An hour ago, under the marvelous canopy of the blue northern sky, David Carrigan, Sergeant in His Most Excellent Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police, had hummed softly to himself, and had thanked God that he was alive. He had blessed McVane, superintendent of "N" Division at Athabasca Landing, for detailing him to the mission on which he was bent. He was glad that he was traveling alone, and in the deep forest, and that for many weeks his adventure would carry him deeper and deeper into his beloved north. Making his noonday tea over a fire at the edge of the river, with the green forest crowding like an inundation on three sides of him, he had come to the conclusion—for the hundredth time, perhaps—that it was a nice thing to be alone in the world, for he was on what his comrades at the Landing called a "bad assignment."
"If anything happens to me," Carrigan had said to McVane, "there isn't anybody in particular to notify. I lost out in the matter of family a long time ago."
He was not a man who talked much about himself, even to the superintendent of "N" Division, yet there were a thousand who loved Dave Carrigan, and many who placed their confidences in him. Superintendent Me Vane had one story which he might have told, but he kept it to himself, instinctively sensing the sacredness of it. Even Carrigan did not know that the one thing which never passed his lips was known to McVane.
Of that, too, he had been thinking an hour ago. It was the thing which, first of all, had driven him into the north. And though it had twisted and disrupted the earth under his feet for a time, it had brought its compensation. For he had come to love the north with a passionate devotion. It was, in a way, his God. It seemed to him that the time had never been when he had lived any other life than this under the open skies. He was thirty-seven now. A bit of a philosopher, as philosophy comes to one in a sun-cleaned and unpolluted air, A good-humored brother of humanity, even when he put manacles on other men's wrists; graying a little over the temples—and a lover of life. Above all else he was that. A lover of life. A worshiper at the shrine of God's Country.
So he sat, that hour ago, deep in the wilderness eighty miles north of Athabasca Landing, congratulating himself on the present conditions of his existence. A hundred and eighty miles farther on was Fort McMurray, and another two hundred beyond that was Chipewyan, and still beyond that the Mackenzie and its fifteen-hundred-mile trail to the northern sea. He was glad there was no end to this world of his. He was glad there were few people in it. But these people he loved. That hour ago he had looked out on the river as two York boats had forged up against the stream, craft like the long, slim galleys of old, brought over through the Churchill and Clearwater countries from Hudson's Bay. There were eight rowers in each boat. They were singing. Their voices rolled between the walls of the forests. Their naked arms and shoulders glistened in the sun. They rowed like Vikings, and to him they were symbols of the freedom of the world. He had watched them until they were gone up-stream, but it was a long time before the chanting of their voices had died away. And then he had risen from beside his tiny fire, and had stretched himself until his muscles cracked. It was good to feel the blood running red and strong in one's veins at the age of thirty-seven. For Carrigan felt the thrill of these days when strong men were coming out of the north—days when the glory of June hung over the land, when out of the deep wilderness threaded by the Three Rivers came romance and courage and red-blooded men and women of an almost forgotten people to laugh and sing and barter for a time with the outpost guardians of a younger and more progressive world. It was north of Fifty-Four, and the waters of a continent flowed toward the Arctic Sea. Yet soon would the strawberries be crushing red underfoot; the forest road was in bloom, scarlet fire-flowers reddened the trail, wild hyacinths and golden-freckled violets played hide-and-seek with the forget-me-nots in the meadows, and the sky was a great splash of velvety blue. It was the north triumphant—at the edge of civilization; the north triumphant, and yet paying its tribute. For at the other end were waiting the royal Upper Ten Thousand and the smart Four Hundred with all the beau monde behind them, coveting and demanding that tribute to their sex—the silken furs of a far country, the life's blood and labor of a land infinitely beyond the pale of drawing-rooms and the whims of fashion.
Carrigan had thought of these things that hour ago, as he sat at the edge of the first of the Three Rivers, the great Athabasca. From down the other two, the Slave and the Mackenzie, the fur fleets of the unmapped country had been toiling since the first breakups of ice. Steadily, week after week, the north had been emptying itself of its picturesque tide of life and voice, of muscle and brawn, of laughter and song—and wealth. Through, long months of deep winter, in ten thousand shacks and tepees and cabins, the story of this June had been written as fate had written it each winter for a hundred years or more. A story of the triumph of the fittest. A story of tears, of happiness here and there, of hunger and plenty, of new life and quick death; a story of strong men and strong women, living in the faith of their forefathers, with the best blood of old England and France still surviving in their veins.
Through those same months of winter, the great captains of trade in the city of Edmonton had been preparing for the coming of the river brigades. The hundred and fifty miles of trail between that last city outpost of civilization and Athabasca Landing, the door that opened into the North, were packed hard by team and dog-sledge and packer bringing up the freight that for another year was to last the forest people of the Three River country—a domain reaching from the Landing to the Arctic Ocean. In competition fought the drivers of Revillon Brothers and Hudson's Bay, of free trader and independent adventurer. Freight that grew more precious with each mile it advanced must reach the beginning of the waterway. It started with the early snows. The tide was at full by midwinter. In temperature that nipped men's lungs it did not cease. There was no let-up in the whip-hands of the masters of trade at Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, and London across the sea. It was not a work of philanthropy. These men cared not whether Jean and Jacqueline and Pierre and Marie were well-fed or hungry, whether they lived or died, so far as humanity was concerned. But Paris, Vienna, London, and the great capitals of the earth must have their furs—and unless that freight went north, there would be no velvety offerings for the white shoulders of the world. Christmas windows two years hence would be bare. A feminine wail of grief would rise to the skies. For woman must have her furs, and in return for those furs Jean and Jacqueline and Pierre and Marie must have their freight. So the pendulum swung, as it had swung for a century or two, touching, on the one side, luxury, warmth, wealth, and beauty; on the other, cold and hardship, deep snows and open skies—with that precious freight the thing between.
And now, in this year before rail and steamboat, the glory of early summer was at hand, and the wilderness people were coming up to meet the freight. The Three Rivers—the Athabasca, the Slave, and the Mackenzie, all joining in one great two-thousand-mile waterway to the northern sea—were athrill with the wild impulse and beat of life as the forest people lived it. The Great Father had sent in his treaty money, and Cree song and Chipewyan chant joined the age-old melodies of French and half-breed. Countless canoes drove past the slower and mightier scow brigades; huge York boats with two rows of oars heaved up and down like the ancient galleys of Rome; tightly woven cribs of timber, and giant rafts made tip of many cribs were ready for their long drift into a timberless country. On this two-thousand-mile waterway a world had gathered. It was the Nile of the northland, and each post and gathering place along its length was turned into a metropolis, half savage, archaic, splendid with the strength of red blood, clear eyes, and souls that read the word of God in wind and tree.
And up and down this mighty waterway of wilderness trade ran the whispering spirit of song, like the voice of a mighty god heard under the stars and in the winds.
But it was an hour ago that David Carrigan had vividly pictured these things to himself close to the big river, and many things may happen in the sixty minutes that follow any given minute in a man's life. That hour ago his one great purpose had been to bring in Black Roger Audemard, alive or dead—Black Roger, the forest fiend who had destroyed half a dozen lives in a blind passion of vengeance nearly fifteen years ago. For ten of those fifteen years it had been thought that Black Roger was dead. But mysterious rumors had lately come out of the North. He was alive. People had seen him. Fact followed rumor. His existence became certainty. The Law took up once more his hazardous trail, and David Carrigan was the messenger it sent.
"Bring him back, alive or dead," were Superintendent McVane's last words.
And now, thinking of that parting injunction, Carrigan grinned, even as the sweat of death dampened his face in the heat of the afternoon sun. For at the end of those sixty minutes that had passed since his midday pot of tea, the grimly, atrociously unexpected had happened, like a thunderbolt out of the azure of the sky.