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- Northern Lights, Volume 2. - 6/15 -
the storm and struggle in her did not smother. The white women of Portage la Drome were too blind, too prejudiced, to see all that she really was, and admiring white men could do little, for Pauline would have nothing to do with them till the women met her absolutely as an equal; and from the other halfbreeds, who intermarried with each other and were content to take a lower place than the pure whites, she held aloof, save when any of them was ill or in trouble. Then she recognised the claim of race, and came to their doors with pity and soft impulses to help them. French and Scotch and English half-breeds, as they were, they understood how she was making a fight for all who were half-Indian, half- white, and watched her with a furtive devotion, acknowledging her superior place, and proud of it.
"I will not stay here," said the Indian mother with sullen stubbornness. "I will go back beyond the Warais. My life is my own life, and I will do what I like with it."
The girl started, but became composed again on the instant. "Is your life all your own, mother?" she asked. "I did not come into the world of my own will. If I had I would have come all white or all Indian. I am your daughter, and I am here, good or bad--is your life all your own?"
"You can marry and stay here, when I go. You are twenty. I had my man, your father, when I was seventeen. You can marry. There are men. You have money. They will marry you--and forget the rest."
With a cry of rage and misery the girl sprang to her feet and started forwards, but stopped suddenly at sound of a hasty knocking and a voice asking admittance. An instant later, a huge, bearded, broad-shouldered man stepped inside, shaking himself free of the snow, laughing half- sheepishly as he did so, and laying his fur-cap and gloves with exaggerated care on the wide window-sill.
"John Alloway," said the Indian woman in a voice of welcome, and with a brightening eye, for it would seem as though he came in answer to her words of a few moments before. With a mother's instinct she had divined at once the reason for the visit, though no warning thought crossed the mind of the girl, who placed a chair for their visitor with a heartiness which was real--was not this the white man she had saved from death in the snow a year ago? Her heart was soft towards the life she had kept in the world. She smiled at him, all the anger gone from her eyes, and there was almost a touch of tender anxiety in her voice as she said "What brought you out in this blizzard? It wasn't safe. It doesn't seem possible you got here from the Portage."
The huge ranchman and auctioneer laughed cheerily. "Once lost, twice get there," he exclaimed, with a quizzical toss of the head, thinking he had said a good thing. "It's a year ago to the very day that I was lost out back"--he jerked a thumb over his shoulder--"and you picked me up and brought me in; and what was I to do but come out on the anniversary and say thank you? I'd fixed up all year to come to you, and I wasn't to be stopped, 'cause it was like the day we first met, old Coldmaker hitting the world with his whips of frost, and shaking his ragged blankets of snow over the wild west."
"Just such a day," said the Indian woman after a pause. Pauline remained silent, placing a little bottle of cordial before their visitor, with which he presently regaled himself, raising his glass with an air.
"Many happy returns to us both!" he said, and threw the liquor down his throat, smacked his lips, and drew his hand down his great moustache and beard like some vast animal washing its face with its paw. Smiling and yet not at ease, he looked at the two women and nodded his head encouragingly, but whether the encouragement was for himself or for them he could not have told.
His last words, however, had altered the situation. The girl had caught at a suggestion in them which startled her. This rough white plainsman was come to make love to her, and to say--what? He was at once awkward and confident, afraid of her, of her refinement, grace, beauty, and education, and yet confident in the advantage of his position, a white man bending to a half-breed girl. He was not conscious of the condescension and majesty of his demeanour, but it was there, and his untutored words and ways must make it all too apparent to the girl. The revelation of the moment made her at once triumphant and humiliated. This white man had come to make love to her, that was apparent; but that he, ungrammatical, crude, and rough, should think he had but to put out his hand, and she in whom every subtle emotion and influence had delicate response, whose words and ways were as far removed from his as day from night, would fly to him, brought the flush of indignation to her cheek. She responded to his toast with a pleasant nod, however, and said:
"But if you will keep coming in such wild storms, there will not be many anniversaries." Laughing, she poured out another glass of liquor for him.
"Well, now, p'r'aps you're right, and so the only thing to do is not to keep coming, but to stay--stay right where you are."
The Indian woman could not see her daughter's face, which was turned to the fire, but she herself smiled at John Alloway, and nodded her head approvingly. Here was the cure for her own trouble and loneliness. Pauline and she, who lived in different worlds, and yet were tied to each other by circumstances they could not control, would each work out her own destiny after her own nature, since John Alloway had come a-wooing. She would go back on the Warais, and Pauline would remain at the Portage, a white woman with her white man. She would go back to the smoky fires in the huddled lodges; to the venison stew and the snake dance; to the feasts of the Medicine Men, and the long sleeps in the summer days, and the winter's tales, and be at rest among her own people; and Pauline would have revenge of the wife of the prancing Reeve, and perhaps the people would forget who her mother was.
With these thoughts flying through her sluggish mind, she rose and moved heavily from the room, with a parting look of encouragement at Alloway, as though to say, a man that is bold is surest.
With her back to the man, Pauline watched her mother leave the room, saw the look she gave Alloway. When the door was closed she turned and looked Alloway in the eyes.
"How old are you?" she asked suddenly.
He stirred in his seat nervously. "Why, fifty, about," he answered with confusion.
"Then you'll be wise not to go looking for anniversaries in blizzards, when they're few at the best," she said with a gentle and dangerous smile.
"Fifty-why, I'm as young as most men of thirty," he responded with an uncertain laugh. "I'd have come here to-day if it had been snowing pitchforks and chain-lightning. I made up my mind I would. You saved my life, that's dead sure; and I'd be down among the: moles if it wasn't for you and that Piegan pony of yours. Piegan ponies are wonders in a storm- seem to know their way by instinct. You, too--why, I bin on the plains all my life, and was no better than a baby that day; but you--why, you had Piegan in you, why, yes--"
He stopped short for a moment, checked by the look in her face, then went blindly on: "And you've got Blackfoot in you, too; and you just felt your way through the tornado and over the blind prairie like a, bird reaching for the hills. It was as easy to you as picking out a moverick in a bunch of steers to me. But I never could make out what you was doing on the prairie that terrible day. I've thought of it a hundred times. What was you doing, if it ain't cheek to ask?"
"I was trying to lose a life," she answered quietly, her eyes dwelling on his face, yet not seeing him; for it all came back on her, the agony which had driven her out into the tempest to be lost evermore.
He laughed. "Well, now, that's good," he said; "that's what they call speaking sarcastic. You was out to save, and not to lose, a life; that was proved to the satisfaction of the court." He paused and chuckled to himself, thinking he had been witty, and continued: "And I was that court, and my judgment was that the debt of that life you saved had to be paid to you within one calendar year, with interest at the usual per cent for mortgages on good security. That was my judgment, and there's no appeal from it. I am the great Justinian in this case."
"Did you ever save anybody's life?" she asked, putting the bottle of cordial away, as he filled his glass for the third time.
"Twice certain, and once dividin' the honours," he answered, pleased at the question.
"And did you expect to get any pay, with or without interest?" she added.
"Me? I never thought of it again. But yes--by gol, I did! One case was funny, as funny can be. It was Ricky Wharton over on the Muskwat River. I saved his life right enough, and he came to me a year after and said, You saved my life, now what are you going to do with it? I'm stony broke. I owe a hundred dollars, and I wouldn't be owing it if you hadn't saved my life. When you saved it I was five hunderd to the good, and I'd have left that much behind me. Now I'm on the rocks, because you insisted on saving my life; and you just got to take care of me.' I 'insisted!' Well, that knocked me silly, and I took him on--blame me, if I didn't keep Ricky a whole year, till he went north looking for gold. Get pay--why, I paid! Saving life has its responsibilities, little gal."
"You can't save life without running some risk yourself, not as a rule, can you?" she said, shrinking from his familiarity.
"Not as a rule," he replied. "You took on a bit of risk with me, you and your Piegan pony."
"Oh, I was young," she responded, leaning over the table, and drawing faces on a piece of paper before her. "I could take more risks, I was only nineteen!"
"I don't catch on," he rejoined. "If it's sixteen or--"
"Or fifty," she interposed.
"What difference does it make? If you're done for, it's the same at nineteen as fifty, and vicey-versey."
"No, it's not the same," she answered. "You leave so much more that you want to keep, when you go at fifty."
"Well, I dunno. I never thought of that."
"There's all that has belonged to you. You've been married, and have children, haven't you?"
He started, frowned, then straightened himself. "I got one girl--she's east with her grandmother," he said jerkily.
"That's what I said; there's more to leave behind at fifty," she replied,
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