In which love comes to Gervais Goudron, and the trail of a furious vengeance takes a strange turning
WILLIAM MERRIAM ROUSE
THERE is strength in an arm like that of Gervais Goudron, tapering from a broad pad of shoulder muscle to a corded wrist, but there is more strength in an idea such as he carried toward the country above the rivers. For it was in his heart to kill Norbert Tremblay at sight, without argument or mercy; and since his heart had been burned clear of all other feeling, this purpose was with Goudron day and night as he marched, and made camp in the bush, and marched again on the long trail of the man who had wronged him.
This day when it became too dark to be sure of Tremblay’s trail on the snow-covered Rivière Ste. Marguerite, Goudron climbed the river bank to the edge of the bush, and with a long breath of weariness freed himself from the tump-line and shoulder straps of his pack. He found dry wood and made a fire, and set about making himself comfortable for the night. Another day finished, another night begun, and still he was mounting north toward the vast stretches of Ungava. It seemed likely that Tremblay thought to lose him there. Life had become a never-ending madness of putting one snowshoe down in front of the other.
Along the Côte de Beaupré, then up the Saguenay from the St. Lawrence to the village of Rivière Ste. Marguerite, and now north with the river; this was the route Goudron had come, always with his heart set upon revenge as steadily as his head was set to the tump-line. He begrudged these hours which were to be given to eating and sleeping; yet it was pleasant to sit on a blanket with his weary back against a tree while the fire burned up and its warmth stole caressingly over him. The smell of the wood smoke was good; food and tobacco would taste even better. Goudron unbuttoned his sheepskin-lined coat and allowed his head to rest against the trunk of the tree in a moment of relaxation. His face was deeply bitten by the marks of suffering and of this journey, but it was still a face that men and dogs would greet with friendliness. It had been kind.
The messenger from Norbert Tremblay came out of the gathering darkness swiftly and in silence; it came with such quiet deadliness that for an instant after a sharp stab of pain had touched his head Goudron did not know just what had happened.
Involuntarily he jerked his head to one side. Then he saw the half of a knife quivering less than six inches from his face. The point had drawn a line of fire along his head, just above the ear under his woollen tuque, and buried itself in the tree.
With the realization of what had happened Goudron flung himself toward his rifle. He sent a shot crashing into the darkness in the direction from which the knife had come. Again, and then a third time he fired, knowing the probable uselessness of it. Tremblay,
if he were still there, would have put himself behind a tree. But it was not likely that he had remained. He had come back along his own trail to send a warning, and that was all. He could have shot Goudron from ambush if he had wanted to, and Goudron knew why he had not. He did not dare to stain with murder a soul already blackened by robbery and the betrayal of a friend
Goudron had fired without rising, as soon as his hands reached the rifle. Now he sprang up and stepped out of the firelight, to the other side of that tree against which he had leaned so wearily a moment before. He waited and listened. There was silence in the encircling night. Then from a distance came a sharp report but Goudron knew it for the snapping of a branch in the intense, still cold. There was no sound of movement, no hint of a groan, from the bush in front of him.
Slowly Gervais moved away from his tree, out in a wide arc. He had put on his snowshoes as he left cover, otherwise it would have been impossible to travel through snow which came up to a man’s middle. Like a shadow he moved from tree to tree, his gaze straining into the dimness ahead. A certain light from the stars filtered through interlaced bare branches and Goudron would have been able to see another shadow like himself.
He travelled in a semicircle until he stoqd on ground which must have been covered by his volley. Through the trees he could see the light from his fire swinging fitfully against the dark background of forest. He knelt and, after listening for a moment to make sure that Tremblay was not hiding near, he lighted a match. Yes; here was a space trampled by snowshoes. One clear imprint showed Goudron that they were the same pair he had been following—or others just like them, which was not likely. Tremblay had worn long racers, uncommon in the bush. And who else but Norbert would throw that knife?
The trail seemed to lead off to the north, in the flare of Goudron’s matches. Tremblay had swung out past the camp fire on the side opposite to that taken by Goudron in his circling. So Gervais went back wearily and after a moment of thought rolled his blankets and again lifted his pack to tired shoulders. Better march! He might run Tremblay down this night if the man were not given endurance by the Evil One himself. It had been folly for him to come back, to lose distance, for a gesture like that of the knife. He should have known that he must either kill Goudron or escape him entirely. Gervais Goudron would not give up.
This time he did not march on the river. He was close to his quarry and there was just a chance that Tremblay, finding himself about to be cornered, would shoot. From the bush he could see a figure moving against the white
river. So Goudron kept to the woods, working north and holding fairly close to the frozen stream. It was reasonably certain that the other man would do the same thing. Gervais could not see the trail but if he overran it during the hours of darkness he could pick it up again next day. He felt sure that his enemy would not stop to make camp this night.
^\N AND on with heavy feet and the pack pulling hard against neck and shoulders. Even the rifle of Goudron became a weight in his hand. From time to time he shifted it. Once he barked a laugh as he thought of the folly of that gesture of Norbert. The knife was now in his belt along with 'his own. Tremblay had one less weapon and he had merely stirred up the hound of vengeance to travel by night. He might need that knife soon, and badly, when they came to close quarters.
Through the night endlessly. Now and again the clatter of rim on rim as the snowshoes of Goudron struck together; other than that sound there was only the swish of their steady progress. The head of Goudron was bent to the tump-line and the rhythm of the snowshoes took hold of his tired senses so that he did not realize he was near a human habitation until yellow light from the windows of a cabin was streaming across his path. He halted and straightened up. The camp of a trapper, probably, and one who burned candles later than most people of the woods.
Goudron was of two minds about stopping. It would mean a little loss of time but it might be that Tremblay had been to the cabin before him; that he had stopped here since the throwing of the knife and given some hint of the direction in which he was going. It was possible that he might turn from his northern course. Chicoutimi and the towns near Lac St. Jean lay to the west, and there was a railroad there also.
The thud of Goudron’s mittened fist upon the door was answered immediately and he found himself blinking in the candlelight, and made a little stupid by astonishment. For it was a girl instead of a whiskered woodsman who opened the door to him. She stood there, small and trim, with her head thrown back and dark eyes looking up into his own as she waited for him to speak.
“Pardon!” he mumbled, confusedly. “I did not know ... I thought this was the cabane of a trapper!”
“It is!” she told him, with a little laugh. “Enter, monsieur! Have you never before seen a woman in the bush?”
“Ah, many of them!” he said, and he made an effort to throw off his fatigue. “But none more charming!”
“Grand-pere!” she exclaimed, turning toward a corner by the stove. “Here is a true Frenchman!”
“Welcome, monsieur!” said a voice that sounded like the rattle of spokes in a sun-baked wheel.
Goudron was in the room now, with the door closed
behind him, and his eyes were becoming accustomed to the light.
The better he was able to see, the more difficult it became to take his gaze from the girl. Her head was crowned by a shimmering, silken mist of hair; her eyes seemed so dark because they were the blue of a night sky.
A glance into the corner whence the cracked voice had come revealed an old man whose once mighty figure had been wasted by the years, although not yet to feebleness. He rose with the slow dignity of one who knows that time is nothing, and lifted his hand in a gesture of salute.
“You are at home here,” he said. “Be seated. I am Hormisdas Boulet and this is my granddaughter, Denise Bruneau.”
Goudron told them his own name as he bowed, slipped off his pack, and sat down; although before entering he had promised himself that he would yield to no such weakness as a rest. He must keep to the trail. Better a short sleep in the snow with his feet to the fire than the risk of oversleeping under a roof. He looked about. The camp had two rooms, he perceived, and was well furnished for the bush. There was a great silver-gilt stove of two bridges with the oven on top and a fine capacity for heat. This was almost as good as a home in a village.
“Monsieur!” cried the girl, suddenly. “You are wounded! There is blood on your cheek!”
Goudron put his hand to his face and found that the knife of Tremblay had scratched deeper than he thought.
‘Ah, yes!” he murmured. “A twig, as I came through some dead hemlocks!”
Already she was examining the cut, although he lifted a hand in protest.
It must have been a very sharp twig,” said Mile. Bruneau. “I shall wash that cut for you, in cognac.” But, mademoiselle!” exclaimed Çoudron, “it is not necessary that you take this trouble for a stranger—” It is nothing!” she interrupted, bringing water and a cloth and the cognac bottle. Goudron yielded; it was 'ery pleasant to lean back against the log wall, close his eyes and have such a very pretty girl pretend that
he was wounded. Gervais Goudron had let deeper hurts than this one heal themselves.
“I stopped here,” he said, as she finished, “to ask if another man had been here to-night. He would be tall, about my age, good-looking, with long, light snowshoes built for speed.”
For a moment there was silence. Old Hormisdas Boulet, in his big chair by the stove, did not move or speak although his intensely black and lively eyes were fixed upon Goudron. It was the granddaughter who answered.
“Yes, monsieur,” she said. “Such a one was here.”
“Ha!” cried Goudron, sitting up very straight. “When?”
“A half hour before you came.”
“He was in a hurry?”
“He had been marching very fast, monsieur, for a long time. A man hard pressed, I should say.”
She was watching the face of Goudron very gravely. He wondered how much Tremblay had told them; what lies, for instance.
“Which way did he go from here?” asked Gervais.
“He said he was going north, M. Goudron.”
“In that case I shall march again to-night! At once!”
“To-night?” repeated the old man.
“I must!” answered Goudron. It was going to take an effort of the will to leave this comfortable cabin, but he had learned long since to shut his mind against thoughts of comfort. He reached for his pack.
“You desire to meet this man who came here?” inquired Hormisdas Boulet, slowly.
“Yes! Very much!”
“We can give you a good place to sleep in the loft,” offered Mile. Bruneau. “You will sleep warm there!”
Goudron looked at the girl. The touch of gentle fingers, the light of kindness in dark and sympathetic eyes—these things were bad for his purpose.
“I must go on,” he said.
“ ‘Must’ is a hard word,” muttered Boulet. “There was also a ‘must’ on the heels of that other man! Hard driven!”
“He is, monsieur!” Goudron rose and slipped his arms through the straps of his pack. He took his rifle and then, just for an instant, he wavered. Denise Bruneau was to that other girl who had come between him and Tremblay as the glory of morning is to moonlight. With this one a man might find rest and peace instead of the fever of a dream. But Goudron turned toward the door and raised his hand in salute.
“I thank you,” he said.
“Boin soir et bonne nuit!” Hormisdas wished him good night as calmly as though he were going up into the loft to sleep. Denise Bruneau said nothing. Instead she snatched a long cape from a peg in the wall and followed Goudron out into the night.
TN THE light from the windows they faced each other.
She and the old man guessed something of the deadly nature of his quest, whether or not Norbert had told them. Of that Goudron was sure by now.
“Give up this folly!” she exclaimed, looking up into his face.
Suddenly he made the decision to tell her; she must not think too badly of him after he was gone. He wanted her to know that he had reason for this man hunt.
“Norbert Tremblay and I owned a sloop together,” he began, abruptly, “and I could not have thought more of a brother. We traded from Quebec to Chaleur Bay and up the coast of Labrador. There was a girl at Quebec, in the Lower City. Rosine Martin . . . she . . . she had promised to marry me. Tremblay wrecked our boat on the rocks of Gaspé and left me there for dead. He went to Quebec and collected all the insurance. He took Rosine. For nearly a year I hunted for him and at last I ran him down, alone, on the Côte de Beaupré. He got away from me there, but now I am close! close! To-night, perhaps! To-morrow!”
“And then?” she asked, in a whisper. “After you catch him?”
“I shall kill him,” said Goudron, calmly. “Is it for anything else that I have given my life up to this chase?”
“Oh, you cannot do this thing!” Her voice was a cry to the night; a plea to heaven against Gervais Goudron. He shook his head.
“Did you care so much for her? This . . . this Rosine?”
“For her?” echoed Goudron. “Oh, then I did! Not now! It is that he is a traitor! He has ruined me!” “You are not ruined! Mon Dieu! Have you no . . . no strength?”
“I have strength to drive a knife into his heart!” “That is not strength! Ah, Dieu! What a child!” “What is it but strength that has brought me here into the bush?” demanded Goudron, fiercely. “What is it that has kept me marching without sleep, without enough to eat, when my legs were like sticks of wood? I have kept on when my face was black with frostbite,
my belt reefed to the last hole, my eyes barely able to see the trail of this thief and traitor! If that is not strength, then I am a weakling!”
She turned away and covered her face with her hands. Then, as swiftly, she looked up at him again and Goudron saw that tears glistened against the whiteness of her cheeks.
“Go,” she said, slowly, “and may le bon Dieu guide your steps!”
She was gone into the cabin before Goudron could move or speak. For many seconds he stood with bowed head where she had left him, staring at the door, desiring deep
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in his heart to follow her and find peace. But he could not. One who has been driven for a long time by a fixed idea does not stop and turn as easily as that. With whips the desire for vengeance tortured his soul. It flung him around, at last, and set his feet north.
ON THROUGH the night marched Goudron, never far from the Rivière Ste. Marguerite, until he judged that it was no more than three or four hours to dawn. He must have a little sleep; so he made camp and rolled up in his blankets to lie in a stupor of fatigue until day came again to the bush. Then he ate and made ready to circle until he should pick up the trail of Norbert Tremblay. They could not be far apart now.
Goudron struck off to the east and marched for an hour, but when he crossed no trail in that time he decided that he had taken the wrong direction. Of course! If Tremblay knew anything, and he did, he had gone back to the river where he could make so much better time. That was what one got for being so eager that he did not think!
Patiently Goudron marched back the way he had come, and went on to the Rivière Ste. Marguerite. But here there was no trail; nor was there one on the other side of the river for a considerable distance back from the shore. Perhaps Norbert had told them he was going north with the intent that his pursuer should get that information. Naturally! And spend the night and the beginning of the next day marching in the wrong direction! Eh bien! A man with patience could always overcome a mistake like that.
This time Goudron determined to take no chances. He began to bear south and east from where he stood and he marched steadily until he had swung northeast and then north, finally to cross the trail he himself had made earlier that morning. In describing this circle he had crossed the trail of Tremblay, and his own, going up to the cabin. These were the tracks of the night before, made after Norbert had gone back to throw the knife and when he was again in flight. But nowhere was there evidence that Tremblay had gone out of the circle about the cabane Boulet.
“A man does not fly!” muttered Goudron, incredulously. “There are no wolves here to pull him down, that is certain! Did he kill himself?”
Tremblay was not the man to kill himself. No, he might flee for his life
as long as there was hope but at the last he would stand and fight. Goudron knew him well enough to know that. A man able to build a fire would not freeze, and it had been no hand weakened by starvation that had thrown the knife.
Suddenly a light broke upon the mind of Gervais Goudron. He wondered, growling curses at his own stupidity, that he had not seen that light before. Instantly with the thought, his feet turned back toward the cabane of Boulet; and although he was an hour’s hard march away he did not stop to draw breath until he was again at the door which he had left with so much heartache the night before.
This time there was a little delay before his knock was answered, but after a moment of waiting the door swung inward and the dark eyes of Denise Bruneau met his. She did not seem surprised to see him: neither surprised nor pleased nor afraid. She stepped back in an invitation for him to enter. Goudron noted that the old man was not in his chair to-day. Out covering a line of traps, perhaps, or chopping firewood.
“Mademoiselle,” said Goudron, soberly, “the stranger did not go north last night!” “Monsieur, what I told you was true!” “I repeat that Tremblay did not go north!”
“He said he was going north, and that is what I told you! I did not say that he went north!”
“I remember . . . now!”
She had misled him. He stood trying to fathom her eyes as they clouded with sadness and a hint of pain. She knew well enough what was coming.
“So you see I did not lie to you!”
“I am sorry I seemed to accuse you,” he said. “It has made me lose all my politeness, this long trail!”
“You have lost more than that, M. Goudron!”
“Perhaps!” he passed a hand wearily over his forehead. “But I have found Norbert Tremblay! He is here!”
“Yes,” she replied, and that was all. Goudron had expected evasion, pleading. He remembered the night before. But now she stood silent and motionless before him. It was as though she awaited a judgment; not of herself but of him. Upon Gervais Goudron came a great longing for her. It was of this woman rather than of Rosine that he had dreamed through long night watches on the great river and the Gulf. It was this kind who would wait for a man while he went into the frozen seas of Labrador.
“Where have you hidden him?” he demanded harshly.
“I will tell you because I cannot stop you from finding him if you search our house,” she said. Her little hand lifted slowly and pointed toward the doorway to the second room of the cabin. “He is in there!”
“Hiding behind a woman!” growled Goudron, and he took a forward step.
Denise Bruneau made no move to stop him. She stood quietly aside, still with that searching gaze fastened upon him.
“If you will destroy yourself—”
Suddenly it came to him, with the force of a blow, that he might be going to meet death. A blanket hung over the doorway. When he stepped beyond that curtain it might be to receive a bullet from the rifle of Tremblay. Of course Norbert knew that he was out here, and coming. The partition was of pine slabs, split with an axe and none too closely set together. Perhaps the rifle was already leveled at his heart. Another step, a brushing away of the blanket, would invite the end of the long chase. It was not likely that Norbert Tremblay would die without lifting an arm in self-defence. Last night he had given his warning.
If this were the last moment of life for Gervais Goudron, then he was looking his last upon Denise; gazing for the last time into eyes which had darkened in the few seconds just past until they seemed black. He would know very soon.
Goudron was of that close fighting breed which relies at the last upon the steel blade rather than the bullet. Deliberately he set his rifle against the wall and drew his knife.
“When I have settled my account with that traitor,” he said, “I shall come back to you!”
“You will not find me!” Denise told him. She turned away, and he saw that her lips were waxen. “Go, if you must!”
The devil that Gervais Goudron had allowed to grow in his heart became a monster. It took him by the broad shoulders and drove him toward that silent room. He was propelled by a force that he himself had created. With a sweep of his left arm he dashed the blanket aside and sprang into the room; lips drawn back, crouching like a panther, knife ready for the thrust.
No bullet met him: no clubbed rifle struck for his head. He stopped himself with a sudden rigidity of every muscle and stood erect. For long seconds he remained thus, staring down at the low, homemade bed in one corner.
It was Norbert Tremblay who lay there under a gay patchwork quilt and whose vague stare rested upon the face of Goudron. But those eyes did not see him. At the first glance at the recumbent figure Goudron realized this, and knew that the hands wandering aimlessly over the quilt were moved by delirium. The dark flush of fever stained the forehead of his enemy. Tremblay did not know that he had been hunted down at last.
Goudron stepped nearer the bed. He felt, rather than heard, a movement beside him. He met the gaze of Denise. It shifted to the bed and became tender with pity. She straightened the quilt and drew it gently about the shoulders of Tremblay. He stirred at the touch and his voice pierced the room feebly.
“Rosine! Rosine! You did not need to steal the money! I would have given it all to you, cherie! You cost me my friend! And now the money! And life when Gervais finds me! Rosine! Come closer! I love thee!”
The voice of Norbert Tremblay drooped and died away. Still Goudron stood, knife in hand, staring at him.
“What has happened to him, Denise?”
“It is one of the bullets that you fired last night,” she said. “In his shoulder. He tried to go on but he could not. And with weakness from the long chase, and the wound, and remorse, his mind is wandering.”
Still she seemed to be waiting for something. Goudron lifted his head. The weight of the monster had gone from him.
"Bon Dieu!” he whispered.
“Why don’t you strike?” asked Denise.
“Because,” cried Goudron, “I am going to put my friend Tremblay on a sled and take him to Ste. Marguerite where there is a doctor! And I am going to travel night and day until I get him there! He suffers!”
Behind them came the sound of a step and Goudron whirled to see Hormisdas Boulet standing in the doorway, with a smile.
“You shall have my sled,” he told Goudron. “The little one there was alarmed last night but I told her there was no danger. I have seen men die but never one by the hand of a man like you! Maudit! No!”
Now Goudron saw that the eyes of Denise had turned from black again to the blue of a night sky. His heart was lifted up.
“I shall come back,” he said, “to find you!’’
She bent low over Tremblay as she held a cup of water to his lips.
“May God guide your steps!” she said; and although the words were spoken as she looked at the wounded man, his friend was content.