Chapter Two
 

Men, women, dogs, children sprang into sight from nowhere, and ran pell-mell to the two cannon. Galen Albret, reappearing from the factory, began to issue orders. Two men set about hoisting on the tall flag-staff the blood-red banner of the Company. Speculation, excited and earnest, arose among the men as to which of the branches of the Moose this brigade had hunted--the Abitibi, the Mattagami, or the Missinaibie. The half-breed women shaded their eyes. Mrs. Cockburn, the doctor's wife, and the only other white woman in the settlement, came and stood by Virginia Albret's side. Wishkobun, the Ojibway woman from the south country, and Virginia's devoted familiar, took her half-jealous stand on the other.

"It is the same every year. We always like to see them come," said Mrs. Cockburn, in her monotonous low voice of resignation.

"Yes," replied Virginia, moving a little impatiently, for she anticipated eagerly the picturesque coming of these men of the Silent Places, and wished to savor the pleasure undistracted.

"Mi-di-mo-yay ka'-win-ni-shi-shin," said Wishkobun, quietly.

"Ae," replied Virginia, with a little laugh, patting the woman's brown hand.

A shout arose. Around the bend shot a canoe. At once every paddle in it was raised to a perpendicular salute, then all together dashed into the water with the full strength of the voyageurs wielding them. The canoe fairly leaped through the cloud of spray. Another rounded the bend, another double row of paddles flashed in the sunlight, another crew, broke into a tumult of rapid exertion as they raced the last quarter mile of the long journey. A third burst into view, a fourth, a fifth. The silent river was alive with motion, glittering with color. The canoes swept onward, like race-horses straining against the rider. Now the spectators could make out plainly the boatmen. It could be seen that they had decked themselves out for the occasion. Their heads were bound with bright-colored fillets, their necks with gay scarves. The paddles were adorned with gaudy woollen streamers. New leggings, of holiday pattern, were intermittently visible on the bowsmen and steersmen as they half rose to give added force to their efforts.

At first the men sang their canoe songs, but as the swift rush of the birch-barks brought them almost to their journey's end, they burst into wild shrieks and whoops of delight.

All at once they were close to hand. The steersman rose to throw his entire weight on the paddle. The canoe swung abruptly for the shore. Those in it did not relax their exertions, but continued their vigorous strokes until within a few yards of apparent destruction.

"Hola! hola!" they cried, thrusting their paddles straight down into the water with a strong backward twist. The stout wood bent and cracked. The canoe stopped short and the voyageurs leaped ashore to be swallowed up in the crowd that swarmed down upon them.

The races were about equally divided, and each acted after its instincts--the Indian greeting his people quietly, and stalking away to the privacy of his wigwam; the more volatile white catching his wife or his sweetheart or his child to his arms. A swarm of Indian women and half-grown children set about unloading the canoes.

Virginia's eyes ran over the crews of the various craft. She recognized them all, of course, to the last Indian packer, for in so small a community the personality and doings of even the humblest members are well known to everyone. Long since she had identified the brigade. It was of the Missinaibie, the great river whose head-waters rise a scant hundred feet from those that flow as many miles south into Lake Superior. It drains a wild and rugged country whose forests cling to bowlder hills, whose streams issue from deep-riven gorges, where for many years the big gray wolves had gathered in unusual abundance. She knew by heart the winter posts, although she had never seen them. She could imagine the isolation of such a place, and the intense loneliness of the solitary man condemned to live through the dark Northern winters, seeing no one but the rare Indians who might come in to trade with him for their pelts. She could appreciate the wild joy of a return for a brief season to the company of fellow-men.

When her glance fell upon the last of the canoes, it rested with a flash of surprise. The craft was still floating idly, its bow barely caught against the bank. The crew had deserted, but amidships, among the packages of pelts and duffel, sat a stranger. The canoe was that of the post at Kettle Portage.

She saw the stranger to be a young man with a clean-cut face, a trim athletic figure dressed in the complete costume of the voyageurs, and thin brown and muscular hands. When the canoe touched the bank he had taken no part in the scramble to shore, and so had sat forgotten and unnoticed save by the girl, his figure erect with something of the Indian's stoical indifference. Then when, for a moment, he imagined himself free from observation, his expression abruptly changed. His hands clenched tense between his buckskin knees, his eyes glanced here and there restlessly, and an indefinable shadow of something which Virginia felt herself obtuse in labelling desperation, and yet to which she discovered it impossible to fit a name, descended on his features, darkening them. Twice he glanced away to the south. Twice he ran his eye over the vociferating crowd on the narrow beach.

Absorbed in the silent drama of a man's unguarded expression, Virginia leaned forward eagerly. In some vague manner it was borne in on her that once before she had experienced the same emotion, had come into contact with someone, something, that had affected her emotionally just as this man did now. But she could not place it. Over and over again she forced her mind to the very point of recollection, but always it slipped back again from the verge of attainment. Then a little movement, some thrust forward of the head, some nervous, rapid shifting of the hands or feet, some unconscious poise of the shoulders, brought the scene flashing before her--the white snow, the still forest, the little square pen-trap, the wolverine, desperate but cool, thrusting its blunt nose quickly here and there in baffled hope of an orifice of escape. Somehow the man reminded her of the animal, the fierce little woods marauder, trapped and hopeless, but scorning to cower as would the gentler creatures of the forest.

Abruptly his expression changed again. His figure stiffened, the muscles of his face turned iron. Virginia saw that someone on the beach had pointed toward him. His mask was on.

The first burst of greeting was over. Here and there one or another of the brigade members jerked their heads in the stranger's direction, explaining low-voiced to their companions. Soon all eyes turned curiously toward the canoe. A hum of low-voiced comment took the place of louder delight.

The stranger, finding himself generally observed, rose slowly to his feet, picked his way with a certain exaggerated deliberation of movement over the duffel lying in the bottom of the canoe, until he reached the bow, where he paused, one foot lifted to the gunwale just above the emblem of the painted star. Immediately a dead silence fell. Groups shifted, drew apart, and together again, like the slow agglomeration of sawdust on the surface of water, until at last they formed in a semicircle of staring, whose centre was the bow of the canoe and the stranger from Kettle Portage. The men scowled, the women regarded him with a half-fearful curiosity.

Virginia Albret shivered in the shock of this sudden electric polarity. The man seemed alone against a sullen, unexplained hostility. The desperation she had thought to read but a moment before had vanished utterly, leaving in its place a scornful indifference and perhaps more than a trace of recklessness. He was ripe for an outbreak. She did not in the least understand, but she knew it from the depths of her woman's instinct, and unconsciously her sympathies flowed out to this man, alone without a greeting where all others came to their own.

For perhaps a full sixty seconds the new-comer stood uncertain what he should do, or perhaps waiting for some word or act to tip the balance of his decision. One after another those on shore felt the insolence of his stare, and shifted uneasily. Then his deliberate scrutiny rose to the group by the cannon. Virginia caught her breath sharply. In spite of herself she could not turn away. The stranger's eye crossed her own. She saw the hard look fade into pleased surprise. Instantly his hat swept the gunwale of the canoe. He stepped magnificently ashore. The crisis was over. Not a word had been spoken.