Chapter Sixteen
 

Now the leaves ripened and fell, and the frost crisped them. Suddenly the forest was still. The great, brooding silence, composed of a thousand lesser woods voices, flowed away like a vapour to be succeeded by a fragile, deathly suspension of sound. Dead leaves depended motionless from the trees. The air hung inert. A soft sunlight lay enervated across the world.

In the silence had been a vast, holy mystery of greater purpose and life; in the stillness was a menace. It became the instant of poise before the break of something gigantic.

And always across it were rising strange rustlings that might mean great things or little, but whose significance was always in doubt. Suddenly the man watching by the runway would hear a mighty scurrying of dead leaves, a scampering, a tumult of hurrying noises, the abruptness of whose inception tightened his nerves and set galloping his heart. Then, with equal abruptness, they ceased. The delicate and fragile stillness settled down.

In all the forest thus diverse affairs seemed to be carried on--fearfully, in sudden, noisy dashes, as a man under fire would dodge from one cover to another. Every creature advertised in the leaves his presence. Danger lurked to this, its advantage. Even the man, taking his necessary footsteps, was abashed at the disproportionate and unusual effects of his movements. It was as though a retiring nature were to be accompanied at every step through a crowded drawing-room by the jingling of bells. Always the instinct was to pause in order that the row might die away, that the man might shrink to his accustomed unobtrusiveness. And instantaneously, without the grace of even a little transitional echo, the stillness fell, crowding so closely on the heels of the man's presence that almost he could feel the breath of whatever it represented.

Occasionally two red squirrels would descend from the spruce-trees to chase each other madly. Then, indeed, did the spirit of autumn seem to be outraged. The racket came to be an insult. Always the ear expected its discontinuance, until finally the persistence ground on the nerves like the barking of a dog at night. At last it was an indecency, an orgy of unholy revel, a profanation, a provocative to anger of the inscrutable woods god. Then stillness again with the abruptness of a sword-cut.

Always the forest seemed to be the same; and yet somehow in a manner not to be defined a subtle change was taking place in the wilderness. Nothing definite could be instanced. Each morning of that Indian summer the skies were as soft, the sun as grateful, the leaves as gorgeous in their blazonment, yet each morning an infinitesimal something that had been there the day before was lacking, and for it an infinitesimal something had been substituted. The change from hour to hour was not perceptible; from week to week it was. The stillness grew in portent; the forest creatures moved more furtively. Like growth, rather than chemical change; the wilderness was turning to iron. With this hardening it became more formidable and menacing. No longer aloof in nirvanic calm, awakened it drew near its enemies, alert, cunning, circumspect, ready to strike.

Each morning a thin film of ice was to be seen along the edges of the slack water. Heavy, black frosts whitened the shadows and nipped the unaccustomed fingers early in the day. The sun was swinging to the south, lengthening the night hours. Whitefish were running in the river.

These last the man and the girl caught in great numbers, and smoked and piled on long-legged scaffolds. They were intended as winter food for the dogs, and would constitute a great part of what would be taken along when the journey should commence.

Dick began to walk without his crutches, a very little at a time, grimly, all his old objectless anger returned when the extent of his disability was thus brought home to him. But always with persistence came improvement. Each attempt brought its reward in strengthened muscles, freer joints, greater confidence. At last it could be no longer doubted that by the Indian's Whitefish Moon he would be as good as ever. The discovery, by some queer contrariness of the man's disposition, was avoided as long as possible, and finally but grudgingly admitted. Yet when at last Dick confessed to himself that his complete recovery was come, his mood suddenly changed. The old necessity for blind, unreasoning patience seemed at an end. He could perceive light ahead, and so in the absence of any further need for taut spiritual nerves, he relaxed the strain and strode on more easily. He played more with the dogs--of which still his favourite was Billy; occasionally he burst into little snatches of song, and the sound of his whistling was merry in the air. At length he paused abruptly in his work to fix his quizzical, narrow gaze on the Indian girl.

"Come, Little Sister," said he, "let us lift the nets."

She looked up at him, a warm glow leaping to her face. This was the first time he had addressed her by the customary diminutive of friendship since they had both been members of the Indian camp on the Missinaibie.

They lifted the net together, and half-filled the canoe with the shining fish. Dick bore himself with the careless good humour of his earlier manner. The greater part of the time he seemed unconscious of his companion's presence, but genuinely unconscious, not with the deliberate affront of a pretended indifference. Under even this negative good treatment the girl expanded with an almost luxuriant gratitude. Her face lost its stoical mask of imperturbability, and much of her former arch beauty returned. The young man was blind to these things, for he was in reality profoundly indifferent to the girl, and his abrupt change of manner could in no way be ascribed to any change in his feeling for her. It was merely the reflex of his inner mood, and that sprang solely from joy over the permission he had given himself again to contemplate taking the Long Trail.

But Sam Bolton, returning that very day from his own long journey, saw at once the alteration in May-may-gwan, and was troubled over it. He came into camp by the river way where the moss and spruce-needles silenced his footsteps, so he approached unnoticed. The girl bent over the fire. A strong glow from the flames showed the stronger glow illuminating her face from within. She hummed softly a song of the Ojibway language:

     "Mong-o doog-win
      Nin dinaindoon--"
     "Loon's wing I thought it was
      In the distance shining.
      But it was my lover's paddle
      In the distance shining."

Then she looked up and saw him.

"Little Father!" she cried, pleased.

At the same moment Dick caught sight of the new-comer and hobbled out of the wigwam.

"Hello, you old snoozer!" he shouted. "We began to think you weren't going to show up at all. Look at what we've done. I believe you've been lying out in the woods just to dodge work. Where'd you steal that dog?"

"Hello, Dick," replied Sam, unslinging his pack. "I'm tired. Tell her to rustle grub."

He leaned back against a cedar, half-closing his eyes, but nevertheless keenly alert. The changed atmosphere of the camp disturbed him. Although he had not realised it before, he preferred Dick's old uncompromising sulkiness.

In accordance with the woods custom, little was said until after the meal was finished and the pipes lit. Then Dick inquired:

"Well, where you been this time, and what did you find?"

Sam replied briefly as to his journey, making it clear that he had now covered all the hunting districts of this region with the single exception of one beyond the Kenogami. He had discovered nothing; he was absolutely sure that nothing was to be discovered.

"I didn't go entirely by what the Injuns told me," he said, "but I looked at the signs along the trapping routes and the trapping camps to see how many had been at it, and I'm sure the number tallies with the reg'lar Injun hunters. I picked up that dog over to Leftfoot Lake. Come here, pup!"

The animal slouched forward, his head hanging, the rims of his eyes blood red as he turned them up to his master. He was a powerful beast, black and tan, with a quaintly wrinkled, anxious countenance and long, pendent ears.

"Strong," commented Dick, "but queer-looking. He'll have trouble keeping warm with that short coat."

"He's wintered here already," replied Sam, indifferently. "Go lie down!"

The dog slouched slowly back, his heavy head and ears swinging to each step, to where May-may-gwan was keeping his peace with the other animals.

"Now for that Kenogami country," went on Sam; "it's two weeks from here by dogs, and it's our last chance in this country. I ain't dared ask too many questions, of course, so I don't know anything about the men who're hunting there. There's four families, and one other. He's alone; I got that much out of the last place I stopped. We got to wait here for snow. If we don't raise anything there, we'd better get over toward the Nipissing country."

"All right," said Dick.

The older man began to ask minutely concerning the equipment, provisions, and dog food.

"It's all right as long as we can take it easy and hunt," advised Sam, gradually approaching the subject that was really troubling him, "and it's all right if we can surprise this Jingoss or ambush him when we find him. But suppose he catches wind of us and skips, what then? It'll be a mighty pretty race, my son, and a hard one. We'll have to fly light and hard, and we'll need every pound of grub we can scrape."

The young man's eyes darkened and his nostrils expanded with the excitement of this thought.

"Just let's strike his trail!" he exclaimed.

"That's all right," agreed the woodsman, his eyes narrowing; "but how about the girl, then?"

But Dick exhibited no uneasiness. He merely grinned broadly.

"Well, what about the girl? That's what I've been telling you. Strikes me that's one of your troubles."

Half-satisfied, the veteran fell silent. Shortly after he made an opportunity to speak to May-may-gwan.

"All is well, Little Sister?" he inquired.

"All is well," she replied; "we have finished the parkas, the sledges, the snow-shoes, the blankets, and we have made much food."

"And Jibiwanisi?"

"His foot is nearly healed. Yesterday he walked to the Big Pool and back. To-day, even this afternoon, Little Father, the Black Spirit left him so that he has been gay."

Convinced that the restored good feeling was the result rather of Dick's volatile nature than of too good an understanding, the old man left the subject.

"Little Sister," he went on, "soon we are going to take the winter trail. It may be that we will have to travel rapidly. It may be that food will be scarce. I think it best that you do not go with us."

She looked up at him.

"These words I have expected," she replied. "I have heard the speech you have made with the Ojibway men you have met. I have seen the preparations you have made. I am not deceived. You and Jibiwanisi are not looking for winter posts. I do not know what it is you are after, but it is something you wish to conceal. Since you have not told me, I know you wish to conceal it from me. I did not know all this when I left Haukemah and his people. That was a foolish thing. It was done, and I do not know why. But it was done, and it cannot be undone. I could not go back to the people of Haukemah now; they would kill me. Where else can I go? I do not know where the Ojibways, my own people, live."

"What do you expect to do, if you stay with me?" inquired Sam, curiously.

"You come from Conjuror's House. You tell the Indians you come from Winnipeg, but that is not so. When you have finished your affairs, you will return to Conjuror's House. There I can enter the household of some officer."

"But you cannot take the winter trail," objected Sam.

"I am strong; I can take the winter trail."

"And perhaps we may have to journey hard and fast."

"As when one pursues an enemy," said the girl, calmly. "Good. I am fleet. I too can travel. And if it comes to that, I will leave you without complaint when I can no longer tread your trail."

"But the food," objected Sam, still further.

"Consider, Little Father," said May-may-gwan; "of the food I have prepared much; of the work, I have done much. I have tended the traps, raised the nets, fashioned many things, attended Eagle-eye. If I had not been here, then you, Little Father, could not have made your journeys. So you have gained some time."

"That is true," conceded Sam.

"Listen, Little Father, take me with you. I will drive the dogs, make the camp, cook the food. Never will I complain. If the food gets scarce, I will not ask for my share. That I promise."

"Much of what you say is true," assented the woodsman, "but you forget you came to us of your free will and unwelcomed. It would be better that you go to Missinaibie."

"No," replied the girl.

"If you hope to become the squaw of Jibiwanisi," said Sam, bluntly, "you may as well give it up."

The girl said nothing, but compressed her lips to a straight line. After a moment she merely reiterated her original solution:

"At Conjuror's House I know the people."

"I will think of it," then concluded Sam.

Dick, however, could see no good in such an arrangement. He did not care to discuss the matter at length, but preserved rather the attitude of a man who has shaken himself free of all the responsibility of an affair, and is mildly amused at the tribulations of another still involved in it.

"You'll have a lot of trouble dragging a squaw all over the north," he advised Sam, critically. "Of course, we can't turn her adrift here. Wouldn't do that to a dog. But it strikes me it would even pay us to go out of our way to Missinaibie to get rid of her. We could do that."

"Well, I don't know--" doubted Sam. "Of course--"

"Oh, bring her along if you want to," laughed Dick, "only it's your funeral. You'll get into trouble, sure. And don't say I didn't tell you."

It might have been imagined by the respective attitudes of the two men that actually Sam had been responsible for the affair from the beginning. Finally, laboriously, he decided that the girl should go. She could be of assistance; there was small likelihood of the necessity for protracted hasty travel.

The weather was getting steadily colder. Greasy-looking clouds drove down from the north-west. Heavy winds swept by. The days turned gray. Under the shelter of trees the ground froze into hummocks, which did not thaw out. The crisp leaves which had made the forest so noisy disintegrated into sodden silence. A wildness was in the air, swooping down with the breeze, buffeting in the little whirlwinds and eddies, rocking back and forth in the tops of the storm-beaten trees. Cold little waves lapped against the thin fringe of shore ice that crept day by day from the banks. The water itself turned black. Strange birds swirling down wind like leaves uttered weird notes of migration. The wilderness hardened to steel.

The inmates of the little camp waited. Each morning Dick was early afoot searching the signs of the weather; examining the ice that crept stealthily from shore, waiting to pounce upon and imprison the stream; speculating on the chances of an early season. The frost pinched his bare fingers severely, but he did not mind that. His leg was by now almost as strong as ever, and he was impatient to be away, to leave behind him this rapid that had gained over him even a temporary victory. Always as the time approached, his spirits rose. It would have been difficult to identify this laughing boy with the sullen and terrible man who had sulked through the summer. He had made friends with all the dogs. Even the fierce "huskies" had become tame, and liked to be upset and tousled about and dragged on their backs growling fierce but mock protest. The bitch he had named Claire; the hound with the long ears he had called Mack, because of a fancied and mournful likeness to MacDonald, the Chief Trader; the other "husky" he had christened Wolf, for obvious reasons; and there remained, of course, the original Billy. Dick took charge of the feeding. At first he needed his short, heavy whip to preserve order, but shortly his really admirable gift with animals gained way, and he had them sitting peacefully in a row awaiting each his turn.

At last the skim ice made it impossible longer to use the canoe in fishing on the river. The craft was, therefore, suspended bottom up between two trees. A little snow fell and remained, but was speedily swept into hollows. The temperature lowered. It became necessary to assume thicker garments. Once having bridged the river the ice strengthened rapidly. And then late one afternoon, on the wings of the northwest wind, came the snow. All night it howled past the trembling wigwam. All the next day it swirled and drifted and took the shapes of fantastic monsters leaping in the riot of the storm. Then the stars, cold and brilliant, once more crackled in the heavens. The wilderness in a single twenty-four hours had changed utterly. Winter had come.