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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Courage Of Marge O'doone - Chapter 16
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The Courage Of Marge O'doone - Chapter 16 Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3241

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The Courage Of Marge O'doone - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

It was the week of the Big Festival when David and his half-breed arrived at Towaskook's village. Towaskook was the "farthest east" of the totem-worshippers, and each of his forty or fifty people reminded David of the devil chaser on the canvas of the Snow Fox's tepee. They were dressed up, as he remarked to the half-breed, "like fiends." On the day of David's arrival Towaskook himself was disguised in a huge bear head from which protruded a pair of buffalo horns that had somehow drifted up there from the western prairies, and it was his special business to perform various antics about his totem pole for at least six hours between sunrise and sunset, chanting all the time most dolorous supplications to the squat monster who sat, grinning, at the top. It was "the day of good hunting," and Towaskook and his people worked themselves into exhaustion by the ardour of their prayers that the game of the mountains might walk right up to their tepee doors to be killed, thus necessitating the smallest possible physical exertion in its capture. That night Towaskook visited David at his camp, a little up the river, to see what he could get out of the white man. He was monstrously fat--fat from laziness; and David wondered how he had managed to put in his hours of labour under the totem pole. David sat in silence, trying to make out something from their gestures, as his half-breed, Jacques, and the old chief talked.

Jacques repeated it all to him after Towaskook, sighing deeply, had risen from his squatting posture, and left them. It was a terrible journey over those mountains, Towaskook had said. He had been on the Stikine once. He had split with his tribe, and had started eastward with many followers, but half of them had died--died because they would not leave their precious totems behind--and so had been caught in a deep snow that came early. It was a ten-day journey over the mountains. You went up above the clouds--many times you had to go above the clouds. He would never make the journey again. There was one chance--just one. He had a young bear hunter, Kio, his face was still smooth. He had not won his spurs, so to speak, and he was anxious to perform a great feat, especially as he was in love with his medicine man's daughter Kwak-wa-pisew (the Butterfly). Kio might go, to prove his valour to the Butterfly. Towaskook had gone for him. Of course, on a mission of this kind, Kio would accept no pay. That would go to Towaskook. The two hundred dollars' worth of supplies satisfied him.

A little later Towaskook returned with Kio. He was exceedingly youthful, slim-built as a weazel, but with a deep-set and treacherous eye. He listened. He would go. He would go as far as the confluence of the Pitman and the Stikine, if Towaskook would assure him the Butterfly. Towaskook, eyeing greedily the supplies which Jacques had laid out alluringly, nodded an agreement to that. "The next day," Kio said, then, eager now for the adventure. "The next day they would start."

That night Jacques carefully made up the two shoulder packs which David and Kio were to carry, for thereafter their travel would be entirely afoot. David's burden, with his rifle, was fifty pounds. Jacques saw them off, shouting a last warning for David to "keep a watch on that devil-eyed Kio."

Kio was not like his eyes. He turned out, very shortly, to be a communicative and rather likable young fellow. He was ignorant of the white man's talk. But he was a master of gesticulation; and when, in climbing their first mountain, David discovered muscles in his legs and back that he had never known of before, Kio laughingly sympathized with him and assured him in vivid pantomime that he would soon get used to it. Their first night they camped almost at the summit of the mountain. Kio wanted to make the warmth of the valley beyond, but those new muscles in David's legs and back declared otherwise. Strawberries were ripening in the deeper valleys, but up where they were it was cold. A bitter wind came off the snow on the peaks, and David could smell the pungent fog of the clouds. They were so high that the scrub twigs of their fire smouldered with scarcely sufficient heat to fry their bacon. David was oblivious of the discomfort. His blood ran warm in hope and anticipation. He was almost at the end of his journey. It had been a great fight, and he had won. There was no doubt in his mind now. After this he could face the world again.

Day after day they made their way westward. It was tremendous, this journey over the backbone of the mountains. It gave one a different conception of men. They like ants on these mountains, David thought--insignificant, crawling ants. Here was where one might find a soul and a religion if he had never had one before. One's littleness, at times, was almost frightening. It made one think, impressed upon one that life was not much more than an accident in this vast scale of creation, and that there was great necessity for a God. In Kio's eyes, as he sometimes looked down into the valleys, there was this thing; the thought which perhaps he couldn't analyze, the great truth which he couldn't understand, but felt. It made a worshipper of him--a devout worshipper of the totem. And it occurred to David that perhaps the spirit of God was in that totem even as much as in finger-worn rosaries and the ivory crosses on women's breasts.

Early on the eleventh day they came to the confluence of the Pitman and the Stikine rivers, and a little later Kio turned back on his homeward journey, and David and Baree were alone. This aloneness fell upon them like a thing that had a pulse and was alive. They crossed the Divide and were in a great sunlit country of amazing beauty and grandeur, with wide valleys between the mountains. It was July. From up and down the valley, from the breaks between the peaks and from the little gullies cleft in shale and rock that crept up to the snow lines, came a soft and droning murmur. It was the music of running water. That music was always in the air, for the rivers, the creeks, and the tiny streams, gushing down from the snow that lay eternally up near the clouds, were never still. There were sweet perfumes as well as music in the air. The earth was bursting with green; the early flowers were turning the sunny slopes into coloured splashes of red and white and purple--splashes of violets and forget-me-nots, of wild asters and hyacinths. David looked upon it all, and his soul drank in its wonders. He made his camp, and he remained in it all that day, and the next. He was eager to go on, and yet in his eagerness he hesitated, and waited. It seemed to him that he must become acquainted with this empty world before venturing farther into it--alone; that it was necessary for him to understand it a little, and get his bearings. He could not lose himself. Jacques had assured him of that, and Kio had pantomimed it, pointing many times at the broad, shallow stream that ran ahead of him. All he had to do was to follow the river. In time, many weeks, of course, it would bring him to the white settlement on the ocean. Long before that he would strike Firepan Creek. Kio had never been so far; he had never been farther than this junction of the two streams, Towaskook had informed Jacques. So it was not fear that held David. It was the _aloneness_. He was taking a long mental breath. And, meanwhile, he was repairing his boots, and doctoring Baree's feet, bruised and sore by their travel over the shale of the mountain tops.

He thought that he had experienced the depths of loneliness after leaving the Missioner. But here it was a much larger thing. This night, as he sat under the stars and a great white moon, with Baree at his feet, it engulfed him; not in a depressing way, but awesomely. It was not an unpleasant loneliness, and yet he felt that it had no limit, that it was immeasurable. It was as vast as the mountains that shut him in. Somewhere, miles to the east of him now, was Kio. That was all. He knew that he would never be able to describe it, this loneliness--or aloneness; one man, and a dog, with a world to themselves. After a time, as he looked up at the stars and listened to the droning sound of the waters in the valley, it began to thrill him with a new kind of intelligence. Here was peace as vast as space itself. It was not troubled by the struggling existence of men, and women, and it seemed to him that he must remain very still under the watchfulness of those billions of sentinels in the sky, with the white moon floating under them. The second night he made himself and Baree a small fire. The third morning he shouldered his pack and went on.

Baree kept close at his master's side, and the eyes of the two were constantly on the alert. They were in a splendid game country, and David watched for the first opportunity that would give Baree and himself fresh meat. The white sand bars and gravelly shores of the stream were covered with the tracks of the wild dwellers of the valley and the adjoining ranges, and Baree sniffed hungrily whenever he came to the warm scent of the last night's spoor. He was hungry. He had been hungry all the way over the mountains. Three times that day David saw a caribou at a distance. In the afternoon he saw a grizzly on a green slope. Toward evening he ran into luck. A band of sheep had come down from a mountain to drink, and he came upon them suddenly, the wind in his favour. He killed a young ram. For a full minute after firing the shot he stood in his tracks, scarcely breathing. The report of his rifle was like an explosion. It leaped from mountain to mountain, echoing, deepening, coming back to him in murmuring intonations, and dying out at last in a sighing gasp. It was a weird and disturbing sound. He fancied that it could be heard many miles away. That night the two feasted on fresh meat.

It was their fifth day in the valley when they came to a break in the western wall of the range, and through this break flowed a stream that was very much like the Stikine, broad and shallow and ribboned with shifting bars of sand. David made up his mind that it must be the Firepan, and he could feel his pulse quicken as he started up it with Baree. He must be quite near to Tavish's cabin, if it had not been destroyed. Even if it had been burned on account of the plague that had infested it, he would surely discover the charred ruins of it. It was three o'clock when he started up the creek, and he was--inwardly--much agitated. He grew more and more positive that he was close to the end of his adventure. He would soon come upon life--human life. And then? He tried to dispel the unsteadiness of his emotions, the swiftly growing discomfort of a great anxiety. The first, of course, would be Tavish's cabin, or the ruins of it. He had taken it for granted that Tavish's location would be here, near the confluence of the two streams. A hunter or prospector would naturally choose such a position.

He travelled slowly, questing both sides of the stream, and listening. He expected at any moment to hear a sound, a new kind of sound. And he also scrutinized closely the clean, white bars of sand. There were footprints in them, of the wild things. Once his heart gave a sudden jump when he saw a bear track that looked very much like a moccasin track. It was a wonderful bear country. Their signs were everywhere along the stream, and their number and freshness made Baree restless. David travelled until dark. He had the desire to go on even then. He built a small fire instead, and cooked his supper. For a long time after that he sat in the moonlight smoking his pipe, and still listening. He tried not to think. The next day would settle his doubts. The Girl? What would he find? He went to sleep late and awoke with the summer dawn.

The stream grew narrower and the country wilder as he progressed. It was noon when Baree stopped dead in his tracks, stiff-legged, the bristles of his spine erect, a low and ominous growl in his throat. He was standing over a patch of white sand no larger than a blanket.

"What is it, boy?" asked David.

He went to him casually, and stood for a moment at the edge of the sand without looking down, lighting his pipe.

"What is it?"

The next moment his heart seemed rising up into his throat. He had been expecting what his eyes looked upon now, and he had been watching for it, but he had not anticipated such a tremendous shock. The imprint of a moccasined foot in the sand! There was no doubt of it this time. A human foot had made it--one, two, three, four, five times--in crossing that patch of sand! He stood with the pipe in his mouth, staring down, apparently without power to move or breathe. It was a small footprint. Like a boy's. He noticed, then, with slowly shifting eyes, that Baree was bristling and growling over another track. A bear track, huge, deeply impressed in the sand. The beast's great spoor crossed the outer edge of the sand, following the direction of the moccasin tracks. It was thrillingly fresh, if Baree's bristling spine and rumbling voice meant anything.

David's eyes followed the direction of the two trails. A hundred yards upstream he could see where gravel and rock were replaced entirely by sand, quite a wide, unbroken sweep of it, across which those clawed and moccasined feet must have travelled if they had followed the creek. He was not interested in the bear, and Baree was not interested in the Indian boy; so when they came to the sand one followed the moccasin tracks and the other the claw tracks. They were not at any time more than ten feet apart. And then, all at once, they came together, and David saw that the bear had crossed the sand last and that his huge paws had obliterated a part of the moccasin trail. This did not strike him as unusually significant until he came to a point where the moccasins turned sharply and circled to the right. The bear followed. A little farther--and David's heart gave a sudden thump! At first it might have been coincidence, a bit of chance. It was chance no longer. It was deliberate. The claws were on the trail of the moccasins. David halted and pocketed his pipe, on which he had not drawn a breath in several minutes. He looked at his rifle, making sure that it was ready for action. Baree was growling. His white fangs gleamed and lurid lights were in his eyes as he gazed ahead and sniffed. David shuddered. Without doubt the claws had overtaken the moccasins by this time.

It was a grizzly. He guessed so much by the size of the spoor. He followed it across a bar of gravel. Then they turned a twist in the creek and came to other sand. A cry of amazement burst from David's lips when he looked closely at the two trails again.

_The moccasins were now following the grizzly!_

He stared, for a few moments disbelieving his eyes. Here, too, there was no room for doubt. The feet of the Indian boy had trodden in the tracks of the bear. The evidence was conclusive; the fact astonishing. Of course, it was barely possible....

Whatever the thought might have been in David's mind, it never reached a conclusion. He did not cry out at what he saw after that. He made no sound. Perhaps he did not even breathe. But it was there--under his eyes; inexplicable, amazing, not to be easily believed. A third time the order of the mysterious footprints in the sand was changed--and the grizzly was now following the boy, obliterating almost entirely the indentures in the sand of his small, moccasined feet. He wondered whether it was possible that his eyes had gone bad on him, or that his mind had slipped out of its normal groove and was tricking him with weirdly absurd hallucinations. So what happened in almost that same breath did not startle him as it might otherwise have done. It was for a brief moment simply another assurance of his insanity; and if the mountains had suddenly turned over and balanced themselves on their peaks their gymnastics would not have frozen him into a more speechless stupidity than did the Girl who rose before him just then, not twenty paces away. She had emerged like an apparition from behind a great boulder--a little older, a little taller, a bit wilder than she had seemed to him in the picture, but with that same glorious hair sweeping about her, and that same questioning look in her eyes as she stared at him. Her hands were in that same way at her side, too, as if she were on the point of running away from him. He tried to speak. He believed, afterward, that he even made an effort to hold out his arms. But he was powerless. And so they stood there, twenty paces apart, staring as if they had met from the ends of the earth.

Something happened then to whip David's reason back into its place. He heard a crunching--heavy, slow. From around the other end of the boulder came a huge bear. A monster. Ten feet from the girl. The first cry rushed out of his throat. It was a warning, and in the same instant he raised his rifle to his shoulder. The girl was quicker than he--like an arrow, a flash, a whirlwind of burnished tresses, as she flew to the side of the great beast. She stood with her back against it, her two hands clutching its tawny hair, her slim body quivering, her eyes flashing at David. He felt weak. He lowered his rifle and advanced a few steps.

"Who ... what ..." he managed to say; and stopped. He was powerless to go on. But she seemed to understand. Her body stiffened.

"I am Marge O'Doone," she said defiantly, "and this is my bear!"

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CHAPTER XVIIShe was splendid as she stood there, an exquisite human touch in the savageness of the world about her--and yet strangely wild as she faced David, protecting with her own quivering body the great beast behind her. To David, in the first immensity of his astonishment, she had seemed to be a woman; but now she looked to him like a child, a very young girl. Perhaps it was the way her hair fell in a tangled riot of curling tresses over her shoulders and breast; the slimness of her; the shortness of her skirt; the unfaltering clearness of the
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CHAPTER XVTen days after that night when he had gone into the mystery-room at the Chateau, David and Father Roland clasped hands in a final farewell at White Porcupine House, on the Cochrane River, 270 miles from God's Lake. It was something more than a hand-shake. The Missioner made no effort to speak in these last moments. His team was ready for the return drive and he had drawn his travelling hood close about his face. In his own heart he believed that David would never return. He would go back to civilization, probably next autumn, and in time he would
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