Read CHAPTER VIII - BIG CHIEF WANAK-AHA of The Heart of Unaga , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

The enclosure of the fort was at last cleared of snow.  It was now ready, waiting for the elements to render abortive in a few short hours the labour of many days.  Julyman and Steve had spent the brief daylight in setting up a snow-break before the open sheds which housed the sleds and canoes.  Oolak was at the quarters of the train dogs at the back of the store.  These were his charge.  He drove them, he fed them, and cared for them.  And his art lay in his nimble manipulation of the club, at once the key to discipline, and his only means of opening up a way to their savage intelligence.  Steve shared in every labour and none knew better than he the value of work and discipline under the conditions of their long imprisonment upon the bitter plateau.

Daylight had merged into twilight, and the cold blaze of the Northern night had again enthroned itself.  It was on the abandonment of his own labours that Steve’s attention was at once drawn to others going on beyond the wall of the stockade.  And forthwith he passed out of the gates to investigate.

That which he discovered brought a smile to his eyes.  From the summit of a drift, which stood the height of the timbered walls, he found himself gazing down upon the quaintly associated figures of little Marcel and his nurse.  They were busy, particularly the boy.  Amidst a confusion of coiled, rawhide ropes An-ina, hammer in hand, was securing a rope end to the angle of the wall, while Marcel, with tireless vocal energy, was encouraging and instructing her to his own complete satisfaction.

The sturdy, busy little figure, so overburdened with its bulk of furs, was always a sight that delighted Steve.  The childish enthusiasm was so inspiriting, so heedless, so lost to everything but the sheer delight of existence.

While he stood there the rope was made secure and the squaw’s efforts ceased.  Instantly the scene changed.  The high spirits of the boy sought to forestall the next move.  With unthinking abandon he flung himself upon the pile of ropes, and manfully struggled to gather them into his baby arms.  The result was inevitable.  In a moment hopeless confusion reigned and An-ina was to the rescue disentangling him.  It was in the midst of this that Marcel became aware of Steve’s presence.  The moment he was successfully freed he abandoned his nurse for the object of his new worship.

“Us makes life-line,” he panted, scrambling up the snow-drift.  “Boy fix it all a way through the forest to ‘Sleeper’ men.”

Steve reached out a helping hand, and hauled the little fellow up to his side.

“Ah.  I was guessing that way,” he said.  “And An-ina was helping boy, eh?”

“Oh, ’ess.  An-ina help.  An-ina always help boy.  And boy help Uncle Steve.”

Steve led the way down.  An-ina was waiting with smiling patience.

“Setting out a line to the Sleepers’ camp?” he said, as they reached the woman’s side.

An-ina nodded and began to coil the ropes afresh.

“It much good,” she said.  “Bimeby it storm plenty.  So.  Each day An-ina mak headman hut.  When him wake then white man officer go mak big talk.  Storm, it not matter nothin’.  No.”

“Fine,” Steve agreed warmly.  “You’re a good squaw, An-ina.”

His approval had instant effect.

“Him good?  An-ina glad,” she observed contentedly.

An-ina moved on towards the forest bearing her burden of ropes, paying out the line as she went.

Steve watched her, his steady eyes full of profound thought.

“Us helps An-ina, Uncle Steve?” enquired the boy doubtfully.

The man had almost forgotten the mitted hand he was still clasping.  Now he looked down into the up-turned, enquiring eyes.

“I don’t guess An-ina needs us for awhile,” he said.  Then, after a pause:  “No,” he added.  “Boy’s worked hard very hard.  Maybe we’ll go back to the fort.  And Uncle tell boy a story?  Eh?”

Steve had no need to wait for the torrent of verbal appreciation that came.  The boy’s delight at the prospect was instant.  So they forthwith abandoned the snow-drifts for the warm interior of the store.

Their furs removed, Steve settled himself on the bench which stood before the stove.  The room was shadowed by the twilight outside, but he did not light a lamp.  There was oil enough for their needs in the stores, but eventualities had to be considered, and rigid economy in all things was necessary.

The picture was complete.  The dimly lit store, with its traffic counter deserted, and its shelves sadly depleted of trade.  The staunch, plastered and lime-washed walls, which revealed the stress of climate in the gaping cracks that were by no means infrequent.  The hard-beaten earth floor swept clean.  The glowing stove that knew no attention from the cleaner’s brush.  Then the two figures on the rough bench, which was worn and polished by long years of use.

The completion of the picture, however, lay in the personalities for which the rest was only a setting.  Steve, in his buckskin shirt and moleskin trousers, which divested him of the last sign of his relationship to the force which administered the white man’s law.  His young face so set and weather-tanned, so full of decision and strength, and his eyes, far gazing, like those of the men of the deep seas.  And the boy upon his knee, his little hands clasping each other in his lap.  With his curling, fair hair, and his wide, questioning eyes gazing up into the man’s face.  With his small body clad from head to foot in the beaded buckskin, which it was his nurse’s joy to fashion for him.  There was a wonderfully intimate touch in it all.  It was a touch that powerfully illustrated the lives of those who are far removed from the luxury of civilization, and who depend for every comfort, even for their very existence, upon those personal physical efforts, the failure of which, at any moment, must mean final and complete disaster.

“Tell boy of bears, an’ wolves, an’ Injuns, an’ debble-men, wot An-ina hers scairt of.”

The demand was prompt and decided.

“An-ina scared of devil-men?” Steve smilingly shook his head.  “It’s only stupid ‘Sleeper’ men scared of devil-men.  Anyway there’s no devil-men.  Just wolves, and bears, that boy’ll hunt and kill when he grows up.”

“But hers says ther’s debble-men,” the boy protested, his eyes wide with awe.

Steve shook his head.

“No,” he said firmly.  “Uncle Steve knows.  He knows better than Indians.  Better than An-ina.  Boy always remember that.”

“Oh, ’ess, boy ’members.”

The child impulsively thrust an arm about the man’s neck and Steve’s arm tightened unconsciously about the little body.

“Tell us ’tory,” the child urged.

Steve’s contemplative eyes were upon the glowing stove.

“What’ll it be about?” he said at last.  Then, as though suddenly inspired, “Why, I know, sure.  It’s about a little boy.  A real bright little boy.  Oh, I guess he was all sorts of a boy like like Marcel.”

“Wot’s ’all sorts’?” the child demanded.

“Why, just a sample of all the good things a boy can be.  Same as you.”

The explanation seemed sufficient, and Marcel’s eyes were turned dreamily upon the red patch on the side of the stove.

“’Ess,” he agreed.

“Well, Uncle Steve travelled a great, long way.  It was dreadful hard.  There were bears, and wolves, I guess, and queer Indian folk, and rivers, and lakes, and forests; forests much bigger and darker than boy’s ever seen.”

“Wos thems bigger than the Sleepers’ forest?” The challenge was instantly taken up.

“Oh, yes.”

“An’ darker, an’ fuller of debble-men?”

“Much darker, and there were no devil-men, because there just aren’t any.”

“No.  Course not,” the boy agreed readily.

“That’s so.  Well, Uncle Steve came a long, long way, and his dogs were tired, and his Indians were tired ”

“Wos thems like Julyman an’ Oolak?”

“Yes.  That’s who the Indians were.  Uncle always has Julyman and Oolak.  Well, he came to a valley where he found a little boy.  All sorts of a boy.  And he liked the little boy, and the little boy liked him.  Didn’t he?”

“’Ess.”

“Well, the little chap was alone.”

“Didn’t hims have no An-ina?”

“Oh, yes.  He had his nurse.  But his Pop had gone away, and so had his Mummy.  So he was kind of alone.  Well, the little boy and Uncle Steve became great friends.  Oh, big friends.  Ever so big.  And Uncle Steve didn’t want ever to leave the little boy.  And I don’t guess the little boy ever wanted to leave Uncle Steve.  But then you see there was the Pop and Mummy, who’d gone away, and of course the boy liked them ever so much.  So Uncle Steve was in a dilemma.”

“Wot’s ’d’lemma’?”

“Why just a ‘fix.’  Like boy was in when he got all mussed up with the ropes just now.”

“Wos you mussed up with ropes?”

“Oh, no.  Only in a ‘fix.’”

“’Ess.”  The briefest explanations seemed to satisfy.

“Well, Uncle Steve guessed the Pop an’ Mummy wouldn’t come back for ever so long, maybe not till the boy was grown up.  So he guessed he’d take the little boy such a jolly little chap with him, back to his home, where there was a nice Auntie, and a little baby cousin.  A little girl, such a pretty little dear, all eyes, and fat cheeks, that sort of tell you life’s the bulliest thing ever.  Well, he took him to his home, such a long, long way, over snow, and over rivers and lakes, where there’s fishes, and through forests where there’s wolves, an’ bears ”

“Does hims see any debble-mens?”

“No.  Because Uncle Steve says there just aren’t any.”

“But An-ina sezes ther’ is.”

“An-ina’s a squaw.”

“’Ess.”

“Well, after long time this funny little fellow finds his new Auntie, and he loves his little cousin right away, and he has such a bully time with her.  They play together.  Such games.  She pulls his hair and laughs, and the boy, who’s such a bright little kid, likes it because she’s a little girl, and they grow, and grow up together, and then and then ”

“Does hims marry her, an’ live happy ever after?”

The question was disconcerting.  But Steve did his best.

“Well, I can’t just say, old fellow,” he demurred.  “You see, I hadn’t fixed that.”

“But they allus does in my Mummy’s ’tories,” came the instant protest.

“Do they?  Well, then I guess these’ll have to,” the man agreed.  “We’ll fix it that way.”

“‘Ess.  An’ then ”

But the prompting failed in its purpose.

“An’ then?  Why I guess that’s just all.  You see, when folks get married, and live happy ever after, there’s most generally no more story to tell.  Is there?”

“No.”  Then the child sat up.  His appetite had been whetted.  “Tell boy ’nother ’tory.  Great big, long one.  Ever so long.”

Steve shook his head.

“Guess Uncle Steve’s not great on yarns,” he admitted.  “You see, I was kind of thinking.  Say, how’d boy like to go with Uncle Steve, and see the nice Auntie, and the little dear, with lovely, lovely curly hair and blue eyes, and cheeks like like ”

“’Ess.  Us goes,” the child cried, with a sudden enthusiasm.  “Us finds all the lakes, an’ rivers, an’ forests, an’ wolves, an’ bears, an’ the little dear.  Boy likes ’em.  Us goes now?”

The headlong nature of the demand set Steve smiling.

“Well, I guess we can’t go till winter quits,” he said.  “We’ll need to wait awhile till it’s not dark any more.  Then we’ll take An-ina.  And Julyman.  And Oolak.  And the dogs.  How’s that?  Then, after awhile, when boy’s Pop and his Mummy come back, then maybe we’ll come right back, too.  Eh?”

The anticipation of it all was ravishing to the child mind, and the boy resettled himself.

“‘Ess,” he agreed, with a great sigh.  “An’ the little dear, an’ the nice Auntie.  Us all come back.”  Then with infantile persistence he returned to his old love.  “More ’tory,” he demanded. “’Bout debble-mens.”  Then, as an after-thought:  “Wot isn’t, cos Uncle says they doesn’t, an’ An-ina says him is when he wasn’t, cos he can’t be.”

Steve sprang to his feet with a great laugh, bearing the little fellow in his strong arms.  He had accomplished his task and all was well.

“No more ’tory,” he cried setting him on the ground.  “All us men have work to do.  We need to help An-ina.  Come on, old fellow.”

And with a great feeling of relief and contentment he began the re-adjustment of the furs which protected the little life which had become so precious to him.

For all the nights were almost interminable, and the days so desperately short time passed rapidly.  It was nearly three weeks later that the patient, indefatigable An-ina brought the word Steve awaited.

The daylight had passed, engulfed by the Arctic night which had added a dull, misty moon to its splendid illumination.  The temperature had risen.  Steve knew a change was coming.  The signs were all too plain.  He knew that the period of peace had nearly run its course, and the elements were swiftly mobilizing for a fresh attack.

He was standing in the great gateway considering these things when An-ina came to him.  She appeared abruptly over the top of the great snow-drift, which had been driven against the angle of the stockade.  The soft “pad” of her moccasined feet first drew his attention, and immediately all thought of the coming storm passed from his mind.

“Him big chief wake all up,” she announced urgently, as she reached his side.

“Did you speak to him?”

The man’s enquiry was sharpened by responsive eagerness.  The squaw nodded.

“An-ina say, ’Boss white man officer come mak big talk with big chief, Wanak-aha.  Him look for dead white man by the big water.  Yes.’  Him big chief say, ‘White man officer?  Him not know this man.  Who?’ An-ina say much plenty.  Big chief all go mad.  Oh, much angry.  Then An-ina mak big talk plenty.  She say, ’Big Chief not mak big talk, then boss white man officer of Great White Chief come kill up all Indian man.’  Big chief very old.  Him all ’fraid.  Him shake all over like so as seal fat.  Much scare.  Oh, yes.”  She laughed in her silent fashion.  “So him say, ’Boss white man officer come, then Big Chief Wanak-aha mak plenty big talk.’  Then him sleep.  Oh, yes.”

The woman’s amusement at the chief’s panic was infectious.  Steve smiled.

“I guess we’ll go right along,” he said.  Then he indicated the moon with its misty halo.  “Storm.”

Again An-ina nodded.

“Him storm plenty sure,” she agreed.  “Boss come quick?”

“Right away.”

A moment later An-ina was leading the way up the long slope of the snow-drift, returning over the tracks which her own moccasins had left.

The atmosphere of the hut was oppressive.  It reeked with the smoke of wood fire.  It was nauseating with a dreadful human foulness.  But over all hung the sickly sweet odour of the Adresol drug, which oppressed the brain and weighted down the eyelids of those who had just left the pure cold air beyond the curtained doorway.

Steve was not without a feeling of apprehension.  He was in the presence of the active operation of the subtle drug.  He had read the dead chemist’s papers.  He knew the deadly exhalations of the weed when growing, or when in an undried state.  He also knew that distillation robbed it of its poisonous effect, but for all that, the sickly atmosphere left him with a feeling of nausea.

He and An-ina were sitting beyond one of the two wood fires that had been replenished.  The old chief, Wanak-aha, was squatting on his haunches amongst his frowsy fur robes at the opposite side.  He was a shrivelled, age-weazened creature whose buckskin garments looked never to have been removed from his aged body.  His years would have been impossible to guess at.  All that was certain about him was that his mahogany face was like creased parchment, that his eyes peered out in the dim light of the hut through the narrowest of slits, that he was alert, vital to an astounding degree, and that he suggested a foulness such as humanity rarely sinks to.

An-ina was speaking in the tongue native to the old man, who was replying in his monosyllabic fashion while he kept all his regard for the stern-eyed white man, who, the squaw was explaining, represented all the unlimited power of the white peoples.

Steve waited in patience for the completion of these necessary preliminaries, and acted his part with the confidence of wide experience.  And presently An-ina turned to him.  Her eyes were serious, but there was a smile behind her words.

“Him say him much big friend for white man,” she said, in her broken way.  “Him love all white man so as a brother.  White man mak plenty good trade with Indian man.  It much good.  So him big chief plenty friend.  Oh, yes.”

Steve inclined his head seriously.

“Tell him that’s all right,” he said.  “Tell him white man good friend, too.  White man love all Indian man.  Tell him all white man children of Great White Chief.  When they die Great White Chief know.  If Indian man kill white man then Great White Chief send all thunder and lightning and kill up all Indian man.  Tell him Great White Chief know that two white men all killed dead by great waters.  He know Chief Wanak-aha’s young men find them.  Great White Chief knows Indian man didn’t kill them, but, as he knows where they are, he must show the Great White Chief’s Officer where they are, so he can take their bones back to their own country, or bury them as he sees fit.  If Chief Wanak-aha does not tell White Officer, and his young men don’t show him this place, then the thunders and lightning will come and kill up all Indian ‘Sleeper’ men.”

An-ina interpreted rapidly.  And by the length of her harangue, and by the attitude of the old man, Steve shrewdly suspected she was adding liberal embellishments such as her own savage mind suggested as being salutory.  It was always so.  An Indian on the side of the police was merciless to his own people.

The old man replied with surprising energy, and it was obvious to Steve that panic had achieved all he desired.  So he was content to watch silently while the soft-voiced woman, with unsmiling eyes, spurred the little, old, great man to decisions which it is more than probable only real fear could have hastened.

At last An-ina ceased speaking.  She turned to Steve who received the net results she had achieved in concrete form.

“It much good,” she said, without permitting the smallest display of feeling before the watchful eyes of the old chief.  “Him say all as An-ina tell boss white man officer.  Young men find dead white men all kill up.  In great, deep place by big waters.  So.  Him say when winter him all go then young men take boss white man officer, show him all.  Help him much plenty.  All him dog-train, all him young man for boss white man officer.  Yes.  Not so as snow him not go.  Not find.  All kill dead, sure.  ‘Sleeper’ man sleep plenty.  Then him all wake.  Boss white man say ‘go.’  Yes.”

The purpose of the visit was achieved.  Steve desired nothing more.  These Indians would take him to the place where the two white men had fought out the old, old battle for a woman.  Yes, he was convinced now that An-ina’s original story was the true one.  His visit to these squalid creatures had served a double purpose.  The old man’s willingness to comply with his demands amply convinced him that the wife’s belief had no foundation in the facts.  Had the Indians murdered Marcel Brand and his partner, the whole attitude of the chief must have been very different.

It was some moments before he replied.  It was necessary that he should play his part to the end.  So he appeared to consider deeply before he accepted the chief’s offer.

At length he raised his eyes from the flickering blaze of the fire.  He gazed round the dimly lit room where the Indians lay about in their deathlike slumber.  There was a stirring as of waking in a far corner, and for awhile he contemplated the direction.  Then, at last, his eyes came back to the crumpled face of the old man awaiting anxiously his reply.

“Tell him,” he said, addressing the squaw without withdrawing his gaze from the face of the old man, “that the officer of the Great White Chief will wait till the snow goes.  Tell him he’ll need to have his young men ready then to make the trail.  And when they’ve shown the officer all they’ve found, and told him all they know, then the officer will tell the Great White Chief that the ‘Sleeper’ men are good men, who deserve all that is good.  Tell him, there will be no thunder or lightning.  And if white men come again to the fort and find it as it has been left, nothing taken, nothing destroyed, then maybe they’ll bring good trade for the Indian men, and presents for the big chief.  But if they come and find that one little thing has been destroyed or stolen, then the thunder and lightning will speak, and there’ll be no more Indians.”

When Steve and An-ina emerged from the woods utter and complete darkness reigned.  The world had been swallowed up under an inky pall.  The moon, the brilliant stars, the blazing northern lights all were extinguished, and not a ray of light was left to guide them the last few hundred yards to safety.  Furthermore snow was falling.  It was falling in great flakes half as big as a man’s hand.

The life-line which the woman had set up was all that stood between them and complete disaster.