Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
Pierre had determined to establish a kingdom, not for gain, but for conquest's sake. But because he knew that the thing would pall, he took with him Macavoy the giant, to make him king instead. But first he made Macavoy from a lovely bully, a bulk of good-natured brag, into a Hercules of fight; for, having made him insult--and be insulted by--near a score of men at Fort O'Angel, he also made him fight them by twos, threes, and fours, all on a summer's evening, and send them away broken. Macavoy would have hesitated to go with Pierre, were it not that he feared a woman. Not that he had wronged her; she had wronged him: she had married him. And the fear of one's own wife is the worst fear in the world.
But though his heart went out to women, and his tongue was of the race that beguiles, he stood to his "lines" like a man, and people wondered. Even Wonta, the daughter of Foot-in-the-Sun, only bent him, she could not break him to her will. Pierre turned her shy coaxing into irony--that was on the day when all Fort O'Angel conspired to prove Macavoy a child and not a warrior. But when she saw what she had done, and that the giant was greater than his years of brag, she repented, and hung a dead coyote at Pierre's door as a sign of her contempt.
Pierre watched Macavoy, sitting with a sponge of vinegar to his head, for he had had nasty joltings in his great fight. A little laugh came crinkling up to the half-breed's lips, but dissolved into silence.
"We'll start in the morning," he said.
Macavoy looked up. "Whin you plaze; but a word in your ear; are you sure she'll not follow us?"
"She doesn't know. Fort Ste. Anne is in the south, and Fort Comfort, where we go, is far north."
"But if she kem!" the big man persisted.
"You will be a king; you can do as other kings have done," Pierre chuckled.
The other shook his head. "Says Father Nolan to me, says he, "tis till death us do part, an' no man put asunder'; an' I'll stand by that, though I'd slice out the bist tin years av me life, if I niver saw her face again."
"But the girl, Wonta--what a queen she'd make!"
"Marry her yourself, and be king yourself, and be damned to you! For she, like the rest, laughed in me face, whin I told thim of the day whin I--"
"That's nothing. She hung a dead coyote at my door. You don't know women. There'll be your breed and hers abroad in the land one day."
Macavoy stretched to his feet--he was so tall that he could not stand upright in the room. He towered over Pierre, who blandly eyed him. "I've another word for your ear," he said darkly. "Keep clear av the likes o' that wid me. For I've swallowed a tribe av divils. It's fightin' you want. Well, I'll do it--I've an itch for the throats av men, but a fool I'll be no more wid wimin, white or red--that hell-cat that spoilt me life an' killed me child, or--"
A sob clutched him in the throat.
"You had a child, then?" asked Pierre gently.
"An angel she was, wid hair like the sun, an' 'd melt the heart av an iron god: none like her above or below. But the mother, ah, the mother of her! One day whin she'd said a sharp word, wid another from me, an' the child clinging to her dress, she turned quick and struck it, meanin' to anger me. Not so hard the blow was, but it sent the darlin's head agin' the chimney-stone, and that was the end av it. For she took to her bed, an' agin' the crowin' o' the cock wan midnight, she gives a little cry an' snatched at me beard. 'Daddy,' says she, 'daddy, it hurts!' An' thin she floats away, wid a stitch av pain at her lips."
Macavoy sat down now, his fingers fumbling in his beard. Pierre was uncomfortable. He could hear of battle, murder, and sudden death unmoved--it seemed to him in the game; but the tragedy of a child, a mere counter yet in the play of life--that was different. He slid a hand over the table, and caught Macavoy's arm. "Poor little waif!" he said.
Macavoy gave the hand a grasp that turned Pierre sick, and asked: "Had ye iver a child av y'r own, Pierre-iver wan at all?"
"Never," said Pierre dreamily, "and I've travelled far. A child--a child --is a wonderful thing. . . . Poor little waif!"
They both sat silent for a moment. Pierre was about to rise, but Macavoy suddenly pinned him to his seat with this question: "Did y' iver have a wife, thin, Pierre?"
Pierre turned pale. A sharp breath came through his teeth. He spoke slowly: "Yes, once."
"And she died?" asked the other, awed.
"We all have our day," he replied enigmatically, "and there are worse things than death. . . . Eh, well, mon ami, let us talk of other things. To-morrow we go to conquer. I know where I can get five men I want. I have ammunition and dogs."
A few minutes afterwards Pierre was busy in the settlement. At the Fort he heard strange news. A new batch of settlers was coming from the south, and among them was an old Irishwoman who called herself now Mrs. Whelan, now Mrs. Macavoy. She talked much of the lad she was to find, one Tim Macavoy, whose fame Gossip had brought to her at last.
She had clung on to the settlers, and they could not shake her off. "She was comin'," she said, "to her own darlin' b'y, from whom she'd been parted manny a year, believin' him dead, or Tom Whelan had nivir touched hand o' hers."
The bearer of the news had but just arrived, and he told it only to the Chief Trader and Pierre. At a word from Pierre the man promised to hold his peace. Then Pierre went to Wonta's lodge. He found her with her father alone, her head at her knees. When she heard his voice she looked up sharply, and added a sharp word also.
"Wait," he said; "women are such fools. You snapped your fingers in his face, and laughed at him. Bien, that is nothing. He has proved himself great. That is something. He will be greater still, if the other woman does not find him. She should die, but then some women have no sense."
"The other woman!" said Wonta, starting to her feet; "who is the other woman?"
Old Foot-in-the-Sun waked and sat up, but seeing that it was Pierre, dropped again to sleep. Pierre, he knew, was no peril to any woman. Besides, Wonta hated the half-breed, as he thought.
Pierre told the girl the story of Macavoy's life; for he knew that she loved the man after her heathen fashion, and that she could be trusted.
"I do not care for that," she said, when he had finished; "it is nothing. I would go with him. I should be his wife, the other should die. I would kill her, if she would fight me. I know the way of knives, or a rifle, or a pinch at the throat--she should die!"
"Yes, but that will not do. Keep your hands free of her."
Then he told her that they were going away. She said she would go also. He said no to that, but told her to wait and he would come back for her.
Though she tried hard to follow them, they slipped away from the Fort in the moist gloom of the morning, the brown grass rustling, the prairie- hens fluttering, the osiers soughing as they passed, the Spirit of the North, ever hungry, drawing them on over the long Divides. They did not see each other's faces till dawn. They were guided by Pierre's voice; none knew his comrades. Besides Pierre and Macavoy, there were five half-breeds--Noel, Little Babiche, Corvette, Josh, and Jacques Parfaite. When they came to recognise each other, they shook hands, and marched on. In good time they reached that wonderful and pleasant country between the Barren Grounds and the Lake of Silver Shallows. To the north of it was Fort Comfort, which they had come to take. Macavoy's rich voice roared as of old, before his valour was questioned--and maintained--at Fort O'Angel. Pierre had diverted his mind from the woman who, at Fort O'Angel, was even now calling heaven and earth to witness that "Tim Macavoy was her Macavoy and no other, an' she'd find him--the divil and darlin', wid an arm like Broin Borhoime, an' a chest you could build a house on--if she walked till Doomsday!"
Macavoy stood out grandly, his fat all gone to muscle, blowing through his beard, puffing his cheek, and ready with tale or song. But now that they were facing the business of their journey, his voice got soft and gentle, as it did before the Fort, when he grappled his foes two by two and three by three, and wrung them out. In his eyes there was the thing which counts as many men in any soldier's sight, when he leads in battle. As he said himself, he was made for war, like Malachi o' the Golden Collar.
Pierre guessed that just now many of the Indians would be away for the summer hunt, and that the Fort would perhaps be held by only a few score of braves, who, however, would fight when they might easier play. He had no useless compunctions about bloodshed. A human life he held to be a trifle in the big sum of time, and that it was of little moment when a man went, if it seemed his hour. He lived up to his creed, for he had ever held his own life as a bird upon a housetop, which a chance stone might drop.
He was glad afterwards that he had decided to fight, for there was one in Fort Comfort against whom he had an old grudge--the Indian, Young Eye, who, many years before, had been one to help in killing the good Father Halen, the priest who dropped the water on his forehead and set the cross on top of that, when he was at his mother's breasts. One by one the murderers had been killed, save this man. He had wandered north, lived on the Coppermine River for a long time, and at length had come down among the warring tribes at the Lake of Silver Shallows.
Pierre was for direct attack. They crossed the lake in their canoes, at a point about five miles from the Fort, and, so far as they could tell, without being seen. Then ammunition went round, and they marched upon the Fort. Pierre eyed Macavoy--measured him, as it were, for what he was worth. The giant seemed happy. He was humming a tune softly through his beard. Suddenly Jose paused, dropped to the foot of a pine, and put his ear to it. Pierre understood. He had caught at the same thing. "There is a dance on," said Jose, "I can hear the drum."
Pierre thought a minute. "We will reconnoitre," he said presently.
"It is near night now," remarked Little Babiche. "I know something of these. When they have a great snake dance at night, strange things happen." Then he spoke in a low tone to Pierre.
They halted in the bush, and Little Babiche went forward to spy upon the Fort. He came back just after sunset, reporting that the Indians were feasting. He had crept near, and had learned that the braves were expected back from the hunt that night, and that the feast was for their welcome.
The Fort stood in an open space, with tall trees for a background. In front, here and there, were juniper and tamarac bushes. Pierre laid his plans immediately, and gave the word to move on. Their presence had not been discovered, and if they could but surprise the Indians the Fort might easily be theirs. They made a detour, and after an hour came upon the Fort from behind. Pierre himself went forward cautiously, leaving Macavoy in command. When he came again he said:
"It's a fine sight, and the way is open. They are feasting and dancing. If we can enter without being seen, we are safe, except for food; we must trust for that. Come on."
When they arrived at the margin of the woods a wonderful scene was before them. A volcanic hill rose up on one side, gloomy and stern, but the reflection of the fires reached it, and made its sides quiver--the rock itself seemed trembling. The sombre pines showed up, a wall all round, and in the open space, turreted with fantastic fires, the Indians swayed in and out with weird chanting, their bodies mostly naked, and painted in strange colours. The earth itself was still and sober. Scarce a star peeped forth. A purple velvet curtain seemed to hang all down the sky, though here and there the flame bronzed it. The Indian lodges were empty, save where a few children squatted at the openings. The seven stood still with wonder, till Pierre whispered to them to get to the ground and crawl close in by the walls of the Fort, following him. They did so, Macavoy breathing hard--too hard; for suddenly Pierre clapped a hand on his mouth.
They were now near the Fort, and Pierre had seen an Indian come from the gate. The brave was within a few feet of them. He had almost passed them, for they were in the shadow, but Jose had burst a puffball with his hand, and the dust, flying up, made him sneeze. The Indian turned and saw them. With a low cry and the spring of a tiger Pierre was at his throat; and in another minute they were struggling on the ground. Pierre's hand never let go. His comrades did not stir; he had warned them to lie still. They saw the terrible game played out within arm's length of them. They heard Pierre say at last, as the struggles of the Indian ceased: "Beast! You had Father Halen's life. I have yours."
There was one more wrench of the Indian's limbs, and then he lay still.
They crawled nearer the gate, still hidden in the shadows and the grass. Presently they came to a clear space. Across this they must go, and enter the Fort before they were discovered. They got to their feet, and ran with wonderful swiftness, Pierre leading, to the gate. They had just reached it when there was a cry from the walls, on which two Indians were sitting. The Indians sprang down, seized their spears, and lunged at the seven as they entered. One spear caught Little Babiche in the arm as he swung aside, but with the butt of his musket Noel dropped him. The other Indian was promptly handled by Pierre himself. By this time Corvette and Jose had shut the gates, and the Fort was theirs--an easy conquest. The Indians were bound and gagged.
The adventurers had done it all without drawing the attention of the howling crowd without. The matter was in its infancy, however. They had the place, but could they hold it? What food and water were there within? Perhaps they were hardly so safe besieged as besiegers. Yet there was no doubt on Pierre's part. He had enjoyed the adventure so far up to the hilt. An old promise had been kept, and an old wrong avenged.
"What's to be done now?" said Macavoy. "There'll be hell's own racket; and they'll come on like a flood."
"To wait," said Pierre, "and dam the flood as it comes. But not a bullet till I give the word. Take to the chinks. We'll have them soon."
He was right: they came soon. Someone had found the dead body of Young Eye; then it was discovered that the gate was shut. A great shout went up. The Indians ran to their lodges for spears and hatchets, though the weapons of many were within the Fort, and soon they were about the place, shouting in impotent rage. They could not tell how many invaders were in the Fort; they suspected it was the Little Skins, their ancient enemies. But Young Eye, they saw, had not been scalped. This was brought to the old chief, and he called to his men to fall back. They had not seen one man of the invaders; all was silent and dark within the Fort; even the two torches which had been burning above the gate were down. At that moment, as if to add to the strangeness, a caribou came suddenly through the fires, and, passing not far from the bewildered Indians, plunged into the trees behind the Fort.
The caribou is credited with great powers. It is thought to understand all that is said to it, and to be able to take the form of a spirit. No Indian will come near it till it is dead, and he that kills it out of season is supposed to bring down all manner of evil.
So at this sight they cried out--the women falling to the ground with their faces in their arms--that the caribou had done this thing. For a moment they were all afraid. Besides, as a brave showed, there was no mark on the body of Young Eye.
Pierre knew quite well that this was a bull caribou, travelling wildly till he found another herd. He would carry on the deception. "Wail for the dead, as your women do in Ireland. That will finish them," he said to Macavoy.
The giant threw his voice up and out, so that it seemed to come from over the Fort to the Indians, weird and crying. Even the half-breeds standing by felt a light shock of unnatural excitement. The Indians without drew back slowly from the Fort, leaving a clear space between. Macavoy had uncanny tricks with his voice, and presently he changed the song into a shrill, wailing whistle, which went trembling about the place and then stopped suddenly.
"Sure, that's a poor game, Pierre," he whispered; "an' I'd rather be pluggin' their hides wid bullets, or givin' the double-an'-twist. It's fightin' I come for, and not the trick av Mother Kilkevin."
Pierre arranged a plan of campaign at once. Every man looked to his gun, the gates were slowly opened, and Macavoy stepped out. Pierre had thrown over the Irishman's shoulders the great skin of a musk-ox which he had found inside the stockade. He was a strange, immense figure, as he walked into the open space, and, folding his arms, looked round. In the shadow of the gate behind were Pierre and the halfbreeds, with guns cocked.
Macavoy had lived so long in the north that he knew enough of all the languages to speak to this tribe. When he came out a murmur of wonder ran among the Indians. They had never seen anyone so tall, for they were not great of stature, and his huge beard and wild shock of hair were a wonderful sight. He remained silent, looking on them. At last the old chief spoke. "Who are you?"
"I am a great chief from the Hills of the Mighty Men, come to be your king," was his reply.
"He is your king," cried Pierre in a strange voice from the shadow of the gate, and he thrust out his gun-barrel, so that they could see it.
The Indians now saw Pierre and the half-breeds in the gateway, and they had not so much awe. They came a little nearer, and the women stopped crying. A few of the braves half-raised their spears. Seeing this, Pierre instantly stepped forward to the giant. He looked a child in stature thereby. He spoke quickly and well in the Chinook language.
"This is a mighty man from the Hills of the Mighty Men. He has come to rule over you, to give all other tribes into your hands; for he has strength like a thousand, and fears nothing of gods nor men. I have the blood of red men in me. It is I who have called this man from his distant home. I heard of your fighting and foolishness: also that warriors were to come from the south country to scatter your wives and children, and to make you slaves. I pitied you, and I have brought you a chief greater than any other. Throw your spears upon the ground, and all will be well; but raise one to throw, or one arrow, or axe, and there shall be death among you, so that as a people you shall die. The spirits are with us. . . . Well?"
The Indians drew a little nearer, but they did not drop their spears, for the old chief forbade them.
"We are no dogs nor cowards," he said, "though the spirits be with you, as we believe. We have seen strange things"--he pointed to Young Eye-- "and heard voices not of men; but we would see great things as well as strange. There are seven men of the Little Skins tribe within a lodge yonder. They were to die when our braves returned from the hunt, and for that we prepared the feast. But this mighty man, he shall fight them all at once, and if he kills them he shall be our king. In the name of my tribe I speak. And this other," pointing to Pierre, "he shall also fight with a strong man of our tribe, so that we shall know if you are all brave, and not as those who crawl at the knees of the mighty."
This was more than Pierre had bargained for. Seven men at Macavoy, and Indians too, fighting for their lives, was a contract of weight. But Macavoy was blowing in his beard cheerfully enough.
"Let me choose me ground," he said, "wid me back to the wall, an' I'll take thim as they come."
Pierre instantly interpreted this to the Indians, and said for himself that he would welcome their strongest man at the point of a knife when he chose.
The chief gave an order, and the Little Skins were brought. The fires still burned brightly, and the breathing of the pines, as a slight wind rose and stirred them, came softly over. The Indians stood off at the command of the chief. Macavoy drew back to the wall, dropped the musk-ox skin to the ground, and stripped himself to the waist. But in his waistband there was what none of these Indians had ever seen--a small revolver that barked ever so softly. In the hands of each Little Skin there was put a knife, and they were told their cheerful exercise. They came on cautiously, and then suddenly closed in, knives flashing. But Macavoy's little bulldog barked, and one dropped to the ground. The others fell back. The wounded man drew up, made a lunge at Macavoy, but missed him. As if ashamed, the other six came on again at a spring. But again the weapon did its work smartly, and one more came down. Now the giant put it away, ran in upon the five, and cut right and left. So sudden and massive was his rush that they had no chance. Three fell at his blows, and then he drew back swiftly to the wall. "Drop your knives," he said, as they cowered, "or I'll kill you all." They did so. He dropped his own.
"Now come on, ye scuts!" he cried, and suddenly he reached and caught them, one with each arm, and wrestled with them, till he bent the one like a willow-rod, and dropped him with a broken back, while the other was at his mercy. Suddenly loosing him, he turned him towards the woods, and said: "Run, ye rid divil, run for y'r life!"
A dozen spears were raised, but the rifles of Pierre's men came in between: the Indian reached cover and was gone. Of the six others, two had been killed, the rest were severely wounded, and Macavoy had not a scratch.
Pierre smiled grimly. "You've been doing all the fighting, Macavoy," he said.
"There's no bein' a king for nothin'," he replied, wiping blood from his beard.
"It's my turn now, but keep your rifles ready, though I think there's no need."
Pierre had but a short minute with the champion, for he was an expert with the knife. He carried away four fingers of the Indian's fighting hand, and that ended it; for the next instant the point was at the red man's throat. The Indian stood to take it like a man; but Pierre loved that kind of courage, and shot the knife into its sheath instead.
The old chief kept his word, and after the spears were piled, he shook hands with Macavoy, as did his braves one by one, and they were all moved by the sincerity of his grasp: their arms were useless for some time after. They hailed as their ruler, King Macavoy I.; for men are like dogs--they worship him who beats them. The feasting and dancing went on till the hunters came back. Then there was a wild scene, but in the end all the hunters, satisfied, came to greet their new king.
The king himself went to bed in the Fort that night, Pierre and his bodyguard--by name Noel, Little Babiche, Corvette, Jose, and Parfaite --its only occupants, singing joyfully:
"Did yees iver hear tell o' Long Barney, That come from the groves o' Killarney? He wint for a king, oh, he wint for a king, But he niver keen back to Killarney Wid his crown, an' his soord, an' his army!"
As a king Macavoy was a success, for the brag had gone from him. Like all his race he had faults as a subject, but the responsibility of ruling set him right. He found in the Fort an old sword and belt, left by some Hudson's Bay Company's man, and these he furbished up and wore.
With Pierre's aid he drew up a simple constitution, which he carried in the crown of his cap, and he distributed beads and gaudy trappings as marks of honour. Nor did he forget the frequent pipe of peace, made possible to all by generous gifts of tobacco. Anyone can found a kingdom abaft the Barren Grounds with tobacco, beads, and red flannel.
For very many weeks it was a happy kingdom. But presently Pierre yawned, and was ready to return. Three of the half-breeds were inclined to go with him. Jose and Little Babiche had formed alliances which held them there--besides, King Macavoy needed them.
On the eve of Pierre's departure a notable thing occurred.
A young brave had broken his leg in hunting, had been picked up by a band of another tribe, and carried south. He found himself at last at Fort O'Angel. There he had met Mrs. Whelan, and for presents of tobacco, and purple and fine linen, he had led her to her consort. That was how the king and Pierre met her in the yard of Fort Comfort one evening of early autumn. Pierre saw her first, and was for turning the King about and getting him away; but it was too late. Mrs. Whelan had seen him, and she called out at him:
"Oh, Tim! me jool, me king, have I found ye, me imp'ror!"
She ran at him, to throw her arms round him. He stepped back, the red of his face going white, and said, stretching out his hand, "Woman, y'are me wife, I know, whativer y' be; an' y've right to have shelter and bread av me; but me arms, an' me bed, are me own to kape or to give; and, by God, ye shall have nayther one nor the other! There's a ditch as wide as hell betune us."
The Indians had gathered quickly; they filled the yard, and crowded the gate. The woman went wild, for she had been drinking. She ran at Macavoy and spat in his face, and called down such a curse on him as, whoever hears, be he one that's cursed or any other, shudders at till he dies. Then she fell in a fit at his feet. Macavoy turned to the Indians, stretched out his hands and tried to speak, but could not. He stooped down, picked up the woman, carried her into the Fort, and laid her on a bed of skins.
"What will you do?" asked Pierre.
"She is my wife," he answered firmly.
"She lived with Whelan."
"She must be cared for," was the reply. Pierre looked at him with a curious quietness. "I'll get liquor for her," he said presently. He started to go, but turned and felt the woman's pulse. "You would keep her?" he asked.
"Bring the liquor." Macavoy reached for water, and dipping the sleeve of his shirt in it, wetted her face gently.
Pierre brought the liquor, but he knew that the woman would die. He stayed with Macavoy beside her all the night. Towards morning her eyes opened, and she shivered greatly.
"It's bither cold," she said. "You'll put more wood on the fire, Tim, for the babe must be kept warrum."
She thought she was at Malahide.
"Oh, wurra, wurra, but 'tis freezin'!" she said again. "Why d'ye kape the door opin whin the child's perishin'?"
Macavoy sat looking at her, his trouble shaking him.
"I'll shut the door meself, thin," she added; "for 'twas I that lift it opin, Tim." She started up, but gave a cry like a wailing wind, and fell back.
"The door is shut," said Pierre.
"But the child--the child!" said Macavoy, tears running down his face and beard.