Toilers of the Trails/A Little Tragedy at Coocoocache
A LITTLE TRAGEDY AT COOCOOCACHE
The last rays of the June sun flashed from the dripping paddle of one who drove his birch-bark up the wild reaches of the wilderness river as though life itself were at stake. And it was.
All day and half the preceding night François Hertel had poled and paddled and portaged, putting mile after mile of the racing St. Maurice between his canoe and the railroad camp at Coocoocache. The long hours of pull and drag and thrust which his will forced upon the wire cables that were the muscles of his back and arms had long since left them numb to all sensation. Still, automatically, they drove pole and paddle.
On he crept up the river as the day died, now rising to thrust viciously through quick-water, again dropping to his knees to push stubbornly through the slower stretches. Once or twice, as the twilight slowly masked the stream behind him, the voyageur threw a quick look backward. But well he knew that with the six hours' start he had on his pursuers no crew from the railroad camp at Coocoocache could overhaul François Hertel, famed from Timiskaming to the Roberval as a canoeman. When once he reached the forks where the Manuan and the Ribbon met the main stream he could laugh at those behind. For there three roads led into the wide north, and the hopelessness of his pursuers' quest would turn them back.
Since midnight, when he had reached his canoe, cached in the brush above the camp of the Transcontinental contractors at the End-of-Steel, and pushed north, he had given little thought to the man lying back there in the shack with a knife in his heart. That had been the inevitable result of the dead man's infamy. He had paid in the coin of the north, and there was an end to it.
But the raw agony of his own home-coming would live with him by day and by night until the good God took what was left of François Hertel. The grief that had struck him from the blue sky on his return from his winter hunt to find his home a charred ruin and his wife Marie gone—drowned, or dead somewhere in the forest, no one knew which—would companion him into the gray years. Again and again as he drove his canoe up the long quick-water he had recalled the joy that had been his when he turned the bend above the Hudson's Bay Company post at Coocoocache—Cree, for Nest of the Gray Owl—and his glad eyes sought the cabin on the island he had built the previous summer for his young bride. How he and Philippe, his partner, had sung, thinking she might hear them before they came in sight around the bend, and then—the thrust of pain that reached his heart at the grim spectacle of his ruined home. Song there died on his lips, never to return.
They had hastened to the island, but nothing in the ruins enlightened them as to the fate of Marie. Hoping to find her safe at the post, they had crossed the river. There the frenzied husband listened as the factor told the pitiful tale.
A week before Hertel's arrival the yelping of the huskies had brought the post people from their beds to find the cabin across the narrows in flames. A canoe went over at once but found no traces of Marie Hertel or her husky dog. In the morning the factor discovered in the mud of the shore the deep imprint of boots. That was the only clew. They recalled, then, that twice during the spring Marie Hertel had told the factor's wife of the visit of a canoe from the railroad camp. But the sight of her rifle and the long fangs of the husky had driven off the drunken contractor, Walker.
Some days after the fire the body of the poisoned dog was found in the brush near the camp. But the ruins of the cabin gave up no further clew to the fate of Marie Hertel. Killed and thrown into the river to cover the crime, doubtless, the factor surmised.
It was a madman who listened with drawn face to the ghastly tale. At the end he shook off, like children, those who attempted to hold him back from starting for the camp across the river. Hertel had tossed his rifle into his canoe and was shoving off when the factor's warning checked him.
"Wait, François! We only suspect; we don't know. If you go over there now they might get you before you get Walker. Wait and see your friend Desaules up-river before you make yourself an outlaw."
So the desperate trapper had waited.
First he went down-stream with Philippe, searching the shores for the drowned body of his wife, but in a week returned from the hopeless quest. Up the Right-of-Way, at the gravel-pit, no one could give him any information, the Frenchmen in the contractor's gang meeting his inquiries with shrugs of the shoulders; but in their eyes was sympathy. Still, they knew nothing.
At the engineer's camp ten miles above he found his old friend Desaules, whom he had guided across to the Abitibi years before on the preliminary survey.
"Yes; he always had a streak of yellow, François; we've had plenty of trouble with him on this job, but he has political influence at Ottawa. Wait for the government police; they are due in a few days for the investigation."
"I will save dem de trouble. Au revoir!" And, gripping the hand of his friend, Hertel had started back to Coocoocache, There a Frenchman of Walker's gang came to him secretly at the post and told him that he had seen Walker's canoe returning from the island the night of the fire.
The contractor's fate was sealed.
That afternoon Hertel erected a cross of hewn spruce on the site of his ruined home and with a hard-wood stick burned into the white wood the words: "Marie Hertel."
The following morning Walker was found dead in his bunk with a knife in his heart. Attached to the steel haft of the knife was a scrap of birch bark on which were written these words:
"For cross on islan I leeve dees cross.
When Hertel reached the forks the stars were out. Passing the mouths of the Manuan and the Ribbon, he chose the main stream, travelling far into the night. As the moon dipped into the blue-black silhouettes of the Laurentians he went ashore, carried his canoe and outfit into the forest, where he cooked some food and slept. In less than twenty-four hours he had fought his way up forty miles of the St. Maurice, much of it white water and poling current. But little it mattered to François Hertel that he had performed a feat few men in the north could equal, when far down the river, in some lonely backwater, the stricken body of her whom he cherished lay floating by the shore unburied.
One evening, a month later, two men sat in the trade-house of Lost Lake Post discussing a bottle of whiskey with the factor.
"Now, look here, McCready, you don't mean to tell us that Hertel didn't show up here after he murdered Walker?" said one of the strangers.
"I tell you," replied the fur-trader vehemently, "that I haven't seen François Hertel this year; but I warn you now that the luckiest thing that can happen to you two will be never to come up with him. He'll wipe you out if you do."
"Come, now, you don't suppose that any Frenchman in this province could get the best of us two?" answered the detective, bristling with anger. "We've run down too many of these bad men."
"I've advised you to start down-river; now, if you get hurt it's not my fault," growled McCready, his eyes glittering. "I know Hertel. If Walker had done to me what he did to François, I'd have killed Walker, and if you government people came trackin' me into the bush I'd kill you, too, before I'd stand trial. Now you know where I stand, Mr. Dobson."
"Well, I'll give you Hudson's Bay Company people fair warning that, if you intend to protect outlaws from justice when the government has ordered them held if they show up at a post, you're going to see some trouble with Ottawa. I'll take care, also, that the commissioner at Winnipeg hears of this."
"All right," returned the stubborn Scot; "make your complaint, but take your crew and start down-river to-morrow. This post is too small for us three; besides, you've been interfering with the trade. To-day you tried to take some of my Crees down to the' railroad to get information out of them."
"That ain't so, McCready," broke in the third man, "the Crees are lying to you."
"My Crees don't lie; they have to learn that sort of thing from government detectives," replied McCready, making no effort to conceal his contempt. "I'm only sorry Hertel ain't here. He'd make the two of you take water right enough. There ain't an abler man or better rifleshot in the north country than that Frenchman."
"Well, McCready," said Dohspn, "he'll come back with us, nevertheless, if we fall in with him, or he'll lie where he's hit."
The factor laughed sarcastically as he said: "I guess you never heard of his fight at La Tuque with the lumberjacks. He licked a herd of 'em single-handed down there two years ago. You wouldn't start him sweatin' if he took hold of you with his hands, and with a knife——"
The door of the trade-room swung open with a crash. On the threshold stood a tall stranger. Heads of sweat trickling down his swart features and corded forearms, from which the sleeves of his shirt were rolled, together with his quick breathing, gave evidence of recent hard paddling. His deep-set eyes met the gaze of the government men, who faced the door at the interruption, with a challenging glitter. '
McCready sprang to his feet, upsetting his chair. Then, recovering himself, he cried:
"Bonjour, Pierre! How are the people at Half-Way-House?"
Ignoring the question, the voyageur strode toward the table where the government men exchanged furtive glances. But McCready, stepping in front of him, seized his hand, saying as he did: "What brings you from Half-Way-House, Pierre?"
The set mouth of the stranger momentarily threatened a smile and the eyes softened.
"T'anks, ma fr'en', but eet ees not Pierre from Half-Way-House." Then, addressing the men at the table, he said: "I am François Hertel from Coocoocache."
At the words Dobson got to his feet, turning to the wall where his revolver hung in its holster from a wooden peg. But Hertel was there before him, and, seizing the detective by the shoulders, with a quick wrench hurled him half-way across the room to the floor.
Dobson's mate, surprised by the suddenness of the movement, stared irresolutely at the Frenchman, who was now between the government men and the corner where their Winchesters stood.
Hertel smiled as he watched Dobson slowly regain his feet. Then he repeated:
"I am François Hertel. I hear you cum to Los' Lac to tak' me. You lose tam; here ees you' man. At you' plaisir!"
McCready, leaning against the hewn spruce planking of his counter, laughed loudly at the discomfiture of his guests.
"Yes, Dobson, I was wrong; my eyes are growing weak. I can swear that this man is François Hertel. There he is! Take him!"
"I AM FRANÇOIS HERTEL"
"Damn you, McCready," cried the exasperated and already cowed detective, "I'll bet you put this job up!" For an instant he looked longingly at the rifle out of his reach, then snarled at Hertel: "If you're François Hertel, you're under arrest for the murder of Walker at Coocoocache. You'd better give yourself up and come peaceably."
"Ah-hah! So dat ees de way de win' blow?" derisively rejoined Hertel, leaning carelessly, arms folded, against the wall in the manner of a cat baiting a mouse. "I t'o't you cum to tak' François Hertel wid you' han'. Now, w'en he travel long way to geeve you chance, you two beeg, strong man you try scare him wid beeg talk, but you 'fraid soil you' han' on François Hertel, eh?"
Hertel's white teeth flashed in a dangerous smile as he waited a movement from his enemies. As they made none, he took the pistols from the wall and flung them through an open window, while his erstwhile hunters helplessly bit their beards in their rage. With a few words the Frenchman had wrung the braggadocio from them as one wrings the water from a towel. They knew their master and made no move to interfere when Hertel took their Winchesters in his left arm and, shaking hands with McCready, turned sarcastically at the door.
"And dey sen' you to tak' me, François Hertel, down riviere? Tell dem dat François Hertel goes far into de nord w'ere leetle boy detec' will get los' on hees trail. Nex' tam sen' some men to fin' heem, not leetle boy wid heart of rabbit."
And with an "Au revoir, ma fr'en'," to McCready, he disappeared into the night.
"Well, you two are a fine pair of buckos to come up here into the bush after a man," sneered McCready as Dobson slouched into a chair on the exit of Hertel.
"If I ever saw a couple of full-grown men take water, I saw it to-night."
"What could we do?" protested Dobson. "He had us blocked from our guns."
"Yes, but he didn't turn them on you. He dared you to put your hands on him. He just wanted to tie you into a few knots and let you go. If he'd cared to, he'd 'a' knifed you both before you knew what was happening to you or shot you where you sat."
"You needn't fear, McCready; he ain't seen the last of us," sullenly replied the government man.
McCready's Scotch blood went hot.
"What, after a man has shown you up for a pair of chicken-hearted tenderfeet? You'll leave this post to-morrow morning! Understand? You've made enough trouble among my Crees already. If you stay here much longer you'll be wakin' up some mornin' with a knife in your chest as Walker did; only this time it'll be a Cree who'll leave it there, and for the same reason that Walker got his. To-morrow your canoe heads south. Good-night!"
On their return the government police reported that they had found no traces of François Hertel in the headwater country of the St. Maurice. Then the authorities raised a hue and cry from Ottawa to Lake St. John, offering a reward for the murderer, dead or alive, and despatched packets by the main river routes into the north. For Walker had political friends in Ottawa, and the majesty of the law needs must be sustained.
In the autumn, when the birch leaves glided the forest floor and the geese honked south, the canoes returned from their quest—but not with François Hertel.
Later, in December, every dog-team that jingled into a Hudson's Bay post of Rupert Land carried a government order from Ottawa commanding the arrest of François Hertel, French trapper, wanted for the murder of James Walker at Coocoocache on the St. Maurice. And many a hardy fur-trader, to whom this document came, shook his head sadly, wondering what had led his old friend François to make an outlaw of himself—François Hertel, by whose side he had lain under the stars on more than one summer voyage or with whom he had smoked by the roaring birch logs of winter camps. And not a few to whom came this command smiled grimly as they read, for already had the tale of the burned shack and the cross at Coocoocache reached them. For in the north such news travels fast and far. And of those who smiled there was not one but would have fed, clothed, and outfitted the renegade Hertel, had he come seeking succor from the ruthless northern winter, and sent him on his way with a Godspeed. For Hertel had but exacted in good northern coin every farthing of debt Walker owed him. And it is a law of the north that men pay their debts—and collect them.
So it fell out that one January day a dog-team with a man ahead breaking trail and another reeling at the gee-pole of the sled was floundering into the drive of the blizzard that had howled south upon the Height-of-Land country from ice-bound James Bay. For two days, in the teeth of it, the team had labored up the great wilderness lake, now losing the hardened trail underneath and circling in the snow until they found it; then plunging on until the weary trail-breaker and the lead-dog, blinded by the white scourge that beat their faces like a hail of shot, lost the trail again. Then would follow the circling in the soft snow—work that wrung the last ounce of strength from the spent dogs—until the team was again on hard footing.
So for two days they had struggled, facing the pitiless norther. Somewhere at the foot of the great ice-bound lake they knew there was shelter and food and fire. Somewhere, but how many white miles away? Before the new snow had wiped out the trails, Cree trappers had told them that Flying Post lay at the other end of the great lake two sleeps to the west. In two sleeps they had found the lake, but there they met the blizzard. And now the last whitefish had been fed the huskies and the pemmican and tea-bags were empty.
When the tired dogs finally lay down in their traces and refused to go on against the drive of the gale, the exhausted men took counsel.
"We'd better go ashore and make camp while there's light, John," gasped the younger man as the two snow-crusted figures stood with backs to the stinging wind.
"All right, Mac; but if this keeps up to-morrow we'll never see the post," shouted his companion.
So they drove the team to the shore and made a supperless camp in the shelter of the spruce. The huskies bolted two pairs of moccasins cut into strips and boiled, while the men drank hot snow-water in a vain attempt to stay their hunger, for as yet John Bolton could not bring himself to kill one of his faithful dogs until hope of reaching the post soon was past. In that case the weaker dogs would have to go to save the others and their masters.
All night the white fury beat down from the north. The next morning, with belts tightened against the long hours in the drifts, they started. All day they battled through the deep snow against the bitter wind, which cracked their frost-blackened faces, buried in the hoods of their capotes as they were, until facing its fury was unspeakable torture. Still the fast-weakening men and dogs kept on, for warmth and food and life lay ahead, somewhere over these pitiless hills.
When the early northern night neared, the wind had blown itself out and finally died on Grand Lac Pierre, and the dusk crept out from the black timber of the shores over its white shell to meet a slow-moving dog-team and two men. But, with the dropping of the wind, the increasing cold of a silent January night on the Height-of-Land so numbed the limbs of weakened men and dogs that they dragged themselves with difficulty through the soft snow to the shore.
"It's all up, Mac!" groaned the older man; "we've got to kill one of the dogs and rest up and get our strength. To-night it'll go fifty below. We must eat or freeze."
The younger man, too exhausted to answer, stumbled on through the new snow, followed by the team. Twice that day he had fallen and failed to rise, begging the other to go on and leave him. Twice that day John Bolton had dragged him to his snow-shoes again and forced him on by sheer will, but the boy had now come to the end of his strength, and that night the cruel cold would cut into their very marrow.
Back in the forest near the shore they found a protected spot, made camp as best they could, and started a fire. Then Bolton took his rifle from its case and shot the weakest of the exhausted huskies. The explosion of the gun echoed loudly from the near hills.
The men had started to skin the dog when a rifle-shot from the lake shattered the freezing air.
The men looked into each other's faces.
"Some one heard our shot," mumbled Bolton. "I'll fire again."
Again came an answering shot. Then both men dragged themselves to the shore. Coming up the lake was a dog-team. Bolton went out on the ice and waved his arms.
In a few minutes a tall dog-runner in caribou-skin capote belted with a red Company sash, leading a team of northern huskies, approached them.
"Quey! Quey!" called the stranger; and then, seeing they were white men: "Bon jour! I hear de shot an' cum back from de islan'."
Dropping his mittens, Bolton seized the proffered hand.
"We've just shot one of our dogs. We're bound for Flying Post and are starved out. Can you give us some grub? This blizzard about finished us."
"Flying Pos'?" The tall dog-driver raised his ice-hung eyebrows in surprise.
"Dees ees not de trail to Flying Pos'. Dees ees de beeg arm of Grand Lac dat run' nord t'irty mile. You lose de trail in de narrow' back dere w'en you not see for de snow."
"Thank God we met you, then!" exclaimed Bolton. "We would have starved out for we were heading north."
"Lucky t'ing, for sure. You get los' easee on dees lac. Flying Pos' ees two day travel wes'. I got plentee deer meat and tea, but leetle flour. I was go to de pos' for flour w'en I heard de shot."
The next day the famished men and dogs feasted on the French trapper's freely offered caribou steaks, bannocks, and whitefish, and rested, then started with their guide for the post. Three days later the dog-teams drew up in front of the whitewashed log trade-house of Flying Post.
In the absence of the factor, Haig, who had gone to Lake Expanse, they were greeted by the rat-faced half-breed clerk in charge.
As Bolton and McIntyre entered the trade-room, followed by their guide, the half-breed started slightly, then shook hands with the newcomers. Shortly the still hungry men were doing justice to the cooking of the factor's wife while the Frenchman tied the dogs inside the stockade, where they were safe from attack by the Company huskies, and fed them from the post's supply of whitefish.
Later the clerk found Bolton smoking in the factor's quarters.
"You come from de Gatineau country?" offered the half-breed, taking a chair and lighting his pipe.
"Yes, we left the post at Squaw Lake three weeks ago," replied Bolton.
"A-hah, you go far! It ees bad mont' to travel for de beeg win'."
"We are bound for Abitibi, but we had to shoot a dog and may not get a team. Could you sell us two dogs?"
"We got no dog to sell, but"—the clerk winked one of his small, beady eyes—"maybe you don' go to Abitibi, Meester Bolton."
Ignoring the remark, Bolton looked long at the breed, then said:
"We stood a pretty good chance of not making this place; we were starved out and heading north, but by luck this Frenchman Pierre heard our shot when we killed one of the dogs."
"Pierre?" The clerk raised his eyebrows and smiled.
"Yes, Pierre. What's the matter?"
"DEM PAPIER SAY ONE T'OUSAND DOLLAR"
"You hear maybe dat de government hunt for man in dees countree; offair beeg monee for heem?"
"Yes!" Bolton's face went stone-hard.
"Wal"—the clerk took from his pocket the despatch which had reached the post with the Christmas packet—"dem papier say one t'ousand dollar for de man dat catch Hertel."
McIntyre started to speak, but a look from the older man silenced him.
"Well, what's your point?" asked Bolton dryly, after an interval, still holding the weasel eyes of the clerk with steady gaze.
"Have you not guess, Meester Bolton?"
"No; what is there to guess about?"
The clerk looked quickly to see that they were alone, then said: "Pierre, your Pierre"—the half-breed finished in a whisper—"ees dees François Hertel!"
"Well, I'll be damned!" ejaculated McIntyre; but John Bolton's expression did not change a hair.
"He cum in before de winter mail arrive and get grub. Haig don' know he killed a man on de St. Maurice. But now we know, Meester Bolton. Now we know. I been trading for grub wid heem jus' now. He leave to-day—queek.
"Half dees monee ees mine, half yours, Meester Bolton; but he ees ver' bad man, and you weel have care to tak' heem. Shoot heem in de leg, I t'ink. He ees bad man wid knife."
The last words were uttered in a whisper, for footsteps sounded in the outer room, and the Frenchman straightway appeared in the door.
"I cum to say bonjour, Meester Bolton. I go back to my trap lines."
The small eyes of the clerk shifted rapidly from one to the other, while McIntyre sat studying quizzically the face of his chief. Bolton rose and wrung Pierre's extended hand.
"Good-bye, Pierre!" he said. "You pulled us out of a narrow squeak, and we want to thank you again. You can be sure I won't forget you." Then, turning to the half-breed: "Joe here has got the idea that you are François Hertel. I thought I'd tell you, for he might make trouble for you if you showed up here in the spring. Good-bye, Pierre, and good luck to you!"
The Frenchman shook hands with McIntyre, then turned to the clerk, whose narrow face went chalk-white at Bolton's words.
"Leetle Joe here, he said dat?" The fingers of Pierre's right hand toyed with the handle of his knife as he smiled at the trembling half-breed who shrank back in his chair. "Joe, he ees funnee boy. I tell François Hertel eef I see heem. Ha, ha! Joe he ees ver' funnee." And the trapper was gone.
The three men sat in silence until the jingle of bells, a shout, and the crack of a dog-whip told them that Pierre was off on the lake trail. Then the clerk turned on Bolton.
"You are fine beeg man to send to de bush to tak' François Hertel. Why you let heem go and one t'ousand dollar wid heem?"
"So you think we're government police, do you?"
"Oua!" cried the clerk angrily, "and you have fear to tak' heem?"
"I tell you once and for all that we're government engineers, not police. We're bound to Abitibi Lake on the provincial boundary survey."
"Oua," repeated the clerk with a shrug. "You can' fool me. What you do here dees tam in de beeg snow eef you don' hunt for François Hertel?"
"All right, have it your own way, then; but, as we had your testimony alone to the fact that Pierre was Hertel, and as I wouldn't take your word against a skunk, I guess, as far as we're concerned, he is still Pierre the trapper. And good luck to him; he's a man, and that's more than I can say for you."
In impotent rage the half-breed rushed out of the room. Then young McIntyre turned from the window, through which he had been gazing down the white miles of Grand Lac Pierre, and reached for Bolton's right hand.
"John," he said huskily, "it was hard for you to do it, but I knew you would."
"I could do no more for a man who took the chance he did to save our lives," replied Bolton.
"Did he suspect us of being police?"
"Yes, but he took the risk of bringing us in just the same."
"When did you first get the idea who he was? It never entered my mind that Hertel would have done what he did when there was a price on his head."
"Two days back on the trail he said something that made me suspicious. He tried to draw me out. For cool nerve I've never seen his equal. I believe Walker deserved what he got, and I hope they never get him, for he's a man."
"What are you going to report, John?"
"I'm going to report to the chief at Ottawa that a Frenchman answering the description of François Hertel was found by Harricanaw Crees frozen on the Abitibi trail. Is that right, Mac?"
"That's right!" And the government men sealed the compact with a grip.
Spring had wandered north to the Height-of-Land. The ice, honeycombed by the May sun, had already left a thousand lakes. Choked streams, whitening into cascades and wild rapids on their way to the sea, sang madly of soft days that June would bring. Birch ridges shimmered in pale green above valleys aflower, and the buds of willow and alder reddened the river shores while every breeze roamed heavy with wood odors. On spruce spire and balsam top the throats of thrush, warbler, and whitethroat swelled with the joy of the young year.
But in the heavy heart of François Hertel leaped no answering chord of joy as he journeyed by lake and portage and river trail to the headwaters of the St. Maurice. In his fur pack were two skins of the silver fox and many of marten, mink, and otter. Fate had been kind to his lonely winter trapping, for he brought to the spring trade a rare winter's hunt; but it mattered little to him how rich was his fur pack, for he was not bringing it to Marie at Coocoocache, Marie—how often he had lived over again the black days of his home-coming the year before! Night after night, day after day, throughout the long snows of the bitter winter, as he smoked by his lonely fire or followed his trap lines, he had thought and thought of the days that would come no more to him and Marie. Like a wolf they had driven him, an outcast, into the wilderness, and what had they done with her? The thought that her body, undiscovered, might still await decent burial seared into his brain.
Day by day as he pushed on through the forest, waking with life, to the headwater lakes of the great river, one idea obsessed him: that never again would he turn the bend above Coocoocache to behold Marie waiting on the shore for his return. All that was passed forever. All hope and life and love were gone now from François Hertel, outlaw, hunted from Timiskaming to the Labrador border for the killing of the black-hearted drunkard, Walker.
Such had been the thoughts that daily, through the long winter, had become his ceaseless torment, which companioned him on his long voyage; and with such was his brain tortured when, at last, he reached the waters of the St. Maurice.
He had resolved to go to Lost Lake Post to trade his fur and then to Coocoocache secretly. From there he would journey on down the river, even to the settlements, in search of her grave. MeCready was his tried friend and could give him the news of the posts hundreds of miles below.
How he longed to see his island again and the pitiful cross he had placed over the ruins of his home! He wanted to talk to the factor's wife of Marie and the happy days that were dead. He would bring sod from the post stockade, forest flowers and wild shrubs, and make his sacred ground beautiful. It would be her wish, for in life she had loved them so. And each spring, if he were alive, he would come, even from the uttermost north, and keep the forest from encroaching on his altar; and she, looking down from heaven, would see him and know he had not forgotten.
So one day in early June the canoe of François Hertel grated on the beach at Lost Lake Post.
"Upon my soul, François Hertel, where did you come from? I thought you'd be up on Hudson's Bay by this time!" gasped MeCready as Hertel walked into the trade-house,
"I come long way, but not from de Bay. I go to Coocoocache."
"Coocoocache?" cried the astonished Scotchman. "Man, are you crazy? They've offered a reward of a thousand dollars for you, dead or alive. You might run into government people down there on the Transcontinental."
"I have met dem before," and Hertel's set mouth relaxed into a smile.
"I know, François, but they're not all cowards. Some are good men, and you don't want to walk into trouble," pleaded the factor.
"Well, I go to Coocoocache, jes' de same. I wan' to know eef dey found—Marie," and, in spite of his efforts to control his emotion, the deep-set eyes of the voyageur went misty with tears as he uttered his wife's name.
"The winter packet brought no news of her," said McCready gently, "only this government order for your arrest. They may be waiting at Coocoocache now on the very chance of your showing up there this spring."
I mus' go. Eet ees no matter—my life—now. Dey mus' found her down riviere somewhere. I mus' go to her grave."
"Well, I suppose you'll go, anyway, but travel by night and don't hang around Coocoocache; the railroad people will hear of it and try to get you. This thing will blow over in a year or so if you keep out of the way."
So Hertel traded his fur with McCready and left for Coocoocache.
It was a soft afternoon on which he neared the bend in the river above the post. A few hours before he had passed, at a distance, the construction camp and contractors' shacks at the End-of-Steel, now moved miles above the location of the previous summer. Doubtless, thinking him a travelling Cree, they had paid him no attention.
As Hertel neared the bluff which shut from his view the buildings of the post below and the island with its lonely cross, a great wave of grief overwhelmed him kneeling at his paddle. His head sank forward on his chest while his shoulders shook with the emotion that engulfed him. For a space he remained with head bowed, in the attitude of prayer, as the canoe drifted inshore. Then, when the paroxysm passed, he shook the black hair from his eyes and, straightening up, resumed paddling. But as he neared the turn of the river his moving lips framed the words again and again: "Ma pauvre Marie! Ma pauvre Marie!"
In a moment the post and island broke into view. There, with the sun on it, as he had left it a year ago, a hunted man, stood his cross.
Heedless of the danger he ran in being seen, he paddled directly to the island. All that he held most dear, the sacred memories of the happy weeks he had spent there with her, all that love had meant to him, was symbolized by that pitiful spruce cross on which was burned the name: "Marie Hertel."
Here the agony of months of solitary brooding, the torture of a year of despair, overwhelmed the heartbroken trapper, and, throwing himself on the ground, one arm around the base of the cross, he gave himself up to his grief. Later, at sunset, he crossed to the post,
"François Hertel, or I'm no Scotchman!" cried the surprised factor as Hertel entered the trade-house.
"Bonjour, ma fr'en'; I have come back." The men warmly gripped hands.
"But don't you know there's a reward for you? The government people may show up any time, looking for you. You can't stay here, man." The factor seemed greatly excited.
"I come to fin' weder dey found her down riviere. I go to see her grave." Hertel had but one thought.
Suddenly there were sounds of women's voices in the stockade outside. Then a white figure flew through the door, open-armed, and upon François Hertel's ears fell a voice as though from the hushed valley of death.
"François, mon cher François!"
Hertel turned to behold the beloved face of his lost wife Marie, while two warm woman's arms circled his neck and soft lips kissed him again and again between her sobs.
Trembling with surprise and joy, the strong man, suddenly transported from dumb despair to mad delight, cried like a child as time and again he held his wife from him to look at her, then crushed her to his heart. In a chair the factor's wife wept silently, while the big Scotchman rubbed his eyes with red fists as he smiled at the reunited lovers.
It was long before Hertel could talk coherently, so great was his emotion. At last he asked:
"But w'ere deed you go dat night dey los' you? Philippe and me, we hunt de shore far below de Vermilion for you. We t'ot you drown or dead in de bush. Oh, ma cherie, I have suffer so in de heart!"
With her arms around his neck Marie related how she had escaped from Walker and put out into the river in an old canoe without a paddle. Carried by the swift current far down the river, the canoe somehow passed the first rapids without swamping. At daylight, many miles below the post, she landed, but, fearing Walker, had decided to attempt to reach the settlement at La Tuque. A day later, starved and exhausted, she was picked up by Vermilion River Crees, who told her she could not reach La Tuque alone because of the rapids. With them she remained until December, when they brought her by dog-team to La Tuque when they came in to trade. There she learned of the return of Hertel and the death of Walker. In the early spring she had come to the post hoping to get word to him if he were still in the St. Maurice country.
When Marie finished her story the factor handed Hertel a letter.
"This came in the spring mail, François," he said.
As Hertel could not read English, the factor opened it and read:
"In March last it was reported to the authorities at Ottawa that the body of François Hertel had been found frozen on the Abitibi trail by Harricanaw Crees. Pierre, the trapper, who was at Flying Post, on Grand Lac, in January must trade his fur in the James Bay country for a year or two."
The letter was signed: "A friend of Pierre."
"Ah-hah," exclaimed Hertel, smiling, "Meester Bolton has pay hees debt! To-morrow, Marie, we leeve for de far nord, and dees tam, and alway', you travel in de bow of de canoe of François Hertel," and he took her into his great arms.