Part 3 out of 3
Jean had bent to unstrap one end of the sledge pack and an angry flash
leaped into his eyes at the threatening tone of the engineer's voice.
For a moment he seemed on the point of speech, but caught himself and in
silence divided the small chunk of meat which he drew from the pack,
giving the larger share to Howland as he went to the head of the dogs.
Only once or twice during the next hour did he look back, and after each
of these glances he redoubled his efforts at urging on the huskies.
Before they had come to the edge of the black banskian forest which Jean
had pointed out from the farther side of the plain, Howland saw that the
pace was telling on the team. The leader was trailing lame, and now and
then the whole pack would settle back in their traces, to be urged on
again by the fierce cracking of Croisset's long whip. To add to his own
discomfiture Howland found that he could no longer keep up with Jean
and the dogs, and with his weight added to the sledge the huskies
settled down into a tugging walk.
Thus they came into the deep low forest, and Jean, apparently oblivious
of the exhaustion of both man and dogs, walked now in advance of the
team, his eyes constantly on the thin trail ahead. Howland could not
fail to see that his unnecessary threat of a few hours before still
rankled in the Frenchman's mind, and several times he made an effort to
break the other's taciturnity. But Jean strode on in moody silence,
answering only those things which were put to him directly, and speaking
not an unnecessary word. At last the engineer jumped from the sledge and
overtook his companion.
"Hold on, Jean," he cried. "I've got enough. You're right, and I want to
apologize. We're busted--that is, the dogs and I are busted, and we
might as well give it up until we've had a feed. What do you say?"
"I say that you have stopped just in time, M'seur," replied Croisset
with purring softness. "Another half hour and we would have been through
the forest, and just beyond that--in the edge of the plain--are those
whom you seek, Meleese and her people. That is what I started to tell
you back there when you shut me up. _Mon Dieu_, if it were not for
Meleese I would let you go on. And then--what would happen then, M'seur,
if you made your visit to them in broad day? Listen!"
Jean lifted a warning hand. Faintly there came to them through the
forest the distant baying of a hound.
"That is one of our dogs from the Mackenzie country," he went on softly,
an insinuating triumph in his low voice. "Now, M'seur, that I have
brought you here what are you going to do? Shall we go on and take
dinner with those who are going to kill you, or will you wait a few
hours? Eh, which shall it be?"
For a moment Howland stood motionless, stunned by the Frenchman's words.
Quickly he recovered himself. His eyes burned with a metallic gleam as
they met the half taunt in Croisset's cool smile.
"If I had not stopped you--we would have gone on?" he questioned
"To be sure, M'seur," retorted Croisset, still smiling. "You warned me
to lose no time--that something would happen if I did."
With a quick movement Howland drew his revolver and leveled it at the
"If you ever prayed to those blessed saints of yours, do it now, Jean
Croisset. I'm going to kill you!" he cried fiercely.
THE GLEAM OF THE LIGHT
In a single breath the face of Jean Croisset became no more than a mask
of what it had been. The taunting smile left his lips and a gray pallor
spread over his face as he saw Howland's finger crooked firmly on the
trigger of his revolver. In another instant there came the sound of a
"Damnation! An empty cartridge!" Howland exclaimed. "I forgot to load
after those three shots at the cup. It's coming this time, Jean!"
Purposely he snapped the second empty cartridge.
"The great God!" gasped Jean. "M'seur--"
From deep in the forest came again the baying of the Mackenzie hound.
This time it was much nearer, and for a moment Howland's eyes left the
Frenchman's terrified face as he turned his head to listen.
"They are coming!" exclaimed Croisset. "M'seur, I swear to--"
Again Howland's pistol covered his heart.
"Then it is even more necessary that I kill you," he said with frightful
calmness. "I warned you that I would kill you if you led me into a trap,
Croisset. The dogs are bushed. There is no way out of this but to
fight--if there are people coming down the trail. Listen to that!"
This time, from still nearer, came the shout of a man, and then of
another, followed by the huskies' sharp yelping as they started afresh
on the trail. The flush of excitement that had come into Howland's face
paled until he stood as white as the Frenchman. But it was not the
whiteness of fear. His eyes were like blue steel flashing in
"There is nothing to do but fight," he repeated, even more calmly than
before. "If we were a mile or two back there it could all happen as I
planned it. But here--"
"They will hear the shots," cried Jean. "The post is no more than a
gunshot beyond the forest, and there are plenty there who would come out
to see what it means. Quick, M'seur--follow me. Possibly they are
hunters going out to the trap-lines. If it comes to the worst--"
"What then?" demanded Howland.
"You can shoot me a little later," temporized the Frenchman with a show
of his old coolness. "_Mon Dieu_, I am afraid of that gun, M'seur. I
will get you out of this if I can. Will you give me the chance--or will
"I will shoot--if you fail," replied the engineer.
Barely were the words out of his mouth when Croisset sprang to the head
of the dogs, seized the leader by his neck-trace and half dragged the
team and sledge through the thick bush that edged the trail. A dozen
paces farther on the dense scrub opened into the clearer run of the
low-hanging banskian through which Jean started at a slow trot, with
Howland a yard behind him, and the huskies following with human-like
cleverness in the sinuous twistings of the trail which the Frenchman
marked out for them. They had progressed not more than three hundred
yards when there came to them for a third time the hallooing of a voice.
With a sharp "hup, hup," and a low crack of his whip Jean stopped
"The Virgin be praised, but that is luck!" he exclaimed. "They have
turned off into another trail to the east, M'seur. If they had come on
to that break in the bush where we dragged the sledge through--" He
shrugged his shoulders with a gasp of relief. "_Sacre_, they would not
be fools enough to pass it without wondering!"
Howland had broken the breech of his revolver and was replacing the
three empty cartridges with fresh ones.
"There will be no mistake next time," he said, holding out the weapon.
"You were as near your death a few moments ago as ever before in your
life, Croisset--and now for a little plain understanding between us.
Until we stopped out there I had some faith in you. Now I have none. I
regard you as my worst enemy, and though you are deuced near to your
friends I tell you that you were never in a tighter box in your life. If
I fail in my mission here, you shall die. If others come along that
trail before dark, and run us down, I will kill you. Unless you make it
possible for me to see and talk with Meleese I will kill you. Your life
hangs on my success; with my failure your death is as certain as the
coming of night. I am going to put a bullet through you at the slightest
suspicion of treachery. Under the circumstances what do you propose
"I am glad that you changed your mind, M'seur, and I will not tempt you
again. I will do the best that I can," said Jean. Through a narrow break
in the tops of the banskian pines a few feathery flakes of snow were
falling, and Jean lifted his eyes to the slit of gray sky above them.
"Within an hour it will be snowing heavily," he affirmed. "If they do
not run across our trail by that time, M'seur, we shall be safe."
He led the way through the forest again, more slowly and with greater
caution than before, and whenever he looked over his shoulder he caught
the dull gleam of Howland's revolver as it pointed at the hollow of
"The devil, but you make me uncomfortable," he protested. "The hammer is
up, too, M'seur!"
"Yes, it is up," said Howland grimly. "And it never leaves your back,
Croisset. If the gun should go off accidentally it would bore a hole
clean through you."
Half an hour later the Frenchman halted where the banskians climbed the
side of a sloping ridge.
"If you could trust me I would ask to go on ahead," whispered Jean.
"This ridge shuts in the plain, M'seur, and just over the top of it is
an old cabin which has been abandoned for many years. There is not one
chance in a thousand of there being any one there, though it is a good
fox ridge at this season. From it you may see the light in Meleese's
window at night."
He did not stop to watch the effect of his last words, but began picking
his way up the ridge with the dogs tugging at his heels. At the top he
swung sharply between two huge masses of snow-covered rock, and in the
lee of the largest of these, almost entirely sheltered from the drifts
piled up by easterly winds, they came suddenly on a small log hut. About
it there were no signs of life. With unusual eagerness Jean scanned the
surface of the snow, and when he saw that there was trail of neither man
nor beast in the unbroken crust a look of relief came into his face.
"_Mon Dieu_, so far I have saved my hide," he grinned. "Now, M'seur,
look for yourself and see if Jean Croisset has not kept his word!"
A dozen steps had taken him through a screen of shrub to the opposite
slope of the ridge. With outstretched arm he pointed down into the
plain, and as Howland's eyes followed its direction he stood throbbing
with sudden excitement. Less than a quarter of a mile away, sheltered in
a dip of the plain, were three or four log buildings rising black and
desolate out of the white waste. One of these buildings was a large
structure similar to that in which Howland had been imprisoned, and as
he looked a team and sledge appeared from behind one of the cabins and
halted close to the wall of the large building. The driver was plainly
visible, and to Howland's astonishment he suddenly began to ascend the
side of this wall. For the moment Howland had not thought of a stair.
Jean's attitude drew his eyes. The Frenchman had thrust himself half out
of the screening bushes and was staring through the telescope of his
hands. With an exclamation he turned quickly to the engineer.
"Look, M'seur! Do you see that man climbing the stair? I don't mind
telling you that he is the one who hit you over the head on the trail,
and also one of those who shut you up in the coyote. Those are his
quarters at the post, and possibly he is going up to see Meleese. If you
were much of a shot you could settle a score or two from here, M'seur."
The figure had stopped, evidently on a platform midway up the side of
the building. He stood for a moment as if scanning the plain between him
and the mountain, then disappeared. Howland had not spoken a word, but
every nerve in his body tingled strangely.
"You say Meleese--is there?" he questioned hesitatingly. "And he--who is
that man, Croisset?"
Jean shrugged his shoulders and drew himself back into the bush, turning
leisurely toward the old cabin.
"_Non_, M'seur, I will not tell you that," he protested. "I have brought
you to this place. I have pointed out to you the stair that leads to the
room where you will find Meleese. You may cut me into ribbons for the
ravens, but I will tell you no more!"
Again the threatening fire leaped into Howland's eyes.
"I will trouble you to put your hands behind your back, Croisset," he
commanded. "I am going to return a certain compliment of yours by tying
your hands with this piece of babeesh, which you used on me.
"And after that, M'seur--" urged Jean, with a touch of the old taunt in
his voice, and stopping with his back to the engineer and his hands
behind him. "After that?"
"You will tell me all that I want to know," finished Howland, tightening
the thong about his wrists.
He led the way then to the cabin. The door was closed, but opened
readily as he put his weight against it. The single room was lighted by
a window through which a mass of snow had drifted, and contained nothing
more than a rude table built against one of the log walls, three supply
boxes that had evidently been employed as stools, and a cracked and
rust-eaten sheet-iron stove that had from all appearances long passed
into disuse. He motioned the Frenchman to a seat at one end of the
table. Without a word he then went outside, securely toggled the leading
dog, and returning, closed the door and seated himself at the end of the
table opposite Jean.
The light from the open window fell full on Croisset's dark face and
shone in a silvery streak along the top of Howland's revolver as the
muzzle of it rested casually on a line with the other's breast. There
was a menacing click as the engineer drew back the hammer.
"Now, my dear Jean, we're ready to begin the real game," he explained.
"Here we are, high and dry, and down there--just far enough away to be
out of hearing of this revolver when I shoot--are those we're going to
play against. So far I've been completely in the dark. I know of no
reason why I shouldn't go down there openly and be welcomed and given a
good supper. And yet at the same time I know that my life wouldn't be
worth a tinker's damn if I _did_ go down. You can clear up the whole
business, and that's what you're going to do. When I understand why I am
scheduled to be murdered on sight I won't be handicapped as I now am. So
go ahead and spiel. If you don't, I'll blow your head off."
Jean sat unflinching, his lips drawn tightly, his head set square and
"You may shoot, M'seur," he said quietly. "I have sworn on a cross of
the Virgin to tell you no more than I have. You could not torture me
into revealing what you ask."
Slowly Howland raised his revolver.
"Once more, Croisset--will you tell me?"
A deafening explosion filled the little cabin. From the lobe of Jean's
ear there ran a red trickle of blood. His face had gone deathly pale.
But even as the bullet had stung him within an inch of his brain he had
"Will you tell me, Croisset?"
This time the black pit of the engineer's revolver centered squarely
between the Frenchman's eyes.
The eyes of the two men met over the blue steel. With a cry Howland
slowly lowered his weapon.
"Good God, but you're a brave man, Jean Croisset!" he cried. "I'd sooner
kill a dozen men that I know than you!"
He rose to his feet and went to the door. There was still but little
snow in the air. To the north the horizon was growing black with the
early approach of the northern night. With a nervous laugh he
returned to Jean.
"Deuce take it if I don't feel like apologizing to you," he exclaimed.
"Does your ear hurt?"
"No more than if I had scratched it with a thorn," returned Jean
politely. "You are good with the pistol, M'seur."
"I would not profit by killing you--just now," mused Howland, seating
himself again on the box and resting his chin in the palm of his hand as
he looked across at the other. "But that's a pretty good intimation that
I'm desperate and mean business, Croisset. We won't quarrel about the
things I've asked you. What I'm here for is to see Meleese. Now--how is
that to happen?"
"For the life of me I don't know," replied Jean, as calmly as though a
bullet had not nipped the edge of his ear a moment before. "There is
only one way I can see, M'seur, and that is to wait and watch from this
mountain top until Meleese drives out her dogs. She has her own team,
and in ordinary seasons frequently goes out alone or with one of the
women at the post. _Mon Dieu_, she has had enough sledge-riding of late,
and I doubt if she will find pleasure in her dogs for a long time."
"I had planned to use you," said Howland, "but I've lost faith in you.
Honestly, Croisset, I believe you would stick me in the back almost as
quickly as those murderers down there." "Not in the back, M'seur,"
smiled the Frenchman, unmoved. "I have had opportunities to do that.
_Non_, since that fight back there I do not believe that I want to
"But I would be a fool to trust you. Isn't that so?"
"Not if I gave you my word. That is something we do not break up here as
you do down among the Wekusko people, and farther south."
"But you murder people for pastime--eh, my dear Jean?"
Croisset shrugged his shoulders without speaking.
"See here, Croisset," said Howland with sudden earnestness, "I'm almost
tempted to take a chance with you. Will you go down to the post
to-night, in some way gain access to Meleese, and give her a
message from me?"
"And the message--what would it be?"
"It would bring Meleese up to this cabin--to-night."
"Are you sure, M'seur?"
"I am certain that it would. Will you go?"
"The devil take you!" cried Howland angrily. "If I was not certain that
I would need you later I'd garrote you where you sit."
He rose and went to the old stove. It was still capable of holding fire,
and as it had grown too dark outside for the smoke to be observed from
the post, he proceeded to prepare a supper of hot coffee and meat. Jean
watched him in silence, and not until food and drink were on the table
did the engineer himself break silence.
"Of course, I'm not going to feed you," he said curtly, "so I'll have to
free your hands. But be careful."
He placed his revolver on the table beside him after he had freed
"I might assassinate you with a fork!" chuckled the Frenchman softly,
his black eyes laughing over his coffee cup. "I drink your health,
M'seur, and wish you happiness!"
"You lie!" snapped Howland.
Jean lowered the cup without drinking.
"It's the truth, M'seur," he insisted. "Since that _bee_-utiful fight
back there I can not help but wish you happiness. I drink also to the
happiness of Meleese, also to the happiness of those who tried to kill
you on the trail and at the coyote. But, _Mon Dieu_, how is it all to
come? Those at the post are happy because they believe that you are
dead. You will not be happy until they are dead. And Meleese--how will
all this bring happiness to her? I tell you that I am as deep in trouble
as you, M'seur Howland. May the Virgin strike me dead if I'm not!"
He drank, his eyes darkening gloomily. In that moment there flashed into
Howland's mind a memory of the battle that Jean had fought for him on
the Great North Trail.
"You nearly killed one of them--that night--at Prince Albert," he said
slowly. "I can't understand why you fought for me then and won't help me
now. But you did. And you're afraid to go down there--"
"Until I have regrown a beard," interrupted Jean with a low chuckling
laugh. "You would not be the only one to die if they saw me again like
this. But that is enough, M'seur. I will say no more."
"I really don't want to make you uncomfortable, Jean," Howland
apologized, as he secured the Frenchman's hands again after they had
satisfied their hearty appetites, "but unless you swear by your Virgin
or something else that you will make no attempt to call assistance I
shall have to gag you. What do you say?"
"I will make no outcry, M'seur. I give you my word for that."
With another length of babeesh Howland tied his companion's legs.
"I'm going to investigate a little," he explained. "I am not afraid of
your voice, for if you begin to shout I will hear you first. But with
your legs free you might take it into your head to run away."
"Would you mind spreading a blanket on the floor, M'seur? If you are
gone long this box will grow hard and sharp."
A few minutes later, after he had made his prisoner as comfortable as
possible in the cabin, Howland went again through the fringe of scrub
bush to the edge of the ridge. Below him the plain was lost in the gloom
of night. He could see nothing of the buildings at the post but two or
three lights gleaming faintly through the darkness. Overhead there were
no stars; thickening snow shut out what illumination there might have
been in the north, and even as he stood looking into the desolation to
the west the snow fell faster and the lights grew fainter and fainter
until all was a chaos of blackness.
In these moments a desire that was almost madness swept over him. Since
his fight with Jean the swift passing of events had confined his
thoughts to their one objective--the finding of Meleese and her people.
He had assured himself that his every move was to be a cool and
calculating one, that nothing--not even his great love--should urge him
beyond that reason which had made him a master-builder among men. As he
stood with the snow falling heavily on him he knew that his trail would
be covered before another day--that for an indefinite period he might
safely wait and watch for Meleese on the mountain top. And yet, slowly,
he made his way down the side of the ridge. A little way out there in
the gloom, barely beyond the call of his voice, was the girl for whom he
was willing to sacrifice all that he had ever achieved in life. With
each step the desire in him grew--the impulse to bring himself nearer to
her, to steal across the plain, to approach in the silent smother of the
storm until he could look on the light which Jean Croisset had told him
would gleam from her window.
He descended to the foot of the ridge and headed into the plain, taking
the caution to bury his feet deep in the snow that he might have a trail
to guide him back to the cabin. At first he found himself impeded by low
bush. Then the plain became more open, and he knew that there was
nothing but the night and the snow to shut out his vision ahead. Still
he had no motive, no reason for what he did. The snow would cover his
tracks before morning. There would be no harm done, and he might get a
glimpse of the light, of _her_ light.
It came on his vision with a suddenness that set his heart leaping. A
dog barked ahead of him, so near that he stopped in his tracks, and then
suddenly there shot through the snow-gloom the bright gleam of a lamp.
Before he had taken another breath he was aware of what had happened. A
curtain had been drawn aside in the chaos ahead. He was almost on the
walls of the post--and the light gleamed from high, up, from the head of
For a space he stood still, listening and watching. There was no other
light, no other sound after the barking of the dog. About him the snow
fell with fluttering noiselessness and it filled him with a sensation of
safety. The sharpest eyes could not see him, the keenest ears could not
hear him--and he advanced again until before him there rose out of the
gloom a huge shadowy mass that was blacker than the night itself. The
one lighted window was plainly visible now, its curtain two-thirds
drawn, and as he looked a shadow passed over it. Was it a woman's
shadow? The window darkened as the figure within came nearer to it, and
Howland stood with clenched hands and wildly beating heart, almost ready
to call out softly a name. A little nearer--one more step--and he would
know. He might throw a chunk of snow-crust, a cartridge from his
The shadow disappeared. Dimly Howland made out the snow-covered stair,
and he went to it and looked up. Ten feet above him the light shone out.
He looked into the gloom behind him, into the gloom out of which he had
come. Nothing--nothing but the storm. Swiftly he mounted the stair.
IN THE BEDROOM CHAMBER
Flattening himself closely against the black logs of the wall Howland
paused on the platform at the top of the stair. His groping hand touched
the jam of a door and he held his breath when his fingers incautiously
rattled the steel of a latch. In another moment he passed on, three
paces---four--along the platform, at last sinking on his knees in the
snow, close under the window, his eyes searched the lighted room an inch
at a time. He saw a section of wall at first, dimly illuminated; then a
small table near the window covered with books and magazines, and beside
it a reclining chair buried thick under a great white bear robe. On the
table, but beyond his vision, was the lamp. He drew himself a few inches
more through the snow, leaning still farther ahead, until he saw the
foot of a white bed. A little more and he stopped, his white face close
to the window-pane.
On the bed, facing him, sat Meleese. Her chin was buried in the cup of
her hands, and he noticed that she was in a dressing-gown and that her
beautiful hair was loosed and flowing in glistening waves about her, as
though she had just brushed it for the night. A movement, a slight
shifting of her eyes, and she would have seen him.
He was filled with an almost mastering impulse to press his face closer,
to tap on the window, to draw her eyes to him, but even as his hand rose
to do the bidding of that impulse something restrained him. Slowly the
girl lifted her head, and he was thrilled to find that another impulse
drew him back until his ghostly face was a part of the elusive
snow-gloom. He watched her as she turned from him and threw back the
glory of her hair until it half hid her in a mass of copper and gold;
from his distance he still gazed at her, choking and undecided, while
she gathered it in three heavy strands and plaited it into a
For an instant his eyes wandered. Beyond her presence the room was
empty. He saw a door, and observed that it opened into another room,
which in turn could be entered through the platform door behind him.
With his old exactness for detail he leaped to definite conclusion.
These were Meleese's apartments at the post, separated from all
others--and Meleese was preparing to retire for the night. If the outer
door was not locked, and he entered, what danger could there be of
interruption? It was late. The post was asleep. He had seen no light but
that in the window through which he was staring.
The thought was scarcely born before he was at the platform door. The
latch clicked gently under his fingers; cautiously he pushed the door
inward and thrust in his head and shoulders. The air inside was cold and
frosty. He reached out an arm to the right and his hand encountered the
rough-hewn surface of a wall; he advanced a step and reached out to the
left. There, too, his hand touched a wall. He was in a narrow: corridor.
Ahead of him there shone a thin ray of light from under the door that
opened into Meleese's room. Nerving himself for the last move, he went
boldly to the door, knocked lightly to give some warning of his
presence, and entered. Meleese was gone. He closed the door behind him,
scarce believing his eyes. Then at the far end of the room he saw a
curtain, undulating slightly as if from the movement of a person on the
other side of it.
"Meleese!" he called softly.
White and dripping with snow, his face bloodless in the tense excitement
of the moment, he stood with his arms half reaching out when the curtain
was thrust aside and the girl stood before him. At first she did not
recognize him in his ghostly storm-covered disguise. But before the
startled cry that was on her lips found utterance the fear that had
blanched her face gave place to a swift sweeping flood of color. For a
space there was no word between them as they stood separated by the
breadth of the room, Howland with his arms held out to her in pleading
silence, Meleese with her hands clutched to her bosom, her throat
atremble with strange sobbing notes that made no more sound than the
fluttering of a bird's wing.
And Howland, as he came across the room to her, found no words to
say--none of the things that he had meant to whisper to her, but drew
her to him and crushed her close to his breast, knowing that in this
moment nothing could tell her more eloquently than the throbbing of his
own heart, the passionate pressure of his face to her face, of his great
love which seemed to stir into life the very silence that
It was a silence broken after a moment by a short choking cry, the
quick-breathing terror of a face turned suddenly up to him robbed of its
flush and quivering with a fear that still found no voice in words. He
felt the girl's arms straining against him for freedom; her eyes were
filled with a staring, questioning horror, as though his presence had
grown into a thing of which she was afraid. The change was tonic to him.
This was what he had expected---the first terror at his presence, the
struggle against his will, and there surged back over him the forces he
had reserved for this moment. He opened his arms and Meleese slipped
from them, her hands clutched again in the clinging drapery of
"I have come for you, Meleese," he said as calmly as though his arrival
had been expected. "Jean is my prisoner. I forced him to drive me to the
old cabin up on the mountain, and he is waiting there with the dogs. We
will start back to-night--_now_." Suddenly he sprang to her again, his
voice breaking in a low pleading cry. "My God, don't you see now how I
love you?" he went on, taking her white face between his two hands.
"Don't you understand, Meleese? Jean and I have fought--he is bound hand
and foot up there in the cabin--and I am waiting for you--for you--" He
pressed her face against him, her lips so close that he could feel
their quavering breath. "I have come to fight for you--if you won't go,"
he whispered tensely. "I don't know why your people have tried to kill
me, I don't know why they want to kill me, and it makes no difference to
me now. I want you. I've wanted you since that first glimpse of your
face through the window, since the fight on the trail--every minute,
every hour, and I won't give you up as long as I'm alive. If you won't
go with me--if you won't go now--to-night--" He held her closer, his
voice trembling in her hair. "If you won't go--I'm going to stay
There was a thrillingly decisive note in his last words, a note that
carried with it more than all he had said before, and as Meleese partly
drew away from him again she gave a sharp cry of protest.
"No--no--no--" she panted, her hands clutching at his arm. "You must go
back now--now--" She pushed him toward the door, and as he backed a
step, looking down into her face, he saw the choking tremble of her
white throat, heard again the fluttering terror in her breath. "They
will kill you if they find you here," she urged. "They think you are
dead--that you fell through the ice and were drowned. If you don't
believe me, if you don't believe that I can never go with you,
Her words seemed to choke her as she struggled to finish.
"Tell Jean what?" he questioned softly.
"Will you go--then?" she cried with sobbing eagerness, as if
he already understood her. "Will you go back if Jean tells you
everything--everything about me--about--"
"No," he interrupted.
"If you only knew--then you would go back, and never see me again. You
"I will never understand," He interrupted again. "I say that it is you
who do not understand, Meleese! I don't care what Jean would tell me.
Nothing that has ever happened can make me not want you. Don't you
understand? Nothing, I say--nothing that has happened--that can ever
For a moment he stopped, looking straight into her eyes.
"Nothing--nothing in the world, Meleese," he repeated almost in a
whisper, "unless you did not tell me the truth back on the trail at
Wekusko when you said that it was not a sin to love you."
"And if I tell you--if I confess that it is a sin, that I lied back
there--then will you go?" she demanded quickly.
Her eyes flamed on him with a strange light.
"No," he said calmly. "I would not believe you."
"But it is the truth. I lied--lied terribly to you. I have sinned even
more terribly, and--and you must go. Don't you understand me now? If
some one should come--and find you here--"
"There would be a fight," he said grimly. "I have come prepared to
fight." He waited a moment, and in the silence the brown head in front
of him dropped slowly and he saw a tremor pass through the slender form,
as if it had been torn by an instant's pain. The pallor had gone from
Howland's face. The mute surrender in the bowed head, the soft sobbing
notes that he heard now in the girl's breath, the confession that he
read in her voiceless grief set his heart leaping, and again he drew her
close into his arms and turned her face up to his own. There was no
resistance now, no words, no pleading for him to go; but in her eyes he
saw the prayerful entreaty with which she had come to him on the Wekusko
trail, and in the quivering red mouth the same torture and love and
half-surrender that had burned themselves into his soul there. Love,
triumph, undying faith shone in his eyes, and he crushed her face closer
until the lovely mouth lay pouted like a crimson rose for him to kiss.
"You--you told me something that wasn't true--once--back there," he
whispered, "and you promised that you wouldn't do it again. You haven't
sinned--in the way that I mean, and in the way that you want me to
believe." His arms tightened still more about her, and his voice was
suddenly filled with a tense quick eagerness. "Why don't you tell me
everything?" he asked. "You believe that if I knew certain things I
would never want to see you again, that I would go back into the South.
You have told me that. Then--if you want me to go--why don't you reveal
these things to me? If you can't do that, go with me to-night. We will
go anywhere--to the ends of the earth--"
He stopped at the look that had come into her face. Her eyes were turned
to the window. He saw them filled with a strange terror, and
involuntarily his own followed them to where the storm was beating
softly against the window-pane. Close to the lighted glass was pressed a
man's face. He caught a flashing glimpse of a pair of eyes staring in
at them, of a thick, wild beard whitened by the snow. He knew the face.
When life seemed slipping out of his throat he had looked up into it
that night of the ambush on the Great North Trail. There was the same
hatred, the same demoniac fierceness in it now.
With a quick movement Howland sprang away from the girl and leveled his
revolver to where the face had been. Over the shining barrel he saw only
the taunting emptiness of the storm. Scarcely had the face disappeared
when there came the loud shout of a man, the hoarse calling of a name,
and then of another, and after that the quick, furious opening of the
Howland whirled, his weapon pointing to the only entrance. The girl was
ahead of him and with a warning cry he swung the muzzle of his gun
upward. In a moment she had pushed the bolt that locked the room from
the inside, and had leaped back to him, her face white, her breath
breaking in fear. She spoke no word, but with a moan of terror caught
him by the arm and pulled him past the light and beyond the thick
curtain that had hidden her when he had entered the room a few minutes
before. They were in a second room, palely lighted by a mass of coals
gleaming through the open door of a box stove, and with a second window
looking out into the thick night. Fiercely she dragged him to this
window, her fingers biting deep into the flesh of his arm.
"You must go--through this!" she cried chokingly. "Quick! O, my God,
won't you hurry? Won't you go?"
Howland had stopped. From the blackness of the corridor there came the
beat of heavy fists on the door and the rage of a thundering voice
demanding admittance. From out in the night it was answered by the sharp
barking of a dog and the shout of a second voice.
"Why should I go?" he asked. "I told you a few moments ago that I had
come prepared to fight, Meleese. I shall stay--and fight!"
"Please--please go!" she sobbed, striving to pull him nearer to the
window. "You can get away in the storm. The snow will cover your trail.
If you stay they will kill you--kill you--"
"I prefer to fight and be killed rather than to run away without you,"
he interrupted. "If you will go--"
She crushed herself against his breast.
"I can't go--now--this way--" she urged. "But I will come to you. I
promise that--I will come to you." For an instant her hands clasped his
face. "Will you go--if I promise you that?"
"You swear that you will follow me--that you will come down to the
Wekusko? My God, are you telling me the truth, Meleese?"
"Yes, yes, I will come to you--if you go now." She broke from him and he
heard her fumbling at the window. "I will come--I will come--but not to
Wekusko. They will follow you there. Go back to Prince Albert--to the
hotel where I looked at you through the window. I will come
there--sometime--as soon as I can--"
A blast of cold air swept into his face. He had thrust his revolver
into its holster and now again for an instant he held Meleese close
in his arms.
"You will be my wife?" he whispered.
He felt her throbbing against him. Suddenly her arms tightened around
"Yes, if you want me then--if you want me after you know what I am. Now,
go--please, please go!"
He pulled himself through the window, hanging for a last moment to the
"If you fail to come--within a month--I shall return," he said.
Her hands were at his face again. Once more, as on the trail at Le Pas,
he felt the sweet pressure of her lips.
"I will come," she whispered.
Her hands thrust him back and he was forced to drop to the snow below.
Scarcely had his feet touched when there sounded the fierce yelp of a
dog close to him, and as he darted away into the smother of the storm
the brute followed at his heels, barking excitedly in the manner of the
mongrel curs that had found their way up from the South. Between the
dog's alarm and the loud outcry of men there was barely time in which to
draw a breath. From the stair platform came a rapid fusillade of rifle
shots that sang through the air above Howland's head, and mingled with
the fire was a hoarse voice urging on the cur that followed within a
leap of his heels.
The presence of the dog filled the engineer with a fear that he had not
anticipated. Not for an instant did the brute give slack to his tongue
as they raced through the night, and Howland knew now that the storm and
the darkness were of little avail in his race for life. There was but
one chance, and he determined to take it. Gradually he slackened his
pace, drawing and cocking his revolver; then he turned suddenly to
confront the yelping Nemesis behind him. Three times he fired in quick
succession at a moving blot in the snow-gloom, and there went up from
that blot a wailing cry that he knew was caused by the deep bite
Again he plunged on, a muffled shout of defiance on his lips. Never had
the fire of battle raged in his veins as now. Back in the window,
listening in terror, praying for him, was Meleese. The knowledge that
she was there, that at last he had won her and was fighting for her,
stirred him with a joy that was next to madness. Nothing could stop him
now. He loaded his revolver as he ran, slackening his pace as he covered
greater distance, for he knew that in the storm his trail could be
followed scarcely faster than a walk.
He gave no thought to Jean Croisset, bound hand and foot in the little
cabin on the mountain. Even as he had clung to the window for that last
moment it had occurred to him that it would be folly to return to the
Frenchman. Meleese had promised to come to him, and he believed her, and
for that reason Jean was no longer of use to him. Alone he would lose
himself in that wilderness, alone work his way into the South, trusting
to his revolver for food, and to his compass and the matches in his
pocket for life. There would be no sledge-trail for his enemies to
follow, no treachery to fear. It would take a thousand men to find him
after the night's storm had covered up his retreat, and if one should
find him they two would be alone to fight it out.
For a moment he stopped to listen and stare futilely into the blackness
behind him. When he turned to go on his heart stood still. A shadow had
loomed out of the night half a dozen paces ahead of him, and before he
could raise his revolver the shadow was lightened by a sharp flash of
fire. Howland staggered back, his fingers loosening their grip on his
pistol, and as he crumpled down into the snow he heard over him the
hoarse voice that had urged on the dog. After that there was a space of
silence, of black chaos in which he neither reasoned nor lived, and when
there came to him faintly the sound of other voices. Finally all of
them were lost in one--a moaning, sobbing voice that was calling his
name again and again, a voice that seemed to reach to him from out of an
infinity of distance, and that he knew was the voice of Meleese. He
strove to speak, to lift his arms, but his tongue was as lead, his arms
as though fettered with steel bands.
The voice died away. He lived through a cycle of speechless, painless
night into which finally a gleam of dawn returned. He felt as if years
were passing in his efforts to move, to lift himself out of chaos. But
at last he won. His eyes opened, he raised himself. His first sensation
was that he was no longer in the snow and that the storm was not beating
into his face. Instead there encompassed him a damp dungeon-like chill.
Everywhere there was blackness--everywhere except in one spot, where a
little yellow eye of fire watched him and blinked at him. At first he
thought that the eye must be miles and miles away. But it came quickly
nearer--and still nearer--until at last he knew that it was a candle
burning with the silence of a death taper a yard or two beyond his feet.
It was the candle-light that dragged Howland quickly back into
consciousness and pain. He knew that he was no longer in the snow. His
fingers dug into damp earth as he made an effort to raise himself, and
with that effort it seemed as though a red-hot knife had cleft him from
the top of his skull to his chest. The agony of that instant's pain drew
a sharp cry from him and he clutched both hands to his head, waiting and
fearing. It did not come again and he sat up. A hundred candles danced
and blinked before him like so many taunting eyes and turned him dizzy
with a sickening nausea. One by one the lights faded away after that
until there was left only the steady glow of the real candle.
The fingers of Howland's right hand were sticky when he drew them away
from his head, and he shivered. The tongue of flame leaping out of the
night, the thunderous report, the deluge of fire that had filled his
brain, all bore their meaning for him now. It had been a close call, so
close that shivering chills ran up and down his spine as he struggled
little by little to lift himself to his knees. His enemy's shot had
grazed his head. A quarter of an inch more, an eighth of an inch even,
and there would have been no awakening. He closed his eyes for a few
moments, and when he opened them his vision had gained distance. About
him he made out indistinctly the black encompassing walls of his prison.
It seemed an interminable time before he could rise and stand on his
feet and reach the candle. Slowly he felt his way along the wall until
he came to a low, heavy door, barred from the outside, and just beyond
this door he found a narrow aperture cut through the decaying logs. It
was a yard in length and barely wide enough for him to thrust through an
arm. Three more of these narrow slits in his prison walls he found
before he came back again to the door. They reminded him of the hole
through which he had looked out on the plague-stricken cabin at the
_Maison de Mort Rouge_, and he guessed that through them came what
little fresh air found its way into the dungeon.
Near the table on which he replaced the candle was a stool, and he sat
down. Carefully he went through his pockets. His belt and revolver were
gone. He had been stripped of letters and papers. Not so much as a match
had been left him by his captors.
He stopped in his search and listened. Faintly there came to him the
ticking of his watch. He felt in his watch pocket. It was empty. Again
he listened. This time he was sure that the sound came from his feet and
he lowered the candle until the light of it glistened on something
yellow an arm's distance away. It was his watch, and close beside it lay
his leather wallet. What money he had carried in the pocketbook was
untouched, but his personal cards and half a dozen papers that it had
contained were gone.
He looked at the time. The hour hand pointed to four. Was it possible
that he had been unconscious for more than six hours? He had left Jean
on the mountain top soon after nightfall--it was not later than nine
o'clock when he had seen Meleese. Seven hours! Again he lifted his hands
to his head. His hair was stiff and matted with blood. It had congealed
thickly on his cheek and neck and had soaked the top of his coat. He had
bled a great deal, so much that he wondered he was alive, and yet during
those hours his captors had given him no assistance, had not even bound
a cloth about his head.
Did they believe that the shot had killed him, that he was already dead
when they flung him into the dungeon? Or was this only one other
instance of the barbaric brutishness of those who so insistently sought
his life? The fighting blood rose in him with returning strength. If
they had left him a weapon, even the small knife they had taken from
his pocket, he would still make an effort to settle a last score or two.
But now he was helpless.
There was, however, a ray of hope in the possibility that they believed
him dead. If they who had flung him into the dungeon believed this, then
he was safe for several hours. No one would come for his body until
broad day, and possibly not until the following night, when a grave
could be dug and he could be carried out with some secrecy. In that
time, if he could escape from his prison, he would be well on his way to
the Wekusko. He had no doubt that Jean was still a prisoner on the
mountain top. The dogs and sledge were there and both rifles were where
he had concealed them. It would be a hard race--a running fight
perhaps--but he would win, and after a time Meleese would come to him,
away down at the little hotel on the Saskatchewan.
He rose to his feet, his blood growing warm, his eyes shining in the
candle-light. The thought of the girl as she had come to him out in the
night put back into him all of his old fighting strength, all of his
unconquerable hope and confidence. She had followed him when the dog
yelped at his heels, as the first shots had been fired; she had knelt
beside him in the snow as he lay bleeding at the feet of his enemies. He
had heard her voice calling to him, had felt the thrilling touch of her
arms, the terror and love of her lips as she thought him dying. She had
given herself to him; and she would come to him--his lady of the
snows--if he could escape.
He went to the door and shoved against it with his shoulder. It was
immovable. Again he thrust his hand and arm through the first of the
narrow ventilating apertures. The wood with which his fingers came in
contact was rotting from moisture and age and he found that he could
tear out handfuls of it. He fell to work, digging with the fierce
eagerness of an animal. At the rate the soft pulpy wood gave way he
could win his freedom long before the earliest risers at the post
A sound stopped him, a hollow cough from out of the blackness beyond
the dungeon wall. It was followed an instant later by a gleam of light
and Howland darted quickly back to the table. He heard the slipping of a
bolt outside the door and it flashed on him then that he should have
thrown himself back into his old position on the floor. It was too late
for this action now. The door swung open and a shaft of light shot into
the chamber. For a space Howland was blinded by it and it was not until
the bearer of the lamp had advanced half-way to the table that he
recognized his visitor as Jean Croisset. The Frenchman's face was wild
and haggard. His eyes gleamed red and bloodshot as he stared at
"_Mon Dieu_, I had hoped to find you dead," he whispered huskily.
He reached up to hang the big oil lamp he carried to a hook in the log
ceiling, and Howland sat amazed at the expression on his face. Jean's
great eyes gleamed like living coals from out of a death-mask. Either
fear or pain had wrought deep lines in his face. His hands trembled as
he steadied the lamp. The few hours that had passed since Howland had
left him a prisoner on the mountain top had transformed him into an old
man. Even his shoulders were hunched forward with an air of weakness and
despair as he turned from the lamp to the engineer.
"I had hoped to find you dead, M'seur," he repeated in a voice so low it
could not have been heard beyond the door. "That is why I did not bind
your wound and give you water when they turned you over to my care. I
wanted you to bleed to death. It would have been easier--for both
From under the table he drew forth a second stool and sat down opposite
Howland. The two men stared at each other over the sputtering remnant of
the candle. Before the engineer had recovered from his astonishment at
the sudden appearance of the man whom he believed to be safely
imprisoned in the old cabin, Croisset's shifting eyes fell on the mass
of torn wood under the aperture.
"Too late, M'seur," he said meaningly. "They are waiting up there now.
It is impossible for you to escape."
"That is what I thought about you," replied Howland, forcing himself to
speak coolly. "How did you manage it?"
"They came up to free me soon after they got you, M'seur. I am grateful
to you for thinking of me, for if you had not told them I might have
stayed there and starved like a beast in a trap."
"It was Meleese," said Howland. "I told her."
Jean dropped his head in his hands.
"I have just come from Meleese," he whispered softly. "She sends you her
love, M'seur, and tells you not to give up hope. The great God, if she
only knew--if she only knew what is about to happen! No one has told
her. She is a prisoner in her room, and after that--after that out on
the plain--when she came to you and fought like one gone mad to save
you--they will not give her freedom until all is over. What time is
A clammy chill passed over Howland as he read the time.
The Frenchman shivered; his fingers clasped and unclasped nervously as
he leaned nearer his companion.
"The Virgin bear me witness that I wish I might strike ten years off my
life and give you freedom," he breathed quickly. "I would do it this
instant, M'seur. I would help you to escape if it were in any way
possible. But they are in the room at the head of the stair--waiting.
Something seemed to choke him and he stopped.
"At six--what then?" urged Howland. "My God, man, what makes you look
so? What is to happen at six?"
Jean stiffened. A flash of the old fire gleamed in his eyes, and his
voice was steady and clear when he spoke again.
"I have no time to lose in further talk like this, M'seur," he said
almost harshly. "They know now that it was I who fought for you and for
Meleese on the Great North Trail. They know that it is I who saved you
at Wekusko. Meleese can no more save me than she can save you, and to
make my task a little harder they have made me their messenger, and--"
Again he stopped, choking for words.
"What?" insisted Howland, leaning toward him, his face as white as the
tallow in the little dish on the table.
"Their executioner, M'seur."
With his hands gripped tightly on the table in front of him Jack Howland
sat as rigid as though an electric shock had passed through him.
"Great God!" he gasped.
"First I am to tell you a story, M'seur," continued Croisset, leveling
his reddened eyes to the engineer's. "It will not be long, and I pray
the Virgin to make you understand it as we people of the North
understand it. It begins sixteen years ago."
"I shall understand, Jean," whispered Howland. "Go on."
"It was at one of the company's posts that it happened," Jean began,
"and the story has to do with Le M'seur, the Factor, and his wife,
_L'Ange Blanc_--that is what she was called, M'seur--the White Angel.
_Mon Dieu_, how we loved her! Not with a wicked love, M'seur, but with
something very near to that which we give our Blessed Virgin. And our
love was but a pitiful thing when compared with the love of these two,
each for the other. She was beautiful, gloriously beautiful as we know
women up in the big snows; like Meleese, who was the youngest of
"Ours was the happiest post in all this great northland, M'seur,"
continued Croisset after a moment's pause; "and it was all because of
this woman and the man, but mostly because of the woman. And when the
little Meleese came--she was the first white girl baby that any of us
had ever seen--our love for these two became something that I fear was
almost a sacrilege to our dear Lady of God. Perhaps you can not
understand such a love, M'seur; I know that it can not be understood
down in that world which you call civilization, for I have been there
and have seen. We would have died for the little Meleese, and the other
Meleese, her mother. And also, M'seur, we would have killed our own
brothers had they as much as spoken a word against them or cast at the
mother even as much as a look which was not the purest. That is how we
loved her sixteen years ago this winter, M'seur, and that is how we love
her memory still."
"She is dead," uttered Howland, forgetting in these tense moments the
significance Jean's story might hold for him.
"Yes; she is dead. M'seur, shall I tell you how she died?"
Croisset sprang to his feet, his eyes flashing, his lithe body
twitching like a wolf's as he stood for an instant half leaning over
"Shall I tell you how she died, M'seur?" he repeated, falling back on
his stool, his long arms stretched over the table. "It happened like
this, sixteen years ago, when the little Meleese was four years old and
the oldest of the three sons was fourteen. That winter a man and his boy
came up from Churchill. He had letters from the Factor at the Bay, and
our Factor and his wife opened their doors to him and to his son, and
gave them all that it was in their power to give.
"_Mon Dieu_, this man was from that glorious civilization of yours,
M'seur--from that land to the south where they say that Christ's temples
stand on every four corners, but he could not understand the strange God
and the strange laws of our people! For months he had been away from the
companionship of women, and in this great wilderness the Factor's wife
came into his life as the flower blossoms in the desert. Ah, M'seur, I
can see now how his wicked heart strove to accomplish the things, and
how he failed because the glory of our womanhood up here has come
straight down from Heaven. And in failing he went mad--mad with that
passion of the race I have seen in Montreal, and then--ah, the Great
God, M'seur, do you not understand what happened next?"
Croisset lifted his head, his face twisted in a torture that was half
grief, half madness, and stared at Howland, with quivering nostrils and
heaving chest. In his companion's face he saw only a dead white pallor
of waiting, of half comprehension. He leaned over the table again,
controlling himself by a mighty effort.
"It was at that time when most of us were out among the trappers, just
before our big spring caribou roast, when the forest people came in with
their furs, M'seur. The post was almost deserted. Do you understand? The
woman was alone in her cabin with the little Meleese--and when we came
back at night she was dead. Yes, M'seur, she killed herself, leaving a
few written words to the Factor telling him what had happened.
"The man and the boy escaped on a sledge after the crime. _Mon Dieu_, how
the forest people leaped in pursuit! Runners carried the word over the
mountains and through the swamps, and a hundred sledge parties searched
the forest trails for the man-fiend and his son. It was the Factor
himself and his youngest boy who found them, far out on the Churchill
trail. And what happened then, M'seur? Just this: While the man-fiend
urged on his dogs the son fired back with a rifle, and one of his
bullets went straight through the heart of the pursuing Factor, so that
in the space of one day and one night the little Meleese was made both
motherless and fatherless by these two whom the devil had sent to
destroy the most beautiful thing we have ever known in this North. Ah,
M'seur, you turn white! Does it bring a vision to you now? Do you hear
the crack of that rifle? Can you see--"
"My God!" gasped Howland. Even now he understood nothing of what this
tragedy might mean to him--forgot everything but that he was listening
to the terrible tragedy that had come to the woman who was the mother of
the girl he loved. He half rose from his seat as Croisset paused; his
eyes glittered, his death-white face was set in tense fierce lines, his
finger-nails dug into the board table, as he demanded, "What happened
Jean was eying him like an animal. His voice was low.
"They escaped, M'seur."
With a deep breath Howland sank back. In a moment he leaned again toward
Jean as he saw come into the Frenchman's eyes a slumbering fire that a
few seconds later blazed into vengeful malignity when he drew slowly
from an inside pocket of his coat a small parcel wrapped and tied in
"They have sent you this, M'seur," he said. "'At the very last,' they
told me, 'let him read this.'"
With his eyes on the parcel, scarcely breathing, Howland waited while
with exasperating slowness Croisset's brown fingers untied the cord that
"First you must understand what this meant to us in the North, M'seur,"
said Jean, his hands covering the parcel after he had finished with the
cord. "We are different who live up here--different from those who live
in Montreal, and beyond. With us a lifetime is not too long to spend in
avenging a cruel wrong. It is our honor of the North. I was fifteen
then, and had been fostered by the Factor and his wife since the day my
mother died of the smallpox and I dragged myself into the post, almost
dead of starvation. So it happened that I was like a brother to Meleese
and the other three. The years passed, and the desire for vengeance grew
in us as we became older, until it was the one thing that we most
desired in life, even filling the gentle heart of Meleese, whom we sent
to school in Montreal when she was eleven, M'seur. It was three years
later--while she was still in Montreal--that I went on one of my
wandering searches to a post at the head of the Great Slave, and there,
Croisset had risen. His long arms were stretched high, his head thrown
back, his upturned face aflame with a passion that was almost that
"M'seur, I thank the great God in Heaven that it was given to Jean
Croisset to meet one of those whom we had pledged our lives to find--and
I slew him!"
He stood silent, eyes partly closed, still as if in prayer. When he sank
into his chair again the look of hatred had gone from his face.
"It was the father, and I killed him, M'seur--killed him slowly, telling
him of what he had done as I choked the life from him; and then, a
little at a time, I let the life back into him, forcing him to tell me
where I would find his son, the slayer of Meleese's father. And after
that I closed on his throat until he was dead, and my dogs dragged his
body through three hundred miles of snow that the others might look on
him and know that he was dead. That was six years ago, M'seur."
Howland was scarcely breathing.
"And the other--the son--" he whispered densely. "You found him,
Croisset? You killed him?"
"What would you have done, M'seur?"
Howland's hands gripped those that guarded the little parcel.
"I would have killed him, Jean."
He spoke slowly, deliberately.
"I would have killed him," he repeated.
"I am glad of that, M'seur."
Jean was unwrapping the buckskin, fold after fold of it, until at last
there was revealed a roll of paper, soiled and yellow along the edges.
"These pages are taken from the day-book at the post where the woman
lived," he explained softly, smoothing them under his hands. "Each day
the Factor of a post keeps a reckoning of incidents as they pass, as I
have heard that sea captains do on shipboard. It has been a company law
for hundreds of years. We have kept these pages to ourselves, M'seur.
They tell of what happened at our post sixteen years ago this winter."
As he spoke the half-breed came to Howland's side, smoothing the first
page on the table in front of him, his slim forefinger pointing to the
first few lines.
"They came on this day," he said, his breath close to the engineer's
ear. "These are their names, M'seur--the names of the two who destroyed
the paradise that our Blessed Lady gave to us many years ago."
In an instant Howland had read the lines. His blood seemed to dry in his
veins and his heart to stand still. For these were the words he read:
"On this day there came to our post, from the Churchill way, John
Howland and his son."
With a sharp cry he sprang to his feet, overturning the stool, facing
Croisset, his hands clenched, his body bent as if about to spring. Jean
stood calmly, his white teeth agleam. Then, slowly, he stretched out
"M'seur John Howland, will you read what happened to the father and
mother of the little Meleese sixteen years ago? Will you read, and
understand why your life was sought on the Great North Trail, why you
were placed on a case of dynamite in the Wekusko coyote, and why, with
the coming of this morning's dawn--at six--"
He paused, shivering. Howland seemed not to notice the tremendous effort
Croisset was making to control himself. With the dazed speechlessness of
one recovering from a sudden blow he turned to the table and bent over
the papers that the Frenchman had laid out before him. Five minutes
later he raised his head. His face was as white as chalk. Deep lines had
settled about his mouth. As a sick man might, he lifted his hand and
passed it over his face and through his hair. But his eyes were afire.
Involuntarily Jean's body gathered itself as if to meet attack.
"I have read it," he said huskily, as though the speaking of the words
caused him a great effort. "I understand now. My name is John Howland.
And my father's name was John Howland. I understand."
There was silence, in which the eyes of the two men met.
"I understand," repeated the engineer, advancing a step. "And you, Jean
Croisset--do you believe that I am _that_ John Howland--the John
Howland--the son who--"
He stopped, waiting for Jean to comprehend, to speak.
"M'seur, it makes no difference what I believe now. I have but one other
thing to tell you here--and one thing to give to you," replied Jean.
"Those who have tried to kill you are the three brothers. Meleese is
their sister. Ours is a strange country, M'seur, governed since the
beginning of our time by laws which we have made ourselves. To those who
are waiting above no torture is too great for you. They have condemned
you to death. This morning, exactly as the minute hand of your watch
counts off the hour of six, you will be shot to death through one of
these holes in the dungeon walls. And this--this note from Meleese--is
the last thing I have to give you."
He dropped a folded bit of paper on the table. Mechanically Howland
reached for it. Stunned and speechless, cold with the horror of his
death sentence, he smoothed out the note. There were only a few words,
apparently written in great haste.
"I have been praying for you all night. If God fails to answer my
prayers I will still do as I have promised--and follow you."
He heard a movement and lifted his eyes. Jean was gone. The door was
swinging slowly inward. He heard the wooden bolt slip into place, and
after that there was not even the sound of a moccasined foot stealing
through the outer darkness.
For many minutes Howland stood waiting as if life had left him. His eyes
were on the door, but unseeing. He made no sound, no movement again
toward the aperture in the wall. Fate had dealt him the final blow, and
when at last he roused himself from its first terrible effect there
remained no glimmering of hope in his breast, no thought of the battle
he had been making for freedom a short time before. The note fluttered
from his fingers and he drew his watch from his pocket and placed it on
the table. It was a quarter after five. There still remained
Three-quarters of an hour and then--death. There was no doubt in his
mind this time. Ever in the coyote, with eternity staring him in the
face, he had hoped and fought for life. But here there was no hope,
there was to be no fighting. Through one of the black holes in the wall
he was to be shot down, with no chance to defend himself, to prove
himself innocent. And Meleese--did she, too, believe him guilty of
He groaned aloud, and picked up the note again. Softly he repeated her
last words to him: "If God fails to answer my prayers I will still do as
I have promised, and follow you." Those words seemed to cry aloud his
doom. Even Meleese had given up hope. And yet, was there not a deeper
significance in her words? He started as if some one had struck him, his
"_'I will follow you._'"
He almost sobbed the words this time. His hands trembled and he dropped
the paper again on the table and turned his eyes in staring horror
toward the door. What did she mean? Would Meleese kill herself if he was
murdered by her brothers? He could see no other meaning in her last
message to him, and for a time after the chilling significance of her
words struck his heart he scarce restrained himself from calling aloud
for Jean. If he could but send a word back to her, tell her once more of
his great love--that the winning of that love was ample reward for all
that he had lost and was about to lose, and that it gave him such
happiness as he had never known even in this last hour of his torture!
Twice he shouted for Croisset, but there came no response save the
hollow echoings of his own voice in the subterranean chambers. After
that he began to think more sanely. If Meleese was a prisoner in her
room it was probable that Croisset, who was now fully recognized as a
traitor at the post, could no longer gain access to her. In some secret
way Meleese had contrived to give him the note, and he had performed his
last mission for her.
In Howland's breast there grew slowly a feeling of sympathy for the
Frenchman. Much that he had not understood was clear to him now. He
understood why Meleese had not revealed the names of his assailants at
Prince Albert and Wekusko, he understood why she had fled from him
after his abduction, and why Jean had so faithfully kept secrecy for her
sake. She had fought to save him from her own flesh and blood, and Jean
had fought to save him, and in these last minutes of his life he would
liked to have had Croisset with him that he might have taken has hand
and thanked him for what he had done. And because he had fought for him
and Meleese the Frenchman's fate was to be almost as terrible as his
own. It was he who would fire the fatal shot at six o'clock. Not the
brothers, but Jean Croisset, would be his executioner and murderer.
The minutes passed swiftly, and as they went Howland was astonished to
find how coolly he awaited the end. He even began to debate with himself
as to through which hole the fatal shot would be fired. No matter where
he stood he was in the light of the big hanging lamp. There was no
obscure or shadowy corner in which for a few moments he might elude his
executioner. He even smiled when the thought occurred to him that it
was possible to extinguish the light and crawl under the table, thus
gaining a momentary delay. But what would that delay avail him? He was
anxious for the fatal minute to arrive, and be over.
There were moments of happiness when in the damp horror of his
death-chamber there came before him visions of Meleese, grown even
sweeter and more lovable, now that he knew how she had sacrificed
herself between two great loves--the love of her own people and the love
of himself. And at last she had surrendered to him. Was it possible that
she could have made that surrender if she, like her brothers, believed
him to be the murderer of her father--the son of the man-fiend who had
robbed her of a mother? It was impossible, he told himself. She did not
believe him guilty. And yet--why had she not given him some such word in
her last message to him?
His eyes traveled to the note on the table and he began searching in his
coat pockets. In one of them he found the worn stub of a pencil, and
for many minutes after that he was oblivious to the passing of time as
he wrote his last words to Meleese. When he had finished he folded the
paper and placed it under his watch. At the final moment, before the
shot was fired, he would ask Jean to take it. His eyes fell on his watch
dial and a cry burst from his lips.
It lacked but ten minutes of the final hour!
Above him he heard faintly the sharp barking of dogs, the hollow sound
of men's voices. A moment later there came to him an echo as of swiftly
tramping feet, and after that silence.
"Jean," he called tensely. "Ho, Jean--Jean Croisset--"
He caught up the paper and ran from one black opening to another,
calling the Frenchman's name.
"As you love your God, Jean, as you have a hope of Heaven, take this
note to Meleese!" he pleaded. "Jean--Jean Croisset--"
There came no answer, no movement outside, and Howland stilled the
beating of his heart to listen. Surely Croisset was there! He looked
again at the watch he held in his hand. In four minutes the shot would
be fired. A cold sweat bathed his face. He tried to cry out again, but
something rose in his throat and choked him until his voice was only a
gasp. He sprang back to the table and placed the note once more under
the watch. Two minutes! One and a half! One!
With a sudden fearless cry he sprang into the very center of his prison,
and flung out his arms with his face to the hole next the door. This
time his voice was almost a shout.
"Jean Croisset, there is a note under my watch on the table. After you
have killed me take it to Meleese. If you fail I shall haunt you to
Still no sound--no gleam of steel pointing at aim through the black
aperture. Would the shot come from behind?
He counted the beating of his watch up to twenty. A sound stopped him
then, and he closed his eyes, and a great shiver passed through
It was the tiny bell of his watch tinkling off the hour of six!
Scarcely had that sound ceased to ring in his brain when from far
through the darkness beyond the wall of his prison there came a creaking
noise, as if a heavy door had been swung slowly on its hinges, or a trap
opened--then voices, low, quick, excited voices, the hurrying tread of
feet, a flash of light shooting through the gloom. They were coming!
After all it was not to be a private affair, and Jean was to do his
killing as the hangman's job is done in civilization--before a crowd.
Howland's arms dropped to his side. This was more terrible than the
other--this seeing and hearing of preparation, in which he fancied that
he heard the click of Croisset's gun as he lifted the hammer.
Instead it was a hand fumbling at the door. There were no voices now,
only a strange moaning sound that he could not account for. In another
moment it was made clear to him. The door swung open, and the
white-robed figure of Meleese sprang toward him with a cry that echoed
through the dungeon chambers. What happened then--the passing of white
faces beyond the doorway, the subdued murmur of voices, were all lost to
Howland in the knowledge that at the last moment they had let her come
to him, that he held her in his arms, and that she was crushing her face
to his breast and sobbing things to him which he could not understand.
Once or twice in his life he had wondered if realities might not be
dreams, and the thought came to him now when he felt the warmth of her
hands, her face, her hair, and then the passionate pressure of her lips
on his own. He lifted his eyes, and in the doorway he saw Jean Croisset,
and behind him a wild, bearded face--the face that had been over him
when life was almost choked from him on the Great North Trail. And
beyond these two he saw still others, shining ghostly and indistinct in
the deeper gloom of the outer darkness. He strained Meleese to him, and
when he looked down into her face he saw her beautiful eyes flooded with
tears, and yet shining with a great joy. Her lips trembled as she
struggled to speak. Then suddenly she broke from his arms and ran to the
door, and Jean Croisset came between them, with the wild bearded man
still staring over his shoulder.
"M'seur, will you come with us?" said Jean.
The bearded man dropped back into the thick gloom, and without speaking
Howland followed Croisset, his eyes on the shadowy form of Meleese. The
ghostly faces turned from the light, and the tread of their retreating
feet marked the passage through the blackness. Jean fell back beside
Howland, the huge bulk of the bearded man three paces ahead. A dozen
steps more and they came to a stair down which a light shone. The
Frenchman's hand fell detainingly on Howland's arm, and when a moment
later they reached the top of the stairs all had disappeared but Jean
and the bearded man. Dawn was breaking, and a pale light fell through
the two windows of the room they had entered. On a table burned a lamp,
and near the table were several chairs. To one of these Croisset
motioned the engineer, and as Howland sat down the bearded man turned
slowly and passed through a door. Jean shrugged his shoulders as the
"_Mon Dieu_, that means that he leaves it all to me," he exclaimed. "I
don't wonder that it is hard for him to talk, M'seur. Perhaps you have
begun to understand!"
"Yes, a little," replied Howland. His heart was throbbing as if he had
just finished climbing a long hill. "That was the man who tried to kill
me. But Meleese--the--" He could go no further. Scarce breathing, he
waited for Jean to speak.
"It is Pierre Thoreau," he said, "eldest brother to Meleese. It is he
who should say what I am about to tell you, M'seur. But he is too full
of grief to speak. You wonder at that? And yet I tell you that a man
with a better soul than Pierre Thoreau never lived, though three times
he has tried to kill you. Do you remember what you asked me a short time
ago, M'seur--if I thought that _you_ were the John Howland who murdered
the father of Meleese sixteen years ago? God's saints, and I did until
hardly more than half an hour ago, when some one came from the South and
exploded a mine under our feet. It was the youngest of the three
brothers. M'seur we have made a great mistake, and we ask your
In the silence the eyes of the two men met across the table. To Howland
it was not the thought that his life was saved that came with the
greatest force, but the thought of Meleese, the knowledge that in that
hour when all seemed to be lost she was nearer to him than ever. He
leaned half over the table, his hands clenched, his eyes blazing. Jean
did not understand, for he went on quickly.
"I know it is hard, M'seur. Perhaps it will be impossible for you to
forgive a thing like this. We have tried to kill you--kill you by a slow
torture, as we thought you deserved. But think for a moment, M'seur, of
what happened up here sixteen years ago this winter. I have told you how
I choked life from the man-fiend. So I would have choked life from you
if it had not been for Meleese. I, too, am guilty. Only six years ago we
knew that the right John Howland--the son of the man I slew--was in
Montreal, and we sent to seek him this youngest brother, for he had been
a long time at school with Meleese and knew the ways of the South better
than the others. But he failed to find him at that time, and it was only
a short while ago that this brother located you.
"As Our Blessed Lady is my witness, M'seur, it is not strange that he
should have taken you for the man we sought, for it is singular that you
bear him out like a brother in looks, as I remember the boy. It is true
that Francois made a great error when he sent word to his brothers
suggesting that if either Gregson or Thorne was put out of the way you
would probably be sent into the North. I swear by the Virgin that
Meleese knew nothing of this, M'seur. She knew nothing of the schemes by
which her brothers drove Gregson and Thorne back into the South. They
did not wish to kill them, and yet it was necessary to do something that
you might replace one of them, M'seur. They did not make a move alone
but that something happened. Gregson lost a finger. Thorne was badly
hurt--as you know. Bullets came through their window at night. With
Jackpine in their employ it was easy to work on them, and it was not
long before they sent down asking for another man to replace them."
For the first time a surge of anger swept through Howland.
"The cowards!" he exclaimed. "A pretty pair, Croisset--to crawl out from
under a trap to let another in at the top!"
"Perhaps not so bad as that," said Jean. "They were given to understand
that they--and they alone--were not wanted in the country. It may be
that they did not think harm would come to you, and so kept quiet about
what had happened. It may be, too, that they did not like to have it
known that they were running away from danger. Is not that human,
M'seur? Anyway, you were detailed to come, and not until then did
Meleese know of all that had occurred."
The Frenchman stopped for a moment. The glare had faded from Howland's
eyes. The tense lines in his face relaxed.
"I--I--believe I understand everything now, Jean," he said. "You traced
the wrong John Howland, that's all. I love Meleese, Jean. I would kill
John Howland for her. I want to meet her brothers and shake their hands.
I don't blame them. They're men. But, somehow, it hurts to think of
her--of Meleese--as--as almost a murderer."
"_Mon Dieu_, M'seur, has she not saved your life! Listen to this! It
was then--when she knew what had happened--that Meleese came to me--whom
she had made the happiest man in the world because it was she who
brought my Mariane over from Churchill on a visit especially that I
might see her and fall in love with her, M'seur--which I did. Meleese
came to me--to Jean Croisset--and instead of planning your murder,
M'seur, she schemed to save your life--with me--who would have cut you
into bits no larger than my finger and fed you to the carrion ravens,
who would have choked the life out of you until your eyes bulged in
death, as I choked that one up on the Great Slave! Do you understand,
M'seur? It was Meleese who came and pleaded with me to save your
life--before you had left Chicago, before she had heard more of you than
your name, before--"
Croisset hesitated, and stopped.
"Before what, Jean?"
"Before she had learned to love you, M'seur."
"God bless her!" exclaimed Howland.
"You believe this, M'seur?"
"As I believe in a God."
"Then I will tell you what she did, M'seur," he continued in a low
voice. "The plan of the brothers was to make you a prisoner near Prince
Albert and bring you north. I knew what was to happen then. It was to be
a beautiful vengeance, M'seur--a slow torturing death on the spot where
the crime was committed sixteen years ago. But Meleese knew nothing of
this. She was made to believe that up here, where the mother and father
died, you would be given over to the proper law--to the mounted police
who come this way now and then. She is only a girl, M'seur, easily made
to believe strange things in such matters as these, else she would have
wondered why you were not given to the officers in Prince Albert. It was
the eldest brother who thought of her as a lure to bring you out of the
town into their hands, and not until the last moment, when they were
ready to leave for the South, did she overhear words that aroused her
suspicions that they were about to kill you. It was then, M'seur, that
she came to me."
"And you, Jean?"
"On the day that Mariane promised to become my wife, M'seur, I promised
in Our Blessed Lady's name to repay my debt to Meleese, and the manner
of payment came in this fashion. Jackpine, too, was her slave, and so we
worked together. Two hours after Meleese and her brothers had left for
the South I was following them, shaven of beard and so changed that I
was not recognized in the fight on the Great North Trail. Meleese
thought that her brothers would make you a prisoner that night without
harming you. Her brothers told her how to bring you to their camp. She
knew nothing of the ambush until they leaped on you from cover. Not
until after the fight, when in their rage at your escape the brothers
told her that they had intended to kill you, did she realize fully what
she had done. That is all, M'seur. You know what happened after that.
She dared not tell you at Wekusko who your enemies were, for those
enemies were of her own flesh and blood, and dearer to her than life.
She was between two great loves, M'seur--the love for her
Again Jean hesitated.
"And her love for me," finished Howland.
"Yes, her love for you, M'seur."
The two men rose from the table, and for a moment stood with clasped
hands in the smoky light of lamp and dawn. In that moment neither heard
a tap at the door leading to the room beyond, nor saw the door move
gently inward, and Meleese, hesitating, framed in the opening.
It was Howland who spoke first.
"I thank God that all these things have happened, Jean," he said
earnestly. "I am glad that for a time you took me for that other John
Howland, and that Pierre Thoreau and his brothers schemed to kill me at
Prince Albert and Wekusko, for if these things had not occurred as they
have I would never have seen Meleese. And now, Jean--"
His ears caught sound of movement, and he turned in time to see Meleese
slipping quietly out.
"Meleese!" he called softly. "Meleese!"
In an instant he had darted after her, leaving Jean beside the table.
Beyond the door there was only the breaking gloom of the gray mornings
but it was enough for him to see faintly the figure of the girl he
loved, half turned, half waiting for him. With a cry of joy he sprang
forward and gathered her close in his arms.
"Meleese--my Meleese--" he whispered.
After that there came no sound from the dawn-lit room beyond, but Jean
Croisset, still standing by the table, murmured softly to himself: "Our
Blessed Lady be praised, for it is all as Jean Croisset would have
it--and now I can go to my Mariane!"