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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Danger Trail - Chapter 10. A Race Into The North
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The Danger Trail - Chapter 10. A Race Into The North Post by :Joe_Coon Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2351

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The Danger Trail - Chapter 10. A Race Into The North

CHAPTER X. A RACE INTO THE NORTH

That Meleese loved him, that she had taken his head in her arms, and had kissed him, was the one consuming thought in Howland's brain for many minutes after she had left him bound and gagged on the snow. That she had made no effort to free him did not at first strike him as significant. He still felt the sweet, warm touch of her lips, the pressure of her arms, the smothering softness of her hair. It was not until he again heard approaching sounds that he returned once more to a full consciousness of the mysterious thing that had happened. He heard first of all the creaking of a toboggan on the hard crust, then the pattering of dogs' feet, and after that the voices of men. The sounds stopped on the trail a dozen feet away from him.

With a strange thrill he recognized Croisset's voice.

"You must be sure that you make no mistake," he heard the half-breed say. "Go to the waterfall at the head of the lake and heave down a big rock where the ice is open and the water boiling. Track up the snow with a pair of M'seur Howland's high-heeled boots and leave his hat tangled in the bushes. Then tell the superintendent that he stepped on the stone and that it rolled down and toppled him into the chasm. They could never find his body--and they will send down for a new engineer in place of the lost M'seur."

Stupefied with horror, Howland strained his ears to catch the rest of the cold-blooded scheme which he was overhearing, but the voices grew lower and he understood no more that was said until Croisset, coming nearer, called out:

"Help me with the M'seur before you go, Jackpine. He is a dead weight with all those rawhides about him."

As coolly as though he were not more than a chunk of stovewood, Croisset and the Indian came through the bushes, seized him by the head and feet, carried him out into the trail and laid him lengthwise on the sledge.

"I hope you have not caught cold lying in the snow, M'seur," said Croisset, bolstering up the engineer's head and shoulders and covering him with heavy furs. "We should have been back sooner, but it was impossible. Hoo-la, Woonga!" he called softly to his lead-dog. "Get up there, you wolf-hound!"

As the sledge started, with Croisset running close to the leader, Howland heard the low snapping of a whip behind him and another voice urging on other dogs. With an effort that almost dislocated his neck he twisted himself so he could look back of him. A hundred yards away he discerned a second team following in his trail; he saw a shadowy figure running at the head of the dogs, but what there was on the sledge, or what it meant, he could not see or surmise. Mile after mile the two sledges continued without a stop. Croisset did not turn his head; no word fell from his lips, except an occasional signal to the dogs. The trail had turned now straight into the North, and soon Howland could make out no sign of it, but knew only that they were twisting through the most open places in the forests, and that the play of the Polar lights was never over his left shoulder or his right, but always in his face.

They had traveled for several hours when Croisset gave a sudden shrill shout to the rearmost sledge and halted his own. The dogs fell in a panting group on the snow, and while they were resting the half-breed relieved his prisoner of the soft buckskin that had been used as a gag.

"It will be perfectly safe for you to talk now, M'seur, and to shout as loudly as you please," he said. "After I have looked into your pockets I will free your hands so that you can smoke. Are you comfortable?"

"Comfortable--be damned!" were the first words that fell from Howland's lips, and his blood boiled at the sociable way in which Croisset grinned down into his face. "So you're in it, too, eh?--and that lying girl--"

The smile left Croisset's face.

"Do you mean Meleese, M'seur Howland?"

"Yes."

Croisset leaned down with his black eyes gleaming like coals.

"Do you know what I would do if I was her, M'seur?" he said in a low voice, and yet one filled with a threat which stilled the words of passion which the engineer was on the point of uttering. "Do you know what I would do? I would kill you--kill you inch by inch--torture you. That is what I would do."

"For God's sake, Croisset, tell me why--why--"

Croisset had found Howland's pistol and freed his hands, and the engineer stretched them out entreatingly.

"I would give my life for that girl, Croisset. I told her so back there, and she came to me when I was in the snow and--" He caught himself, adding to what he had left incomplete. "There is a mistake, Croisset. I am not the man they want to kill!"

Croisset was smiling at him again.

"Smoke--and think, M'seur. It is impossible for me to tell you why you should be dead--but you ought to know, unless your memory is shorter than a child's."

He went to the dogs, stirring them up with the cracking of his whip, and when Howland turned to look back he saw a bright flare of light where the other sledge had stopped. A man's voice came from the farther gloom, calling to Croisset in French.

"He tells me I am to take you on alone," said Croisset, after he had replied to the words spoken in a patois which Howland could not understand. "They will join us again very soon."

"They!" exclaimed Howland. "How many will it take to kill me, my dear Croisset?" The half-breed smiled down into his face again.

"You may thank the Blessed Virgin that they are with us," he replied softly. "If you have any hope outside of Heaven, M'seur, it is on that sledge behind."

As he went again to the dogs, straightening the leader in his traces, Howland stared back at the firelit space in the forest gloom. He could see a man adding fuel to the blaze, and beyond him, shrouded in the deep shadows of the trees, an indistinct tangle of dogs and sledge. As he strained his eyes to discover more there was a movement beyond the figure over the fire and the young engineer's heart leaped with a sudden thrill. Croisset's voice sounded in a shrill shout behind him, and at that warning cry in French the second figure sprang back into the gloom. But Howland had recognized it, and the chilled blood in his veins leaped into warm life again at the knowledge that it was Meleese who was trailing behind them on the second sledge! "When you yell like that give me a little warning if you please, Jean," he said, speaking as coolly as though he had not recognized the figure that had come for an instant into the firelight. "It is enough to startle the life out of one!"

"It is our way of saying good-by, M'seur," replied Croisset with a fierce snap of his whip. "Hoo-la, get along there!" he cried to the dogs, and in half a dozen breaths the fire was lost to view.

Dawn comes at about eight o'clock in the northern mid-winter; beyond the fiftieth degree the first ruddy haze of the sun begins to warm the southeastern skies at nine, and its glow had already risen above the forests before Croisset stopped his team again. For two hours he had not spoken a word to his prisoner and after several unavailing efforts to break the other's taciturnity Howland lapsed into a silence of his own. When he had brought his tired dogs to a halt, Croisset spoke for the first time.

"We are going to camp here for a few hours," he explained. "If you will pledge me your word of honor that you will make no attempt to escape I will give you the use of your legs until after breakfast, M'seur. What do you say?"

"Have you a Bible, Croisset?"

"No, M'seur, but I have the cross of our Virgin, given to me by the missioner at York Factory."

"Then I will swear by it--I will swear by all the crosses and all the Bibles in the world that I will make no effort to escape. I am paralyzed, Croisset! I couldn't run for a week!"

Croisset was searching in his pockets.

"_Mon Dieu!_" he cried excitedly, "I have lost it! Ah, come to think, M'seur, I gave the cross to my Mariane before I went into the South, But I will take your word."

"And who is Mariane, Jean? Will she also be in at the 'kill?'"

"Mariane is my wife, M'seur. Ah, _ma belle Mariane--_ma cheri_--the daughter of an Indian princess and the granddaughter of a _chef de bataillon_, M'seur! Could there be better than that? And she is be-e-e-utiful, M'seur, with hair like the top side of a raven's wing with the sun shining on it, and--"

"You love her a great deal, Jean."

"Next to the Virgin--and--it may be a little better."

Croisset had severed the rope about the engineer's legs, and as he raised his glowing eyes Howland reached out and put both hands on his shoulders.

"And in just that way I love Meleese," he said softly. "Jean, won't you be my friend? I don't want to escape. I'm not a coward. Won't you think of what your Mariane might do, and be a friend to me? You would die for Mariane if it were necessary. And I would die for the girl back on that sledge."

He had staggered to his feet, and pointed into the forests through which they had come.

"I saw her in the firelight, Jean. Why is she following us? Why do they want to kill me? If you would only give me a chance to prove that it is all a mistake--that I--"

Croisset reached out and took his hand.

"M'seur, I would like to help you," he interrupted. "I liked you that night we came in together from the fight on the trail. I have liked you since. And yet, if I was in _their place, I would kill you even though I like you. It is a great duty to kill you. They did not do wrong when they tied you in the coyote. They did not do wrong when they tried to kill you on the trail. But I have taken a solemn oath to tell you nothing; nothing beyond this--that so long as you are with me, and that sledge is behind us, your life is not in danger. I will tell you nothing more. Are you hungry, M'seur?"

"Starved!" said Howland.

He stumbled a few steps out into the snow, the numbness in his limbs forcing him to catch at trees and saplings to save himself from falling. He was astonished at Croisset's words and more confused than ever at the half-breed's assurance that his life was no longer in immediate peril. To him this meant that Meleese had not only warned him but was now playing an active part in preserving his life, and this conclusion added to his perplexity. Who was this girl who a few hours before had deliberately lured him among his enemies and who was now fighting to save him? The question held a deeper significance for him than when he had asked himself this same thing at Prince Albert, and when Croisset called for him to return to the camp-fire and breakfast he touched once more the forbidden subject.

"Jean, I don't want to hurt your feelings," he said, seating himself on the sledge, "but I've got to get a few things out of my system. I believe this Meleese of yours is a bad woman."

Like a flash Croisset struck at the bait which Howland threw out to him. He leaned a little forward, a hand quivering on his knife, his eyes flashing fire. Involuntarily the engineer recoiled from that animal-like crouch, from the black rage which was growing each instant in the half-breed's face. Yet Croisset spoke softly and without excitement, even while his shoulders and arms were twitching like a forest cat about to spring.

"M'seur, no one in the world must say that about my Mariane, and next to her they must not say it about Meleese. Up there--" and he pointed still farther into the north--"I know of a hundred men between the Athabasca and the bay who would kill you for what you have said. And it is not for Jean Croisset to listen to it here. I will kill you unless you take it back!"

"God!" breathed Howland. He looked straight into Croisset's face. "I'm glad--it's so--Jean," he added slowly. "Don't you understand, man? I love her. I didn't mean what I said. I would kill for her, too, Jean. I said that to find out--what you would do--"

Slowly Croisset relaxed, a faint smile curling his thin lips.

"If it was a joke, M'seur, it was a bad one."

"It wasn't a joke," cried Howland. "It was a serious effort to make you tell me something about Meleese. Listen, Jean--she told me back there that it was not wrong for me to love her, and when I lay bound and gagged in the snow she came to me and--and kissed me. I don't understand--"

Croisset interrupted him.

"Did she do that, M'seur?"

"I swear it."

"Then you are fortunate," smiled Jean softly, "for I will stake my hope in the blessed hereafter that she has never done that to another man, M'seur. But it will never happen again."

"I believe that it will--unless you kill me."

"And I shall not hesitate to kill you if I think that it is likely to happen again. There are others who would kill you--knowing that it has happened but once. But you must stop this talk, M'seur. If you persist I shall put the rawhide over your mouth again."

"And if I object--fight?"

"You have given me your word of honor. Up here in the big snows the keeping of that word is our first law. If you break it I will kill you."

"Good Lord, but you're a cheerful companion," exclaimed Howland, laughing in spite of himself. "Do you know, Croisset, this whole situation has a good deal of humor as well as tragedy about it. I must be a most important cuss, whoever I am. Ask me who I am, Croisset?"

"And who are you, M'seur?"

"I don't know, Jean. Fact, I don't. I used to think that I was a most ambitious young cub in a big engineering establishment down in Chicago. But I guess I was dreaming. Funny dream, wasn't it? Thought I came up here to build a road somewhere through these infernal---no, I mean these beautiful snows--but my mind must have been wandering again. Ever hear of an insane asylum, Croisset? Am I in a big stone building with iron bars at the windows, and are you my keeper, just come in to amuse me for a time? It's kind of you, Croisset, and I hope that some day I shall get my mind back so that I can thank you decently. Perhaps you'll go mad some day, Jean, and dream about pretty girls, and railroads, and forests, and snows--and then I'll be your keeper. Have a cigar? I've got just two left."

"_Mon Dieu!_" gasped Jean. "Yes, I will smoke, M'seur. Is that moose steak good?"

"Fine. I haven't eaten a mouthful since years ago, when I dreamed that I sat on a case of dynamite just about to blow up. Did you ever sit on a case of dynamite just about to blow up, Jean?"

"No, M'seur. It must be unpleasant."

"That dream was what turned my hair white, Jean. See how white it is--whiter than the snow!"

Croisset looked at him a little anxiously as he ate his meat, and at the gathering unrest in his ayes Howland burst into a laugh.

"Don't be frightened, Jean," he spoke soothingly. "I'm harmless. But I promise you that I'll become violent unless something reasonable occurs pretty soon. Hello, are you going to start so soon?"

"Right away, M'seur," said Croisset, who was stirring up the dogs. "Will you walk and run, or ride?"

"Walk and run, with your permission."

"You have it, M'seur, but if you attempt to escape I must shoot you. Run on the right of the dogs--even with me. I will take this side."

Until Croisset stopped again in the middle of the afternoon Howland watched the backward trail for the appearance of the second sledge, but there was no sign of it. Once he ventured to bring up the subject to Croisset, who did no more than reply with a hunch of his shoulders and a quick look which warned the engineer to keep his silence. After their second meal the journey was resumed, and by referring occasionally to his compass Howland observed that the trail was swinging gradually to the eastward. Long before dusk exhaustion compelled him to ride once more on the sledge. Croisset seemed tireless, and under the early glow of the stars and the red moon he still led on the worn pack until at last it stopped on the summit of a mountainous ridge, with a vast plain stretching into the north as far as the eyes could see through the white gloom. The half-breed came back to where Howland was seated on the sledge.

"We are going but a little farther, M'seur," he said. "I must replace the rawhide over your mouth and the thongs about your wrists. I am sorry--but I will leave your legs free."

"Thanks," said Howland. "But, really, it is unnecessary, Croisset. I am properly subdued to the fact that fate is determined to play out this interesting game of ball with me, and no longer knowing where I am, I promise you to do nothing more exciting than smoke my pipe if you will allow me to go along peaceably at your side."

Croisset hesitated.

"You will not attempt to escape--and you will hold your tongue?" he asked.

"Yes."

Jean drew forth his revolver and deliberately cocked it.

"Bear in mind, M'seur, that I will kill you if you break your word. You may go ahead."

And he pointed down the side of the mountain.

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