Front Page Stuff
H. S. M. KEMP
WHEN Claire Stewart received the appointment as nurse at the Indian Department School at Pipestone Lake, she began to collect data as to who was who at the Northern settlement. She knew, of course, that Pipestone Lake was on Churchill River, 300 miles north, that it boasted a Hudson’s Hay and a Revillon post; but regarding her neighbors-to-be, she was pretty much in the dark. At least, until she met Nell Barclay.
Nell wrote books, impossibly romantic things, and had just returned from a trip to the Churchill.
“My dear, you’ll adore Pipestone Lake,” gushed Nell. “The place is lovely, and the people as picturesque as though they had stepped out of a Curwood novel. Mind you, I don’t mean the staff at the School. They’re all elderly ladies, martyred to what they call their ‘work.’ I mean the men--the traders and the trappers of the country.” Nell rolled soulful eyes. “You’ll meet Bill Bassett at Revillon’s, Colin McDonald at the Hudson’s Bay ]X)st; and, in case you don’t know it, Sergeant Tommy Burnham of the Police.”
Claire Stewart frowned. Burnham? Tommy Burnham? She seemed to recall the name.
“Of course. The man who’s in the papers so much.”
Nell nodded. “They call him Burnham of the Arctic. You saw his photographs in the rotogravure section this winter with his six wolf-dogs; how he looked after he made that wonderful trip across the Barrens. Just between us,” said Nell with a proprietary touch that Claire did not fail to miss, “he’s the hero of the book I’m bringing out. You’ll thrill when you meet him.”
Claire smiled at Nell’s naive enthusiasm, but was not entirely unconscious of the stirring of interest within herself. Up until a week or so before, her horizon seemed to be bounded on all sides by hospital wards and clinical thermometers. Now the horizon was widening. She was going North; going into pioneering work. True, the pioneering would consist largely of watching the health of her dusky charges at the School, but she would be doing her part, just as the much publicized Sergeant Burnham was doing his.
But then, a little doubt assailed her.
“I wonder will I fit in,” she mused.
“Fit in?” Nell put the only possible construction on her words. “Of course you’ll fit in. Any unmarried girl would. Up in that—that hinterland, a woman is a novelty. With your face and figure, you’ll knock ’em cold.”
Claire gave a laugh of sheer enjoyment. “Dear old Nell ! You don’t know what I mean, but everything is quite all right.”
There followed hurried packing, adieus to friends and acquaintances, a plane flight over Nell’s hinterland; and after that, a confirmation of all that Nell had said.
PIPESTONE LAKE was lovely, with its white-sand bay, its ruggedness; its trading ]X)sts and villages of teepees and tents. Nor was Nell far wrong in her description of the staff at the School. From Miss Arbuthnot down, each of the ladies was past the bloom of youth, each severe on her outlook on life, and each fully aware of the greatness of the work she was doing. As for the white male population the traders and the trappers Claire was to find that out for herself.
They came up at first singly, with a hint of shyness in their manner; then in twos and threes. The verandah of the Mission House suddenly became Pipestone Lake’s most popular lounging place. As old Jed Smith, the Mission handy man, told it: “She’s gettin’t’ be so’s a feller can’t walk in th’ door ’thout failin’ over ever’ bum in th’ village.” Bill Bassett, the Revillon man, played rather better than average on the mandolin. Colin McDonald from the Hudson’s Bay possessed a husky baritone voice. And when
these failed, there was always bridge.
Miss Arbuthnot and the rest of the venerable ladies frowned bleakly. The Bassetts and the McDonalds laughed in secret enjoyment. Miss Claire Stewart shrugged slim shoulders and asked what she should do.
“We can’t be unsociable, can we? Can’t forbid them to come. Or ¡xrhaps I should stay in my room?”
In the face of which argument, the venerable ladies went off in a huff.
A week passed, two, three; and Claire had not yet met Sergeant Tommy Burnham. True, had had glimpses of his red tunic going by the picket fence that surrounded the School property, and once had seen him hanging to the tiller of his big, engine-rigged canoe. But to meet him personally, no.
Claire thought it strange; even admitted to a feeling of disappointment that bordered on pique. Burnham might be a superman in the Force, but it wouldn’t have lowered his dignity to be a bit neighborly. With the finesse of a diplomat, she brought the conversation to bear on the sergeant one evening.
“I’ve never met him, I think,” she told Bill Bassett. “What sort of a person is he?”
“Tommy’s all right,” replied Bill Bassett emphatically. “Eh, Mac?”
“One of the best,” agreed McDonald. “Dunno, though, how he’d appeal to you. He’s a man’s man, if you know what I mean. All wool and a yard wide.”
“I’ve read a lot about him in the papers,” observed Claire. “He seems to make the front page pretty frequently.”
“Sure. But he doesn’t think much of it. Reserved sort of chap. Keeps to himself.”
But Claire Stewart was to meet the sergeant within twenty-four hours. He came to the School with a letter for one of the teachers. As usual, both Bill Bassett and McDonald were on the verandah, as were also a couple of geologists and a pilot off one of the planes. Bassett’s mandolin was laid aside, and the pilot had just concluded an entertaining and highly diverting anecdote. In the gale of laughter that followed, Sergeant Burnham appeared at the verandah door.
McDonald admitted him, and seized the opportunity to negotiate an introduction to Claire.
“You’re a bit behind times, Tommy, but shake hands with Miss Stewart. School nurse, y’know.”
Claire rose from the cushioned lounge-chair in which she had been sitting. The rest of the men clambered to their feet. As she extended her hand, Claire was able to compare Burnham with the pictures she had seen of him.
Her first reaction was that the rotogravure did not do him justice. He was taller than she thought, slim but wide-shouldered. Neither could the rotogravure show the almost Indian coloring of his face, the cool greyness of his eyes or the kinkiness of his hair. And then Burnham smiled.
For some reason it was not a smile that Claire Stewart liked. She could not say definitely what quality there was in it. but it produced in her an instinctive antagonism. The smile seemed to lx patronizing, subtly amusing. There was something in it akin to scorn. Instead of the cordial acknowledgment that was on her lips, she gave a cool “How do you do.” and withdrew her hand.
Bill Bassett was frowning. He shot a look from Claire to Burnham again. Hurriedly he said: “Take a
chair, Tommy. Always room for one more.”
But Burnham gave a lazy smile. “Sorry and all the rest of it . . . Got a letter, though, for Miss Newby. Don’t let me interrupt . . ”
He nodded, flicked another appraising glance to Claire, and stepped through the door into the hallway beyond.
“Great fella, Burnham.” Thus the pilot.
“Remember one time he and I ...”
But Claire heard little of what was said.
Something was pounding within her, tightening her throat. She recalled Burnham’s look, his cryptic smile. She felt cheapened, humiliated. What had inspired the look? She wished she knew. But the remembrance of it brought hot anger.
“Burnham!” She repeated the name to herself, chokingly. “A man’s man! I hate him—and I don’t know why.”
BETWEEN then and freeze-up she had other opportunities of meeting the sergeant. Mostly the meetings were on a professional basis. Burnham had found a family in the village who needed attention, a sick child. Each meeting brought that antagonistic clash that Claire was so well aware of and yet found so hard to define. With both her and Burnham in uniform, the sergeant was curt, brisk. His business dis¡x>sed of, he left with a short salute. But Claire preferred this to his manner at other and less formal times. Then he was studiously cynical, or else he treated her as though she failed to exist. Claire, for her part, dodged him. If his name cropped up in conversation with the other men, she maintained an aloof silence.
Bill Bassett, miraculously alone with her one evening, called for an explanation of things.
“This Tommy Burnham ...” he began suggestively. “No like him?”
“It’s not a matter of like or dislike,” retorted Claire. “So far as I’m concerned, he’s—well he just isn't.”
V. C % #t1 p... ..iI~
“Yeah?” Bill gave a knowing grin. “I noticed a certain something the night I introduced him to you. The introduction went haywire. Why?”
“I’m afraid,” said Claire stiffly, “you’re imagining things.”
But Bill, manlike, went blundering on. “Gosh, there don’t seem to be no sense in all this. Tommy’s a darn gcxxl egg ...”
The spark to dynamite. Claire blew up.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t start singing his praises to me! They’ve been dinned into my ears ever since I first landed.”
Bill looked at her sharply; frowned; tried to get in his word.
'Tm not praising him. Same time, though—”
“He’s a wonder. Yes!” cut in Claire. “These ‘epic’ trips of his and his thrilling exploits. . . Tell me,” she challenged Bill abruptly, “does he ever take any harder trips than you or Colin McDonald? He goes out after men and you go after fur. But are his trips any more severe?”
Bill tru'd to stall. “Well; it all depends—”
“It doesn’t depend !” Ilarwl Claire. “I'm asking you a straight question. Oh. I’ll grant that you aren’t so glamorous—you don’t wear a red coat and get your picture in the papers but you do the job just the same.” She drew a breath. “‘Burnham of the Arctic!’ I haven’t been here very long, but I know this isn’t the Arctic. And those ‘wolf-dogs’of his are just common huskies.” She shook herself impatiently. “The trouble is you’ve all worshipped him so much that he now thinks himself a demigod. All right; but I’m not the worshipping kind.”
That settled the matter, decided Claire, even though it was in the abstract. But with freeze-up and the coming of winter, she chalked another score against the sergeant. This was something concrete, something of more than words.
In the dazzling whiteness of a new fall of snow, she made her way to Bill Bassett’s post. She needed castor oil for the School, a requisite of which she had run alarmingly short. The spruce-lined trail was twisting, so that she came abruptly on the i>ost and on a scene taking place before it.
There was a train of dogs hitched to a high-headed toboggan, a group of men on the steps of the store; and in the foreground, two more men battling in deadly earnest.
One was an Indian. The other was Tommy Burnham.
For a moment Claire stopped dead. This was the first unleashing of the primitive passions that she had been allowed to see; and the sight produced in her a feeling of horror.
The Indian, bloody of face, came in, fists swinging. Burnham stepped back lightly out of range. There was a flurry of arms from the native, rapierlike thrusts from Burnham; and the Indian went down. But what Claire found worst of all was Burnham’s whole attitude toward
the fight. He was laughing as though this was something of the keenest joy.
It was horrible, sickening. The Indian seemed to know nothing of fear; Burnham, nothing of mercy. Burnham topped the other by a gcxxl two inches, and whenever the Indian found his feet. Burnham seemed to take a devilish delight in prolonging the man’s agony. He jabbed, hooked; rocked the man with paralyzing body blows or stinging jabs in the face. And all the time he was laughing that Satanic laugh of his.
Four times in all the Indian went down. He was lying inert on the ground when Claire staged her assault.
She ran forward, seized Burnham by the arm and swung him around. All the hatred she felt for the man bubbled to the surface. 11er eyes blazed.
‘Aou you brute!” she choked. “Oh, you cowardly brute! To take a ]xx>r half-savage like him and deliberately cut him to pieces!” She swallowed hard, went on with biting contempt. “A representative of law and order, a white man doing a thing like that !”
Burnham licked his lips, glared hungrily down at her. He was white-faced except for a weal that ran across one cheek and the bridge of his nose. She felt him tremble, but unheeding!y she ran on.
“And is this this exhibition for the papers? What front-page stuff it would make!” She gave a tight, nervous laugh; turned abruptly to the man Burnham had been fighting.
But the Indian was on his feet, dragging himself into the toboggan. She sjxike to him. He drew a hand across his bloody face and yelled at the dogs. They lunged to their collars; struck off. Undecided for a moment but with righteous anger burning rebelliously within her, Claire had one more word. And this was for the benefit of the spectators on the steps of the store.
“The country where men are men. Men!” she emphasized. “Then, thank God, I’m a woman!”
DUT IF her remarks went unchallenged for the moment, they were not forgotten. And Bill Bassett was the man who didn’t forget.
He came up to the School and caught her in her little dispensary. Had she had warning, Claire would have given him the freedom of the place. As it was, he caught her flat-footed.
It was a different Bill Bassett to the one she had known. There was no easy-going grin on bis face. Bill wore the expression of a man embarked on unpleasant business, but business that would be disposed of at once.
“About this scrap today. Miss Stewart ...”
Claire tried to head him off with a cold shrug, but Bill held stubbornly on.
“I guess seeing the half of things didn’t look so good. But here are the facts. This Indian, Joe Nekik—”
“I’d rather not hear the excuses.”
“—is a bad duck. Tommy has warned him several times about beating his squaw. Of course, Tommy didn’t like to butt into domestic affairs, but —”
“I’m not.” frigidly, “the least bit interested.”
“—but today, Mister Joe made the mistake of beating one of his dogs with the butt-end of his whip. He laid the dog cold, but kept on trimming him. That’s when Tommy took a hand. By the way,” suddenly asked Bill, “did you see that mark on Tommy’s face? That’s where the Indian slashed him with the whip. And you wonder Tommy got mad.”
Claire blinked, frowned. So the Indian had started things? Slashed Burnham across the face with the loaded thong? But she steeled herself.
“The Indian was much smaller—”
“Sure; in height. But height isn’t everything. That buck would outweigh Tommy by forty pounds. Take in a scrap now if you go up against a short, heavy-set feller like Joe Nekik ”
“I don’t think I ever will,” was Claire’s short interruption. “And anyway, Sergeant Burnham had no excuse for laughing as he did.”
"Laughing?” jeered Bill. “Then I don’t want Tommy Burnham to laugh at me. Some men swear when they’re mad; others bawl like a kid. And when Tommy Burnham starts to laugh like that, it’s a gcxxl time to look for shelter. No, Miss Stewart; you got off on the wrong foot. After that slash across the face, Tommy should have killed him. And your remarks about it being in the papers—well, that was rather mean, don’t you think?”
Something was bubbling up in Claire’s breast again. But this time it wasn’t altogether anger. Was it jx)ssible she had been in the wrong? Or, at least, partly? Bill put the facts pretty plainly; and Bill was a gcxxl scout. Claire wouldn’t like to hurt him; nor did she want to lose his friendship.
Very abruptly Miss Claire Stewart swung on her heel and almost ran from the dispensary. There was no place like one’s own room at a time like this.
ALL THAT night figures paraded before her. There was - the mauled Indian, going down before Burnham’s rocking blows. There was Burnham himself, white-faced except for that livid weal. And Bill Bassett, doggedly loyal Continued on page. 28
Front Page Stuff
Continued from page 17—Starts on page 16
to Burnham and as loyal in his friendship for Claire . . . There was, too, the recollection of Burnham at the introduction on the Mission verandah—newspaper re]x>rts and rotogravure sections—and at long, long length, uneasy sleep.
The next morning, with a headache that aspirin failed to cure, Claire looked up as footsteps came down the hallway to her dispensary. A faint, sickly feeling took possession of her. She wanted to run, and it was not from cowardice. The visitor was Burnham himself.
What did he want? To plead his own case? To demand an apology?
With firm chin and eyebrows slightly raised, Claire faced him as he came to a stop against the counter. She waited.
“Is there something you want?” she ventured at last.
Burnham did not reply at once, and looking up, Claire noticed that the mark across his face was now a deep purple. Burnham, too, was laying his fur cap on the counter top and loosening the strings of his cariboo parka. He nodded, slowly. Then :
“Ever run into the ’flu?” he asked with sudden directness.
Claire frowned. This terse enquiry was not what she expected. The tone of the voice was fiat, bluntly official.
“Yes, I have,” she answered at last. “Why?”
“An epidemic has broken out on Windy River. The Indians are in bad shape. What’s the best thing to do?”
Claire thought for a moment. “How did you hear about it?”
“Moccasin telegraph. An Indian came in from Whitefish River today. He got the story from another native farther north.”
Claire offered several suggestions, but after listening to her, Burnham shook his head.
“I’m taking a run up there. You’d better come along.”
Claire frowned again. Windy River was five or six days north, centre of an Indian trapping community. The ’flu had apparently struck the natives, and Burnham wanted her to look into it. Had ordered her to, in fact. No suggestion of whether or not she wanted to; no asking of favors. “You’d better come along.”
Her spirit rebelled.
“My regulations do not say I had ‘better’ go anywhere,” she pointed out stiffly. “I'm the School nurse; nothing more. Windy River is entirely out of my district.”
For a long moment Burnham studied her with curious intentness.
“D’you know what a ’flu epidemic means?” he asked at length.
“I think I do.”
“Then,” said Burnham, “you’re either wonderfully selfish or wonderfully hardboiled.”
Claire stiffened in amazement. “Are you,” she demanded, “speaking to me?”
Burnham ignored the question. "I’m
going there, certainly; but I’m only a cop. Don’t know much about medicine and won’t be a whole lot of use. That’s when I thought of you. This is the closed season on verandahs and strumming guitars, and I thought you might like to do something to justify your position here.”
Claire was speechless with indignation. Never before had she been so brutally insulted. But behind Burnham’s words she read the answer to his manner toward her. Burnham thought her a luxury at Pipestone Lake. She remembered his coolly appraising, contemptuous glances ... A useless luxury. A gold-digger. Making hay while the sun shone . . .
Her feelings were suddenly outraged. Did this applause-hunting “Mounty” dare to criticize the good she was trying to do? Her eyes blazed as she faced him.
“Oh, you hate me, don’t you? About as much as I detest you. But still—and not to ‘justify’ my position here—I’ll take this trip with you. I’d have agreed at first had you suggested it half decently. Everybody does not need to be bullied by a red coat and a gun. Tell me when you’ll be ready, and I’ll be on hand.”
Burnham was frowning now. His face wore the expression of a man suddenly out of his depth. Then the expression was gone. He was his old self again.
“Sorry if I jarred you,” he observed. “And about this trip . . . We’ll be travelling alone. You may not have thought of it. It isn’t quite conventional.”
Claire gave a scornful little laugh. “How very dramatic! Nor is it quite conventional—even for a gold-digger such as I— to allow Indians to pass out without doing something for them. Don’t be ridiculous, please. Telling me what to take will be more to the point.”
Burnham gave her a tolerant, amused smile.
“Good,” he approved. “But there’s no need to take much—just your personal gear and your blankets. I’ll be here within the hour.”
True to his word, noon brought Sergeant Burnham, his six huge huskies and his canvas-sided toboggan. Claire had taken the opportunity to throw a few items of clothing into a small valise, get out her Arctic robe and what medical supplies she considered necessary. The interval also gave her time to go a bit deeper into the matter of this trip. She would have liked to know the motive behind it all. Was it the eking out of a petty grudge; retaliation? Was it the welfare of the Indians, or was it the man’s inherent love of publicity? If it were this latter and the story got out, all his previous trips would fade into insignificance. Moreover, he would be making her a partner to it. Claire could see the shrieking headlines: “Saga of the North. Policeman and beautiful nurse brave terrors of the wilds.” For a moment, she was half determined to chuck the whole thing. It seemed so blatant, so unnecessary. Or
was it? Were these people ill or was it just another publicity stunt?
The crash of Burnham’s harness bells broke off her thoughts.
Ten minutes later, she was outside in the cold, crisp air. The venerable ladies were on hand; half of the pupils. Then Bumham’s: “Mar-r-che!”
And the start of the trip.
' I TIEY HAD a road for the first two days. Those nights they spent in the narrow and ill-lighted confines of Indian trapping shacks. After that, there were no more houses and no more roads.
Now, alone on the trail with Burnham, Claire felt awkward, ill at ease. So long as she rode beneath the robes in the big toboggan, things were simple. Burnham tramped ahead on his huge snowshoes, head down, blowing steam, the panting dogs at his heels. But at the boiling places the incongruity of it all struck home to her. When Burnham spoke, he was grudgingly civil and no more. Claire scarce spoke a word. As soon as the meal was done, they struck off again. Then came night.
Burnham wheeled the dogs into a grove of heavy spruce, took off his snowshoes and with them cleared a ten-foot square. On the sides of this square he cut and piled the trees. The bare ground he covered with a layer of spruce boughs, and at the open end built a huge fire. With Claire standing before the fire, he unharnessed the dogs and drew the sleigh to the rear as a windbreak. As the fire roared and the sparks flew upward, a sense of homeliness descended on the camp. Burnham hung a kettle of snow to thaw above the blaze and dropped slices of bacon into the pan.
Claire watched him. This was all so strange to her; to him, a matter of course. She peered into the tomblike shadows beyond the fire, shivered at what they might hold; centred on Burnham again. His face, showing still the weal, was red from the heat of the fire. Steam rose from the backs of his sinewy hands. But there was a mask of tiredness over his face, bred of the thirty-mile snowshoe tramp of the day that was done. Claire felt a momentary pang of sympathy for the man. She had ridden in comfort; he had slogged afoot. Now he was working while she looked on. But at once she conquered her feelings. This was what he lovedtough trips, difficult assignments. Frontpage stuff.
Burnham looked up at last, fork in one hand, fry pan in the other.
“Brought a silk tent for you. I’ll pitch it, as soon as we eat.”
That meant more work. Tent poles. The rigging of the thing. Again Claire was aware of those tired lines on his face; then glanced at the star-studded sky above her. She wanted to say it . . . Did, at last.
“Don’t bother about the tent. You’re tired. And it’s warmer near the fire. That is,” she hastened to add, “if you don’t mind.”
The conventions—so badly broken that they ceased to exist. After a lift of the eyebrows, Burnham shrugged.
“Suit yourself. Yeah; be warmer out here.”
They ate in silence, save for requests to pass this or that. Claire labelled their manner armed neutrality. Mutual forbearance. Waiting to see how the other panned out. After supper, Burnham cooked cornmeal and tallow for the dogs; fed them. Then he picked up the axe and looked around for fuel.
“Better roll in,” he suggested. “If you’ve got a change of socks and moccasins, put ’em on.” With that he strode off into the knee-deep snow.
The dogs prowled the camp, searched for scraps, fought over them. But Claire never knew it; never knew, even, when Burnham returned. She was asleep as her head touched the blanket.
THE NEXT DAY was a repetition of what had gone before. Despite Claire’s avowed intentions, they broke through each other’s crust of hate. Sparingly they
discussed the weather, the trail, and distance covered. Monosyllabic conversation passed between them. Claire knew this was but natural. Around, was the North— grim, forbidding, awaiting a slip-up of their ever-present caution. They themselves were two atoms who trod its domain. Isolation drew them together, made them a unit. But, Claire told herself, when the objective had been attained, things would revert to their old order. I late again ; or. at best, mutual dislike.
That afternoon, the nor’-east er broke anew. They camped early, put up the tent and crouched within, it listening to the howl of the storm. To Claire, the North was a demon gone wild—howling, screaming, beating against their flimsy shelter. The trail vanished. Snow lay three feet deep. When night fell, she suggested to Burnham that he bring in his robe. He demurred. She called him a fool. In spite of it, he went out, scratched a hole for himself on the toughs and bedded himself in robe and tarp. When she awoke in the morning, the snow had ceased and Burnham had respread the toughs and had breakfast cooked.
“You slept?” she asked him.
“Like a denned-up bear. Needed to, in the face of what’s ahead.”
That short winter day they made little more than a dozen miles. Burnham was anything but satisfied. “This won’t do. Those people’ll all be stiffs before we get there.”
“I could walk,” suggested Claire.
“Without snowshoes?” He gave a patronizing grin. “Yes; you could!”
He seemed so masculine then, so much the lordly he-man, that it all came back to Claire. It wouldn’t be hard to start hating him again.
Once more they camped, Burnham more tired than usual. Almost at once they rolled in without bothering to pitch the tent. But in the morning he awoke her with a shout.
“Daylight—and we’ve got a trail. An Indian came down during the night on snowshoes. We’ll make twenty miles today.”
She looked ahead. A newly-made snowshoe track came from the north, passed the camp and melted into the one they had made coming up.
“And you didn’t see him?” she enquired. “And the dogs didn’t bark?”
He shook his head. “No. I guess they were too tired, poor brutes.”
But as Burnham had predicted, they made better mileage. Four-thirty, with darkness coming on, saw their third bush camp. By six, they were again abed. But tonight Claire failed to sleep so well. Long periods of wakefulness disturbed her slumber. Trees cracked in the intense cold. An owl hooted dismally. Buried in her Arctic robe, at last she looked at her watch. It was five-thirty. Peeking out, she saw the stars crystal cold above, and a dull phosphorescence where the Lights flickered. Then, unaccountably, a feeling of aloneness struck her. It was a sort of terror. She raised on an elbow, looked across the dying fire toward Burnham’s bed—and found it empty.
She swallowed hard, wide-eyed. Burnham had gone, vanished. She was alone in the unutterable isolation of the bush. She wanted to call to him; did, and received no answer. 11er heart began to thump, till she saw one of the curled-up huskies lift its head and yawn. The dogs were here. Perhaps Burnham had gone for wood. But it was too early for him to be about. Not yet six. She lay back, recalling all the wolf stories she had ever heard. If Burnham were only here . . . He was a man; a bulwark between herself and the wilderness . . . Then she heard the crunch of snowshoes.
She drew into the robe again; peered out through a fold of it. A dog whined. Bumham’s voice silenced it as he strode into camp and shed his webs. He kicked the fire together, when then it flared up, sat down on the toughs. Hands around knees, his head began to droop; then with an air
ot utter weariness he crawled into his robe, fully dressed.
Claire puzzled the meaning of it. Where had he been? Why was he so tired? And why should he prowl the bush instead of sleeping?
SIIE RECEIVED her answer at daylight, and it staggered her. Burnham came toward the camp with a dead tree over his shoulder and his axe as she sat lashing her moccasins before the fire. When she faced him, she was acutely aware of the hollows beneath his eyes. Despite the work he had been doing, he shivered, as a man will who has missed sleep in the bitter cold. “Have a good night?” she asked.
“Never stirred once,” he lied. Looking at the trail, he added: “Thank God for good going.”
Realization struck her. No Indian had ever come down that trail. Those snowshoe tracks were made by Burnham himself. She had heard of men doing this when travel was otherwise im]x>ssible. They broke a trail at night, returned, and drove their laboring dogs over it the next day. She was staggered ; a strange, new emotion jxissessed her. Burnham had run a bluff at camping. Possibly he had snatched a short hour’s sleep at each end of the night. But for ten hours he had broken out a road that they might make better time. A double trip, a killing day’s labor, then lalxir again instead of rest. And he had lied, splendidly. No wonder the dogs had not barked at the passing “Indian.”
Her dislike for the man almost melted then in tremendous respect. But not quite. There was still the chance that this whole trip was grandstand play. To get through at all, Burnham had to do what he did. But even so, a man who could do it . . .
She said nothing to him of the matter that day, but, by daring him to allow the attempt, looped on his big snowshoes and travelled ahead of the dogs for five miles. She treated it as a joke and made him ride. For those five miles—which took two hours—Burnham slept like a log in the sleigh.
BY SHEER jx)wer of will, Claire overcame her fears that night so that she slept while Burnham was breaking trail. Her hospital training served her in good stead, for, by setting her mind, she awoke at four o’clock. Wood was piled near the fire. She threw it on, boiled coffee and cooked a meal. The last curl of the bacon was done to a turn as Burnham stepped into the circle of light.
He frowned. “What’s this?” he asked a trifle curtly. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Claire faced him. “There’s no need to bluff. I know where you’ve been, know what you’ve been doing. But here’s a warm drink and something to eat. Your change of moccasins and socks are hanging over the fire. And now,” she said nervously, “I think I’ll turn in again.”
Burnham was staring at her as though this was their first meeting. As he peeled parka and mitts, there was a quality in his eyes that stirred Claire strangely. She was glad to get back to the protection of her robe. But from there she watched him— taking a bite, a drink from the granite-ware cup, pausing to look into the heart of the fire. Once he turned his head slowly in her direction. She anticipated it, and withdrew from sight.
If constraint had hitherto settled upon them, it was now emphasized. Burnham seemed to be the awkward one; Claire was able to fall behind her protective mantle of womanhood. For all that, she was able to take her turn at the trail and make Burnham ride. But there was manifest relief in her heart when five o’clock of the sixth day brought them into Windy River.
The settlement was a typical Indian trapping camp. There were a dozen lowpitched shacks, a collection of meat stages, and a few autumn teepees left standing with the snow high about their w^alls. But this was not all they found. There were half-starved dogs that came slavering
toward them; smoke from but a few chimneys; an air of depression—and death.
Five corpses they found, wrapped in covers by the living. In the houses, adults and children were lying in miserable huddles. Some of the children were up and a very few of the adults. These cut wood, lifted the nets out on the ice, fed the dogs from the few fish they caught. Weary from their trip but knowing just what they were up against, Claire and Burnham turned to. They removed the dead and saw them placed in stages far from camp. They made tea, brewed broth from the shank of a moose; commenced a rigid care of the sick. Most of the cases were pneumonia. Once settled in the cleanest of the houses, Claire and the sergeant began a specific treatment. It was a bitter round, this going from house to house—bullying, coaxing, trying to instill the fighting spirit into a people fatalistic at heart. But as the days went by, they began to win out.
There was one man, Big Charlie, a tremendous hulk whose little daughter Claire had brought through scarlet fever a month or so before. Claire liked Big Charlie, liked his heavy movements and his soft, dark eyes. There was something appealing in the gratitude he was always ready to show. But here, Big Charlie was a desperately sick man. They moved him into a house by himself, where Claire could give him the major part of her attention. Big Charlie was the best trapper in the entire district; an honest Indian; the father of the finest kids in Pipestone Lake Sch(x>l. Big Charlie must not die.
So between visits to the others, Claire spent many hours by the sick man’s bunk. There, surrounded by ipecac, thermofuge, capsolin, Burnham found her one night. A critical look at Claire, and he shook his head.
“Take it easy. This big ape’s one of the best, but you’re worth a dozen of him.”
She looked up. Burnham was brushing kinky hair from his forehead, anxiety heavy on his face. “Don’t overdo things,” he cautioned.
She smiled at him. “I won’t.”
Grandstander, Burnham might be; but in this fight against death he had been her tower of strength. He watched over her, aided her in her work, anticipated her every move. He was still the cook, preparing meals from the grub-box that coaxed her flagging appetite.
“Don’t worry,” she said again.
THE HOURS went by. On his bed of sickness, the big man twisted and turned. He was delirious, moaning and jabbering in a mixture of English and Cree. Tonight would see the crisis. If Big Charlie pulled through till dawn, he would live. If not—well, Claire would lose her toughest fight.
So there she sat, watching the shadows that flickered from the fire on the open hearth. The cabin was cheerless in its furnishings—a rickety table, a couple of empty boxes, a muzzle-loader in a rack on the wall. On the other wall was a gift from a missionary, a lithographed picture of Christ, the Man of Suffering. Big Charlie, laughing crazily to himself. Claire Stewart, a little afraid of it all . . .
Claire stood up, bent over the patient to moisten his lips. He looked at her, grinning foolishly. He essayed to rise, but she gently pushed him back.
“No, Charlie. You mustn’t get up.” But this time he was not the tractable patient. He began to fight and threw her off. Got up at last on his feet beside the bed.
“Charlie !” she said, a catch in her voice. “Lie down, please.”
Again he threw her off, thumped his chest with his great fists.
“Muchayis!” he bellowed. “I am Muchayis, the Evil One. I kill, kill ! And you ...”
Claire understood nothing of what he said, but the spot of fear began to grow within her. Again he bellowed; then grabbed her in his powerful arms.
“ Ka nippuhitin! I’ll kill you!”
She fought desperately: screamed as the delirious man’s fingers clamped about her throat. His face was not six inches from hers, lit by a blood-chilling, wholly insane light. “ K’nippuhilin!”
For a moment she broke loose; screamed again in terrified horror.
“Tommy! Oh, Tommy!”
She wrenched, struggled, and things went black before her. Life was being squeezed out by this madman. In his terrific grip she was a child . . . Big Charlie howled as he swung her from her feet.
Then the door splintered open. She was dropped limply. Someone was rushing in.
Gradually things began to clear. She had a misty glimpse of Burnham thrashing about on the floor with Big Charlie above him. Next, both men were on their feet, and Charlie’s bellows had changed to yells of rage. Two other men charged in. The knot of two became a knot of four.
Claire tried to get up, but failed. Her throat felt constricted. Yet in horrified numbness she saw Big Charlie grab the muzzle-loader from the wall and swing it around his head.
Burnham fought on. One hand free, he was trying to land a knockout blow on the Indian’s jaw. Blood flowed from a cut on his cheek and his tunic was ripped at the shoulder. Then Big Charlie’s gun smashed against a rafter and he had the barrel in his hand.
Claire shrieked in a hysteria of frenzy. Big Charlie was bludgeoning Burnham’s head with the clublike end of the gun.
“Stop him!” she screamed at the two Indians who were fighting the delirious man. “He’s killing him!”
It looked like it. Despite the others’ efforts, Big Charlie was holding Burnham against his chest while he rained blows on his unprotected head. Only the fact that they were so closely interlocked saved Burnham’s skull from being pulped at the first attempt.
Then, suddenly, while Claire stood swaying in dry-mouthed horror, Big Charlie dropped the gun-barrel from his hand and collapsed with Burnham beneath him.
"DIG CHARLIE passed the crisis, and managed to live. Concerning Burnham, Claire could not tell. All night he had lain unconscious on his robes in a corner of the shack. Weak from loss of blood, pale beneath his midwinter tan, he looked already dead. But scarcely for a moment did Claire leave his side. All her skill and all her knowledge she concentrated on his case. For Tommy Burnham was now the most vital thing in her life.
Yet it looked hopeless. Claire dared not touch that fractured skull. With so little between it and the brain, one slight touch might snuff out his life. And what could she do?
He needed an immediate operation. The only way he could have this was by a sixday trip to Pipestone and another sevenday trip from there. He could never endure it. One hour in a bumping toboggan would spell his finish. Claire felt desperate, tortured by Burnham’s crying need and her own bitter helplessness. She swept a glance around the shadow-filled cabin; caught a glimpse of the lithographed Christ above Big Charlie’s bed.
“Oh, God!” she breathed. “I don’t deserve it—but don’t let him die!”
A thousand little things came to her. Burnham’s great effort to get through to this doomed band of Indians; his consideration for her along the journey and since; those night trips, breaking trail. Those night trips—something she would never have known about except for her own discovery of them. This was not Burnham of the rotogravure section; not Burnham
the grandstander. Then realization came: the scales dropped from her eyes. Bumham had never sought publicity. It had been thrust on him, in recognition of his sterling worth.
Remorse squeezed her heart as Big Charlie’s fingers had squeezed her throat. Hot, scalding tears welled in her eyes.
“I’ve treated him abominably; misjudged him. Taken the veneer for what lay beneath. But, God, don’t let him die !”
The hours dragged leadenly. Dawn came. Ten o’clock. Noon. Stiff and cramped, Claire rose from the side of Burnham’s bed. She was at the end of her string. But Big Charlie, on his bunk across the room, called to her. His hand was raised in a listening attitude. Claire tensed. There was a drumming; the throb of an airplane engine.
A few minutes later, Pilot Ted Blake walked into the shack. Claire wanted to keel over, but she fought her emotions. Hastily she told Blake the points that mattered.
“Then we’ll fly him out, right away,” decided Blake. He went on to tell her of his freighting trip into Pipestone Lake; of the suggestion of Bill Bassett’s that the flight be extended to Windy River. Bill had thought that a report on the situation might be appreciated by the Indian Department. Then, if things were as bad as they seemed, a doctor could be flown in.
CLAIRE never remembered much of that trip to town. She rode beside Burnham, hypodermic needle in hand. Morphine, morphine and more of it. She must hold on to him for another hour . . .
Then the municipal hospital in the frontier town. An emergency operation. Claire paced the waiting room, scarce daring to hope. Burnham’s O.C., a few of his friends, and officials of the Indian Department asked her for the story.
She told them everything. She lauded Burnham for the man lie was. Those night trips, the days of bucking deep snow. The fight to save the Windy River Indians. Everything.
After a while a white-coated doctor came in. He was smiling benignly.
“Not much to it when you’ve the tools to work with. But at the same time, had he been stranded in that Godforsaken country, he’d have gone under, sure.” Claire remembered those torturing hours in the trapping shack. The agony of suspense. Her incoherent prayers. “You’ve the wrong adjective, doctor,” she said quietly. “But it’s nothing; nothing that you’d understand. Tell me, is he out of danger? And when might I see him?” “When? Oh, any time this evening. Say six o’clock.”
At six o’clock, Claire tiptoed into Burnham’s room. She stayed five minutes, then tiptoed out again. She was smiling, with a light in her eyes she did not know was there. Nor was she wholly conscious of just where she was until halfway to her hotel. Then she passed a kid, yelling the headlines of the town’s daily paper:
“All about th’ Eyetalian war; th’ sport news! All about th’ Mounty’s trip up North !”
She bought a paper, found the headlines —“Mounted Policeman and Nurse in epic Struggle”-—and beneath: “Sergeant Burnham, well-known member of the Force, and Miss Claire Stewart, Indian Department Nurse at Pipestone Lake School, wrote another stirring chapter in the history of the North. Two weeks ago. . .”
It was all there—the heroic “Mounty,” even the “beautiful young nurse.” Claire’s cheeks flamed as she read the garbled account. Then she smiled, a smile of indulgence, of understanding, of pride. Tommy had made the front page again.