> >James Oliver Curwood "Baree, Son of Kazan"

James Curwood - Baree, Son of Kazan (3 )

: James Oliver Curwood "Baree, Son of Kazan".

 

CHAPTER 15

For a long time after Pierrot left them the Willow did not move from the spot where she had seated herself beside Baree. It was at last the deepening shadows and a low rumble in the sky that roused her from the fear of the things Pierrot had told her. When she looked up, black clouds were massing slowly over the open space above the spruce tops. Darkness was falling. In the whisper of the wind and the dead stillness of the thickening gloom there was the sullen brewing of storm. Tonight there would be no glorious sunset. There would be no twilight hour in which to follow the trail, no moon, no starsand unless Pierrot and the factor were already on their way, they would not start in the face of the pitch blackness that would soon shroud the forest.

Nepeese shivered and rose to her feet. For the first time Baree got up, and he stood close at her side. Above them a flash of lightning cut the clouds like a knife of fire, followed in an instant by a terrific crash of thunder. Baree shrank back as if struck a blow. He would have slunk into the shelter of the brush wall of the wigwam, but there was something about the Willow as he looked at her which gave him confidence. The thunder crashed again. But he retreated no farther. His eyes were fixed on Nepeese.

She stood straight and slim in that gathering gloom riven by the lightning, her beautiful head thrown back, her lips parted, and her eyes glowing with an almost eager anticipationa sculptured goddess welcoming with bated breath the onrushing forces of the heavens. Perhaps it was because she was born during a night of storm. Many times Pierrot and the dead princess mother had told her thathow on the night she had come into the world the crash of thunder and the flare of lightning had made the hours an inferno, how the streams had burst over their banks and the stems of ten thousand forest trees had snapped in its furyand the beat of the deluge on their cabin roof had drowned the sound of her mother's pain, and of her own first babyish cries.

On that night, it may be, the Spirit of Storm was born in Nepeese. She loved to face it, as she was facing it now. It made her forget all things but the splendid might of nature. Her half-wild soul thrilled to the crash and fire of it. Often she had reached up her bare arms and laughed with joy as the deluge burst about her. Even now she might have stood there in the little open until the rain fell, if a whine from Baree had not caused her to turn. As the first big drops struck with the dull thud of leaden bullets about them, she went with him into the balsam shelter.

Once before Baree had passed through a night of terrible stormthe night he had hidden himself under a root and had seen the tree riven by lightning; but now he had company, and the warmth and soft pressure of the Willow's hand on his head and neck filled him with a strange courage. He growled softly at the crashing thunder. He wanted to snap at the lightning flashes. Under her hand Nepeese felt the stiffening of his body, and in a moment of uncanny stillness she heard the sharp, uneasy click of his teeth. Then the rain fell.

It was not like other rains Baree had known. It was an inundation sweeping down out of the blackness of the skies. Within five minutes the interior of the balsam shelter was a shower bath. After half an hour of that torrential downpour, Nepeese was soaked to the skin. The water ran in little rivulets down her body. It trickled in tiny streams from her drenched braids and dropped from her long lashes, and the blanket under her became wet as a mop. To Baree it was almost as bad as his near-drowning in the stream after his fight with Papayuchisew, and he snuggled closer and closer under the sheltering arm of the Willow. It seemed an interminable time before the thunder rolled far to the east, and the lightning died away into distant and intermittent flashings. Even after that the rain fell for another hour. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

With a laughing gasp Nepeese rose to her feet. The water gurgled in her moccasins as she walked out into the open. She paid no attention to Bareeand he followed her. Across the open in the treetops the last of the storm clouds were drifting away. A star shonethen another; and the Willow stood watching them as they appeared until there were so many she could not count. It was no longer black. A wonderful starlight flooded the open after the inky gloom of the storm.

Nepeese looked down and saw Baree. He was standing quietly and unleashed, with freedom on all sides of him. Yet he did not run. He was waiting, wet as a water rat, with his eyes fixed on her expectantly. Nepeese made a movement toward him, and hesitated.

"No, you will not run away, Baree. I will leave you free. And now we must have a fire!"

A fire! Anyone but Pierrot might have said that she was crazy. Not a stem or twig in the forest that was not dripping! They could hear the trickle of running water all about them.

"A fire," she said again. "Let us hunt for the wuskisi, Baree."

With her wet clothes clinging to her lightly, she was like a slim shadow as she crossed the soggy clearing and lost herself among the forest trees. Baree still followed. She went straight to a birch tree that she had located that day and began tearing off the loose bark. An armful of this bark she carried close to the wigwam, and on it she heaped load after load of wet wood until she had a great pile. From a bottle in the wigwam she secured a dry match, and at the first touch of its tiny flame the birch bark flared up like paper soaked in oil. Half an hour later the Willow's fireif there had been no forest walls to hide itcould have been seen at the cabin a mile away. Not until it was blazing a dozen feet into the air did she cease piling wood on it. Then she drove sticks into the soft ground and over these sticks she stretched the blanket out to dry.

So their first night passedstorm, the cool, deep pool, the big fire; and later, when the Willow's clothes and the blanket had dried, a few hours' sleep. At dawn they returned to the cabin. It was a cautious approach. There was no smoke coming from the chimney. The door was closed. Pierrot and Bush McTaggart were gone.

 

CHAPTER 16

It was the beginning of Augustthe Flying-up Moonwhen Pierrot returned from Lac Bain, and in three days more it would be the Willow's seventeenth birthday. He brought back with him many things for Nepeeseribbons for her hair, real shoes, which she wore at times like the two Englishwomen at Nelson House, and chief glory of all, some wonderful red cloth for a dress. In the three winters she had spent at the mission these women had made much of Nepeese. They had taught her to sew as well as to spell and read and pray, and at times there came to the Willow a compelling desire to do as they did.

So for three days Nepeese worked hard on her new dress and on her birthday she stood before Pierrot in a fashion that took his breath away. She had piled her hair in great coils on the crown of her head, as Yvonne, the younger of the Englishwomen, had taught her, and in the rich jet of it had half buried a vivid sprig of the crimson fireflower. Under this, and the glow in her eyes, and the red flush of her lips and cheeks came the wonderful red dress, fitted to the slim and sinuous beauty of her formas the style had been two winters ago at Nelson House. And below the dress, which reached just below the kneesNepeese had quite forgotten the proper length, or else her material had run outcame the coup de maitre of her toilet, real stockings and the gay shoes with high heels! She was a vision before which the gods of the forests might have felt their hearts stop beating. Pierrot turned her round and round without a word, but smiling. When she left him, however, followed by Baree, and limping a little because of the tightness of her shoes, the smile faded from his face, leaving it cold and bleak.

"Mon Dieu," he whispered to himself in French, with a thought that was like a sharp stab at his heart, "she is not of her mother's bloodnon. It is French. She isyeslike an angel."

A change had come over Pierrot. During the three days she had been engaged in her dressmaking, Nepeese had been quite too excited to notice this change, and Pierrot had tried to keep it from her. He had been away ten days on the trip to Lac Bain, and he brought back to Nepeese the joyous news that M'sieu McTaggart was very sick with pechipoothe blood poisonnews that made the Willow clap her hands and laugh happily. But he knew that the factor would get well, and that he would come again to their cabin on the Gray Loon. And when next time he came

It was while he was thinking of this that his face grew cold and hard, and his eyes burned. And he was thinking of it on this her birthday, even as her laughter floated to him like a song. Dieu, in spite of her seventeen years, she was nothing but a childa baby! She could not guess his horrible visions. And the dread of awakening her for all time from that beautiful childhood kept him from telling her the whole truth so that she might have understood fully and completely. Non, it should not be that. His soul beat with a great and gentle love. He, Pierrot Du Quesne, would do the watching. And she should laugh and sing and playand have no share in the black forebodings that had come to spoil his life.

On this day there came up from the south MacDonald, the government map maker. He was gray and grizzled, with a great, free laugh and a clean heart. Two days he remained with Pierrot. He told Nepeese of his daughters at home, of their mother, whom he worshiped more than anything else on earthand before he went on in his quest of the last timber line of Banksian pine, he took pictures of the Willow as he had first seen her on her birthday: her hair piled in glossy coils, her red dress, the high-heeled shoes. He carried the negatives on with him, promising Pierrot that he would get a picture back in some way. Thus fate works in its strange and apparently innocent ways as it spins its webs of tragedy.

For many weeks after MacDonald's visit there followed tranquil days on the Gray Loon. They were wonderful days for Baree. At first he was suspicious of Pierrot. After a little he tolerated him, and at last accepted him as a part of the cabinand Nepeese. It was the Willow whose shadow he became. Pierrot noted the attachment with the deepest satisfaction.

"Ah, in a few months more, if he should leap at the throat of M'sieu the Factor," he said to himself one day.

In September, when he was six months old, Baree was almost as large as Gray Wolfbig-boned, long-fanged, with a deep chest, and jaws that could already crack a bone as if it were a stick. He was with Nepeese whenever and wherever she moved. They swam together in the two poolsthe pool in the forest and the pool between the chasm walls. At first it alarmed Baree to see Nepeese dive from the rock wall over which she had pushed McTaggart, but at the end of a month she had taught him to plunge after her through that twenty feet of space.

It was late in August when Baree saw the first of his kind outside of Kazan and Gray Wolf. During the summer Pierrot allowed his dogs to run at large on a small island in the center of a lake two or three miles away, and twice a week he netted fish for them. On one of these trips Nepeese accompanied him and took Baree with her. Pierrot carried his long caribou-gut whip. He expected a fight. But there was none. Baree joined the pack in their rush for fish, and ate with them. This pleased Pierrot more than ever.

"He will make a great sledge dog," he chuckled. "It is best to leave him for a week with the pack, ma Nepeese."

Reluctantly Nepeese gave her consent. While the dogs were still at their fish, they started homeward. Their canoe had slipped away before Baree discovered the trick they had played on him. Instantly he leaped into the water and swam after themand the Willow helped him into his canoe.

Early in September a passing Indian brought Pierrot word of Bush McTaggart. The factor had been very sick. He had almost died from the blood poison, but he was well now. With the first exhilarating tang of autumn in the air a new dread oppressed Pierrot. But at present he said nothing of what was in his mind to Nepeese. The Willow had almost forgotten the factor from Lac Bain, for the glory and thrill of wilderness autumn was in her blood. She went on long trips with Pierrot, helping him to blaze out the new trap lines that would be used when the first snows came, and on these journeys she was always accompanied by Baree.

Most of Nepeese's spare hours she spent in training him for the sledge. She began with a babiche string and a stick. It was a whole day before she could induce Baree to drag this stick without turning at every other step to snap and growl at it. Then she fastened another length of babiche to him, and made him drag two sticks. Thus little by little she trained him to the sledge harness, until at the end of a fortnight he was tugging heroically at anything she had a mind to fasten him to. Pierrot brought home two of the dogs from the island, and Baree was put into training with these, and helped to drag the empty sledge. Nepeese was delighted. On the day the first light snow fell she clapped her hands and cried to Pierrot:

"By midwinter I will have him the finest dog in the pack, mon pere!"

This was the time for Pierrot to say what was in his mind. He smiled. Diantrewould not that beast the factor fall into the very devil of a rage when he found how he had been cheated! And yet

He tried to make his voice quiet and commonplace.

"I am going to send you down to the school at Nelson House again this winter, ma cherie," he said. "Baree will help draw you down on the first good snow."

The Willow was tying a knot in Baree's babiche, and she rose slowly to her feet and looked at Pierrot. Her eyes were big and dark and steady.

"I am not going, mon pere!"

It was the first time Nepeese had ever said that to Pierrotin just that way. It thrilled him. And he could scarcely face the look in her eyes. He was not good at bluffing. She saw what was in his face; it seemed to him that she was reading what was in his mind, and that she grew a little taller as she stood there. Certainly her breath came quicker, and he could see the throb of her breast. Nepeese did not wait for him to gather speech.

"I am not going!" she repeated with even greater finality, and bent again over Baree.

With a shrug of his shoulders Pierrot watched her. After all, was he not glad? Would his heart not have turned sick if she had been happy at the thought of leaving him? He moved to her side and with great gentleness laid a hand on her glossy head. Up from under it the Willow smiled at him. Between them they heard the click of Baree's jaws as he rested his muzzle on the Willow's arm. For the first time in weeks the world seemed suddenly filled with sunshine for Pierrot. When he went back to the cabin he held his head higher. Nepeese would not leave him! He laughed softly. He rubbed his hands together. His fear of the factor from Lac Bain was gone. From the cabin door he looked back at Nepeese and Baree.

"The Saints be blessed!" he murmured. "Nownowit is Pierrot Du Quesne who knows what to do!"

 

CHAPTER 17

Back to Lac Bain, late in September, came MacDonald the map maker. For ten days Gregson, the investigating agent, had been Bush McTaggart's guest at the Post, and twice in that time it had come into Marie's mind to creep upon him while he slept and kill him. The factor himself paid little attention to her now, a fact which would have made her happy if it had not been for Gregson. He was enraptured with the wild, sinuous beauty of the Cree girl, and McTaggart, without jealousy, encouraged him. He was tired of Marie.

McTaggart told Gregson this. He wanted to get rid of her, and if heGregsoncould possibly take her along with him it would be a great favor. He explained why. A little later, when the deep snows came, he was going to bring the daughter of Pierrot Du Quesne to the Post. In the rottenness of their brotherhood he told of his visit, of the manner of his reception, and of the incident at the chasm. In spite of all this, he assured Gregson, Pierrot's girl would soon be at Lac Bain.

It was at this time that MacDonald came. He remained only one night, and without knowing that he was adding fuel to a fire already dangerously blazing, he gave the photograph he had taken of Nepeese to the factor. It was a splendid picture.

"If you can get it down to that girl some day I'll be mightily obliged," he said to McTaggart. "I promised her one. Her father's name is Du QuesnePierrot Du Quesne. You probably know them. And the girl"

His blood warmed as he described to McTaggart how beautiful she was that day in her red dress, which appeared black in the photograph. He did not guess how near McTaggart's blood was to the boiling point.

The next day MacDonald started for Norway House. McTaggart did not show Gregson the picture. He kept it to himself and at night, under the glow of his lamp, he looked at it with thoughts that filled him with a growing resolution. There was but one way. The scheme had been in his mind for weeksand the picture determined him. He dared not whisper his secret even to Gregson. But it was the one way. It would give him Nepeese. Onlyhe must wait for the deep snows, the midwinter snows. They buried their tragedies deepest.

McTaggart was glad when Gregson followed the map maker to Norway House. Out of courtesy he accompanied him a day's journey on his way. When he returned to the Post, Marie was gone. He was glad. He sent off a runner with a load of presents for her people, and the message: "Don't beat her. Keep her. She is free."

Along with the bustle and stir of the beginning of the trapping season McTaggart began to prepare his house for the coming of Nepeese. He knew what she liked in the way of cleanliness and a few other things. He had the log walls painted white with the lead and oil that were intended for his York boats. Certain partitions were torn down, and new ones were built. The Indian wife of his chief runner made curtains for the windows, and he confiscated a small phonograph that should have gone on to Lac la Biche. He had no doubts, and he counted the days as they passed.

Down on the Gray Loon Pierrot and Nepeese were busy at many things, so busy that at times Pierrot's fears of the factor at Lac Bain were almost forgotten, and they slipped out of the Willow's mind entirely. It was the Red Moon, and both thrilled with the anticipation and excitement of the winter hunt. Nepeese carefully dipped a hundred traps in boiling caribou fat mixed with beaver grease, while Pierrot made fresh deadfalls ready for setting on his trails. When he was gone more than a day from the cabin, she was always with him.

But at the cabin there was much to do, for Pierrot, like all his Northern brotherhood, did not begin to prepare until the keen tang of autumn was in the air. There were snowshoes to be rewebbed with new babiche; there was wood to be cut in readiness for the winter storms. The cabin had to be banked, a new harness made, skinning knives sharpened and winter moccasins to be manufactureda hundred and one affairs to be attended to, even to the repairing of the meat rack at the back of the cabin, where, from the beginning of cold weather until the end, would hang the haunches of deer, caribou, and moose for the family larder and, when fish were scarce, the dogs' rations.

In the bustle of all these preparations Nepeese was compelled to give less attention to Baree than she had during the preceding weeks. They did not play so much; they no longer swam, for with the mornings there was deep frost on the ground, and the water was turning icy cold. They no longer wandered deep in the forest after flowers and berries. For hours at a time Baree would now lie at the Willow's feet, watching her slender fingers as they weaved swiftly in and out with her snowshoe babiche. And now and then Nepeese would pause to lean over and put her hand on his head, and talk to him for a momentsometimes in her soft Cree, sometimes in English or her father's French.

It was the Willow's voice which Baree had learned to understand, and the movement of her lips, her gestures, the poise of her body, the changing moods which brought shadow or sunlight into her face. He knew what it meant when she smiled. He would shake himself, and often jump about her in sympathetic rejoicing, when she laughed. Her happiness was such a part of him that a stern word from her was worse than a blow. Twice Pierrot had struck him, and twice Baree had leaped back and faced him with bared fangs and an angry snarl, the crest along his back standing up like a brush. Had one of the other dogs done this, Pierrot would have half-killed him. It would have been mutiny, and the man must be master. But Baree was always safe. A touch of the Willow's hand, a word from her lips, and the crest slowly settled and the snarl went out of his throat.

Pierrot was not at all displeased.

"Dieu. I will never go so far as to try and whip that out of him," he told himself. "He is a barbariana wild beastand her slave. For her he would kill!"

So it turned out, through Pierrot himselfand without telling his reason for itthat Baree did not become a sledge dog. He was allowed his freedom, and was never tied, like the others. Nepeese was glad, but did not guess the thought that was in Pierrot's mind. To himself Pierrot chuckled. She would never know why he kept Baree always suspicious of him, even to the point of hating him.

It required considerable skill and cunning on his part. With himself he reasoned:

"If I make him hate me, he will hate all men. Mey-oo! That is good."

So he looked into the futurefor Nepeese.

Now the tonic-filled days and cold, frosty nights of the Red Moon brought about the big change in Baree. It was inevitable. Pierrot knew that it would come, and the first night that Baree settled back on his haunches and howled up at the Red Moon, Pierrot prepared Nepeese for it.

"He is a wild dog, ma Nepeese," he said to her. "He is half wolf, and the Call will come to him strong. He will go into the forests. He will disappear at times. But we must not fasten him. He will come back. Ka, he will come back!" And he rubbed his hands in the moonglow until his knuckles cracked.

The Call came to Baree like a thief entering slowly and cautiously into a forbidden place. He did not understand it at first. It made him nervous and uneasy, so restless that Nepeese frequently heard him whine softly in his sleep. He was waiting for something. What was it? Pierrot knew, and smiled in his inscrutable way.

And then it came. It was night, a glorious night filled with moon and stars, under which the earth was whitening with a film of frost, when they heard the first hunt call of the wolves. Now and then during the summer there had come the lone wolf howl, but this was the tonguing of the pack; and as it floated through the vast silence and mystery of the night, a song of savagery that had come with each Red Moon down through unending ages, Pierrot knew that at last had come that for which Baree had been waiting.

In an instant Baree had sensed it. His muscles grew taut as pieces of stretched rope as he stood up in the moonlight, facing the direction from which floated the mystery and thrill of the sound. They could hear him whining softly; and Pierrot, bending down so that he caught the light of the night properly, could see him trembling.

"It is Mee-Koo!" he said in a whisper to Nepeese.

That was it, the call of the blood that was running swift in Baree's veinsnot alone the call of his species, but the call of Kazan and Gray Wolf and of his forbears for generations unnumbered. It was the voice of his people. So Pierrot had whispered, and he was right. In the golden night the Willow was waiting, for it was she who had gambled most, and it was she who must lose or win. She uttered no sound, replied not to the low voice of Pierrot, but held her breath and watched Baree as he slowly faded away, step by step, into the shadows. In a few moments more he was gone. It was then that she stood straight, and flung back her head, with eyes that glowed in rivalry with the stars.

"Baree!" she called. "Baree! Baree! Baree!"

He must have been near the edge of the forest, for she had drawn a slow, waiting breath or two before he was and he whined up into her face. Nepeese put her hands to his head.

"You are right, mon pere," she said. "He will go to the wolves, but he will come back. He will never leave me for long." With one hand still on Baree's head, she pointed with the other into the pitlike blackness of the forest. "Go to them, Baree!" she whispered. "But you must come back. You must. Cheamao!"

With Pierrot she went into the cabin; the door closed silence. In it he could hear the soft night sounds: the clinking of the chains to which the dogs were fastened, the restless movement of their bodies, the throbbing whir of a pair of wings, the breath of the night itself. For to him this night, even in its stillness, seemed alive. Again he went into it, and close to the forest once more he stopped to listen. The wind had turned, and on it rode the wailing, blood-thrilling cry of the pack. Far off to the west a lone wolf turned his muzzle to the sky and answered that gathering call of his clan. And then out of the east came a voice, so far beyond the cabin that it was like an echo dying away in the vastness of the night.

A choking note gathered in Baree's throat. He threw up his head. Straight above him was the Red Moon, inviting him to the thrill and mystery of the open world.

The sound grew in his throat, and slowly it rose in volume until his answer was rising to the stars. In their cabin Pierrot and the Willow heard it. Pierrot shrugged his shoulders.

"He is gone," he said.

"Oui, he is gone, mon pere" replied Nepeese, peering through the window.

 

CHAPTER 18

No longer, as in the days of old, did the darkness of the forests hold a fear for Baree. This night his hunt cry had risen to the stars and the moon, and in that cry he had, for the first time, sent forth his defiance of night and space, his warning to all the wild, and his acceptance of the Brotherhood. In that cry, and the answers that came back to him, he sensed a new powerthe final triumph of nature in telling him that the forests and the creatures they held were no longer to be feared, but that all things feared him. Off there, beyond the pale of the cabin and the influence of Nepeese, were all the things that the wolf blood in him found now most desirable: companionship of his kind, the lure of adventure, the red, sweet blood of the chaseand matehood. This last, after all, was the dominant mystery that was urging him, and yet least of all did he understand it.

He ran straight into the darkness to the north and west, slinking low under the bushes, his tail drooping, his ears aslantthe wolf as the wolf runs on the night trail. The pack had swung due north, and was traveling faster than he, so that at the end of half an hour he could no longer hear it. But the lone wolf howl to the west was nearer, and three times Baree gave answer to it.

At the end of an hour he heard the pack again, swinging southward. Pierrot would easily have understood. Their quarry had found safety beyond water, or in a lake, and the muhekuns were on a fresh trail. By this time not more than a quarter of a mile of the forest separated Baree from the lone wolf, but the lone wolf was also an old wolf, and with the directness and precision of long experience, he swerved in the direction of the hunters, compassing his trail so that he was heading for a point half or three-quarters of a mile in advance of the pack.

This was a trick of the Brotherhood which Baree had yet to learn; and the result of his ignorance, and lack of skill, was that twice within the next half-hour he found himself near to the pack without being able to join it. Then came a long and final silence. The pack had pulled down its kill, and in their feasting they made no sound.

The rest of the night Baree wandered alone, or at least until the moon was well on the wane. He was a long way from the cabin, and his trail had been an uncertain and twisting one, but he was no longer possessed with the discomforting sensation of being lost. The last two or three months had been developing strongly in him the sense of orientation, that "sixth sense" which guides the pigeon unerringly on its way and takes a bear straight as a bird might fly to its last year's denning place.

Baree had not forgotten Nepeese. A dozen times he turned his head back and whined, and always he picked out accurately the direction in which the cabin lay. But he did not turn back. As the night lengthened, his search for that mysterious something which he had not found continued. His hunger, even with the fading-out of the moon and the coming of the gray dawn, was not sufficiently keen to make him hunt for food.

It was cold, and it seemed colder when the glow of the moon and stars died out. Under his padded feet, especially in the open spaces, was a thick white frost in which he left clearly at times the imprint of his toes and claws. He had traveled steadily for hours, a great many miles in all, and he was tired when the first light of the day came. And then there came the time when, with a sudden sharp click of his jaws, he stopped like a shot in his tracks.

At last it had comethe meeting with that for which he had been seeking. It was in a clearing, lighted by the cold dawna tiny amphitheater that lay on the side of a ridge, facing the east. With her head toward him, and waiting for him as he came out of the shadows, his scent strong in her keen nose, stood Maheegun, the young wolf. Baree had not smelled her, but he saw her directly he came out of the rim of young balsams that fringed the clearing. It was then that he stopped, and for a full minute neither of them moved a muscle or seemed to breathe.

There was not a fortnight's difference in their age and yet Maheegun was much the smaller of the two. Her body was as long, but she was slimmer; she stood on slender legs that were almost like the legs of a fox, and the curve of her back was that of a slightly bent bow, a sign of swiftness almost equal to the wind. She stood poised for flight even as Baree advanced his first step toward her, and then very slowly her body relaxed, and in a direct ratio as he drew nearer her ears lost their alertness and dropped aslant.

Baree whined. His own ears were up, his head alert, his tail aloft and bushy. Cleverness, if not strategy, had already become a part of his masculine superiority, and he did not immediately press the affair. He was within five feet of Maheegun when he casually turned away from her and faced the east, where a faint penciling of red and gold was heralding the day. For a few moments he sniffed and looked around and pointed the wind with much seriousness, as though impressing on his fair acquaintanceas many a two-legged animal has done before himhis tremendous importance in the world at large.

And Maheegun was properly impressed. Baree's bluff worked as beautifully as the bluffs of the two-legged animals. He sniffed the air with such thrilling and suspicious zeal that Maheegun's ears sprang alert, and she sniffed it with him. He turned his head from point to point so sharply and alertly that her feminine curiosity, if not anxiety, made her turn her own head in questioning conjunction. And when he whined, as though in the air he had caught a mystery which she could not possibly understand, a responsive note gathered in her throat, but smothered and low as a woman's exclamation when she is not quite sure whether she should interrupt her lord or not. At this sound, which Baree's sharp ears caught, he swung up to her with a light and mincing step, and in another moment they were smelling noses.

When the sun rose, half an hour later, it found them still in the small clearing on the side of the ridge, with a deep fringe of forest under them, and beyond that a wide, timbered plain which looked like a ghostly shroud in its mantle of frost. Up over this came the first red glow of the day, filling the clearing with a warmth that grew more and more comfortable as the sun crept higher.

Neither Baree nor Maheegun were inclined to move for a while, and for an hour or two they lay basking in a cup of the slope, looking down with questing and wide-awake eyes upon the wooded plain that stretched away under them like a great sea.

Maheegun, too, had sought the hunt pack, and like Baree had failed to catch it. They were tired, a little discouraged for the time, and hungrybut still alive with the fine thrill of anticipation, and restlessly sensitive to the new and mysterious consciousness of companionship. Half a dozen times Baree got up and nosed about Maheegun as she lay in the sun, whining to her softly and touching her soft coat with his muzzle, but for a long time she paid little attention to him. At last she followed him. All that day they wandered and rested together. Once more the night came.

It was without moon or stars. Gray masses of clouds swept slowly down out of the north and east, and in the treetops there was scarcely a whisper of wind as night gathered in. The snow began to fall at dusk, thickly, heavily, without a breath of sound. It was not cold, but it was stillso still that Baree and Maheegun traveled only a few yards at a time, and then stopped to listen. In this way all the night prowlers of the forest were traveling, if they were moving at all. It was the first of the Big Snow.

To the flesh-eating wild things of the forests, clawed and winged, the Big Snow was the beginning of the winter carnival of slaughter and feasting, of wild adventure in the long nights, of merciless warfare on the frozen trails. The days of breeding, of motherhoodthe peace of spring and summerwere over. Out of the sky came the wakening of the Northland, the call of all flesh-eating creatures to the long hunt, and in the first thrill of it living things were moving but little this night, and that watchfully and with suspicion. Youth made it all new to Baree and Maheegun. Their blood ran swiftly; their feet fell softly; their ears were attuned to catch the slightest sounds.

In this first of the Big Snow they felt the exciting pulse of a new life. It lured them on. It invited them to adventure into the white mystery of the silent storm; and inspired by that restlessness of youth and its desires, they went on.

The snow grew deeper under their feet. In the open spaces they waded through it to their knees, and it continued to fall in a vast white cloud that descended steadily out of the sky. It was near midnight when it stopped. The clouds drifted away from under the stars and the moon, and for a long time Baree and Maheegun stood without moving, looking down from the bald crest of a ridge upon a wonderful world.

Never had they been able to see so far, except in the light of day. Under them was a plain. They could make out forests, lone trees that stood up like shadows out of the snow, a streamstill unfrozenshimmering like glass with the flicker of firelight on it. Toward this stream Baree led the way. He no longer thought of Nepeese, and he whined with pent-up happiness as he stopped halfway down and turned to muzzle Maheegun. He wanted to roll in the snow and frisk about with his companion; he wanted to bark, to put up his head and howl as he had howled at the Red Moon back at the cabin.

Something held him from doing any of these things. Perhaps it was Maheegun's demeanor. She accepted his attentions rigidly. Once or twice she had seemed almost frightened; twice Baree had heard the sharp clicking of her teeth. The previous night, and all through tonight's storm, their companionship had grown more intimate, but now there was taking its place a mysterious aloofness on the part of Maheegun. Pierrot could have explained. With moon and stars above him, Baree, like the night, had undergone a transformation which even the sunlight of day had not made in him before. His coat was like polished jet. Every hair in his body glistened black. BLACK! That was it. And Nature was trying to tell Maheegun that of all the creatures hated by her kind, the creature which they feared and hated most was black. With her it was not experience, but instincttelling her of the age-old feud between the gray wolf and the black bear. And Baree's coat, in the moonlight and the snow, was blacker than Wakayoo's had ever been in the fish-fattening days of May. Until they struck the broad openings of the plain, the young she-wolf had followed Baree without hesitation; now there was a gathering strangeness and indecision in her manner, and twice she stopped and would have let Baree go on without her.

An hour after they entered the plain there came suddenly out of the west the tonguing of the wolf pack. It was not far distant, probably not more than a mile along the foot of the ridge, and the sharp, quick yapping that followed the first outburst was evidence that the long-fanged hunters had put up sudden game, a caribou or young moose, and were close at its heels. At the voice of her own people Maheegun laid her ears close to her head and was off like an arrow from a bow.

The unexpectedness of her movement and the swiftness of her flight put Baree well behind her in the race over the plain. She was running blindly, favored by luck. For an interval of perhaps five minutes the pack were so near to their game that they made no sound, and the chase swung full into the face of Maheegun and Baree. The latter was not half a dozen lengths behind the young wolf when a crashing in the brush directly ahead stopped them so sharply that they tore up the snow with their braced forefeet and squat haunches. Ten seconds later a caribou burst through and flashed across a clearing not more than twenty yards from where they stood. They could hear its swift panting as it disappeared. And then came the pack.

At sight of those swiftly moving gray bodies Baree's heart leaped for an instant into his throat. He forgot Maheegun, and that she had run away from him. The moon and the stars went out of existence for him. He no longer sensed the chill of the snow under his feet. He was wolfall wolf. With the warm scent of the caribou in his nostrils, and the passion to kill sweeping through him like fire, he darted after the pack.

Even at that, Maheegun was a bit ahead of him. He did not miss her. In the excitement of his first chase he no longer felt the desire to have her at his side. Very soon he found himself close to the flanks of one of the gray monsters of the pack. Half a minute later a new hunter swept in from the bush behind him, and then a second, and after that a third. At times he was running shoulder to shoulder with his new companions. He heard the whining excitement in their throats; the snap of their jaws as they ranand in the golden moonlight ahead of him the sound of a caribou as it plunged through thickets and over windfalls in its race for life.

It was as if Baree had belonged to the pack always. He had joined it naturally, as other stray wolves had joined it from out of the bush. There had been no ostentation, no welcome such as Maheegun had given him in the open, and no hostility. He belonged with these slim, swift-footed outlaws of the old forests, and his own jaws snapped and his blood ran hot as the smell of the caribou grew heavier, and the sound of its crashing body nearer.

It seemed to him they were almost at its heels when they swept into an open plain, a stretch of barren without a tree or a shrub, brilliant in the light of the stars and moon. Across its unbroken carpet of snow sped the caribou a spare hundred yards ahead of the pack. Now the two leading hunters no longer followed directly in the trail, but shot out at an angle, one to the right and the other to the left of the pursued, and like well-trained soldiers the pack split in halves and spread out fan shape in the final charge.

The two ends of the fan forged ahead and closed in, until the leaders were running almost abreast of the caribou, with fifty or sixty feet separating them from the pursued. Thus, adroitly and swiftly, with deadly precision, the pack had formed a horseshoe cordon of fangs from which there was but one course of flightstraight ahead. For the caribou to swerve half a degree to the right or left meant death. It was the duty of the leaders to draw in the ends of the horseshoe now, until one or both of them could make the fatal lunge for the hamstrings. After that it would be a simple matter. The pack would close in over the caribou like an inundation.

Baree had found his place in the lower rim of the horseshoe, so that he was fairly well in the rear when the climax came. The plain made a sudden dip. Straight ahead was the gleam of waterwater shimmering softly in the starglow, and the sight of it sent a final great spurt of blood through the caribou's bursting heart. Forty seconds would tell the storyforty seconds of a last spurt for life, of a final tremendous effort to escape death. Baree felt the sudden thrill of these moments, and he forged ahead with the others in that lower rim of the horseshoe as one of the leading wolves made a lunge for the young bull's hamstring. It was a clean miss. A second wolf darted in. And this one also missed.

There was no time for others to take their place. From the broken end of the horseshoe Baree heard the caribou's heavy plunge into water. When Baree joined the pack, a maddened, mouth-frothing, snarling horde, Napamoos, the young bull, was well out in the river and swimming steadily for the opposite shore.

It was then that Baree found himself at the side of Maheegun. She was panting; her red tongue hung from her open jaws. But at his presence she brought her fangs together with a snap and slunk from him into the heart of the wind-run and disappointed pack. The wolves were in an ugly temper, but Baree did not sense the fact. Nepeese had trained him to take to water like an otter, and he did not understand why this narrow river should stop them as it had. He ran down to the water and stood belly deep in it, facing for an instant the horde of savage beasts above him, wondering why they did not follow. And he was blackBLACK. He came among them again, and for the first time they noticed him.

The restless movements of the waters ceased now. A new and wondering interest held them rigid. Fangs closed sharply. A little in the open Baree saw Maheegun, with a big gray wolf standing near her. He went to her again, and this time she remained with flattened ears until he was sniffing her neck. And then, with a vicious snarl, she snapped at him. Her teeth sank deep in the soft flesh of his shoulder, and at the unexpectedness and pain of her attack, he let out a yelp. The next instant the big gray wolf was at him.

Again caught unexpectedly, Baree went down with the wolf's fangs at his throat. But in him was the blood of Kazan, the flesh and bone and sinew of Kazan, and for the first time in his life he fought as Kazan fought on that terrible day at the top of the Sun Rock. He was young; he had yet to learn the cleverness and the strategy of the veteran. But his jaws were like the iron clamps with which Pierrot set his bear traps, and in his heart was sudden and blinding rage, a desire to kill that rose above all sense of pain or fear.

That fight, if it had been fair, would have been a victory for Baree, even in his youth and inexperience. In fairness the pack should have waited. It was a law of the pack to waituntil one was done for. But Baree was black. He was a stranger, an interloper, a creature whom they noticed now in a moment when their blood was hot with the rage and disappointment of killers who had missed their prey. A second wolf sprang in, striking Baree treacherously from the flank. And while he was in the snow, his jaws crushing the foreleg of his first foe, the pack was on him en masse.

Such an attack on the young caribou bull would have meant death in less than a minute. Every fang would have found its hold. Baree, by the fortunate circumstance that he was under his first two assailants and protected by their bodies, was saved from being torn instantly into pieces. He knew that he was fighting for his life. Over him the horde of beasts rolled and twisted and snarled. He felt the burning pain of teeth sinking into his flesh. He was smothered; a hundred knives seemed cutting him into pieces; yet no soundnot a whimper or a crycame from him now in the horror and hopelessness of it all.

It would have ended in another half-minute had the struggle not been at the very edge of the bank. Undermined by the erosion of the spring floods, a section of this bank suddenly gave way, and with it went Baree and half the pack. In a flash Baree thought of the water and the escaping caribou. For a bare instant the cave-in had set him free of the pack, and in that space he gave a single leap over the gray backs of his enemies into the deep water of the stream. Close behind him half a dozen jaws snapped shut on empty air. As it had saved the caribou, so this strip of water shimmering in the glow of the moon and stars had saved Baree.

The stream was not more than a hundred feet in width, but it cost Baree close to a losing struggle to get across it. Until he dragged himself out on the opposite shore, the extent of his injuries was not impressed upon him fully. One hind leg, for the time, was useless. His forward left shoulder was laid open to the bone. His head and body were torn and cut; and as he dragged himself slowly away from the stream, the trail he left in the snow was a red path of blood. It trickled from his panting jaws, between which his tongue was bleeding. It ran down his legs and flanks and belly, and it dripped from his ears, one of which was slit clean for two inches as though cut with a knife. His instincts were dazed, his perception of things clouded as if by a veil drawn close over his eyes. He did not hear, a few minutes later, the howling of the disappointed wolf horde on the other side of the river, and he no longer sensed the existence of moon or stars. Half dead, he dragged himself on until by chance he came to a clump of dwarf spruce. Into this he struggled, and then he dropped exhausted.

All that night and until noon the next day Baree lay without moving. The fever burned in his blood. It flamed high and swift toward death; then it ebbed slowly, and life conquered. At noon he came forth. He was weak, and he wobbled on his legs. His hind leg still dragged, and he was racked with pain. But it was a splendid day. The sun was warm; the snow was thawing; the sky was like a great blue sea; and the floods of life coursed warmly again through Baree's veins. But now, for all time, his desires were changed, and his great quest at an end.

A red ferocity grew in Baree's eyes as he snarled in the direction of last night's fight with the wolves. They were no longer his people. They were no longer of his blood. Never again could the hunt call lure him or the voice of the pack rouse the old longing. In him there was a thing newborn, an undying hatred for the wolf, a hatred that was to grow in him until it became like a disease in his vitals, a thing ever present and insistent, demanding vengeance on their kind. Last night he had gone to them a comrade. Today he was an outcast. Cut and maimed, bearing with him scars for all time, he had learned his lesson of the wilderness. Tomorrow, and the next day, and for days after that without number, he would remember the lesson well.

 

CHAPTER 19

At the cabin on the Gray Loon, on the fourth night of Baree's absence, Pierrot was smoking his pipe after a great supper of caribou tenderloin he had brought in from the trail, and Nepeese was listening to his tale of the remarkable shot he had made, when a sound at the door interrupted them. Nepeese opened it, and Baree came in. The cry of welcome that was on the girl's lips died there instantly, and Pierrot stared as if he could not quite believe this creature that had returned was the wolf dog. Three days and nights of hunger in which he could not hunt because of the leg that dragged had put on him the marks of starvation. Battle-scarred and covered with dried blood clots that still clung tenaciously to his long hair, he was a sight that drew at last a long despairing breath from Nepeese. A queer smile was growing in Pierrot's face as he leaned forward in his chair. Then slowly rising to his feet and looking closer, he said to Nepeese:

"Ventre Saint Gris! Oui, he has been to the pack, Nepeese, and the pack turned on him. It was not a two-wolf fightnon! It was the pack. He is cut and torn in fifty places. Andmon Dieu, he is alive!"

In Pierrot's voice there was growing wonder and amazement. He was incredulous, and yet he could not disbelieve what his eyes told him. What had happened was nothing short of a miracle, and for a time he uttered not a word more but remained staring in silence while Nepeese recovered from her astonishment to give Baree doctoring and food. After he had eaten ravenously of cold boiled mush she began bathing his wounds in warm water, and after that she soothed them with bear grease, talking to him all the time in her soft Cree. After the pain and hunger and treachery of his adventure, it was a wonderful homecoming for Baree. He slept that night at the foot of the Willow's bed. The next morning it was the cool caress of his tongue on her hand that awakened her.

With this day they resumed the comradeship interrupted by Baree's temporary desertion. The attachment was greater than ever on Baree's part. It was he who had run away from the Willow, who had deserted her at the call of the pack, and it seemed at times as though he sensed the depths of his perfidy and was striving to make amends. There was indubitably a very great change in him. He clung to Nepeese like a shadow. Instead of sleeping at night in the spruce shelter Pierrot made for him, he made himself a little hollow in the earth close to the cabin door. Pierrot thought that he understood, and Nepeese thought that she understood even more; but in reality the key to the mystery remained with Baree himself. He no longer played as he had played before he went off alone into the forest. He did not chase sticks, or run until he was winded, for the pure joy of running. His puppyishness was gone. In its place was a great worship and a rankling bitterness, a love for the girl and a hatred for the pack and all that it stood for. Whenever he heard the wolf howl, it brought an angry snarl into his throat, and he would bare his fangs until even Pierrot would draw a little away from him. But a touch of the girl's hand would quiet him.

In a week or two the heavier snows came, and Pierrot began making his trips over the trap lines. Nepeese had entered into an exciting bargain with him this winter. Pierrot had taken her into partnership. Every fifth trap, every fifth deadfall, and every fifth poison bait was to be her own, and what they caught or killed was to bring a bit nearer to realization a wonderful dream that was growing in the Willow's heart. Pierrot had promised. If they had great luck that winter, they would go down together on the last snows to Nelson House and buy the little old organ that was for sale there. And if the organ was sold, they would work another winter, and get a new one.

This plan gave Nepeese an enthusiastic and tireless interest in the trap line. With Pierrot it was more or less a fine bit of strategy. He would have sold his hand to give Nepeese the organ. He was determined that she should have it, whether the fifth traps and the fifth deadfalls and fifth poison baits caught the fur or not. The partnership meant nothing so far as the actual returns were concerned. But in another way it meant to Nepeese a business interest, the thrill of personal achievement. Pierrot impressed on her that it made a comrade and coworker of her on the trail. His scheme was to keep her with him when he was away from the cabin. He knew that Bush McTaggart would come again to the Gray Loon, probably more than once during the winter. He had swift dogs, and it was a short journey. And when McTaggart came, Nepeese must not be at the cabinalone.

Pierrot's trap line swung into the north and west, covering in all a matter of fifty miles, with an average of two traps, one deadfall, and a poison bait to each mile. It was a twisting line blazed along streams for mink, otter, and marten, piercing the deepest forests for fishercat and lynx and crossing lakes and storm-swept strips of barrens where poison baits could be set for fox and wolf. Halfway over this line Pierrot had built a small log cabin, and at the end of it another, so that a day's work meant twenty-five miles. This was easy for Pierrot, and not hard on Nepeese after the first few days.

All through October and November they made the trips regularly, making the round every six days, which gave one day of rest at the cabin on the Gray Loon and another day in the cabin at the end of the trail. To Pierrot the winter's work was business, the labor of his people for many generations back. To Nepeese and Baree it was a wild and joyous adventure that never for a day grew tiresome. Even Pierrot could not quite immunize himself against their enthusiasm. It was infectious, and he was happier than he had been since his sun had set that evening the princess mother died.

They were glorious months. Fur was thick, and it was steadily cold without any bad storms. Nepeese not only carried a small pack on her shoulders in order that Pierrot's load might be lighter, but she trained Baree to bear tiny shoulder panniers which she manufactured. In these panniers Baree carried the bait. In at least a third of the total number of traps set there was always what Pierrot called trashrabbits, owls, whisky jacks, jays, and squirrels. These, with the skin or feathers stripped off, made up the bulk of the bait for the traps ahead.

One afternoon early in December, as they were returning to the Gray Loon, Pierrot stopped suddenly a dozen paces ahead of Nepeese and stared at the snow. A strange snowshoe trail had joined their own and was heading toward the cabin. For half a minute Pierrot was silent and scarcely moved a muscle as he stared. The trail came straight out of the northand off there was Lac Bain.

Also they were the marks of large snowshoes, and the stride indicated was that of a tall man. Before Pierrot had spoken, Nepeese had guessed what they meant. "M'sieu the Factor from Lac Bain!" she said.

Baree was sniffing suspiciously at the strange trail. They heard the low growl in his throat, and Pierrot's shoulders stiffened.

"Yes, the m'sieu," he said.

The Willow's heart beat more swiftly as they went on. She was not afraid of McTaggart, not physically afraid. And yet something rose up in her breast and choked her at the thought of his presence on the Gray Loon. Why was he there? It was not necessary for Pierrot to answer the question, even had she given voice to it. She knew. The factor from Lac Bain had no business thereexcept to see her. The blood burned red in her cheeks as she thought again of that minute on the edge of the chasm when he had almost crushed her in his arms. Would he try that again?

Pierrot, deep in his own somber thoughts, scarcely heard the strange laugh that came suddenly from her lips. Nepeese was listening to the growl that was again in Baree's throat. It was a low but terrible sound. When half a mile from the cabin, she unslung the panniers from his shoulders and carried them herself. Ten minutes later they saw a man advancing to meet them.

It was not McTaggart. Pierrot recognized him, and with an audible breath of relief waved his hand. It was DeBar, who trapped in the Barren Country north of Lac Bain. Pierrot knew him well. They had exchanged fox poison. They were friends, and there was pleasure in the grip of their hands. DeBar stared then at Nepeese.

"Tonnerre, she has grown into a woman!" he cried, and like a woman Nepeese looked at him straight, with the color deepening in her cheeks, as he bowed low with a courtesy that dated back a couple of centuries beyond the trap line.

DeBar lost no time in explaining his mission, and before they reached the cabin Pierrot and Nepeese knew why he had come. M'sieu, the factor at Lac Bain, was leaving on a journey in five days, and he had sent DeBar as a special messenger to request Pierrot to come up to assist the clerk and the half-breed storekeeper in his absence. Pierrot made no comment at first. But he was thinking. Why had Bush McTaggart sent for HIM? Why had he not chosen some one nearer? Not until a fire was crackling in the sheet-iron stove in the cabin, and Nepeese was busily engaged getting supper, did he voice these questions to the fox hunter.

DeBar shrugged his shoulders.

"He asked me, at first, if I could stay. But I have a wife with a bad lung, Pierrot. It was caught by frost last winter, and I dare not leave her long alone. He has great faith in you. Besides, you know all the trappers on the company's books at Lac Bain. So he sent for you, and begs you not to worry about your fur lines, as he will pay you double what you would catch in the time you are at the Post."

"AndNepeese?" said Pierrot. "M'sieu expects me to bring her?"

From the stove the Willow bent her head to listen, and her heart leaped free again at DeBar's answer.

"He said nothing about that. But surelyit will be a great change for li'le m'selle."

Pierrot nodded.

"Possibly, Netootam."

They discussed the matter no more that night. But for hours Pierrot was still, thinking, and a hundred times he asked himself that same question: Why had McTaggart sent for him? He was not the only man well known to the trappers on the company's books. There was Wassoon, for instance, the half-breed Scandinavian whose cabin was less than four hours' journey from the Postor Baroche, the white-bearded old Frenchman who lived yet nearer and whose word was as good as the Bible. It must be, he told himself finally, that M'sieu had sent for HIM because he wanted to win over the father of Nepeese and gain the friendship of Nepeese herself. For this was undoubtedly a very great honor that the factor was conferring on him.

And yet, deep down in his heart, he was filled with suspicion. When DeBar was about to leave the next morning, Pierrot said:

"Tell m'sieu that I will leave for Lac Bain the day after tomorrow."

After DeBar had gone, he said to Nepeese:

"And you shall remain here, ma cherie. I will not take you to Lac Bain. I have had a dream that m'sieu will not go on a journey, but that he has lied, and that he will be SICK when I arrive at the Post. And yet, if it should happen that you care to go"

Nepeese straightened suddenly, like a reed that has been caught by the wind.

"Non!" she cried, so fiercely that Pierrot laughed, and rubbed his hands.

So it happened that on the second day after the fox hunter's visit Pierrot left for Lac Bain, with Nepeese in the door waving him good-bye until he was out of sight.

On the morning of this same day Bush McTaggart rose from his bed while it was still dark. The time had come. He had hesitated at murderat the killing of Pierrot; and in his hesitation he had found a better way. There could be no escape for Nepeese.

It was a wonderful scheme, so easy of accomplishment, so inevitable in its outcome. And all the time Pierrot would think he was away to the east on a mission!

He ate his breakfast before dawn, and was on the trail before it was yet light. Purposely he struck due east, so that in coming up from the south and west Pierrot would not strike his sledge tracks. For he had made up his mind now that Pierrot must never know and must never have a suspicion, even though it cost him so many more miles to travel that he would not reach the Gray Loon until the second day. It was better to be a day late, after all, as it was possible that something might have delayed Pierrot. So he made no effort to travel fast.

McTaggart took a vast amount of brutal satisfaction in anticipating what was about to happen, and he reveled in it to the full. There was no chance for disappointment. He was positive that Nepeese would not accompany her father to Lac Bain. She would be at the cabin on the Gray Loonalone.

This aloneness to Nepeese was burdened with no thought of danger. There were times, now, when the thought of being alone was pleasant to her, when she wanted to dream by herself, when she visioned things into the mysteries of which she would not admit even Pierrot. She was growing into womanhoodjust the sweet, closed bud of womanhood as yetstill a girl with the soft velvet of girlhood in her eyes, yet with the mystery of woman stirring gently in her soul, as if the Great Hand were hesitating between awakening her and letting her sleep a little longer. At these times, when the opportunity came to steal hours by herself, she would put on the red dress and do up her wonderful hair as she saw it in the pictures of the magazines Pierrot had sent up twice a year from Nelson House.

On the second day of Pierrot's absence Nepeese dressed herself like this, but today she let her hair cascade in a shining glory about her, and about her forehead bound a circlet of red ribbon. She was not yet done. Today she had marvelous designs. On the wall close to her mirror she had tacked a large page from a woman's magazine, and on this page was a lovely vision of curls. Fifteen hundred miles north of the sunny California studio in which the picture had been taken, Nepeese, with pouted red lips and puckered forehead, was struggling to master the mystery of the other girl's curls!

She was looking into her mirror, her face flushed and her eyes aglow in the excitement of the struggle to fashion one of the coveted ringlets from a tress that fell away below her hips, when the door opened behind her, and Bush McTaggart walked in.

 

CHAPTER 20

The Willow's back was toward the door when the factor from Lac Bain entered the cabin, and for a few startled seconds she did not turn. Her first thought was of Pierrotfor some reason he had returned. But even as this thought came to her, she heard in Baree's throat a snarl that brought her suddenly to her feet, facing the door.

McTaggart had not entered unprepared. He had left his pack, his gun, and his heavy coat outside. He was standing with his back against the door; and at Nepeesein her wonderful dress and flowing hairhe was staring as if stunned for a space at what he saw. Fate, or accident, was playing against the Willow now. If there had been a spark of slumbering chivalry, of mercy, even, in Bush McTaggart's soul, it was extinguished by what he saw. Never had Nepeese looked more beautiful, not even on that day when MacDonald the map maker had taken her picture. The sun, flooding through the window, lighted up her marvelous hair. Her flushed face was framed in its lustrous darkness like a tinted cameo. He had dreamed, but he had pictured nothing like this woman who stood before him now, her eyes widening with fear and the flush leaving her face even as he looked at her.

It was not a long interval in which their eyes met in that terrible silence. Words were unnecessary. At last she understoodunderstood what her peril had been that day at the edge of the chasm and in the forest, when fearlessly she had played with the menace that was confronting her now.

A breath that was like a sob broke from her lips.

"M'sieu!" she tried to say. But it was only a gaspan effort.

Plainly she heard the click of the iron bolt as it locked the door. McTaggart advanced a step.

Only a single step McTaggart advanced. On the floor Baree had remained like something carved out of stone. He had not moved. He had not made a sound but that one warning snarluntil McTaggart took the step. And then, like a flash, he was up and in front of Nepeese, every hair of his body on end; and at the fury in his growl McTaggart lunged back against the barred door. A word from Nepeese in that moment, and it would have been over. But an instant was lostan instant before her cry came. In that moment man's hand and brain worked swifter than brute understanding; and as Baree launched himself at the factor's throat, there came a flash and a deafening explosion almost in the Willow's eyes.

It was a chance shot, a shot from the hip with McTaggart's automatic. Baree fell short. He struck the floor with a thud and rolled against the log wall. There was not a kick or a quiver left in his body. McTaggart laughed nervously as he shoved his pistol back in its holster. He knew that only a brain shot could have done that.

With her back against the farther wall, Nepeese was waiting. McTaggart could hear her panting breath. He advanced halfway to her.

"Nepeese, I have come to make you my wife," he said.

She did not answer. He could see that her breath was choking her. She raised a hand to her throat. He took two more steps, and stopped. He had never seen such eyes.

"I have come to make you my wife, Nepeese. Tomorrow you will go on to Nelson House with me, and then back to Lac Bainforever." He added the last word as an afterthought. "Forever," he repeated.

He did not mince words. His courage and his determination rose as he saw her body droop a little against the wall. She was powerless. There was no escape. Pierrot was gone. Baree was dead.

He had thought that no living creature could move as swiftly as the Willow when his arms reached out for her. She made no sound as she darted under one of his outstretched arms. He made a lunge, a savage grab, and his fingers caught a bit of hair. He heard the snap of it as she tore herself free and flew to the door. She had thrown back the bolt when he caught her and his arms closed about her. He dragged her back, and now she cried outcried out in her despair for Pierrot, for Baree, for some miracle of God that might save her.

And Nepeese fought. She twisted in his arms until she was facing him. She could no longer see. She was smothered in her own hair. It covered her face and breast and body, suffocating her, entangling her hands and armsand still she fought. In the struggle McTaggart stumbled over the body of Baree, and they went down. Nepeese was up fully five seconds ahead of the man. She could have reached the door. But again it was her hair. She paused to fling back the thick masses of it so that she could see, and McTaggart was at the door ahead of her.

He did not lock it again, but stood facing her. His face was scratched and bleeding. He was no longer a man but a devil. Nepeese was broken, pantinga low sobbing came with every breath. She bent down, and picked up a piece of firewood. McTaggart could see that her strength was almost gone.

She clutched the stick as he approached her again. But McTaggart had lost all thought of fear or caution. He sprang upon her like an animal. The stick of firewood fell. And again fate played against the girl. In her terror and hopelessness she had caught up the first stick her hand had toucheda light one. With her last strength she hurled it at McTaggart, and as it struck his head, he staggered back. But it did not make him loose his hold.

Vainly she was fighting now, not to strike him or to escape, but to get her breath. She tried to cry out again, but this time no sound came from between her gasping lips.

Again he laughed, and as he laughed, he heard the door open. Was it the wind? He turned, still holding her in his arms.

In the open door stood Pierrot.

 

CHAPTER 21

During that terrible interval which followed an eternity of time passed slowly through the little cabin on the Gray Loonthat eternity which lies somewhere between life and death and which is sometimes meted out to a human life in seconds instead of years.

In those seconds Pierrot did not move from where he stood in the doorway. McTaggart, encumbered with the weight in his arms, and staring at Pierrot, did not move. But the Willow's eyes were opening. And at the same moment a convulsive quiver ran through the body of Baree, where he lay near the wall. There was not the sound of a breath. And then, in that silence, a great gasping sob came from Nepeese.

Then Pierrot stirred to life. Like McTaggart, he had left his coat and mittens outside. He spoke, and his voice was not like Pierrot's. It was a strange voice.

"The great God has sent me back in time, m'sieu," he said. "I, too, traveled by way of the east, and saw your trail where it turned this way."

No, that was not like Pierrot's voice! A chill ran through McTaggart now, and slowly he let go of Nepeese. She fell to the floor. Slowly he straightened.

"Is it not true, m'sieu?" said Pierrot again. "I have come in time?"

What power was itwhat great fear, perhaps, that made McTaggart nod his head, that made his thick lips form huskily the words, "Yesin time." And yet it was not fear. It was something greater, something more all-powerful than that. And Pierrot said, in that same strange voice:

"I thank the great God!"

The eyes of madman met the eyes of madman now. Between them was death. Both saw it. Both thought that they saw the direction in which its bony finger pointed. Both were certain. McTaggart's hand did not go to the pistol in his holster, and Pierrot did not touch the knife in his belt. When they came together, it was throat to throattwo beasts now, instead of one, for Pierrot had in him the fury and strength of the wolf, the cat, and the panther.

McTaggart was the bigger and heavier man, a giant in strength; yet in the face of Pierrot's fury he lurched back over the table and went down with a crash. Many times in his life he had fought, but he had never felt a grip at his throat like the grip of Pierrot's hands. They almost crushed the life from him at once. His neck snappeda little more, and it would have broken. He struck out blindly, and twisted himself to throw off the weight of the half-breed's body. But Pierrot was fastened there, as Sekoosew the ermine had fastened itself at the jugular of the partridge, and Bush McTaggart's jaws slowly swung open, and his face began to turn from red to purple.

Cold air rushing through the door, Pierrot's voice and the sound of battle roused Nepeese quickly to consciousness and the power to raise herself from the floor. She had fallen near Baree, and as she lifted her head, her eyes rested for a moment on the dog before they went to the fighting men. Baree was alive! His body was twitching; his eyes were open. He made an effort to raise his head as she was looking at him.

Then she dragged herself to her knees and turned to the men, and Pierrot, even in the blood-red fury of his desire to kill, must have heard the sharp cry of joy that came from her when she saw that it was the factor from Lac Bain who was underneath. With a tremendous effort she staggered to her feet, and for a few moments she stood swaying unsteadily as her brain and her body readjusted themselves. Even as she looked down upon the blackening face from which Pierrot's fingers were choking the life, Bush McTaggart's hand was groping blindly for his pistol. He found it. Unseen by Pierrot, he dragged it from its holster. It was one of the black devils of chance that favored him again, for in his excitement he had not snapped the safety shut after shooting Baree. Now he had only strength left to pull the trigger. Twice his forefinger closed. Twice there came deadened explosion close to Pierrot's body.

In Pierrot's face Nepeese saw what had happened. Her heart died in her breast as she looked upon the swift and terrible change wrought by sudden death. Slowly Pierrot straightened. His eyes were wide for a momentwide and staring. He made no sound. She could not see his lips move. And then he fell toward her, so that McTaggart's body was free. Blindly and with an agony that gave no evidence in cry or word she flung herself down beside her father. He was dead.

How long Nepeese lay there, how long she waited for Pierrot to move, to open his eyes, to breathe, she would never know. In that time McTaggart rose to his feet and stood leaning against the wall, the pistol in his hand, his brain clearing itself as he saw his final triumph. His work did not frighten him. Even in that tragic moment as he stood against the wall, his defenseif it ever came to a defenseframed itself in his mind. Pierrot had murderously assaulted himwithout cause. In self-defense he had killed him. Was he not the Factor of Lac Bain? Would not the company and the law believe his word before that of this girl? His brain leaped with the old exultation. It would never come to thatto a betrayal of this struggle and death in the cabinafter he had finished with her! She would not be known for all time as La Bete Noir. No, they would bury Pierrot, and she would return to Lac Bain with him. If she had been helpless before, she was ten times more helpless now. She would never tell of what had happened in the cabin.

He forgot the presence of death as he looked at her, bowed over her father so that her hair covered him like a silken-shroud. He replaced the pistol in its holster and drew a deep breath into his lungs. He was still a little unsteady on his feet, but his face was again the face of a devil. He took a step, and it was then there came a sound to rouse the girl. In the shadow of the farther wall Baree had struggled to his haunches, and now he growled.

Slowly Nepeese lifted her head. A power which she could not resist drew her eyes up until she was looking into the face of Bush McTaggart. She had almost lost consciousness of his presence. Her senses were cold and deadenedit was as if her own heart had stopped beating along with Pierrot's. What she saw in the factor's face dragged her out of the numbness of her grief back into the shadow of her own peril. He was standing over her. In his face there was no pity, nothing of horror at what he had doneonly an insane exultation as he lookednot at Pierrot's dead body, but at her. He put out a hand, and it rested on her head. She felt his thick fingers crumpling her hair, and his eyes blazed like embers of fire behind watery films. She struggled to rise, but with his hands at her hair he held her down.

"Great God!" she breathed.

She uttered no other words, no plea for mercy, no other sound but a dry, hopeless sob. In that moment neither of them heard or saw Baree. Twice in crossing the cabin his hindquarters had sagged to the floor. Now he was close to McTaggart. He wanted to give a single lunge to the man-brute's back and snap his thick neck as he would have broken a caribou bone. But he had no strength. He was still partially paralyzed from his foreshoulder back. But his jaws were like iron, and they closed savagely on McTaggart's leg.

With a yell of pain the factor released his hold on the Willow, and she staggered to her feet. For a precious half-minute she was free, and as the factor kicked and struck to loose Baree's hold, she ran to the cabin door and out into the day. The cold air struck her face. It filled her lungs with new strength; and without thought of where hope might lie she ran through the snow into the forest.

McTaggart appeared at the door just in time to see her disappear. His leg was torn where Baree had fastened his fangs, but he felt no pain as he ran in pursuit of the girl. She could not go far. An exultant cry, inhuman as the cry of a beast, came in a great breath from his gaping mouth as he saw that she was staggering weakly as she fled. He was halfway to the edge of the forest when Baree dragged himself over the threshold. His jaws were bleeding where McTaggart had kicked him again and again before his fangs gave way. Halfway between his ears was a seared spot, as if a red-hot poker had been laid there for an instant. This was where McTaggart's bullet had gone. A quarter of an inch deeper, and it would have meant death. As it was, it had been like the blow of a heavy club, paralyzing his senses and sending him limp and unconscious against the wall. He could move on his feet now without falling, and slowly he followed in the tracks of the man and the girl.

As she ran, Nepeese's mind became all at once clear and reasoning. She turned into the narrow trail over which McTaggart had followed her once before, but just before reaching the chasm, she swung sharply to the right. She could see McTaggart. He was not running fast, but was gaining steadily, as if enjoying the sight of her helplessness, as he had enjoyed it in another way on that other day. Two hundred yards below the deep pool into which she had pushed the factorjust beyond the shallows out of which he had dragged himself to safetywas the beginning of Blue Feather's Gorge. An appalling thing was shaping itself in her mind as she ran to ita thing that with each gasping breath she drew became more and more a great and glorious hope. At last she reached it and looked down. And as she looked, there whispered up out of her soul and trembled on her lips the swan song of her mother's people.

Our fatherscome! Come from out of the valley. Guide usfor today we die, And the winds whisper of death!

She had raised her arms. Against the white wilderness beyond the chasm she stood tall and slim. Fifty yards behind her the factor from Lac Bain stopped suddenly in his tracks. "Ah," he mumbled. "Is she not wonderful!" And behind McTaggart, coming faster and faster, was Baree.

Again the Willow looked down. She was at the edge, for she had no fear in this hour. Many times she had clung to Pierrot's hand as she looked over. Down there no one could fall and live. Fifty feet below her the water which never froze was smashing itself into froth among the rocks. It was deep and black and terrible, for between the narrow rock walls the sun did not reach it. The roar of it filled the Willow's ears.

She turned and faced McTaggart.

Even then he did not guess, but came toward her again, his arms stretched out ahead of him. Fifty yards! It was not much, and shortening swiftly.

Once more the Willow's lips moved. After all, it is the mother soul that gives us faith to meet eternityand it was to the spirit of her mother that the Willow called in the hour of death. With the call on her lips she plunged into the abyss, her wind-whipped hair clinging to her in a glistening shroud.

CHAPTER 22

A moment later the factor from Lac Bain stood at the edge of the chasm. His voice had called out in a hoarse bellowa wild cry of disbelief and horror that had formed the Willow's name as she disappeared. He looked down, clutching his huge red hands and staring in ghastly suspense at the boiling water and black rocks far below. There was nothing there nowno sign of her, no last flash of her pale face and streaming hair in the white foam. And she had done THATto save herself from him!

The soul of the man-beast turned sick within him, so sick that he staggered back, his vision blinded and his legs tottering under him. He had killed Pierrot, and it had been a triumph. All his life he had played the part of the brute with a stoicism and cruelty that had known no shocknothing like this that overwhelmed him now, numbing him to the marrow of his bones until he stood like one paralyzed. He did not see Baree. He did not hear the dog's whining cries at the edge of the chasm. For a few moments the world turned black for him. And then, dragging himself out of his stupor, he ran frantically along the edge of the gorge, looking down wherever his eyes could see the water, striving for a glimpse of her. At last it grew too deep. There was no hope. She was goneand she had faced that to escape him!

He mumbled that fact over and over again, stupidly, thickly, as though his brain could grasp nothing beyond it. She was dead. And Pierrot was dead. And he, in a few minutes, had accomplished it all.

He turned back toward the cabinnot by the trail over which he had pursued Nepeese, but straight through the thick bush. Great flakes of snow had begun to fall. He looked at the sky, where banks of dark clouds were rolling up from the south and east. The sun disappeared. Soon there would be a storma heavy snowstorm. The big flakes falling on his naked hands and face set his mind to work. It was lucky for him, this storm. It would cover everythingthe fresh trails, even the grave he would dig for Pierrot.

It does not take such a man as the factor long to recover from a moral concussion. By the time he came in sight of the cabin his mind was again at work on physical thingson the necessities of the situation. The appalling thing, after all, was not that both Pierrot and Nepeese were dead, but that his dream was shattered. It was not that Nepeese was dead, but that he had lost her. This was his vital disappointment. The other thinghis crimeit was easy to destroy all traces of that.

It was not sentiment that made him dig Pierrot's grave close to the princess mother's under the tall spruce. It was not sentiment that made him dig the grave at all, but caution. He buried Pierrot decently. Then he poured Pierrot's stock of kerosene where it would be most effective and touched a match to it. He stood in the edge of the forest until the cabin was a mass of flames. The snow was falling thickly. The freshly made grave was a white mound, and the trails were filling up with new snow. For the physical things he had done there was no fear in Bush McTaggart's heart as he turned back toward Lac Bain. No one would ever look into the grave of Pierrot Du Quesne. And there was no one to betray him if such a miracle happened. But of one thing his black soul would never be able to free itself. Always he would see the pale, triumphant face of the Willow as she stood facing him in that moment of her glory when, even as she was choosing death rather than him, he had cried to himself: "Ah! Is she not wonderful!"

As Bush McTaggart had forgotten Baree, so Baree had forgotten the factor from Lac Bain. When McTaggart had run along the edge of the chasm, Baree had squatted himself in the trodden plot of snow where Nepeese had last stood, his body stiffened and his forefeet braced as he looked down. He had seen her take the leap. Many times that summer he had followed her in her daring dives into the deep, quiet water of the pool. But this was a tremendous distance. She had never dived into a place like that before. He could see the black shapes of the rocks, appearing and disappearing in the whirling foam like the heads of monsters at play. The roar of the water filled him with dread. His eyes caught the swift rush of crumbled ice between the rock walls. And she had gone down there!

He had a great desire to follow her, to jump in, as he had always jumped in after her in previous times. She was surely down there, even though he could not see her. Probably she was playing among the rocks and hiding herself in the white froth and wondering why he didn't come. But he hesitatedhesitated with his head and neck over the abyss, and his forefeet giving way a little in the snow. With an effort he dragged himself back and whined. He caught the fresh scent of McTaggart's moccasins in the snow, and the whine changed slowly into a long snarl. He looked over again. Still he could not see her. He barkedthe short, sharp signal with which he always called her. There was no answer. Again and again he barked, and always there was nothing but the roar of the water that came back to him. Then for a few moments he stood back, silent and listening, his body shivering with the strange dread that was possessing him.

The snow was falling now, and McTaggart had returned to the cabin. After a little Baree followed in the trail he had made along the edge of the chasm, and wherever McTaggart had stopped to peer over, Baree paused also. For a space his hatred of the man was lost in his desire to join the Willow, and he continued along the gorge until, a quarter of a mile beyond where the factor had last looked into it, he came to the narrow trail down which he and Nepeese had many time adventured in quest of rock violets. The twisting path that led down the face of the cliff was filled with snow now, but Baree made his way through it until at last he stood at the edge of the unfrozen torrent. Nepeese was not here. He whined, and barked again, but this time there was in his signal to her an uneasy repression, a whimpering note which told that he did not expect a reply. For five minutes after that he sat on his haunches in the snow, stolid as a rock. What it was that came down out of the dark mystery and tumult of the chasm to him, what spirit whispers of nature that told him the truth, it is beyond the power of reason to explain. But he listened, and he looked; and his muscles twitched as the truth grew in him. And at last he raised his head slowly until his black muzzle pointed to the white storm in the sky, and out of his throat there went forth the quavering, long-drawn howl of the husky who mourns outside the tepee of a master who is newly dead.

On the trail, heading for Lac Bain, Bush McTaggart heard that cry and shivered.

It was the smell of smoke, thickening in the air until it stung his nostrils, that drew Baree at last away from the chasm and back to the cabin. There was not much left when he came to the clearing. Where the cabin had been was a red-hot, smoldering mass. For a long time he sat watching it, still waiting and still listening. He no longer felt the effect of the bullet that had stunned him, but his senses were undergoing another change now, as strange and unreal as their struggle against that darkness of near death in the cabin. In a space that had not covered more than an hour the world had twisted itself grotesquely for Baree. That long ago the Willow was sitting before her little mirror in the cabin, talking to him and laughing in her happiness, while he lay in vast contentment on the floor. And now there was no cabin, no Nepeese, no Pierrot. Quietly he struggled to comprehend. It was some time before he moved from under the thick balsams, for already a deep and growing suspicion began to guide his movements. He did not go nearer to the smoldering mass of the cabin, but slinking low, made his way about the circle of the clearing to the dog corral. This took him under the tall spruce. For a full minute he paused here, sniffing at the freshly made mound under its white mantle of snow. When he went on, he slunk still lower, and his ears were flat against his head.

The dog corral was open and empty. McTaggart had seen to that. Again Baree squatted back on his haunches and sent forth the death howl. This time it was for Pierrot. In it there was a different note from that of the howl he had sent forth from the chasm: it was positive, certain. In the chasm his cry had been tempered with doubta questioning hope, something that was so almost human that McTaggart had shivered on the trail. But Baree knew what lay in that freshly dug snow-covered grave. A scant three feet of earth could not hide its secret from him. There was deathdefinite and unequivocal. But for Nepeese he was still hoping and seeking.

Until noon he did not go far from the site of the cabin, but only once did he actually approach and sniff about the black pile of steaming timbers. Again and again he circled the edge of the clearing, keeping just within the bush and timber, sniffing the air and listening. Twice he went hack to the chasm. Late in the afternoon there came to him a sudden impulse that carried him swiftly through the forest. He did not run openly now. Caution, suspicion, and fear had roused in him afresh the instincts of the wolf. With his ears flattened against the side of his head, his tail drooping until the tip of it dragged the snow and his back sagging in the curious, evasive gait of the wolf, he scarcely made himself distinguishable from the shadows of the spruce and balsams.

There was no faltering in the trail Baree made; it was straight as a rope might have been drawn through the forest, and it brought him, early in the dusk, to the open spot where Nepeese had fled with him that day she had pushed McTaggart over the edge of the precipice into the pool. In the place of the balsam shelter of that day there was now a watertight birchbark tepee which Pierrot had helped the Willow to make during the summer. Baree went straight to it and thrust in his head with a low and expectant whine.

There was no answer. It was dark and cold in the tepee. He could make out indistinctly the two blankets that were always in it, the row of big tin boxes in which Nepeese kept their stores, and the stove which Pierrot had improvised out of scraps of iron and heavy tin. But Nepeese was not there. And there was no sign of her outside. The snow was unbroken except by his own trail. It was dark when he returned to the burned cabin. All that night he hung about the deserted dog corral, and all through the night the snow fell steadily, so that by dawn he sank into it to his shoulders when he moved out into the clearing.

But with day the sky had cleared. The sun came up, and the world was almost too dazzling for the eyes. It warmed Baree's blood with new hope and expectation. His brain struggled even more eagerly than yesterday to comprehend. Surely the Willow would be returning soon! He would hear her voice. She would appear suddenly out of the forest. He would receive some signal from her. One of these things, or all of them, must happen. He stopped sharply in his tracks at every sound, and sniffed the air from every point of the wind. He was traveling ceaselessly. His body made deep trails in the snow around and over the huge white mound where the cabin had stood. His tracks led from the corral to the tall spruce, and they were as numerous as the footprints of a wolf pack for half a mile up and down the chasm.

On the afternoon of this day the second strong impulse came to him. It was not reason, and neither was it instinct alone. It was the struggle halfway between, the brute mind righting at its best with the mystery of an intangible thingsomething that could not be seen by the eye or heard by the ear. Nepeese was not in the cabin, because there was no cabin. She was not at the tepee. He could find no trace of her in the chasm. She was not with Pierrot under the big spruce.

Therefore, unreasoning but sure, he began to follow the old trap line into the north and west.

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James Oliver Curwood Baree, Son of Kazan
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