Read CHAPTER VII - THE HARVEST OF WINTER of The Heart of Unaga , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

Steve was confronted with six months of desperate winter on the plateau of Unaga.  It was an outlook that demanded all the strength of his simple faith.  He was equal to the tasks lying before him, but not for one moment did he underestimate them.

For all the harshness of the life which claimed him Steve’s whole nature was imbued with a saneness of sympathy, a deep kindliness of spirit that left him master of himself under every emotion.  The great governing factor in his life was a strength of honest purpose.  A purpose, in its turn, prompted by his sense of right and justice, and those things which have their inspiration in a broad generosity of spirit.  So it was that under all conditions his conscience remained at peace.

It was supported by such feelings that he faced the tasks which the desperate heart of Unaga imposed upon him.  He had the care of an orphaned child, he had the care of that child’s Indian nurse, and the lives and well-being of his own two men charged up against him.  He also had the investigations which he had been sent to make, and furthermore, there was his own life to be preserved for the woman he loved, and the infant child of their love, waiting for his return a thousand miles away.  The work was the work of a giant rather than a man; but never for one moment did his confidence fail him.

The days following the arrival at the post were urgent.  They were days of swift thought and prompt action.  The open season was gone, and the struggle for existence might begin without a moment’s warning.  Steve knew.  Everyone knew.  That is, everyone except little Marcel.

The boy accepted every changing condition without thought, and busied himself with the preparations of his new friends.  It had no significance for him that all day long the forest rang with the clip of the felling axe.  Neither did the unceasing work of the buck-saw, as it ploughed its way through an endless stream of sapling trunks, afford him anything beyond the joy of lending his assistance.  Then, too, the morning survey of the elemental prospect, when his elders searched the skies, fearing and hoping, and grimly accepting that which the fates decreed, was only one amongst his many joys.  It was all a great and fascinating game, full of interest and excitement for a budding capacity which Steve was quick to recognize.

But the child’s greatest delight was the moment when “Uncle Steve” invited him to assist him in discovering the economic resources of his own home.  As the examination proceeded Steve learned many things which could never have reached him through any other source.  He obtained a peep into the lives of these people through the intimate eyes of the child, and his keen perception read through the tumbling, eager words to the great truths of which the child was wholly unaware.  And it was a story which left him with the profoundest admiration and pity for the dead man who was the genius of it all.

Not for one moment did Steve permit a shadow to cross the child’s sunny, smiling face.  From the first moment when the responsibility for Marcel’s little life had fallen into his hands his mind was made up.  By every artifice the boy must be kept from all knowledge of the tragedy that had befallen him.  When he asked for his mother he was told that she was so sick that she could not be worried.  This was during the first two days.  After that he was told that she had gone away.  She had gone away to meet his father, and that when she came back she would bring his “pop” with her.  A few added details of a fictitious nature completely satisfied, and the child accepted without question that which his hero told him.

He was permitted to see nothing of the little silent cortege that left the post late on the second night.  He saw nothing of the grief-laden eyes of An-ina as she followed the three men bearing their burden of the dead mother, enclosed in a coffin made out of the packing cases with which the fort was so abundantly supplied.  He had seen the men digging in the forest earlier in the day, and had been more than satisfied when “Uncle Steve” assured him they were digging a well.  Later on he would discover the great beacon of stones which marked the “well.”  But, for the moment, while the curtain was being rung down on the tragedy of his life, he was sleeping calmly, and dreaming those happy things which only child slumbers may know.

Good fortune smiled on the early efforts at the fort For ten days the arch-enemy withheld his hand.  For ten days the weary sun was dragged from its rest by the evil “dogs” which seemed to dominate its movements completely.  But each day their evil eyes grew more and more portentious and threatening as they watched the human labourers they seemed to regard with so much contempt.

Then came the change.  It was the morning of the eleventh day.  The “dogs” had hidden their faces and the weary sun remained obscured behind a mass of grey cloud.  The crisp breeze which had swept the valley with its invigorating breath had died out, and the world had suddenly become threateningly silent.

A few great snowflakes fluttered silently to the ground.  Steve was at the gateway of the stockade, and his constant attendant was beside him in his bundle of furs.  The man’s eyes were measuring as they gazed up at the grey sky.  Little Marcel was wisely studying, too.

“Maybe us has snow,” he observed sapiently at last, as he watched the falling flakes.

“Yes.  I guess we’ll get snow.”

Steve smiled down at the little figure beside him.

“Wot makes snow, Uncle Steve?” the boy demanded.

“Why, the cold, I guess.  It just freezes the rain in the clouds.  And when they get so heavy they can’t stay up any longer, why they just come tumbling down and makes folk sit around the stove and wish they wouldn’t.”

“Does us wish they wouldn’t?”

“Most all the time.”

The child considered deeply.  Then his face brightened hopefully.

“Bimeby us digs, Uncle Steve,” he said.  “Boy likes digging.”

Steve held out a hand and Marcel yielded his.

“Boy’ll help ‘Uncle Steve,’ eh?”

“I’s always help Uncle Steve.”

The spontaneity of the assurance remained unanswerable.

Steve glanced back into the enclosure.  Then his hand tightened upon the boy’s with gentle pressure.

“Come on, old fellow.  We’ll get along in, and make that stove, and wish it wouldn’t.”

He led the way back to the house.

The snowfall grew in weight and density.  Silent, still, the world of Unaga seemed to have lost all semblance of life.  White, white, eternal white, and above the heavy grey of an overburdened sky.  Solitude, loneliness, desperately complete.  It was the silence which well nigh drives the human brain to madness.  From minutes to hours; from inches to feet.  Day and night.  Day and night.  Snow, snow all the time, till the tally of days grew, and the weeks slowly passed.  It almost seemed as if Nature, in her shame, were seeking to hide up the sight of her own creation.

For three silent weeks the snow continued to fall without a break.  Then it ceased as abruptly as it had begun, leaving the fort buried well nigh to the eaves.  The herald of change was a wild rush of wind sweeping down the valley from the broken hills which formed its northern limits.  And, within half an hour, the silence was torn, and ripped, and tattered, and the world transformed, and given up to complete and utter chaos.  A hurricane descended on the post, and its timbers groaned under the added burden.  The forest giants laboured and protested at the merciless onslaught, while the crashing of trees boomed out its deep note amidst the shriek of the storm.  As the fury of it all rose, so rose up the snowfall of weeks into a blinding fog which shut out every sight of the desolate plateau as though it had never been.

Five weeks saw the extent of winter’s first onslaught.  And after that for awhile, the battle resolved itself into a test of human endurance, with the temperature hovering somewhere below 60 deg. below zero.  For a few short hours the sun would deign to appear above the horizon, prosecute its weary journey across the skyline, and ultimately die its daily death with almost pitiful indifference.  Then some twenty hours, when the world was abandoned to the starry magnificence of the Arctic night, supported by the brilliant light of a splendid aurora.

It was during this time that Steve pursued his researches into the lives of these people.  He was sitting now in the laboratory, which was a building apart from all the rest.  It was the home of the chemist’s research.  It was equipped with wonderful completeness.  Besides the shelves containing all the paraphernalia of a chemist’s profession, and the counter which supported a distilling apparatus, and which was clearly intended for other experiment as well, there was a desk, and a small wood stove, which was alight, and radiating a pleasant heat.

It was the desk which held most interest for Steve.  It was here he looked to find, in the dead man’s papers, in his letters, in his records and books, the answer to every question in his mind.

For some hours he had been reading from one of the volumes of the man’s exhaustive diary.  It was a living document containing a fascinating story of the chemist’s hopes and fears for the great objects which had led to his abandonment of the civilized world for the bitter heights of Unaga.  And in every line of it Steve realized it could only have been written by a man of strong, deep conviction and enthusiasm, a man whose purpose soared far above the mere desire for gain.  He felt, in the reading, he was listening to the words of a man who was all and more, far more, than his wife had claimed for him.

At last the fire in the stove shook down and he became aware of the work of busy shovels going on just outside.  He pulled out his watch, and the yellow light of the oil lamp told him that he had been reading for nearly three hours.  Setting a marker in the book he closed it reluctantly, and prepared to return the litter of documents to the drawers which stood open beside him.

At that moment the door opened, and the tall figure of the squaw An-ina stood in the framing.

“Him supper all fixed,” she announced, in her quietly assured fashion.

Steve looked up, and his eyes gazed squarely into the woman’s handsome face.  He was thinking rapidly.

“Say An-ina,” he began at last.  “I’ve been reading a whole heap.  It’s what the man, Brand, wrote.  He seems to have been a pretty great feller.”

The woman nodded as he paused.

“Heap good man,” she commented.

Her eyes lit with an emotion there could be no misunderstanding.  For all the savage stock from which she sprang the dead white man had claimed a great loyalty and devotion.

“You see, An-ina,” Steve went on, “I came along up here to chase up the murder of two men.  My work’s to locate all the facts, arrest the murderers, take them back to where I come from, and make my report.”

“Sure.  That how An-ina mak it so.”

The woman’s eyes were questioning.  She was wondering at the meaning of all this preliminary.  And she was not without disquiet.  She had come to realize that, with the death of her mistress, only this man and his scouts stood between her and disaster.  She could not rid herself of the dread which pursued her now.  Little Marcel was a white child.  This man was white.  She she was just a squaw.  She was of the colour of these “Sleeper” Indians.  Would they take the child of her mother heart from her, and leave her to her fate amongst these folk who slept the whole winter through?

“Yes,” Steve was gazing thoughtfully at the light which came from under the rough cardboard shade of the lamp.  “Well, the whole look of things has kind of changed since I’ve ” he indicated the papers on the desk “taken a look into all these.”

“Him read much.  Him look always look.  So.”

Steve nodded.

“That’s so.  Well, I’ve got to get busy now, and do the things I was sent up to do.  But it seems likely there’s going to be no murderer to take back with me.  It looks like a report of two men dead, by each other’s hand, a woman dead through accident, and you, and little Marcel left alive.  That being so I guess I can’t leave you two up here.  Do you get that?” He set his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his hands.  “There’s the boy, he’s white,” he said, watching the squaw’s troubled face.  “He’s got to go right back with me, when my work’s done.  And you why, you’d best come, too.  I’d hate to rob you of the boy.  You’ll both need to come right along.  And the big folk will say what’s to be done with you when we get back.  How do you say?”

The trouble had completely vanished from the woman’s eyes.  It was like the passing of a great shadow.  Their velvet softness radiated her thankfulness, her gratitude.

“It good.  Much good,” she cried, with a sudden abandonment of that stoic unemotional manner which was native to her.  “An-ina love white boy.  She love him much.  Boy go?  Then An-ina all go dead.  An-ina wait.  So storm devil him come.  Then An-ina go out, and sleep, sleep, and not wake never no more.  An-ina keep boy?  Then An-ina much happy.  An-ina help white man officer.  An-ina strong.  Mak long trail.  An-ina no sick.  No mak tire.  Work all time.  An’ help much help white man officer.  So.”

Steve’s smiling eyes indicated his acceptance of the woman’s protestations.

“That’s all right,” he said.  Then he went on after a moment’s thought:  “Now, you know these folk.  These ‘Sleepers.’  Do you know their lingo their language?  I’ve got to make a big pow-wow with their head man.  I guess that can’t be done till they wake.  You figger they wake at intervals, and they dope themselves again.  If that’s so, I’ve got to get their big chief right at that time.  D’ you guess you could take me right along to get a look at these folk, and, after that, fix things so I can grab their big man first time he wakes?”

The woman nodded at once, and her eyes wore a contented smile.

“Sure.  An-ina know.  Show him white man officer.  Oh, yes.  Show him all this folk.  Oh, yes.  When?  Now?  Oh, yes.  Him not snow.  It good.  Then sometime An-ina watch.  She watch, watch, all time, and when him wake, an’ eat, then him white man come an’ mak pow-wow.  Good?”

“Fine.”  Steve returned all the papers to the drawers in the desk and stood up.  “Guess I’ll eat right away, and after that we’ll get along an’ take a peek at these folks.  The boys got the snow clear outside?”

“Him dig much.  Snow plenty gone.”

“Good.  And little Marcel?” Steve enquired, with a tender smile.  “Has he been digging?”

The squaw’s eyes lit.

“Oh, yes, him boy dig.  An’ Julyman, an’ him Oolak all laff.  Boy dig all time, everywhere.”  An-ina laughed in her silent way.  Then she sobered, and a great warmth shone in her eyes.  “Boss white man officer love him boy?  Yes?”

Steve nodded in his friendly way.

“Oh, I guess so,” he admitted.  “You see, I’ve got a little girl baby of my own way back where I come from.”

“So.”

There was no mistaking the understanding in the woman’s significant ejaculation.

Steve and An-ina passed out into the wonderful glowing twilight.  There was no need for the sun in the steely glittering heavens.  The full moonlight of the lower latitudes was incomparable with the Arctic night.  From end to end in a great arc the aurora lit the world, and left the stars blazing impotently.  The cold was at its lowest depths, and not a breath of wind stirred the air.  Up to the eyes in furs the two figures moved out beyond the stockade into the shadowed world.

The squaw led the way, floundering over the frozen snow-drifts with the gentle padding sound of her moccasined feet.  Steve kept hard behind her yielding himself entirely to her guidance.

Out in the open no sign remained of the dome-roofed settlement of the Sleepers.  The huts had served to buttress the snow for the blizzard.  They were buried deep under the great white ridges which the storm had left.

It was something upon which Steve had not calculated.  And he swiftly drew the squaw’s attention.

“Say,” he cried, pointing at the place where the huts had been visible, “I kind of forgot the snow.”

The squaw’s eyes were just visible under her fur hood.  Their brightness suggested a smile.

“No ‘Sleeper’ man by this hut.  Oh, no,” she exclaimed decidedly.  “No winter, then him ‘Sleeper’ man live by this hut.  Winter come, then him sleep by woods.  Much hut.  Plenty.  All cover, hid-up.  Come, I show.”

Steve was more than relieved.  The snow had looked like upsetting all his calculation.

Once clear of the banked snow-drifts, which rose to the height of the stockade, they moved rapidly over the crusted surface towards the dark wall of woods which frowned down upon them in the twilight, and, in a few moments, the light of the splendid aurora was shut out, and the myriad of night lights were suddenly extinguished.

“Keep him much close,” An-ina cried, her mitted hand grasping Steve by the arm.  “Bimeby him bush go all thick.  An-ina know.”

They trudged on, and as they proceeded deeper and deeper into the darkness of the forest, Steve’s eyes became accustomed.  The snow broke into patches, and soon they found themselves more often walking over the underlay of rotting pine cones than the winter carpet of the Northern world.  The temperature, too, rose, and Steve, at least, was glad to loosen the furs from about his cheeks and nose.

Half an hour of rapid walking proved the squaw’s words.  The lank tree-trunks, down aisles of which they had been passing, became lost in a wealth of dense undergrowth.  It was here that the woman paused for her bearings.  But her fault was brief, and in a few moments she picked up the opening of a distinct but winding pathway.  The windings, the entanglement of the growth which lined it, made the path seem interminable.  But the confidence and decision of his guide left Steve without the slightest doubt.  Presently his confidence was justified.

The path led directly to the entrance of a stoutly constructed habitation.  Even in the darkness Steve saw that the hut exactly occupied a cleared space.  The surrounding bush, in its wild entanglement, completely overgrew it.  The result was an extraordinarily effective hiding.  Only precise knowledge could ever have hoped to discover it.

An-ina paused at the low door and pointed beyond.

“Track him go long way.  More hut.  Much, plenty.  Oh, yes.  Much hut.  This, big man chief.  All him fam’ly.  Come.”

She bent low, and passed into the tunnel-like entrance, built of closely interlaced Arctic willow.  A dozen paces or more brought them to a hanging curtain of skins.  The woman raised this, and held it while Steve passed beyond.  A few paces farther on was a second curtain, and An-ina paused before she raised it.

“So,” she said, pointing at it.  “All him Sleepers.”

Steve understood.  And with a queer feeling, almost of excitement, he waited while the woman cautiously raised the last barrier.  He scarcely knew what to expect.  Perhaps complete darkness, and the sound of stertorous, drugged slumber.  That which was revealed, however, came as a complete surprise.

The first thing he became aware of was light, and a reeking atmosphere of burning oil.  The next was the warmth and flicker of two wood fires.  And after that a general odour which he recognized at once.  It was the same heavy, pungent aroma that pervaded the fort where the dead chemist stored the small but precious quantities of the strange weed he traded.

They stepped cautiously within, and stood in silent contemplation of the fantastic picture revealed by the three primitive lights.  They emanated from what looked like earthenware bowls of oil, upon which some sort of worsted wicks were floating.  These were augmented by the ruddy flicker of two considerable wood fires, which burned within circular embankments constructed on the hard earthen floor.

The lights and fires were a revelation to the man, and he wondered at them, and the means by which they were tended.  But his speculations were quickly swallowed up by the greater interest of the rest of the scene.

The hut was large.  Far larger than might have been supposed; and Steve estimated it at something like thirty feet long by twenty wide.  The roof was thatched with reedy grass, bound down with thongs of rawhide to the sapling rafters.  The ridge of the pitched roof was supported by two tree-trunks, which had been cut to the desired height, and left rooted in the ground, while the two ends of it rested upon the end walls.  The walls themselves were constructed of thick mud plaster, overlaying a foundation of laced willow branches.  The whole construction was of unusual solidity, and the smoke-blackened thatch yielded two holes, Indian fashion, through which the fire smoke was permitted exit.

But Steve’s main interest lay in the drug-suspended life which the place contained.  It was there, still, silent.  It lay in two rows down the length of either side of the great interior.  In the dim light he counted it.  There were forty-two distinct piles of furs, each yielding the rough outline of a prone human figure beneath it.  Each figure was deathly still.  And the whole suggested some primitive mortuary, with its freight, awaiting identification.

For many moments Steve remained powerless to withdraw his fascinated gaze.  And all the while he was thinking of Julyman, and the story he had been told so long ago.  He remembered how he had derided it as beyond belief.

At last the fascination passed, and he turned his gaze in search of those things which made this extraordinary scene possible.  They were there.  Oh, yes.  Julyman had not lied.  No one had lied about these creatures of hibernation.  Piles of food were set out in earthenware bowls, similar to the bowls which contained the floating lights.  Then there were other vessels, set ready to hand beside the food, and he conjectured their contents to be the necessary brew of the famous drug.

An-ina’s voice broke in upon his reflections.

“Him all much sleep,” she said.  “No wake now.  Bimeby.  Oh, yes.”

She spoke in her ordinary tone.  She had no fear of waking these “dead” creatures.

“Tell me,” Steve said after a pause, “who keeps these fires going?  Who watches them?  And those oil lights.  Do they burn by themselves?”

An-ina made a little sound.  It was almost a laugh.

“Him light burn all time.  Him seal oil,” she explained.  “Indian man much ’fraid for devil-man come.  Him light keep him devil-man ’way all time.  Winter, yes.  Summer, yes.  Plenty oil.  Only wind mak him blow out.  Fire, oh yes.  When him wakes bimeby him mak plenty fire.  Each man.  Him sit by fire all time eat.  Then him sleep once more plenty.  Each man wake, each man mak fire.  So fire all time.  No freeze dead.”

“None awake now,” demurred Steve lowering his voice unconsciously.

“Oh, no,” returned the squaw.  “No man wake now.  Bimeby yes.  H’st!”

The woman’s sudden, low-voiced warning startled Steve.  Her Indian eyes had been quicker than his.  There was a movement under the fur robes of one of the curious heaps in the distance, to the left, and she pointed at it.

Steve followed the direction indicated.  Sure enough there was movement.  One of the men had turned over on his back.

“Him wake bimeby,” whispered the squaw.  “Come!”

She moved towards the doorway, and Steve followed closely.  In a moment they had passed the curtained barriers out into the fresh night air.

Steve paused.

“Would that be the headman?” he demanded.

An-ina shook her head.

“Him headman by door.  Him sleep where we stand.  Him sleep by door.  Him brave.  Keep devil-man away.  So.”

“I see,” Steve moved on down the path.  “Well, we’ll get right back.  I’m going to reckon on you, An-ina.  Each day you go.  When the headman wakes you speak with him.  You tell him white man officer of the Great White Chief come.  He looks for dead white men.  You must tell him to keep awake while you bring white man officer.  See?”

“Sure.  An-ina know.  An-ina mak him fix all so.”