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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 3. In Honor Of The Living
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 3. In Honor Of The Living Post by :sbeard Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2849

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 3. In Honor Of The Living

CHAPTER III. IN HONOR OF THE LIVING

For a few moments after uttering those words Billy stood silent listening for a sound that was not the low moaning of the wind far out on the Barren. He was sure that he had heard it-- something very near, almost at his feet, and yet it was a sound which he could not place or understand. He looked at the woman. She was gazing steadily at him.

"I hear it now," she said. "It is the wind. It has frightened me. It makes such terrible sounds at times-- out on the Barren. A little while ago-- I thought-- I heard-- a child crying--"

Billy saw her clutch a hand at her throat, and there were both terror and grief in the eyes that never for an instant left his face. He understood. She was almost ready to give way under the terrible strain of the Barren. He smiled at her, and spoke in a voice that he might have used to a little child.

"You are tired, little girl ?"

"Yes-- yes-- I am tired--"

"And hungry and cold?"

"Yes."

"Then we will camp in the timber."

They went on until they came to a growth of spruce so dense that it formed a shelter from both snow and wind, with a thick carpet of brown needles under foot. They were shut out from the stars, and in the darkness MacVeigh began to whistle cheerfully. He unstrapped his pack and spread out one of his blankets close to the box and wrapped the other about the woman's shoulders.

"You sit here while I make a fire," he said.

He piled up dry needles over a precious bit of his birchbark and struck a flame. In the glowing light he found other fuel, and added to the fire until the crackling blaze leaped as high as his head. The woman's face was hidden, and she looked as though she had fallen asleep in the warmth of the fire. For half an hour Mac-Veigh dragged in fuel until he had a great pile of it in readiness.

Then he forked out a deep bed of burning coals and soon the odor of coffee and frying bacon aroused his companion. She raised her head and threw back the blanket with which he had covered her shoulders. It was warm where she sat, and she took off her hood while he smiled at her companionably from over the fire. Her reddish-brown hair tumbled about her shoulders, rippling and glistening in the fire glow, and for a few moments she sat with it falling loosely about her, with her eyes upon MacVeigh. Then she gathered it between her fingers, and MacVeigh watched her while she divided it into shining strands and pleated it into a big braid.

"Supper is ready," he said. "Will you eat it there?"

She nodded, and for the first time she smiled at him. He brought bacon and bread and coffee and other things from his pack and placed them on a folded blanket between them. He sat opposite her, cross-legged. For the first time he noticed that her eyes were blue and that there was a flush in her cheeks. The flush deepened as he looked at her, and she smiled at him again.

The smile, the momentary drooping of her eyes, set his heart leaping, and for a little while he was unconscious of taste in the food he swallowed. He told her of his post away up at Point Fullerton, and of Pelliter, who was dying of loneliness.

"It's been a long time since I've seen a woman like you," he confided. "And it seems like heaven. You don't know how lonely I am!" His voice trembled. "I wish that Pelliter could see you-- just for a moment," he added. "It would make him live again."

Something in the soft glow of her eyes urged other words to his lips.

"Mebbe you don't know what it means not to see a white woman in-- in-- all this time," he went on. "You won't think that I've gone mad, will you, or that I'm saying or doing anything that's wrong? I'm trying to hold myself back, but I feel like shouting, I'm that glad. If Pelliter could see you--" He reached suddenly in his pocket and drew out the precious packet of letters. "He's got a girl down south-- just like you," he said. "These are from her. If I get 'em up in time they'll bring him round. It's not medicine he wants. It's woman-- just a sight of her, and sound of her, and a touch of her hand."

She reached across and took the letters. In the firelight he saw that her hand was trembling.

"Are they-- married?" she asked, softly.

"No, but they're going to be," he cried, triumphantly. "She's the most beautiful thing in the world, next to--"

He paused, and she finished for him.

"Next to one other girl-- who is yours."

"No, I wasn't going to say that. You won't think I mean wrong, will you, if I tell you? I was going to say next to-- you. For you've come out of the blizzard-- like an angel to give me new hope. I was sort of broke when you came. If you disappeared now and I never saw you again I'd go back and fight the rest of my time out, an' dream of pleasant things. Gawd! Do you know a man has to be put up here before he knows that life isn't the sun an' the moon an' the stars an' the air we breathe. It's woman-- just woman."

He was returning the letters to his pocket. The woman's voice was clear and gentle. To Billy it rose like sweetest music above the crackling of the fire and the murmuring of the wind in the spruce tops.

"Men like you-- ought to have a woman to care for," she said. "He was like that."

"You mean--" His eyes sought the long, dark box.

"Yes-- he was like that."

"I know how you feel," he said; and for a moment he did not look at her. "I've gone through-- a lot of it. Father an' mother and a sister. Mother was the last, and I wasn't much more than a kid-- eighteen, I guess-- but it don't seem much more than yesterday. When you come up here and you don't see the sun for months nor a white face for a year or more it brings up all those things pretty much as though they happened only a little while ago.'"

"All of them are-- dead?" she asked.

"All but one. She wrote to me for a long time, and I thought she'd keep her word. Pelly-- that's Pelliter-- thinks we've just had a misunderstanding, and that she'll write again. I haven't told him that she turned me down to marry another fellow. I didn't want to make him think any unpleasant things about his own girl. You're apt to do that when you're almost dying of loneliness."

The woman's eyes were shining. She leaned a little toward him.

"You should be glad," she said. "If she turned you down she wouldn't have been worthy of you-- afterward. She wasn't a true woman. If she had been, her love wouldn't have grown cold because you were away. It mustn't spoil your faith-- because that is-- beautiful."

He had put a hand into his pocket again, and drew out now a thin package wrapped in buckskin. His face was like a boy's.

"I might have-- if I hadn't met you," he said. "I'd like to let you know-- some way-- what you've done for me. You and this."

He had unfolded the buckskin, and gave it to her. In it were the big blue petals and dried, stem of a blue flower.

"A blue flower!" she said.

"Yes. You know what it means. The Indians call it i-o-waka, or something like that, because they believe that it is the flower spirit of the purest and most beautiful thing in the world. I have called it woman."

He laughed, and there was a joyous sort of note in the laugh.

"You may think me a little mad," he said, "but do you care if I tell you about that blue flower?"

The woman nodded. There was a little quiver at her throat which Billy did not see.

"I was away up on the Great Bear," he said, "and for ten days and ten nights I was in camp-- alone-- laid up with a sprained ankle. It was a wild and gloomy place, shut in by barren ridge mountains, with stunted black spruce all about, and those spruce were haunted by owls that made my blood run cold nights. The second day I found company. It was a blue flower. It grew close to my tent, as high as my knee, and during the day I used to spread out my blanket close to it and lie there and smoke. And the blue flower would wave on its slender stem, an' bob at me, an' talk in sign language that I imagined I understood. Sometimes it was so funny and vivacious that I laughed, and then it seemed to be inviting me to a dance. And at other times it was just beautiful and still, and seemed listening to what the forest was saying-- and once or twice, I thought, it might be praying. Loneliness makes a fellow foolish, you know. With the going of the sun my blue flower would always fold its petals and go to sleep, like a little child tired out by the day's play, and after that I would feel terribly lonely. But it was always awake again when I rolled out in the morning. At last the time came when I was well enough to leave. On the ninth night I watched my blue flower go to sleep for the last time. Then I packed. The sun was up when I went away the next morning, and from a little distance I turned and looked back. I suppose I was foolish, and weak for a man, but I felt like crying. Blue flower had taught me many things I had not known before. It had made me think. And when I looked back it was in a pool of sunlight, and it was waving at me! It seemed to me that it was calling-- calling me back-- and I ran to it and picked it from the stem, and it has been with me ever since that hour. It has been my Bible an' my comrade, an' I've known it was the spirit of the purest and the most beautiful thing in the world-- woman. I--" His voice broke a little. "I-- I may be foolish, but I'd like to have you take it, an' keep it-- always-- for me."

He could see now the quiver of her lips as she looked across at him.

"Yes, I will take it," she said. "I will take it and keep it-- always."

"I've been keeping it for a woman-- somewhere," he said. "Foolish idea, wasn't it? And I've been telling you all this, when I want to hear what happened back there, and what you are going to do when you reach your people. Do you mind-- telling me?"

"He died-- that's all," she replied, fighting to speak calmly. "I promised to take him back-- to my people, And when I get there-- I don't know-- what I shall-- do--"

She caught her breath. A low sob broke from her lips.

"You don't know-- what you will do--"

Billy's voice sounded strange even to himself. He rose to his feet and looked down into her upturned face, his hands clenched, his body trembling with the fight he was making. Words came to his lips and were forced back again-- words which almost won in their struggle to tell her again that she had come to him from out of the Barren like an angel, that within the short space since their meeting he had lived a lifetime, and that he loved her as no man had ever loved a woman before. Her blue eyes looked at him questioningly as he stood above her.

And then he saw the thing which for a moment he had forgotten-- the long, rough box at the woman's back. His fingers dug deeper into his palms, and with a gasping breath he turned away. A hundred paces back in the spruce he had found a bare rock with a red bakneesh vine growing over it. With his knife he cut off an armful, and when he returned with it into the light of the fire the bakneesh glowed like a mass of crimson flowers. The woman had risen to her feet, and looked at him speechlessly as he scattered the vine over the box. He turned to her and said, softly:

"In honor of the dead!"

The color had faded from her face, but her eyes shone like stars. Billy advanced toward her with his hands reaching out. But suddenly he stopped and stood listening. After a moment he turned and asked again:

"What was that?"

"I heard the dogs-- and the wind," she replied.

"It's something cracking in my head, I guess," said MacVeigh. "It sounded like--" He passed a hand over his forehead and looked at the dogs huddled in deep sleep beside the sledge. The woman did not see the shiver that passed through him. He laughed cheerfully, and seized his ax.

"Now for the camp," he announced. "We're going to get the storm within an hour."

On the box the woman carried a small tent, and he pitched it close to the fire, filling the interior two feet deep with cedar and balsam boughs. His own silk service tent he put back in the deeper shadows of the spruce. When he had finished he looked questioningly at the woman and then at the box.

"If there is room-- I would like it in there-- with me," she said, and while she stood with her face to the fire he dragged the box into the tent. Then he piled fresh fuel upon the fire and came to bid her good night. Her face was pale and haggard now, but she smiled at him, and to MacVeigh she was the most beautiful thing in the world. Within himself he felt that he had known her for years and years, and he took her hands and looked down into her blue eyes and said, almost in a whisper:

"Will you forgive me if I'm doing wrong? You don't know how lonesome I've been, and how lonesome I am, and what it means to me to look once more into a woman's face. I don't want to hurt you, and I'd-- I'd"-- his voice broke a little--"I'd give him back life if I could, just because I've seen you and know you and-- and love you."

She started and drew a quick, sharp breath that came almost in a low cry.

"Forgive me, little girl," he went on. "I may be a little mad. I guess I am. But I'd die for you, and I'm going to see you safely down to your people-- and-- and-- I wonder-- I wonder-- if you'd kiss me good night--"

Her eyes never left his face. They were dazzlingly blue in the firelight. Slowly she drew her hands away from him, still looking straight into his eyes, and then she placed them against each of his arms and slowly lifted her face to him. Reverently he bent and kissed her.

"God bless you!" he whispered.

For hours after that he sat beside the fire. The wind came up stronger across the Barren; the storm broke fresh from the north, the spruce and the balsam wailed over his head, and he could hear the moaning sweep of the blizzard out in the open spaces. But the sounds came to him now like a new kind of music, and his heart throbbed and his soul was warm with joy as he looked at the little tent wherein there lay sleeping the woman whom he loved.

He still felt the warmth of her lips, he saw again and again the blue softness that had come for an instant into her eyes, and he thanked God for the wonderful happiness that had come to him. For the sweetness of the woman's lips and the greater sweetness of her blue eyes told him what life held for him now. A day's journey to the south was an Indian camp. He would take her there, and would hire runners to carry up Pelliter's medicines and his letters. Then he would go on-- with the woman-- and he laughed softly and joyously at the glorious news which he would take back to Pelliter a little later. For the kiss burned on his lips, the blue eyes smiled at him still from out of the firelit gloom, and he knew nothing but hope.

It was late, almost midnight, when he went to bed. With the storm wailing and twisting more fiercely about him, he fell asleep. And it was late when he awoke. The forest was filled with a moaning sound. The fire was low. Beyond it the flap of the woman's tent was still down, and he put on fresh fuel quietly, so that he would not awaken her. He looked at his watch and found that he had been sleeping for nearly seven hours. Then he returned to his tent to get the things for breakfast. Half a dozen paces from the door flap he stopped in sudden astonishment.

Hanging to his tent in the form of a great wreath was the red bakneesh which he had cut the night before, and over it, scrawled in charcoal on the silk, there stared at him the crudely written words:

"In honor of the living."

With a low cry he sprang back toward the other tent, and then, as sudden as his movement, there flashed upon him the significance of the bakneesh wreath. The woman was saying to him what she had not spoken in words. She had come out in the night while he was asleep and had hung the wreath where he would see it in the morning. The blood rushed warm and joyous through his body, and with something which was not a laugh, but which was an exultant breath from the soul itself, he straightened himself, and his hand fell in its old trick to his revolver holster. It was empty.

He dragged out his blankets, but the weapon was not between them. He looked into the corner where he had placed his rifle. That, too, was gone. His face grew tense and white as he walked slowly beyond the fire to the woman's tent. With his ear at the flap he listened. There was no sound within-- no sound of movement, of life, of a sleeper's breath; and like one who feared to reveal a terrible picture he drew back the flap. The balsam bed which he had made for the woman was empty, and across it had been drawn the big rough box. He stepped inside. The box was open-- and empty, except for a mass of worn and hard-packed balsam boughs in the bottom. In another instant the truth burst in all its force upon MacVeigh. The box had held life, and the woman--

Something on the side of the box caught his eyes. It was a folded bit of paper, pinned where he must see it. He tore it off and staggered with it back into the light of day. A low, hard cry came from his lips as he read what the woman had written to him:

"May God bless you for being good to me. In the storm me
have gone-- my husband and I. Word came to us that you
were on our trail, and we saw your fire out on the Barren.
My husband made the box for me to keep me from cold and
storm. When we saw you we changed places, and so you met
me with my dead. He could have killed you-- a dozen times,
but you were good to me, and so you live. Some day may
God give you a good woman who will love you as I love him.
He killed a man, but killing is not always murder. We have
taken your weapons, and the storm will cover our trail.
But you would not follow. I know that. For you know what
it means to love a woman, and so you know what life means
to a woman when she loves a man. MRS. ISOBEL DEANE."

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