Read CHAPTER XVII of A Mating in the Wilds , free online book, by Ottwell Binns, on ReadCentral.com.

THE ATTACK

The watching woman made no attempt to escape, but somewhat to Stane’s surprise, awaited his coming. As he drew nearer he was again startled to find that it was the girl whom he had talked with at Fort Malsun.

“Miskodeed,” he cried in surprise. “You! What are you doing here?”

“I come to warn thee,” said the girl in her own dialect. “Once before I did that, and I was too late. But now I am in time.”

“To warn me?” he echoed, still too surprised to say more.

“Yes,” answered Miskodeed. “There are those who will seek to kill thee tonight.”

“Tonight! But why?”

“I do not know, fully. The thing is hidden from me, but there is some one who means to slay.”

“Who is it?” asked Stane in sudden curiosity.

“It is the son of Chief George’s sister the man for whom the officer came to the encampment yesterday.”

“Then he is at the camp, after all?”

“He was there when the officer came. The story which Chief George told about his departure to the Great Barrens was a lie.”

“But why should he seek to kill me?”

“Have I not said I do not know fully? But he promises big things if thou are slain: rifles and the water that burns and makes men sing, and tea and molasses, and blankets for the women.”

“But,” protested Stane, “I have but one rifle and little spirit and tea. I am not worth plundering, and Chief George must know that the law will take account of his doings, and that the grip of the law reaches right up to the Frozen Sea.”

“He knows,” answered the girl quietly, “but Chigmok that is his sister’s son has filled him with a lying tale that the law will take no account of thee, and he believes, as Chigmok himself believes.”

“But ” began Stane, and broke off as the girl lifted her hand.

“Chief George has seen the rifles, and the burning water, the box of tea and the bale of blankets, and his soul is hungry for them. He would kill more than thee to win them.”

“And the the man who is with me?”

A little flash came in the girl’s dark eyes. “That man ” she said in a voice that had an edge like a knife, “tell me, is she thy squaw?”

“Then you know, Miskodeed?” he said, with a quick feeling of shame.

“I know that man is the bright-faced woman who came to Fort Malsun. Tell me, is she thy squaw?”

“No?” he answered sharply. “No!”

“Then what does she in thy lodge?”

“That is due to an accident. She drifted down to the great river, and I saved her from the water, and started to take her back to Fort Malsun. Our canoe was stolen in the night, and when we took the land-trail my leg was broken and we were delayed, and by the time I was fit for travel, winter was upon us, so we sought the cabin to wait for help. That is the explanation, and now tell me, Miskodeed, is the woman to die?”

“The bright-faced one is to be saved alive.”

“Ah! That is an order?”

“It is necessary for the winning of the rifles, and the tea and the blankets.”

Stane pursed his lips to whistle at the news. There was more behind it than appeared; and he knew that Chigmok the murderous half-breed was not the framer of the plot, however, he might be the instrument for its execution. He looked at the girl thoughtfully for a moment, and as he did so a soft look came in the wild, dark eyes that were regarding him intently.

“Canst thou not leave the bright-faced woman, and I will show thee a way through the woods. We will go together ”

“It is impossible! Quite impossible, Miskodeed,” cried Stane almost violently.

He did not know that other ears than those to which they were addressed caught those words of repudiation. Helen Yardely, missing his presence about the cabin, had stepped out to look for him, and catching a murmur of voices in the still air, had stood listening. The words, coupled with the girl’s name, reached her quite clearly, and struck her like a blow. She did not wait to hear more, but retreated to the cabin, her cheeks burning with shame, her grey eyes bright with fierce scorn. She did not know to what the words referred, but, in her haste and jealousy she utterly misinterpreted the situation, and her scorn was as much for herself as for Stane as she thought how she had grown to love a man who

The thought was an intolerable one. She could not endure it, and she began fiercely to do a totally unnecessary task in the hope of driving it from her. That was impossible, and after a minute or two she seated herself in front of the stove and stared into its glow with eyes that flashed with mingled anger and pain, the while she awaited Stane’s return.

Meanwhile, the interview which had kindled such fires within her had already come to an abrupt conclusion. For as Stane declined her suggestion Miskodeed lifted a warning finger.

“Hark!” she whispered.

Stane listened, as did the girl. Whatever sound had made her speak the word was hushed, and after a few seconds she spoke again. “Then thou wilt die for this bright-faced woman?”

“A thousand times!” he answered with quiet vehemence. “Understand, Miskodeed ”

He got no further. In the recesses of the wood a fox barked sharply, and a second later the sound was repeated in two different directions.

“Ah,” cried the Indian girl, “They come. Thou art too late. Thou wilt die for thy bright-faced woman now once.”

A second later she turned away, and began to walk rapidly between the trees. Stane did not stand to watch her go. Without an instant’s delay he made for the cabin at a run, and as he entered it, breathing rather heavily, he flung to the door and dropped the wooden bar in place. Then without a word he walked to the window and barricaded it as he had done on the previous night. Helen still seated by the stove looked at him in some wonder, and he offered what to him appeared a sufficient explanation.

“Last night when we returned a fox barked in the wood, and a little after some one shot an arrow to kill me. Just now three foxes barked in quick succession in different directions, and as I have not seen a fox since we came here, I think it is as well to take precautions.”

To his surprise Helen offered no comment, but sat there as if waiting for further explanations. He offered none. Being unaware of his companion’s knowledge of his interview with Miskodeed he had decided to keep the incident to himself, and not to alarm her more than was necessary. Seating himself, he lit a pipe, and as his companion showed no inclination to talk, fell into thought. There was a rather strained, perplexed look on his face, and as the girl glanced at him once she wondered resentfully what thoughts accounted for it. His silence about the Indian girl told against him in her mind. If there had been nothing to be ashamed of in his relations with Miskodeed why had he not spoken openly of the incident in the wood? Jealousy, it was recorded of old, is as cruel as the grave, and as the hot flame of it grew in her heart, she almost hated the girl who was the occasion of it.

As a matter of sober fact, Stane was thinking little of Miskodeed herself, but much of the information she had brought. Whilst he kept his ears open for any unusual sounds outside the cabin, his mind was trying to probe the mystery behind the attack that, as he was sure, was preparing. Who was the inspirer of it, and why should his death be designed, whilst his companion must be spared? Miskodeed had spoken of the price that was to be paid for the attack rifles and spirit, tea, molasses and blankets. The nature of the bribe was such as would tempt any tribe in the North and was also such as implied a white man in the background. But who was the white man who so chose his instruments for a deed from which apparently he himself shrank? The question perplexed him, and a deep furrow manifested itself between his eyes as he strove to answer it. Ainley? He dallied with the thought for a little time, and then dismissed it. Ainley was afraid of him and shrank from meeting him, but he would hardly go to such lengths as Miskodeed’s statement implied; nor would he involve Helen Yardely’s life in the extreme risk incidental to an attack in force on the cabin. It was unthinkable!

His mind sought other explanations. Was there some other man, some white man who had seen Helen and by this means hoped to secure her for himself? The thought was preposterous. Then a new thought leaped up. The reward Sir James was offering for his niece’s recovery! Had some man his eye on that some unscrupulous adventurer, who fearing possibly that he himself might claim a share in it, proposed to get rid of him that there might be no division of the spoil? That seemed barely feasible, and

His thought suffered a sudden interruption. From outside came the crunch of moccasined feet on the frozen snow. He started to his feet, and took up his rifle, glancing quickly at the girl as he did so. There was a flush of excitement in her face, but the eyes that met his chilled him with their unresponsiveness. He held out his machine pistol.

“You had better have this, for the present, Miss Yardely, for I believe the attack is coming. But don’t use it unless I tell you.”

She took the pistol without a word, and the austerity of her manner as she did so, even in that moment, set him wondering what was the cause of it. But he had little time to dwell upon the matter for more footsteps were audible, and a voice grunted words that he did not catch. He picked up an ax, put it ready to his hand close to the door and then extinguished the slush-lamp.

The cabin was now full of shadows, though he could still see the girl’s face in the glare of the stove, and marked with satisfaction that it bore no sign of fear. The position where she stood, however, was not a safe one, and he was constrained to bid her change it.

“You had better come into the corner here, Miss Yardely. It is out of range of any chance arrow through the window. That barricade of mine cannot last long, and they are sure to try the window.”

The girl did not answer, but she changed her position, moving to the corner he had indicated, and just as she did so, two or three blows of an ax (as he guessed) knocked out the parchment of the window, but the barricade stood firm. The attack however, continued, and as the improvised shutter began to yield, Stane raised his rifle.

“There is nothing else for it,” he whispered.

The next moment the rifle cracked and the sound was followed by a cry of pain.

“First blood!” he said, a little grimly.

There was a short lull, then something heavy smashed against the shutter and it collapsed in the room. As it did so a gun barrel was thrust in the opening, and a shot was fired apparently at random. The bullet struck the cabin wall a full two yards from where Helen was standing. Stane turned to her quickly.

“As close in the corner as you can get, Miss Yardely; then there will be no danger except from a ricochet.”

Helen obeyed him. The excitement of the moment banished her resentment, and as she watched him standing there, cool and imperturbable as he waited events, a frank admiration stirred within her. Whatever his sins, he was a man!

Then came a new form of attack. Arrows fired from different angles began to fly through the open space, making a vicious sound as they struck various parts of the cabin. Stane calculated the possible angles of their flight and gave a short laugh. “They’re wasting labour now. That dodge won’t work.”

The flight of arrows, however, continued for a little time, then followed that which Stane had begun to fear. The space of the window suddenly grew plainer, outlined by a glow outside, and the next moment three blazing armfuls of combustible material were heaved in at the window. Stane fired twice during the operation, but whether he hit or not he did not know. One of the burning bundles fell in the bunk, which was soon ablaze, and the cabin began to fill with smoke. At the same time the besieged became aware of a fierce crackling outside, and the outlook in the snow-covered lake was illumined by a growing glow. Stane understood the meaning of the phenomenon at once, and looked at the girl.

“They are trying to burn down the cabin,” he said. “I am afraid it is a choice of evils, Miss Yardely. We must either stay here, and die of suffocation or fire, or face the music outside.”

“Then let us go outside,” answered the girl resolutely.

“I do not believe they will injure you. I believe that they have orders to the contrary, but ”

“Did Miskodeed tell you so?”

For the moment he was utterly staggered by the question, then perceiving that she knew of his recent interview with the Indian girl, he answered frankly:

“Yes! You are to be taken alive, but I am to die, according to the program as arranged!”

“Oh, no! no!” she cried in sudden anguish. “You must not die. You must fight! You must live! live! I do not want you to die!”

In the growing light in the burning cabin he could see her face quite plainly, and the anguished concern in her eyes shook him as the dangers around him never could have done. Moved for a moment beyond himself, he stretched a hand towards her.

“My dear!” he stammered. “My dear ”

“Oh then you know that I am that?” she cried.

“I have known it for months!”

She made a little movement that brought her closer to him, and yielding to the surging impulse in his heart, he threw an arm round her.

“If you die ” she began, and broke off as a gust of smoke rolled over them.

“I think it is very likely,” he answered. “But I am glad to have had this moment.”

He stooped and kissed her, and a sob came from her.

“I shall die too!” she said. “We will die together but it would have been splendid to live.”

“But you will live,” he said. “You must live. There is no need that you should die.”

“But what shall I live for?” she cried. “And why am I to be spared? Have you thought of that?”

“Yes,” he answered quickly, and gave her a hurried account of his own thought upon the matter. “If I am right no harm will befall you. And we must go. It is time. Look!”

A little tongue of flame was creeping through the joining of the logs at one end of the cabin, and the logs where the bunk had been were beginning to crackle and hiss ominously. The smoke had grown thicker, and the atmosphere was pungent and choking in its quality. He left her side for a moment, and returned with her furs.

“You must put them on,” he said, “or you will freeze outside.”

He himself had slipped on his own furs, and when he had helped her into hers, he took his rifle and nodded towards the pistol which she still held.

“You need not use it outside,” he said. “Keep it for for eventualities. You understand?”

“I understand,” she answered calmly, knowing that in the last resource she was to do what many women of her race had done before her.

“I will go first,” he said. “And you must wait a full minute before emerging. I shall try and make for the woods at the back, and if I get clear you shall follow me you understand?”

“Oh my man! my man!” she cried in a shaking voice, knowing that though he spoke lightly, he had little hope of escape.

Not knowing what to say, or how to comfort her, Stane took her in his arms again, and kissed her, then for a moment he stood listening. Outside all was still or whatever sounds there were were drowned by the increasing roar and crackle of the fire.

“Now!” he said. “Now!”

He slipped down the bar, threw the door open suddenly and plunged outside. A yell greeted his emergence and he was aware of a small group of men standing a little way from the cabin. As he ran he fired at them from the hip; and turned sharply to the left. The two men appeared suddenly from behind the trees to bar his way, so quickly that he had not time to fire the rifle before one of them grappled with him. The rifle fell from his hand, and for a moment they struggled, then whilst the second man was still running, a shadowy figure slipped from behind a broad trunk close to where the two men were locked together, and Stane caught the sudden gleam of a knife as the light from the fire glinted upon it. He was unable to help himself, and, held in his antagonist’s arms, he waited for the impending stroke. Twice the knife descended, and his opponent’s grip suddenly slackened and the man slid slowly to the ground. The running man had now reached the scene of the struggle. He carried a hatchet in his hand, and he struck first at the unknown one who had killed his companion, and the unknown one went down like a log. Before Stane had recovered from his surprise the ax was raised again. He leaped at the man just as the ax descended. An intervening bough turned the stroke, twisting the ax so that it caught the side of his head, knocking him senseless. As he fell to the ground, the Indian raised the ax once more. Before the blow could fall, a rifle cracked in the wood behind him, and the attacker leaped in the air, and pitched forward upon his face.