“Another turn to the wheel, M’sieu,” said that intrepid venturer; “what next?”
As if his thought had reached out among the shadows of the wood where stood the death tepee and touched its object, Edmonton Ridgar appeared among the lodges. He was bare-headed, and McElroy saw that his face was deep-lined and anxious, filled with a sadness at which he could but marvel and he passed within a stone’s throw without so much as a glance at his superior.
No captive was this man, passing where he listed, but McElroy noticed the keen eyes watching his every move.
What was he among this silent tribe with their war-paint and their distrust of white men?
It was a hopeless puzzle, and the factor laid it grimly aside. Next to the closed and impregnable front of his own post what time he passed from its sight, this cold aloofness of his chief trader cut to inmost soul.
But these things were that life of the great North-west whose unspeakable lure thralled men’s souls to the death, and he was content.
It was chance and daring and danger which drew him in the beginning to the country, love of the wild and breath of the vast reaches, something within which pushed him forward among these savage peoples, even as the same thing pushed Maren Le Moyne toward the Whispering Hills, sent De Courtenay to the Saskatchewan.
At any rate he was very hungry, and when a bent and withered crone of a squaw brought food and loosed his right hand, the young factor tossed up his head to get the falling hair out of his eyes and fell to with a relish.
“Faugh!” said De Courtenay with the first mouthful; “I wonder, M’sieu, is there nothing we can do to hasten the end? Many meals of this would equal the stake.”
Whereat the gallant smilingly tossed the meat and its birchbark platter at the woman’s feet.
“If you would not prefer starvation, I would suggest that you crawl for that, M’sieu,” said McElroy gravely; but the wrinkled hag gathered it up, and left them to the night that was fast settling over the forest.
Thus began the long trail up to the waters of Churchill and beyond into that unknown region where few white men had yet penetrated, and fewer still. returned.
Day followed day. Summer was upon the land, early summer, with the sweet winds stirring upon the waters, with gauze-winged creatures flitting above the, shallows where willow and vine-maple fringed the edges and silver fish leaped to their undoing, with fleecy clouds floating in a sapphire sky, and birds straining their little throats in the forest.
McElroy and De Courtenay were loosed of their bonds and given paddles in the canoes, a change which was welcomed gladly.
At night a guard paced their sleeping-place and the strictest surveillance was kept over them.
Down the Assiniboine, into Red River, and across Portage la Prairie went the great flotilla, green shores winding past in an endless pageant of foliage, all hands falling to at the portages and trailing silently for many pipes, one behind the other, all laden with provisions and packs of furs, the canoes upturned and carried on heads and shoulders.