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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGod's Country And The Woman - Chapter 1
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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 1 Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2801

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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 1

CHAPTER ONE

Philip Weyman's buoyancy of heart was in face of the fact that he had but recently looked upon Radisson's unpleasant death, and that he was still in a country where the water flowed north. He laughed and he sang. His heart bubbled over with cheer. He talked to himself frankly and without embarrassment, asked himself questions, answered them, discussed the beauties of nature and the possibilities of storm as if there were three or four of him instead of one.

At the top end of the world a man becomes a multiple being--if he is white. Two years along the rim of the Arctic had taught Philip the science by which a man may become acquainted with himself, and in moments like the present, when both his mental and physical spirits overflowed, he even went so far as to attempt poor Radisson's "La Belle Marie" in the Frenchman's heavy basso, something between a dog's sullen growl and the low rumble of distant thunder. It made him cough. And then he laughed again, scanning the narrowing sweep of the lake ahead of him.

He felt like a boy, and he chuckled as he thought of the definite reason for it. For twenty-three months he had been like a piece of rubber stretched to a tension--sometimes almost to the snapping point. Now had come the reaction, and he was going HOME. Home! It was that one word that caused a shadow to flit over his face, and only once or twice had he forgotten and let it slip between his lips. At least he was returning to civilization--getting AWAY from the everlasting drone of breaking ice and the clack-clack tongue of the Eskimo.

With the stub of a pencil Philip had figured out on a bit of paper about where he was that morning. The whalebone hut of his last Arctic camp was eight hundred miles due north. Fort Churchill, over on Hudson's Bay, was four hundred miles to the east, and Fort Resolution, on the Great Slave, was four hundred miles to the west. On his map he had drawn a heavy circle about Prince Albert, six hundred miles to the south. That was the nearest line of rail. Six days back Radisson had died after a mouth's struggle with that terrible thing they called "le mort rouge," or the Red Death. Since then Philip had pointed his canoe straight UP the Dubawnt waterways, and was a hundred and twenty miles nearer to civilization. He had been through these waterways twice before, and he knew that there was not a white man within a hundred and fifty miles of him. And as for a white woman--

Weyman stopped his paddling where there was no current, and leaned back in his canoe for a breathing space, and to fill his pipe. A WHITE WOMAN! Would he stare at her like a fool when he saw her again for the first time? Eighteen months ago he had seen a white woman over at Fort Churchill--the English clerk's wife, thirty, with a sprinkle of gray in her blond hair, and pale blue eyes. Fresh from the Garden of Eden, he had wondered why the half-dozen white men over there regarded her as they did. Long ago, in the maddening gloom of the Arctic night, he had learned to understand. At Fond du Lac, when Weyman had first come up into the forest country, he had said to the factor: "It's glorious! It's God's Country!" And the factor had turned his tired, empty eyes upon him with the words: "It was--before SHE went. But no country is God's Country without a woman," and then he took Philip to the lonely grave under a huge lob-stick spruce, and told him in a few words how one woman had made life for him. Even then Philip could not fully understand. But he did now.

He resumed his paddling, his gray eyes alert. His aloneness and the bigness of the world in which, so far as he knew, he was the only human atom, did not weigh heavily upon him. He loved this bigness and emptiness and the glory of solitude. It was middle autumn, and close to noon of a day unmarred by cloud above, and warm with sunlight. He was following close to the west shore of the lake. The opposite shore was a mile away. He was so near to the rock-lined beach that he could hear the soft throat-cries of the moose-birds. And what he saw, so far as his eyes could see in all directions, was "God's Country"--a glory of colour that was like a great master painting. The birch had turned to red and gold. From out of the rocks rose trees that were great crimson splashes of mountain-ash berries framed against the dark lustre of balsam and cedar and spruce.

Without reason, Philip was listening again to the quiet lifeless words of Jasper, the factor over at Fond du Lac, as he described the day when he and his young wife first came up through the wonderland of the North. "No country is God's Country without a woman!" He found the words running in an unpleasant monotone through his brain. He had made up his mind that he would strike Fond du Lac on his way down, for Jasper's words and the hopeless picture he had made that day beside the little cross under the spruce had made them brothers in a strange sort of way. Besides, Jasper would furnish him with a couple of Indians, and a sledge and dogs if the snows came early.

In a break between the rocks Philip saw a white strip of sand, and turned his canoe in to shore. He had been paddling since five o'clock, and in the six hours had made eighteen miles. Yet he felt no fatigue as he stood up and stretched himself. He remembered how different it had been four years ago when Hill, the Hudson's Bay Company's man down at Prince Albert, had looked him over with skeptical and uneasy eyes, encouraging him with the words: "You're going to a funeral, young man, and it's your own. You won't make God's House, much less Hudson's Bay!"

Weyman laughed joyously.

"Fooled 'em--fooled 'em all!" he told himself. "We'll wager a dollar to a doughnut that we're the toughest looking specimen that ever drifted down from Coronation Gulf, or any other gulf. A DOUGHNUT! I'd trade a gold nugget as big as my fist for a doughnut or a piece of pie right this minute. Doughnuts an' pie--real old pumpkin pie--an' cranberry sauce, 'n' POTATOES! Good Lord, and they're only six hundred miles away, carloads of 'em!"

He began to whistle as he pulled his rubber dunnage sack out of the canoe. Suddenly he stopped, his eyes staring at the smooth white floor of sand. A bear had been there before him, and quite recently. Weyman had killed fresh meat the day before, but the instinct of the naturalist and the woodsman kept him from singing or whistling, two things which he was very much inclined to do on this particular day. He had no suspicion that a bear which he was destined never to see had become the greatest factor in his life. He was philosopher enough to appreciate the value and importance of little things, but the bear track did not keep him silent because he regarded it as significant, because he wanted to kill. He would have welcomed it to dinner, and would have talked to it were it as affable and good-mannered as the big pop-eyed moose- birds that were already flirting about near him.

He emptied a half of the contents of the rubber sack out on the sand and made a selection for dinner, and he chuckled in his big happiness as he saw how attenuated his list of supplies was becoming. There was still a quarter of a pound of tea, no sugar, no coffee, half a dozen pounds of flour, twenty-seven prunes jealously guarded in a piece of narwhal skin, a little salt and pepper mixed, and fresh caribou meat.

"It's a lovely day, and we'll have a treat for dinner," he informed himself. "No need of starving. We'll have a real feast. I'll cook SEVEN prunes instead of five!"

He built a small fire, hung two small pots over it, selected his prunes, and measured out a tablespoonful of black tea. In the respite he had while the water heated he dug a small mirror out of the sack and looked at himself. His long, untrimmed hair was blond, and the inch of stubble on his face was brick red. There were tiny creases at the corners of his eyes, caused by the blistering sleet and cold wind of the Arctic coast. He grimaced as he studied himself. Then his face lighted up with sudden inspiration.

"I've got it!" he exclaimed. "I need a shave! We'll use the prune water."

From the rubber bag he fished out his razor, a nubbin of soap, and a towel. For fifteen minutes after that he sat cross-legged on the sand, with the mirror on a rock, and worked. When he had finished he inspected himself closely.

"You're not half bad," he concluded, and he spoke seriously now. "Four years ago when you started up here you were thirty--and you looked forty. Now you're thirty-four, and if it wasn't for the snow lines in your eyes I'd say you were a day or two younger. That's pretty good."

He had washed his face and was drying it with the towel when a sound made him look over beyond the rocks. It was the crackling sound made by a dead stick stepped upon, or a sapling broken down. Either meant the bear.

Dropping the towel, he unbuttoned the flap to the holster of his revolver, took a peep to see how long he could leave the water before it would boil, and stepped cautiously in the direction of the sound. A dozen paces beyond the bulwark of rocks he came upon a fairly well-worn moose trail; surveying its direction from the top of a boulder, he made up his mind that the bear was dining on mountain-ash berries where he saw one of the huge crimson splashes of the fruit a hundred yards away.

He went on quietly. Under the big ash tree there was no sign of a feast, recent or old. He proceeded, the trail turning almost at right angles from the ash tree, as if about to bury itself in the deeper forest. His exploratory instinct led him on for another hundred yards, when the trail swung once more to the left. He heard the swift trickling run of water among rocks, and again a sound. But his mind did not associate the sound which he heard this time with the one made by the bear. It was not the breaking of a stick or the snapping of brush. It was more a part of the musical water-sound itself, a strange key struck once to interrupt the monotone of a rushing stream.

Over a gray hog-back of limestone Philip climbed to look down into a little valley of smooth-washed boulders and age-crumbled rock through which the stream picked its way. He descended to the white margin of sand and turned sharply to the right, where a little pool had formed at the base of a huge rock. And there he stopped, his heart in his throat, every fibre in his body charged with a sudden electrical thrill at what he beheld. For a moment he was powerless to move. He stood--and stared.

At the edge of the pool twenty steps from him was kneeling a woman. Her back was toward him, and in that moment she was as motionless as the rock that towered over her. Along with the rippling drone of the stream, without reason on his part--without time for thought-there leaped through his amazed brain the words of Jasper, the factor, and he knew that he was looking upon the miracle that makes "God's Country"--a white woman!

The sun shone down upon her bare head. Over her slightly bent shoulders swept a glory of unbound hair that rippled to the sand. Black tresses, even velvety as the crow's wing, might have meant Cree or half-breed. But this at which he stared--all that he saw of her--was the brown and gold of the autumnal tintings that had painted pictures for him that day.

Slowly she raised her head, as if something had given her warning of a presence behind, and as she hesitated in that birdlike, listening poise a breath of wind from the little valley stirred her hair in a shimmering veil that caught a hundred fires of the sun. And then, as he crushed back his first impulse to cry out, to speak to her, she rose erect beside the pool, her back still to him, and hidden to the hips in her glorious hair.

Her movement revealed a towel partly spread out on the sand, and a comb, a brush, and a small toilet bag. Philip did not see these. She was turning, slowly, scanning the rocks beyond the valley.

Like a thing carven out of stone he stood, still speechless, still staring, when she faced him.

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