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It was beyond the middle of summer. The day had been hot, but now the velvet night was descending. The canoe had turned into the channel at the head of the island on which was situated Conjuror's House. The end of the journey was at hand.
Dick paddled in the bow. His face had regained its freshness, but not entirely its former boyish roundness. The old air of bravado again sat his spirit--a man's nature persists to the end, and immortal and unquenchable youth is a gift of the gods--but in the depths of his strange, narrow eyes was a new steadiness, a new responsibility, the well-known, quiet, competent look invariably a characteristic of true woodsmen. At his feet lay the dog, one red-rimmed eye cocked up at the man who had gone down to the depths in his company.
The Indian Jingoss sat amidships, his hands bound strongly with buckskin thongs, a man of medium size, broad face, beady eyes with surface lights. He had cost much: he was to be given no chance to escape. Always his hands remained bound with the buckskin thongs, except at times when Dick or Sam stood over him with a rifle. At night his wrists were further attached to one of Sam's. Mack, too, understood the situation, and guarded as jealously as did his masters.
Sam wielded the steersman's paddle. His appearance was absolutely unaffected by this one episode in a long life.
They rounded the point into the main sweep of the east river, stole down along the bank in the gathering twilight, and softly beached their canoe below the white buildings of the Factory. With a muttered word of command to their captive, they disembarked and climbed the steepness of the low bluff to the grass-plot above. The dog followed at their heels.
Suddenly the impression of this year, until now so vividly a part of the present, was stricken into the past, the past of memory. Up to the very instant of topping the bluff it had been life; now it was experience.
For the Post was absolutely unchanged from that other summer evening of over a year ago when they had started out into the Silent Places. The familiarity of this fact, hitherto, for some strange reason, absolutely unexpected, reassured them their places in the normal world of living beings. The dead vision of the North had left in their spirits a residuum of its mysticism. Their experience of her power had induced in them a condition of mind when it would not have surprised them to discover the world shaken to its foundations, as their souls had been shaken. But here were familiar, peaceful things, unchanged, indifferent even to the passing of time. Involuntarily they drew a deep breath of relief, and, without knowing it, re-entered a sanity which had not been entirely theirs since the snows of the autumn before.
Over by the guns, indistinct in the falling twilight, the accustomed group of voyageurs and post-keepers were chatting, smoking, humming songs in the accustomed way. The low velvet band of forest against the sky; the dim squares of the log-houses punctuated with their dots of lamplight; the masses of the Storehouse, the stockade, the Factory; the long flag-staff like a mast against the stars; the constant impression of human life and activity,--these anodynes of accustomedness steadied these men's faith to the supremacy of human institutions.
On the Factory veranda could be dimly made out the figures of a dozen men. They sat silent. Occasionally a cigar glowed brighter for a moment, then dulled. Across a single square of subdued light the smoke eddied.
The three travellers approached, Sam Bolton in the lead, peering through the dusk in search of his chief. In a moment he made him out, sitting, as always, square to the world, his head sunk forward, his eyes gleaming from beneath the white tufts of his eyebrows. At once the woodsmen mounted the steps.
No one stirred or spoke. Only the smokers suspended their cigars in mid-air a few inches from their faces in the most perfect attitude of attention.
"Galen Albret," announced the old woodsman, "here is the Ojibway, Jingoss."
The Factor stirred slightly; his bulk, the significance of his features lost in obscurity.
"Me-en-gen!" he called, sharply.
The tall, straight figure of his Indian familiar glided from the dusk of the veranda's end.
"To-morrow at smoke time," commanded the Factor, using the Ojibway tongue, "let this man be whipped before the people, fifty lashes. Then let him be chained to the Tree for the space of one week, and let it be written above him in Ojibway and in Cree that thus Galen Albret punishes those who steal."
Without a word Me-en-gan took the defaulter by the arm and conducted him away.
Galen Albret had fallen into a profound silence, which no one ventured to break. Dick and Sam, uncertain as to whether or not they, too, were dismissed, shifted uneasily.
"How did you find him?" demanded the Factor, abruptly.
"We went with old Haukemah's band down as far as the Mattawishguia. There we left them and went up stream and over the divide. Dick here broke his leg and was laid up for near three months. I looked all that district over while he was getting well. Then we made winter travel down through the Kabinikagam country and looked her over. We got track of this Jingoss over near the hills, but he got wind of us and skipped when we was almost on top of him. We took his trail. He went straight north, trying to shake us off, and we got up into the barren country. We'd have lost him in the snow if it hadn't been for that dog there. He could trail him through new snow. We run out of grub up there, and finally I gave out. Dick here pushed on alone and found the Injun wandering around snow-blind. He run onto some caribou about that time, too, and killed some. Then he came back and got me:--I had a little pemmican and boiled my moccasins. We had lots of meat, so we rested up a couple of weeks, and then came back."
That was all. These men had done a great thing, and thus simply they told it. And they only told that much of it because it was their duty; they must report to their chief.
Galen Albret seemed for a moment to consider, as was his habit.
"You have done well," he pronounced at last. "My confidence in you was justified. The pay stands as agreed. In addition I place you in charge of the post at Lost River, and you, Herron, in charge of the Mattagami Brigade."
The men flushed, deeply pleased, more than rewarded, not by the money nor the advancement, but by the unqualified satisfaction of their commander.
They turned away. At this moment Virginia Albret, on some errand to her father, appeared outlined in slender youth against the doorway. On the instant she recognized them.
"Why, Sam and Dick," she said, "I am glad to see you. When did you get back?"
"Just back, Miss Virginia," replied Sam.
"That's good. I hope you've had a successful trip."
"Yes," answered Sam. The woodsman stood there a little awkwardly, wishing to be polite, not sure as to whether they should now go without further dismissal.
"See, Miss Virginia," hesitated Sam, to fill in the pause, "I have your handkerchief yet."
"I'm glad you kept it, Sam," replied the young girl; "and have you yours, Dick?"
And suddenly to Dick the contrast between this reality and that other came home with the vividness of a picture. He saw again the snow-swept plain, the wavering shapes of illusion, the mock suns dancing in unholy revel. The colour of the North burned before his eyes; a madness of the North unsealed his lips.
"I used it to cover a dead girl's face," he replied, bluntly.
The story had been as gray as a report of statistics,--so many places visited, so much time consumed. The men smoking cigars, lounging on cushioned seats in the tepid summer air, had listened to it unimpressed, as one listens to the reading of minutes of a gathering long past. This simple sentenced breathed into it life. The magnitude of the undertaking sprang up across the horizon of their comprehension. They saw between the mile-post markings of Sam Bolton's dry statements of fact, glimpses of vague, mysterious, and terrible deeds, indistinct, wonderful. The two before them loomed big in the symbolism of the wide world of men's endurance and determination and courage.
The darkness swallowed them before the group on the veranda had caught its breath. In a moment the voices about the cannon raised in greeting. A swift play of question and answer shot back and forth. "Out all the year?" "Where? Kabinikagam? Oh, yes, east of Brunswick Lake." "Good trip?" "That's right." "Glad of it." Then the clamour rose, many beseeching, one refusing. The year was done. These men had done a mighty deed, and yet a few careless answers were all they had to tell of it. The group, satisfied, were begging another song. And so, in a moment, just as a year before, Dick's rich, husky baritone raised in the words of the old melody. The circle was closed.
"There was an old darky, and his name was Uncle Ned, And he lived long ago, long ago--"
The night hushed to silence. Even the wolves were still, and the giddes down at the Indian camp ceased their endless quarrelling. Dick's voice had all the world to itself. The men on the Factory veranda smoked, the disks of their cigars dulling and glowing. Galen Albret, inscrutable, grim, brooded his unguessable thoughts. Virginia, in the doorway, rested her head pensively against one arm outstretched against the lintel.
"For there's no more work for poor old Ned, He's gone where the good darkies go."
The song finished. There succeeded the great compliment of quiet.
To Virginia it was given to speak the concluding word of this episode. She sighed, stretching out her arms.
"'The greatness of my people,'" she quoted softly.
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