The Honor of the Big Snows
James Oliver Curwood
Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Charles Aldarondo, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
THE HONOR OF THE BIG SNOWS
By JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
Author of "The Danger Trail," "The Courage of Captain Plum," etc.
"Listen, John--I hear music--"
The words came in a gentle whisper from the woman's lips. One white,
thin hand lifted itself weakly to the rough face of the man who was
kneeling beside her bed, and the great dark eyes from which he had
hidden his own grew luminously bright for a moment, as she whispered
A sigh fluttered from her lips. The man's head drooped until it rested
very near to her bosom. He felt the quiver of her hand against his
cheek, and in its touch there was something which told John Cummins
that the end of all life had come for him and for her. His heart beat
fiercely, and his great shoulders shook with the agony that was eating
at his soul.
"Yes, it is the pretty music, my Mélisse," he murmured softly, choking
back his sobs. "It is the pretty music in the skies."
The hand pressed more tightly against his face.
"It's not the music in the skies, John. It is real--REAL music that I
"It's the sky music, my sweet Mélisse! Shall I open the door so that
we can hear it better?"
The hand slipped from his cheek. Cummins lifted his head, slowly
straightening his great shoulders as he looked down upon the white
face, from which even the flush of fever was disappearing, as he had
seen the pale glow of the northern sun fade before a thickening snow.
He stretched his long, gaunt arms straight up to the low roof of the
cabin, and for the first time in his life he prayed--prayed to the God
who had made for him this world of snow and ice and endless forest
very near to the dome of the earth, who had given him this woman, and
who was now taking her from him.
When he looked again at the woman, her eyes were open, and there
glowed in them still the feeble fire of a great love. Her lips, too,
pleaded with him in their old, sweet way, which always meant that he
was to kiss them, and stroke her hair, and tell her again that she was
the most beautiful thing in the whole world.
He crushed his face to her, his sobbing breath smothering itself in
the soft masses of her hair, while her arms rose weakly and fell
around his neck. He heard the quick, gasping struggle for breath
within her bosom, and, faintly again, the words:
"It is the music of the angels in the skies, my sweet Mélisse! It is
OUR music. I will open the door."
The arms had slipped from his shoulders. Gently he ran his rough
fingers through the loose glory of the woman's hair, and stroked her
face as softly as he might have caressed the cheek of a sleeping
"I will open the door, Mélisse."
His moccasined feet made no sound as he moved across the little room
which was their home. At the door he paused and listened; then he
opened it, and the floods of the white night poured in upon him as he
stood with his eyes turned to where the cold, pale flashes of the
aurora were playing over the pole. There came to him the hissing,
saddening song of the northern lights--a song of vast, unending
loneliness, which they two had come to know as the music of the skies.
Beyond that mystery-music there was no sound. To the eyes of John
Cummins there was no visible movement of life. And yet he saw signs of
it--signs which drew his breath from him in choking gulps, and which
sent him out into the night, so that the woman might not hear.
It was an hour past midnight at the post, which had the Barren Lands
at its back door. It was the hour of deep slumber for its people; but
to-night there was no sleep for any of them. Lights burned dimly in
the few rough log homes. The company's store was aglow, and the
factor's office, a haven for the men of the wilderness, shot one
gleaming yellow eye out into the white gloom. The post was awake. It
was waiting. It was listening. It was watching.
As the woman's door opened, wide and brimful of light, a door of one
of the log houses opened, and then another, and out into the night,
like dim shadows, trod the moccasined men from the factor's office,
and stood there waiting for the word of life or death from John
Cummins. In their own fashion these men, who, without knowing it,
lived very near to the ways of God, sent mute prayers into the starry
heavens that the most beautiful thing in the world might yet be spared
It was just two summers before that this beautiful thing had come into
Cummins' life, and into the life of the post. Cummins, red-headed,
lithe as a cat, big-souled as the eternal mountain of the Crees, and
the best of the company's hunters, had brought Mélisse thither as his
bride. Seventeen rough hearts had welcomed her. They had assembled
about that little cabin in which the light was shining now, speechless
in their adoration of this woman who had come among them, their caps
in their hands, their faces shining, their eyes shifting before the
glorious ones that looked at them and smiled at them as the woman
shook their hands, one by one.
Perhaps she was not strictly beautiful, as most people judge; but she
was beautiful here, four hundred miles beyond civilization. Mukee, the
half-Cree, had never seen a white woman, for even the factor's wife
was part Chippewayan; and no one of the others went down to the edge
of the southern wilderness more than once each twelvemonth or so.
Melisse's hair was brown and soft, and it shone with a sunny glory
that reached far back into their conception of things dreamed of but
never seen. Her eyes were as blue as the early wild flowers that came
after the spring floods, and her voice was the sweetest sound that had
ever fallen upon their ears. So these men thought when Cummins first
brought home his wife, and the masterpiece which each had painted in
his soul and brain was never changed. Each week and month added to the
deep-toned value of that picture, as the passing of a century might
add to a Raphael or a Vandyke.
The woman became more human, and less an angel, of course, but that
only made her more real, and allowed them to become acquainted with
her, to talk with her, and to love her more. There was no thought of
wrong, for the devotion of these men was a great, passionless love
unhinting of sin. Cummins and his wife accepted it, and added to it
when they could, and were the happiest pair in all that vast
The girl--she was scarce more than budding into womanhood--fell
happily into the ways of her new life. She did nothing that was
elementally unusual, nothing more than any pure woman reared in the
love of God and of a home would have done. In her spare hours she
began to teach the half-dozen wild little children about the post, and
every Sunday she told them wonderful stories out of the Bible. She
ministered to the sick, for that was a part of her code of life.
Everywhere she carried her glad smile, her cheery greeting, her
wistful earnestness, to brighten what seemed to her the sad and lonely
lives of these silent men of the North.
And she succeeded, not because she was unlike other millions of her
kind, but because of the difference between the fortieth degree and
the sixtieth--the difference in the viewpoint of men who fought
themselves into moral shreds in the big game of life and those who
lived a thousand miles nearer to the dome of the earth.
A few days before there had come a wonderful event in the history of
the company's post. A new life was born into the little cabin of
Cummins and his wife. After this the silent, wordless worship of their
people was filled with something very near to pathos. Cummins' wife
was a mother! She was one of them now, an indissoluble part of their
existence--a part of it as truly as the strange lights for ever
hovering over the pole, as surely as the countless stars that never
left the night skies, as surely as the endless forests and the deep
Then had come the sudden change, and the gloom, that brought with it
the shadow of death, fell like a pall upon the post, stifling its
life, and bringing with it a grief that those who lived there had
never known before.
There came to them no word from Cummins now.
He stood for a moment before his lighted door, and then went back, and
the word passed softly from one to another that the most beautiful
thing in the world was still living her sweet life in that little
cabin at the end of the clearing.
"You hear the music in the skies--now, my Mélisse?" whispered the man,
kneeling beside her again. "It is very pretty to-night!"
"It was not that," repeated the woman.
She attempted to stroke his face, but Cummins saw nothing of the
effort, for the hand lay all but motionless. He saw nothing of the
fading softness that glowed in the big, loving eyes, for his own eyes
were blinded by a hot film. And the woman saw nothing of the hot film,
so torture was saved them both. But suddenly the woman quivered, and
Cummins heard a thrilling sound.
"It is the music!" she panted. "John, John, it is--the music--of--my--
The man straightened himself, his face turned to the open door. He
heard it now! Was it the blessed angels coming for his Mélisse? He
rose, a sobbing note in his throat, and went, his arms stretched out,
to meet them. He had never heard a sound like that--never in all his
life in this endless wilderness.
He went from the door out into the night, and, step by step, through
the snow toward the black edge of the spruce forest. The sobs fell
chokingly from his lips, and his arms were still reaching out to greet
this messenger of the God of his beloved; for Cummins was a man of the
wild and mannerless ways of a savage world, and he knew not what to
make of this sweetness that came to them from out of the depths of the
"My Mélisse! My Mélisse!" he sobbed.
A figure came from the shadows, and with the figure came the music,
sweet and soft and low. John Cummins stopped and turned his face
straight up to the sky. His heart died within him.
The music ceased, and when he looked again the figure was close to
him, staggering as it walked, and a face white and thin and starved
came with it. It was a boy's face.
"For the museek of the violon--somet'ing to eat!" he heard, and the
thin figure swayed and fell almost into his arms. The voice came weak
again. "Thees is Jan--Jan Thoreau--and his violon--"
The woman's bloodless face and her great staring dark eyes greeted
them as they entered the cabin. As the man knelt beside her again, and
lifted her head against his breast, she whispered once more:
"It is the--music--of my people--the violin!"
John Cummins turned his head.
"Play!" he breathed.
"Ah, the white angel is seek--ver' seek," murmured Jan, and he drew
his bow gently across the strings of his violin.
From the instrument there came something so soft and sweet that John
Cummins closed his eyes as he held the woman against his breast and
listened. Not until he opened them again, and felt a strange chill
against his cheek, did he know that his beloved's soul had gone from
him on the gentle music of Jan Thoreau's violin.
For many minutes after the last gentle breath had passed from the
woman's lips, Jan Thoreau played softly upon his violin. It was the
great, heart-broken sob of John Cummins that stopped him. As tenderly
as if she had fallen into a sweet sleep from which he feared to awaken
her, the man unclasped his arms and lowered his wife's head to the
pillow; and with staring black eyes Jan crushed his violin against his
ragged breast and watched him as he smoothed back the shimmering hair
and looked long and hungrily into the still, white face.
Cummins turned to him, and, in the dim light of the cabin, their eyes
met. It was then that Jan Thoreau knew what had happened. He forgot
his starvation. He crushed his violin closer, and whispered to
"The white angel ees--gone!"
Cummins rose from the bedside, slowly, like a man who had suddenly
grown old. His moccasined feet dragged as he went to the door. They
stumbled when he went out into the pale star-glow of the night.
Jan followed, swaying weakly, for the last of his strength had gone in
the playing of the violin. Midway in the cabin he paused, and his eyes
glowed with a wild, strange grief as he gazed down upon the still face
of Cummins' wife, beautiful in death as it had been in life, and with
the sweet softness of life still lingering there. Some time, ages and
ages ago, he had known such a face, and had felt the great clutching
love of it.
Something drew him to where John Cummins had knelt, and he fell upon
his knees and gazed hungrily and longingly where John Cummins had
gazed. His pulse was beating feebly, the weakness of seven days'
starvation blurred his eyes, and unconsciously he sank over the bed
and one of his thin hands touched the soft sweep of the woman's hair.
A stifled cry fell from him as he jerked himself rigidly erect; and as
if for the desecration of that touch there was but one way of
forgiveness, he drew his violin half to his shoulder, and for a few
moments played so softly that none but the spirit of the woman and
himself could hear.
Cummins had partly closed the door after him; but watchers had seen
the opening of it. A door opened here, and another there, and paths of
yellow light flashed over the hard-trodden snow as shadowy life came
forth to greet what message he brought from the little cabin.
Beyond those flashes of light there was no other movement, and no
sound. Dark figures stood motionless. The lonely howl of a sledge-dog
ended in a wail of pain as some one kicked it into terrified silence.
The hollow cough of Mukee's father was smothered in the thick fur of
his cap as he thrust his head from his little shack in the edge of the
forest. A score of eyes watched Cummins as he came out into the snow,
and the rough, loyal hearts of those who looked throbbed in fearful
anticipation of the word he might be bringing to them.
Sometimes a nation ceases to breathe in the last moments of its dying
chief, and the black wings of calamity gather over its people,
enshrouding them in a strange gloom and a stranger fear; and so,
because the greatest of all tragedies had come into their little
world, Cummins' people were speechless in their grief and their
waiting for the final word. And when the word came to them at last,
and passed from lip to lip, and from one grim, tense face to another,
the doors closed again, and the lights went out one by one, until
there remained only the yellow eye of the factor's office and the
faint glow from the little cabin in which John Cummins knelt with his
sobbing face crushed close to that of his dead.
There was no one who noticed Jan Thoreau when he came through the door
of the factor's office. His coat of caribou-skin was in tatters. His
feet thrust themselves from the toes of his moccasins. His face was so
thin and white that it shone with the pallor of death from its frame
of straight dark hair. His eyes gleamed like black diamonds. The
madness of hunger was in him.
An hour before, death had been gripping at his throat, when he
stumbled upon the lights of the post, That night he would have died in
the deep snows. Wrapped in its thick coat of bearskin he clutched his
violin to his breast, and sank down in a ragged heap beside the hot
stove. His eyes traveled about him in fierce demand. There is no
beggary among these strong-souled men of the far North, and Jan's lips
did not beg. He unwrapped the bearskin, and whispered:
"For the museek of the violon--somet'ing to eat!"
He played, even as the words fell from him, but only for a moment--for
the bow slipped from his nerveless grip and his head sank forward upon
In the half-Cree's eyes there was something of the wild beauty that
gleamed in Jan's. For an instant those eyes had met in the savage
recognition of blood; and when Jan's head fell weakly, and his violin
slipped to the floor, Mukee lifted him in his strong arms and carried
him to the shack in the edge of the spruce and balsam.
And there was no one who noticed Jan the next day--except Mukee. He
was fed. His frozen blood grew warm. As life returned, he felt more
and more the pall of gloom that had settled over this spark of life in
the heart of the wilderness. He had seen the woman, in life and in
death, and he, too, loved her and grieved that she was no more. He
said nothing; he asked nothing; but he saw the spirit of adoration in
the sad, tense faces of the men. He saw it in the terror-stricken eyes
of the wild little children who had grown to worship Cummins' wife. He
read it in the slinking stillness of the dogs, in the terrible,
pulseless quiet that had settled about him.
It was not hard for Jan to understand, for he, too, worshiped the
memory of a white, sweet face like the one that he had seen in the
cabin. He knew that this worship at Lac Bain was a pure worship, for
the honor of the big snows was a part of his soul. It was his
religion, and the religion of these others who lived four hundred
miles or more from a southern settlement.
It meant what civilization could not understand--freezing and slow
starvation rather than theft, and respect for the tenth commandment
above all other things. It meant that up here, under the cold chill of
the northern skies, things were as God meant them to be, and that a
few of His creatures could live in a love that was neither possession
A year after Cummins brought his wife into the North, a man came to
the post from Fort Churchill, on Hudson's Bay. He was an Englishman,
belonging to the home office of the Hudson's Bay Company in London. He
brought with him something new, as the woman had brought something
new; only in this instance it was an element of life which Cummins'
people could not understand.
It breathed of tragedy from the first, to the men of the post. To the
Englishman, on the other hand, it promised to be but an incident--a
passing adventure in pleasure. Here again was that difference of
viewpoint--the eternity of difference between the middle and the end
of the earth.
Cummins was away for a month on a trap-line that went into the Barren
Lands. At these times the woman fell as a heritage to those who
remained, and they watched over her as a parent might guard its child.
Yet the keenest eyes would not have perceived that this was so.
With Cummins gone, the tragedy progressed swiftly toward finality. The
Englishman came from among women. For months he had been in a torment
of desolation. Cummins' wife was to him like a flower suddenly come to
relieve the tantalizing barrenness of a desert; and with the wiles and
ways of civilization he sought to breathe its fragrance.
In the days and weeks that followed, he talked a great deal, when
heated by the warmth of the box stove and by his own thoughts; and
this was because he had not yet measured the hearts of Cummins'
people. And because the woman knew nothing of what was said about the
box stove, she continued in the even course of her pure life, neither
resisting nor encouraging the new-comer, yet ever tempting him with
that sweetness which she gave to all alike.
As yet there was no suspicion in her soul. She accepted the
Englishman's friendship, for he was a stranger among her people. She
did not hear the false note, she saw no step that promised evil. Only
the men at the post heard, and saw, and understood.
Like so many faithful beasts, they were ready to spring, to rend
flesh, to tear life out of him who threatened the desecration of all
that was good and pure and beautiful to them; and yet, dumb in their
devotion and faith, they waited and watched for a sign from the woman.
The blue eyes of Cummins' wife, the words of her gentle lips, the
touch of her hands, had made law at the post. If she smiled upon the
stranger and talked with him, and was pleased with him, that was only
one other law that she had made for them to respect. So they were
quiet, evaded the Englishman as much as possible, and watched--always
One day something happened. Cummins' wife came into the company's
store; and a quick flush shot into her cheeks, and the glitter of blue
diamonds into her eyes, when she saw the stranger standing there. The
man's red face grew redder, and he shifted his gaze. When Cummins'
wife passed him, she drew her skirt close to her; and there was the
poise of a queen in her head, the glory of wife and womanhood, the
living, breathing essence of all that was beautiful in her people's
honor of the big snows.
That night Mukee, the half-Cree, slunk around in the edge of the
forest to see that all was well in Cummins' little home. Once Mukee
had suffered a lynx-bite that went clear to the bone, and the woman
had saved his hand. After that, the savage in him was enslaved to her
like an invisible spirit.
He crouched for a few minutes in the snow, looking at the pale filter
of light that came through a hole in the curtain of the woman's
window; and as he looked something came between him and the light.
Against the cabin he saw the shadow of a sneaking human form; and as
silently as the steely flash of the aurora over his head, as swiftly
as a lean deer, he sped through the gloom of the forest's edge and
came up behind the woman's home.
With the caution of a lynx, his head close to the snow, he peered
around the logs. It was the Englishman who stood looking through the
tear in that curtained window.
Mukee's moccasined feet made no sound. His hand fell as gently as a
child's upon the stranger's arm.
"Thees is not the honor of the beeg snows," he whispered. "Come!"
A sickly pallor filled the other man's face; but Mukee's voice was
soft and dispassionate, his touch was velvety in its hint, and he went
with the guiding hand away from the curtained window, smiling in a
companionable way. Mukee's teeth gleamed back. The Englishman
Then Mukee's hands changed. They flew to the thick, reddening throat
of the man from civilization, and without a sound the two sank
together upon the snow.
The next day a messenger behind six dogs set out for Fort Churchill,
with word for the company's home office that the Englishman had died
in the big snow--which was true.
Mukee told this to Jan, for there was the bond of blood between them.
It was a painting of life, and love, and purity. Deep down in the
loneliness of his heart, Jan Thoreau, in his own simple way, thanked
the great God that it had been given to him to play his violin as the
The passing of Cummins' wife was as quiet as had been her coming. With
bare heads, their shaggy hair falling wildly about their faces, their
lips set tight to choke back their grief, the few at the post went,
one by one, into the little cabin, and gazed for the last time upon
her face. There was but one sound other than the gentle tread of their
moccasined feet, and that was a catching, sobbing moan that fell from
the thick gray beard of Williams, the old factor.
After that they carried her to where a clearing had been cut in the
edge of the forest; and at the foot of a giant spruce, towering
sentinel-like to the sky, they lowered her into the frozen earth.
Gaspingly, Williams stumbled over the words on a ragged page that had
been torn from a Bible. The rough men who stood about him bowed their
wild heads upon their breasts, and sobs broke from them.
At last Williams stopped his reading, stretched his long arms above
his head, and cried chokingly:
"The great God keep Mees Cummins!"
As the earth fell, there came from the edge of the forest the low,
sweet music of Jan Thoreau's violin. No man in all the world could
have told what he played, for it was the music of Jan's soul, wild and
whispering of the winds, sweetened by some strange inheritance that
had come to him with the picture which he carried in his throbbing
He played until only the tall spruce and John Cummins stood over the
lone grave. When he stopped, the man turned to him, and they went
together to the little cabin where the woman had lived.
There was something new in the cabin now--a tiny, white, breathing
thing over which an Indian woman watched. The boy stood beside John
Cummins, looking down upon it, and trembling.
"Ah," he whispered, his great eyes glowing. "It ees the LEETLE white
"It is the little Mélisse," replied the man.
He dropped upon his knees, with his sad face close to the new life
that was to take the place of the one that had just gone out. Jan felt
something tugging in a strange way at his heart, and he, too, fell
upon his knees beside John Cummins in this first worship of the child.
From this hour of their first kneeling before the little life in the
cabin, something sprang up between Jan Thoreau and John Cummins which
it would have been hard for man to break. Looking up after many
moments' contemplation of the little Mélisse, Jan gazed straight into
Cummins' face, and whispered softly the word which in Cree means
"father." This was Jan's first word for Mélisse.
When he looked back, the baby was wriggling and kicking as he had seen
tiny wolf-whelps wriggle and kick before their eyes were open. His
beautiful eyes laughed. As cautiously as if he were playing with hot
iron, he reached out a thin hand, and when one of his fingers suddenly
fell upon something very soft and warm, he jerked it back as quickly
as if he had been burned.
That night, when Jan picked up his violin to go back to Mukee's cabin,
Cummins put his two big hands on the boy's shoulders and said:
"Jan, who are you, and where did you come from?"
Jan stretched his arm vaguely to the north.
"Jan Thoreau," he replied simply. "Thees is my violon. We come alone
through the beeg snow."
Cummins stared as if he saw a wonderful picture in the boy's eyes. He
dropped his hands, and walked to the door. When they stood alone
outside, he pointed up to the stars, and to the mist-like veil of
silver light that the awakening aurora was spreading over the northern
"Get your bearings, and tell me again where you came from, Jan!"
Unhesitatingly the boy pointed into the north.
"We starve seven day in the beeg snow. My violon keep the wolf off at
"Look again, Jan! Didn't you come from there, or there, or there?"
Cummins turned slowly, facing first to the east and Hudson's Bay, then
to the south, and lastly to the west. There was something more than
curiosity in the tense face that came back in staring inquiry to Jan
The boy hunched his shoulders, and his eyes flashed.
"It ees not lie that Jan Thoreau and hees violon come through the beeg
snow," he replied softly. "It ees not lie!"
There was more than gentleness in John Cummins' touch now. Jan could
not understand it, but he yielded to it, and went back into the cabin.
There was more than friendship in Cummins' eyes when he placed his
hands again upon the boy's shoulders, and Jan could not understand
"There is plenty of room here--now," said Cummins huskily. "Will you
stay with the little Mélisse and me?"
"With the leetle Mélisse!" gasped the boy. Softly he sped to the tiny
cot and knelt beside it, his thin shoulders hunched over, his long
black hair shining lustrously in the lamp-glow, his breath coming in
quick, sobbing happiness. "I--I--stay with the leetle white angel for
ever and ever!" he whispered, his words meant only for the unhearing
ears of the child. "Jan Thoreau will stay, yes--and hees violon! I
give it to you--and ze museek!"
He laid his precious violin across the foot of the cot.
In the days that followed, there came other things which Jan could not
understand, and which he made no great effort to understand. He talked
little, even to Cummins. He listened, and his eyes would answer, or he
would reply with strange, eery little hunches of his shoulders, which
ruffled up his hair. To the few simple souls at the post, he brought
with him more than his starved body from out of the unknown
wilderness. This was the chief cause of those things which he could
No man learned more of him than had Cummins. Even to Mukee, his
history was equally simple and short. Always he said that he came from
out of the north--which meant the Barren Lands; and the Barren Lands
meant death. No man had ever come across them as Jan had come; and at
another time, and under other circumstances, Cummins and his people
would have believed him mad.
But others had listened to that strange, sweet music that came to them
from out of the forest on the night when the woman died, and they,
like Cummins, had been stirred by thrilling thoughts. They knew little
of God, as God is preached; but they knew a great deal about Him in
other ways. They knew that Jan Thoreau had come like a messenger from
the angels, that the woman's soul had gone out to meet him, and that
she had died sweetly on John Cummins' breast while he played. So the
boy, with his thin, sensitive face and his great, beautiful eyes,
became a part of what the woman had left behind for them to love. As a
part of her they accepted him, without further questioning as to who
he was or whence he came.
In a way, he made up for her loss. The woman had brought something new
and sweet into their barren lives, and he brought something new and
sweet--the music of his violin. He played for them in the evening, in
the factor's office; and at these times they knew that Cummins' wife
was very near to them and that she was speaking to them through the
things which Jan Thoreau played.
Music had long passed out of their lives. Into some, indeed, it had
never come. Years ago, Williams had been at a post where there was an
accordion. Cummins had heard music when he went down to civilization
for his wife, more than two years ago. To the others it was mystery
which stirred them to the depths of their souls, and which revealed to
them many things that had long been hidden in the dust of the past.
These were hours of triumph for Jan in the factor's office. Perched on
a box, with his back to the wall, his head thrown back, his black eyes
shining, his long hair giving to his face a half savage beauty, he was
more than king to the grim-visaged men about him. They listened,
movelessly, soundlessly; and when he stopped there was still neither
move nor sound until he had wrapped his violin in its bear-skin and
had returned to John Cummins and the little Mélisse. Jan understood
the silence, and took it for what it meant.
But it was the audience in the little cabin that Jan liked best, and,
most of all, he loved to have the little Mélisse alone. As the days of
early spring trapping approached, and the wilderness for a hundred
miles around the post was crisscrossed with the trails of the Cree and
Chippewayan fur-seekers, Cummins was absent for days at a time,
strengthening the company's friendships, and bargaining for the catch
that would be coming to market about eight weeks later.
This was a year of intense rivalry, for the Révillons, French
competitors of the company, had established a post two hundred miles
to the west, and rumor spread that they were to give sixty pounds of
flour to the company's forty, and four feet of cloth to the yard. This
meant action among Williams and his people, and the factor himself
plunged into the wilderness. Mukee, the half-Cree, went among his
scattered tribesmen along the edge of the barrens, stirring them by
the eloquence of new promises and by fierce condemnation of the
interlopers to the west. Old Per-ee, with a strain of Eskimo in him,
went boldly behind his dogs to meet the little black people from
farther north, who came down after foxes and half-starved polar bears
that had been carried beyond their own world on the ice-floes of the
preceding spring. Young Williams, the factor's son, followed after
Cummins, and the rest of the company's men went into the south and
The exodus left desolate lifelessness at the post. The windows of the
fireless cabins were thick with clinging frost. There was no movement
in the factor's office. The dogs were gone, and wolves and lynx
sniffed closer each night. In the oppression of this desertion, the
few Indian and half-breed children kept indoors, and Williams'
Chippewayan wife, fat and lazy, left the company's store securely
In this silence and lifelessness Jan Thoreau felt a new and ever-
increasing happiness. To him the sound of life was a thing vibrant
with harshness; quiet--the dead, pulseless quiet of lifelessness--was
beautiful. He dreamed in it, and it was then that his fingers
discovered new things in his violin.
He often sent Maballa, the Indian woman who cared for Mélisse, to
gossip with Williams' wife, so that he was alone a great deal with the
baby. At these times, when the door was safely barred against the
outside world, it was a different Jan Thoreau who crouched upon his
knees beside the cot. His face was aflame with a great, absorbing
passion which at other times he concealed. His beautiful eyes glowed
with hidden fires, and he whispered soothing, singsong things to the
child, and played softly upon his violin, leaning his black head far
down so that the baby Mélisse could clutch her appreciative fingers in
"Ah, ze sweet leetle white angel!" he would cry, as she tugged and
kicked. "I luf you so--I luf you, an' will stay always, ah' play ze
violon! Ah, mon Dieu, you will be ze gr-r-r-eat bea-utiful white angel
He would laugh and coo like a mother, and talk, for at these times Jan
Thoreau's tongue was as voluble as his violin.
Sometimes Mélisse listened as if she understood the wonderful things
he was telling her. She would lie upon her back with her eyes fixed
upon him, her little red fists doubled over his bow, or a thumb thrust
into her mouth. And the longer she lay like this, gazing at him
blankly, the more convinced Jan became that she was understanding him;
and his voice grew soft and low, and his eyes shone with a soft mist
as he told her those things which John Cummins would have given much
"Some day you shall understand why it happened, sweet Mélisse," he
whispered, bringing his eyes so near that she reached up an inquiring
finger to them. "Then you will luf Jan Thoreau!"
There were other times when Jan did not talk, but when the baby
Mélisse talked to him; and these were moments of even greater joy.
With the baby wriggling and kicking, and making queer noises in her
tiny cot, he would sit silently upon his heels, watching her with the
pride and happiness of a mother lynx in the first tumbling frolics of
Once, when Mélisse straightened herself for an instant, and half
reached up her tiny arms to him, laughing and cooing into his face, he
gave a glad cry, crushed his face down to hers, and did what he had
not dared to do before--kissed her. There was something about it that
frightened the little Mélisse, and she set up a wailing that sent Jan,
in a panic of dismay, for Maballa. It was a long time before he
ventured to kiss her again.
It was during this fortnight of desolation at the post that Jan
discovered the big problem for himself and John Cummins. In the last
days of the second week, he spent much of his time skirting the edge
of the barrens in search of caribou, that there might be meat in
plenty when the dogs and men returned a little later. One afternoon,
he returned early, while the pale sun was still in the sky, laden with
the meat of a musk-ox. As he came from the edge of the forest, his
slender body doubled over under the weight of his pack, a terrifying
sight greeted him in the little clearing at the post.
Upon her knees in front of their cabin was Maballa, industriously
rolling the half-naked little Mélisse about in a soft pile of snow,
and doing her work, as she firmly believed, in a most faithful and
thorough manner. With a shriek, Jan threw off his pack and darted
toward her like a wild thing.
"Sacre bleu--you keel--keel ze leetle Mélisse!" he cried shrilly,
snatching up the half-frozen child, "Mon Dieu, she ees not papoose!
She ees ceevilize--ceevilize!" and he ran swiftly with her into the
cabin, flinging back a torrent of Cree anathema at the dumbly
Jan left the rest of his musk-ox to the wolves and foxes. He went out
into the snow, and found half a dozen other snow-wallows in which the
helpless Mélisse had taken her chilling baths. He watched Maballa with
a new growing terror, and fifty times a day he said to her:
"Mélisse ees not papoose! She ees ceevilize--lak HER!" And he would
point to the lonely grave under the guardian spruce.
At last Maballa went into an ecstasy of understanding. Mélisse was not
to be taken out and rolled in the snow; so she brought in the snow and
rolled it over Mélisse!
When Jan discovered this, his tongue twisted itself into sounds so
terrible, and his face writhed so fiercely, that Maballa began to
comprehend that thereafter no snow at all, either out doors or in, was
to be used in the physical development of the little Mélisse.
This was the beginning of the problem, and it grew and burst forth in
all its significance on the day before Cummins came in from the
For a week Maballa had been dropping sly hints of a wonderful thing
which she and the factor's half-breed wife were making for the baby.
Jan had visions of a gorgeous garment covered with beads and gaudy
braid, which would give the little Mélisse unending delight. On the
day before Cummins' arrival, Jan came in from chopping wood, and went
to the cot. It was empty. Maballa was gone. A sudden fear thrilled him
to the marrow, and he sprang back to the cabin door, ready to shriek
out the Indian woman's name.
A sound stopped him--the softest, sweetest sound in all the world to
Jan Thoreau--and he whirled around like a cat. Mélisse was smiling and
making queer, friendly little signals to him from the table. She was
standing upright, wedged in a coffin-shaped thing from which only her
tiny white face peered out at him; and Jan knew that this was
Maballa's surprise, Mélisse was in a papoose-sling!
"Mélisse, I say you shall be no papoose!" he cried, running to the
table. "You ees ceevilize! You shall be no papoose--not if twen'
t'ous'nd devil come tak Jan Thoreau!"
And he snatched her from her prison, flung Maballa's handiwork out
into the snow, and waited impatiently for the return of John Cummins.
Cummins returned the next day--not that his work among the wild
trappers to the south was finished, but because he had suffered a hurt
in falling from a slippery ledge. When Jan, from his wood-chopping in
the edge of the forest, saw the team race up to the little cabin and a
strange Cree half carry the wounded man through the door, he sped
swiftly across the open with visions of new misfortune before him.
What he saw when he reached the door was reassuring. Cummins was upon
his knees beside the cot, his big shoulders hunched over, and Mélisse
was welcoming him with her whole vocabulary of sound. The injury to
Cummins' leg was not serious; and not being serious, it was accepted
as a special incident of Providence by Jan, for the new thoughts that
had come into his head were causing him great uneasiness.
He lost no time in revealing his fears, after Maballa had been sent to
the factor's wife. With graphic gesture he told of what had happened.
Cummins hobbled to the door to look upon the wallows in the snow, and
hobbled back to the table when Jan ran there in excited imitation of
the way in which he had found the little Mélisse in Maballa's sling.
"She ees ceevilize!" finished Jan hotly. "She ees not papoose! She
mus' be lak--HER!" His great eyes shone, and Cummins felt a thickening
in his throat as he looked into them and saw what the boy meant.
"Maballa mak papoose out of Mélisse. She grow--know not'ing, lak
papoose, talk lak papoose--"
Jan's feelings overwhelmed his tongue. His shining hair rumpled
thickly about his face as he leaned anxiously toward Cummins; and
Cummins, in turn, stared down in dumb perplexity upon the joyful
kickings and wrigglings of the growing problem.
"Ees she not ceevilize?" demanded Jan ecstatically, bending his black
head over her. "Ah, ze sweet Mélisse!"
"Yes, she must be like HER, Jan--just as good and just as sweet and
just as beautiful," interrupted Cummins gently.
There was a quick intaking of his breath as he hobbled back to his own
cot, leaving Jan at play with the baby.
That night, in the dim, sputtering glow of an oil-lamp, John Cummins
and Jan Thoreau solemnly set to work to thrash out the great problem
that had suddenly entered into their existence. To these two there was
no element of humor in what they were doing, for into their keeping
had been given a thing for which God had not schemed them. The woman,
had she been there, would have laughed at them, and in a dozen gentle
breaths might have told them all that the world held in secret between
mother and child; but, leaving them, she had passed on to them
something that was life, like herself, and yet mystery.
Had fate given Maballa to Mélisse for a mother there would have been
no mystery. She would have developed as naturally as a wolf-whelp or a
lynx-kitten, a savage breath of life in a savage world, waxing fat in
snow-baths, arrow-straight in papoose-slings, a moving, natural thing
in a desolation to which generations and centuries of forebears had
given it birthright. But Mélisse was like her mother. In the dreams of
the two who were planning out her fate, she was to be a reincarnation
of her mother. That dream left a ray of comfort in Cummins' breast
when his wife died. It stirred happy visions within Jan. And it ended
with a serious shock when Maballa brought into their mental
perspective of things the possibilities of environment.
So far as Cummins knew, there was not a white woman nearer than Fort
Churchill, two hundred miles away. In all that region he knew of only
two full-white men, and they were Williams and himself. The baby
Mélisse was hopelessly lost in a world of savagery; honest, loyal,
big-souled savagery--but savagery for all that, and the thought of it
brought the shadows of fear and foreboding to the two into whose lives
the problem had just come.
Long into the night they talked seriously of the matter, while Mélisse
slept; and the longer they talked, the greater loomed the problem
before them. Cummins fancied that he already began to see signs of the
transformation in Mélisse. She was passionately fond of the gaudy
things Maballa gave her, which was a sign of savagery. She was charmed
by confinement in the papoose-sling, which was another sign of it; and
she had not died in the snow-wallows--which was still another.
So far back as he could remember, Cummins had never come into finger-
touch of a white baby. Jan was as blissfully ignorant; so they
determined upon immediate and strenuous action. Maballa would be
ceaselessly watched and checked at every turn. The Indian children
would not be allowed to come near Mélisse. They two--John Cummins and
Jan Thoreau--would make her like the woman who slept under the
"She ees ceevilize," said Jan with finality, "an' we mus' keep her
Cummins counted back gravely upon his fingers. The little Mélisse was
four months and eighteen days old!
"To-morrow we will make her one of those things with wheels--like the
baby-wagons they have in the South," he said. "She must not go in the
"An' I will teach her ze museek," whispered Jan, his eyes glowing.
"That ees ceevilize!"
Suddenly an eager light came into Cummins' face, and he pointed to a
calico-covered box standing upon end in a corner of the room.
"There are the books--HER books, Jan," he said softly, the trembling
thrill of inspiration in his voice. He limped across the room, dropped
upon his knees before the box, and drew back the curtain. Jan knelt
beside him. "They were HER books," he repeated. There was a sobbing
catch in his throat, and his head fell a little upon his breast. "Now
--we will give them--to Mélisse."
He drew the books out, one by one, his fingers trembling and his
breath coming quickly as he touched them--a dozen worn, dusty things,
holding within them more than John Cummins would ever know of the
woman he had lost. These volumes of dead voices had come with her into
the wilderness from that other world she had known. They breathed the
pathos of her love from out of their ragged pages, mended in a hundred
places to keep them from falling into utter ruin. Slowly the man
gathered them against his breast, and held them there silently, as he
might have held the woman, fighting hard to keep back his grief.
Jan thrust a hand deeper into the box, and brought forth something
else--a few magazines and papers, as ragged and worn as the books. In
these other treasures there were pictures--pictures of the things in
civilization, which Jan had never seen, and which were too wonderful
for him to comprehend at first. His eyes burned excitedly as he held
up a gaudily covered fashion paper to John Cummins.
"Theese are picture for Mélisse!" he whispered tensely. "We teach her
--we show her--we mak her know about ceevilize people!"
Cummins replaced the books, one at a time, and each he held tenderly
for a moment, wiping and blowing away the dust gathered upon it. At
the last one of all, which was more ragged and worn than the others,
he gazed for a long time. It was a little Bible, his wife's Bible,
finger-worn, patched, pathetic in its poverty. The man gulped hard.
"She loved this, Jan," he said huskily. "She loved this worn, old book
more than anything else, and little Mélisse must love it also. Mélisse
must be a Christian."
"Ah, yes, ze leetle Mélisse mus' love ze great God!" said Jan softly.
Cummins rose to his feet and stood for a moment looking at the
"A missionary is coming over from Fort Churchill to talk to our
trappers when they come in. She shall be baptized!"
Like a cat Jan was on his feet, his eyes flashing, his long, thin
fingers clenched, his body quivering with a terrible excitement.
"No--no--not baptize by missioner!" he cried. "She shall be good, an'
love ze great God, but not baptize by missioner! No--no--no!"
Cummins turned upon him in astonishment. Before him Jan Thoreau stood
for a minute like one gone mad, his whole being consumed in a passion
terrible to look upon. Lithe giant of muscle and, fearlessness that he
was, Cummins involuntarily drew back a step, and the mainspring of
instinct within him prompted him to lift a hand, as if to ward off a
leaping thing from his breast.
Jan noted the backward step, the guarded uplift of hand, and with an
agonized cry he buried his face in his hands. In another instant he
had turned, and, before Cummins' startled voice found words, had
opened the door and run out into the night. The man saw him darting
swiftly toward the forest, and called to him, but there was no
There was a hot fire burning in Jan's brain, a blazing, writhing
contortion of things that brought a low moaning from his lips. He ran
tirelessly and swiftly until he sank down upon the snow in a silent
place far from where he had left John Cummins. His eyes still blazed
with their strange fire upon the desolation about him, his fingers
clenched and unclenched themselves, digging their nails into his
flesh, and he spoke softly to himself, over and over again, the name
of the little Mélisse.
Painting itself each instant more plainly through the tumult of his
emotions was what Jan had come to know as the picture in his brain.
Shadowy and indistinct at first, in pale, elusive lines of mental
fabric, he saw the picture growing; and in its growth he saw first the
soft, sweet outlines of a woman's face, and then great luring eyes,
dark like his own--and before these eyes, which gazed upon him with
overwhelming love, all else faded away from before Jan Thoreau. The
fire went out of his eyes, his fingers relaxed, and after a little
while he got up out of the snow, shivering, and went back to the
Cummins asked no questions. He looked at Jan from his cot, and watched
the boy silently as he undressed and went to bed; and in the morning
the whole incident passed from his mind. The intangible holds but
little fascination for the simple folk who live under the Arctic
Circle. Their struggle is with life, their joys are in its
achievement, in their constant struggle to keep life running strong
and red within them. Such an existence of solitude and of strife with
nature leaves small room for curiosity. So the nature of John Cummins
led him to forget what had happened, as he would have forgotten the
senseless running away of a sledge-dog, and its subsequent return. He
saw no tragedy, and no promise of tragedy, in the thing that had
There was no recurrence of the strange excitement in Jan. He gave no
hint of it in word or action, and the thing seemed to be forgotten
between the two.
The education of the little Mélisse began at once, while the post was
still deserted. It began, first of all, with Maballa. She stared
dumbly and with shattered faith at these two creatures who told her of
wonderful things in the upbringing of a child--things of which she had
never so much as heard rumor before. Her mother instincts were
aroused, but with Cree stoicism she made no betrayal of them.
The leather-tanned immobility of her face underwent no whit of change
when Cummins solemnly declared that the little Mélisse was about to
begin teething. She sat grimly and watched them in silence when
between them, upon a bearskin stretched on the floor, they tried
vainly to persuade Mélisse to use her feet.
It was great fun for Mélisse, and she enjoyed it immensely; so that as
the days passed, and the post still remained deserted, John Cummins
and Jan Thoreau spent much of their time upon their knees. In their
eyes, the child's progress was remarkable. They saw in her an
unceasing physical growth, and countless symptoms of forthcoming
mental development. She delighted to pull the strings of Jan's violin,
which was an unmistakable token of her musical genius. She went into
ecstasies over the gaudy plates in the fashion paper. She fingered
them in suggestive and inquiring silence, or with still more
suggestive grunts, and made futile efforts to eat them, which was the
greatest token of all.
Weeks passed, and Williams came in from the southern forests. Mukee
followed him from the edge of the barrens. Per-ee returned from the
Eskimo people, three-quarters starved and with half of his dogs
stolen. From the north, east, west, and south the post's fur-rangers
trailed back. Life was resumed. There was a softness in the air, a
growing warmth in the midday sun. The days of the big change were
near. And when they came, John Cummins and Jan Thoreau, of all the
factor's people, wore patches at their knee.
DAYS OF TRIUMPH
One afternoon, in the beginning of the mush-snow, a long team of
rakish Malemutes, driven by an Athabasca French-Canadian, raced wildly
into the clearing about the post. A series of yells, and the wild
cracking of a thirty-foot caribou-gut whip, announced that the big
change was at hand--that the wilderness was awakening, and life was
The entire post rushed out to meet the new-comer--men and dogs, the
little black-and-tan children, and even Williams' fat and lethargic
wife. For a few moments there was a scene of wild disorder, of
fighting Malemutes buried under a rush of angry huskies, while men
shouted, and the yelling Frenchman leaped about and cut his caribou-
gut in vicious slashes over the wolfish horde around his heavily laden
Partial order being restored, Mukee and Per-ee took charge of the
snarling Malemutes, and, surrounded by Williams' men, the trapper
stalked to the company's office. He was Jean de Gravois, the most
important man in the Fond du Lac country, for whose good-will the
company paid a small bonus. That he had made a record catch even the
children knew by the size of the packs on his sledge and by the
swagger in his walk.
Gravois was usually one of the last to appear at the annual gathering
of the wilderness fur-gatherers. He was a big man in reputation, as he
was small in stature. He was known as far west as the Peace River, and
eastward to Fort Churchill. He loved to make his appearance at the
post in a wild and picturesque rush when the rest of the forest rovers
were there to look on, and to envy or admire. He was one of the few of
his kind who had developed personal vanity along with unerring cunning
in the ways of the wild. Everybody liked Gravois, for he had a big
soul in him and was as fearless as a lynx; and he liked everybody,
He explained his early arrival by announcing in a nonchalant manner
that after he had given his Malemutes a day's rest he was going on to
Fort Churchill, to bring back a wife. He hinted, with a punctuating
crack of his whip, that he would make a second visit, and a more
interesting one, at just about the time when the trappers were there
Jan Thoreau listened to him, hunching his shoulders a little at the
other's manifest air of importance. In turn, the French-Canadian
scrutinized Jan good-naturedly. Neither of them knew the part which
Jean de Gravois was to play in Jan's life.
Every hour after the half-breed's arrival quickened the pulse of
expectancy at the post. For six months it had been a small and
solitary unit of life in the heart of a big desolation. The first snow
had smothered it in a loneliness that was almost the loneliness of
desertion. With that first snow began the harvest days of the people
of the wilderness. Far and wide they were busy along their trap-lines,
their lonely shacks hidden in the shelter of thick swamps, in deep
chasms and dense forests. For six months the short days and the long
nights had been days and nights of fur-gathering.
During those months the post was silent. It lived and breathed, but
that was all. Its life, for Williams and the few people whom the
company kept with him, was a life of waiting. Now the change was at
hand. It was like the breath of spring to the awakening wilderness.
The forest people were moving. Trap-lines were being broken, shacks
abandoned, sledge-dogs put to harness. On the day that Jean de Gravois
left for Hudson's Bay, the company's supplies came in from Fort
Churchill--seven toboggans drawn by Eskimo dogs, laden with flour and
cloth; fifty pounds of beads, ammunition, and a hundred other things
to be exchanged for the furs that would soon be in London and Paris.
Fearfully Jan Thoreau ran out to meet the sledges. There were seven
Indians and one white man. Jan thrust himself close to look at the
white man. He wore two revolver-holsters and carried an automatic.
Unquestionably he was not a missionary, but an agent of the company
well prepared to care for the company's treasure.
Jan hurried back to the cabin, his heart bubbling with a strange joy.
"There ees no missioner, Mélisse!" he cried triumphantly, dropping
beside her, his face glowing with the gladness of his tidings. "You
shall be good and beautiful, lak HER, but you shall not be baptize by
missioner! He has not come!"
A few minutes later Cummins came in. One of his hands was torn and
"Those Eskimo dogs are demons!" he growled. "If they knew how to stand
on their legs, they'd eat our huskies alive! Will you help me with
Jan was at work in an instant, bandaging the wounded hand.
"It ees not deep," he said; and then, without looking up, he added:
"The missioner did not come."
"No," said Cummins shortly. "Neither has the mail. He is with that."
He did not notice the sudden tremble of Jan's fingers, nor did he see
the startled look that shot into the boy's down-turned eyes. Jan
finished his bandaging without betraying his emotion, and went back
with Cummins to the company's store.
The next morning, two Chippewayans trailed in with a team of mongrel
curs from the south. Thereafter Cummins found but little time to
devote to Mélisse. The snow was softening rapidly, and the daily
increasing warmth of the sun hastened the movement of the trappers.
Mukee's people from the western Barren Lands arrived first, bringing
with them great loads of musk-ox and caribou skins, and an army of
big-footed, long-legged Mackenzie hounds that pulled like horses and
wailed like whipped puppies when the huskies and Eskimo dogs set upon
From east and west and south all trails now led to the post. By the
end of the third day after the arrival of the company's supplies, a
babel of fighting, yelling, ceaselessly moving discord had driven
forth the peace and quiet in which Cummins' wife had died. The
fighting and discord were among the dogs, and the yelling was a
necessary human accompaniment. Half a hundred packs, almost as wild
and as savage as the wolves from whom half of them possessed a strong
inheritance of blood, were thrown suddenly into warring confusion.
All the dogs were fighters except the big, soft-throated Mackenzie
hounds, with the slow strength of oxen in their movements, and the
quarter-strained and half-strained mongrels from the south; and upon
these unfortunates the others preyed. Packs of fierce Labrador dogs,
never vanquished except by death, came from close to Hudson's Bay.
Team after team of the little yellow and gray Eskimo dogs, as quick
with their fangs as were their black and swift-running masters with
their hands and feet, met the much larger and darker-colored Malemutes
from the Athabasca. Enemies of all these, fighting, snapping, and
snarling, with the lust of killing deep born in them from their wolf
progenitors, packs of fierce huskies trailed in from all sides.
There was no cessation in the battle of the fangs. It began with the
first brute arrivals. It continued from dawn through the day, and
around the campfires at night. There was never an end to the strife
between the dogs, and between the men and the dogs. The snow was
stained and trailed with blood, and the scent of it added greater
fierceness to the wolf-breeds. Half a dozen battles were fought to the
death each day and night. Those that died were chiefly the south-bred
curs--mixtures of mastiff, Great Dane, and sheep-dogs--and the fatally
slow Mackenzie hounds.
From its towering height the sentinel spruce frowned down upon the
savage life that had come to outrage the grave it guarded. Yet beyond
all this discord and bloody strife there was a great, throbbing human
happiness--a beating of honest hearts filled to overflowing with the
joys of the moment, a welding of new friendships, a renewal of old
ones, a closer union of the brotherhood that holds together all things
under the cold gray of the northern skies.
There were no bickerings among the hunters, no anger of man against
man in the fierce voices that emphasized the slashing cuts of the
caribou-whips. If the fangs of a Hudson's Bay husky let out the life-
blood from the soft throat of a Mackenzie hound, it was a matter of
the dogs, and not of their owners. They did not quarrel.
One day a fierce Eskimo pack cornered a giant husky under the big
spruce, and slew him. When Cummins came from the company's store in
the afternoon, he saw a number of men, with bared heads, working about
the grave. He drew near enough to see that they were building around
it a barricade of saplings; and his breath choked him as he turned to
the cabin and Mélisse. He noticed, too, that no fires were built near
the spot consecrated to the memory of the dead woman; and to his cabin
the paths in the snow became deeper and wider where trod the wild
forest men who came to look upon the little Mélisse.
These were days of unprecedented prosperity and triumph for the baby,
as they were for the company. The cabin was half filled with strange
things, for all who came gave something to Mélisse. There were polar
bears' teeth, brought down by the little black men who in turn had got
them from the coast people; strange gods carved from wood; bits of
fur, bushy fox tails, lynx paws, dried fruits, candy bought at
fabulous prices in the store, and musk--always and incessantly musk--
from Mukee's people of the west barrens.
To Jan this homage to Mélisse was more than gratifying. It formed a
bond between him and Cummins' people. His heart went out to them, and
he went more freely among them, and made friends.
THE CARIBOU CARNIVAL
Jan had not played upon his violin since the coming of Jean de
Gravois; but one evening he tuned his strings, and said to Mélisse:
"They have been good to you, my Mélisse. I will give them ze museek of
It was the big night at the post--the night that is known from
Athabasca to Hudson's Bay as the night of the caribou roast. A week
had passed, and there were no more furs to be disposed of. In the
company's ledger each man had received his credit, and in the
company's store the furs were piled high and safe. Three caribou had
been killed by Per-ee and his hunters; and on this night, when Jan
took down his violin from its peg on the wall, a huge fire blazed in
the open, and on spits six inches in diameter the caribou were
The air was filled with the sound and odor of the carnival. Above the
fighting and snarling of dogs, the forest people lifted their voices
in wild celebration, forgetting, in this one holiday of the year, the
silence that they would carry back into the solitudes with them.
Numbers gave them courage of voice, and in its manifestation there was
the savagery of the forests that hemmed them in. Shrill voices rose in
meaningless cries above the roaring of the fire. Caribou whips snapped
fiercely. Chippewayans, Crees, Eskimos, and breeds crowded in the red
glare. The factor's men shouted and sang like mad, for this was the
company's annual "good time"--the show that would lure many of these
same men back again at the end of another trapping season.
Huge boxes of white bread were placed near to the fire. A tub of real
butter, brought five thousand miles from across the sea for the
occasion, was set on a gun-case thrown where the heat played upon it
in yellow glory. In a giant copper kettle, over a smaller fire,
bubbled and steamed half a barrel of coffee.
The richness of the odors that drifted in the air set the dogs
gathering upon their haunches beyond the waiting circle of masters,
their lips dripping, their fangs snapping in an eagerness that was not
for the flesh of battle. And above it all there gleamed down a billion
stars from out of the skies, the aurora flung its banners through the
pale night, and softly the smoke rose straight up and then floated
into the North, carried there by the gentle breath that spring was
luring from out of the South.
Jan picked his way through the cordon of dogs and the inner circle of
men until he stood with the firelight flashing in his glossy hair and
black eyes, and there, seated upon the edge of one of the bread-boxes,
he began to play.
It was not the low, sweet music of Cummins and the little Mélisse that
he played now, but a wild, wailing song that he had found in the
autumn winds. It burst above the crackling fire and the tumult of man
and dog in a weird and savage beauty that hushed all sound; and life
about him became like life struck suddenly dead. With his head bowed
Jan saw nothing--saw nothing of the wonder in the faces of the half-
cringing little black men who were squatted in a group a dozen feet
away, nothing of the staring amazement in the eyes that were looking
upon this miracle he was performing. He knew only that about him there
was a deep hush, and after a while his violin sang a lower song, and
sweeter; and still softer it became, and more sweet, until he was
playing that which he loved most of all--the music that had filled the
little cabin when Cummins' wife died.
As he continued to play there came an interruption to the silence--a
low refrain that was almost like that of the moaning wind. It grew
beyond the tense circle of men, until a song of infinite sadness rose
from the throats of a hundred dogs in response to Jan Thoreau's
violin. To Jan, it was like the song of life. The unending loneliness
and grief of it stirred him to the quick of his soul, and
unconsciously his voice rose and fell softly with the wailing of the
brute chorus. But to the others it was a thing that rose portentous
above their understanding, a miracle of mystery that smote them with
awe even as they surrendered themselves to the wonderful sweetness of
Cummins saw the change in his people, and understood what it meant. He
saw the surrounding cordon become thinner as man crushed closer to
man, and he saw strained faces turned from the player to where the
dogs sat full-throated upon their haunches, with their heads pointed
straight to the stars in the sky.
Suddenly he burst into a volume of wild song, and made his way through
the crouching Eskimos to Jan.
"For the love of Heaven, play no more of that!" he cried in the boy's
ear. "Play something fast!"
Jan lifted his head as if from a dream. In an instant he perceived the
strange effect of his music, and his bow raced across the strings of
his violin in a rhythm swift and buoyant, his voice rising shrill and
clear in words familiar to them all:
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo,
He roas' on high,
Jes' under ze sky,
Ze beeg white cariboo-oo-oo!"
With a yell Cummins joined in, waving his arms and leaping in the
firelight. The spell was broken. Williams and Mukee and the rest of
the company's men burst forth in song; Jan's violin leaped in
crescendos of stirring sound; and where before there had been a silent
circle of awestruck men there was now a yelling din of voices.
The dogs lowered their heads again, and licked their chops at the
odors in the air. With a yell Mukee and three Crees dashed toward the
fire, long-hooked poles in their hands; and as the caribou carcasses
were turned upon their huge spits, and their dripping fat fell
sizzling into the flames, the wild chorus of men and dogs and Jan's
violin rose higher, until Cummins' great voice became only a whisper
in the tumult.
The third caribou had been twice turned upon its spit, and Mukee and
his Crees paused in waiting silence, their hooked poles gripping the
long bar that rested horizontally across the arms of two stout posts
driven into the earth close to the fire. At this signal there was a
final outburst from the waiting horde, and then a momentary silence
fell as Cummins sprang upon one of the bread-boxes and waved his arms
frantically above his head. "Now!" he shouted. "Now! 'Ze cariboo-oo-
With eyes flashing with excitement, Jan stood before Cummins, and his
violin shrieked out the wild tune to a still wilder response of
"Now!" yelled Cummins again.
The wilderness song, that was known from Athabasca to Hudson's Bay,
burst forth in a savage enthusiasm that reached to the skies:
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo,
He roas' on high,
Jes' under ze sky,
Ze beeg white cariboo-oo-oo!"
Cummins drew his revolver and blazed fiercely into the air.
"Now!" he shrieked.
"Oh, ze cariboo-oo-oo, ze cariboo-oo-oo,
He brown 'n' juice 'n' sweet!
Ze cariboo-oo-oo, he ver' polite--
He roas' on high,
Jes' under ze sky,
He ready now to come 'n' eat!"
With yells that rose above the last words of the song, Mukee and his
Crees tugged at their poles, and the roasted caribou fell upon the
snow. Jan drew back, and with his violin hugged under one arm, watched
the wild revelers as, with bared knives flashing in the firelight,
they crowded to the feast. Williams, the factor, who was puffing from
his vocal exertions, joined him.
"Looks like a fight, doesn't it, Jan? Once I saw a fight at a caribou
"So did I," said Jan, who had not taken his eyes from the jostling
"It was far to the west and north," continued Williams; "beyond the
Great Slave country."
"Far beyond," said Jan, lifting his eyes quietly. "It was ver' near to
ze Great Bear."
The factor stared at him in amazement.
"You saw it?" he exclaimed.
But Jan turned away, as if he had heard nothing, and passed beyond the
packs of waiting dogs to restore his precious violin to its peg on the
cabin wall. The factor's words had stirred deep memories within him,
and for the first time since he had come to the post he spoke no word
to Mélisse when he found her wakeful and friendly in her cot.
Neither was it the old Jan Thoreau who returned to the excitement
about the great fire. With his long hunting-knife flashing above his
head, he plunged into the throng around the caribou, crowding and
jostling with the others, his voice rising in shrill cries as he
forced himself through to the edge of the fire. Cummins was there,
kneeling with turned-up sleeves and greasy hands beside the huge
roast, and when he saw Jan he stared at him in wonder. There was
neither laughter nor song in Jan Thoreau's voice. It was vibrant with
a strange savageness which was more savage than the wildest yells of
the half-breed Crees, and his great eyes burned fiercely as they
rested for an instant upon Cummins' face.
Close behind Cummins stood Williams. Jan saw him, and his knife
dropped to his side. Then, so quickly that the startled factor drew
back a step, Jan sprang to him.
"Ze fight at ze Great Bear!" he cried in swift eagerness. "For who you
fight at ze Great Bear?"
The factor was silent, and the muscles of his arms grew like steel as
he saw the madness in Jan's face. Suddenly he reached out and gripped
the boy's wrists. Jan made no effort to evade the clutch.
"For who you fight?" he cried again. "For who you fight at ze Great
"We tried to kill a man, but he got away," said Williams, speaking so
low that only Jan heard. "He was--" The factor stopped.
"Ze missioner!" panted Jan.
The wild light went out of his eyes as he stared up at Williams, and
the softer glow which came into them loosened at once the factor's
grip on the boy's wrists.
"Yes, the missioner!"
Jan drew back. He evaded meeting the eyes of Cummins as he made his
way among the men. There was a new burst of song as Mukee and his
Crees pulled down a second caribou, but the boy paid no attention to
the fresh excitement. He thrust his knife into its sheath and ran--ran
swiftly through the packs of dogs fighting and snarling over the
scraps that had beep thrown to them; past Maballa who was watching the
savage banquet around the big fire, and into the little cabin, to
Here he flung himself upon his knees, and for the first time he caught
the baby in his arms, holding her close to him, and rocking her to and
fro, as he cried out sobbingly the words which she did not understand.
"An' when I fin' heem an' kill heem, I will come back to you, my angel
Mélisse," he whispered. "And then you will luf Jan Thoreau for letting
out the blood of a missioner!"
He put her back into the little bed, kissed her again, took down his
violin from its peg in the wall, and turned to the door.
THE FIGHT AT DAWN
For a few moments Jan stood with his back to Mélisse and his eyes upon
the carnival about the great fire. As he looked, the third caribou was
pulled down from its spit, and the multitude of dogs rushed in upon
the abandoned carcasses of the other two.
He caught his breath quickly as a loud shout and the wailing yelp of a
hurt dog rose for an instant above all other sounds. Only one thing
was wanting to complete another picture in his brain--a scene which
had burned itself into his life for ever, and which he strove to fight
back as he stood staring from the doorway. He half expected it to
come--the shrill scream of a boyish voice, an instant's sullen quiet,
then the low-throated thunder of impending vengeance--and the fight!
With marvelous quickness his excited mind reconstructed the scene
before him into the scene that had been. He heard the scream again,
which had been HIS voice; saw, as if in a dream, the frenzied rush of
men and the flash of knives; and then, from where he lay trampled and
bleeding in the snow, the long, lean team of swift huskies that had
carried in mad flight the one whose life those knives sought.
Williams had been there; he had seen the fight--his knife had flashed
with the others in its demand for life. And yet he--Jan Thoreau--had
not been recognized by the factor out there beside the caribou roast!
He hurried toward the fire. Half-way across the open he stopped. From
out of the forest opposite Cummins' cabin there trailed slowly a team
of dogs. In the shadows of the spruce, hidden from the revelers, the
team halted. Jan heard the low voices of men, and a figure detached
itself from the gloom, walking slowly and in the manner of one near to
exhaustion in the direction of the carnival.
It was a new team. It had come from the trails to the east, and Jan's
heart gave a sudden jump as he thought of the missionary who was
expected with the overdue mail. At first he had a mind to intercept
the figure laboring across the open, but without apparent reason he
changed his course and approached the sledge.
As he came nearer, he observed a second figure, which rose from behind
the dogs and advanced to meet him. A dozen paces ahead of the team it
stopped and waited.
"Our dogs are so near exhaustion that we're afraid to take them any
nearer," said a voice. "They'd die like puppies under those packs!"
The voice thrilled Jan. He advanced with his back to the fire, so that
he could see the stranger.
"You come from Churchill?" he asked.
His words were hardly a question. They were more of an excuse for him
to draw nearer, and he turned a little, so that for an instant the
glowing fire flashed in his eyes.
"Yes, we started from the Etawney just a week ago to-day."
Jan had come very near. The stranger interrupted himself to stare into
the thin, fierce face that had grown like a white cameo almost within
reach of him. With a startled cry, he drew a step back, and Jan's
violin dropped to the snow.
For no longer than a breath there was silence. The man wormed himself
back into the shadows inch by inch, followed by the white face of the
boy. Then there came shrilly from Jan's lips the mad shrieking of a
name, and his knife flashed as he leaped at the other's breast.
The stranger was quicker than he. With a sudden movement he cleared
himself of the blow; and as Jan's arm went past him, the point of the
knife ripping his coat-sleeve, he shot out a powerful fist and sent
the boy reeling to the ground.
Stunned and bleeding, Jan dragged himself to his knees. He saw the
dogs turning, heard a low voice urging them to the trail, and saw the
sledge disappear into the forest. He staggered from his knees to his
feet, and stood swaying in his weakness. Then he followed.
He forgot that he was leaving his knife in the snow, forgot that back
there about the fire there were other dogs and other men. He only knew
that once before he had seen a sledge slip off into the wilderness;
that its going had left him a life of hatred and bitterness and desire
for vengeance; and that this was the same man who was slipping away
from him in the same way again.
He followed, sickened by the blow, but gaining strength as he pursued.
Ahead of him he could hear the sound of the toboggan and the cautious
lashing of a whip over the backs of the tired huskies. The sounds
filled him with fierce strength. He wiped away the warm trickle of
blood that ran over his cheek, and began to run, slowly at first,
swinging in the easy wolf-lope of the forest runner, with his elbows
close to his sides.
At that pace he could have followed for hours, losing when the pack
took a spurt, gaining when they lagged, an insistent Nemesis just
behind when the weighted dogs lay down in their traces. But there was
neither the coolness of Mukee nor the cleverness of Jean de Gravois in
the manner of Jan's running. When he heard the cracking of the whip
growing fainter, he dropped his arms straight to his sides and ran
more swiftly, his brain reeling with the madness of his desire to
reach the sledge--to drag from it the man who had struck him, to choke
life from the face that haunted that mental picture of his, grinning
at him and gloating always from the shadow world, just beyond the
pale, sweet loveliness of the woman who lived in it.
That picture came to him now as he ran, more and more vividly, and
from out of it the woman urged him on to the vengeance which she
demanded of him, her great eyes glowing like fire, her beautiful face
torn with the agony which he had last seen in it in life.
To Jan Thoreau there seemed almost to come from that face a living
voice, crying to him its prayer for retribution, pleading with him to
fasten his lithe, brown hands about the throat of the monster upon the
sledge ahead, and choke from it all life. It drove reason from him,
leaving him with the one thought that the monster was almost within
reach; and he replied to the prayer with the breath that came in
moaning exhaustion from between his lips.
He did not feel the soft, sun-packed snow under the beat of his feet.
He received the lash of low-hanging bushes without experiencing the
sensation of their sting. Only he knew that he wanted air--more and
more air; and to get it he ran with open mouth, struggling and gasping
for it, and yet not knowing that Jean de Gravois would have called him
a fool for the manner in which he sought it.
He heard more and more faintly the run of the sledge. Then he heard it
no longer, and even the cracking of the whip died away. His heart
swelled in a final bursting effort, and he plunged on, until at last
his legs crumpled under him and he pitched face downward in the snow,
like a thing stung by sudden death.
It was then, with his scratched and bleeding face lying in the snow,
that reason began to return to him. After a little while he dragged
himself weakly to his knees, still panting from the mad effort he had
made to overtake the sledge. From a great distance he heard faintly
the noise of shouting, the whispering echo of half a hundred voices,
and he knew that the sound came from the revelers at the post. It was
proof to him that there had been no interruption to the carnival, and
that the scene at the edge of the forest had been witnessed by none.
Quickly his mental faculties readjusted themselves. He rose to his
feet, and for a few moments stood hesitatingly. He had no weapon; but
as his hand rested upon the empty knife-sheath at his belt, there came
to him a thought of the way in which Mukee had avenged Cummins' wife,
and he turned again upon the trail. He no longer touched the low-
hanging bushes. He was no more than a shadow, appearing and
disappearing without warning, trailing as the white ermine follows its
prey, noiseless, alert, his body responding sinuously and without
apparent effort to the working commands of his brain.
Where the forest broke into an open, lighted by the stars, he found
blood in the footprints of the leading dog. Half-way across the open,
he saw where the leader had swung out from the trail and the others of
the pack had crowded about him, to be urged on by the lashings of the
man's whip. Other signs of the pack's growing exhaustion followed
The man now traveled beside the sledge where the trail was rough, and
rode where it was smooth and hard. The deep imprints of his heeled
boots in the soft snow showed that he ran for only a short distance at
a time--a hundred yards or less--and that after each running spell he
brought the pack to a walk. He was heavy and lacked endurance, and
this discovery brought a low cry of exultation to Jan's lips.
He fell into a dog-trot. Mile after mile dropped behind him; other
miles were ahead of him, an endless wilderness of miles, and through
them the tired pack persisted, keeping always beyond sound and vision.
The stars began fading out of the skies. The shadows of the forest
grew deeper and blacker, and where the aurora had lightened the
heavens there crept the somber gray film that preceded dawn by three
Jan followed more and more slowly. There was hard-breathing effort now
in his running--effort that caused him physical pain and discomfort.
His feet stumbled occasionally in the snow; his legs, from thigh to
knee, began to ache with the gnawing torment that centers in the
marrowbone; and with this beginning of the "runner's cramp" he was
filled with a new and poignant terror.
Would the dogs beat him out? Sloughing in the trail, bleeding at every
foot, would they still drag their burden beyond the reach of his
vengeance? The fear fastened itself upon him, urging him to greater
effort, and he called upon the last of his strength in a spurt that
carried him to where the thick spruce gave place to thin bush, and the
bush to the barren and rocky side of a huge ridge, up which the trail
climbed strong and well defined. For a few paces he followed it, then
slipped and rolled back as the fatal paralysis deadened all power of
movement in his limbs. He lay where he fell, moaning out his grief
with his wide-staring eyes turned straight up into the cold gray of
the starless sky.
For a long time he was motionless. From the top of the ridge, where
the trail cut over the mountain, he looked like a bit of fire-
blackened wood half buried in the snow. Half-way up the ridge a wolf,
slinking hungrily, sniffed first up the trail and then down, and broke
the stillness of the gray night-end with a mournful howl. It did not
stir Jan Thoreau.
Long after the wolf had passed on, he moved a little, twisting himself
so that his eyes could follow the tracks made by the sledge and dogs.
When he came to where the snow-covered backbone of the ridge cut
itself in faint outline against the desolate coldness of the sky,
there fell from him the first sound of returning life. Up there he was
sure that he had seen something move--an object which at first he had
taken for a bush, and which he knew was not the wolf.
He watched for its reappearance, until all sorts of gray dawn shadows
danced before his eyes. Then he began slowly to crawl up the trail.
Some of the dull, paralytic ache was gone from his limbs, and as he
worked his blood began to warm them into new strength, until he stood
up and sniffed like an animal in the wind that was coming over the
ridge from the south.
There was something in that wind that thrilled him. It stung his
nostrils to a quick sensing of the nearness of something that was
human. He smelled smoke. In it there was the pungent odor of green
balsam, mixed with a faint perfume of pitch pine; and because the odor
of pitch grew stronger as he ascended, he knew that it was a small
fire that was making the smoke, with none of the fierce, dry woods to
burn up the smell. It was a fire hidden among the rocks, a tiny fire,
over which the fleeing missioner was cooking his breakfast.
Jan almost moaned aloud in his gladness, and the old mad strength
returned to his body. Near the summit of the ridge he picked up a
club. It was a short, thick club, with the heavy end knotted and
Cautiously he lifted his face over the rocks, and looked out upon a
plateau, still deep in snow, swept bare by the winter's winds, and
covered with rocks and bushes. His face was so white that at a little
distance it might have been taken for a snow hare. It went whiter
when, a few yards away, he saw the fire, the man, and the dogs.
The man was close to the little blaze, his broad shoulders hunched
over, steadying a small pot over the flame. Beyond him were the dogs
huddled about the sledge, inanimate as death.
Jan drew himself over the rocks. Once he had seen a big-footed lynx
creep upon a wide-awake fox, and like that lynx he crept upon the man
beside the fire. One of the tired dogs moved, and his pointed nostrils
quivered in the air. Jan lay flat in the snow. Then the dog's muzzle
dropped between his paws, and the boy moved on.
Inch by inch he advanced. The inches multiplied themselves into a
foot, the foot lengthened into yards, and still the man remained
hunched over his simmering pot.
Jan rose gently from his hands and knees to his feet, a furnace of
madness blazing in his eyes. The restless dog raised his head again.
He sniffed danger--near, menacing danger--and sprang up with a
snarling cry that brought the man over the fire to quick attention. In
a flash Jan took the last leap, and his club crashed down upon the
missioner's head. The man pitched over like a log, and with a shrill
cry the boy was at his throat.
"I am Jan Thoreau!" he shrieked. "I am Jan Thoreau--Jan Thoreau--come
to keel you!" He dropped his club, and was upon the man's chest, his
slender fingers tightening like steel wire about the thick throat of
his enemy. "I keel you slow--slow!" he cried, as the missioner
The great thick body heaved under him, and he put all his strength
into his hands. Something struck him in the face. Something struck him
again and again, but he felt neither the pain nor the force of it, and
his voice sobbed out his triumph as he choked. The man's hands reached
up and tore at his hair; but Jan saw only the missioner's mottled face
growing more mottled, and his eyes staring in greater agony up into
"I am Jan Thoreau," he panted again and again. "I am Jan Thoreau, an'
I keel you--keel you!"
The blood poured from his face. It blinded him until he could no
longer see the one from which he was choking life. He bent down his
head to escape the blows. The man's body heaved more and more; it
turned until he was half under it; but still he hung to the thick
throat, as the weasel hangs in tenacious death to the jugular of its
The missioner's weight was upon him in crushing force now. His huge
hands struck and tore at the boy's head and face, and then they had
fastened themselves at his neck. Jan was conscious of a terrible
effort to take in breath, but he was not conscious of pain. The clutch
did not frighten him. It did not make him loosen his grip. His fingers
dug deeper. He strove to cry out still his words of triumph; but he
could make no sound, except a gasping like that which came from
between the gaping jaws of the man whose life his body and soul were
fighting to smother.
There was death in each of the two grips; but the man's was the
stronger, and his neck was larger and tougher, so that after a time he
staggered to his knees and then to his feet, while Jan lay upon his
back, his face and hair red with blood, his eyes wide open and with a
lifeless glare in them. The missioner looked down upon his victim in
horror. As the life that had nearly ebbed out of him poured back into
his body, he staggered among the dogs, fastened them to the sledge,
and urged them down the mountain into the plain. There was soon no
sound of the sledge.
From a bush a dozen yards away a wondering moose-bird had watched the
terrible struggle. Now he hopped boldly upon Jan's motionless body,
and perked his head inquisitively as he examined the strange face,
covered with blood and twisted in torture.
The gray film of dawn dissolved itself into the white beginning of
day. Far to the south, a bit of the red sunrise was creeping into the
JEAN AND JAN
Half a mile down the ridge, where it sloped up gradually from the
forests and swamps of the plain, a team of powerful Malemutes were
running at the head of a toboggan. On the sledge was a young half-Cree
woman. Now beside the sledge, now at the lead of the dogs, cracking
his whip and shouting joyously, ran Jean de Gravois.
"Is it not beautiful, my Iowaka?" he cried for the hundredth time, in
Cree, leaping over a three-foot boulder in his boundless enthusiasm.
"Is this not the glorious world, with the sun just rising off there,
and spring only a few days away? It is not like the cold chills at
Churchill, which come up with the icebergs and stay there all summer!
What do you think of your Jean de Gravois and his country now?"
Jean was bringing back with him a splendid young woman, with big,
lustrous eyes, and hair that shone with the gloss of a raven's wing in
the sun. She laughed at him proudly as he danced and leaped beside
her, replying softly in Cree, which is the most beautiful language in
the world, to everything that he said.
Jean leaped and ran, cracked his caribou whip, and shouted and sang
until he was panting and red in the face. Just as Iowaka had called
upon him to stop and get a second wind, the Malemutes dropped back
upon their haunches where Jan Thoreau lay, twisted and bleeding, in
"What is this?" cried Jean.
He caught Jan's limp head and shoulders up in his arms, and called
shrilly to Iowaka, who was disentangling herself from the thick furs
in which he had wrapped her.
"It is the fiddler I told you about, who lives with Williams at Post
Lac Bain!" he shouted excitedly in Cree. "He has been murdered! He has
been choked to death, and torn to pieces in the face, as if by an
animal!" Jean's eyes roved about as Iowaka kneeled beside him. "What a
fight!" he gasped. "See the footprints--a big man and a small boy, and
the murderer has gone on a sledge!"
"He is warm," said Iowaka. "It may be that he is not dead."
Jean de Gravois sprang to his feet, his little black eyes flashing
with a dangerous fire. In a single leap he was at the side of the
sledge, throwing off the furs and bundles and all other objects except
"He is dead, Iowaka. Look at the purple and black in his face. It is
Jean de Gravois who will catch the murderer, and you will stay here
and make yourself a camp. Hi-o-o-o-o!" he shouted to the Malemutes.
The team twisted sinuously and swiftly in the trail as he sped over
the edge of the mountain. Upon the plain below he knelt upon the
toboggan, with his rifle in front of him; and at his low, hissing
commands, which reached no farther than the dogs' ears, the team
stretched their long bodies in pursuit of the missioner and his
Jean knew that whoever was ahead of him was not far away, and he
laughed and hunched his shoulders when he saw that his magnificent
Malemutes were making three times the speed of the huskies. It was a
short chase. It led across the narrow plain and into a dense tangle of
swamp, where the huskies had picked their way in aimless wandering
until they came out in thick balsam and Banksian pine. Half a mile
farther on, and the trail broke into an open which led down to the
smooth surface of a lake, and two-thirds across the lake was the
The Malemute leader flung open his jaws in a deep baying triumph, and
with a savage yell Jean cracked his caribou whip over his back. He saw
the man ahead of him lean over the end of his sledge as he urged his
dogs, but the huskies went no faster; and then he caught the glitter
of something that flashed for a moment in the sun.
"Ah!" said Jean softly, as a bullet sang over his head. "He fires at
Jean de Gravois!" He dropped his whip, and there was the warm glow of
happiness in his little dark face as he leveled his rifle over the
backs of his Malemutes. "He fires at Jean de Gravois, and it is Jean
who can hamstring a caribou at three hundred yards on the run!"
For an instant, at the crack of his rifle, there was no movement
ahead; then something rolled from the sledge and lay doubled up in the
snow. A hundred yards beyond it, the huskies stopped in a rabble and
turned to look at the approaching strangers.
Beside it Jean stopped; and when he saw the face that stared up at
him, he clutched his thin hands in his long black hair and cried out,
in shrill amazement and horror:
"The saints in Heaven, it is the missioner from Churchill!"
He turned the man over, and found where his bullet had entered under
one arm and come out from under the other. There was no spark of life
left. The missioner was already dead.
"The missioner from Churchill!" he gasped again.
He looked up at the warm sun, and kicked the melting snow under his
"It will thaw very soon," he said to himself, looking again at the
dead man, "and then he will go into the lake."
He headed his Malemutes back to the forest. Then he ran out and cut
the traces of the exhausted huskies, and with his whip scattered them
in freedom over the ice.
"Go to the wolves!" he shouted in Cree. "Hide yourselves from the
post, or Jean de Gravois will cut out your tongues and take your skins
When he came back to the top of the mountain, Jean found Iowaka making
hot coffee, while Jan was bundled up in furs near the fire.
"It is as I said," she called. "He is alive!"
Thus it happened that the return of Jean de Gravois to the post was
even more dramatic than he had schemed it to be, for he brought back
with him not only a beautiful wife from Churchill, but also the half
dead Jan Thoreau from the scene of battle on the mountain. And in the
mystery of it all he reveled for two days; for Jean de Gravois said
not a word about the dead man on the lake beyond the forest, nor did
the huskies come back into their bondage to give a hint of the missing
From the day after the caribou roast the fur-gatherers began
scattering. The Eskimos left the next morning. On the second day
Mukee's people from the west set off along the edge of the barrens.
Most of the others left by ones and twos into the wildernesses to the
south and east.
Less than a dozen still put off their return to the late spring
trapping, and among these were Jean de Gravois and his wife. Jean
waited until the third day. Then he went to see Jan. The boy was
bolstered up in his cot, with Cummins balancing the little Mélisse on
the edge of the bed when he came in.
For a time Jean sat and watched them in silence; then he made a sign
to Cummins, who joined him at the door.
"I am going the Athabasca way to-day," he said. "I wish to talk with
the boy before I go. I have a word to say to him which no ears should
hear but his own. Will it be right?"
"Talk to him as long as you like," said Cummins, "but don't worry him
about the missionary. You'll not get a word from him."
Jan's eyes spoke with a devotion greater than words as Jean de Gravois
came and sat close beside him. He knew that it was Jean who had
brought him alive into the post, and now there was something in the
suggestive grimacing of the Frenchman's face, and in the eagerness
with which he looked over his shoulder, as if he was not quite sure
but that the walls held ears, that caused the boy's heart to beat a
little faster as he speculated upon what Jean was going to say.
For a few moments Jean looked at the other steadily, with his thin,
black face propped in his hands and a curious smile on his lips. He
twisted his face into a dozen expressions of a language as voluble as
that of his tongue, hunched his shoulders up to his ears as he grinned
at Jan, and chuckled between his grimaces.
"Ah, it was wan be-e-a-u-tiful fight!" he said softly. "You are a
brave boy, Jan Thoreau!"
"You did not see it?" asked Jan.
Unconsciously the words came from him in French. Jean caught one of
his thin hands and laughed joyfully, for the spirit of him was French
to the bottom of his soul.
"I see it? No, neither I nor Iowaka; but there it was in the snow, as
plain as the eyes in your face. And did I not follow the trail that
staggered down the mountain, while Iowaka brought you back to life?
And when I came to the lake, did I not see something black out upon
it, like a charred log? And when I came to it, was it not the dead
body of the missioner from Churchill? Eh, Jan Thoreau?"
Jan sat up in his bed with a sharp cry.
"Sh-h-h-h-h!" admonished Jean, pressing him back gently. "There is no
need of telling what is out there on the lake. Only the Blessed Virgin
made me dream last night that you would like to see with your own eyes
that the missioner is dead. The thaw will open up the lake in a few
days. Then he will go down in the first slush. And"--Jean looked about
him cautiously again, and whispered low--"if you see anything about
the dead missioner that you do not understand--THINK OF JEAN DE
He rose to his feet and bent over Jan's white face.
"I am going the Athabasca way to-day," he finished. "Perhaps, Jan
Thoreau, you will hear after a time that it would be best for Jean de
Gravois never to return again to this Post Lac Bain. If so, you will
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