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The Woman from Outside [on Swan River] written by Hulbert Footner who was a Canadian writer of non-fiction and detective fiction. This book was published in 1921. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Woman from Outside
[on Swan River]
CHAPTER I. THE WHITE MEDICINE MAN
CHAPTER II. HOOLIAM
CHAPTER III. THE UNEXPECTED VISITOR
CHAPTER IV. MORE ABOUT CLARE
CHAPTER V. THE FIRST STAGE
CHAPTER VI. THE KAKISAS
CHAPTER VII. ON THE RIVER
CHAPTER VIII. THE LOG SHACK
CHAPTER IX. THE FOOT
CHAPTER X. THE START HOME
CHAPTER XI. THE MYSTERY
CHAPTER XII. IMBRIE
CHAPTER XIII. THE RESCUE
CHAPTER XIV. PURSUIT
CHAPTER XV. UPS AND DOWNS
CHAPTER XVI. THE LAST STAGE ON SWAN RIVER.
CHAPTER XVII. THE HEARING
CHAPTER XVIII. A LETTER FROM MAJOR EGERTON TO HIS FRIEND ARTHUR DONCOURT, ESQ.
On a January afternoon, as darkness was beginning to gather, the “gang” sat around the stove in the Company store at Fort Enterprise discussing that inexhaustible question, the probable arrival of the mail. The big lofty store, with its glass front, its electric lights, its stock of expensive goods set forth on varnished shelves, suggested a city emporium rather than the Company’s most north-westerly post, nearly a thousand miles from civilization; but human energy accomplishes seeming miracles in the North as elsewhere, and John Gaviller the trader was above all an energetic man. Throughout the entire North they point with pride to Gaviller’s flour mill, his big steamboat, his great yellow clap-boarded house—two storeys and attic, and a fence of palings around it! Why, at Fort Enterprise they even have a sidewalk, the only one north of fifty-five!
“I don’t see why Hairy Ben can’t come down,” said Doc Giddings—Doc was the grouch of the post—“the ice on the river has been fit for travelling for a month now.”
“Ben can’t start from the Crossing until the mail comes through from the Landing,” said Gaviller. “It can’t start from the Landing until the ice is secure on the Big River, the Little River, and across Caribou Lake.” Gaviller was a handsome man of middle life, who took exceeding good care of himself, and ruled his principality with an amiable relentlessness. They called him the “Czar,” and it did not displease him.
“Everybody knows Caribou Lake freezes over first,” grumbled the doctor.
“But the rivers down there are swift, and it’s six hundred miles south of here. Give them time.”
“The trouble is, they wait until the horse-road is made over the ice before starting the mail in. If the Government had the enterprise of a ground-hog they’d send in dogs ahead.”
“Nobody uses dogs down there any more.”
“Well, I say ’tain’t right to ask human beings to wait three months for their mail. Who knows what may have happened since the freeze-up last October?”
“What’s happened has happened,” said Father Goussard mildly, “and knowing about it can’t change it.”
The doctor ignored the proffered consolation. “What we need is a new mail-man,” he went on bitterly. “I know Hairy Ben! I’ll bet he’s had the mail at the Crossing for a week, and puts off starting every day for fear of snow.”
“Well, ’tain’t a job as I’d envy any man,” put in Captain Stinson of the steamboat Spirit River, now hauled out on the shore. “Breaking a road for three hundred and fifty mile, and not a stopping-house the whole way till he gets to the Beaver Indians at Carcajou Point.”
The doctor addressed himself to the policeman, who was mending a snowshoe in the background. “Stonor, you’ve got the best dogs in the post; why don’t you go up after him?”
The young sergeant raised his head with a grin. He was a good-looking, long-limbed youth with a notable blue eye, and a glance of mirthful sobriety. “No, thanks,” he drawled. The others gathered from his tone that a joke was coming, and pricked up their ears accordingly. “No, thanks. You forget that Sarge Lambert up at the Crossing is my senior. When I drove up he’d say: ‘What the hell are you doing up here?’ And when I told him he’d come back with his well-known embellishments of language: ‘Has the R.N.W.M.P. nothing better to do than tote Doc Giddings’ love-letters?’”
A great laugh greeted this sally: they are so grateful for the smallest of jokes on winter afternoons up North.
Doc Giddings subsided, but the discussion went on without him.
“Well, he’ll have easy going in from Carcajou; the Indians coming in and out have beaten a good trail.”
“Oh, when he gets to Carcajou he’s here.”
“If it don’t snow. That bit over the prairie drifts badly.”
“The barometer’s falling.”
And so on. And so on. They made the small change of conversation go far.
In the midst of it they were electrified by a shout from the land trail and the sound of bells.
“Here he is!” they cried, jumping up to a man, and making for the door.
Ben Causton, conscious of his importance, made a dramatic entrance with the mail-bags over his shoulder, and cast them magnificently on the counter. Even up north, where every man cultivates his own peculiarities unhindered, Ben was considered a “character.” He was a short, thick man of enormous physical strength, and he sported a beard like a quickset hedge, hence his nickname. He was clad in an entire suit of fur like an Eskimo, with a gaudy red worsted sash about his ample middle.
“Hello, Ben! Gee! But you’re slow!”
“Hello, fellows! Keep your hair on! If you want to send out for catalogues in the middle of winter you’re lucky if I get here at all. Next month, if the second class bag’s as heavy as this, I’ll drop it through an air-hole—I swear I will! So now you’re warned! I got somepin better to do than tote catalogues. When I die and go to hell, I only hope I meet the man who invented mail-order catalogues there, that’s all.”
“You’re getting feeble, Ben!”
“I got strength enough left to put your head in chancery!”
“What’s the news of the world, Ben?”
“Sarge Lambert’s got a bone felon. Ally Stiff lost a sow and a whole litter through the ice up there. Mahooly of the French outfit at the Settlement’s gone out to get him a set of chiny teeth. Says he’s going to get blue ones to dazzle the Indians. Oh, and I almost forgot; down at Ottawa the Grits are out and the Tories in.”
“God help Canada!”
While Gaviller unlocked the bags, Ben went out to tie up his dogs and feed them. The trader handed out letters to the eager, extended hands, that trembled a little. Brightening eyes pounced on the superscriptions. Gaviller himself had a daughter outside being “finished,” the apple of his eye: Captain Stinson had a wife, and Mathews the engineer, an elderly sweetheart. The dark-skinned Gordon Strange, Gaviller’s clerk, carried on an extensive correspondence, the purport of which was unknown to the others, and Father Goussard was happy in the receipt of many letters from his confrères. Even young Stonor was excited, who had no one in the world to write to him but a married sister who sent him long, dutiful chronicles of small beer. But it was from “home.”
The second-class bag with the papers was scarcely less exciting. To oblige Ben they only took one newspaper between them, and passed it around, but in this mail three months’ numbers had accumulated. As the contents of the bag cascaded out on the counter, Stonor picked up an unfamiliar-looking magazine.
“Hello, what’s this?” he cried, reading the label in surprise. “Doctor Ernest Imbrie. Who the deuce is he?”
“Must have come here by mistake,” said Gaviller.
“Not a bit of it! Here’s the whole story: Doctor Ernest Imbrie, Fort Enterprise, Spirit River, Athabasca.”
It passed around from hand to hand. A new name was something to catch the attention at Fort Enterprise.
“Why, here’s another!” cried Gaviller in excitement. “And another! Blest if half the bag isn’t for him! And all addressed just so!”
They looked at each other a little blankly. All this evidence had the effect of creating an apparition there in their midst. There was an appreciable silence.
“Must be somebody who started in last year and never got through,” said Mathews. He spoke with an air of relief at discovering so reasonable an explanation.
“But we hear about everybody who comes north of the Landing,” objected Gaviller. “I would have been advised if he had a credit here.”
“Another doctor!” said Doc Giddings bitterly. “If he expects to share my practice he’s welcome!”
At another time they would have laughed at this, but the mystery teased them. They resented the fact that some rank outsider claimed Fort Enterprise for his post-office, without first having made himself known.
“If he went back outside, he’d stop all this stuff coming in, you’d think.”
“Maybe somebody’s just putting up a joke on us.”
“Funny kind of joke! Subscriptions to these magazines cost money.”
Stonor read off the titles of the magazines: “The Medical Record; The American Medical Journal; The Physician’s and Surgeon’s Bulletin.”
“Quite a scientific guy,” said Doctor Giddings, with curling lip.
“Strange, he gets so many papers and not a single letter!” remarked Father Goussard. “A friendless man!”
Gaviller picked up a round tin, one of several packed and addressed alike. He read the business card of a well-known tobacconist. “Smoking tobacco!” he said indignantly. “If the Company’s Dominion Mixture isn’t good enough for any man I’d like to know it! He has a cheek, if you ask me, bringing in tobacco under my very nose!”
“Tobacco!” cried Stonor. “It’s all very well about papers, but no man would waste good tobacco! It must be somebody who started in before Ben!”
Their own mail matter, that they had looked forward to so impatiently, was forgotten now.
When Ben Causton came back they bombarded him with questions. But this bag had come through locked all the way from Miwasa Landing, and Ben, even Ben, the great purveyor of gossip in the North, had heard nothing of any Doctor Imbrie on his way in. Ben was more excited and more indignant than any of them. Somebody had got ahead of him in spreading a sensation!
“It’s a hoe-axe,” said Ben. “It’s them fellows down at the Landing trying to get a rise out of me. Or if it ain’t that, it’s some guy comin’ in next spring, and sendin’ in his outfit piecemeal ahead of him. And me powerless to protect myself! Ain’t that an outrage! But when I meet him on the trail I’ll put it to him!”
“There are newspapers here, too,” Stonor pointed out. “No man coming in next spring would send himself last year’s papers.”
“Where is he, then?” they asked.
The question was unanswerable.
“Well, I’d like to see any lily-handed doctor guy from the outside face the river trail in the winter,” said Ben bitterly. “If he’ll do that, I’ll carry his outfit for him. But he’ll need more than his diploma to fit him for it.”
At any rate they had a brand-new subject for conversation at the post.
About a week later, when Hairy Ben had started back up the river, the routine at the post was broken by the arrival of a small party of Kakisa Indians from the Kakisa or Swan River, a large unexplored stream off to the north-west. The Kakisas, an uncivilized and shy race, rarely appeared at Enterprise, and in order to get their trade Gaviller had formerly sent out a half-breed clerk to the Swan River every winter. But this man had lately died, and now the trade threatened to lapse for the lack of an interpreter. None of the Kakisas could speak English, and there was no company employee who could speak their uncouth tongue except Gordon Strange the bookkeeper, who could not be spared from the post.
Wherefore Gaviller welcomed these six, in the hope that they might prove to be the vanguard of the main body. They were a wild and ragged lot, under the leadership of a withered elder called Mahtsonza. They were discovered by accident camping under cover of a poplar bluff across the river. No one knew how long they had been there, and Gordon Strange had a time persuading them to come the rest of the way. It was dusk when they entered the store, and Gaviller, by pre-arrangement with Mathews, clapped his hands and the electric lights went on. The effect surpassed his expectations. The Kakisas, with a gasp of terror, fled, and could not be tempted to return until daylight.
They brought a good little bundle of fur, including two silver fox skins, the finest seen at Enterprise that season. They laid their fur on the counter, and sidled about the store silent and abashed, like children in a strange house. With perfectly wooden faces they took in all the wonders out of the corners of their eyes; the scales, the stove, the pictures on the canned goods, the show-cases of jewellery and candy. Candy they recognized, and, again like children, they discussed the respective merits of the different varieties in their own tongue. Gaviller, warned by his first mistake, affected to take no notice of them.
The Kakisas had been in the store above an hour when Mahtsonza, without warning, produced a note from the inner folds of his dingy capote, and, handling it gingerly between thumb and forefinger, silently offered it to Gaviller. The trader’s eyes almost started out of his head.
“A letter!” he cried stupidly. “Where the hell did you get that?—Boys! Look here! A note from Swan River! Who in thunder at Swan River can write a white man’s hand?”
Stonor, Doc Giddings, Strange, and Mathews, who were in the store, hastened to him.
“Who’s it addressed to?” asked the policeman.
“Just to the Company. Whoever wrote it didn’t have the politeness to put my name down.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know you.”
“How could that be?” asked Gaviller, with raised eyebrows.
“Open it! Open it!” said Doc Giddings irritably.
Gaviller did so, and his face expressed a still greater degree of astonishment. “Ha! Here’s our man!” he cried.
“Imbrie!” they exclaimed in unison.
“Listen!” He read from the note.
“Gentlemen—I am sending you two silver fox skins, for which please give me credit. I enclose an order for supplies, to be sent by bearer. Also be good enough to hand the bearer any mail matter which may be waiting for me.
“Yours truly,“Ernest Imbrie.”
The silence of stupefaction descended on them. The only gateway to the Swan River lay through Enterprise. How could a man have got there without their knowing it? Stupefaction was succeeded by resentment.
“Will I be good enough to hand over his mail?” sneered Gaviller. “What kind of elegant language is this from Swan River?”
“Sounds like a regular Percy,” said Strange, who always echoed his chief.
“Funny place for a Percy to set up,” said Stonor drily.
“He orders flour, sugar, beans, rice, coffee, tea, baking-powder, salt, and dried fruit,” said Gaviller, as if that were a fresh cause of offence.
“He has an appetite, then,” said Stonor, “he’s no ghost.”
Suddenly they fell upon Mahtsonza with a bombardment of questions, forgetting that the Indian could speak no English. He shrank back affrighted.
“Wait a minute,” said Strange. “Let me talk to him.”
He conferred for awhile with Mahtsonza in the strange, clicking tongue of the Kakisas. Gaviller soon became impatient.
“Tell us as he goes along,” he said. “Never mind waiting for the end of the story.”
“They can’t tell you anything directly,” said Strange deprecatingly; “there’s nothing to do but let them tell a story in their own way. He’s telling me now that Etzooah, a man with much hair, who hunts down the Swan River near the beginning of the swift water, came up to the village at the end of the horse-track on snowshoes and dragging a little sled. Etzooah had the letter for Gaviller, but he was tired out, so he handed it to Mahtsonza, who had dogs, to bring it the rest of the way, and gave Mahtsonza a mink-skin for his trouble.”
“Never mind all that,” said Gaviller impatiently. “What about the white man?”
Strange conferred again with Mahtsonza, while Gaviller bit his nails.
“Mahtsonza says,” he reported, “that Imbrie is a great White Medicine Man who has done honour to the Kakisa people by coming among them to heal the sick and do good. Mahtsonza says he has not seen Imbrie himself, because when he came among the Indians last fall Mahtsonza was off hunting on the upper Swan, but all the people talk about him and what strong medicine he makes.”
“Conjure tricks!” muttered Doc Giddings.
“Where does he live?” demanded Gaviller.
Strange asked the question and reported the answer. “He has built himself a shack beside the Great Falls of the Swan River. Mahtsonza says that the people know his medicine is strong because he is not afraid to live with the voice of the Great Falls.”
Stonor asked the next question. “What sort of man is he?”
Strange, after putting the question, said: “Mahtsonza says he’s very good-looking, or, as he puts it, a pretty man. He says he looks young, but he may be as old as the world, because with such strong medicine he could make himself look like anything he wanted. He says that the White Medicine Man talks much with dried words in covers—I suppose he means books.”
“Ask him what proof he has given them that his medicine is strong,” suggested Stonor.
Strange translated Mahtsonza’s answer as follows: “Last year when the bush berries were ripe (that’s August) all the Indians down the river got sick. Water came out of their eyes and nose; their skin got as red as sumach and burned like fire.”
“Measles,” said Gaviller. “The Beavers had it, too. They take it hard.”
Strange continued: “Mahtsonza says many of them died. They just lay down and gave up hope. Etzooah was the only Kakisa who had seen the White Medicine Man up to that time, and he went to him and asked him to make medicine to cure the sick. So the White Medicine Man came back with Etzooah to the village down the river. He had good words and a soft hand to the sick. He made medicine, and, behold! The sick arose and were well!”
“Faith cure!” muttered Doc Giddings.
“How long has Imbrie been down there by the Falls?” asked Gaviller.
“Mahtsonza says he came last summer when the ground berries were ripe. That would be about July.”
“Did he come down the river from the mountains?”
“Mahtsonza says no. Nobody on the river saw him go down.”
“Where did he come from, then?”
“Mahtsonza says he doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Some say he came from under the falls where the white bones lie. Some say it is the voice of the falls that comes among men in the shape of a man.”
“Rubbish! A ghost doesn’t subscribe to medical journals!” said Doc Giddings.
“He orders flour, sugar, beans,” said Gaviller.
When this was explained to Mahtsonza the Indian shrugged. Strange said: “Mahtsonza says if he takes a man’s shape he’s got to feed it.”
“Pshaw!” said Gaviller impatiently. “He must have come up the river. It is known that the Swan River empties into Great Buffalo Lake. The Lake can’t be more than a hundred miles below the falls. No white man has ever been through that way, but somebody’s got to be the first.”
“But we know every white man who ever went down to Great Buffalo Lake,” said Doc Giddings. “Certainly there never was a doctor there except the police doctor who makes the round with the treaty outfit every summer.”
“Well, it’s got me beat!” said Gaviller, scratching his head.
“Maybe it’s someone wanted by the police outside,” suggested Gordon Strange, “who managed to sneak into the country without attracting notice.”
“He’s picked out a bad place to hide,” said Stonor grimly. “He’ll be well advertised up here.”
Stonor had a room in the “quarters,” a long, low barrack of logs on the side of the quadrangle facing the river. It had been the trader’s residence before the days of the big clap-boarded villa. Stonor, tiring of the conversation around the stove, frequently spent the evenings in front of his own fire, and here he sometimes had a visitor, to wit, Tole Grampierre, youngest son of Simon, the French half-breed farmer up the river. Tole came of good, self-respecting native stock, and was in his own person a comely, sensible youngster a few years younger than the trooper. Tole was the nearest thing to a young friend that Stonor possessed in the post. They were both young enough to have some illusions left. They talked of things they would have blushed to expose to the cynicism of the older men.
Stonor sat in his barrel chair that he had made himself, and Tole sat on the floor nursing his knees. Both were smoking Dominion mixture.
Said Tole: “Stonor, what you make of this Swan River mystery?”
“Oh, anything can be a mystery until you learn the answer. I don’t see why a man shouldn’t settle out on Swan River if he has a mind to.”
“Why do all the white men talk against him?”
“Don’t ask me. I doubt if they could tell you themselves. When men talk in a crowd they get started on a certain line and go on from bad to worse without thinking what they mean by it.”
“Our people just the same that way, I guess,” said Tole.
“I’m no better,” said Stonor. “I don’t know how it is, but fellows in a crowd seem to be obliged to talk more foolishly than they think in private.”
“You don’t talk against him, Stonor.”
The policeman laughed. “No, I stick up for him. It gets the others going. As a matter of fact, I’d like to know this Imbrie. For one thing, he’s young like ourselves, Tole. And he must be a decent sort, to cure the Indians, and all that. They’re a filthy lot, what we’ve seen of them.”
“Gaviller says he’s going to send an outfit next spring to rout him out of his hole. Gaviller says he’s a cash trader.”
Stonor chuckled. “Gaviller hates a cash trader worse than a devil with horns. It’s nonsense anyway. What would the Kakisas do with cash? This talk of sending in an expedition will all blow over before spring.”
“Stonor, what for do you think he lives like that by himself?”
“I don’t know. Some yarn behind it, I suppose. Very likely a woman at the bottom of it. He’s young. Young men do foolish things. Perhaps he’d be thankful for a friend now.”
“White men got funny ideas about women, I think.”
“I suppose it seems so. But where did you get that idea?”
“Not from the talk at the store. I have read books. Love-stories. Pringle the missionary lend me a book call Family Herald with many love-stories in it. From that I see that white men always go crazy about women.”
Stonor laughed aloud.
“Stonor, were you ever real crazy about a woman?”
The trooper shook his head—almost regretfully, one might have said. “The right one never came my way, Tole.”
“You don’t like the girls around here.”
“Yes, I do. Nice girls. Pretty, too. But well, you see, they’re not the same colour as me.”
“Just the same, they are crazy about you.”
“Yes, they are. Call you ‘Gold-piece.’ Us fellows got no chance if you want them.”
“Tell me about the stories you read, Tole.”
Tole refused to be diverted from his subject. “Stonor, I think you would like to be real crazy about a woman.”
“Maybe,” said the other dreamily. “Perhaps life would seem less empty then.”
“Would you go bury yourself among the Indians for a woman?”
“I hardly think so,” said Stonor, smiling. “Though you never can tell what you might do. But if I got turned down, I suppose I’d want to be as busy as possible to help forget it.”
“Well, I think that Imbrie is crazy for sure.”
“It takes all kinds to make a world. If I can get permission I’m going out to see him next summer.”
When the spring days came around, Stonor, whose business it was to keep watch on such things, began to perceive an undercurrent of waywardness among the Indians and breeds of the post. Teachers know how an epidemic of naughtiness will sweep a class; this was much the same thing. There was no actual outbreak; it was chiefly evinced in defiant looks and an impudent swagger. It was difficult to trace back, for the red people hang together solidly; a man with even a trace of red blood will rarely admit a white man into the secrets of the race. Under questioning they maintain a bland front that it is almost impossible to break down. Stonor had long ago learned the folly of trying to get at what he wanted by direct questioning.
He finally, as he thought, succeeded in locating the source of the infection at Carcajou Point. Parties from the post rode up there with suspicious frequency, and came back with a noticeably lowered moral tone, licking their lips, so to speak. All the signs pointed to whisky.
At dawn of a morning in May, Stonor, without having advertised his intention, set off for Carcajou on horseback. The land trail cut across a wide sweep of the river, and on horseback one could make it in a day, whereas it was a three days’ paddle up-stream. Unfortunately he couldn’t take them by surprise, for Carcajou was on the other side of the river from Enterprise, and Stonor must wait on the shore until they came over after him.
As soon as he left the buildings of the post behind him Stonor’s heart was greatly lifted up. It was his first long ride of the season. The trail led him through the poplar bush back to the bench, thence in a bee-line across the prairie. The sun rose as he climbed the bench. The prairie was not the “bald-headed” so dear to those who know it, but was diversified with poplar bluffs, clumps of willow, and wild-rose-scrub in the hollows. The crocuses were in bloom, the poplar trees hanging out millions of emerald pendants, and the sky showed that exquisite, tender luminousness that only the northern sky knows when the sun travels towards the north. Only singing-birds were lacking to complete the idyl of spring. Stonor, all alone in a beautiful world, lifted up his voice to supply the missing praise.
Towards sunset he approached the shore of the river opposite Carcajou Point, but as he didn’t wish to arrive at night, he camped within shelter of the woods. In the morning he signalled for a boat. They came after him in a dug-out, and he swam his horse across.
A preliminary survey of the place revealed nothing out of the way. The people who called themselves Beaver Indians were in reality the scourings of half the tribes in the country, and it is doubtful if there was an individual of pure red race among them. Physically they were a sad lot, for Nature revenges herself swiftly on the offspring of hybrids. Quaint ethnological differences were exhibited in the same family; one brother would have a French physiognomy, another a Scottish cast of feature, and a third the thick lips and flattened nose of a negro. Their village was no less nondescript than its inhabitants, merely a straggling row of shacks, thrown together anyhow, and roofed with sods, now putting forth a brave growth of weeds. These houses were intended for a winter residence only. In summer they “pitched around.” At present they were putting their dug-outs and canoes in order for a migration.
Stonor was received on the beach by Shose (Joseph) Cardinal, a fine, up-standing ancient of better physique than his sons and grandsons. In a community of hairless men he was further distinguished by a straggling grey beard. His wits were beginning to fail, but not yet his cunning. He was extremely anxious to learn the reason for the policeman’s coming. For Stonor to tell him would have been to defeat his object; to lie would have been to lower himself in their eyes; so Stonor took refuge in an inscrutability as polite as the old man’s own.
Stonor made a house-to-house canvass of the village, inquiring as to the health and well-being of each household, as is the custom of his service, and keeping his eyes open on his own account. He satisfied himself that if there had been whisky there, it was drunk up by now. Some of the men showed the sullen depressed air that follows on a prolonged spree, but all were sober at present.
He was in one of the last houses of the village, when, out of the tail of his eye, he saw a man quietly issue from the house next in order, and, covered by the crowd around the door, make his way back to a house already visited. Stonor, without saying anything, went back to that house and found himself face to face with a young white man, a stranger, who greeted him with an insolent grin.
“Who are you?” demanded the policeman.
“You have a white man’s name. What is it?”
“Smith”—this with inimitable insolence, and a look around that bid for the applause of the natives.
Stonor’s lip curled at the spectacle of a white man’s thus lowering himself. “Come outside,” he said sternly. “I want to talk to you.”
He led the way to a place apart on the river bank, and the other, not daring to defy him openly, followed with a swagger. With a stern glance Stonor kept the tatterdemalion crowd at bay. Stonor coolly surveyed his man in the sunlight and saw that he was not white, as he had supposed, but a quarter or eighth breed. He was an uncommonly good-looking young fellow in the hey-day of his youth, say, twenty-six. With his clear olive skin, straight features and curly dark hair he looked not so much like a breed as a man of one of the darker peoples of the Caucasian race, an Italian or a Greek. There was a falcon-like quality in the poise of his head, in his gaze, but the effect was marred by the consciousness of evil, the irreconcilable look in the fine eyes.
“Bad clear through!” was Stonor’s instinctive verdict.
“Where did you come from?” he demanded.
“Up river,” was the casual reply. The man’s English was as good as Stonor’s own.
“Answer me fully.”
“From Sah-ko-da-tah prairie, if you know where that is. I came into that country by way of Grande Prairie. I came from Winnipeg.”
Stonor didn’t believe a word of this, but had no means of confuting the man on the spot. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
“A week or so. I didn’t keep track.”
“What is your business here?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
“Among the Beavers? Why didn’t you come to the trading-post?”
“I was coming, but they tell me John Gaviller’s a hard man to work fer. Thought I better keep clear of him.”
“Gaviller’s the only employer of labour hereabouts. If you don’t like him you’ll have to look elsewhere.”
“I can take up land, can’t I?”
“Not here. This is treaty land. Plenty of good surveyed homesteads around the post.”
“Thanks. I prefer to pick my own location.”
“I’ll give you your choice. You can either come down to the post where I can keep an eye on your doings, or go back up the river where you came from.”
“Do you call this a free country?”
“Never mind that. You’re getting off easy. If you’d rather, I’ll put you under arrest and carry you down to the post for trial.”
“On what charge?”
“Furnishing whisky to the Indians.”
“It’s a lie!” cried the man, hoping to provoke Stonor into revealing the extent of his information.
But the policeman shrugged, and remained mum.
The other suddenly changed his front. “All right, I’ll go if I have to,” he said, with a conciliatory air. “To-morrow.”
“You’ll leave within an hour,” said Stonor, consulting his watch. “I’ll see you off. Better get your things together.”
The man still lingered, and Stonor saw an unspoken question in his eye, a desire to ingratiate himself. Now Stonor, under his stern port as an officer of the law, was intensely curious about the fellow. With his good looks, his impudent assurance, his command of English, he was a notable figure in that remote district. The policeman permitted himself to unbend a little.
“What are you travelling in?” he asked.
“Dug-out.” Encouraged by the policeman’s altered manner, the self-styled Hooliam went on, with an air of taking Stonor into his confidence: “These niggers here are a funny lot, aren’t they? Still believe in magic.”
“In what way?”
“Why, they’re always talking about a White Medicine Man who lives beside a river off to the north-west. Ernest Imbrie they call him. Do you know him?”
“He’s been to the post, hasn’t he?”
“Well, how did he get into the country?”
“I don’t know.”
“These people say he works magic.”
“Well, if anyone wants to believe that—!”
“What do they say about him down at the post?”
“Plenty of foolishness.”
“You don’t expect me to repeat foolish gossip, do you?”
“No, but what do you think about him?”
“I don’t think.”
“They say that Gaviller’s lodged a complaint against him, and you’re going out there to arrest him as soon as it’s fit to travel.”
“That’s a lie. There’s no complaint against the man.”
“But you are going out there, aren’t you?”
“I can’t discuss my movements with you.”
“That means you are going. Is it true he sent in a whole bale of silver foxes to the post?”
“Say, what’s your interest in this man, anyway?” said Stonor, losing patience.
“Nothing at all,” said the breed carelessly. “These Indians are always talking about him. It roused my curiosity, that’s all.”
“Suppose you satisfy my curiosity about yourself,” suggested Stonor meaningly.
The old light of impudent mockery returned to the comely dark face. “Me? Oh, I’m only a no-account hobo,” he said. “I’ll have to be getting ready now.”
And so Stonor’s curiosity remained unsatisfied. To have questioned the man further would only have been to lower his dignity. True, he might have arrested him, and forced him to give an account of himself, but the processes of justice are difficult and expensive so far north, and the policemen are instructed not to make arrests except when unavoidable. At the moment it did not occur to Stonor but that the man’s questions about Imbrie were actuated by an idle curiosity.
When the hour was up, the entire population of Carcajou Point gathered on the shore to witness Hooliam’s departure. Stonor was there, too, of course, standing grimly apart from the rabble. Of what they thought of this summary deportation he could not be sure, but he suspected that if the whisky were all gone, they would not care much one way or the other. Hooliam was throwing his belongings in a dug-out of a different style from that used by the Beavers. It was ornamented with a curved prow and stern, such as Stonor had not before seen.
“Where did you get that boat?” he asked.
“I didn’t steal it,” answered Hooliam impudently. “Traded my horse for it and some grub at Fort Cardigan.”
Cardigan was a Company post on the Spirit a hundred miles or so above the Crossing. Stonor saw that Hooliam was well provided with blankets, grub, ammunition, etc., and that it was not Company goods.
When Hooliam was ready to embark, he addressed the crowd in an Indian tongue which strongly resembled Beaver, which Stonor spoke, but had different inflections. Freely translated, his words were:
“I go, men. The moose-berry (i. e., red-coat) wills it. I don’t like moose-berries. Little juice and much stone. To eat moose-berries draws a man’s mouth up like a tobacco-bag when the string is pulled.”
They laughed, with deprecatory side-glances at the policeman. They were not aware that he spoke their tongue. Stonor had no intention of letting them know it, and kept an inscrutable face. They pushed off the dug-out, and Hooliam, with a derisive wave of the hand, headed up river. All remained on the shore, and Stonor, seeing that they expected something more of Hooliam, remained also.
He had gone about a third of a mile when Stonor saw him bring the dug-out around and ground her on the beach. He made no move to get out, but a woman appeared from out of the shrubbery and got in. She was too far away for Stonor to distinguish anything of her features; her figure looked matronly.
“Who is that?” he asked sharply.
Several voices answered. “Hooliam’s woman. Hooliam got old woman for his woman”—with scornful laughter. Now that Hooliam was gone, they were prepared to curry favour with the policeman.
Stonor was careful not to show the uneasiness he felt. This was his first intimation that Hooliam had a companion. He considered following him in another dug-out, but finally decided against it. The fact that he had taken the woman aboard in plain sight smacked merely of bravado. A long experience of the red race had taught Stonor that they love to shroud their movements in mystery from the whites, and that in their most mysterious acts there is not necessarily any significance.
Hooliam, with a wave of his paddle, resumed his journey, and presently disappeared around a bend. Stonor turned on his heel and left the beach, followed by the people. They awaited his next move somewhat apprehensively, displaying an anxiety to please which suggested bad consciences. Stonor, however, contented himself with offering some private admonitions to Shose Cardinal, who seemed to take them in good part. He then prepared to return to the post. The people speeded his departure with relieved faces.
That night Stonor camped on the prairie half-way home. As he lay wooing sleep under the stars, his horse cropping companionably near by, a new thought caused him to sit up suddenly in his blankets.
“He mentioned the name Ernest Imbrie. The Indians never call him anything but the White Medicine Man. And even if they had picked up the name Imbrie at the post, they never speak of a man by his Christian name. If they had heard the name Ernest I doubt if they could pronounce it. Sounds as if he knew the name beforehand. Queer if there should be any connection there. I wish I hadn’t let him go so easily.—Oh, well, it’s too late to worry about it now. The steamboat will get to the Crossing before he does. I’ll drop a line to Lambert to keep an eye on him.”
At Fort Enterprise a busy time followed. The big steamboat (“big” of course only for lack of anything bigger than a launch to compare with) had to be put in the water and outfitted, and the season’s catch of fur inventoried, baled and put aboard. By Victoria Day all was ready. They took the day off to celebrate with games and oratory (chiefly for the benefit of the helpless natives) followed by a big bonfire and dance at Simon Grampierre’s up the river.
Next morning the steamboat departed up-stream, taking Captain Stinson, Mathews, and most of the native employees of the post in her crew. Doc Giddings and Stonor watched her go, each with a little pain at the breast; she was bound towards the great busy world, world of infinite delight, of white women, lights, music, laughter and delicate feasting; in short, to them the world of romance. They envied the very bales of fur aboard that were bound for the world’s great market-places. On the other hand, John Gaviller watched the steamboat go with high satisfaction. To him she represented Profit. He never knew homesickness, because he was at home. For him the world revolved around Fort Enterprise. As for Gordon Strange, the remaining member of the quartette who watched her go, no one ever really knew what he thought.
The days that followed were the dullest in the whole year. The natives had departed for their summer camps, and there was no one left around the post but the few breed farmers. To Stonor, who was twenty-seven years old, these days were filled with a strange unrest; for the coming of summer with its universal blossoming was answered by a surge in his own youthful blood—and he had no safety-valve. A healthy instinct urged him to a ceaseless activity; he made a garden behind his quarters; he built a canoe (none of your clumsy dug-outs, but a well-turned Peterboro’ model sheathed with bass-wood); he broke the colts of the year. Each day he tired himself out and knew no satisfaction in his work, and each morning he faced the shining world with a kind of groan. Just now he had not even Tole Grampierre to talk to, for Tole, following the universal law, was sitting up with Berta Thomas.
The steamboat’s itinerary took her first to Spirit River Crossing, the point of departure for “outside” where she discharged her fur and took on supplies for the posts further up-stream. Proceeding up to Cardigan and Fort Cheever, she got their fur and brought it back to the Crossing. Then, putting on supplies for Fort Enterprise, she hustled down home with the current. It took her twelve days to mount the stream and six to return. Gaviller was immensely proud of the fact that she was the only thing in the North that ran on a pre-arranged schedule. He even sent out a timetable to the city for the benefit of intending tourists. She was due back at Enterprise on June 15th.
When the morning of that day broke a delightful excitement filled the breasts of those left at the post. As in most Company establishments, on the most prominent point of the river-bank stood a tall flagstaff, with a little brass cannon at its foot. The flag was run up and the cannon loaded, and every five minutes during the day some one would be running out to gaze up the river. Only Gaviller affected to be calm.
“You’re wasting your time,” he would say. “Stinson tied up at Tar Island last night. If he comes right down he’ll be here at three forty-five; and if he has to land at Carcajou for wood it will be near supper-time.”
The coming of the steamboat always held the potentialities of a dramatic surprise, for they had no telegraph to warn them of whom or what she was bringing. This year they expected quite a crowd. In addition to their regular visitors, Duncan Seton, the Company inspector, and Bishop Trudeau on his rounds, the government was sending in a party of surveyors to lay off homesteads across the river, and Mr. Pringle, the Episcopal missionary, was returning to resume his duties. An added spice of anticipation was lent by the fact that the latter was expected to bring his sister to keep house for him. There had been no white woman at Fort Enterprise since the death of Mrs. Gaviller many years before. But, as Miss Pringle was known to be forty years old, the excitement on her account was not undue. Her mark would be Gaviller, the younger men said, affecting not to notice the trader’s annoyance.
Gaviller had put a big boat’s whistle on his darling Spirit River, and the mellow boom of it brought them on a run out of the store before she hove in sight around the islands in front of Grampierre’s. Gaviller had his binoculars. He could no longer keep up his pretence of calmness.
“Three twenty-eight!” he cried, excitedly. “Didn’t I tell you! Who says we can’t keep time up here! She’ll run her plank ashore at three forty-five to the dot!”
“There she is!” they cried, as she poked her nose around the islands.
“Good old tub!”
“By God! She’s a pretty sight—white as a swan!”
“And floats like one!”
“Some class to that craft, sir!”
Meanwhile Gaviller was nervously focussing his binoculars. “By Golly! There’s a big crowd on deck!” he cried. “Must be ten or twelve beside the crew!”
“Can you see the petticoat?” asked Doc Giddings. “Gee! I hope she can cook!”
“Wait a minute! Yes—there she is!—Hello! By God, boys, there’s two of them!”
“Go on, you’re stringing us!”
“The other must be a breed.”
“No, sir, she’s got a white woman’s hat on, a stylish hat. And now I can see her white face!”
“John, for the lova Mike let me look!”
But the trader held him off obdurately. “I believe she’s young. She’s a little woman beside the other. I believe she’s good-looking! All the men are crowding around her.”
Stonor’s heart set up an unaccountable beating. “Ah, it’ll be the wife of one of the surveyors,” he said, with the instinct of guarding against a disappointment.
“No, sir! If her husband was aboard the other men wouldn’t be crowding around like that.”
“No single woman under forty would dare venture up here. She’d be mobbed.”
“Might be a pleasant sort of experience for her.”
Doc Giddings had at last secured possession of the glasses. “She is good-looking!” he cried. “Glory be, she’s a peach! I can see her smile!”
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