TERROR OF THE TOTEM
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #10 (1948) and published by Magazine Enterprises
IT WAS Shaggy's low whine of warning that brought Sergeant Jeffrey Fox up short in the little clump of aspens beyond the Porcupine River. He unfastened the flap of his service holster and tightened a big hand on the butt of his revolver.
Someone was coming from the clumsy sound of it, a wounded animal or a man in haste. Sergeant Fox, who was nicknamed le reynard rouge—the red fox—by the Crees and the half-breeds of the Arctic Circle, drew into the shadows with a word of caution to the big malamute dog.
It was a girl, a frightened girl, whose long black hair tumbled about her shoulders as she ran. Her eyes were wild in her white face.
The Red Fox stepped from the aspens and reached out for the girl. She whirled, a scream on her lips, a knife flashing in the summer sunlight.
"Easy," cautioned the Mountie, clasping her wrist. "I want to help, not hurt you."
"Ohhh," sobbed the girl. “A poleeceman! Merci, merci! I thank le bon Dieu!!”
The sergeant patted her shoulder comfortingly. "It's all right. You're safe enough. Shaggy, return to the post. Now, young lady ... suppose you tell me what this is all about!"
The huge dog trotted ahead, sniffing the air currents for a scent of danger. The Mounted Policeman led the girl to a flat-topped rock, made her sit down.
"The people of the totem," she whispered. "They have struck again! Whenever we weel not geeve them our best furs, our trappings for the winter season, they take a man or a woman and lash them to the totem pole ..."
She bent her head, her fingers spread across her white face.
"I've heard of them," murmured the sergeant grimly. “They leave their victim to die in the cold ... sometimes helping death along with a thrown knife or ax ..."
"Oui, oui! Yes, that is how they do eet! Thees time, they know that our people at the Porcupine 'ave much gold from the Yukon prospectors. They say thee gold belong to them. They come take eet from us. We fight—they take man—lash heem to totem ..."
She sobbed brokenly. Sergeant Jeffery Fox felt his mouth grow straight and grim, his eyes steely-hard. He asked suddenly, “They took a man? Who? Can you lead me to him?"
The girl nodded, choking back her sobs. "I weel—lead you—to heem!”
As he followed her swaying buckskin skirt the Red Fox loosened his service revolver. Back at Fort McPherson, the commandant had told him grimly, "It's some new kind of sect, Jeff. They call themselves The Terrors of the Totem. Use superstition and fear in the minds of the Indians and the 'breeds and French-Canadians to get what they want ... up here a man loses contact with the outer world. He believes in a lot of silly things he wouldn't ordinarily."
Sergeant Fox had nodded. He knew the strange beliefs of the northland dwellers: of the howling Wendigo; of the sea woman, Sedna, who controls the fish and the animals on which the people depend for food; of the Great Tungak and Asiaq. Small wonder that the Terrors of the Totem could make such a fearful impression on the trappers and traders!
Now the girl slid down a pine-needle covered embankment, turned and looked at him. "He ees beyond the bend. I—I cannot look on heem again."
The Mountie went forward. He saw the multi-colored totem pole lifting up from the green foliage of the forest. The grim, oddly grotesque faces leered and grimaced as the shadows moved across their faces, caused by a beam of sunlight that shivered under a breeze-swung branch. And a man hung in blood-soaked ropes, a dozen knife-cuts in his body, his clothes torn and ripped, his face a mask of agony...
Sergeant Jeffrey Fox leaned on the newly made grave. His eyes were hard and merciless. A corner of his tight-drawn mouth twitched. He said to the white-cheeked girl, "We'll head back to your home. I'll leave you off, then go into the woods after the fiends that tortured him!”
"No need for that, sergeant," said a hoarse voice behind them.
The Mountie whirled, saw five grinning men stepping from the shadow of the blue spruces. One of them carried a long ax, he wore a knit stocking cap on his head, a dark blue pea jacket. His beard and mustache were bushy. He chuckled, "You 'ave save us work, mountie. Merci, merci! Ahh! Do not reach for thee gun. Scar 'ave hees gun train' on you, oh?"
Fox slid his eyes to the green-shirted man with the stubble on his cheeks who was holding a revolver aimed at the sergeant's middle. The woodsman's pants were tucked into hiking boots. A hunting knife was thrust into the gun-belt that usually carried his gun.
The black-bearded man chuckled, "Oha! Eet ees zee pretty Babette Gabrielle! Zee only child of ze factor at ze Point! You weel make a nice hostage, ma belle Babette, n'est ce pas?”
Sergeant Fox moved forward, then halted as the revolver covering him lifted threateningly. "You devils!" he snapped. "You'll never get away with this! Even if you kill me, one of the Force will track you down"
"Relax, sergeant, We weel spleet up after we get thee gold from the factor and hees men. We already 'ave beau-coup money an' furs. Weeth thee gold—hola! We 'ave enough to quit, to go away into Alaska, and hide—where thee Mounties cannot come to take us! Now, eef you weel walk ahead of us ... both of you ... we weel take you to our leetle cabin ... while a message is sent to ze pretty Babette's papa!"
The moonlight came through the little window of the log cabin. Sergeant Jeffrey Fox writhed and twisted as the moonlight shone down on the sleeping form of Babette Gabrielle. It highlighted the sunken shadows of her cheeks, the dark, fear-etched hollows beneath her eyes. Even in her sleep, she sobbed.
There had been no reply from the settlement where her father lived, although a whole day and a night had passed. The five men were irritable, their nerves raw. They quarreled among themselves, cursed and almost fought. The girl they kept alive as hostage; they were keeping him alive, Jeff knew, because they were afraid that another Mountie might show up. In which case, Jeff would serve as a hostage to force him to let them escape. He had worked over his bonds for hours, ever since they had tied him up, in full uniform and left him lie, alone and unfed, on the cot.
He worked on into the night, rubbing a strand of the gut string against the edge of the cot. But the gut was tough. It would not break. He fell asleep, exhausted from the effort.
It was dawn when he opened his eyes. The five men had the girl by the wrists, were dragging her from the cabin. Scarface was snarling, "Your papa say oui!—he geeve ze gold. But ze men who breeng eet try to keel us in ambush! For zat—you die, you an' ze mountie!"
The girl screamed, but Scarface and the man with the black-beard dragged her out of the cabin. Through the window, Jeff saw a totem pole looming big and grotesque against the spruce trees of the forest.
The other three men turned to Jeff, dragged him roughly off the bed, sliced his ropes with a knife. One of them shoved a gun in his back. "Marche, mountie!"
And Jeff whirled. His left hand went out straight, pointed by a hard fist that took the man with the gun in the face. His right hand slid across in front of his waist, gripped the gun and hipped it free. He ducked under a flaming gun, found the trigger of his captured gun. It bucked once, twice, spitting lead and flame.
The man who had fired at him twisted side ways, a surprised look on his paling face. His knees buckled and he went down. The third man was cursing, fumbling for his own gun and lifting it just as another lead bullet ripped into his chest.
Then the Mountie was running for the door, was through and out into the open space beyond the cabin.
Babette was lashed to the towering totem pole. In her clinging sweater and buckskin skirt, she made a pathetic, drooping figure.
Scarface and the black-bearded man were nowhere in sight. As Jeff ran toward the girl hanging in the ropes on the totem pole, he knew they were somewhere close, probably in hiding, waiting for him to get to the girl so both would make perfect targets for hidden guns.
He was wrong. Scarface and the black-beard were too impatient for that. They came roaring up from a little gully, Black-beard with a long, woodsman's ax in his hands.
The mountie slid to a halt, fists clenched. They came fast, were on top of him almost before he could turn to face them.
He ducked under a sweeping blow from the keen-edged ax. He heard Blackbeard swear as the ax slipped from his fingers. Then Jeff was closing on Scarface, slamming his brutal face with punishing, pile-driving blows, driving him reeling, back and back.
Scarface fought hard. His ham-like hands made hard battering rams that clubbed the Red Fox's shoulders and head. But the Mountie was well-trained. They teach boxing at Regina to the scarlet-clad riders of the northlands. And a blundering ox was no match for him, big though Scarface was.
It was a right-cross that caught Scarface on the point of the chin and dropped him at Jeff's feet. As he fell, Jeff heard Babette scream in fright-whirled to see the ax-edge coming down at his face!
If that ax landed, it would cut his head in two! The Mountie had no time to think. He acted instinctively, with the natural agility of the born fighting man. Instead of evading the ax, he went in under it, right at the man who whirled it. The handle slammed down over a shoulder, paralyzing it. But by that time, Sergeant Jeffrey Fox was inside Black beard's guard, was battering him with hard fists, catching him on mouth and jaw and face.
It was over in a few more seconds. Black-beard lay stretched out beside the scar-faced man, unconscious. The mountie cut Babette free of the totem pole, smiling. "Easy, now. Easy. It's all over. There won't be any more totem terrors. Two of them are dead; and I'll be taking the other three down-river to Fort McPherson."
Babette stifled her sobs, brushed her hair back with a trembling hand. "Oui," she smiled. “Yes, the totem terror is over, thanks to you. Already the forest air smells sweeter, cleaner ... than it has in ages.”