Read CHAPTER XV of The Land of Frozen Suns , free online book, by Bertrand W. Sinclair, on ReadCentral.com.

STRANGERS TWAIN

My arm was somewhat swollen, and it throbbed like an ulcerated tooth, when I got up the following morning, but I made shift to build a fire. When the icy chill was banished from the room, I dressed, and was getting what comfort I could out of a smoke when Montell knocked at my door, bringing a cold gust of air when he entered.

“Oho,” said he, “stirrin’ round, eh? This ain’t much like home, is it? How’s the arm?”

I told him briefly, having little inclination to enlarge on that theme the pain was sufficient without the aggravation of discussing it.

“Uh-huh,” he grunted. “Now you just come along to the shack and have Jess fix it up again. She’s pretty near as good as a doctor. And seein’ she’s partly responsible, it’s no more’n fair. There ain’t no use you makin’ a hermit of yourself.”

I attempted to dodge this invitation, which seemed to savor of command. Montell’s semi-jocoseness rather jarred on me. For one thing his heartiness didn’t quite ring true. Possibly I misjudged him. He could have had no particular motive for posing on my account. But I got the impression that his solicitude was of the lip rather than of the heart. While I had passed a very pleasant evening with them, I did not contemplate making myself at home in the Montell cabin, by any means. I had a vague feeling that it involved disloyalty to Barreau. Montell, however, was quite insistent, and as I had no forthright reason for being churlish I ended by going with him.

He made a great fuss at helping me off with my coat, and while he hovered over me in his ponderous way Miss Montell came out of the other room. She nodded to me and smiled a greeting, whereupon he, busying himself with hanging my coat and hat upon a peg, plunged into a jesting account of my reluctance to leave my own fireside, relating with much detail what he said and what I said, and how I owed it to my arm to have it well cared for, and so on till I wearied of his gabble. I don’t think she listened half the time. She moved about the room, getting a basin and warm water and other first, or perhaps I should say second, aids to the injured. And she washed and bandaged afresh the laceration, with an impersonal absorption in the task that I half resented.

When she had finished, breakfast, hot from the cookhouse, was brought by one of the “breed” women, and Miss Montell seated herself at the table and airily waved her father and myself to places on her right and left.

That was how I came to break bread with them a second time, and it was not the last by any means. In the ensuing five or six days I wore a distinct path between my cabin and theirs. Montell made it a point to descend upon me at some hour of the day, and, after all, I was not so loth. I am constrained to admit that Jessie Montell was the one bright spot in those dreary, monotonous days. With Barreau gone, I was a lonely mortal indeed. Those evenings at Montell’s passed away many a leaden-footed hour. After that first time Jessie never challenged me in that imperious, judicial manner, anent my Benton escapade. We spoke of it, to be sure, but in terms dispassionate, uncritical. When Montell was about, he and I played cribbage. When she and I were alone, we talked. We discovered a similar taste in books, a mutual acquaintance or two in St. Louis. And we gravely discussed the prospects of getting home in the spring. Naturally, she was a rabid partisan, hating the Hudson’s Bay Company with outspoken frankness. Moreover, she spoke confidently of her father’s power to beat them at their own game, notwithstanding the strong hand shown by the Company so shortly before. Of Barreau’s part in the war for pelts, she seemed profoundly ignorant. His name never passed her lips.

Once the swelling left my arm the torn place healed rapidly. So that by the end of a week I felt no inconvenience, and it was beyond need of any treatment save a simple bandage to protect it from the rubbing of my sleeve. Then I bethought me of my neglected snowshoeing, and sallied forth on the track of that free, effortless stride which had so far eluded me. At the gate of the stockade I turned back, on the impulse of the moment, and went to the Montell cabin to ask Jessie if she were a snowshoe expert or wished to become one.

“Thank Heaven for a chance to see the outside of this stockade wall once more,” she cried, in mock fervor. “Will I go snowshoeing? Yea, and verily. I detest being mewed up, and I don’t like to wander off alone. This big desolate country is so forbidding. Yes, I’ve snowshoed a little one winter in the Wisconsin woods.”

She had more of a mastery over the webbed boots of the North than I, it shortly transpired. We went up the river a mile or two, crossed it, and climbed to the top of a bald point that immediately appealed to us as an ideal coasting-place. We were in something of a light-hearted mood, anyway, and like a pair of children on a holiday amused ourselves by sliding down and climbing back to slide down again. Thus we passed two or three hours, at imminent risk of frozen cheeks and noses, for it was bitterly cold, so cold that the snow crunched beneath our feet like powdered rosin. And when we wearied of that we went trailing home over glistening flats that lay between us and the post. Down on the bare bottomlands of the Sicannie a tenuous frost-haze hung in the air. Back from the valley edges the great woods stood in frozen ranks, branches heavy-freighted with the latest fall of snow. To the west towered the mountain range, robed in ermine now instead of summer purple; huge, ragged crests, flashing in the heatless sun.

“What insignificant creatures we are, after all,” the girl stopped suddenly and looked back at the white peaks, and to the north and south where the somber woodland stood like twin walls. “For a true sense of his own importance in the universe one has only to face this.” She nodded toward the surrounding forest, and the Rockies crouching against the far skyline. “It is so big and so silent. It gives me a feeling of being pitted against a gigantic, remorseless power a something indefinable, and yet terrible in its strength. Power when I can understand it fascinates me. But this makes me shrink. Sometimes I actually feel afraid. They say that men compelled to stay up here alone often go mad. I hardly wonder. I don’t think I like the North.”

“So you feel that way,” I rejoined. “So do I, at times.”

She assented soberly.

“Perhaps we are blessed or cursed, whichever it may be, with too much imagination; and give it overfree rein.”

“No,” I returned, blundering on in an attempt to voice that which I had often felt, but could never express. “There is an atmosphere, a something about these immense spaces that sits hard on the nerves. We don’t have to imagine these things; they’re here. It seems to me that any wilderness untamed must have that same effect; it overawes one. And man hasn’t tamed this yet. The North is master and we feel it.”

We plodded a few yards farther.

“The North is master and we feel it,” she repeated presently. “I resent that. I shouldn’t care,” she murmured thoughtfully, “to be wholly at the mercy of the North. It reminds me of the sea, cold and gray and pitiless.” And she fell into a silent reflective mood as we trudged along to the post.

Just at the gate of the stockade we met two men two tall men burdened with shoulder-packs. I knew the face of every man in the pay of Montell, but these were not of his following. Yet somewhere, sometime, I had seen them; my memory insisted upon this. But where or when, I could not instantly recall.

They passed within a few feet of me, their parka hoods drawn close about their cheeks. I had only their profiles to spur my recollection. But that sufficed. I stood watching them bear away to the north, and as mechanically I shuffled the cards of memory a picture flashed out clear as the ace of spades in a diamond suit. The two men were those who had come to the camp of Three Wolves early in the fall, the same who had sat upon the log with Barreau that morning and made overtures for peaceful capitulation. Once I had placed them, my interest flagged. I turned and entered the stockade. Jessie had kept on to the store. Montell was standing on the stoop, as I reached the building, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his fur coat. By the fixity of his gaze as I turned the corner I guessed that he was watching the two men. A backward glance showed them just vanishing into the belt of spruce that ran to the brow of the hill.

“Well,” I greeted, “you’ve had callers to break the monotony, I see.”

“That’s what,” he replied. “Queer fish, too. Wouldn’t stay no time at all. Claimed to be free traders like ourselves, and wanted to know if we minded ’em tryin’ to pick up a few pelts around here in the spring. Got a stock of goods, they said, somewhere between here and the Peace.”

I pricked up my ears at that. Someone had fibbed properly. And when it was on the tip of my tongue to say that they were Hudson’s Bay men, I refrained. That information would keep, I reflected. The more I thought of it the less I cared to make any assertions. The men had done no harm apparently. If they had lied to Montell he was probably shrewd enough to know why. If Montell were lying to me, he likely had good reasons. I dropped the matter forthwith. It was for Barreau to speculate upon, when he returned.

So I went into the store and warmed myself, and, after Jessie went home, spent the rest of the afternoon playing pinochle with Ben Wise. But the sight of those men in buckskin had jarred me out of the peaceful routine of thought that the quiet weeks had bred. I was once more brought up against the game of cross-purposes that Barreau and Montell were playing, and the Hudson’s Bay Company again loomed as a factor. I wondered if anything had befallen Barreau. He had told me he would be back in four days the time had doubled. Ben brought me up standing in the midst of these reflections. He threw down his cards in disgust.

“I quit yuh,” he growled. “By gosh, I want to play cards when I play, an’ do my dreamin’ in bed.” So we put up the deck, and I went to my cabin and built a fire.

The cheery warmth of the cabin, after the exertion of snowshoeing, and sitting there in a state of mental passivity, soon begot drowsiness. I piled wood on the fire, and stretched myself on the bunk. And the next minute, it seemed, I was being shaken out of my sleep but I opened my eyes to candle light, and Barreau standing over me, smiling.

“Come out of the trance, old snoozer,” he laughed cheerfully. “I’ve just got in. Suppose we go and eat before the cook shuts up shop.”

“Amen to that,” I replied.

I put fresh wood on the fire, which had sunk to a few dull embers, while Barreau busied himself with the wash-basin and comb. Stripped of the parka that had cast confusing shadows on his features I saw that he had suffered attack from the frost. A patch of blackening skin stood over each cheek-bone.

“I see you got bitten, too,” I remarked and went on to tell him of my clash with the huskies.

“I had worse than husky dogs to contend with,” he returned in a matter of fact way. “Our two Frenchmen, the cabin and everything in it, has been spirited away. I went on a scouting trip, thinking I might get track of something. I’ve laid out every night since I left here. Hull fared even worse than I; he may lose some of his toes.”

“And you found” I started to ask.

“Nothing,” he replied carelessly. “I don’t think the men came to any harm. But it’s one more item on the debit side.”

Over in the mess-house we had the long room to ourselves, except for the cook pottering over his fire. And in the midst of the meal I bethought me to tell Barreau of the two strangers, and Montell’s account of their mission. He laid down his knife and fork and listened intently.

“Free traders, eh?” he drawled. “Not so bad for Montell, that or has the Company taken a fresh tack, I wonder? They knew I was away. I had a feeling that we were being watched, and so had Hull. Quite an engrossing little three-cornered game, isn’t it, Bob?”

We left the cookhouse without referring to this again. A light shone dully through the store window nearest us, and we walked toward our cabin, and just short of the door Barreau turned aside.

“I may as well go and tell him that the brothers Grau have gone over to the enemy,” he said to me. “Come along, Bob, and see him squirm. He always does when he is stabbed in such a vital point as the purse. That’s a veritable heel of Achilles with him.”

Montell was alone. He stood with his back to the fire, legs spread apart, hands clasped behind him. He looked very well satisfied with himself. His little eyes surveyed us placidly from under the blinking, puffy lids.

“Well, George, you’re back, eh?” he observed. “How’s everything below?”

“Very well, I dare say,” Barreau answered, during the process of making a cigarette, “from the other fellow’s point of view.”

Montell’s eyelids drew a little nearer together.

“How’s that?” he inquired, in his mildest manner.

And Barreau, when he had found a box to his liking and seated himself on it beside the fire, proceeded to tell him very much as he had told me. The two of them eyed each other a few seconds. Then Montell bit the end off the cigar he had tucked in one corner of his thick-lipped mouth and spat it viciously into the fireplace.

“God damn ’em!” he snarled. But whether the Company or the two Frenchmen he did not specify perhaps both. Barreau laughed softly.

“Don’t let your angry passions rise,” he sneered. “Temper always induces apoplexy in fat people. A man of your beefy tendency should be very careful.”

Montell’s heavy jowl quivered slightly, and his jaws clamped together. Aside from that he kept an impassive front. With that last shot Barreau turned his gaze to the fire, and as Montell stood staring intently before him there was an interval of silence. In the hush a scuffling sound arose in the rear of the store.

“Them darned rats,” Montell muttered.

He cocked his head aside and stood in a listening attitude, I, watching him unobtrusively, saw his glance flit furtively from me to Barreau and then to a table standing just back from the hearth. For the first time I noticed then that a rifle lay upon it, the general direction of the muzzle toward Barreau. Again he looked swiftly from me to George, and then stared straight away into the black shadows that shrouded the far end of the long room. Once more the rustling and scraping sounds could be heard.

“Them darned rats,” he repeated. “They’ll eat us out before spring.”

He left the fire and stole softly back among the shadows, whence presently came the noise of something being thrown, followed by Montell’s voice cursing the rats.

Barreau had not once turned his head. But I had watched Mr. Simon Montell as much because his actions interested me as because I expected anything to happen. And I distinctly saw the rifle shift its position when he passed the table end; as if he had accidentally brushed against the projecting stock. Accidentally or otherwise, the muzzle then pointed straight at Barreau. I have a deep-rooted aversion to seeing the business end of a gun directed at a man unless such is the intention of the man behind it. Loaded or empty, my father taught me, never point a gun at anybody unless you mean to hurt him. And so I reached over and gave the rifle a hitch that pointed it toward the opposite wall, just as Montell returned from his rat hunting.

“By thunder, I’d oughto took that to ’em,” he declared as if he had but noticed the rifle.

He placed himself before the fire again. In a minute or so came the subdued rustling of the rats. Montell winked at me, picked up the Winchester, cocked it, and went tip-toeing toward the rear. Barreau came out of his study at the click of the hammer. He flashed a quick glance after Montell. Then quietly he moved his box backward till his body, when he seated himself, was no longer clearly outlined in the firelight.

The rat activities ceased. After a time Montell came poking back again, carrying the rifle in his right hand. As he reached the end of the table, so close to me that I could have touched him, and within six feet of Barreau, he stumbled, pitched sharply forward, and the report of the gun made my heart leap.

With the forward lurch of Montell’s body Barreau cast himself backward like an uncoiled spring, and fell full length, thus escaping the bullet. He made no attempt to rise, simply rolled over on his side. For an instant a pistol glinted in his hand, and his thin lips were drawn back from his white, even teeth. As quickly as he had drawn it he thrust the six-shooter back out of sight. The habitual unruffled expression came back to his face as Montell got upon his feet, leaving the rifle upon the floor. Barreau sat up then.

“By the great horn spoon,” Montell stammered. “I I oughto be kicked. By gosh, I thought that hammer was down. Darn me for a careless fool, runnin’ round with a loaded gun and stumblin’ over a little piece of wood. I’d no idée I was so blamed clumsy. I guess I’m gettin’ old all right.”

Barreau laughed, a cold-blooded unmirthful sound. He got up from his sitting posture, laid hold of the rifle, and stood it against the wall beside him. Then he sat down on his box, and felt with his fingers till he located the bullet hole. It was embedded in the log, on a level with his breast.

“Clumsy?” Barreau said, in a voice nearly devoid of inflection. “Well, yes; it was rather clumsy.”

Montell was facing the light now. Barreau got up from his box again, and Montell took a step backward. Thus for a half-minute the two faced each other silently, gray eye pitting itself against cold, steel-blue. Montell weakened under that direct contemptuous glare. His glance sought me in a furtive way, and the fat, pudgy hands of him began to fidget.

“Don’t do it again, Montell,” Barreau said slowly, and his tone was like a slap in the face.

Then he sat down upon the box and rolled himself another cigarette.