Then, as gleaming eyes began to follow the fixed look of McElroy, heads to turn with waving of feathers on scalp-locks, the factor with an effort took his eyes from Ridgar’s.
“Dog-eaters!” De Courtenay was laughing. “Birds of carrion! Old men! Squaws of the North!”
And above the hubbub the ritual chanting in his brain turned into an Act of Thanksgiving.
Another day had gone into the great back country of time, from which the hand of God alone can pluck them and their secrets. Soft haze of blue and gold hung over forest and stream, sweet breath of summer fondled the high carpet of interlaced tree-tops, blew down the waters and wimpled the bending grasses, and the wolf had sighted the caribou herd.
In a shelter of spruce within sight of the Indian smoke the lone canoe and its people lay hidden, awaiting the coming of night.
“Now, Ma’amselle,” said Dupre earnestly, “do you remain close here with Frith and Wilson and Alloybeau while Brilliers and McDonald go with me to reconnoitre.”
Maren knelt beside a fallen log binding up the heavy ropes of her hair. Before her were spread the meagre adjuncts of her toilet, in all conscience slim enough for any masculine runner of the forest,—a dozen little pegs hand-whittled from hard wood and polished to finest gloss by contact with the shining braids.
She looked up at him with eyes that were unreadable to his simple understanding.
“Remain?” she said; “and send you into my danger alone? You know me not, M’sieu.”
Purple dusk was thick upon the underworld of lesser growth beneath the towering woods. In its half-light the trapper saw that her face, usually of so sad a calm, was glowing with excitement.
“Brilliers,” she said, rising and fastening the last strand, “bring me the brown no-wak-wa berries from the pail yonder.”
She stood crushing the ripe fruit in her hands and looked into the faces of her little band. In every countenance she read what she had read in men’s faces all of her life, the dumb longing to serve, and it lifted her heart with tenderness.
“My men,” she said presently, “remember we are Hudson’s Bays, and that we have behind us the Great Company which punishes guilt and upholds loyalty, and that we go to rescue a factor of the Company. Alloybeau and McDonald go with me, flanking either side. You, Frith, take up position a hundred yards inland to cover what retreat may happen. Wilson and Brilliers stand at the canoe, and, M’sieus, keep hand at prow ready for instant action. We know not what may happen. I, who am most concerned, go first. You, Marc Dupre, go with me.”
Her voice dropped as it ever did of late when she spoke to this good friend.
“And now we wait only for full darkness.”
“You must go, Ma’amselle?” said Alloybeau miserably. “Cannot another make the first scouting? Send me.”