(Return to Web Text-ures)
IN A twist of Three Jackpine River, buried in the deep of the forest between the Shamattawa country and Hudson Bay, was the cabin in which lived Jacques Le Beau, the trapper. There was not another man in all that wilderness who was the equal of Le Beau in wickedness – unless it was Durant, who hunted foxes a hundred miles north, and who was Jacques's rival in several things. A giant in size, with a heavy, sullen face and eyes which seemed but half-hidden greenish loopholes for the pitiless soul within him – if he had a soul at all – Le Beau was a "throw-back" of the worst sort. In their shacks and teepees the Indians whispered softly that all the devils of his forebears had gathered in him.
It was a grim kind of fate that had given to Le Beau a wife. Had she been a witch, an evil-doer and an evil-thinker like himself, the thing would not have been such an abortion of what should have been. But she was not that. Sweet-faced, with something of unusual beauty still in her pale cheeks and starving eyes – trembling at his approach and a slave in his presence she was, like his dogs, the property of The Brute. And the woman had a baby. One had already died; and it was the thought that this one might die, as the other had died, that brought at times the new flash of fire into her dark eyes.
"Le bon Dieu – I pray to the Blessed Angels – I swear you shall live!" she would cry to it at times, hugging it close to her breast. And it was at these times that the fire came into her eyes, and her pale cheeks flushed with a smouldering bit of the flame that had once been her beauty. "Some day – some day –"
But she never finished, even to the child, what was in her mind.
Sometimes her dreams were filled with visions. The world was still young, and she was not old. She was thinking of that as she stood before the cracked bit of mirror in the cabin, brushing out her hair, that was black and shining and so long that it fell to her hips. Of her beauty her hair had remained. It was defiant of The Brute. And deep back in her eyes, and in her face, there were still the living, hidden traces of her girlhood heritage ready to bloom again if Fate, mending its error at last, would only take away forever the crushing presence of the Master. She stood a little longer before the bit of glass when she heard the crunching of footsteps in the snow outside.
Swiftly what had been in her face was gone. Le Beau had been away on his trapline since yesterday, and his return filled her with the old dread. Twice he had caught her before the mirror and had called her vile names for wasting her time in admiring herself when she might have been scraping the fat from his pelts. The second time he had sent her reeling back against the wall, and had broken the mirror until the bit she treasured now was not much larger than her two slim hands. She would not be caught again. She ran with the glass to the place where she kept it in hiding, and then quickly she wove the heavy strands of her hair into a braid. The strange, dead look of fear and foreboding closed like a veil over the secrets her eyes had disclosed to herself. She turned, as she always turned in her woman's hope and yearning, to greet him when he entered.
The Brute entered, a dark and surly monster. He was in a wicked humour. His freshly caught furs he flung to the floor. He pointed to them, and his eyes were narrowed to menacing slits as they fell upon her.
"He was there again – that devil! " he growled. "See, he has spoiled the fisher, and he has cleaned out my baits and knocked down the trap-houses. Par les mille cornes du diable, but I will kill him! I have sworn to cut him into bits with a knife when I catch him – and catch him I will, to-morrow. See to it there – the skins – when you have got me something to eat. Mend the fisher where he is torn in two, and cover the seam well with fat so that the agent over at the post will not discover it is bad. Tonnerre de Dieu! – that brat! Why do you always keep his squalling until I come in? Answer me, Bęte!"
Such was his greeting. He flung his snowshoes into a corner, stamped the snow off his feet, and got himself a fresh plug of black tobacco from a shelf over the stove. Then he went out again, leaving the woman with a cold tremble in her heart and the wan desolation of hopelessness in her face as she set about getting him food.
From the cabin Le Beau went to his dog-pit, a corral of saplings with a shelter-shack in the centre of it. It was The Brute's boast that he had the fiercest pack of sledge-dogs between Hudson Bay and the Athabasca. It was his chief quarrel with Durant, his rival farther north; and his ambition was to breed a pup that would kill the fighting husky which Durant brought down to the Post with him each winter at New Year. This season he had chosen Netah ("The Killer") for the big fight at God's Lake. On the day he would gamble his money and his reputation against Durant's, his dog would be just one month under two years of age. It was Netah he called from out of the pack now.
The dog slunk to him with a low growl in his throat, and for the first time something like joy shone in Le Beau's face. He loved to hear that growl. He loved to see the red and treacherous glow in Netah's eyes, and hear the menacing, click of his jaws. Whatever of nobility might have been in Netah's blood had been clubbed out by the man. They were alike, in that their souls were dead. And Netah, for a dog, was a devil. For that reason Le Beau had chosen him to fight the big fight.
Le Beau looked down at him, and drew a deep breath of satisfaction."Ow! but you are looking fine, Netah," he exulted. "I can almost see running blood in those devil-eyes of yours; oui – red blood that smells and runs, as the blood of Durant's poos shall run when you sink those teeth in its jugular. And to-morrow we are going to give you the test – such a beautiful test! – with the wild dog that is robbing my traps and tearing my fishers into bits. For I will catch him, and you shall fight him until he is almost dead; and then I shall cut his heart out alive, as I have promised, and you will eat it while it is still beating, so that there will be no excuse for your losing to that poos which M'sieu Durant will bring down. Comprenez? It will be a beautiful test – to-morrow. And if you fail I will kill you. Oui; if you so much as let a whimper out of you, I will kill you – dead."