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Of the three the Indian was the first to recover.
"Bo' jou', bo' jou'," said he, calmly.
Sam collected himself to a reply. Dick said nothing, but fell behind, with his rifle across his arm. All marched on in silence to where lay the dog-sledge, guarded by May-may-gwan. The Chippewa's keen eyes took in every detail of the scene, the overturning of the sledge, the muzzling of the dogs, the general nature of the equipment. If he made any deductions, he gave no sign, nor did he evince any further astonishment at finding these men so far north at such a time of year. Only, when he thought himself unobserved, he cast a glance of peculiar intelligence at the girl, who, after a moment's hesitation, returned it.
The occasion was one of elaborate courtesy. Sam ordered tea boiled, and offered his tobacco. Over the fire he ventured a more direct inquiry than his customary policy would have advised.
"My brother is a long journey from the Missinaibie."
The Chippewa assented.
"Haukemah, then, hunts these districts."
The Chippewa replied no.
"My brother has left Haukemah."
Again the Chippewa denied, but after enjoying for a moment the baffling of the old man's intentions, he volunteered information.
"The trapper of this district is my brother. I have visited him."
"It was a short visit for so long a journey. The trail is but three days old."
Ah-tek assented gravely. Evidently he cared very little whether or not his explanation was accepted.
"How many days to Winnipeg?" asked Sam.
"I have never been there," replied the Indian.
"We have summered in the region of the Missinaibie," proffered Sam. "Now we go to Winnipeg."
The Indian's inscrutable countenance gave no indication as to whether or not he believed this. After a moment he knocked the ashes from his pipe and arose, casting another sharp glance at May-may-gwan. She had been busy at the sledge. Now she approached, carrying simply her own blankets and clothing.
"This man," said she to the two, "is of my people. He returns to them. I go with him."
The Chippewa twisted his feet into his snow-shoes, nodded to the white men, and swung away on the back trail in the direction whence our travellers had come. The girl, without more leave-taking, followed close at his back. For an instant the crunch of shoes splintered the frosty air. Then they rounded a bend. Silence fell swift as a hawk.
"Well, I'll be damned!" ejaculated Dick at last. "Do you think he was really up here visiting?"
"No, of course not," replied Sam. "Don't you see--"
"Then he came after the girl?"
"Good God, no!" answered Sam. "He--"
"Then he was after me," interrupted Dick again with growing excitement. "Why didn't you let me shoot him, Sam--"
"Will you shut up and listen to me?" demanded the old man, impatiently. "If he'd wanted you, he'd have got you when you were hurt last summer; and if he'd wanted the girl, he'd have got her then, too. It's all clear to me. He has been visiting a friend,--perhaps his brother, as he said,--and he did spend less than three days in the visit. What did he come for? Let me tell you! That friend, or brother, is Jingoss, and he came up here to warn him that we're after him. The Chippewa suspected us a little on the Missinaibie, but he wasn't sure. Probably he's had his eye on us ever since."
"But why didn't he warn this Jingoss long ago, then?" objected Dick.
"Because we fooled him, just as we fooled all the Injuns. We might be looking for winter posts, just as we said. And then if he came up here and told Jingoss we were after him, when really we didn't know beans about Jingoss and his steals, and then this Jingoss should skip the country and leave an almighty good fur district all for nothing, that would be a nice healthy favour to do for a man, wouldn't it! No, he had to be sure before he made any moves. And he didn't get to be sure until he heard somehow from some one who saw our trails that three people were travelling in the winter up through this country. Then he piked out to warn Jingoss."
"I believe you're right!" cried Dick.
"Of course I'm right. And another thing; if that's the case we're pretty close there. How many more trappers are there in this district? Just one! And since this Chippewa is going back on his back trail within three days after he made it, he couldn't have gone farther than that one man. And that one man must be--"
"Jingoss himself!" finished Dick.
"Within a day and a half of us, anyway; probably much closer," supplemented Sam. "It's as plain as a sledge-trail."
"He's been warned," Dick reminded him.
But Sam, afire with the inspiration of inductive reasoning, could see no objection there.
"This Chippewa knew we were in the country," he argued, "but he hadn't any idea we were so close. If he had, he wouldn't have been so foolish as to follow his own back track when he was going out. I don't know what his ideas were, of course, but he was almighty surprised to see us here. He's warned this Jingoss, not more than a day or so ago. But he didn't tell him to skedaddle at once. He said, 'Those fellows are after you, and they're moseying around down south of here, and probably they'll get up here in the course of the winter. You'd probably better slide out 'till they get done.' Then he stayed a day and smoked a lot, and started back. Now, if Jingoss just thinks we're coming some time, and not to-morrow, he ain't going to pull up stakes in such a hell of a hurry. He'll pack what furs he's got, and he'll pick up what traps he's got out. That would take him several days, anyway. My son, we're in the nick of time!"
"Sam, you're a wonder," said Dick, admiringly. "I never could have thought all that out."
"If that idea's correct," went on Sam, "and the Chippewa's just come from Jingoss, why we've got the Chippewa's trail to follow back, haven't we?"
"Sure!" agreed Dick, "all packed and broken."
They righted the sledge and unbound the dogs' jaws.
"Well, we got rid of the girl," said Dick, casually. "Damn little fool. I didn't think she'd leave us that easy. She'd been with us quite a while."
"Neither did I," admitted Sam; "but it's natural, Dick. We ain't her people, and we haven't treated her very well, and I don't wonder she was sick of it and took the first chance back. We've got our work cut out for us now, and we're just as well off without her."
"The Chippewa's a sort of public benefactor all round," said Dick.
The dogs yawned prodigiously, stretching their jaws after the severe muzzling. Sam began reflectively to undo the flaps of the sledge.
"Guess we'd better camp here," said he. "It's getting pretty late and we're due for one hell of a tramp to-morrow."
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