Chapter One
 

At about eight o'clock one evening of the early summer a group of men were seated on a grass-plot overlooking a broad river. The sun was just setting through the forest fringe directly behind them.

Of this group some reclined in the short grass, others lay flat on the bank's slope, while still others leaned against the carriages of two highly ornamented field-guns, whose embossed muzzles gaped silently at an eastern shore nearly two miles distant.

The men were busy with soft-voiced talk, punctuating their remarks with low laughter of a singularly infectious character. It was strange speech, richly embroidered with the musical names of places, with unfamiliar names of beasts, and with unintelligible names of things. Kenogami, Mamatawan, Wenebogan, Kapuskasing, the silver-fox, the sea-otter, the sable, the wolverine, the musk-ox, parka, babiche, tump-line, giddes,--these and others sang like arrows cleaving the atmosphere of commoner words. In the distant woods the white-throats and olive thrushes called in a language hardly less intelligible.

There scarcely needed the row of glistening birch-barks below the men, the warehouse with its picketed lane, the tall flag-staff, the block-house stockade, the half-bred women chatting over the low fences of the log-houses, the squaws wandering to and fro in picturesque silence, the Indian children playing noisily or standing in awe before the veranda of the white house, to inform the initiated that this little forest- and river-girt settlement was a post of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company. The time of sunset and the direction of the river's flow would have indicated a high latitude. The mile-long meadow, with its Indian camp, the oval of forest, the immense breadth of the river identified the place as Conjuror's House. Thus the blue water in the distance was James Bay, the river was the Moose; enjoying his Manila cheroot on the Factory veranda with the other officers of the Company was Galen Albret, and these men lounging on the river bank were the Company's post-keepers and runners, the travellers of the Silent Places.

They were of every age and dressed in a variety of styles. All wore ornamented moccasins, bead garters, and red sashes of worsted. As to the rest, each followed his taste. So in the group could be seen bare heads, fillet-bound heads, covered heads; shirt sleeves, woollen jerseys, and long, beautiful blanket coats. Two things, however, proved them akin. They all possessed a lean, wiry hardness of muscle and frame, a hawk-like glance of the eye, an almost emaciated spareness of flesh on the cheeks. They all smoked pipes of strong plug tobacco.

Whether the bronze of their faces, thrown into relief by the evening glow, the frowning steadiness of their eyes, or more fancifully the background of the guns, the flag-staff and the stockade was most responsible, the militant impression persisted strongly. These were the veterans of an hundred battles. They were of the stuff forlorn hopes are fashioned from. A great enemy, a powerful enemy, an enemy to be respected and feared had hardened them to the unyielding. The adversary could almost be measured, the bitterness of the struggle almost be gauged from the scars of their spirits; the harshness of it, the cruelty of it, the wonderful immensity of it that should so fashion the souls and flesh of men. For to the bearing of these loungers clung that hint of greater things which is never lacking to those who have called the deeps of man's nature to the conquering.

The sun dipped to the horizon, and over the landscape slipped the beautiful north-country haze of crimson. From the distant forest sounded a single mournful wolf-howl. At once the sledge-dogs answered in chorus. The twilight descended. The men gradually fell silent, smoking their pipes, savouring the sharp snow-tang, grateful to their toughened senses, that still lingered in the air.

Suddenly out of the dimness loomed the tall form of an Indian, advancing with long, straight strides. In a moment he was among them responding composedly to their greetings.

"Bo' jou', bo' jou', Me-en-gen," said they.

"Bo' jou', bo' jou'," said he.

He touched two of the men lightly on the shoulder. They arose, for they knew him as the bowsman of the Factor's canoe, and so understood that Galen Albret desired their presence.

Me-en-gen led the way in silence, across the grass-plot, past the flag-staff, to the foot of the steps leading to the Factory veranda. There the Indian left them. They mounted the steps. A voice halted them in the square of light cast through an intervening room from a lighted inner apartment.

The veranda was wide and low; railed in; and, except for the square of light, cast in dimness. A dozen men sat in chairs, smoking. Across the shaft of light the smoke eddied strangely. A woman's voice accompanied softly the tinkle of a piano inside. The sounds, like the lamplight, were softened by the distance of the intervening room.

Of the men on the veranda Galen Albret's identity alone was evident. Grim, four-square, inert, his very way of sitting his chair, as though it were a seat of judgment and he the interpreter of some fierce blood-law, betrayed him. From under the bushy white tufts of his eyebrows the woodsmen felt the search of his inspection. Unconsciously they squared their shoulders.

The older had some fifty-five or sixty years, though his frame was still straight and athletic. A narrow-brimmed slouch hat shadowed quiet, gray eyes, a hawk nose, a long sweeping white mustache. His hands were tanned to a hard mahogany-brown carved into veins, cords, and gnarled joints. He had kindly humour in the wrinkles of his eyes, the slowly developed imagination of the forest-dweller in the deliberation of their gaze, and an evident hard and wiry endurance. His dress, from the rough pea-jacket to the unornamented moccasins, was severely plain.

His companion was hardly more than a boy in years, though more than a man in physical development. In every respect he seemed to be especially adapted to the rigours of northern life. The broad arch of his chest, the plump smoothness of his muscles, above all, the full roundness of his throat indicated that warmth-giving blood, and plenty of it, would be pumped generously to every part of his body. His face from any point of view but one revealed a handsome, jaunty boy, whose beard was still a shade. But when he looked at one directly, the immaturity fell away. This might have been because of a certain confidence of experience beyond what most boys of twenty can know, or it might have been the result merely of a physical peculiarity. For his eyes were so extraordinarily close together that they seemed by their very proximity to pinch the bridge of his nose, and in addition, they possessed a queer slant or cast which twinkled perpetually now in one, now in the other. It invested him at once with an air singularly remote and singularly determined. But at once when he looked away the old boyishness returned, enhanced further by a certain youthful barbarity in the details of his dress--a slanted heron's feather in his hat, a beaded knife-sheath, an excess of ornamentation on his garters and moccasins, and the like.

In a moment one of the men on the veranda began to talk. It was not Galen Albret, though Galen Albret had summoned them, but MacDonald, his Chief Trader and his right-hand man. Galen Albret himself made no sign, but sat, his head sunk forward, watching the men's faces from his cavernous eyes.

"You have been called for especial duty," began MacDonald, shortly. "It is volunteer duty, and you need not go unless you want to. We have called you because you have the reputation of never having failed. That is not much for you, Herron, because you are young. Still we believe in you. But you, Bolton, are an old hand on the Trail, and it means a good deal."

Galen Albret stirred. MacDonald shot a glance in his direction and hastened on.

"I am going to tell you what we want. If you don't care to tackle the job, you must know nothing about it. That is distinctly understood?"

He hitched forward nearer the light, scanning the men carefully. They nodded.

"Sure!" added Herron.

"That's all right. Do you men remember Jingoss, the Ojibway, who outfitted here a year ago last summer?"

"Him they calls th' Weasel?" inquired Sam Bolton.

"That's the one. Do you remember him well? how he looks?"

"Yes," nodded Sam and Dick Herron together.

"We've got to have that Indian."

"Where is he?" asked Herron. Sam Bolton remained silent.

"That is for you to find out." MacDonald then went on to explain himself, hitching his chair still nearer, and lowering his voice. "A year ago last summer," said he, "he got his 'debt' at the store of two hundred castors[1] which he was to pay off in pelts the following spring. He never came back. I don't think he intends to. The example is bad. It has never happened to us before. Too many Indians get credit at this Post. If this man is allowed to go unpunished, we'll be due for all sorts of trouble with our other creditors. Not only he, but all the rest of them, must be made to feel that an embezzler is going to be caught, every time. They all know he's stolen that debt, and they're waiting to see what we're going to do about it. I tell you this so you'll know that it's important."

[Footnote 1: One hundred dollars.]

"You want us to catch him?" said Bolton, more as a comment than an inquiry.

"Catch him, and catch him alive!" corrected MacDonald. "There must be no shooting. We've got to punish him in a way that will make him an example. We've got to allow our Indians 'debt' in order to keep them. If we run too great a risk of loss, we cannot do it. That is a grave problem. In case of success you shall have double pay for the time you are gone, and be raised two ranks in the service. Will you do it?"

Sam Bolton passed his emaciated, gnarled hand gropingly across his mouth, his usual precursor of speech. But Galen Albret abruptly interposed, speaking directly, with authority, as was his habit.

"Hold on," said he, "I want no doubt. If you accept this, you must not fail. Either you must come back with that Indian, or you need not come back at all. I won't accept any excuses for failure. I won't accept any failure. It does not matter if it takes ten years. I want that man."

Abruptly he fell silent. After a moment MacDonald resumed his speech.

"Think well. Let me know in the morning."

Bolton again passed his hand gropingly before his mouth.

"No need to wait for me," said he; "I'll do it."

Dick Herron suddenly laughed aloud, startling to flight the gravities of the moment.

"If Sam here's got her figured out, I've no need to worry," he asserted. "I'm with you."

"Very well," agreed MacDonald. "Remember, this must be kept quiet. Come to me for what you need."

"I will say good-by to you now," said Galen Albret. "I do not wish to be seen talking to you to-morrow."

The woodsmen stepped forward, and solemnly shook Galen Albret's hand. He did not arise to greet these men he was sending out into the Silent Places, for he was the Factor, and not to many is it given to rule a country so rich and extended. They nodded in turn to the taciturn smokers, then glided away into the darkness on silent, moccasined feet.

The night had fallen. Here and there through the gloom shone a lamp. Across the north was a dim glow of phosphorescence, precursor of the aurora, from which occasionally trembled for an instant a single shaft of light. The group by the bronze field-cannon were humming softly the sweet and tender cadences of La Violette dandine.

Instinctively the two woodsmen paused on the hither side of rejoining their companions. Bolton's eyes were already clouded with the trouble of his speculation. Dick Herron glanced at his comrade quizzically, the strange cast flickering in the wind of his thought.

"Oh, Sam!" said he.

"What?" asked the older man, rousing.

"Strikes me that by the time we get through drawin' that double pay on this job, we'll be rich men--and old!"