, of adventure, of sympathy for the picturesque and the unknown
surging through his veins. A billion stars glowed like yellow,
passionless eyes in the polar cold of the skies. Behind him, white in
its sinuous twisting through the snow-smothered wilderness, lay the icy
Saskatchewan, with a few scattered lights visible where Prince Albert,
the last outpost of civilization, came down to the river half a
But it was into the North that Howland looked. From the top of the great
ridge which he had climbed he gazed steadily into the white gloom which
reached for a thousand miles from where he stood to the Arctic Sea.
Faintly in the grim silence of the winter night there came to his ears
the soft hissing sound of the aurora borealis as it played in its
age-old song over the dome of the earth, and as he watched the cold
flashes shooting like pale arrows through the distant sky and listened
to its whispering music of unending loneliness and mystery, there came
on him a strange feeling that it was beckoning to him and calling to
him--telling him that up there very near to the end of the earth lay all
that he had dreamed of and hoped for since he had grown old enough to
begin the shaping of a destiny of his own.
He shivered as the cold nipped at his blood, and lighted a fresh cigar,
half-turning to shield himself from a wind that was growing out of the
east. As the match flared in the cup of his hands for an instant there
came from the black gloom of the balsam and spruce at his feet a
wailing, hungerful cry that brought a startled breath from his lips. It
was a cry such as Indian dogs make about the tepees of masters who are
newly dead. He had never heard such a cry before, and yet he knew that
it was a wolf's. It impressed him with an awe which was new to him and
he stood as motionless as the trees about him until, from out the gray
night-gloom to the west, there came an answering cry, and then, from far
to the north, still another.
"Sounds as though I'd better go back to town," he said to himself,
speaking aloud. "By George, but it's lonely!"
He descended the ridge, walked rapidly over the hard crust of the snow
across the Saskatchewan, and assured himself that he felt considerably
easier when the lights of Prince Albert gleamed a few hundred yards
ahead of him.
Jack Howland was a Chicago man, which means that he was a hustler, and
not overburdened with sentiment. For fifteen of his thirty-one years he
had been hustling. Since he could easily remember, he had possessed to
a large measure but one ambition and one hope. With a persistence which
had left him peculiarly a stranger to the more frivolous and human sides
of life he had worked toward the achievement of this ambition, and
to-night, because that achievement was very near at hand, he was happy.
He had never been happier. There flashed across his mental vision a
swiftly moving picture of the fight he had made for success. It had been
a magnificent fight. Without vanity he was proud of it, for fate had
handicapped him at the beginning, and still he had won out. He saw
himself again the homeless little farmer boy setting out from his
Illinois village to take up life in a great city; as though it had all
happened but yesterday he remembered how for days and weeks he had
nearly starved, how he had sold papers at first, and then, by lucky
chance, became errand boy in a big drafting establishment. It was there
that the ambition was born in him. He saw great engineers come and
go--men who were greater than presidents to him, and who sought out the
ends of the earth in the following of their vocation. He made a slave of
himself in the nurturing and strengthening of his ambition to become one
of them--to be a builder of railroads and bridges, a tunneler of
mountains, a creator of new things in new lands. His slavery had not
lessened as his years increased. Voluntarily he had kept himself in
bondage, fighting ceaselessly the obstacles in his way, triumphing over
his handicaps as few other men had triumphed, rising, slowly, steadily,
resistlessly, until now--. He flung back his head and the pulse of his
heart quickened as he heard again the words of Van Horn, president of
the greatest engineering company on the continent.
"Howland, we've decided to put you in charge Of the building of the
Hudson Bay Railroad. It's one of the wildest jobs we've ever had, and
Gregson and Thorne don't seem to catch on. They're bridge builders and
not wilderness men. We've got to lay a single line of steel through
three hundred miles of the wildest country in North America, and from
this hour your motto is 'Do it or bust!' You can report at Le Pas as
soon as you get your traps together."
Those words had broken the slavedom for Howland. He had been fighting
for an opportunity, and now that the opportunity had come he was sure
that he would succeed. Swiftly, with his hands thrust deep in his
pockets, he walked down the one main street of Prince Albert, puffing
out odorous clouds of smoke from his cigar, every fiber in him tingling
with the new joy that had come into his life. Another night would see
him in Le Pas, the little outpost sixty miles farther east on the
Saskatchewan. Then a hundred miles by dog-sledge and he would be in the
big wilderness camp where three hundred men were already at work
clearing a way to the great bay to the north. What a glorious
achievement that road would be! It would remain for all time as a
cenotaph to his ability, his courage and indomitable persistence.
It was past nine o'clock when Howland entered the little old Windsor
Hotel. The big room, through the windows of which he could look out on
the street and across the frozen Saskatchewan, was almost empty. The
clerk had locked his cigar-case and had gone to bed. In one corner,
partly shrouded in gloom, sat a half-breed trapper who had come in that
day from the Lac la Ronge country, and at his feet crouched one of his
wolfish sledge-dogs. Both were wide-awake and stared curiously at
Howland as he came in. In front of the two large windows sat half a
dozen men, as silent as the half-breed, clad in moccasins and thick
caribou skin coats. One of them was the factor from a Hudson Bay post at
Lac Bain who had not been down to the edge of civilization for three
years; the others, including two Crees and a Chippewayan, were hunters
and Post men who had driven in their furs from a hundred miles to
For a moment Howland paused in the middle of the room and looked about
him. Ordinarily he would have liked this quiet, and would have gone to
one of the two rude tables to write a letter or work out a problem of
some sort, for he always carried a pocketful of problems about with him.
His fifteen years of study and unceasing slavery to his ambition had
made him naturally as taciturn as these grim men of the North, who were
born to silence. But to-night there had come a change over him. He
wanted to talk. He wanted to ask questions. He longed for human
companionship, for some kind of mental exhilaration beyond that
furnished by his own thoughts. Feeling in his pocket for a cigar he
seated himself before one of the windows and proffered it to the factor
from Lac Bain.
"You smoke?" he asked companionably.
"I was born in a wigwam," said the factor slowly, taking the cigar.
"Deuced polite for a man who hasn't seen civilization for three years,"
thought Howland, seating himself comfortably, with his feet on the
window-sill. Aloud he said, "The clerk tells me you are from Lac Bain.
That's a good distance north, isn't it?"
"Four hundred miles," replied the factor with quiet terseness. "We're on
the edge of the Barren Lands."
"Whew!" Howland shrugged his shoulders. Then he volunteered, "I'm going
north myself to-morrow."
"No; engineer. I'm putting through the Hudson Bay Railroad."
He spoke the words quite clearly and as they fell from his lips the
half-breed, partly concealed in the gloom behind him, straightened with
the alert quickness of a cat. He leaned forward eagerly, his black eyes
gleaming, and then rose softly from his seat. His moccasined feet made
no sound as he came up behind Howland. It was the big huskie who first
gave a sign of his presence. For a moment the upturned eyes of the young
engineer met those of the half-breed. That look gave Howland a glimpse
of a face which he could never forget--a thin, dark, sensitive face
framed in shining, jet-black hair, and a pair of eyes that were the most
beautiful he had ever seen in a man. Sometimes a look decides great
friendship or bitter hatred between men. And something, nameless,
unaccountable, passed between these two. Not until the half-breed had
turned and was walking swiftly away did Howland realize that he wanted
to speak to him, to grip him by the hand, to know him by name. He
watched the slender form of the Northerner, as lithe and as graceful in
its movement as a wild thing of the forests, until it passed from the
door out into the night.
"Who was that?" he asked, turning to the factor.
"His name is Croisset. He comes from the Wholdaia country, beyond Lac la
"Half French, half Cree."
The factor resumed his steady gaze out into the white distance of the
night, and Howland gave up his effort at conversation. After a little
his companion shoved back his chair and bade him good night. The Crees
and Chippewayan followed him, and a few minutes later the two white
hunters left the engineer alone before the windows.
"Mighty funny people," he said half aloud. "Wonder if they ever talk!"
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, his face resting in his hands, and
stared to catch a sign of moving life outside. In him there was no
desire for sleep. Often he had called himself a night-bird, but seldom
had he been more wakeful than on this night. The elation of his triumph,
of his success, had not yet worn itself down to a normal and reasoning
satisfaction, and his chief longing was for the day, and the day after
that, and the next day, when he would take the place of Gregson and
Thorne. Every muscle in his body was vibrant in its desire for action.
He looked at his watch. It was only ten o'clock. Since supper he had
smoked almost ceaselessly. Now he lighted another cigar and stood up
close to one of the windows.
Faintly he caught the sound of a step on the board walk outside. It was
a light, quick step, and for an instant it hesitated, just out of his
vision. Then it approached, and suddenly the figure of a woman stopped
in front of the window. How she was dressed Howland could not have told
a moment later. All that he saw was the face, white in the white
night--a face on which the shimmering starlight fell as it was lifted to
his gaze, beautiful, as clear-cut as a cameo, with eyes that looked up
at him half-pleadingly, half-luringly, and lips parted, as if about to
speak to him. He stared, moveless in his astonishment, and in another
breath the face was gone.
With a hurried exclamation he ran across the empty room to the door and
looked down the starlit street. To go from the window to the door took
him but a few seconds, yet he found the street deserted--deserted except
for a solitary figure three blocks away and a dog that growled at him
as he thrust out his head and shoulders. He heard no sound of footsteps,
no opening or closing of a door. Only there came to him that faint,
hissing music of the northern skies, and once more, from the black
forest beyond the Saskatchewan, the infinite sadness of the wolf-howl.
LIPS THAT SPEAK NOT
Howland was not a man easily susceptible to a pair of eyes and a pretty
face. The practical side of his nature was too much absorbed in its
devices and schemes for the building of material things to allow the
breaking in of romance. At least Howland had always complimented himself
on this fact, and he laughed a little nervously as he went back to his
seat near the window. He was conscious that a flush of unusual
excitement had leaped into his cheeks and already the practical side of
him was ashamed of that to which the romantic side had surrendered.
"The deuce, but she was pretty!" he excused himself. "And those eyes--"
Suddenly he checked himself. There had been more than the eyes; more
than the pretty face! Why had the girl paused in front of the window?
Why had she looked at him so intently, as though on the point of speech?
The smile and the flush left his face as these questions came to him and
he wondered if he had failed to comprehend something which she had meant
him to understand. After all, might it not have been a case of mistaken
identity? For a moment she had believed that she recognized him--then,
seeing her mistake, had passed swiftly down the street. Under ordinary
circumstances Howland would have accepted this solution of the incident.
But to-night he was in an unusual mood, and it quickly occurred to him
that even if his supposition were true it did not explain the pallor in
the girl's face and the strange entreaty which had glowed for an instant
in her eyes.
Anyway it was none of his business, and he walked casually to the door.
At the end of the street, a quarter of a mile distant, a red light
burned feebly over the front of a Chinese restaurant, and in a
mechanical fashion his footsteps led him in that direction.
"I'll drop in and have a cup of tea," he assured himself, throwing away
the stub of his cigar and filling his lungs with great breaths of the
cold, dry air. "Lord, but it's a glorious night! I wish Van Horn
could see it."
He stopped and turned his eyes again into the North. Its myriad stars,
white and unshivering, the elusive play of the mysterious lights
hovering over the pole, and the black edge of the wilderness beyond the
river were holding a greater and greater fascination for him. Since
morning, when he had looked on that wilderness for the first time in his
life, new blood had entered into him, and he rejoiced that it was this
wonderful world which was to hold for him success and fortune. Never had
he dreamed that the mere joy of living would appeal to him as it did
now; that the act of breathing, of seeing, of looking on wonders in
which his hands had taken no part in the making, would fill him with the
indefinable pleasure which had suddenly become his experience. He
wondered, as he still stood gazing into the infinity of that other
world beyond the Saskatchewan, if romance was really quite dead in him.
Always he had laughed at romance. Work--the grim reality of action, of
brain fighting brain, of cleverness pitted against other men's
cleverness--had almost brought him to the point of regarding romance in
life as a peculiar illusion of fools--and women. But he was fair in his
concessions, and to-night he acknowledged that he had enjoyed the
romance of what he had seen and heard. And most of all, his blood had
been stirred by the beautiful face that had looked at him from out of
The tuneless thrumming of a piano sounded behind him. As he passed
through the low door of the restaurant a man and woman lurched past him
and in their irresolute faces and leering stare he read the verification
of his suspicions of the place. Through a second door he entered a large
room filled with tables and chairs, and pregnant with strange odors. At
one of the farther tables sat a long-queued Chinaman with his head
bowed in his arms. Behind a counter stood a second, as motionless as an
obelisk in the half gloom of the dimly illuminated room, his evil face
challenging Howland as he entered. The sound of a piano came from above
and with a bold and friendly nod the young engineer mounted a pair
"Tough joint," he muttered, falling into his old habit of communing with
himself. "Hope they make good tea."
At the sound of his footsteps on the stair the playing of the piano
ceased. He was surprised at what greeted him above. In startling
contrast to the loathsome environment below he entered a luxuriously
appointed room, heavily hung with oriental tapestries, and with half a
dozen onyx tables partially concealed behind screens and gorgeously
embroidered silk curtains. At one of these he seated himself and
signaled for service with the tiny bell near his hand. In response there
appeared a young Chinaman with close-cropped hair and attired in
"A pot of tea," ordered Howland; and under his breath he added, "Pretty
deuced good for a wilderness town! I wonder--"
He looked about him curiously. Although it was only eleven o'clock the
place appeared to be empty. Yet Howland was reasonably assured that it
was not empty. He was conscious of sensing in a vague sort of way the
presence of others somewhere near him. He was sure that there was a
faint, acrid odor lurking above that of burned incense, and he shrugged
his shoulders with conviction when he paid a dollar for his pot of tea.
"Opium, as sure as your name is Jack Howland," he said, when the waiter
was gone. "I wonder again--how many pots of tea do they sell in
He sipped his own leisurely, listening with all the eagerness of the new
sense of freedom which had taken possession of him. The Chinaman had
scarcely disappeared when he heard footsteps on the stair. In another
instant a low word of surprise almost leaped from his lips. Hesitating
for a moment in the doorway, her face staring straight into his own,
was the girl whom he had seen through the hotel window!
For perhaps no more than five seconds their eyes met. Yet in that time
there was painted on his memory a picture that Howland knew he would
never forget. His was a nature, because of the ambition imposed on it,
that had never taken more than a casual interest in the form and feature
of women. He had looked on beautiful faces and had admired them in a
cool, dispassionate way, judging them--when he judged at all--as he
might have judged the more material workmanship of his own hands. But
this face that was framed for a few brief moments in the door reached
out to him and stirred an interest within him which was as new as it was
pleasurable. It was a beautiful face. He knew that in a fraction of the
first second. It was not white, as he had first seen it through the
window. The girl's cheeks were flushed. Her lips were parted, and she
was breathing quickly, as though from the effect of climbing the stair.
But it was her eyes that sent Howland's blood a little faster through
his veins. They were glorious eyes.
The girl turned from his gaze and seated herself at a table so that he
caught only her profile. The change delighted him. It afforded him
another view of the picture that had appeared to him in the doorway, and
he could study it without being observed in the act, though he was
confident that the girl knew his eyes were on her. He refilled his tiny
cup with tea and smiled when he noticed that she could easily have
seated herself behind one of the screens. From the flush in her cheeks
his eyes traveled critically to the rich glow of the light in her
shining brown hair, which swept half over her ears in thick, soft waves,
caught in a heavy coil low on her neck. Then, for the first time, he
noticed her dress. It puzzled him. Her turban and muff were of deep gray
lynx fur. Around her shoulders was a collarette of the same material.
Her hands were immaculately gloved. In every feature of her lovely face,
in every point of her dress, she bore the indisputable mark of
refinement. The quizzical smile left his lips. The thoughts which at
first had filled his mind as quickly disappeared. Who was she? Why
was she here?
With cat-like quietness the young Chinaman entered between the screens
and stood beside her. On a small tablet which Howland had not before
observed she wrote her order. It was for tea. He noticed that she gave
the waiter a dollar bill in payment and that the Chinaman returned
seventy-five cents to her in change.
"Discrimination," he chuckled to himself. "Proof that she's not a
stranger here, and knows the price of things."
He poured his last half cup of tea and when he lifted his eyes he was
surprised to find that the girl was looking at him. For a brief interval
her gaze was steady and clear; then the flush deepened in her cheeks;
her long lashes drooped as the cold gray of Howland's eyes met hers in
unflinching challenge, and she turned to her tea. Howland noted that the
hand which lifted the little Japanese pot was trembling slightly. He
leaned forward, and as if impelled by the movement, the girl turned her
face to him again, the tea-urn poised above her cup. In her dark eyes
was an expression which half brought him to his feet, a wistful glow, a
pathetic and yet half-frightened appeal to him. He rose, his eyes
questioning her, and to his unspoken inquiry her lips formed themselves
into a round, red O, and she nodded to the opposite side of her table.
"I beg your pardon," he said, seating himself. "May I give you my card?"
He felt as if there was something brutally indecent in what he was doing
and the knowledge of it sent a red flush to his cheeks. The girl read
his name, smiled across the table at him, and with a pretty gesture,
motioned him to bring his cup and share her tea with her. He returned to
his table and when he came back with the cup in his hand she was writing
on one of the pages of the tablet, which she passed across to him.
"You must pardon me for not talking," he read. "I can hear you very
well, but I, unfortunately, am a mute."
He could not repress the low ejaculation of astonishment that came to
his lips, and as his companion lifted her cup he saw in her face again
the look that had stirred him so strangely when he stood in the window
of the Hotel Windsor. Howland was not a man educated in the trivialities
of chance flirtations. He lacked finesse, and now he spoke boldly and to
the point, the honest candor of his gray eyes shining full on the girl.
"I saw you from the hotel window to-night," he began, "and something in
your face led me to believe that you were in trouble. That is why I have
ventured to be so bold. I am the engineer in charge of the new Hudson
Bay Railroad, just on my way to Le Pas from Chicago. I'm a stranger in
town. I've never been in this--this place before. It's a very nice
tea-room, an admirable blind for the opium stalls behind those walls."
In a few terse words he had covered the situation, as he would have
covered a similar situation in a business deal. He had told the girl
who and what he was, had revealed the cause of his interest in her, and
at the same time had given her to understand that he was aware of the
nature of their present environment. Closely he watched the effect of
his words and in another breath was sorry that he had been so blunt. The
girl's eyes traveled swiftly about her; he saw the quick rise and fall
of her bosom, the swift fading of the color in her cheeks, the
affrighted glow in her eyes as they came back big and questioning
"I didn't know," she wrote quickly, and hesitated. Her face was as white
now as when Howland had looked on it through the window. Her hand
trembled nervously and for an instant her lip quivered in a way that set
Howland's heart pounding tumultuously within him. "I am a stranger,
too," she added. "I have never been in this place before. I came
She stopped, and the catching breath in her throat was almost a sob as
she looked at Howland. He knew that it took an effort for her to write
the next words.
"I came because you came."
"Why?" he asked. His voice was low and assuring. "Tell me--why?"
He read her words as she wrote them, leaning half across the table in
"I am a stranger," she repeated. "I want some one to help me.
Accidentally I learned who you were and made up my mind to see you at
the hotel, but when I got there I was afraid to go in. Then I saw you in
the window. After a little you came out and I saw you enter here. I
didn't know what kind of place it was and I followed you. Won't you
please go with me--to where I am staying--and I will tell you--"
She left the sentence unfinished, her eyes pleading with him. Without a
word he rose and seized his hat.
"I will go, Miss--" He laughed frankly into her face, inviting her to
write her name. For a moment she smiled back at him, the color
brightening her cheeks. Then she turned and hurried down the stair.
Outside Howland gave her his arm. His eyes, passing above her, caught
again the luring play of the aurora in the north. He flung back his
shoulders, drank in the fresh air, and laughed in the buoyancy of the
new life that he felt.
"It's a glorious night!" he exclaimed.
The girl nodded, and smiled up at him. Her face was very near to his
shoulder, ever more beautiful in the white light of the stars.
They did not look behind them. Neither heard the quiet fall of
moccasined feet a dozen yards away. Neither saw the gleaming eyes and
the thin, dark face of Jean Croisset, the half-breed, as they walked
swiftly in the direction of the Saskatchewan.
THE MYSTERIOUS ATTACK
Howland was glad that for a time there was an excuse for his silence. It
began to dawn on him that this was an extraordinary adventure for a man
on whose shoulders rested the responsibilities of one of the greatest
engineering tasks on the continent, and who was due to take a train for
the seat of his operations at eight o'clock in the morning. Inwardly he
was experiencing some strange emotions; outwardly he smiled as he
thought of what Van Horn would say if he knew the circumstances. He
looked down at his companion; saw the sheen of her hair as it rippled
out from under her fur turban, studied the soft contour of her cheek and
chin, without himself being observed, and noticed, incidentally, that
the top of the bewitching head beside him came just about to a level
with his cigar which he was smoking. He wondered if he were making a
fool of himself. If so, he assured himself that there was at least one
compensation. This night in Prince Albert would not be so uninteresting
as it had promised to be earlier in the evening.
Where the river ferry was half drawn up on the shore, its stern frozen
in the ice, he paused and looked down at the girl in quiet surprise. She
nodded, smiling, and motioned across the river.
"I was over there once to-night," said Howland aloud. "Didn't see any
houses and heard nothing but wolves. Is that where we're going?"
Her white teeth gleamed at him and he was conscious of a warm pressure
against his arm as the girl signified that they were to cross. His
perplexity increased. On the farther shore the forest came down to the
river's edge in a black wall of spruce and balsam. Beyond that edge of
the wilderness he knew that no part of Prince Albert intruded. It was
possible that across from them was a squatter's cabin; and yet if this
were so, and the girl was going to it, why had she told him that she was
a stranger in the town? And why had she come to him for the assistance
she promised to request of him instead of seeking it of those whom
He asked himself these questions without putting them in words, and not
until they were climbing up the frozen bank of the stream, with the
shadows of the forest growing deeper about them, did he speak again.
"You told me you were a stranger," he said, stopping his companion where
the light of the stars fell on the face which she turned up to him. She
smiled, and nodded affirmatively.
"You seem pretty well acquainted over here," he persisted. "Where are we
This time she responded with an emphatic negative shake of her head, at
the same time pointing with her free hand to the well-defined trail that
wound up from the ferry landing into the forest. Earlier in the day
Howland had been told that this was the Great North Trail that led into
the vast wildernesses beyond the Saskatchewan. Two days before, the
factor from Lac Bain, the Chippewayan and the Crees had come in over it.
Its hard crust bore the marks of the sledges of Jean Croisset and the
men from the Lac la Ronge country. Since the big snow, which had fallen
four feet deep ten days before, a forest man had now and then used this
trail on his way down to the edge of civilization; but none from Prince
Albert had traveled it in the other direction. Howland had been told
this at the hotel, and he shrugged his shoulders in candid bewilderment
as he stared down into the girl's face. She seemed to understand his
thoughts, and again her mouth rounded itself into that bewitching red O,
which gave to her face an expression of tender entreaty, of pathetic
grief that the soft lips were powerless to voice, the words which she
wished to speak. Then, suddenly, she darted a few steps from Howland and
with the toe of her shoe formed a single word in the surface of the
snow. She rested her hand lightly on Howland's shoulder as he bent over
to make it out in the elusive starlight.
"Camp!" he cried, straightening himself. "Do you mean to say you're
camping out here?"
She nodded again and again, delighted that he understood her. There was
something so childishly sweet in her face, in the gladness of her eyes,
that Howland stretched out both his hands to her, laughing aloud. "You!"
he exclaimed. "_You_--camping out here!" With a quick little movement
she came to him, still laughing with her eyes and lips, and for an
instant he held both her hands tight in his own. Her lovely face was
dangerously near to him. He felt the touch of her breath on his face,
for an instant caught the sweet scent of her hair. Never had he seen
eyes like those that glowed up at him softly, filled with the gentle
starlight; never in his life had he dreamed of a face like this, so near
to him that it sent the blood leaping through his veins in strange
excitement. He held the hands tighter, and the movement drew the girl
closer to him, until for no more than a breath he felt her against his
breast. In that moment he forgot all sense of time and place; forgot his
old self--Jack Howland--practical, unromantic, master-builder of
railroads; forgot everything but this presence of the girl, the warm
pressure against his breast, the lure of the great brown eyes that had
come so unexpectedly into his life. In another moment he had recovered
himself. He drew a step back, freeing the girl's hands.
"I beg your pardon," he said softly. His cheeks burned hotly at what he
had done, and turning squarely about he strode up the trail. He had not
taken a dozen paces, when far ahead of him he saw the red glow of a
fire. Then a hand caught his arm, clutching at it almost fiercely, and
he turned to meet the girl's face, white now with a strange terror.
"What is it?" he cried. "Tell me--"
He caught her hands again, startled by the look in her eyes. Quickly she
pulled herself away. A dozen feet behind her, in the thick shadows of
the forest trees, something took shape and movement. In a flash Howland
saw a huge form leap from the gloom and caught the gleam of an uplifted
knife. There was no time for him to leap aside, no time for him to reach
for the revolver which he carried in his pocket. In such a crisis one's
actions are involuntary, machine-like, as if life, hovering by a thread,
preserves itself in its own manner and without thought or reasoning on
the part of the creature it animates.
For an instant Howland neither thought nor reasoned. Had he done so he
would probably have met his mysterious assailant, pitting his naked
fists against the knife. But the very mainspring of his existence--which
is self-preservation--called on him to do otherwise. Before the startled
cry on his lips found utterance he flung himself face downward in the
snow. The move saved him, and as the other stumbled over his body,
pitching headlong into the trail, he snatched forth his revolver. Before
he could fire there came a roar like that of a beast from behind him
and a terrific blow fell on his head. Under the weight of a second
assailant he was crushed to the snow, his pistol slipped from his grasp,
and two great hands choked a despairing cry from his throat. He saw a
face over him, distorted with passion, a huge neck, eyes that named like
angry garnets. He struggled to free his pinioned arms, to wrench off the
death-grip at his throat, but his efforts were like those of a child
against a giant. In a last terrible attempt he drew up his knees inch by
inch under the weight of his enemy; it was his only chance, his only
hope. Even as he felt the fingers about his throat, sinking like hot
iron into his flesh, and the breath slipping from his body, he
remembered this murderous knee-punch taught to him by the rough fighters
of the Inland Seas, and with all the life that remained in him he sent
it crushing into the other's abdomen. It was a moment before he knew
that it had been successful, before the film cleared from his eyes and
he saw his assailant groveling in the snow. He rose to his feet, dazed
and staggering from the effect of the blow on his head and the murderous
grip at his throat. Half a pistol shot down the trail he saw
indistinctly the twisting of black objects in the snow, and as he stared
one of the objects came toward him.
"Do not fire, M'seur Howland," he heard a voice call. "It ees I--Jean
Croisset, a friend! Blessed Saints, that was--what you call heem?--close
The half-breed's thin dark face came up smiling out of the white gloom.
For a moment Howland did not see him, scarcely heard his words. Wildly
he looked about him for the girl. She was gone.
"I happened here--just in time--with a club," continued Croisset. "Come,
we must go."
The smile had gone from his face and there was a commanding firmness in
the grip that fell on the young engineer's arm. Howland was conscious
that things were twisting about him and that there was a strange
weakness in his limbs. Dumbly he raised his hands to his head, which
hurt him until he felt as if he must cry out in his pain.
"The girl--" he gasped weakly.
Croisset's arm tightened about his waist.
"She ees gone!" Howland heard him say; and there was something in the
half-breed's low voice that caused him to turn unquestioningly and
stagger along beside him in the direction of Prince Albert.
And yet as he went, only half-conscious of what he was doing, and
leaning more and more heavily on his companion, he knew that it was more
than the girl's disappearance that he wanted to understand. For as the
blow had fallen on his head he was sure that he had heard a woman's
scream; and as he lay in the snow, dazed and choking, spending his last
effort in his struggle for life, there had come to him, as if from an
infinite distance, a woman's voice, and the words that it had uttered
pounded in his tortured brain now as his head dropped weakly against
"_Mon Dieu_, you are killing him--killing him!"
He tried to repeat them aloud, but his voice sounded only in an
incoherent murmur. Where the forest came down to the edge of the river
the half-breed stopped.
"I must carry you, M'seur Howland," he said; and as he staggered out on
the ice with his inanimate burden, he spoke softly to himself, "The
saints preserve me, but what would the sweet Meleese say if she knew
that Jean Croisset had come so near to losing the life of this M'seur le
engineer? _Ce monde est plein de fous!_"
In only a subconscious sort of way was Howland cognizant of anything
more that happened that night. When he came back into a full sense of
his existence he found himself in his bed at the hotel. A lamp was
burning low on the table. A glance showed him that the room was empty.
He raised his head and shoulders from the pillows on which they were
resting and the movement helped to bring him at once into a realization
of what had happened. He was hurt. There was a dull, aching pain in his
head and neck and when he raised an inquiring hand it came in contact
with a thick bandage. He wondered if he were badly hurt and sank back
again on the pillows, lying with his eyes staring at the faint glow of
the lamp. Soon there came a sound at the door and he twisted his head,
grimacing with the pain it caused him. Jean was looking in at him.
"Ah, M'seur ees awake!" he said, seeing the wide-open eyes. He came in
softly, closing the door behind him. "_Mon Dieu_, but if it had been a
heavier club by the weight of a pound you would have gone into the
blessed hereafter," he smiled, approaching with noiseless tread. He held
a glass of water to Howland's lips.
"Is it bad, Croisset?"
"So bad that you will be in bed for a day or so, M'seur. That is all."
"Impossible!" cried the young engineer. "I must take the eight o'clock
train in the morning. I must be in Le Pas--"
"It is five o'clock now," interrupted Jean softly. "Do you feel like
Howland straightened himself and fell back suddenly with a sharp cry.
"The devil!" he exclaimed. After a moment he added, "There will be no
other train for two days." As he raised a hand to his aching head, his
other closed tightly about Jean's lithe brown fingers. "I want to thank
you for what you did, Croisset. I don't know what happened. I don't know
who they were or why they tried to kill me. There was a girl--I was
going with her--"
He dropped his hand in time to see the strange fire that had leaped into
the half-breed's eyes. In astonishment he half lifted himself again, his
white face questioning Croisset.
"Do you know?" he whispered eagerly. "Who was she? Why did she lead me
into that ambush? Why did they attempt to kill me?"
The questions shot from him excitedly, and he knew from what he saw in
the other's face that Croisset could have answered them. Yet from the
thin tense lips above him there came no response. With a quick movement
the half-breed drew away his hand and moved toward the door. Half way he
paused and turned.
"M'seur, I have come to you with a warning. Do not go to Le Pas. Do not
go to the big railroad camp on the Wekusko. Return into the South." For
an instant he leaned forward, his black eyes flashing, his hands
clenched tightly at his sides. "Perhaps you will understand," he cried
tensely, "when I tell you this warning is sent to you--by the
Before Howland could recover from his surprise Croisset had passed
swiftly through the door. The engineer called his name, but there came
no response other than the rapidly retreating sound of the Northerner's
moccasined feet. With a grumble of vexation he sank back on his pillows.
The fresh excitement had set his head in a whirl again and a feverish
heat mounted into his face. For a long time he lay with his eyes closed,
trying to clear for himself the mystery of the preceding night. The one
thought which obsessed him was that he had been duped. His lovely
acquaintance of the preceding evening had ensnared him completely with
her gentle smile and her winsome mouth, and he gritted his teeth grimly
as he reflected how easy he had been. Deliberately she had lured him
into the ambush which would have proved fatal for him had it not been
for Jean Croisset. And she was not a mute! He had heard her voice; when
that death-grip was tightest about his throat there had come to him that
terrified cry: "_Mon Dieu_, you are killing him--killing him!"
His breath came a little faster as he whispered the words to himself.
They appealed to him now with a significance which he had not understood
at first. He was sure that in that cry there had been real terror;
almost, he fancied, as he lay with his eyes shut tight, that he could
still hear the shrill note of despair in the voice. The more he tried to
reason the situation, the more inexplicable grew the mystery of it all.
If the girl had calmly led him into the ambush, why, in the last moment,
when success seemed about to crown her duplicity, had she cried out in
that agony of terror? In Howland's heated brain there came suddenly a
vision of her as she stood beside him in the white trail; he felt again
the thrill of her hands, the touch of her breast for a moment against
his own; saw the gentle look that had come into her deep, pure eyes; the
pathetic tremor of the lips which seemed bravely striving to speak to
him. Was it possible that face and eyes like those could have led him
into a deathtrap! Despite the evidence of what had happened he found
himself filled with doubt. And yet, after all, she had lied to him--for
she was not a mute!
He turned over with a groan and watched the door. When Croisset returned
he would insist on knowing more about the strange occurrence, for he was
sure that the half-breed could clear away at least a part of the
mystery. Vainly, as he watched and waited, he racked his mind to find
some reason for the murderous attack on himself. Who was "the little
Meleese," whom Croisset declared had sent the warning? So far as he
could remember he had never known a person by that name. And yet the
half-breed had uttered it as though it would carry a vital meaning to
him. "Perhaps you will understand," he had said, and Howland strove to
understand, until his brain grew dizzy and a nauseous sickness
The first light of the day was falling faintly through the window when
footsteps sounded outside the door again. It was not Croisset who
appeared this time, but the proprietor himself, bearing with him a tray
on which there was toast and a steaming pot of coffee. He nodded and
smiled as he saw Howland half sitting up.
"Bad fall you had," he greeted, drawing a small table close beside the
bed. "This snow is treacherous when you're climbing among the rocks.
When it caves in with you on the side of a mountain you might as well
make up your mind you're going to get a good bump. Good thing Croisset
was with you!"
For a few moments Howland was speechless.
"Yes--it--was--a--bad--fall," he replied at last, looking sharply at the
other. "Where is Croisset?"
"Gone. He left an hour ago with his dogs. Funny fellow--that Croisset!
Came in yesterday from the Lac la Ronge country a hundred miles north;
goes back to-day. No apparent reason for his coming, none for his going,
that I can see."
"Do you know anything about him?" asked Howland a little eagerly.
"No. He comes in about once or twice a year."
The young engineer munched his toast and drank his coffee for some
moments in silence. Then, casually, he asked,
"Did you ever hear of a person by the name of Meleese?"
"Meleese--Meleese--Meleese--" repeated the hotel man, running a hand
through his hair. "It seems to me that the name is familiar--and yet I
can't remember--" He caught himself in sudden triumph. "Ah, I have it!
Two years ago I had a kitchen woman named Meleese."
Howland shrugged his shoulders.
"This was a young woman," he said.
"The Meleese we had is dead," replied the proprietor cheerfully, rising
to go. "I'll send up for your tray in half an hour or so, Mr. Howland."
Several hours later Howland crawled from his bed and bathed his head in
cold water. After that he felt better, dressed himself, and went below.
His head pained him considerably, but beyond that and an occasional
nauseous sensation the injury he had received in the fight caused him no
very great distress. He went in to dinner and by the middle of the
afternoon was so much improved that he lighted his first cigar and
ventured out into the bracing air for a short walk. At first it occurred
to him that he might make inquiries at the Chinese restaurant regarding
the identity of the girl whom he had met there, but he quickly changed
his mind, and crossing the river he followed the trail which they had
taken the preceding night. For a few moments he contemplated the marks
of the conflict in the snow. Where he had first seen the half-breed
there were blotches of blood on the crust.
"Good for Croisset!" Howland muttered; "good for Croisset. It looks as
though he used a knife."
He could see where the wounded man had dragged himself up the trail,
finally staggering to his feet, and with a caution which he had not
exercised a few hours before Howland continued slowly between the thick
forest walls, one hand clutching the butt of the revolver in his coat
pocket. Where the trail twisted abruptly into the north he found the
charred remains of a camp-fire in a small open, and just beyond it a
number of birch toggles, which had undoubtedly been used in place of
tent-stakes. With the toe of his boot he kicked among the ashes and
half-burned bits of wood. There was no sign of smoke, not a living spark
to give evidence that human presence had been there for many hours.
There was but one conclusion to make; soon after their unsuccessful
attempt on his life his strange assailants had broken camp and fled.
With them, in all probability, had gone the girl whose soft eyes and
sweet face had lured him within their reach.
But where had they gone?
Carefully he examined the abandoned camp. In the hard crust were the
imprints of dogs' claws. In several places he found the faint, broad
impression made by a toboggan. The marks at least cleared away the
mystery of their disappearance. Sometime during the night they had fled
by dog-sledge into the North.
He was tired when he returned to the hotel and it was rather with a
sense of disappointment than pleasure that he learned the work-train was
to leave for Le Pas late that night instead of the next day. After a
quiet hour's rest in his room, however, his old enthusiasm returned to
him. He found himself feverishly anxious to reach Le Pas and the big
camp on the Wekusko. Croisset's warning for him to turn back into the
South, instead of deterring him, urged him on. He was born a fighter. It
was by fighting that he had forced his way round by round up the ladder
of success. And now the fact that his life was in danger, that some
mysterious peril awaited him in the depths of the wilderness, but added
a new and thrilling fascination to the tremendous task which was ahead
of him. He wondered if this same peril had beset Gregson and Thorne, and
if it was the cause of their failure, of their anxiety to return to
civilization. He assured himself that he would know when he met them at
Le Pas. He would discover more when he became a part of the camp on the
Wekusko; that is, if the half-breed's warning held any significance at
all, and he believed that it did. Anyway, he would prepare for
developments. So he went to a gun-shop, bought a long-barreled
six-shooter and a holster, and added to it a hunting-knife like that he
had seen carried by Croisset.
It was near midnight when he boarded the work-train and dawn was just
beginning to break over the wilderness when it stopped at Etomami, from
which point he was to travel by hand-car over the sixty miles of new
road that had been constructed as far north as Le Pas. For three days
the car had been waiting for the new chief of the road, but neither
Gregson nor Thorne was with it.
"Mr. Gregson is waiting for you at Le Pas," said one of the men who had
come with it. "Thorne is at Wekusko."
For the first time in his life Howland now plunged into the heart of the
wilderness, and as mile after mile slipped behind them and he sped
deeper into the peopleless desolation of ice and snow and forest his
blood leaped in swift excitement, in the new joy of life which he was
finding up here under the far northern skies. Seated on the front of the
car, with the four men pumping behind him, he drank in the wild beauties
of the forests and swamps through which they slipped, his eyes
constantly on the alert for signs of the big game which his companions
told him was on all sides of them.
Everywhere about them lay white winter. The rocks, the trees, and the
great ridges, which in this north country are called mountains, were
covered with four feet of snow and on it the sun shone with dazzling
brilliancy. But it was not until a long grade brought them to the top of
one of these ridges and Howland looked into the north that he saw the
wilderness in all of its grandeur. As the car stopped he sprang to his
feet with a joyous cry, his face aflame with what he saw ahead of him.
Stretching away under his eyes, mile after mile, was the vast white
desolation that reached to Hudson Bay. In speechless wonder he gazed
down on the unblazed forests, saw plains and hills unfold themselves as
his vision gained distance, followed a frozen river until it was lost in
the bewildering picture, and let his eyes rest here and there on the
glistening, snow-smothered bosoms of lakes, rimmed in by walls of black
forest. This was not the wilderness as he had expected it to be, nor as
he had often read of it in books. It was not the wilderness that Gregson
and Thorne had described in their letters. It was beautiful! It was
magnificent! His heart throbbed with pleasure as he gazed down on it,
the flush grew deeper in his face, and he seemed hardly to breathe in
his tense interest.
One of the four on the car was an old Indian and it was he, strangely
enough, who broke the silence. He had seen the look in Howland's face,
and he spoke softly, close to his ear, "Twent' t'ousand moose down
there--twent' t'ousand caribou-oo! No man--no house--more twent'
Howland, even quivering in his new emotion, looked into the old
warrior's eyes, filled with the curious, thrilling gleam of the spirit
which was stirring within himself. Then again he stared straight out
into the unending distance as though his vision would penetrate far
beyond the last of that visible desolation--on and on, even to the grim
and uttermost fastnesses of Hudson Bay; and as he looked he knew that in
these moments there had been born in him a new spirit, a new being; that
no longer was he the old Jack Howland whose world had been confined by
office walls and into whose conception of life there had seldom entered
things other than those which led directly toward the achievement of his
The short northern day was nearing an end when once more they saw the
broad Saskatchewan twisting through a plain below them, and on its
southern shore the few log buildings of Le Pas hemmed in on three sides
by the black forests of balsam and spruce. Lights were burning in the
cabins and in the Hudson Bay Post's store when the car was brought to a
halt half a hundred paces from a squat, log-built structure, which was
more brilliantly illuminated than any of the others.
"That's the hotel," said one of the men. "Gregson's there."
A tall, fur-clad figure hurried forth to meet Howland as he walked
briskly across the open. It was Gregson. As the two men gripped hands
the young engineer stared at the other in astonishment. This was not
the Gregson he had known in the Chicago office, round-faced, full of
life, as active as a cricket.
"Never so glad to see any one in my life, Howland!" he cried, shaking
the other's hand again and again. "Another month and I'd be dead. Isn't
this a hell of a country?"
"I'm falling more in love with it at every breath, Gregson. What's the
matter? Have you been sick?"
Gregson laughed as they turned toward the lighted building. It was a
short, nervous laugh, and with it he gave a curious sidewise glance at
his companion's face.
"Sick?--yes, sick of the job! If the old man hadn't sent us relief
Thorne and I would have thrown up the whole thing in another four weeks.
I'll warrant you'll get your everlasting fill of log shanties and
half-breeds and moose meat and this infernal snow and ice before spring
comes. But I don't want to discourage you."
"Can't discourage me!" laughed Howland cheerfully. "You know I never
cared much for theaters and girls," he added slyly, giving Gregson a
good-natured nudge. "How about 'em up here?"
"Nothing--not a cursed thing." Suddenly his eyes lighted up. "By George,
Howland, but I _did_ see the prettiest girl I ever laid my eyes on
to-day! I'd give a box of pure Havanas--and we haven't had one for a
month!--if I could know who she is!"
They had entered through the low door of the log boarding-house and
Gregson was throwing off his heavy coat.
"A tall girl, with a fur hat and muff?" queried Howland eagerly.
"Nothing of the sort. She was a typical Northerner if there ever was
one--straight as a birch, dressed in fur cap and coat, short caribou
skin skirt and moccasins, and with a braid hanging down her back as long
as my arm. Lord, but she was pretty!"
"Isn't there a girl somewhere up around our camp named Meleese?" asked
"Never heard of her," said Gregson.
"Or a man named Croisset?"
"Never heard of him."
"The deuce, but you're interesting," laughed the young engineer,
sniffing at the odors of cooking supper. "I'm as hungry as a bear!"
From outside there came the sharp cracking of a sledge-driver's whip and
Gregson went to one of the small windows looking out upon the clearing.
In another instant he sprang toward the door, crying out to Howland,
"By the god of love, there she is, old man! Quick, if you want to get a
glimpse of her!"
He flung the door open and Howland hurried to his side. There came
another crack of the whip, a loud shout, and a sledge drawn by six dogs
sped past them into the gathering gloom of the early night.
From Howland's lips, too, there fell a sudden cry; for one of the two
faces that were turned toward him for an instant was that of Croisset,
and the other--white and staring as he had seen it that first night in
Prince Albert--was the face of the beautiful girl who had lured him into
the ambush on the Great North Trail!
HOWLAND'S MIDNIGHT VISITOR
For a moment after the swift passing of the sledge it was on Howland's
lips to shout Croisset's name; as he thrust Gregson aside and leaped out
into the night he was impelled with a desire to give chase, to overtake
in some way the two people who, within the space of forty-eight hours,
had become so mysteriously associated with his own life, and who were
now escaping him again.
It was Gregson who recalled him to his senses.
"I thought you didn't care for theaters--_and girls_, Howland," he
exclaimed banteringly, repeating Howland's words of a few minutes
before. "A pretty face affects you a little differently up here, eh?
Well, after you've been in this fag-end of the universe for a month or
so you'll learn--"
Howland interrupted him sharply.
"Did you ever see either of them before, Gregson?"
"Never until to-day. But there's hope, old man. Surely we can find some
one in the place who knows them. Wouldn't it be jolly good fun if Jack
Howland, Esquire, who has never been interested in theaters and girls,
should come up into these God-forsaken regions and develop a case of
love at first sight? By the Great North Trail, I tell you it may not be
as uninteresting for you as it has been for Thorne and me! If I had only
seen her sooner--"
"Shut up!" growled Howland, betraying irritability for the first time.
"Let's go in to supper."
"Good. And I move that we investigate these people while we are smoking
our after-supper cigars. It will pass our time away, at least."
"Your taste is good, Gregson," said Howland, recovering his good-humor
as they seated themselves at one of the rough board tables in the
dining-room. Inwardly he was convinced it would be best to keep to
himself the incidents of the past two days and nights. "It was a
"And the eyes!" added Gregson, his own gleaming with enthusiasm. "She
looked at me squarely this afternoon when she and that dark fellow
passed, and I swear they're the most beautiful eyes I ever saw. And
"Do you think that she knew you?" asked Howland quietly.
Gregson hunched his shoulders.
"How the deuce could she know me?"
"Then why did she look at you so 'squarely?' Trying to flirt, do you
Surprise shot into Gregson's face.
"By thunder, no, she wasn't flirting!" he exclaimed. "I'd stake my life
on that. A man never got a clearer, more sinless look than she gave me,
and yet--Why, deuce take it, she _stared_ at me! I didn't see her again
after that, but the dark fellow was in here half of the afternoon, and
now that I come to think of it he did show some interest in me. Why
do you ask?"
"Just curiosity," replied Howland, "I don't like flirts."
"Neither do I," said Gregson musingly. Their supper came on and they
conversed but little until its end. Howland had watched his companion
closely and was satisfied that he knew nothing of Croisset or the girl.
The fact puzzled him more than ever. How Gregson and Thorne, two of the
best engineers in the country, could voluntarily surrender a task like
the building of the Hudson Bay Railroad simply because they were "tired
of the country" was more than he could understand.
It was not until they were about to leave the table that Howland's eyes
accidentally fell on Gregson's left hand. He gave an exclamation of
astonishment when he saw that the little finger was missing. Gregson
jerked the hand to his side.
"A little accident," he explained. "You'll meet 'em up here, Howland."
Before he could move, the young engineer had caught his arm and was
looking closely at the hand.
"A curious wound," he remarked, without looking up. "Funny I didn't
notice it before. Your finger was cut off lengthwise, and here's the
scar running half way to your wrist. How did you do it?"
He dropped the hand in time to see a nervous flush in the other's face.
"Why--er--fact is, Howland, it was shot off several months ago--in an
accident, of course." He hurried through the door, continuing to speak
over his shoulder as he went, "Now for those after-supper cigars and our
As they passed from the dining-room into that part of the inn which was
half bar and half lounging-room, already filled with smoke and a dozen
or so picturesque citizens of Le Pas, the rough-jowled proprietor of the
place motioned to Howland and held out a letter.
"This came while you was at supper, Mr. Howland," he explained.
The engineer gave an inward start when he saw the writing on the
envelope, and as he tore it open he turned so that Gregson could see
neither his face nor the slip of paper which he drew forth. There was no
name at the bottom of what he read. It was not necessary, for a glance
had told him that the writing was that of the girl whose face he had
seen again that night; and her words to him this time, despite his
caution, drew a low whistle from his lips.
"Forgive me for what I have done," the note ran. "Believe me now. Your
life is in danger and you must go back to Etomami to-morrow. If you go
to the Wekusko camp you will not live to come back."
"The devil!" he exclaimed.
"What's that?" asked Gregson, edging around him curiously.
Howland crushed the note in his hand and thrust it into one of his
"A little private affair," he laughed. "Comes Gregson, let's see what
we can discover."
In the gloom outside one of his hands slipped under his coat and rested
on the butt of his revolver. Until ten o'clock they mixed casually among
the populace of Le Pas. Half a hundred people had seen Croisset and his
beautiful companion, but no one knew anything about them. They had come
that forenoon on a sledge, had eaten their dinner and supper at the
cabin of a Scotch tie-cutter named MacDonald, and had left on a sledge.
"She was the sweetest thing I ever saw," exclaimed Mrs. MacDonald
rapturously. "Only she couldn't talk. Two or three times she wrote
things to me on a slip of paper."
"Couldn't talk!" repeated Gregson, as the two men walked leisurely back
to the boarding-house. "What the deuce do you suppose that means, Jack?"
"I'm not supposing," replied Howland indifferently. "We've had enough of
this pretty face, Gregson. I'm going to bed. What time do we start in
"As soon as we've had breakfast--if you're anxious."
"I am. Good night."
Howland went to his room, but it was not to sleep. For hours he sat
wide-awake, smoking cigar after cigar, and thinking. One by one he went
over the bewildering incidents of the past two days. At first they had
stirred his blood with a certain exhilaration--a spice of excitement
which was not at all unpleasant; but with this excitement there was now
a peculiar sense of oppression. The attempt that had already been made
on his life together with the persistent warnings for him to return into
the South began to have their effect. But Howland was not a man to
surrender to his fears, if they could be called fears. He was satisfied
that a mysterious peril of some kind awaited him at the camp on the
Wekusko, but he gave up trying to fathom the reason for this peril,
accepting in his businesslike way the fact that it did exist, and that
in a short time it would probably explain itself. The one puzzling
factor which he could not drive out of his thoughts was the girl. Her
sweet face haunted him. At every turn he saw it--now over the table in
the opium den, now in the white starlight of the trail, again as it had
looked at him for an instant from the sledge. Vainly he strove to
discover for himself the lurking of sin in the pure eyes that had seemed
to plead for his friendship, in the soft lips that had lied to him
because of their silence. "Please forgive me for what I have done--" He
unfolded the crumpled note and read the words again and again. "Believe
me now--" She knew that he knew that she had lied to him, that she had
lured him into the danger from which she now wished to save him. His
cheeks burned. If a thousand perils threatened him on the Wekusko he
would still go. He would meet the girl again. Despite his strongest
efforts he found it impossible to destroy the vision of her beautiful
face. The eyes, soft with appeal; the red mouth, quivering, and with
lips parted as if about to speak to him; the head as he had looked down
on it with its glory of shining hair--all had burned themselves on his
soul in a picture too deep to be eradicated. If the wilderness was
interesting to him before it was doubly so now because that face was a
part of it, because the secret of its life, of the misery that it had
half confessed to him, was hidden somewhere out in the black mystery of
the spruce and balsam forests.
He went to bed, but it was a long time before he fell asleep. It seemed
to him that he had scarcely closed his eyes when a pounding on the door
aroused him and he awoke to find the early light of dawn creeping
through the narrow window of his room. A few minutes later he joined
Gregson, who was ready for breakfast.
"The sledge and dogs are waiting," he greeted. As they seated themselves
at the table he added, "I've changed my mind since last night, Howland.
I'm not going back with you. It's absolutely unnecessary, for Thorne
can put you on to everything at the camp, and I'd rather lose six
months' salary than take that sledge ride again. You won't mind,
Howland hunched his shoulders.
"To be honest, Gregson, I don't believe you'd be particularly cheerful
company. What sort of fellow is the driver?"
"We call him Jackpine--a Cree Indian--and he's the one faithful slave of
Thorne and myself at Wekusko. Hunts for us, cooks for us, and watches
after things generally. You'll like him all right."
Howland did. When they went out to the sledge after their breakfast he
gave Jackpine a hearty grip of the hand and the Cree's dark face lighted
up with something like pleasure when he saw the enthusiasm in the young
engineer's eyes. When the moment for parting came Gregson pulled his
companion a little to one side. His eyes shifted nervously and Howland
saw that he was making a strong effort to assume an indifference which
was not at all Gregson's natural self.
"Just a word, Howland," he said. "You know this is a pretty rough
country up here--some tough people in it, who wouldn't mind cutting a
man's throat or sending a bullet through him for a good team of dogs and
a rifle. I'm just telling you this so you'll be on your guard. Have
Jackpine watch your camp nights."
He spoke in a low voice and cut himself short when the Indian
approached. Howland seated himself in the middle of the six-foot
toboggan, waved his hand to Gregson, then with a wild halloo and a
snapping of his long caribou-gut whip Jackpine started his dogs on a
trot down the street, running close beside the sledge. Howland had
lighted a cigar, and leaning back in a soft mass of furs began to enjoy
his new experience hugely. Day was just fairly breaking over the forests
when they turned into the white trail, already beaten hard by the
passing of many dogs and sledges, that led from Le Pas for a hundred
miles to the camp on the Wekusko. As they struck the trail the dogs
strained harder at their traces, with Jackpine's whip curling and
snapping over their backs until they were leaping swiftly and with
unbroken rhythm of motion over the snow. Then the Cree gathered in his
whip and ran close to the leader's flank, his moccasined feet taking the
short, quick, light steps of the trained forest runner, his chest thrown
a little out, his eyes on the twisting trail ahead. It was a glorious
ride, and in the exhilaration of it Howland forgot to smoke the cigar
that he held between his fingers. His blood thrilled to the tireless
effort of the grayish-yellow pack of magnificent brutes ahead of him; he
watched the muscular play of their backs and legs, the eager
out-reaching of their wolfish heads, their half-gaping jaws, and from
them he looked at Jackpine. There was no effort in his running. His
black hair swept back from the gray of his cap; like the dogs there was
music in his movement, the beauty of strength, of endurance, of manhood
born to the forests, and when the dogs finally stopped at the foot of a
huge ridge, panting and half exhausted, Howland quickly leaped from the
sledge and for the first time spoke to the Indian.
"That was glorious, Jackpine!" he cried. "But, good Lord, man, you'll
kill the dogs!"
"They go sixt' mile in day lak dat," He grinned.
In his admiration for the wolfish looking beasts that were carrying him
through the wilderness Howland put out a hand to stroke one of them on
the head. With a warning cry the Indian jerked him back just as the dog
snapped fiercely at the extended hand.
"No touch huskie!" he exclaimed. "Heem half wolf--half dog--work hard
but no lak to be touch!"
"Wow!" exclaimed Howland. "And they're the sweetest looking pups I ever
laid eyes on. I'm certainly running up against some strange things in
He was dead tired when night came. And yet never in all his life had he
enjoyed a day so much as this one. Twenty times he had joined Jackpine
in running beside the sledge. In their intervals of rest he had even
learned to snap the thirty-foot caribou-gut lash of the dog-whip. He had
asked a hundred questions, had insisted on Jackpine's smoking a cigar at
every stop, and had been so happy and so altogether companionable that
half of the Cree's hereditary reticence had been swept away before his
unbounded enthusiasm. He helped to build their balsam shelter for the
night, ate a huge supper of moose meat, hot-stone biscuits, beans and
coffee, and then, just as he had stretched himself out in his furs for
the night, he remembered Gregson's warning. He sat up and called to
Jackpine, who was putting a fresh log on the big fire in front of
"Gregson told me to be sure and have the camp guarded at night,
Jackpine. What do you think about it?"
The Indian turned with a queer chuckles his lathery face wrinkled in a
"Gregson--heem ver' much 'fraid," he replied. "No bad man here--all down
there and in camp. We kep' watch evr' night. Heem 'fraid--I guess
"Afraid of what?"
For a moment Jackpine was silent, half bending over the fire. Then he
held out his left hand, with the little finger doubled out of sight, and
pointed to it with his other hand.
"Mebby heem finger ax'dent--mebby not," he said.
A dozen eager questions brought no further suggestions from Jackpine. In
fact, no sooner had the words fallen from his driver's lips than Howland
saw that the Indian was sorry he had spoken them. What he had said
strengthened the conviction which was slowly growing within him. He had
wondered at Gregson's strange demeanor, his evident anxiety to get out
of the country, and lastly at his desire not to return to the camp on
the Wekusko with him. There was but one solution that came to him. In
some way which he could not fathom Gregson was associated with the
mystery which enveloped him, and adding the senior engineer's
nervousness to the significance of Jackpine's words he was confident
that the missing finger had become a factor in the enigma. How should he
find Thorne? Surely he would give him an explanation--if there was an
explanation to give. Or was it possible that they would leave him
without warning to face a situation which was driving them back to
He went to sleep, giving no further thought to the guarding of the camp.
A piping hot breakfast was ready when Jackpine awakened him, and once
more the exhilarating excitement of their swift race through the forests
relieved him of the uncomfortable mental tension under which he began to
find himself. During the whole of the day Jackpine urged the dogs
almost to the limit of their endurance, and early in the afternoon
assured his companion that they would reach the Wekusko by nightfall. It
was already dark when they came out of the forest into a broad stretch
of cutting beyond which Howland caught the glimmer of scattered lights.
At the farther edge of the clearing the Cree brought his dogs to a halt
close to a large log-built cabin half sheltered among the trees. It was
situated several hundred yards from the nearest of the lights ahead, and
the unbroken snow about it showed that it had not been used as a
habitation for some time. Jackpine drew a key from his pocket and
without a word unlocked and swung open the heavy door.
Damp, cold air swept into the faces of the two as they stood for a
moment peering into the gloom. Howland could hear the Cree chuckling in
his inimitable way as he struck a match, and as a big hanging oil lamp
flared slowly into light he turned a grinning face to the engineer.
"Gregson um Thorne--heem mak' thees cabin when first kam to camp," he
said softly. "No be near much noise--fine place in woods where be quiet
nights. Live here time--then Gregson um Thorne go live in camp. Say too
far 'way from man. But that not so. Thorne 'fraid--Gregson 'fraid--"
He hunched his shoulders again as he opened the door of the big box
stove which stood in the room.
Howland asked no questions, but stared about him. Everywhere he saw
evidences of the taste and one-time tenancies of the two senior
engineers. Heavy bear rugs lay on the board floor; the log walls, hewn
almost to polished smoothness, were hung with half a dozen pictures; in
one corner was a bookcase still filled with books, in another a lounge
covered with furs, and in this side of the room was a door which Howland
supposed must open into the sleeping apartment. A fire was roaring in
the big stove before he finished his inspection and as he squared his
shivering back to the heat he pulled out his pipe and smiled cheerfully
"Afraid, eh? And am I to stay here?"
"Gregson um Thorne say yes."
"Well, Jackpine, you just hustle over to the camp and tell Thorne I'm
here, will you?"
For a moment the Indian hesitated, then went out and closed the door
"Afraid!" exclaimed Howland when he had gone. "Now what the devil are
they afraid of? It's deuced queer, Gregson--and ditto, Thorne. If you're
not the cowards I'm half believing you to be you won't leave me in the
dark to face something from which you are running away."
He lighted a small lamp and opened the door leading into the other room.
It was, as he had surmised, the sleeping chamber. The bed, a single
chair and a mirror and stand were its sole furnishing.
Returning to the larger room, he threw off his coat and hat and seated
himself comfortably before the fire. Ten minutes later the door opened
again and Jackpine entered. He was supporting another figure by the arm,
and as Howland stared into the bloodless face of the man who came with
him, he could not repress the exclamation of astonishment which rose to
his lips. Three months before he had last seen Thorne in Chicago; a man
in the prime of life, powerfully built, as straight as a tree, the most
efficient and highest paid man in the company's employ. How often had he
envied Thorne! For years he had been his ideal of a great engineer.
He stood speechless. Slowly, as if the movement gave him pain, Thorne
slipped off the great fur coat from about his shoulders. One of his arms
was suspended in a sling. His huge shoulders were bent, his eyes wild
and haggard. The smile that came to his lips as he held out a hand to
Howland gave to his death-white face an appearance even more ghastly.
"Hello, Jack!" he greeted. "What's the matter, man? Do I look like a
"What is the matter, Thorne? I found Gregson half dying at Le Pas, and
"It's a wonder you're not reading my name on a little board slab instead
of seeing yours truly in flesh and blood, Jack," laughed Thorne
nervously. "A ton of rock, man--a ton of rock, and I was under it!"
Over Thorne's shoulder the young engineer caught a glimpse of the Cree's
face. A dark flash had shot into his eyes. His teeth gleamed for an
instant between his tense lips in something that might have been
Thorne sat down, rubbing his hands before the fire.
"We've been unfortunate, Jack," he said slowly. "Gregson and I have had
the worst kind of luck since the day we struck this camp, and we're no
longer fit for the job. It will take us six months to get on our feet
again. You'll find everything here in good condition. The line is blazed
straight to the bay; we've got three hundred good men, plenty of
supplies, and so far as I know you'll not find a disaffected hand on
the Wekusko. Probably Gregson and I will take hold of the Le Pas end of
the line in the spring. It's certainly up to you to build the roadway
to the bay."
"I'm sorry things have gone badly," replied Howland. He leaned forward
until his face was close to his companion's. "Thorne, is there a man up
here named Croisset--or a girl called Meleese?"
He watched the senior engineer closely. Nothing to confirm his
suspicions came into Thorne's face. Thorne looked up, a little surprised
at the tone of the other's voice.
"Not that I know of, Jack. There may be a man named Croisset among our
three hundred workers--you can tell by looking at the pay-roll. There
are fifteen or twenty married men among us and they have families.
Gregson knows more about the girls than I. Anything particular?"
"Just a word I've got for them--if they're here," replied Howland
carelessly. "Are these my quarters?"
"If you like them. When I got hurt we moved up among the men. Brought us
into closer touch with the working end, you know."
"You and Gregson must have been laid up at about the same time," said
the young engineer. "That was a painful wound of Gregson's. I wonder who
the deuce it was who shot him? Funny that a man like Gregson should have
Thorne sat up with a jerk. There came the rattle of a pan from the
stove, and Howland turned his head in time to see Jackpine staring at
him as though he had exploded a mine under his feet.
"Who shot him?" gasped the senior engineer. "Why--er--didn't Gregson
tell you that it was an accident?"
"Why should he lie, Thorne?"
A faint flush swept into the other's pallid face. For a moment there was
a penetrating glare in his eyes as he looked at Howland. Jackpine still
stood silent and motionless beside the stove.
"He told me that it was an accident," said Thorne at last.
"Funny," was all that Howland said, turning to the Indian as though the
matter was of no importance. "Ah, Jackpine, I'm glad to see the
coffee-pot on. I've got a box of the blackest and mildest Porto Ricans
you ever laid eyes on in my kit, Thorne, and we'll open 'em up for a
good smoke after supper. Hello, why have you got boards nailed over
For the first time Howland noticed that the thin muslin curtain, which
he thought had screened a window, concealed, in place of a window, a
carefully fitted barricade of plank. A sudden thrill shot through him as
he rose to examine it. With his back toward Thorne he said, half
laughing, "Perhaps Gregson was afraid that the fellow who clipped off
his finger would get him through the window, eh?"
He pretended not to perceive the effect of his words on the senior
engineer. The two sat down to supper and for an hour after they had
finished they smoked and talked on the business of the camp. It was ten
o'clock when Thorne and Jackpine left the cabin.
No sooner had they gone than Howland closed and barred the door, lighted
another cigar, and began pacing rapidly up and down the room. Already
there were developments. Gregson had lied to him about his finger.
Thorne had lied to him about his own injuries, whatever they were. He
was certain of these two things--and of more. The two senior engineers
were not leaving the Wekusko because of mere dissatisfaction with the
work and country. They were fleeing. And for some reason they were
keeping from him the real motive for their flight. Was it possible that
they were deliberately sacrificing him in order to save themselves? He
could not bring himself to believe this, notwithstanding the evidence
against them. Both were men of irreproachable honor. Thorne,
especially, was a man of indomitable nerve--a man who would be the last
in the world to prove treacherous to a business associate or a friend.
He was sure that neither of them knew of Croisset or of the beautiful
girl whom he had met at Prince Albert, which led him to believe that
there were other characters in the strange plot in which he had become
involved besides those whom he had encountered on the Great North Trail.
Again he examined the barricaded window and he was more than ever
convinced that his chance hit at Thorne had struck true.
He was tired from his long day's travel but little inclination to sleep
came to him, and stretching himself out on the lounge with his head and
shoulders bolstered up with furs, he continued to smoke and think. He
was surprised when a little clock tinkled the hour of eleven. He had not
seen the clock before. Now he listened to the faint monotonous ticking
it made close to his head until he felt an impelling drowsiness creeping
over him and he closed his eyes. He was almost asleep when it struck
again--softly, and yet with sufficient loudness to arouse him. It had
With an effort Howland overcame his drowsiness and dragged himself to a
sitting posture, knowing that he should undress and go to bed. The lamp
was still burning brightly and he arose to turn down the wick. Suddenly
he stopped. To his dulled senses there came distinctly the sound of a
knock at the door. For a few moments he waited, silent and motionless.
It came again, louder than before, and yet in it there was something of
caution. It was not the heavy tattoo of one who had come to awaken him
on a matter of business.
Who could be his midnight visitor? Softly Howland went back to his heavy
coat and slipped his small revolver into his hip pocket. The knock came
again. Then he walked to the door, shot back the bolt, and, with his
right hand gripping the butt of his pistol, flung it wide open.
For a moment he stood transfixed, staring speechlessly at a white,
startled face lighted up by the glow of the oil lamp. Bewildered to the
point of dumbness, he backed slowly, holding the door open, and there
entered the one person in all the world whom he wished most to see--she
who had become so strangely a part of his life since that first night at
Prince Albert, and whose sweet face was holding a deeper meaning for him
with every hour that he lived. He closed the door and turned, still
without speaking; and, impelled by a sudden spirit that sent the blood
thrilling through his veins, he held out both hands to the girl for whom
he now knew that he was willing to face all of the perils that might
await him between civilization and the bay.
THE LOVE OF A MAN
For a moment the girl hesitated, her ungloved hands clenched on her
breast, her bloodless face tense with a strange grief, as she saw the
outstretched arms of the man whom her treachery had almost lured to his
death. Then, slowly, she approached, and once more Howland held her
hands clasped to him and gazed questioningly down into the wild eyes
that stared into his own.
"Why did you run away from me?" were the first words that he spoke. They
came from him gently, as if he had known her for a long time. In them
there was no tone of bitterness; in the warmth of his gray eyes there
was none of the denunciation which she might have expected. He repeated
the question, bending his head until he felt the soft touch of her hair
on his lips. "Why did you run away from me?"
She drew away from him, her eyes searching his face.
"I lied to you," she breathed, her words coming to him in a whisper. "I
The words caught in her throat. He saw her struggling to control
herself, to stop the quivering of her lip, the tremble in her voice. In
another moment she had broken down, and with a low, sobbing cry sank in
a chair beside the table and buried her head in her arms. As Howland saw
the convulsive trembling of her shoulders, his soul was flooded with a
strange joy--not at this sight of her grief, but at the knowledge that
she was sorry for what she had done. Softly he approached. The girl's
fur cap had fallen off. Her long, shining braid was half undone and its
silken strands fell over her shoulder and glistened in the lamp-glow on
the table. His hand hesitated, and then fell gently on the bowed head.
"Sometimes the friend who lies is the only friend who's true," he said.
"I believe that it was necessary for you to--lie."
Just once his hand stroked her soft hair, then, catching himself, he
went to the opposite side of the narrow table and sat down. When the
girl raised her head there was a bright flush in her cheeks. He could
see the damp stain of tears on her face, but there was no sign of them
now in the eyes that seemed seeking in his own the truth of his words,
spoken a few moments before.
"You believe that?" she questioned eagerly. "You believe that it was
necessary for me to--lie?" She leaned a little toward him, her fingers
twining themselves about one another nervously, as she waited for him
"Yes," said Howland. He spoke the one word with a finality that sent a
gladness into the soft brown eyes across from him. "I believe that you
_had_ to lie to me."
His low voice was vibrant with unbounded faith. Other words were on his
lips, but he forced them back. A part of what he might have said--a part
of the strange, joyous tumult in his heart--betrayed itself in his face,
and before that betrayal the girl drew back slowly, the color fading
from her cheeks.
"And I believe you will not lie to me again," he said.
She rose to her feet and flung back her hair, looking down on him in the
manner of one who had never before met this kind of man, and knew not
what to make of him.
"No, I will not lie to you again," she replied, more firmly. "Do you
believe me now?"
"Then go back into the South. I have come to tell you that again
to-night--to _make_ you believe me. You should have turned back at Le
Pas. If you don't go--to-morrow--"
Her voice seemed to choke her, and she stood without finishing, leaving
him to understand what she had meant to say. In an instant Howland was
at her side. Once more his old, resolute fighting blood was up. Firmly
he took her hands again, his eyes compelling her to look up at him.
"If I don't go to-morrow--they will kill me," he completed, repeating
the words of her note to him. "Now, if you are going to be honest with
me, tell me this--_who_ is going to kill me, and _why_?"
He felt a convulsive shudder pass through her as she answered,
"I said that I would not lie to you again. If I can not tell you the
truth I will tell you nothing. It is impossible for me to say why your
life is in danger."
"But you know?"
He seated her again in the chair beside the table and sat down opposite
"Will you tell me who you are?"
She hesitated, twisting her fingers nervously in a silken strand of her
hair. "Will you?" he persisted.
"If I tell you who I am," she said at last, "you will know who is
threatening your life."
He stated at her in astonishment.
"The devil, you say!" The words slipped from his lips before he could
stop them. For a second time the girl rose from her chair.
"You will go?" she entreated. "You will go to-morrow?"
Her hand was on the latch of the door.
"You will go?"
He had risen, and was lighting a cigar over the chimney of the lamp.
Laughing, he came toward her.
"Yes, surely I am going--to see you safely home." Suddenly he turned
back to the lounge and belted on his revolver and holster. When he
returned she barred his way defiantly, her back against the door.
"You can not go!"
"Because--" He caught the frightened flutter of her voice again.
"Because they will kill you!"
The low laugh that he breathed in her hair was more of joy than fear.
"I am glad that you care," he whispered to her softly.
"You must go!" she still persisted.
"With you, yes," he answered.
"No, no--to-morrow. You must go back to Le Pas--back into the South.
Will you promise me that?"
"Perhaps," he said. "I will tell you soon." She surrendered to the
determination in his voice and allowed him to pass out into the night
with her. Swiftly she led him along a path that ran into the deep gloom
of the balsam and spruce. He could hear the throbbing of her heart and
her quick, excited breathing as she stopped, one of her hands clasping
him nervously by the arm.
"It is not very far--from here," she whispered "You must not go with me.
If they saw me with you--at this hour--" He felt her shuddering
"Only a little farther," he begged.
She surrendered again, hesitatingly, and they went on, more slowly than
before, until they came to where a few faint lights in the camp were
visible ahead of them.
"Now--now you must go!"
Howland turned as if to obey. In an instant the girl was at his side.
"You have not promised," she entreated. "Will you go--to-morrow?"
In the luster of the eyes that were turned up to him in the gloom
Howland saw again the strange, sweet power that had taken possession of
his soul. It did not occur to him in these moments that he had known
this girl for only a few hours, that until to-night he had heard no word
pass from her lips. He was conscious only that in the space of those few
hours something had come into his life which he had never known before;
and a deep longing to tell her this, to take her sweet face between his
hands, as they stood in the gloom of the forest, and to confess to her
that she had become more to him than a passing vision in a strange
wilderness filled him. That night he had forgotten half of the strenuous
lesson he had striven years to master; success, ambition, the mere joy
of achievement, were for the first time sunk under a greater thing for
him--the pulsating, human presence of this girl; and as he looked down
into her face, pleading with him still in its white, silent terror, he
forgot, too, what this woman was or might have been, knowing only that
to him she had opened a new and glorious world filled with a promise
that stirred his blood like sharp wine. He crushed her hands once more
to his breast as he had done on the Great North Trail, holding her so
close that he could feel the throbbing of her bosom against him. He
spoke no word--and still her eyes pleaded with him to go. Suddenly he
freed one of his hands and brushed back the thick hair from her brow and
turned her face gently, until what dim light came down from the stars
above glowed in the beauty of her eyes. In his own face she saw that
which he had not dared to speak, and from her lips there came a soft
little sobbing cry.
"No, I have not promised--and I will not promise," he said, holding her
face so that she could not look away from him. "Forgive me
for--for--doing this--" And before she could move he caught her for a
moment close in his arms, holding her so that he felt the quick beating
of her heart against his own, the sweep of her hair and breath in his
face. "This is why I will not go back," he cried softly. "It is because
I love you--love you--"
He caught himself, choking back the words, and as she drew away from him
her eyes shone with a glory that made him half reach out his arms
"You will forgive me!" he begged. "I do not mean to do wrong. Only, you
must know why I shall not go back into the South."
From her distance she saw his arms stretched like shadows toward her.
Her voice was low, so low that he could hardly hear the words she spoke,
but its sweetness thrilled him.
"If you love me you will do this thing for me. You will go to-morrow."
"I?" He heard the tremulous quiver in her voice. "Very soon you will
forget that you have--ever--seen--me."
From down the path there came the sound of low voices. Excitedly the
girl ran to Howland, thrusting him back with her hands.
"Go! Go!" she cried tensely. "Hurry back to the cabin! Lock your
door--and don't come out again to-night! Oh, please, if you love me,
The voices were approaching. Howland fancied that he could distinguish
dark shadows between the thinned walls of the forest. He laughed softly.
"I am not going to run, little girl," he whispered. "See?" He drew his
revolver so that it gleamed in the light of the stars.
With a frightened gasp the girl pulled him into the thick bushes beside
the path until they stood a dozen paces from where those who were coming
down the trail would pass. There was a silence as Howland slipped his
weapon back into its holster. Then the voices came again, very near, and
at the sound of them his companion shrank close to him, her hands
clutching his arms, her white, frightened face raised to him in piteous
appeal. His blood leaped through him like fire. He knew that the girl
had recognized the voices--that they who were about to pass him were the
mysterious enemies against whom she had warned him. Perhaps they were
the two who had attacked him on the Great North Trail. His muscles grew
tense. The girl could feel them straining under her hands, could feel
his body grow rigid and alert. His hand fell again on his revolver; he
made a step past her, his eyes flashing, his face as set as iron.
Almost sobbing, she pressed herself against his breast, holding
"Don't--don't--don't--" she whispered.
They could hear the cracking of brush under the feet of those who were
approaching. Suddenly the sounds ceased not twenty paces away.
From his arms the girl's hands rose slowly to his shoulders, to his
face, caressingly, pleadingly; her beautiful eyes glowed, half with
terror, half with a prayer to him.
"Don't!" she breathed again, so close that her sweet breath fell warm on
his face. "Don't--if you--if you care for me!"
Gently he drew her close in his arms, crushing her face to his breast,
kissing her hair, her eyes, her mouth.
"I love you," he whispered again and again.
The steps were resumed, the voices died away. Then there came a pressure
against his breast, a gentle resistance, and he opened his arms so that
the girl drew back from him. Her lips were smiling at him, and in that
smile there was gentle accusation, the sweetness of forgiveness, and he
could see that with these there had come also a flush into her cheeks
and a dazzling glow into her eyes.
"They are gone," she said tremblingly.
"Yes; they are gone."
He stood looking down into her glowing face in silence. Then, "They are
gone," he repeated. "They were the men who tried to kill me at Prince
Albert. I have let them go--for you. Will you tell me your name?"
"Yes--that much--now. It is Meleese."
The name fell from him sharply. In an instant there recurred to him all
that Croisset had said, and there almost came from his lips the
half-breed's words, which had burned themselves in his memory, "Perhaps
you will understand when I tell you this warning is sent to you by the
little Meleese." What had Croisset meant?
"Meleese," he repeated, looking strangely into the girl's face.
She drew back from him slowly, the color fading from her cheeks; and as
she saw the light in his eyes, there burst from her a short,
"Now--you understand--you understand why you must go back into the
South," she almost sobbed. "Oh, I have sinned to tell you my name! But
you will go, won't you? You will go--for me--"
"For you I would go to the end of the earth!" interrupted Howland, his
pale face near to her. "But you must tell me why. I don't understand
you. I don't know why those men tried to kill me in Prince Albert. I
don't know why my life is in danger here. Croisset told me that my
warning back there came from a girl named Meleese. I didn't understand
him. I don't understand you. It is all a mystery to me. So far as I know
I have never had enemies. I never heard your name until Croisset spoke
it. What did he mean? What do you mean? Why do you want to drive me
from the Wekusko? Why is my life in danger? It is for you to tell me
these things. I have been honest with you. I love you. I will fight for
you if it is necessary--but you must tell me--tell me--"
His breath was hot in her face, and she stared at him as if what she
heard robbed her of the power of speech.
"Won't you tell me?" he whispered, more softly. "Meleese--" She made no
effort to resist him as he drew her once more in his arms, crushing her
sweet lips to his own. "Meleese, won't you tell me?"
Suddenly she lifted her hands to his face and pushed back his head,
looking squarely into his eyes.
"If I tell you," she said softly, "and in telling you I betray those
whom I love, will you promise to bring harm to none of them, but go--go
back into the South?"
"And leave you?"
"Yes--and leave me."
There was the faintest tremor of a sob in the voice which she was
trying so hard to control. His arms tightened about her.
"I will swear to do what is best for you--and for me," he replied. "I
will swear to bring harm to none whom you care to shield. But I will not
promise to leave you!"
A soft glow came into the girl's eyes as she unclasped his arms and
stood back from him.
"I will think--think--" she whispered quickly. "Perhaps I will tell you
to-morrow night--here--if you will keep your oath and do what is best
for you--and for me."
"I swear it!"
"Then I will meet you here--at this time--when the others are asleep.
But--to-morrow--you will be careful--careful--" Unconsciously she half
reached her arms out to him as she turned toward the path. "You will be
careful--to-morrow--promise me that."
Like a shadow she was gone. He heard her quick steps running up the
path, saw her form as it disappeared in the forest gloom. For a few
moments longer he stood, hardly breathing, until he knew that she had
gone beyond his hearing. Then he walked swiftly along the footpath that
led to the cabin.
THE BLOWING OF THE COYOTE
In the new excitement that pulsated with every fiber of his being,
Howland forgot his own danger, forgot his old caution and the fears that
gave birth to it, forgot everything in these moments but Meleese and his
own great happiness. For he was happy, happier than he had ever been in
his life, happier than he had ever expected to be. He was conscious of
no madness in this strange, new joy that swept through his being like a
fire; he did not stop to weigh with himself the unreasoning impulses
that filled him. He had held Meleese in his arms, he had told her of his
love, and though she had accepted it with gentle unresponsiveness he was
thrilled by the memory of that last look in her eyes, which had spoken
faith, confidence, and perhaps even more. And his faith in her had
become as limitless as the blue space above him. He had known her for
but a few hours and yet in that time it seemed to him that he had lived
longer than in all of the years that had gone before. She had lied to
him, had divulged only a part of her identity--and yet he knew that
there were reasons for these things.
To-morrow night he would see her again, and then--
What would she tell him? Whatever it was, it was to be a reward for his
own love. He knew that, by the half-fearing tremble of her voice, the
sobbing catch of her breath, the soft glow in her eyes. Impelled by that
love, would she confide in him? And then--would he go back into
He laughed, softly, joyfully.
Yes, he would go back into the South--he would go to the other end of
the earth, if she would go with him. What was the building of this
railroad now to that other great thing that had come into his life? For
the first time he saw duty in another light. There were others who
could build the road; success, fortune, ambition--in the old way he had
seen them--were overshadowed now by this love of a girl.
He stopped and lighted his pipe. The fragrant odor of the tobacco, the
flavor of the warm smoke in his mouth, helped to readjust him, to cool
his heated brain. The old fighting instincts leaped into life again. Go
into the South? He asked himself the question once more, and in the
gloomy silence of the forest his low laugh fell again as he clenched his
hands in anticipation of what was ahead of him. No--he would build the
road! And in building it he would win this girl, if it was given for him
to possess her.