BLACK ICE

LLOYD ROBERTS July 15 1923

BLACK ICE

LLOYD ROBERTS July 15 1923

BLACK ICE

LLOYD ROBERTS

NORA MULVEY marched into the office and gave notice. "For the love of Pete, Nora, what’s the matter?” asked Baldy Quinn, laying down “David Copperfield” and peering over the rims of his spectacles, “Not bad news?” “Bad enough, sir.” The girl dropped her eyes, flushed, wiped her hands on her apron. In spite of tilted nose and brick-red hair, she waa pretty—pretty after a simple, pastel manner.

“Folks sick?” he asked in a kindly voice.

“No, it's him.” She faced the manager resolutely. “Cutting loose again is he? See here, Nora, take an old fellow's advice and leave Mike alone. An Irishman’s like an Indian once he goes to the devil. You’re too fine a girl to waste—”

“Oh, no, you don't understand, 3ir,” she interrupted. “He's keeping straight, I’m no doubting, but—but he’s easy led like, he’s that warm-hearted.”

“Well, of course it’s none of my business, that part of it. But what in thunder am I going to do without a cook, with the winter coming on and the boys presently piling in here to be fed?”

“I thought maybe you could get someone from Hegan'3 camp. And there’s Yves.”

“Yves is about as useful as the Crown Prince. Now look here. Nora, be sensible. Another winter in the woods will give you both a healthier bank-roll, to say nothing—” “I'm going, sir,” and the way she said it convinced the agent of the fact. Still, there remained a few minor obstacles to consider.

‘Y'ou'd think it was only a matter of stepping across the clearing. How do you propose to do it?”

“Canoe.”

“It’s too late. Y'ou'd be caught before you’d got half way down. Y'ou’ll have to wait for the sleds.”

“I’m going now, as soon as I can get ready.”

“Look here, it’s all very well, but there’s a hundred miles of darned tough wilderness, heavy rapids, long portages, and though a man might do it alone, a girl would have a dickens of a time—even a backwoods girl like you.”

“I’m going.”

“Gosh, aren’t you the stubborn minx? I wish to heaven Mike was worth it. But you can’t go alone.”

“She don’ go alone.”

nPHE big French-Canadian filled the doorway, so that little daylight got past his massive shoulders. His teeth gleamed cheerfully from under his black moustache. “What!” yelled the agent, “yoti’d desert me too?”

“Can’t cook a damn/’ he said, “lak de Crown Prince.” Baldy smiled in spite of himself.

“But it’s freezing now, Yves. Don’t you think you’re taking an awful chance?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no. If she go I tak’ her.”

Baldy hunched his shoulders. “Go to it. Help yourself to the stores. Take plenty, just in case.”

The two returned to the kitchen, leaving the boss of Poigan Depot to warm his thick soles on the Quebec heater and puzzle over the trials of love. He had known Nora Mulvey for four years—old man Mulvey being the jobber over on Kakebonga—and had revelled in her pie-crust for two seasons. But she was too good-looking to last. Half the youths in the country had become tongue-tied in her presence and over loquacious out of it. But ever since Mike Currier had been carried to the depot with a split ankle and been nursed into shape for the long drive out it was generally understood that the teamster had drawn the lucky number and that the raffle was closed. Yves Fortin alone continued to hang around the prize, retaining his humble position of cooked on the infinitesimal chance of there being another draw. Mike had become a new creature since the accident, on account of his heart or his ankle, and had been laying up all summer, nurtured on anticipation and half his sweetheart’s wages.... But a couple of bushmen had dropped into the depot that morning, and although they had volunteered comforting news to her face, behind her back they had cracked rough jokes regarding her lover and Tilly Charbarrou that had filled her with bitterness and fear. There was nothing in it, of course— That hussy! And yet she had been praying ever since, “O God, lead him not into temptation!” Tilly’s hard, black eyes were leering in her face. She could picture the two strolling along the board-walk, heads close, folks snickering as they passed. He would be dancing with her at the hall on Saturday nights, his arms about her.... Mike needed her, needed her worse than before. Yves would get her out all right. There was no better riverman on the Gatineau than Yves.

It was a very different looking person who stepped into the office an hour later. Her dress had been changed for corduroy breeches, blanket reefer; she wore cowhide shoepacks lacing to the knee; her hair was hidden in a blue wool toque topped by a white pompon. She might have been a slim, saucy-faced boy.

“I am real sorry over leaving you this way, Mr. Quinn, without warning or nothing.” “I’ve a hunch you’ll be back, Nora. The place is yours for the asking. Good-by, and may you beat the Winter to it.”

He followed her down to the water. The big FrenchCanadian, with his trousers’ legs stuffed into socks, muskrat cap on the back of his head, was packing the last of the duffle into the gray canoe. The whole world was leaden gray—sky and lake and distant shores beyond the lake. The dozen log and clapboard buildings that cluttered the clearing behind them were weathered gray, the smoke from the shack was all but indistinguishable against the gray sky. Now and then a pale flake drifted down, touched the sodden turf and vanished. Fortin lifted his face.

“Snow, by Gar! She no freeze to-night. All aboard. Au revoir, Meester Quinn—one, two week maybe.”

The girl stepped into the bow, kneeled, lifted her paddle; the man pushed off, sprang into place, cut the water with his blade. In five minutes the canoe had melted like the flakes into the gray expanse.

It was a late winter. Usually the lake was frozen at this time. Then the only means, of communication with the outer world was by sleds atop the ice, down narrow bush trails from lake to lake, slow, often perilous. It was folly to travel now—the folly of attempting exit through closing gates. Tragedies were only too common in the bush. Barring accidents, they would make the settlement in three days.

They paddled strongly and in silence straight down the center of Poigan lake. Within the hour a blizzard struck them, blotting out the distant shores, pitching the surface into stooks, stinging their faces with thin whips. The girl bent low, thrusting at waves that either eluded her or bellied up burying her .arms to the elbow. Yves’ maple bent at every stroke. Crests kept slipping over the gunwale.

“Hip-hooraw!” he shouted. “This ain’t notting.”

The elemental dispute persisted through a white, whirling darkness to the foot of the lake. Except for her hands and thighs, continually drenched, she glowed with exertion, excitement. She hopped out as the keel grated on the shingle and slipped her arms into her pack. Y'ves

took the heavier one on his own baek, adjusted the tumpline across his forehead, swung the canoe bottom up to his shoulders and started off.

Twice only on the three-mile trail did the big riverman drop his load to wipe the sweat from his face and poke fun at the weather. But by the time they reached the far end an early night was smudging out the glades and blanketing Little Poigan a hundred feet from shore.

“We camp here, what you tink?

You mak de fire, I pitch de tent.”

Nora was wood-wise if not worldlywise. She found dry fuel in a pine stump, started it with birch bark and soon had a merry blaze crackling in front of a high, flat-faced boulder and reflecting the heat into the mouth of the little tent. While she hung the billy and sliced the bacon he cut armfuls of balsam fir and laid them butts out over the floor of the tent. Covered with waterproof and blankets they made a deep, luxurious bed. Occasionally he stole a glance at the boyish figure by the fire, noting the flushed cheeks, the saucy nose, the firm chin, remembering her mission.

“Mike one damn fool to look at ’nudder girl,” he mused.

By the time the simple meal was consumed the girl’s clothes were dry, her eyes heavy with sleep. He waited until she had crawled into the tent, rolled up in her blankets, waited another hour. Then he followed, lay down beside her and was instantly unconscious. The tent walls steamed in the heat, the last storm flakes hissed in the coals, a low, heavy soughing began in the shaggy manes of the hendocks. A November night, cold, soggy, indescribably lonely blackened out the wilderness.

Twice during the night the man rose and replenished the fire. The second time he saw that the stars were glittering from a clear sky, the temperature failing rapidly. An hour before dawn he had breakfast ready and was calling her to hurry.

“Plenty frost in de air, Nora. If^we don’ go blame quick we walk, that’s all.”

She came, rubbing her eyes, yawning, and squatted close to the flames. Fifteen minutes later they struck camp. The ice was already forming along the margin of the lake—a thin, brittle ice that shivered like glass at every paddle thrust. It was still dark under the

trees, but the water reflected a ghost y pallor of dawn. The girl was continually thrusting her aching fingers into her mouth or squeezing them under her arm-pits. There was not even a loon to break the silence. Before the distorted, butter-colored sun could peer over the jagged bar of spruces the gray shadow in the mists had gained the end of Little Poigan and was plodding like some megatherian lizard across the portage to the Gens-de-terre.

The temperature did not rise with the sun. The last mile of the lake had been shelled over, and the exertion

of breaking through had scarcely offset the bitter breath that had panted up from the water and down from the steel-blue void. Such weather would soon bolt and bar the wilderness doors ahead. Those behind were already closed. But only one ake remained and that a large, one, and the rivers grew more turbulent as they went down. “We’ll slip through lak de weasel,” boasted Yves.

They found the Gens-de-terre frozen from bank to bank and were compelled to skirt along the shingle for a couple of miles until they found open water. Then the man crawled out on a fallen trunk and smashed a channel through the shore ice wdth the axe. Now they were gliding down a winding blue lane bordered with black ice, a border that narrowed and widened as the current changed its speed. At places it had blocked the channel and the girl would have to lean over with the axe and strike until her arm was tired. Then they would skim on, the icecakes trailing after them, gray rampikes, black pines, leafless hardwoods passing in a continuous diversified procession, their gaunt limbs silent, rigid against the hard cobalt blue. Indeed the only color was in the sky and the sky’s reflection. The low shores were drab, except where patched with snow; brushwood, swamp and cranberry bog were masses of nondescript tatters. It was a dead forsaken country—all the more dead for a flurry of gray juncos in a rust-red rowan tree.

Their morning run was short.

“Neever mind, Nora. We mak de speed quick dis afternoon. Plenty rapid ahead. We run dem all save de White Horse, by Gar. Pretty tired, no?” •

“Fresh as a daisy,” she insisted.

THEY hurried on. The sky clouded over but the cold remained. They were now between high bare banks. The snow clung to the grass, but all else was gray, bleached of color. A distant booming warned of approaching rapids. The canoe became more animated, jerked under them as though scenting trouble, slewed around the bend and dove straight for the heart of the Beauchene. The noise was confusing, the spray spurted up like beaten dust, the light craft dipped and dodged, smashed recklessly through the high-curled tail and floated quietly upon the foam-flecked pool below.

“Hip-hooraw!” shouted the riverman. “Wish all de time de river lak dat.”

“Suppose I had come alone?” she questioned, staring back up the hill of tumbling waters.

“Better walk round de Beauchene if you don’ know dem. Plenty folk drown in dat bit of water, by Gar.”

Continued on page 49

Black Ice

Continued from page 13

Wherever the waves had struck there was ice. It coated the gunwales, hardened the waterproof, sheathed the bow in horn. The girl’s reefer was rigid. The handle of her paddle stuck to her damp gloves. The axe shaft was iced and awkward to hold. The next time she used it it slipped through her fingers and was lost. But Yves only laughed.

“Maybe we don’ need it again.”

But they did need it, and its loss almost cost them their lives.

It was above the White Horse rapids, a series of falls and chutes, altogether unnavigable. The water being swift to the first drop, the man had expected to find it open from shore to shore. But he had not allowed for the back eddies. These had frozen over and now he was cut off from the portage trail by wide ice sheets that thrust him out into mid channel. There was scarcely time for turning. He barked an order to the girl and began backing with short, powerful strokes. Suddenly the paddle snapped, leaving him disarmed, helpless. The current caught the stern and swung it against the ice, and reaching out he clutched the edge with desperate fingers. For the moment they were safe.

“Hip-hooraw! I got heem where de wool is short,” he shouted over the uproar. “Vite, break de ice.”

But the pounding of her paddle had little effect.

“Come here.”

She crawled back over the duffle.

“Tak’ my knife—right pocket. Stick it in de ice.”

After much stabbing and hacking, she drove the blade through the black surface. Then he withdrew a numb hand from the water and anchored to the handle. With his other hand he succeeded in scolloping out a shallow bay, into which he drew the stern.

“Bon. Now de rope.”

She found it and tied one end to the stern thwart.

“You tink you hold him tight?” he grinned.

She nodded vigorously. He stooped low over the duffle while she crawled over his back and took his place in the stern. Then he set the bow paddle and the pieces of his own on the ice and wormed himself out until he lay at full length across the sticks. The ice bent under him, complaining sharply, and the hollow filled with water, but it held. Then cautiously, inch by inch, he began to snake his way shoreward with the rope, while the girl watched him, tense, striving inwardly to ease his weight from the overburdened ice, unmindful of her own peril.

Where he lay spread-eagled, his nose and chin pressed close to the hard, black surface, he seemed to be gazing through a window into night. Beyond half an inch of crystal was unfathomable darkness. Now and then an elongated bubble would slide by or the crystal shatter into a dozen rainbow-tinted cracks. The sharp snapping and splitting was disconcertingly loud in his ear, the floor sagged like rubber, threatening every instant to drop him into that deadly night. In such a current, surrounded by ice, the falls below, bitter cold everywhere, death would be inevitable. He must keep moving. The shore was drawing slowly nearer. Now he was less than thirty feet away—now twenty—now—. With a sudden detonation the ice ripped apart like paper and the searing tentacles of the water dragged him down.

As he felt himself going, however, he clawed himself forward, flailing at the ice in front of him, so that the instant his head went under his feet touched the bottom and shot him up again. A few more I’cv.s and he was standing in th

shallows, still clutching the rope, streaming but triumphant. His vibrant “Hiphooraw!” rang over the noise of many waters.

He commenced to draw in on the rope while Nora pushed down on the ice. The canoe slid out without difficulty and presently she was beside him. Then they built a huge driftwood fire on the beach, and while his clothes steamed and dried upon him he spliced the broken paddle with ash and strands of rope. An hour later they were around the White Horse and spinning once more past point and island. When night called a halt they were less than half-way to Maniwaki. It had been a hard day.

THE cold increased. He was up often replenishing the fire, tucking her blankets about her, robbing himself to cover her. If she had chanced to wake at such a time she would have surprised such a look of devotion and tenderness in his steady eyes as she had never seen before.

The next day it was one continuous succession of rapids and riffles, passable and impassable, and though portaging consumed much time, they succeeded in reaching Baskatong Lake that evening. Most of the big expanse was ice-bound, but a wide jagged channel down the center still lay open as though awaiting their coming. They started down the lake at dawn with half a gale at their backs. A few miles from shore the open water grew wider and the waves began to splash over the gunwales. Wherever they touched they congealed. By noon the canoe and contents were sheathed in ice and Yves was continuously knocking it off with the handle of his paddle. There was no chance to land on the ice field and the lake was a good thirty miles in length. On and on, with the rush of wind and wave in their ears, gray above and below, black ice to either side, fingers numb with cold, muscles numb with weariness—two puny mortals toiling in the center of an interminable arctic waste....

While still some miles from shore the man caught the gleam of surf on solid ice and knew that winter had ambushed them again. The waves were too high to permit of swinging broadside on. The instant the canoe stopped it would be as uncontrollable as a chip in the welter of seas, hurled against the ice, stove in, swamped. There was no retreat—ahead lay their only chance.

“Nora,” he cried, “we got to ram! Be ready to jump damn quick, eh? Now, paddle like de devil.”

UNDER the propulsion of wind and wave and paddle, the light craft bounced nimbly across the waves toward the ice barrier. The curved bow struck it a glancing blow, and the momentum carried the canoe for nearly half its length out onto the ice. At the same instant it split like a ripe pea-pod, scattering its contents in every direction. The girl escaped a ducking, but the man dragged himself out soaked to the waist. Most of the kit, including the tent and blankets, was pounded under the floe, and the two were left disarmed at the mercy of the wilderness.

“Hip-hooraw! You neever caught us dat tarn, ole Baskatong. Gome on, Nora, anuder tirty mile, dat’s all.”

“But you’re wet!”

“No matter. We hurry quick. Goodby, leetle canoe,” and he kissed a hand to the wreck before he slung the remaining bag over his shoulder and started shoreward. In a short time his trousers were as stiff as bark.

“Thank de bon Dieu, we got de match and tea. Now you keep de eye skinned for nice hole where we can crawl in and hide like de chipmonk.” He was as carefree as though they had been caught in a shower on a summer picnic.

“Oh, but you must be nigh frozen, Yves,” she worried.

“Don’ you trouble your leetle head about me, Nora. You keep your mind on dat udder fellow waitin’ in Maniwaki.” “No, no, Yves, not waiting.” And a little later, “No, I don’t think he’s waiting exactly. He’s likely having a right good time without me.”

“Mike’s one damn fine fellow—you see.”

She gave a grateful glance toward Yves’ broad back.

As it grew dark he stopped and pointed to a nook under a big rock.

He gathered dead wood, lit it with a match taken from his watch-case. Then he piled rotted logs and stumps into a

wind-break; broke fir and hemlock tips and stuffed them into the crevice; labored for an hour to make her comfortable for the night. They eased their hunger and ' thirst with quantities of strong tea. Presently the girl washsleep. He divested himself of his mackinaw and spread it over her, crouching close to the fire. Not having blankets, he must keep it from dying down. Thus he was continually foraging for fuel, or dreaming into the flames with wide, unseeing eyes. About midnight he caught her awake, watching him.

“You cold?” he asked with grave concern.

“No, warm as toast. You must take back your coat.” She pushed it toward him.

“No, I hug de fire.”

He replaced it gently but firmly.

“Listen, Yves, I’ve changed my mind. I want to go back.”

“All right. One, two week snow come thick and de sleds take you back.”

“But I don’t want to go on to Maniwaki,” she pleaded, her eyes shining in the firelight.

The man looked grim.

“I guess maybe you got to go. We got no grub, no nuddin’. What’s de matter, Nora?”

“I—I wish I hadn’t left the depot,” was her only explanation.

Five minutes later, when he thought her asleep, she spoke again.

“Yves, I want you to promise me one thing.”

“One tousand ting, by Gar.”

“When we get to Maniwaki don’t you leave me—not till I tell you to. Promise me that?”

“Oui, I stick lak de brudder,” he grinned.

HE WOKE her at dawn, made her drink more strong tea, packed up the kit and they set out on their last long lap. But the zest, even the courage, that had animated her seemed suddenly to have gone. He was ever slowing down where the trail was rough, and waiting at every windfall to help her over, with a cheery word and a laugh of encouragement. He would not let her rest for more than a few minutes at a time, intent on getting her out before another night should catch her. By eleven they had reached the Gatineau River and the tote-road that followed its course to the settlement. Whey they stopped for more tea, she lay face down on the frozen moss.

“Only ten mile more,” he said.

But to her that ten miles seemed harder than all the rest combined. She tried feebly to hide her fatigue from him, but after tripping a couple of times she consented to cling to his arm. From this it was a small matter for him to slip his arm . about her waist, taking most of her weight and finally to lay her like a child across his shoulder.

“Oh, no, no,” she murmured. “I’m too heavy—put me down.”

“What did de bon Dieu mak all de muscle for, eh? You light as de fedder. Pretty soon now you see dat big Irish fellow,” he chuckled.

But even his huge frame could not function indefinitely withoht fuel and he was compelled to rest from time to time. But he would not relinquish his burden, no matter how strongly it protested. The sun set in a clear cold sky, the stars came out and sparkled down through the wirelike branches, and at last, about ten o’clock, he caught the gleam of lights across the snow.

“Hip-hooraw!” cried Yves. “What did I tell you, eh? You tak de grub and de bed and to-morrow you be fit as de fiddle.”

She made him let her down. Fresh strength seemed to pervade her.

“Don’t you leave me,” she ordered fiercely.

They went down the deserted boardwalk to the one road-house. Madam Guiteau was at first amazed, then terribly concerned over their condition—would have a hot supper for them just as quick as her fat legs and arms could move.

“I know wrhy you come, Mam’selle,” and the woman wdnked cunningly.

“Do you know where he is?” asked Nora wearily.

“Oui, he’s havin’ de dance down to Hugo’s hall.”

“Then his foot is all right again?” “Ah-ah, ders nuttin’ warong wit dat foot, Mam’selle—neever stop til de cock she crow. I guess maybe tarn you come, ’fore dat Charbarrou gal get heem.” She

chugged into the kitchen and returned. “He get stuck on dat Charbarrou gal if he don’ look out. One secón’—just one leetle secón’. Des oeufs quatre, cinq, Monsieur?”

IN THE meantime the two sat on either side the tall dining-room stove, waiting in gloomy silence. A week’s stubble rather marred the riverman’s handsome face; his eyes no longer twinkled. They wolfed their supper in silence, in spite of Madame’s loquacious euriosity, and left the house. The hall was a big barn-like structure at the lower end of the street. As they drew near they could hear the scraping of feet, whining of fiddles, rattle of bones. In the bright moonlight Yves could see that her face was paler than ever. Her arm trembled in his.

They entered the porch, pushed open the inner door and stepped in. The room was clouded with tobacco fumes fetid, hot; the couples whirled past like logs caught in a rapid, lashed on by the fiery musicians above them. No one noticed the two bushmen standing by the door. Almost at once Yves discovered Mike Currier. The big lumberman was careening toward them, a small red figure in his wide embrace. His face was hectic, his eyes gleamed like agates. As he ¡ twirled past he fervently pressed his lips ; against the dark head beneath him—and raising his eyes recognized the watching figures.

Yves’ right arm instinctively scooped the girl behind him.

“Come wit’ me, Nora.”

He shoved her gently into the porch. But he knew it was too late. She rushed out into the moonlight and up a woodroad that struck back from the river. He strode after her, irresolutely, and behind him came Currier, bare-headed, running blindly. The riverman turned, blocking the way.

“What in hell are you doing here?” shouted the Irishman.

“Bon soir, Mike,” was the quiet response.

“Get out of my way, damn you!”

“Listen to me, Mike Currier. You want her, eh? Den you go home and cool off de head. She come all de way—”

But the other was in no condition to reason. This Frenchman was after his girl. He struck out viciously, cursing as only a lumberman can. Yves ducked nimbly but retreated slowly before the onslaught.

“Don’ be one damn fool, Mike,” he drawled.

Then Nora, running up behind him, took charge of the situation.

“What are you two following me for?” she demanded.

The Irishman lost his pugnacity on the instant.

“Look ahere, Nora darlin’, don’t be sore at a little thing like that,” he wheedled thickly. “Tilly don’t mean nothing to me, not a blamed thing.”

“Well then, she ought to, Mike Currier. And you mean considerable less than that to me from now on, understand. Get out and leave me be, both of you.”

“You hear dat, frien’? Maybe we better tak de hint, eh?”

But Mike ignored him.

“Oh, no, darlin’, don’t be angry—not over a little thing like that. I’m mad in love with you, Nora, girl, I’m—”

“Don’t use that word to me again! I can’t be fooled twice, not by the same man. Think of me working my hands off to send you money so you could blow it on booze and on that woman, and you pertending that you were living straight and couldn’t work yet! You’re a yellow dog, that’s what, and if you ever speak to me again I’ll—I’ll—” and she shook her twm fists in his face.

Her fury sobered him, stripped his defenses, left him mute.

“Go! I’m waiting. Go back to your— your fun, and you (without turning her head) go the other way.”

Yves swung lightly on his heel and started off. Mike gave one more pleading look, and, crushed and hopeless, slouched heavily toward the lights. The girl stood gazing after him and there was neither scorn nor pride in her sweet pale face. Her eyes suddenly filled. Her arms lifted helplessly toward him; her lips parted— There was a rustle behind her, and she turned to catch a glimpse of a giant form bending over her. Then she was snatched up, tossed over a shoulder and borne swiftly into the impenetrable shadow of the pines.