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Law of the North (Originally published as Empery), Page 2

Samuel Alexander White



  Dunvegan lifted the flap of the Cree wigwam and knew that the third ofhis missions was ended. Within the primitive tepee on a pile ofrabbit-skin blankets sat Flora Macleod, the Factor's fugitive daughter.Her personal appearance bordered on the squalid, for toilettenecessaries were lacking in the tent. Her eyes shone defiantly into thechief trader's, glinting dark like her coal-black hair.

  Altogether, Bruce thought her somber eyes and swarthy skin held butlittle difference from those of the Indians who ruled these lodges onthe Katchawan. To her breast she hugged a bundled infant whose blueeyes and fair skin bespoke its white fathering.

  "What brought you here?" she demanded, with an almost ferociousabruptness.

  "You," answered Dunvegan. "You and the boy. Your father will have youwife to no Nor'wester. Nor will he have his daughter's son bear aNor'wester's name. He intends giving the babe his own----"

  "He does?" Flora interrupted, the glow in her eyes flaming till theyblazed with anger.

  "Yes. As for you--I cannot say. We all know the Factor is a stern, hardman."

  "I will never go back to his punishment."

  Dunvegan's face hardened. "You must! I am under orders to take you atany cost; and there are the means!" His brown, muscled hand indicatedthe canoe brigade nosing the serrated river bank and filled with hissinewed northmen whose combined might seemed quite sufficient to carryaway bodily the pole and skin structures which made up the Cree camp.

  "You coward!" exclaimed the girl malignantly, releasing her neck fromits attitude of craned inspection and hushing the child's suddenwhimper. "You are both cowards, you and the one who sent you. You slipin here with a score of voyageurs while the men are away after caribou.I say you are nothing but a coward, Bruce Dunvegan!"

  The chief trader's handsome face flushed to a deeper tint under itsbronze, but he kept his patience.

  "Hardly that," he objected. "We happened to meet Dreaulond, theCompany's courier, on the Nisgowan portage, and he told me of yourwhereabouts. I was glad of the meeting, since this brigade has beensearching for a long while, and in these bitter times the posts haveneed of all their men. However, there was no secret about our coming; infact, we shall not dip a paddle till Running Wolf returns. The Companycannot afford to lose the trade of his tribe through any real or fanciedoffense in taking you away."

  "Dreaulond told you," Flora Macleod repeated spitefully. "He has an oldwoman's tongue. Basil Dreaulond is a gossip!"

  "No," declared the chief trader, "he talks wisely when he talks at all,and many an act of justice follows his words on the trail. He wondered,though, at seeing you in the lodge of Running Wolf. What has BlackFerguson, a Nor'wester, to do with our Indians?"

  "Nothing," snapped the girl. "He deserted me here."

  "Ah!" Dunvegan exclaimed. "I thought as much. But you were legallymarried?"

  "Father Merceraux, the Nor'west priest, married us."

  Bruce's face brightened. "That's good. I know Merceraux. So there couldhave been no trickery. You have a copy of his register?"

  "Yes," answered Flora. "I treasure that--and the child."

  "So will the Factor," Bruce observed.

  The daughter frowned at the repeated mention of the grim one who wouldpronounce judgment on her for disobeying his orders. "I hate him," shedeclared; "I hate----"

  "Stop!" interrupted Dunvegan harshly. "I don't want your confidences.And take a little advice from me. Don't set your spirit up against his.I know him--perhaps better than you. I myself rather fear to tell him ofyour desertion."

  "Fear!" exclaimed Flora, her glance running over Dunvegan's massive,six-foot frame. "You never felt it. But let Malcolm MacLeod take care. Ihave power here. Running Wolf wishes me to stay. The tribe I can twistlike a river weed. And the Nor'west Company is very active in gainingground. So let the lord of Oxford House consider. I can stir up troublefor him."

  Gazing at the defiant daughter, Bruce did not doubt her ability forprovoking mischief. Flora Macleod had not that perfection of womanlybeauty which makes abject slaves of men, but she possessed what isperhaps a greater gift. She had inherently a natural authority, amastery, a fire of conquest which enabled her to subordinate many mindsto a single dominance. This was her most apparent talent, not wasting inconcealment but growing to supremacy through the frequency of its use.And here, Dunvegan knew, she would not scruple in the using if the dourFactor forced her to extremities.

  "Why does Running Wolf wish you to stay?" he asked.

  "Superstition," Flora replied, and she laughed contemptuously. "Theyhave had hard hunting and game has been scarce. They think I'll changetheir luck. And, more than that, Running Wolf hopes I may some timemarry him----"

  "Marry him!" echoed the chief trader. "Are you crazy? Or is he?"

  "He is," Macleod's daughter responded with harsh merriment. "He wants toget the Factor's permission." Her voice was bitterly contemptuous.

  Dunvegan frowned blackly. "If he mentions that to Macleod he will raisea storm with speech for thunder and blows for lightning. You are BlackFerguson's wife. That fact cannot be got over."

  "He got over it," snapped Flora.

  "And why?" demanded the chief trader. "There must have been a reason.Surely his wooing and marrying was more than a simple whim to thwartMacleod. Surely there was a reason, and a good one, for this swiftdivorce!"

  "There was," admitted Flora grimly, Her eyes burned up into Dunvegan'swith fierce irony. "A good reason. He set eyes on your own ideal."

  "My own ideal!" exclaimed Dunvegan, making a poor pretence of ignorance."I hardly catch your meaning."

  "No?" Flora sneered. "Paddling down Lake Lemeau, as we hunted, who didwe encounter but Desiree Lazard, with her Uncle Pierre and his men.Desiree Lazard, you understand! The ripest beauty of Oxford House, thebreaker of Hudson's Bay hearts, and the very idol of one Dunvegan."Flora's harsh, grating chuckle, seeming to come more from the dark,unfathomable eyes than from the thin-lipped mouth, held the essence oftaunt.

  At the pointedness of her speech Bruce Dunvegan's tanned skin took on adeeper flame of red even than that caused by her charge of cowardice. Hecould not well retort, but as his fingers involuntarily clenched hewished a man had done the baiting.

  "Desiree's beauty struck him suddenly and blindingly, like the morningsun over the Blood Flats," the girl went on, more impersonally. "I giveDesiree her due! No northman has ever looked upon her unmoved, andFerguson is the most beastially susceptible of them all. She was likered wine in his eyes. I think if he had had a few more paddlers he wouldhave attacked Pierre Lazard's men with the idea of carrying her away byforce."

  "Didn't Lazard attack him?" cried the chief trader. "He reportedsighting and chasing the Nor'wester; and Pierre does not lie."

  "Nor I," returned Flora Macleod--"when there is no need! Pierre fearedour small party was but in advance of a Nor'west force and hung off onguard and ready for a skirmish. When he found that nothing was followingour three canoes he did give chase, but we were lightly loaded, and leftthem easily. However, the mischief was done. Ferguson desired Lazard'sniece as he had desired no other thing in all his life. My release camethat night in camp. Black Ferguson and his paddlers were gone before Iawoke in the morning. So I came here for shelter."

  "Damnation to his black heart!" exclaimed Dunvegan. "Is there nothing ofthe man about this Nor'wester? Had he no thought of your rights and therights of the child?"

  The Factor's daughter flung a gesture of the arms riverward, a motionvindictive in the extreme. "I," she averred, "was a cast-off rag. Theboy was nothing more. You know Ferguson has no heart--only impulse. Heappears to have gone mad over Desiree Lazard."

  "Much good it will do him if we have our hands on him!"

  "But what if you haven't?"

  "We can trust Desiree at the fort."

  "Perhaps. But, remember, one person at Oxford House made trysts and keptthem in spite of guards and gates."

  Bruce smiled
grimly. "And her reward?" he asked, and cursed himselfinstantly because of the pain that momentarily changed the girl'sexpression. He had, as it were, a glimpse of her soul in that moment andknew that for all her waywardness she was inwardly true. Blessed with amore merciful environment, she would doubtless have been a transformedwoman.

  "Watch Desiree well," she warned. "Black Ferguson is hard on her trail,and she is too fine to be lorded by such a beast."

  Dunvegan paced some awkward steps before the Cree tents, his glancewandering uncertainly to the waiting brigade by the Katchawan's bank.

  "I haven't the right," he complained.

  "Win it," she flashed. "You are the pick of the Company's men. If youweren't you would not be Malcolm Macleod's chief trader."

  "She is a Nor'wester at heart. Her father died in their service, and hisspirit is in her. She cherishes his pride of allegiance. Desiree vowsshe will never wed a man of the H. B. C. Her vow stands!"

  "Tut!" mocked Flora. "A woman's whim easily changed! She stays under theCompany's roof with her uncle, a servant of the same organization. Doesthat fit in with her vow? A fig for such vows!"

  "She has no other relative and no place else to live," asserted thechief trader. "As for her resolve, it is proof against changing, forI--have tested it."

  "Then," observed Macleod's daughter, "the Nor'wester has a good chanceof marrying her. Here are the Cree men coming back!"

  Over the ridge which rimmed the camp with a rampart of spruce theIndians dropped, one by one, bounding lightly from rock to rock innoiseless buckskins. They threaded the birch belt and crossed the cedar"slash," swung around the long beaver meadow below, and emerged upon theflat river point supporting their camp. The chief trader saw they werecarrying nothing except weapons.

  "They have left the carrying of the game for the squaws," he observed.

  "No," cried Flora, "I can tell by their faces that the hunt has failed.They have found no caribou and are in a bad mood. You had better leaveme here."

  "Not if we have to fight the whole tribe," declared Dunvegan.

  But his eyes, only, saw the Crees coming up to the sun-scalded camp. Hismental vision focused on the image of Desiree Lazard. He had told BasilDreaulond that he was anxious to complete his mission and return toOxford House. And Basil had smiled, knowing well why! Now was he doublyanxious. Flora's news had a perturbing effect. He hungered for a sightof Desiree singing gayly within the stockades. He yearned for the chanceof conflict to sweep the Nor'wester's shadow from her path.