every hand stretched the forest primeval—the home of noisy comedy and silent
tragedy. Here the struggle for survival continued to wage with all its ancient
brutality. Briton and Russian were still to overlap in the Land of the
Rainbow's End—and this was the very heart of it—nor had Yankee gold yet
purchased its vast domain. The wolf-pack still clung to the flank of the
cariboo-herd, singling out the weak and the big with calf, and pulling them
down as remorselessly as were it a thousand-thousand generations into the past.
The sparse aborigines still acknowledged the rule of their chiefs and medicine
men, drove out bad spirits, burned their witches, fought their neighbors, and
ate their enemies with a relish which spoke well of their bellies. But it was
at the moment when the stone age was drawing to a close. Already, over unknown
trails and chartless wildernesses, were the harbingers of the steel
arriving—fair-faced, blue-eyed, indomitable men, incarnations of the unrest of
their race. By accident or design, single-handed and in twos and threes, they
came from no one knew whence, and fought, or died, or passed on, no one knew
whither. The priests raged against them, the chiefs called forth their fighting
men, and stone clashed with steel; but to little purpose. Like water seeping
from some mighty reservoir, they trickled through the dark forests and mountain
passes, threading the highways in bark canoes, or with their moccasined feet
breaking trail for the wolf-dogs. They came of a great breed, and their mothers
were many; but the fur-clad denizens of the Northland had this yet to learn. So
many an unsung wanderer fought his last and died under the cold fire of the
aurora, as did his brothers in burning sands and reeking jungles, and as they
shall continue to do till in the fullness of time the destiny of their race is
It was near twelve. Along the northern horizon a rosy glow, fading to the west and deepening to the east, marked the unseen dip of the midnight sun. The gloaming and the dawn were so commingled that there was no night—simply a wedding of day with day, a scarcely perceptible blending of two circles of the sun. A kildee timidly chirped good-night; the full, rich throat of a robin proclaimed good-morrow. From an island on the breast of the Yukon a colony of wild fowl voiced its interminable wrongs, while a loon laughed mockingly back across a still stretch of river.
In the foreground, against the bank of a lazy eddy, birch-bark canoes were lined two and three deep. Ivory-bladed spears, bone-barbed arrows, buckskin-thonged bows, and simple basket-woven traps bespoke the fact that in the muddy current of the river the salmon-run was on. In the background, from the tangle of skin tents and drying frames, rose the voices of the fisher folk. Bucks skylarked with bucks or flirted with the maidens, while the older squaws, shut out from this by virtue of having fulfilled, by reproduction, the function of existence, gossiped as they braided rope from the green roots of trailing vines. At their feet their naked progeny played and squabbled, or rolled in the muck with the tawny wolf-dogs.
To one side of the encampment, and conspicuously apart from it, stood a second camp of two tents. But it was a white man's camp. If nothing else, the choice of position at least bore convincing evidence of this. In case of offense, it commanded the Indian quarters a hundred yards away; of defense, a rise to the ground and the cleared intervening space; and last, of defeat, the swift slope of a score of yards to the canoes below. From one of the tents came the petulant cry of a sick child and the crooning song of a mother. In the open, over the smoldering embers of a fire, two men held talk.
"Eh? I love the Church like a good son. Bien! So great a love that my days have been spent in fleeing away from her, and my nights in dreaming dreams of reckoning. Look you!" The half-breed's voice rose to an angry snarl. "I am Red River-born. My father was white—white as you. But you are Yankee, and he was British bred, and a gentleman's son. And my mother was the daughter of a chief, and I was a man. Ay, and one had to look the second time to see what manner of blood ran in my veins; for I lived with the whites, and was one of them, and my feather's heart beat in me. It happened there was a maiden—white—who looked on me with kind eyes. Her father had much land and many horses; also he was a big man among his people, and his blood was the blood of the French. He said the girl knew not her own mind, and talked overmuch with her, and became wroth that such things should be.
"But she knew her mind, for we came quick before the priest. And quicker had come her father, with lying words, false promises, I know not what; so that the priest stiffened his neck and would not make us that we might live one with the other. As at the beginning it was the Church which would not bless my birth, so now it was the Church which refused my marriage and put the blood of men upon my hands. Bien! Thus have I cause to love the Church. So I struck the priest on his woman's mouth, and we took swift horses, the girl and I, to Fort Pierre, where was a minister of good heart. But hot on our trail was her father, and brothers, and other men he had gathered to him. And we fought, our horses on the run, till I emptied three saddles, and the rest drew off and we went on to Fort Pierre. Then we took east, the girl and I, to the hills and forests, and we lived one with the other, and we were not married—the work of the good Church which I love like a son.
"But mark you, for this is the strangeness of woman, the way of which no man may understand. One of the saddles I had emptied was that of her father, and the hoofs of those who came behind had pounded him into the earth. This we saw, the girl and I, and this I had forgot had she not remembered. And in the quiet of the evening, after the day's hunt was done, it came between us, and in the silence of the night when we lay beneath the stars and should have been one. It was there always. She never spoke, but it sat by our fire and held us ever apart. She tried to put it aside, but at such times it would rise up till I could read it in the look of her eyes, in the very intake of her breath.
"So in the end she bore me a child, a woman-child, and died. Then I went among my mother's people that it might nurse at a warm breast and live. But my hands were wet with the blood of men, look you, because of the Church, wet with the blood of men. And the Riders of the North came for me, but my mother's brother, who was then chief in his own right, hid me and gave me horses and food. And we went away, my woman-child and I, even to the Hudson Bay Country, where white men were few and the questions they asked not many. And I worked for the Company as a hunter, as a guide, as a driver of dogs, till my woman-child was become a woman, tall and slender, and fair to the eye.
"You know the winters, long and lonely, breeding evil thoughts and bad deeds. The Chief Factor was a hard man, and bold. And he was not such that a woman would delight looking upon. But he cast eyes upon my woman-child who was become a woman. Mother of God! he sent me away on a long trip with the dogs, that he might—you understand, he was a hard man and without heart. She was most white, and her soul was white, and a good woman, and—well, she died.
"It was bitter cold and the night of my return, and I had been away months, and the dogs were limping sore when I came to the fort. The Indians and breeds looked on me in silence, and I felt the fear of I knew not what; but I said nothing, till the dogs were fed and I had eaten as a man with work before him should. Then I spoke up, demanding the word, and they shrank from me, afraid of my anger and what I should do; but the story came out, the pitiful story, word for word, and they marveled that I should be so quiet.
"When they had done I went to the Factor's house, calmer than now in the telling of it. He had been afraid and called upon the breeds to help him; but they were not pleased with the deed, and had left him to lie in the bed he had made. So he had fled to the house of the priest. Thither I followed. But when I was come to that place, the priest stood in my way, and spoke soft words, and said a man in anger should go neither to the right nor left, but straight to God. I asked by a father's wrath that he give me past, but he said only over his body and besought with me to pray. Look you, it was the Church, always the Church; for I passed over his body and sent the Factor to meet my woman-child before his god, which is a bad god, and the god of the white men.
"Then was there hue and cry, for word was sent to the station below, and I came away. Through the Land of the Great Slave, down the Valley of the Mackenzie to the never-opening ice, over the White Rockies, past the Great Curve of the Yukon, even to this place did I come. And from that day to this, yours is the first face of my father's people I have looked upon. May it be the last. These people, which are my people, are a simple folk, and I have been raised to honor among them. My word is their law, and their priests but do my bidding, else would I not suffer them. When I speak for them I speak for myself. We ask to be let alone. We do not want your kind. If we permit you to sit by our fires, after you will come your Church, your priests, and your gods. And know this, for each white man who comes to my village, him will I make deny his god. You are the first, and I give you grace. So it were well you to go, and go quickly."
"I am not responsible for my brothers," the second man spoke up, filling his pipe in a meditative manner. Hay Stockard was at times as thoughtful of speech as he was wanton of action; but only at times.
"But I know your breed," responded the other. "Your brothers are many, and it is you and yours who break the trail for them to follow. In time they shall come to possess the land, but not in my time. Already, have I heard, are they on the head-reaches of the Great River, and far away below are the Russians."
Hay Stockard lifted his head with a quick start. This was startling geographical information. The Hudson Bay post at Fort Yukon had other notions concerning the course of the river, believing it to flow into the Arctic.
"And should I not go down to the Russians, nor back to my brothers?"
"Then shall you go swift-footed before your god, which is a bad god, and the god of the white man."
The red sun shot up above the northern sky-line, dripping and bloody. Baptiste the Red came to his feet, nodded curtly, and went back to his camp amid the crimson shadows and the singing of the robins.
Hay Stockard finished his pipe by the fire, picturing in smoke and coal the unknown upper reaches of the Koyukuk, the strange stream which ended here its arctic travels and merged its waters with the muddy Yukon flood. Somewhere up there, if the dying words of a shipwrecked sailorman who had made the fearful overland journey were to be believe, and if the vial of golden grains in his pouch attested anything—somewhere up there, in that home of winter, stood the Treasure House of the North. And as keeper of the gate, Baptiste the Red, English half-breed and renegade, barred the way.
"Bah!" He kicked the embers apart and rose to his full height, arms lazily out-stretched, facing the flushing north.
Hay Stockard swore, harshly, in the rugged monosyllables of his mother tongue. His wife lifted her gaze from the pots and pans, and followed his in a keen scrutiny of the river. She was a woman of the Teslin Country, wise in the ways of her husband's vernacular when it grew intense. From the slipping of a snow-shoe thong to the fore-front of sudden death, she could gauge occasion by the pitch and volume of his blasphemy. So she knew that the present occasion merited attention. A long canoe, with paddles flashing back the rays of the westering sun, was crossing the current from above and urging in for the eddy. Hay Stockard watched it intently. Three men rose and dipped, rose and dipped, with rhythmical precision; but a red bandana, wrapped about the head of one, caught and held his eye.
"Bill!" he called. "Oh,
A shambling, loose-jointed giant rolled out of one of the tents, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Then he sighted the strange canoe and was wide-awake on the instant.
"By the jumping Methuselah! That sky-pilot!"
Hay Stockard nodded his head bitterly, half-reached for his rifle, then shrugged his shoulders.
"Pot-shot him," Bill suggested, "and settle the thing out of hand. He'll spoil us sure if we don't."
But the other declined this drastic measure and turned away, at the same time bidding the woman return to her work, and calling Bill back from the bank. The two Indians in the canoe moored it on the edge of the eddy, while its white occupant, conspicuous by his gorgeous head-gear, came up on the bank.
"Like Paul of Tarsus, I give you greeting. Peace be unto you and grace before the Lord."
His advances were met sullenly, and without speech.
"To you, Hay Stockard, blasphemer and Philistine, greeting. In your heart is the lust of Mammon, in your mind cunning devils, in your tent this woman whom you live with in adultery; yet of these divers sins, even here in the wilderness, I, Sturges Owen, apostle to the Lord, bid you to repent and cast from you your iniquities."
"Save you cant! Save your cant!" Hay Stockard broke in testily. "You'll need all you've got, and more, for Red Baptiste over yonder."
He waved his hand toward the Indian camp, where the half-breed was looking steadily across, striving to make out the new-comers. Sturges Owen, disseminator of light and apostle to the Lord, stepped to the edge of the steep and commanded his men to bring up the camp outfit. Stockard followed him.
"Look here," he demanded, plucking the missionary by the shoulder and twirling him about. "Do you value your hide?"
"My life is in the Lord's keeping, and I do but work in His vineyard," he replied solemnly.
"Oh, stow that! Are you looking for a job of martyrship?"
"If He so wills."
"Well, you'll find it right here, but I'm going to give you some advice first. Take it or leave it. If you stop here you'll be cut off in the midst of your labors. And not you alone, but your men, Bill, my wife ——"
"Who is a daughter of Belial and hearkeneth not to the true Gospel."
"And myself. Not only do you bring trouble upon yourself, but upon us. I was frozen in with you last winter, as you will well recollect, and I know you for a good man and a fool. If you think it your duty to strive with the heathen, well and good; but do exercise some wit in the way you go about it. This man, Red Baptiste, is no Indian. He comes of our common stock, is as bull-necked as I ever dared be, and as wild a fanatic the one way as you are the other. When you two come together hell'll be to pay, and I don't care to be mixed up in it. Understand? So take my advice and go away. If you go down-stream you'll fall in with the Russians. There's bound to be Greek priests among them, and they'll see you safe through to Bering Sea—that's where the Yukon empties—and from there it won't be hard to get back to civilization. Take my word for it and get out of here as fast as God'll let you."
"He who carries the Lord in his heart and the Gospel in his hand hath no fear of the machinations of man or devil," the missionary answered stoutly. "I will see this man and wrestle with him. And even as thou, Paul of Tarsus, even so do I work in the vineyard of the Lord, bearing trials and tribulations, scoffs and sneers, stripes and punishments, for His dear sake.
"Bring up the little bag with the tea and a kettle of water," he called the next instant to his boatmen; "not forgetting the haunch of cariboo and the mixing-pan."
When his men, converts by his own hand, had gained the bank, the trio fell to their knees, hands and backs burdened with camp equipage, and offered up thanks for their passage through the wilderness and their safe arrival. Hay Stockard looked upon the function with sneering disapproval, the romance and solemnity of it lost to his matter-of-fact soul. Baptiste the Red, still gazing across, recognized the familiar postures, and remembered the girl who had shared his star-roofed couch in the hills and forests, and the woman-child who lay somewhere by bleak Hudson's Bay.
"Confound it, Baptiste, couldn't think of
it. Not for a moment. Grant that this man is a fool and of small use in the
nature of things, but still, you know, I can't give him up."
Hay Stockard paused, striving to put into speech the rude ethics of his heart.
"He's worried me, Baptiste, in the past and now, and caused me all manner of troubles; but can't you see, he's my own breed—white—and—and—why, I couldn't buy my life with his, not if he was a n----r."
"So be it," Baptiste the Red made answer. "I have given you grace and choice. I shall come presently, with my priests and fighting men, and either shall I kill you, or you deny your god. Give up the priest to my pleasure, and you shall depart in peace. Otherwise your trail ends here. My people are against you. To the babies are they against you. Even now have the children stolen away your canoes."
He pointed down to the river. Naked boys had slipped down the water from the point above, cast loose the canoes, and by then had worked them into the current. When they had drifted out of rifle shot they clambered over the sides and paddled ashore.
"Give me the priest, and you shall have them back again. Come! Speak your mind, but without haste."
Stockard shook his head. His glance dropped to the woman of the Teslin Country with his boy at her breast, and he would have wavered had he not lifted his eyes to the men before him.
"I am not afraid," Sturges Owen spoke up. "The Lord bears me in His right hand, and alone am I ready to go into the camp of the unbeliever. It is not too late. Faith may move mountains. Even in the eleventh hour may I win his soul to the true righteousness."
"Trip the beggar up and make him fast," Bill whispered hoarsely in the ear of his leader, while the missionary kept the floor and wrestled with the heathen. "Make him hostage, and bore him if they get ugly."
"No," Stockard answered. "I gave him my word that he could speak with us unmolested. Rules of warfare, Bill; rules of warfare. He's been on the square, given us warning, and all that, and—why, damn it, man, I can't break my word."
"He'll keep his, never fear."
"Don't doubt it, but I won't let a half-breed outdo me in fair dealing—give him the missionary and be done with it?"
"N-no," Bill hesitated doubtfully.
"Shoe pinches, eh?"
Bill flushed and dropped the discussion. Baptiste the Red was still waiting the final decision. Stockard went up to him.
"It's this way, Baptiste. I came to you village minded to go up the Koyukuk. I intended no wrong. My heart was clean of evil. It is still clean. Along comes this priest, as you call him. I didn't bring him here. He'd have come whether I was here or not. But now that he is here, being of my people, I've got to stand by him. And I'm going to. Further, it will be no child's play. When you have done, your village will be silent and empty, your people wasted as after a famine. True, we will be gone; likewise the pick of your fighting men ——"
"But those who remain shall be in peace, nor shall the word of strange gods and the tongues of strange priests be buzzing in their ears."
Both men shrugged their shoulders and turned away, the half-breed going back to his own camp. The missionary called his two men to him, and they fell into prayer. Stockard and Bill attacked the few standing pines with their axes, felling them into a convenient stockade. The child had fallen asleep, so the woman placed it on a heap of furs and lent a hand in fortifying the camp. Three sides were thus defended, the steep declivity at the rear precluding attack from that direction. When these arrangements had been completed , the two men stalked into the open, clearing away, here and there, the scattered underbrush. From the opposing camp came the booming of war-drums and the voices of the priests stirring the people to anger.
"Worst of it is they'll come in rushes," Bill complained as they walked back with shouldered axes.
"And wait till midnight, when the light gets dim for shooting."
"Can't start the ball a-rolling too early then." Bill exchanged the ax for a rifle, and took a careful rest. One of the medicine-men, towering above his tribesmen, stood out distinctly. Bill drew a bead on him. "All ready?" he asked.
Stockard opened the ammunition box, placed the woman where she could reload in safety, and gave the word. The medicine-man dropped. For a moment there was silence, then a wild howl went up and a flight of bone arrows fell short.
"I'd like to take a look at the beggar," Bill remarked, throwing a fresh shell into place. "I'll swear I drilled him clean between the eyes."
"Didn't work." Stockard shook his head gloomily. Baptiste had evidently quelled the more warlike of his followers, and instead of precipitating an attack in the bright light of day, the shot had caused a hasty exodus, the Indians drawing out of the village beyond the zone of fire.
In the full tide of his proselyting fervor, borne along by the hand of God, Sturges Owen would have ventured alone into the camp of the unbeliever, equally prepared for miracle or martyrdom; but in the waiting which ensued, the fever of conviction died away just so as the natural man asserted itself. Physical fear replaced spiritual hope; the love of life, the love of God. It was no new experience. He could feel his weakness coming on and knew it of old time. He had struggled against it and been overcome by it before. He remembered when the other men had driven their paddles like mad in the van of a roaring ice-flood, how, at the critical moment, in a panic of worldly terror, he had dropped his paddle and besought wildly with his God for pity. And there were other times. The recollection was not pleasant. It brought shame to him that his spirit should be so weak and his flesh so strong. But the love of life! the love of life! He could not strip it from him. Because of it had his dim ancestors perpetuated their line; because of it was he destined to perpetuate his. His courage, courage it might be called, was bred of fanaticism. The courage of Stockard and Bill was the adherence to deep-rooted ideals. Not that the love of life was less, but the love of race tradition more; not that they were unafraid to die, but that they were brave enough not to live.
The missionary rose, for the moment swayed by the mood of sacrifice. He half crawled over the barricaded to proceed to the other camp, but sank back, a trembling mass, wailing: "As the spirit moves! As the spirit moves! Who am I that I should set aside the judgments of God? Before the foundation of the world were all things written in the book of life. Worm that I am, shall I erase the page or any portion thereof? As God wills, so shall the spirit move!"
Bill reached over, plucked him to his feet, and shook him, fiercely, silently. Then he dropped the bundle of quivering nerves and turned his attention to the two converts. But they showed little fright and a cheerful alacrity in preparing of the coming passage at arms.
Stockard, who had been talking in undertones with the Teslin woman, now turned to the missionary.
"Fetch him over here," he commanded of Bill.
"Now," he ordered, when Sturges Owen had been deposited before him; "make us man and wife, and be lively about it." Then he added apologetically to Bill: "No telling how it's to end, so I just thought I'd get my affairs straightened up."
The woman obeyed the behest of her white lord. To her the ceremony was meaningless. By her lights she was his wife, and had been from the day they first foregathered. The converts served as witnesses. Bill stood over the missionary, prompting him when he stumbled. Stockard put the response in the woman's mouth, and when the time came, for want of better, ringed her finger with thumb and forefinger of his own.
"Kiss the bride!" Bill thundered, and Sturges Owen was too weak to disobey.
"Now baptize the child!"
"Neat and tidy," Bill commented.
"Gathering the proper outfit for a new trail," the father explained, taking the boy from the mother's arms. "I was grub-staked, once, in the Cascades, and had everything in the kit except salt. Never shall forget it. And if the woman and the kid cross the divide to-night they might as well be prepared for pot-luck. A long shot, Bill, between ourselves, but nothing lost if it misses."
A cup of water served the purpose, and the child was laid away in a secure corner of the barricade. The men built the fire, and the evening meal was cooked.
The sun hurried round to the north, singing closer to the horizon. The heavens in that quarter grew red and bloody. The shadows lengthened, the light dimmed, and in the somber recesses of the forest life slowly died away. Even the wild fowl in the river softened their raucous chatter and feigned the nightly farce of going to bed. Only the tribesmen increased the clamor, war-drums booming and voices raised in savage folk songs. But as the sun dipped they ceased their tumult. The rounded hush of midnight was complete. Stockard rose to his knees and peered over the logs. Once the child wailed in pain and disconcerted him. The mother bent over it, but it slept again. The silence was interminable, profound. Then, of a sudden, the robins burst into full-throated song. The night had passed.
A flood of dark figures boiled across the open. Arrows whistled and bow-thongs sang. The shrill-tongued rifles answered back. A spear, and a mighty cast, transfixed the Teslin woman as she hovered above the child. A spent arrow, diving between the logs, lodged in the missionary's arm.
There was no stopping the rush. The middle
distance was cumbered with bodies, but the rest surged on, breaking against and
over the barricaded like and ocean wave. Sturges Owen fled to the tent, while
the men were swept from their feet and buried beneath the human tide. Hay
Stockard alone regained the surface, flinging the tribesmen aside like yelping
curs. He had managed to seize an ax. A dark hand grasped the child by a naked
foot, and drew it from beneath its mother. At arm's length its puny body
circled through the air, dashing to death against the logs. Stockard clove the
man to the chin and fell to clearing space. The ring of savage faces closed in,
raining upon him spear-thrusts and bone-barbed arrows. The sun shot up, and
they swayed back and forth in the crimson shadows. Twice, with his ax blocked
by too deep a blow, they rushed him; but each time he flung them clear. They
fell underfoot and he trampled dead and dying, the way slippery with blood. And
still the day brightened and the robins sang. Then they drew back from him in
awe, and he leaned breathless upon his axe.
"Blood of my soul!" cried Baptiste the Red. "But thou art a man. Deny thy god, and thou shalt yet live."
Stockard swore his refusal, feebly but with grace.
"Behold! A woman!" Sturges Owen had been brought before the half-breed.
Beyond a scratch on the arm, he was uninjured, but his eyes roved about him in an ecstasy of fear. The heroic figure of the blasphemer, bristling with wounds and arrows, leaning defiantly upon his ax, indifferent, indomitable, superb, caught his wavering vision. And he felt a great envy of the man who could go down serenely to the dark gates of death. Surely Christ, and not he, Sturges Owen, had been molded in such manner. And why not he? He felt dimly the curse of ancestry, the feebleness of spirit which had come down to him out of the past, and he felt an anger at the creative force, symbolize it as he would, which had formed him, its servant, so weakly. For even a stronger man, this anger and the stress of circumstance were sufficient to breed apostasy, and for Sturges Own it was inevitable.
"Where now is thy god?" the half-breed demanded.
"I do not know." He stood straight and rigid, like a child repeating a catechism.
"Hast thou then a god at all?"
"There is no god."
"There is no god."
"No white man's god."
"No white man's god."
"Nor ever was and never shall be."
"Nor ever was and never shall be."
Hay Stockard swept the blood from his eyes and laughed. The missionary looked at him curiously, as in a dream. A feeling of infinite distance came over him, as though of a great remove. In that which had taken place, and which was to take place, he had no part. He was a spectator—at a distance, yes at a distance. The words of Baptiste came to him faintly:
"Very good. See that this man go free, and that no harm befall him. Let him depart in peace. Give him a canoe and food. Set his face toward the Russians that he may tell their priests of Baptiste the Red, in whose country there is no god."
They led him to the edge of the steep, where they paused to witness the final tragedy. The half-breed turned to Hay Stockard.
"There is no god," he prompted.
The man laughed in reply. One of the young men poised a war-spear for the cast.
"Hast thou a god?"
"Ay, the God of my fathers."
He shifted the ax for a better grip. Baptiste the Red gave the sign, and the spear hurtled full against his breast. Sturges Owen saw the ivory head stand out beyond his back, saw the man sway, laughing, and snap the shaft short as he fell upon it. Then he went down to the river that he might carry to the Russians the message of Baptiste the Red, in whose country there was no god.
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