Volume III
The Epaulettes
 

Old Athabasca, chief of the Little Crees, sat at the door of his lodge, staring down into the valley where Fort Pentecost lay, and Mitawawa his daughter sat near him, fretfully pulling at the fringe of her fine buckskin jacket. She had reason to be troubled. Fyles the trader had put a great indignity upon Athabasca. A factor of twenty years before, in recognition of the chief's merits and in reward of his services, had presented him with a pair of epaulettes, left in the Fort by some officer in Her Majesty's service. A good, solid, honest pair of epaulettes, well fitted to stand the wear and tear of those high feasts and functions at which the chief paraded them upon his broad shoulders. They were the admiration of his own tribe, the wonder of others, the envy of many chiefs. It was said that Athabasca wore them creditably, and was no more immobile and grand-mannered than became a chief thus honoured above his kind.

But the years went, and there came a man to Fort Pentecost who knew not Athabasca. He was young, and tall and strong, had a hot temper, knew naught of human nature, was possessed by a pride more masterful than his wisdom, and a courage stronger than his tact. He was ever for high- handedness, brooked no interference, and treated the Indians more as Company's serfs than as Company's friends and allies. Also, he had an eye for Mitawawa, and found favour in return, though to what depth it took a long time to show. The girl sat high in the minds and desires of the young braves, for she had beauty of a heathen kind, a deft and dainty finger for embroidered buckskin, a particular fortune with a bow and arrow, and the fleetest foot. There were mutterings because Fyles the white man came to sit often in Athabasca's lodge. He knew of this, but heeded not at all. At last Konto, a young brave who very accurately guessed at Fyles' intentions, stopped him one day on the Grey Horse Trail, and in a soft, indolent voice begged him to prove his regard in a fight without weapons, to the death, the survivor to give the other burial where he fell. Fyles was neither fool nor coward. It would have been foolish to run the risk of leaving Fort and people masterless for an Indian's whim; it would have been cowardly to do nothing. So he whipped out a revolver, and bade his rival march before him to the Fort; which Konto very calmly did, begging the favour of a bit of tobacco as he went.

Fyles demanded of Athabasca that he should sit in judgment, and should at least banish Konto from his tribe, hinting the while that he might have to put a bullet into Konto's refractory head if the thing were not done. He said large things in the name of the H.B.C., and was surprised that Athabasca let them pass unmoved. But that chief, after long consideration, during which he drank Company's coffee and ate Company's pemmican, declared that he could do nothing: for Konto had made a fine offer, and a grand chance of a great fight had been missed. This was in the presence of several petty officers and Indians and woodsmen at the Fort. Fyles had vanity and a nasty temper. He swore a little, and with words of bluster went over and ripped the epaulettes from the chief's shoulders as a punishment, a mark of degradation. The chief said nothing. He got up, and reached out his hands as if to ask them back; and when Fyles refused, he went away, drawing his blanket high over his shoulders. It was wont before to lie loosely about him, to show his badges of captaincy and alliance.

This was about the time that the Indians were making ready for the buffalo, and when their chief took to his lodge, and refused to leave it, they came to ask him why. And they were told. They were for making trouble, but the old chief said the quarrel was his own: he would settle it in his own way. He would not go to the hunt. Konto, he said, should take his place; and when his braves came back there should be great feasting, for then the matter would be ended.

Half the course of the moon and more, and Athabasca came out of his lodge--the first time in the sunlight since the day of his disgrace. He and his daughter sat silent and watchful at the door. There had been no word between Fyles and Athabasca, no word between Mitawawa and Fyles. The Fort was well-nigh tenantless, for the half-breeds also had gone after buffalo, and only the trader, a clerk, and a half-breed cook were left.

Mitawawa gave a little cry of impatience: she had held her peace so long that even her slow Indian nature could endure no more. "What will my father Athabasca do?" she asked. "With idleness the flesh grows soft, and the iron melts from the arm."

"But when the thoughts are stone, the body is as that of the Mighty Men of the Kimash Hills. When the bow is long drawn, beware the arrow."

"It is no answer," she said: "what will my father do?"

"They were of gold," he answered, "that never grew rusty. My people were full of wonder when they stood before me, and the tribes had envy as they passed. It is a hundred moons and one red midsummer moon since the Great Company put them on my shoulders. They were light to carry, but it was as if I bore an army. No other chief was like me. That is all over. When the tribes pass they will laugh, and my people will scorn me if I do not come out to meet them with the yokes of gold."

"But what will my father do?" she persisted.

"I have had many thoughts, and at night I have called on the Spirits who rule. From the top of the Hill of Graves I have beaten the soft drum, and called, and sung the hymn which wakes the sleeping Spirits: and I know the way."

"What is the way?" Her eyes filled with a kind of fear or trouble, and many times they shifted from the Fort to her father, and back again. The chief was silent. Then anger leapt into her face.

"Why does my father fear to speak to his child?" she said. "I will speak plain. I love the man: but I love my father also."

She stood up, and drew her blanket about her, one hand clasped proudly on her breast. "I cannot remember my mother; but I remember when I first looked down from my hammock in the pine tree, and saw my father sitting by the fire. It was in the evening like this, but darker, for the pines made great shadows. I cried out, and he came and took me down, and laid me between his knees, and fed me with bits of meat from the pot. He talked much to me, and his voice was finer than any other. There is no one like my father--Konto is nothing: but the voice of the white man, Fyles, had golden words that our braves do not know, and I listened. Konto did a brave thing. Fyles, because he was a great man of the Company, would not fight, and drove him like a dog. Then he made my father as a worm in the eyes of the world. I would give my life for Fyles the trader, but I would give more than my life to wipe out my father's shame, and to show that Konto of the Little Crees is no dog. I have been carried by the hands of the old men of my people, I have ridden the horses of the young men: their shame is my shame."

The eyes of the chief had never lifted from the Fort: nor from his look could you have told that he heard his daughter's words. For a moment he was silent, then a deep fire came into his eyes, and his wide heavy brows drew up so that the frown of anger was gone. At last, as she waited, he arose, put out a hand and touched her forehead.

"Mitawawa has spoken well," he said. "There will be an end. The yokes of gold are mine: an honour given cannot be taken away. He has stolen; he is a thief. He would not fight Konto: but I am a chief and he shall fight me. I am as great as many men--I have carried the golden yokes: we will fight for them. I thought long, for I was afraid my daughter loved the man more than her people: but now I will break him in pieces. Has Mitawawa seen him since the shameful day?"

"He has come to the lodge, but I would not let him in unless he brought the epaulettes. He said he would bring them when Konto was punished. I begged of him as I never begged of my own father, but he was hard as the ironwood tree. I sent him away. Yet there is no tongue like his in the world; he is tall and beautiful, and has the face of a spirit."

From the Fort Fyles watched the two. With a pair of field-glasses he could follow their actions, could almost read their faces. "There'll be a lot of sulking about those epaulettes, Mallory," he said at last, turning to his clerk. "Old Athabasca has a bee in his bonnet."

"Wouldn't it be just as well to give 'em back, sir?" Mallory had been at Fort Pentecost a long time, and he understood Athabasca and his Indians. He was a solid, slow-thinking old fellow, but he had that wisdom of the north which can turn from dove to serpent and from serpent to lion in the moment.

"Give 'em back, Mallory? I'll see him in Jericho first, unless he goes on his marrow-bones and kicks Konto out of the camp."

"Very well, sir. But I think we'd better keep an eye open."

"Eye open, be hanged! If he'd been going to riot he'd have done so before this. Besides, the girl--!" Mallory looked long and earnestly at his master, whose forehead was glued to the field-glass. His little eyes moved as if in debate, his slow jaws opened once or twice. At last he said: "I'd give the girl the go-by, Mr. Fyles, if I was you, unless I meant to marry her." Fyles suddenly swung round. "Keep your place, blast you, Mallory, and keep your morals too. One'd think you were a missionary." Then with a sudden burst of anger: "Damn it all, if my men don't stand by me against a pack of treacherous Indians, I'd better get out."

"Your men will stand by you, sir: no fear. I've served three traders here, and my record is pretty clean, Mr. Fyles. But I'll say it to your face, whether you like it or not, that you're not as good a judge of the Injin as me, or even Duc the cook: and that's straight as I can say it, Mr. Fyles."

Fyles paced up and down in anger--not speaking; but presently threw up the glass, and looked towards Athabasca's lodge. "They're gone," he said presently; "I'll go and see them to-morrow. The old fool must do what I want, or there'll be ructions."

The moon was high over Fort Pentecost when Athabasca entered the silent yard. The dogs growled, but Indian dogs growl without reason, and no one heeds them. The old chief stood a moment looking at the windows, upon which slush-lights were throwing heavy shadows. He went to Fyles' window: no one was in the room. He went to another: Mallory and Duc were sitting at a table. Mallory had the epaulettes, looking at them and fingering the hooks by which Athabasca had fastened them on. Duc was laughing: he reached over for an epaulette, tossed it up, caught it and threw it down with a guffaw. Then the door opened, and Athabasca walked in, seized the epaulettes, and went swiftly out again. Just outside the door Mallory clapped a hand on one shoulder, and Duc caught at the epaulettes.

Athabasca struggled wildly. All at once there was a cold white flash, and Duc came huddling to Mallory's feet. For a brief instant Mallory and the Indian fell apart, then Athabasca with a contemptuous fairness tossed his knife away, and ran in on his man. They closed; strained, swayed, became a tangled wrenching mass; and then Mallory was lifted high into the air, and came down with a broken back.

Athabasca picked up the epaulettes, and hurried away, breathing hard, and hugging them to his bare red-stained breast. He had nearly reached the gate when he heard a cry. He did not turn, but a heavy stone caught him high in the shoulders, and he fell on his face and lay clutching the epaulettes in his outstretched hands.

Fyles' own hands were yet lifted with the effort of throwing, when he heard the soft rush of footsteps, and someone came swiftly into his embrace. A pair of arms ran round his shoulders--lips closed with his-- something ice-cold and hard touched his neck--he saw a bright flash at his throat.

In the morning Konto found Mitawawa sitting with wild eyes by her father's body. She had fastened the epaulettes on its shoulders. Fyles and his men made a grim triangle of death at the door of the Fort.