Chapter Four
 

In the open air the men separated in quest of their various families or friends. The stranger lingered undecided for a moment on the top step of the veranda, and then wandered down the little street, if street it could be called where horses there were none. On the left ranged the square whitewashed houses with their dooryards, the old church, the workshop. To the right was a broad grass-plot, and then the Moose, slipping by to the distant offing. Over a little bridge the stranger idled, looking curiously about him. The great trading-house attracted his attention, with its narrow picket lane leading to the door; the storehouse surrounded by a protective log fence; the fort itself, a medley of heavy-timbered stockades and square block-houses. After a moment he resumed his strolling. Everywhere he went the people looked at him, ceasing their varied occupations. No one spoke to him, no one hindered him. To all intents and purposes he was as free as the air. But all about the island flowed the barrier of the Moose, and beyond frowned the wilderness--strong as iron bars to an unarmed man.

Brooding on his imprisonment the Free Trader forgot his surroundings. The post, the river, the forest, the distant bay faded from his sight, and he fell into deep reflection. There remained nothing of physical consciousness but a sense of the grateful spring warmth from the declining sun. At length he became vaguely aware of something else. He glanced up. Right by him he saw a handsome French half-breed sprawled out in the sun against a building, looking him straight in the face and flashing up at him a friendly smile.

"Hullo," said Achille Picard, "you mus' been 'sleep. I call you two t'ree tam."

The prisoner seemed to find something grateful in the greeting even from the enemy's camp. Perhaps it merely happened upon the psychological moment for a response.

"Hullo," he returned, and seated himself by the man's side, lazily stretching himself in enjoyment of the reflected heat.

"You is come off Kettle Portage, eh," said Achille, "I t'ink so. You is come trade dose fur? Eet is bad beez-ness, dis Conjur' House. Ole' man he no lak' dat you trade dose fur. He's very hard, dat ole man."

"Yes," replied the stranger, "he has got to be, I suppose. This is the country of la Longue Traverse."

"I beleef you," responded Achille, cheerfully; "w'at you call heem your nam'?"

"Ned Trent."

"Me Achille--Achille Picard. I capitaine of dose dogs on dat winter brigade."

"It is a hard post. The winter travel is pretty tough."

"I beleef you."

"Better to take la Longue Traverse in summer, eh?"

"La Longue Traverse--hees not mattaire w'en yo tak' heem."

"Right you are. Have there been men sent out since you came here?"

"Ba oui. Wan, two, t'ree. I don' remember. I t'ink Jo Bagneau. Nobodee he don' know, but dat ole man an' hees coureurs du bois. He ees wan ver' great man. Nobodee is know w'at he will do."

"I'm due to hit that trail myself, I suppose," said Ned Trent.

"I have t'ink so," acknowledged Achille, still with a tone of most engaging cheerfulness.

"Shall I be sent out at once, do you think?"

"I don' know. Sometam' dat ole man ver' queek. Sometam' he ver' slow. One day Injun mak' heem ver' mad; he let heem go, and shot dat Injun right off. Noder tam he get mad on one voyageur, but he don' keel heem queek; he bring heem here, mak' heem stay in dose warm room, feed heem dose plaintee grub. Purty soon dose voyageur is get fat, is go sof; he no good for dose trail. Ole man he mak' heem go ver' far off, mos' to Whale Reever. Eet is plaintee cole. Dat voyageur, he freeze to hees inside. Dey tell me he feex heem like dat."

"Achille, you haven't anything against me--do you want me to die?"

The half-breed flashed his white teeth.

"Ba non," he replied, carelessly. "For w'at I want dat you die? I t'ink you bus' up bad; vous avez la mauvaise fortune."

"Listen. I have nothing with me; but out at the front I am very rich. I will give you a hundred dollars, if you will help me to get away."

"I can' do eet," smiled Picard.

"Why not?"

"Ole man he fin' dat out. He is wan devil, dat ole man. I lak firs'-rate help you; I lak' dat hundred dollar. On Ojibway countree dey make hees nam' Wagosh--dat mean fox. He know everyt'ing."

"I'll make it two hundred--three hundred--five hundred."

"W'at you wan' me do?" hesitated Achille Picard at the last figure.

"Get me a rifle and some cartridges."

The half-breed rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and inhaled a deep breath.

"I can' do eet," he declared. "I can' do eet for t'ousand dollar--ten t'ousand. I don't t'ink you fin' anywan on dis settlement w'at can dare do eet. He is wan devil. He's count all de carabine on dis pos', an' w'en he is mees wan, he fin' out purty queek who is tak' heem."

"Steal one from someone else," suggested Trent.

"He fin' out jess sam'," objected the half-breed, obstinately. "You don' know heem. He mak' you geev yourself away, when he lak' do dat." The smile had left the man's face. This was evidently too serious a matter to be taken lightly.

"Well, come with me, then," urged Ned Trent, with some impatience. "A thousand dollars I'll give you. With that you can be rich somewhere else."

But the man was becoming more and more uneasy, glancing furtively from left to right and back again, in an evident panic lest the conversation be overheard, although the nearest dwelling-house was a score of yards distant.

"Hush," he whispered. "You mustn't talk lak' dat. Dose ole man fin' you out. You can' hide away from heem. Ole tam long ago, Pierre Cadotte is stole feefteen skin of de otter--de sea-otter--and he is sol' dem on Winnipeg. He is get 'bout t'ousand beaver--five hunder' dollar. Den he is mak' dose longue voyage wes'--ver' far wes'--on dit Peace Reever. He is mak' heem dose cabane, w'ere he is leev long tam wid wan man of Mackenzie. He is call it hees nam' Dick Henderson. I is meet Dick Henderson on Winnipeg las' year, w'en I mak' paddle on dem Factor Brigade, an' dose High Commissionaire. He is tol' me wan night pret' late he wake up all de queeck he can w'en he is hear wan noise in dose cabane, an' he is see wan Injun, lak' phantome 'gainst de moon to de door. Dick Henderson he is 'sleep, he don' know w'at he mus' do. Does Injun is step ver' sof' an' go on bunk of Pierre Cadotte. Pierre Cadotte is mak' de beeg cry. Dick Henderson say he no see dose Injun no more, an' he fin' de door shut. Ba Pierre Cadotte, she's go dead. He is mak' wan beeg hole in hees ches'."

"Some enemy, some robber frightened away because the Henderson man woke up, probably," suggested Ned Trent.

The half-breed laid his hand impressively on the other's arm and leaned forward until his bright black eyes were within a foot of the other's face.

"W'en dose Injun is stan' heem in de moonlight, Dick Henderson is see hees face. Dick Henderson is know all dose Injun. He is tole me dat Injun is not Peace Reever Injun. Dick Henderson is say dose Injun is Ojibway Injun--Ojibway Injun two t'ousand mile wes'--on Peace Reever! Dat's curi's!"

"I was tell you nodder story--" went on Achille, after a moment.

"Never mind," interrupted the Trader. "I believe you."

"Maybee," said Achille cheerfully, "you stan' some show--not moche--eef he sen' you out pret' queeck. Does small perdrix is yonge, an' dose duck. Maybee you is catch dem, maybee you is keel dem wit' bow an' arrow. Dat's not beeg chance. You mus' geev dose coureurs de bois de sleep w'en you arrive. Voila, I geev you my knife!"

He glanced rapidly to right and left, then slipped a small object into the stranger's hand.

"Ba, I t'ink does ole man is know dat. I t'ink he kip you here till tam w'en dose perdrix and duck is all grow up beeg' nuff so he can fly."

"I'm not watched," said the young man in eager tones; "I'll slip away to-night."

"Dat no good," objected Picard. "W'at you do? S'pose you do dat, dose coureurs keel you toute suite. Dey is have good excuse, an' you is have nothing to mak' de fight. You sleep away, and dose ole man is sen' out plaintee Injun. Dey is fine you sure. Ba, eef he sen' you out, den he sen' onlee two Injun. Maybee you fight dem; I don' know. Non, mon ami, eef you is wan' get away w'en dose ole man he don' know eet, you mus' have dose carabine. Den you is have wan leetle chance. Ba, eef you is not have heem dose carabine, you mus' need dose leetle grub he geev you, and not plaintee Injun follow you, onlee two."

"And I cannot get the rifle."

"An' dose ole man is don' sen' you out till eet is too late for mak' de grub on de fores'. Dat's w'at I t'ink. Dat ees not fonny for you."

Ned Trent's eyes were almost black with thought. Suddenly he threw his head up.

"I'll make him send me out now," he asserted confidently.

"How you mak' eet him?"

"I'll talk turkey to him till he's so mad he can't see straight. Then maybe he'll send me out right away."

"How you mak' eet him so mad?" inquired Picard, with mild curiosity.

"Never you mind--I'll do it."

"Ba oui," ruminated Picard, "He is get mad pret' queeck. I t'ink p'raps dat plan he go all right. You was get heem mad plaintee easy. Den maybee he is sen' you out toute suite--maybee he is shoot you."

"I'll take the chances--my friend."

"Ba oui," shrugged Achille Picard, "eet is wan chance."

He commenced to roll another cigarette.