The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Dick pulled the girl roughly to the fireside, where he dropped her arm, leaving her downcast and submissive. He was angry all through with the powerless rage of the man whose attentions a woman has taken more seriously than he had intended. Suddenly he was involved more deeply than he had meant.
"Well, what do you think of that?" he cried.
"What you doing here?" asked Sam in Ojibway, although he knew what the answer would be.
She did not reply, however.
"Hell!" burst out Dick.
"Well, keep your hair on," advised Sam Bolton, with a grin. "You shouldn't be so attractive, Dicky."
The latter growled.
"Now you've got her, what you going to do with her?" pursued the older man.
"Do with her?" exploded Dick; "what in hell do you mean? I don't want her; she's none of my funeral. She's got to go back, of course."
"Oh, sure!" agreed Sam. "She's got to go back. Sure thing! It's only two days down stream, and then the Crees would have only four days' start and getting farther every minute. A mere ten days in the woods without an outfit. Too easy; especially for a woman. But of course you'll give her your outfit, Dick."
He mused, gazing into the flames, his eyes droll over this new complication introduced by his thoughtless comrade.
"Well, we can't have her with us," objected Dick, obstinately. "She'd hinder us, and bother us, and get in our way, and we'd have to feed her--we may have to starve ourselves;--and she's no damn use to us. She can't go. I won't have it; I didn't bargain to lug a lot of squaws around on this trip. She came; I didn't ask her to. Let her get out of it the best way she can. She's an Injun. She can make it all right through the woods. And if she has a hard time, she ought to."
"Nice mess, isn't it, Dick?" grinned the other.
"No mess about it. I haven't anything to do with such a fool trick. What did she expect to gain tagging us through the woods that way half a mile to the rear? She was just waiting 'till we got so far away from th' Crees that we couldn't send her back. I'll fool her on that, damn her!" He kicked a log back into place, sending the sparks eddying.
"I wonder if she's had anything to eat lately?" said Bolton.
"I don't care a damn whether she has or not," said Dick.
"Keep your hair on, my son," advised Sam again. "You're hot because you thought you'd got shut of th' whole affair, and now you find you haven't."
"You make me sick," commented Dick.
"Mebbe," admitted the woodsman. He fell silent, staring straight before him, emitting short puffs from his pipe. The girl stood where she had been thrust.
"I'll start her back in the morning," proffered Dick after a few moments. Then, as this elicited no remark, "We can stock her up with jerky, and there's no reason she shouldn't make it." Sam remained grimly silent. "Is there?" insisted Dick. He waited a minute for a reply. Then, as none came, "Hell!" he exclaimed, disgustedly, and turned away to sit on a log the other side of the fire with all the petulance of a child.
"Now look here, Sam," he broke out, after an interval. "We might as well get at this thing straight. We can't keep her with us, now, can we?"
Sam removed his pipe, blew a cloud straight before him, and replaced it.
Dick reddened slowly, got up with an incidental remark about damn fools, and began to spread his blankets beneath the lean-to shelter. He muttered to himself, angered at the dead opposition of circumstance which he could not push aside. Suddenly he seized the girl again by the arm.
"Why you come?" he demanded in Ojibway. "Where you get your blankets? Where you get your grub? How you make the Long Trail? What you do when we go far and fast? What we do with you now?" Then meeting nothing but the stolidity with which the Indian always conceals pain, he flung her aside. "Stupid owl!" he growled.
He sat on the ground and began to take off his moccasins with ostentatious deliberation, abruptly indifferent to it all. Slowly he prepared for the night, yawning often, looking at the sky, arranging the fire, emphasising and delaying each of his movements as though to prove to himself that he acknowledged only the habitual. At last he turned in, his shoulder thrust aggressively toward the two motionless figures by the fire.
It was by now close to midnight. The big moon had long since slipped from behind the solitary wolf on the hill. Yet Sam Bolton made no move toward his blankets, and the girl did not stir from the downcast attitude into which she had first fallen. The old woodsman looked at the situation with steady eyes. He realised to the full what Dick Herron's thoughtlessness had brought on them. A woman, even a savage woman inured to the wilderness, was a hindrance. She could not travel as fast nor as far; she could not bear the same burdens, endure the same hardship; she would consume her share of the provisions. And before this expedition into the Silent Places should be finished the journeying might require the speed of a course after quarry, the packing would come finally to the men's back, the winter would have to be met in the open, and the North, lavish during these summer months, sold her sustenance dear when the snows fell. The time might come when these men would have to arm for the struggle. Cruelty, harshness, relentlessness, selfishness, singleness of purpose, hardness of heart they would have perforce to assume. And when they stripped for such a struggle, Sam Bolton knew that among other things this woman would have to go. If the need arose, she would have to die; for this quest was greater than the life of any woman or any man. Would it not be better to send her back through certain hardship now, rather than carry her on to a possible death in the White Silence. For the North as yet but skirmished. Her true power lay behind the snows and the ice.
The girl stood in the same attitude. Sam Bolton spoke to her.
"Why have you followed us?"
The girl did not reply.
"Sister," said the woodsman, kindly, "I am an old man. You have called me Father. Why have you followed us?"
"I found Jibiwanisi good in my sight," she said, with a simple dignity, "and he looked on me."
"It was a foolish thing to do."
"Ae," replied the girl.
"He does not wish to take you in his wigwam."
"Eagle-eye is angry now. Anger melts under the sun."
"I do not think his will."
"Then I will make his fire and his buckskin and cook his food."
"We go on a long journey."
"I will follow."
"No," replied the woodsman, abruptly, "we will send you back."
The girl remained silent.
"Well?" insisted Bolton.
"I shall not go."
A little puzzled at this insistence, delivered in so calm a manner, Sam hesitated as to what to say. Suddenly the girl stepped forward to face him.
"Little Father," she said, solemnly, "I cannot go. Those are not my people. I do not know my people. My heart is not with them. My heart is here. Little Father," she went on, dropping her voice, "it is here, here, here!" she clasped her breast with both hands. "I do not know how it is. There is a pain in my breast, and my heart is sad with the words of Eagle-eye. And yet here the birds sing and the sun is bright. Away from here it is dark. That is all I know. I do not understand it, Little Father. My heart is here. I cannot go away. If you drive me out, I shall follow. Kill me, if you wish, Little Father; I do not care for that. I shall not hinder you on the Long Trail. I shall do many things. When I cannot travel fast enough, then leave me. My heart is here; I cannot go away." She stopped abruptly, her eyes glowing, her breath short with the quivering of passion. Then all at once her passivity fell on her. She stood, her head downcast, patient, enduring, bending to circumstance meekly as an Indian woman should.
Sam Bolton made no reply to this appeal. He drew his sheath-knife, cut in two the doubled three-point blanket, gave one of the halves to the girl, and indicated to her a place under the shelter. In the firelight his face hardened as he cast his mind again over the future. He had not solved the problem, only postponed it. In the great struggle women would have no place.
At two o'clock, waking in the manner of woodsmen and sailors the world over, he arose to replenish the fire. He found it already bright with new fuel, and the Indian girl awake. She lay on her side, the blanket about her shoulders, her great wistful eyes wide open. A flame shot into the air. It threw a momentary illumination into the angles of the shelter, discovering Dick, asleep in heavy exhaustion, his right forearm across his eyes. The girl stole a glance at Sam Bolton. Apparently he was busy with the fire. She reached out to touch the young man's blanket.