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A map of Western Canada showing the physical features of the country lying between the mountains on the one side and the Bay and the Lakes on the other, presents the appearance of a vast rolling plain scarred and seamed and pitted like an ancient face. These scars and seams and pits are great lazy rivers, meandering streams, lakes, sleughs and marshes which form one vast system of waters that wind and curve through the rolls of the prairie and nestle in its sunlit hollows, laying, draining, blessing where they go and where they stay.
By these, the countless herds of buffalo and deer quenched their thirst in the days when they, with their rival claimants for the land, the Black Feet and the Crees, roamed undisturbed over these mighty plains. These waterways in later days when The Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company ruled the West, formed the great highways of barter. By these teeming lakes and sleughs and marshes hunted and trapped Indians and half-breeds. Down these streams and rivers floated the great fur brigades in canoe and Hudson's Bay pointer with priceless bales of pelts to the Bay in the north or the Lakes in the south, on their way to that centre of the world's trade, old London. And up these streams and rivers went the great loads of supplies and merchandise for the faraway posts that were at once the seats of government and the emporiums of trade in this wide land.
Following the canoe and Hudson's Bay boat, came the river barge and side-wheeler, and with these, competing for trade, the overland freighter with ox train and pack pony, with Red River cart and shagginappi.
Still later, up these same waterways and along these trails came settlers singly or in groups, the daring vanguard of an advancing civilization, and planted themselves as pleased their fancy in choice spots, in sunny nooks sheltered by bluffs, by gemlike lakes or flowing streams, but mostly on the banks of the great rivers, the highways for their trade, the shining links that held them to their kind. Some there were among those hardy souls who, severing all bonds behind them, sought only escape from their fellow men and from their past. These left the great riverways and freighting trails, and pressing up the streams to distant head waters, there pitched their camp and there, in lonely, lordly independence, took rich toll of prairie, lake and stream as they needed for their living.
Such a man was Jack French, and such a spot was Night Hawk Lake, whose shining waters found a tortuous escape four miles away by Night Hawk Creek into the South Saskatchewan, king of rivers.
The two brothers, Jack and Herbert French, of good old English stock, finding life in the trim downs of Devon too confined and wearisome for their adventurous spirits, fell to walking seaward over the high head lands, and to listening and gazing, the soft spray dashing wet upon their faces, till they found eyes and ears filled with the sights and sounds of far, wide plains across the sea that called and beckoned, till in the middle seventies, with their mother's kiss trembling on their brows and on their lips, and their father's almost stern benediction stiffening their backs, they fared forth to the far West, and found themselves on the black trail that wound up the Red River of the North and reached the straggling hamlet of Winnipeg.
There, in one of Winnipeg's homes, they found generous welcome and a maiden, guarded by a stern old timer for a father and four stalwart plain-riding brothers, but guarded all in vain, for laughing at all such guarding, the two brothers with the hot selfishness of young love, each unaware of the other's intent, sought to rifle that house of its chief treasure.
To Herbert, the younger, that ardent pirate of her heart, the maiden struck her flaming flag, and on the same night, with fearful dismay, she sought pardon of the elder brother that she could not yield him like surrender. With pale appealing face and kind blue eyes, she sought forgiveness for her poverty.
"Oh, Mr. French," she cried, "if I only could! But I cannot give you what is Herbert's now."
"Herbert!" gasped Jack with parched lips.
"And oh, Jack," she cried again with sweet selfishness, "you will love Herbert still, and me?"
And Jack, having had a moment in which to summon up the reserves of his courage and his command, smiled into her appealing eyes, kissed her pale face, and still smiling, took his way, unseeing and unheeding all but those appealing, tearful eyes and that pleading voice asking with sweet selfishness only his life.
Three months he roamed the plains alone, finding at length one sunny day, Night Hawk Lake, whose fair and lonely wildness seemed to suit his mood, and there he pitched his camp. Thence back to Winnipeg a month later to his brother's wedding, and that over, still smiling, to take his way again to Night Hawk Lake, where ever since he spent his life.
He passed his days at first in building house and stables from the poplar bluffs at hand, and later in growing with little toil from the rich black land and taking from prairie, lake and creek with rifle and with net, what was necessary for himself and his man, the Scotch half-breed Mackenzie, all the while forgetting till he could forget no longer, and then with Mackenzie drinking deep and long till remembering and forgetting were the same.
After five years he returned to Winnipeg to stand by her side whose image lived ever in his heart, while they closed down the coffin lid upon the face dearest to her, dearest but one to him of all faces in the world. Then when he had comforted her with what comfort he had to give, he set face again toward Night Hawk Lake, leaving her, because she so desired it, alone but for her aged mother, bereft of all, husband, brothers, father, who might guard her from the world's harm.
"I am safe, dear Jack," she said, "God will let nothing harm me."
And Jack, smiling bravely still, went on his way and for a whole year lived for the monthly letter that advancing civilization had come to make possible to him.
The last letter of the year brought him the word that she was alone. That night Jack French packed his buckboard with grub for his six-hundred-mile journey, and at the end of the third week, for the trail was heavy on the Portage Plains, he drove his limping broncho up the muddy Main Street of Winnipeg.
When the barber had finished with him, he set forth to find his brother's wife, who, seeing him, turned deadly pale and stood looking sadly at him, her hand pressed hard upon her heart.
"Oh, Jack!" she said at length, with a great pity in her voice,-- "poor Jack! why did you come?"
"To make you a home with me," said Jack, looking at her with eyes full of longing, "and wherever you choose, here or yonder at the Night Hawk Ranch, which is much better,"--at which her tears began to flow.
"Poor Jack! Dear Jack!" she cried, "why did you come?"
"You know why," he said. "Can you not learn to love me?"
"Love you, Jack? I could not love you more."
"Can you not come to me?"
"Dear Jack! Poor Jack!" she said again, and fell to sobbing bitterly till he forgot his own grief in hers. "I love my husband still."
"And I too," said Jack, looking pitifully at her.
"And I must keep my heart for him till I see him again." Her voice sank to a whisper, but she stood bravely looking into his eyes, her two hands holding down her fluttering heart as if in fear that it might escape.
"And is that the last word?" said Jack wearily.
"Yes, Jack, my brother, my dear, dear brother," she said, "it is the last. And oh, Jack, I have had much sorrow, but none more bitter than this!" And sobbing uncontrollably, she laid herself on his breast.
He held her to him, stroking her beautiful hair, his brown hand trembling and his strong face twisting strangely.
"Don't cry, dear Margaret. Don't cry like that. I won't make you weep. Never mind. You could not help it. And--I'll--get--over it--somehow. Only don't cry."
Then when she grew quiet again he kissed her and went out, smiling back at her as he went, and for fifteen years never saw her face again.
But month by month there came a letter telling him of her and her work, and this helped him to forget his pain. But more and more often as the years went on, Jack French and his man Mackenzie sat long nights in the bare ranch house with a bottle between them, till Mackenzie fell under the table and Jack with his hard head and his lonely heart was left by himself, staring at the fire if in winter, or out of the window at the lake if in summer, till the light on the water grew red, to his great hurt in body and in soul.
One spring day in the sixteenth year, in the middle of the month of May, when Jack had driven to the Crossing for supplies, an unexpected letter met him, which gave him much concern and changed forever the even current of his life. And this was the letter:
'MY DEAR JACK,--You have not yet answered my last, you bad boy, but you know I do not wait for answers, or you would seldom hear from me.' "And that's true enough," murmured Jack. 'But this is a special letter, and is to ask you to do a great thing for me, a very great thing. Indeed, you may not be able to do it at all.' "Indeed!" said Jack. 'And if you cannot do it, I trust you to tell me so.' "Trust me! well rather," said Jack again.
'You know something of my work among the Galicians, but you do not know just how sad it often is. They are poor ignorant creatures, but really they have kind hearts and have many nice things.' "By Jove! She'd find good points in the very devil himself!" 'And I know you would pity them if you knew them, especially the women and the children. The women have to work so hard, and the children are growing up wild, learning little of the good and much of the bad that Winnipeg streets can teach them.' "Heaven help them of their school!" cried Jack.
'Well, I must tell you what I want. You remember seeing in the papers that I sent you some years ago, the account of that terrible murder by a Russian Nihilist named Kalmar, and you remember perhaps how he nearly killed a horrid man who had treated him badly, very badly, named Rosenblatt. Well, perhaps you remember that Kalmar escaped from the penitentiary, and has not been heard of since. His wife and children have somehow come under the power of this Rosenblatt again. He has got a mortgage on her house and forces the woman to do his will. The woman is a poor stupid creature, and she has just slaved away for this man. The boy is different. He is a fine handsome little fellow, thirteen or fourteen years old, who makes his living selling newspapers and, I am afraid, is learning a great many things that he would be better without.' "Which is true of more than him," growled Jack. 'Of course, he does not like Rosenblatt. A little while ago there was a dance and, as always at the dances, that awful beer! The men got drunk and a good deal of fighting took place. Rosenblatt and a friend of his got abusing the girl. The boy flew at him and wounded him with a knife.' "And served him jolly well right," said Jack with an oath. 'And then Rosenblatt nearly killed him and threw him out in the snow. There he would have certainly died, had not Dr. Wright happened along and carried him to the hospital, where he has been ever since. The doctor had Rosenblatt up before the Court, but he brought a dozen men to swear that the boy was a bad and dangerous boy and that he was only defending himself. Fancy a great big man against a boy thirteen! Well, would you believe it, Rosenblatt escaped and laid a charge against the boy, and would actually have had him sent to jail, but I went to the magistrate and offered to take him and find a home for him outside of the city.' "Good brave little lady! I'know you well," cried Jack.
'I thought of you, Jack.' "Bless your kind little heart," said Jack. 'And I knew that if you could get him you would make a man of him.' "Aha! You did!" exclaimed Jack. 'Here he is getting worse and worse every day. He is so quick and so clever, he has never been to school, but he reads and speaks English well. He is very popular with his own people, for he is a wonderful singer, and they like him at their feasts. And I have heard that he is as fond of beer as any of them. He was terribly battered, but he is all right again, and has been living with his sister and his step- mother in the house of a friend of his father's. But I have promised to get him out of the city, and if I do not, I know Rosenblatt will be after him. Besides this, I am afraid something will happen if he remains. The boy says quite quietly, but you can't help feeling that he means it, that he will kill Rosenblatt some day. It is terribly sad, for he is such a nice boy.' "Seems considerable of an angel," agreed Jack. 'I am afraid you will have to teach him a good many things, Jack, for he has some bad habits. But if he is with you and away from the bad people he meets with here, I am sure he will soon forget the bad things he has learned.' "Dear lady, God grant you may never know," said Jack ruefully.
'This is a long letter, dear Jack. How I should like to go up to Night Hawk Ranch and see you, for I know you will not come to Winnipeg, and we do not see enough of each other. We ought to, for my sake and for Herbert's too.' "Ah God! and what of me?" groaned Jack. 'I cannot begin to thank you for all your kindness. And, Jack, you must stop sending me money, for I do not need it and I will not use it, and I just keep putting what you send me in the bank for you. The Lord has given me many friends, and He never has allowed me to want.
'I shall wait two weeks, and then send you Kalman--that is his name, Kalman Kalmar, a nice name, isn't it? And he is a dear good boy; that is, be might be.' "Good heart, so might we all," cried Jack. 'But I love him just as he is.' "Happy boy." 'Wouldn't it be fine if you could make him a good man? How much he might do for his peoples! And if he stays here he will get to be terrible, for his father was terrible, although, poor man, it was hardly his fault.' "I surely believe in God's mercy," said poor Jack.
'This is a long rambling letter, dear Jack, but you will forgive me. I sometimes get pretty tired.' And Jack's brown lean hand closed swiftly. 'There is so much to do. But I am pretty well and I have many kind friends. So much to do, so many sick and poor and lonely. They need a friend. The Winnipeg people are very kind, but they are very busy.
'Now, my dear Jack, will you do for Kalman all you can? And--may I say it?--remember, he is just a boy. I do not want to preach to you, but he needs to be under the care of a good man, and that is why I send him to you.
'Your loving sister,
There was a grim look on Jack French's face as he finished reading the letter the second time.
"You're a good one," he said, "and you have a wise little head as well as a tender heart. Don't want to preach to me, eh? But you get your work in all the same. Two weeks! Let's see, this letter has been four weeks on the way--up to Edmonton and back! By Jove! That boy ought to be along with Macmillan's outfit. I say, Jimmy," this to Jimmy Green, who, besides representing Her Majesty in the office of Postmaster, was general store keeper and trader to the community, "when will Macmillan be in?"
"Couple of days, Jack."
"Well, I guess I'll have to wait."
And this turned out an unhappy necessity for Jack French, for when the Macmillan outfit drove up to the Crossing he was lying incapable and dead to all around, in Jimmy Green's back store.
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