The Smoke Bellew Series
Tale Twelve: WONDER OF WOMAN
As a writer of stories of the Smoke Beilew type Jack London is in a class by himself. A big, strong, active fellow himself, he knows full well the life of which he writes—the life of freedom and adventure in the wilds. The Smoke Bellew series, which has run in MacLean’s throughout the year and has been followed with so much interest, will be concluded in January, when the second installment of “Wonder of Woman” will be published.
“JUST the same I notice you ain’t troubled over yourself to get married,” Shorty remarked, continuing a conversation that had lapsed some few minutes before.
Smoke, sitting on the edge of the sleeping robe and examining the feet of a dog he had rolled snarling on its back in the snow, did not answer. And Shorty, turning a steaming moccasin propped on a stick before the fire, studied his partner’s face keenly.
“Cock your eye up at that there aurora borealis,” Shorty went on. “Some frivolous, eh? Just like any shilly-shallyin’, skirt-dancing woman. The best of them is frivolous, when they ain’t foolish. And they ’s cats, all of ’em, the littlest an’ the biggest, the nicest and the otherwise. They’re sure devourin’ lions an’ roaring hyenas when they get on the trail of a man they’ve cottoned to.”
Again the monologue languished. Smoke cuffed the dog when it attempted to snap his hand, and went on examining its bruised and bleeding pads.
“Huh!” pursued Shorty. “Meb'be I couldn’t a-married if I’d a mind to! An’ mëbbe I would n’t a-ben married without a mind to, if I hadn’t hiked
for tall timber. Smoke, d’you want to know what saved me ? I’ll tell you. My wind. I just kept a-runnin’. I’d like to see any skirt run me outa breath.”
Smoke released the animal and turned his own steaming, stick-propped moccasins.
“We’ve got to rest over to-morrow and make moccasins,” he vouchsafed. “That little crust is playing the devil with their feet.”
“We oughta keep goin’ somehow,” Shorty objected. “We ain’t got grub enough to turn back with, and we gotta strike that run of caribou or them white Indians almighty soon or we’ll be eatin’ the dogs sore feet an’ all. Now who ever seen them white Indians anyway? Nothin’ but hearsay. An’ how can a Indian be white? A black white man’d be as natural. Smoke, we just oughta travel to-morrow. The country’s plumb dead of game. We ain’t seen even a rabbit track in a week, you know that. An’d we gotta get out of this dead streak into somewhere that meat’s runnin’.”
“They’ll travel all the better with a day’s rest for their feet and moccasins all around,” Smoke counselled. “If you get a chance at any low divide, take
a peep over at the country beyond. We’re likely to strike open, rolling country any time now. That’s what La Perle told us to look for.”
“Huh! By his own story, it was ten years ago that La Perle come through this section, an’ he was that loco from hunger he couldn’t know what he did see. Remember what he said of whoppin’ big flags floatin’ from the tops of the mountains? That shows how, loco he was. An’ he said himself he never seen any white Indians—that was Anton’s yarn. An’, besides, Anton kicked the bucket two years before you an’ me come to Alaska, But I’ll take a look to-morrow. An’ mebbe I might pick up a moose. What d’you say we turn in?”
Smoke spent the morning in camp, sewing dog-moccasins and repairing harnesses. At noon he cooked a meal for two, ate his share, and began to look for Shorty’s return. An hour later he strapped on his snowshoes and went out on his partner’s trail. The way led up the bed of the stream, through a narrow gorge that widened suddenly into a moose-pasture. But no moose had been there since the first snow of the preceding fall. The tracks of Shorty’s snowshoes crossed the pasture and went up the easy slope of a low divide. At the crest Smoke halted. The tracks continued down the other slope. The first spruce trees, in the creek bed, were a mile away, and it was evident that Shorty had passed through them and gone on. Smoke looked at his watch, remembered the oncoming of darkness, the dogs and the camp, and reluctantly decided against going farther. But before he retraced his steps he paused for a long look. All the eastern sky-line was saw-toothed by the snowy backbone of the Rockies. The whole mountain system, range upon range, seemed to trend to the north-west, cutting athwart the course to the open country reported by La Perle. The effect was as if the mountains conspired to thrust back the traveler toward the west and the Yukon. Smoke wondered how many men in the
past, approaching as he had approached, liad been turned aside by that forbidding aspect. La Perle had not been turned aside, but then, La Perle had crossed over from the eastern slope of the Rockies.
Until midnight Smoke maintained a huge fire for the guidance of Shorty. And in the morning, waiting with camp broken and dogs harnessed for first "break of light, Smoke took up the pursuit. Tn the narrow pass of the canyon, his lead*-dog pricked his ears and whined. Then Smoke came upon the Indians, six of them, coming toward him. They were traveling light, without dogs, and on each man’s back was the smallest of pack-outfits. Surrounding Smoke, they immediately gave him several matters for surprise. That they were looking for him was clear. They were not White Indians, though they were taller and heavier than the Indians of the Yukon basin. Five of them carried the old-fashioned, long-barreled Hudson Bay Company musket, and in the hands of the sixth was a Winchester rifle which Smoke knew to be Shorty’s.
Nor did they waste time in making him a prisoner. Unarmed himself, Smoke could only submit. The contents of the sled were distributed among their own packs, and he was given a pack composed of his and Shorty’s sleeping furs. The dogs were unharnessed, and when Smoke protested, one of the Indians, by signs, indicated a trail too rough for sled-travel. Smoke bowed to the inevitable, cached the sled end-on in the snow on the bank above the stream, and trudged on with his captors. Over the divide to the north they went, down to the spruce trees which Smoke had glimpsed the preceding afternoon. They followed the stream for a dozen miles, abandoning it when it trended to the west and heading directly eastward up a narrow tributary.
.The first night was spent in a camp which had been occupied for several days. Here was cached a quantity of dried salmon and a sort of pemmican, which the Indians added to their packs. From this camp a trail of many snow-
shoes led off—Shorty’s captors, was Smoke’s conclusion; and before darkness fell he succeeded in making out the tracks Shorty’s narrower snowshoes had left. On questioning the Indians by signs, they nodded affirmation and pointed to the north.
Always, in the days thatfollowed, they pointed north; and always the trail, turning and twisting through a jumble of upstanding peaks, trended north. Everywhere, in this bleak snowsolitude, the way seemed barred, yet ever the trail curved and coiled, finding low divides and avoiding the higher and untravelable chains. The snowfall was deeper than in the lower valleys, and every step of the way was snowshoe work. Furthermore, Smoke’s captors, all young men, traveled light and fast; and he could not forbear the prick of pride in the knowledge that he easily kept up with them. They were trailhardened and trained to snowshoes from infancy ; yet such was his condition that the traverse bore no more of ordinary hardship to him than to them.
In six days they gained and crossed the central pass, low in comparison with the mountains it threaded, yet formidable in itself and not possible for loaded sleds. Five days more of tortuous winding, from lower altitude to lower altitude, brought them to the open, rolling, and merely hilly country La Perle had found ten years before. Smoke knew it with the first glimpse, on a sharp cold day, the thermometer forty below zero, the atmosphere so clear that he could see a hundred miles. Far as he could see rolled the open country. High in the east the Rockies still thrust their snowy ramparts heavenward. To the south and west extended the broken ranges of the projecting spur-system they had crossed. And in this vast pocket lay the country La Perle had traversed—snow-blanketed, but assuredly fat with game at some time in the year, and in the summer, a smiling, forested and flowered land.
Before mid-day, traveling down a broad stream, past snow-buried willows and naked aspens, and across heavily
timbered flats of spruce, they came upon the site of a large camp, recently abandoned. Glancing as he went by it, Smoke estimated four or five hundred fires, and guessed the population to be in the thousands. So fresh was the trail and so well packed by the multitude, that Smoke and his captors took off their snowshoes and in their moccasins struck a swifter pace. Signs of game * appeared and grew plentiful—tracks of wolves and lynxes that without meat could not be. Once, one of the Indians cried out with satisfaction and pointed to a large area of open snow, littered with fang-polished skulls of caribou, trampled and disrupted as if an army had fought upon it. And Smoke knew that a big killing had been made by the hunters since the last snow flurry.
In the long twilight no sign was manifested of making camp. They held steadily on through a deepening gloom that vanished under a sky of light— great, glittering stars half-veiled by a greenish-vapor of pulsing aurora borealis. His dogs caught it first, the noises of the camp, pricking their ears and whining in low eagerness. Then it came to the ears of the humans, a murmur, dim with distance, but not invested with the soothing grace that is common to distant murmurs. Instead, it was in a high, wild key, a beat of shrill sound broken by shriller sounds—the long wolf-howling of many wolf-dogs, a screaming of unrest and pain, mournful with hopelessness and rebellion. Smoke swung back the crystal of his watch and by the feel of finger-tips on the naked hands made out eleven o’clock. The men about him quickened. The legs that had lifted through a dozen strenuous hours, lifted in a still swifter pace that was half a run and mostly a running jog. Through a dark spruce flat they burst upon an abrupt glare of light from many fires and upon an abrupt increase of sound. The great camp lay before them. And as they entered and threaded the irregular runways of the hunting camp, a vast tumult, as in a wave, rose to meet them and rolled on with them—cries, greetings, questions
and answers, jokes and jokes thrust back again, the snapping snarl of wolfdogs rushing in furry projectiles of wrath upon Smoke’s stranger-dogs, the scolding of squaws, laughter, the whim-
pering of children and wailing of infants, the moans of the sick aroused afresh to pain, all the pandemonium of a camp of nerveless, primitive wilderness folk.
Striking with clubs and the butts of guns, Smoke’s party drove back the attacking dogs, while his own dogs, snapping and snarling, a.-yed by so many enemies, shrank in among the legs of their human protectors, themselves bristling along stiff-legged in menacing prance.
They halted in the trampled snow by an open fire, where Shorty and two young Indians, squatted on their hams, were broiling strips of caribou meat. Three other young Indians, lying in furs 'on a mat of spruce boughs, sat up. Shorty looked across the fire at his partner, but with a sternly impassive face, like those of his companions, made no sign and went on broiling the meat.
“What’s the matter?” Smoke demanded, half in irritation. “Lost your speech?”
The old familiar grin twisted on Shorty’s face.
“Nope,” he answered. “I’m a Indian. I’m teamin’ not to show surprise. When did they catch you?”
“Next day after you left.”
“Hum,” Shorty said, the light of whimsy dancing in his eyes. “Well, I’m doin’ fine, thank you most to death. This is the bachelor’s camp.” He waved his hand to embrace its magnificence, which consisted of a fire, beds of spruce boughs laid on top of the snow, flies 'of caribou skin, and wind-shields of twisted spruce and willow withes. “An’ these are the bachelors.” This time his hand indicated the young men, and he spat a few broken gutterals in their own language that brought the white flash of acknowledgement from eyes and teeth. “They’re glad to meet you, Smoke. Set down an’ dry your moccasins, an’ I’ll cook up some grub. I’m getting the hang of the lingo pretty well, ain’t I? You’ll have to come to it, for it looks as we’ll be with these folks a long time. Thev’s another white here. Got caught six years ago. He’s a Irishman they picked up over Great Slave Lake way. Danny McCan is what he goes by. He’s settled down with a squaw. Got two kids already, but he’ll skin out if ever the chance opens up.
See that low fire over there to the right? That’s his camp.”
Apparently this was Smoke’s appointed domicile, for his captors left him and his dogs, and went on deeper into the big camp. While he attended to his foot-gear and devoured strips of hot meat, Shorty cooked and talked.
“This is a sure peach of a pickle, Smoke—you listen to me. An’ we got to go some to get out. These is the real, blowed-in-the-glass wild Indians. They ain’t white, but their chief is. He talks like a mouthful of hot mush, an’ he ain’t full-blood Scotch they ain’t no such thing as Scotch in the world. He’s the hi-vu, skoolcum top-chief of the whole caboodle. What he says goes. You want to get that from the start-off. Danny McCan’s ben try in’ to get away from him for six years. Danny’s all right, but he ain’t got go in him. He knows a way out—learned it on huntin’ trips—to the west of the way you an’ me come. He ain’t had the nerve to tackle it by his lonely. But we can pull it off, the three of us. Whiskers is the real goods, but he’s mostly loco just the same.”
“Who’s Whiskers?” Smoke queried, pausing in the wolfing down of a hot strip of meat.
“Why, he’s the top geezer. He’s the Scotcher. He’s gettin’ old, an’ he’s sure asleep now, but he’ll see you to-morrow an’ show you clear as ,print what a measly shrimp you are on his stompin’ grounds. These grounds belong to him. You got to get that into your noodle. They ain’t never ben explored, nor nothin’, an’ they’re hisn. An’ he won’t let you forget it. He’s got about twenty thousand square miles of huntin’ country here all his own. He’s the white Indian, him an’ the skirt—Huh! Don’t look at me that way. Wait till you see her. Some looker, an’ all white, like her dad—he’s Whiskers. An’ say, caribou! I’ve saw ’em. A hundred thousan’ of good runnin’ meat in the herd, an’ ten thousan’ wolves an’ cats a-followin’ an’ livin’ off the stragglers an’ the leavin’s. We leave the leavin’s. The herd’s movin’ to the east, an’ we’ll be
followin’ ’em any day now. We eat, an’ our dogs, an’ what we don’t we smokecure for the spring before the salmonrun gets its swing in. Say, what Whiskers don’t know about salmon an’ caribou, nobody knows, take it from me.”
“Here comes Whiskers lookin’ like he’s goin’ somewheres,” Shorty whispered, reaching over and wiping greasy hands on the coat of one of the sleddogs.
It was morning, and the bachelors were squatting over a breakfast of caribou meat, which they broiled as they ate. Smoke glanced up and saw a small and slender man, skin-clad like any savage but unmistakably white, striding in advance of a sled-team and a following of a dozen Indians. Smoke cracked a hot bone, and while he sucked out the steaming marrow gazed at his approaching host. Bushy whiskers, yellowish gray and stained by camp smoke, concealed most of the face but failed wholly to conceal the gaunt, almost cadaverous cheeks. It was a healthy leanness, Smoke decided, as he noted the wide flare of the nostrils and the breadth and depth of chest that gave spaciousness to the guaranty of oxygen and life.
“How do you do,” the man said, slipping a mitten and holding out his bare hand. “My name is Snass,” he added, as they shook hands.
“Mine’s Bellew,” Smoke returned, feeling peculiarly disconcerted as he gazed into the keen-searching black eyes.
“Getting plenty to eat, I see.”
Smoke nodded and resumed his marrow-bone, the burr of Scottish speech strangely pleasant to his ears.
“'Rough rations. But we don’t starve often. And it’s more natural than the hand-reared meat of the cities.”
“1 see you don’t like cities,” Smoke laughed, in order to be saying something ; and was immediately startled by the transformation Snass underwent.
Quite like a sensitive plant, the man’s entire form seemed to wilt and quiver.
Then the recoil, tense and savage, concentered in the eyes, in which appeared a hatred that screamed of immeasurable pain. He turned abruptly away, and, recollecting himself, remarked casually over his shoulder:
“I’ll see you later, Mr. Bellew. The caribou are moving east, and I’m going ahead to pick out a location. You’ll all come on to-morrow.”
“Some Whiskers, that, eh?” Shorty muttered, as Snass pulled on at the head of his outfit.
Again Shorty wiped his hands on the wolf-dog, who seemed to like it as it licked off the delectable grease.
Later on in the morning Smoke went for a stroll through the camp. Busy it was with its primitive pursuits. A big body of hunters had just returned and the men were scattering to their various fires. Women and children were departing with dogs harnessed to empty toboggan-sleds and women and children and dogs were hauling sleds heavy with meat fresh from the killing and already frozen. An early spring cold-snap was on, and the wildness of the scene was painted in a temperature of thirty below zero. Woven cloth was not in evidence. Furs and soft-tanned leather clad all alike. Boys passed with bows in .their hands, and quivers of bone-barbed arrows; and many a skinning-knife of bone or stone Smoke saw in belts or neck-hanging sheathes. Women toiled over the fires, smoke-curing the meat, on their backs infants that stared roundeyed and sucked at lumps of tallow. Dogs, full-kin to wolves, bristled up to Smoke to endure the menace of the short club he carried and to whiff the odor of this newcomer whom they must accept by virtue of the club.
Segregated in the heart of the camp, Smoke came upon what was evidently Snass’s fire. Though temporary in every detail, yet it was solidlv constructed and was on a large scale. A great heap of bales of skins and outfit was piled on a scaffold out of reach of the dogs. A large canvas fly, almost half-
tent, sheltered the sleeping and living quarters. To one side was a silk tent— the sort favored by explorers and wealthy big-game hunters. Smoke had never seen such a tent, and stepped closer. As he stood looking, the flaps parted and a young woman came out. So quickly did she move, so abruptly did she appear, that the effect on Smoke was as that of an apparition. He seemed to have the same effect on her, and for a long moment they gazed at each other.
She was dressed entirely in skins, but such skins and such magnificently beautiful fur-work Smoke had never dreamed. Her parka, the hood thrown back, •was of some strange fur of palest silver. The muclucs, with walrus-hide soles, were composed of the silver-padded feet of many lynxes. The long-gauntleted mittens, the tassels at the knees, all the varied furs of the costume, wrere pale silver that shimmered in the frosty light; and out of this shimmering silver poised on slender, delicate neck, lifted her head, the rosy face blonde as the eyes were blue, the ears like two pink shells, the light chestnut hair touched with frost-dusc and coruscating frostglints.
All this and more, as in a dream, Spoke saw, then, recollecting himself, his hand fumbled for his cap. At the same moment the wonder-stars in the girl’s eyes passed into a smile, and, with* movements quick and vital, she slipped a mitten and extended her hand.
“How do you do,” she murmured gravely, with a queer, delightful accent, her voice, silvery as the furs she wore, coming with a shock to Smoke’s ears, attuned as they were to the harsh voices of the camp squaws.
Smoke could only mumble phrases that were awkwardly reminiscent of his best society manner.
“I am glad to see you,” she went on slowly and gropingly, her face a ripple of smiles. “My English you will please excuse. It is not good. *1 am English like you,” she gravely assured him. “My father he is Scotch. My mother she is dead. She is French, and Eng-
lish, and a little Indian, too. Her father was a great man in the Hudson Bay Company. Brrr! It is cold.” She slipped on her mitten and rubbed her ears, the pink of which had already turned to white. “Let us go to the fire and talk. My name is Labiskwee. What is your name?”
And so Smoke came to know Labiskwee, the daughter of Snass, whom Snass called Margaret.
“Snass is not my father’s name,” she informed Smoke. “Snass is only an Indian name.”
Much Smoke learned that day, and in the days that followed, as the hunting camp moved on in the trail of the caribou. These were the real wild Indians—the ones Anton had encountered and escaped from long years before. This was nearly the western limit of their territory, and in the summer they ranged north to the tundra shores of the Arctic, and eastward as far as the Luskwa. What river the Luskwa was Smoke could not make out, nor could Labiskwee tell him, nor could McCan. On occasion Snass, with parties of strong hunters, pushed east across the Rockies, on past the lakes and the Mackenzie, and into the Barrens. It was on the last traverse in that direction that the silk tent occupied by Labiskwee had been found.
“It belonged to the Millicent-Adbury expedition,” Snass told Smoke.
“Oh, I remember. They went after musk-oxen. The rescue expedition never found a trace of them.”
“I found them,” Snass said. “But both were dead.”
“The world stilF doesn’t know. The word never got out.”
“The word never gets out,” Snass assured him pleasantly.
“You mean if they had been alive when you found them . . .?”
Snass nodded. “They would have lived on with me and my people.”
“Anton got out,” Smoke challenged.
“I do not remember the name. How long ago?”
“Fourteen or fifteen years,” Smoke answered.
“So he pulled through after all. Do you know, I’ve wondered about him. We called him Long Tooth. He was a strong man, a strong man.”
“La Perle came through here ten years ago.”
Snass shook his head.
“He found traces of your camps. It was summer time.”
“That explains it,” Snass answered. “We are hundreds of miles to the north in the summer.”
But strive as he would, Smoke could get no clew to Snass’s history in the days before he came to live in the northern wilds. Educated he was, yet in all the intervening years he had read no books, no newspapers. What had happened in the world he knew not. Nor did he show desire to know. He had heard of the miners on the Yukon, and of the Klondike strike. Gold-miners had never invaded his territory, for which he was glad. But the outside world to him did not exist. He tolerated no mention of it.
Nor could Labiskwee help Smoke with earlier information. She had been born on the hunting grounds. Her mother had lived for six years after. Her mother had been very beautiful— the only white woman Labiskwee had ever seen. She said this wistfully, and wistfully, in a thousand ways, she showed that she knew of the great outside world on which her father had closed the door. But this knowledge was secret. She had early learned that mention of it threw her father into a rage.
Anton had told a squaw of her mother, and that her mother had been a daughter of a high official in the ILudson Bay Company. Later, the squaw had told Labiskwee. But her mother’s name she had never learned.
As a source of information, Danny McCan was impossible. He did not like adventure. Wild life was a horror, and he had had nine years of it. Shanghaied in San Francisco, he had deserted the whaleship at Point Barrow with four companions. Two had died, and the third had abandoned him on the terrible traverse south. Two years he
had lived with the Eskimos before raising the courage to attempt the south traverse, and then, within several days of a Hudson Bay Company post, he had been gathered in by a party of Snass’s young men. He was a small, stupid man, afflicted with sore eyes, and all he dreamed or could talk about was getting back to his beloved San Francisco and his blissful trade of bricklaying.
“You’re the first intelligent man we’ve had,” Snass complimented Smoke one night by the fire. “Except old Four Eyes. The Indians named him so. He wore glasses and was shortsighted. He was a professor of zoology.” (Smoke noted the correctness of the pronunciation of the word.) “He died a year ago. My young men picked him up straved from an expedition on the upper Porcupine. He was intelligent, ves; but he was also a fool. That was his weakness—straying. He knew geology, though, and working in metals. Over on the Luskwa, where there’s coal, we have several creditable hand-forges he made. He repaired our guns and taught the young men how. He died last year, and we reallv missed him. Strayed—that’s how it happened— froze to death within a mile of camp.”
It was on the same night that Snass said to Smoke:
“You’d better pick out a wife and have a fire of your own. You will be more comfortable than with those young bucks. The maidens’ fires — a sort of feast of the virgins, you know— are not lighted until full summer and the salmon, but I can give orders earlier if vou say the word.”
Smoke laughed and shook his head.
“Remember,” Snass concluded quietly, “Anton is the only one that ever got awav. He was lucky, unusually luckv.”
Her father had a will of iron, Labiskwee told Smoke.
“Four Eyes used to call him the Frozen Pirate—whatever that means—■ the Tvrant of the Frost, the Cave Bear, the Beast Primitive, the King of the
Caribou, the Bearded Pard, and lots of such things. Four Eyes loved words like those. He taught me most of my English. He was always making fun. You could never tell. He called me his cheetah-chum after times when I was angry. What is cheetah? He always teased me with it.”
She chattered on with all the eager naivete of a child, which Smoke found hard to reconcile with the full womanhood of her form and face.
Yes, her father was very firm. Everybody feared him. Pie was terrible when angry. There were the Porcupines. It was through them, and through the Luskwas, that Snass traded his skins at the posts and got his supplies of ammunition and tobacco. He was always fair, but the chief of the Porcupines began to cheat. And after Snass had warned him twice, he burned his log village, and over, a dozen of the Porcupines were killed in the fight. But there was no more cheating. Once, when she was a little girl, there was one white man killed while trying to escape. No, her father did not do it, but he gave the order to the young men. No Indian ever disobeyed her father.
And the more Smoke learned from her, the more the mystery of Snass agreed.
“And tell me if it is true,” the girl was saying, “that there was a man and a woman whose names were Paolo and Francesca and who greatly loved each other?”
“Four Eyes told me all about it,” she beamed happily. “And so he didn’t make it up after all. You see, I wasn’t sure. I asked father, but oh, he was angry. The Indians told me he gave poor Four Eyes an awful talking-to. Then there was Tristan and Iseult—two Iseults. It was very sad. But I should like to love that way. Do all the young men and women in the world do that? They don’t here. They just get married. They don’t seem to have time. I am English, and I will never marry an Indian—would you? That is why I have not lighted my maiden’s fire.
Some of the young men are bothering father to make me do it. Libash is one of them. He is a great hunter. And Mahkook comes around singing songs. He is funny. To-night, if you come by my tent after dark you will hear him singing out in the cold. But father says I can do as I please, and so I shall not light my fire. You see, when a girl makes up her mind to get married, that is the way she lets young men know. Four Eyes always said it was a fine custom. But I noticed he never took a wife. Maybe he was too old. He didn’t have much hair, but I don’t think he was really very old. And how do you know when you are in love—like Paolo and Francesca, I mean?”
Smoke was disconcerted by the clear gaze of her blue eyes.
“Why, they say,” he stammered, “those who are in love say it, that love is dearer than life. When one finds out that he or she likes somebody better than everybody else in the world'—why, then, they know they are in love. That’s the way it goes, but it’s awfully hard to explain. You just know it, that’s all.”
She looked off across the camp-smoke, sighed, and resumed work on the fur mitten she was sewing.
“Well,” she announced with finality, “I shall never get married anyway.”
“Once we hit out we’ll sure have some tall runnin’,” Shorty said dismally.
“The place is a big trap,” Smoke agreed.
From the crest of a bald knob they gazed out over Snass’s snowy domain, east, west and south they were hemmed in by the high peaks and jumbled ranges. Northward, the rolling country seemed interminable; yet they knew, even in that direction, that half a dozen transverse chains blocked the way.
“At this time of the year I could give you three days’ start,” Snass told Smoke that evening. “You can’t hide trail, you see. Anton got away when the snow was gone. My young men can travel as fast as the best white man ; and
besides you would be breaking trail for them. And when the snow is off the ground, I’ll see to it that you don’t get the chance Anton had. It’s a good life. And soon the world fades. I have never quite got over the surprise of finding how easy it is to get along without the world.”
“What’s eatin’ me is Danny McCan,”/ Shorty confided to Smoke. “He’s a weak brother on any trail. But he swears he knows the way out to the westward an’ so we got to put up with him, Smoke, or you sure get yours.”
“We’re all in the same boat,” Smoke answered.
“Not on your life. It’s a-comin’ to you straight down the pike.”
“You ain’t heard the news?”
Smoke shook his head.
“The bachelors told me. They just got the word. To-night it comes off, though it’s months ahead of the calendar.”
Smoke shrugged his shoulders.
“Ain’t interested in hearin’?” Shorty teased.
“I’m waiting to hear.”
“Well, Danny’s wife just told the bachelors . . .” Shorty paused impressively. “An’ the bachelors told me, of course, that the maidens’ fires is due to be lighted to-night. That’s all. Now how do you like it?”
“I don’t get your drift, Shorty.”
“Don’t, eh? Why, it’s plain open and shut. They’s a skirt after you, an’ that skirt is goin’ to light a fire, an’ that skirt’s name is Labiskwee. Oh, I’ve been watchin’ her watch you when you ain’t lookin’. She ain’t never lighted her fire. Said she wouldn’t marry a Indian. An’ now, when she lights her fire, it’s a cinch it’s my poor old friend Smoke.”
“It sounds like a syllogism,” Smoke said,^ with a sinking heart reviewing Labiskwee’s actions of the past several days.
“Cinch is shorter to pronounce,” Shorty returned. “An’ that’s always the way—just as we’re workin’ up our get-away, along comes a skirt to com-
plicate everything. We ain’t got no luck — hey! Listen to that, you, Smoke!”
Three ancient squaws had halted midway between the bachelors’ camp and the camp of McCan, and the oldest was declaiming in shrill falsetto.
Smoke recognized the names, but not all the words, and Shorty translated with melancholy glee.
“Labiskwee, the daughter of Snass, the Rain-Maker, the Great Chief, lights her first maiden’s fire to-night. Maka, the daughter of Owits, the Wolf-Runner-”
The recital ran through the names of a dozen maidens, and then the three heralds tottered on their way to make announcement at the next fires.
The bachelors, who had sworn youthful oaths to speak to no maiden, were uninterested in the approaching ceremony, and to showT their disdain they made preparations for immediate departure on a mission set them by Snass and upon which they had planned to start the following morning. Not satisfied with the old hunters’ estimates of the caribou, Snass had decided that the run was split. The task set the bachelors was to scout to the north and west in quest of the second division of the great herd.
Smoke, troubled by Labiskwee’s firelighting, announced that he would accompany the bachelors. But first he talked with Shorty and with McCan.
“You be there on the third day, Smoke,” Shorty said. “We’ll have the outfit an’ the dogs.”
“But remember,” Smoke cautioned, “if there is any slip-up in meeting me, you keep on going and get out to the Yukon. That’s flat. If you make it, you can‘come back for me in the summer. If I get the chance I’ll make it and come back for you.”
McCan, standing by his fire, indicated with his eyes a rugged mountain where the high western range out-jutted on the open country.
“That’s the one,” he said. “A small stream on the south side. We go up it. On the third day you meet us. We’ll
pass by on the third day. Anywhere you tap that stream you’ll meet us or our trail.”
But the chance did not come to Smoke on the third day. The bachelors had changed the direction of their scout, and while Shorty and McCan plodded up the stream with their dogs, Smoke and the bachelors were sixty miles to the northeast picking up the trail of the second caribou herd. Several days later, through a dim twilight of falling snow, they came back to the big camp. A squaw ceased from wailing by a fire and darted up to Smoke. Harsh-tongued, with bitter, venomous eyes, she cursed him, waving her arms toward a silent, fur-wrapped form that still lay on the sled which had hauled it in.
What had happened, Smoke could only guess, and as he camé to McCan's fire he was prepared for a second cursing. Instead, he saw McCan himself industriously chewing a strip of caribou meat.
“I’m not a fightin’ man,” he whinin gly explained. “But Shorty got away, though they’re still after him. He put up a hell of a fight. They’ll get him, too. He ain’t got a chance. He plugged two bucks that’ll get around all right. An’ he croaked one square through the chest.”
“Yes, I know,” Smoke answered. “I just met the widow.”
“Old Snass’ll be wantin’ to see you,” McCan added. “Them’s his orders. Soon as you come in you was to go to. his fire. I ain’t squealed. You don’t know nothin’. Keep that in mind. Shorty went off on his own along with me.”
At Snass’s fire Smoke found Labiskwee. She met him with eyes that shone with such softness and tenderness as to frighten him.
“I’m glad you didn’t try to run away,” she said. “You see, I . . .” She hesitated, but her eyes did not drop. They swam with a light unmistakable. “I lighted my fire, and of course it was for you. It has happened. I like you
better than everybody else in the world. Better than my father. Better than a thousand Libashes and Mahkooks. I love. It is very strange. I love as Francesca loved, as Iseult loved. Old Four Eyes spoke true. Indians do not love this way. But my eyes are blue and I am white. We are white, you and I.”
Smoke had never been proposed to in his life, and he was unable to meet the situation. Worse, it was not even a proposal. His acceptance was taken for granted. So thoroughly was it all arranged in Labiskwee’s mind, so warm was the light in her eyes, that he was amazed that she did not throw her arms around him and rest her head on his shoulder. Then he realized, despite her candor of love, that she did not know the pretty ways of love. Among the primitive savages such ways did not obtain. She had had no chance to learn.
“But Labiskwee, listen,” he began. “Are you sure you learned from Four Eyes all the story of the love of Paolo and Francesca?”
She clapped her hands and laughed with an immense certitude of gladness.
“Oh! There is morel I know there must be more and more of love ! I have thought much since I lighted my fire. I have-”
And then Snass strode in to the fire through the falling snowflakes, and Smoke’s opportunity was lost.
“Good evening,” Snass burred gruffly. “Your partner has made a mess of it. I am glad you had better sense.”
“You might tell me what’s happened,” Smoke urged.
The flash of white teeth through the stained beard was not pleasant.
“Certainly I’ll tell you. Your partner has killed one of my people. That snivelling shrimp, McCan, deserted at the first shot. He’ll never run away again. But my hunters have got your partner in the mountains, and they’ll get him. He’ll never make the Yukon basin. As for you, from now on you sleep at my fire. And there’ll be no more scouting with the young men. 1 shall have my eye on you.”