Book 8 in the Garden City series brings us to “The Challenge of the North” by James B. Hendryx. Originally published in the 10 January 1922 issue of Short Stories pulp magazine, the cover art by Edgar Franklin Wittmack hails from the 10 July 1922 edition.
While the tale is one of the Frozen North timberland, the cover fails entirely to accurate depict the content within (yet again). Why the publishers couldn’t sit down and match up covers more accurately, or, make an attempt, is bewildering. But, that is neither here, nor there….
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. As expected, Hendryx delivers a beautiful wilderness tale wrapped up with a business venture (I tend to despise business stories, but it was essential to the overall plot), romance, deceit, and, a murder!
Putting the entire plot into this blog would take a hell of an undertaking, but, I will do the best possible….
The story opens with Oskar Hedin, head clerk of the fur department, owned by John McNabb, in Terrace City (while such a city does exist, in British Columbia, it is not clear whether this is the same as referred to in the story, or if Hendryx merely invented it). He is in love with McNabb’s daughter, Jean, whom has just turned 21. John had promised her a fur on her 21st, and sends her over to Oskar for a proper choosing. Oskar selects a baum marten and then deftly switches it out with a Russian sable worth tens of thousands of dollars (she is to return it the next day for proper fitting, at which time, he’ll swap it back to the original fur). Why? Well, Jean is to go about the town with John’s competitor, one Fred Orcutt, a banker, and his wife, as well as Jean’s boyfriend, Wentworth, a former Captain, honorably discharged after The Great War ended.
Wentworth notices that the fur is not a baum marten, and sneaks back into the department store and steals the cheaper fur. Then while at Orcutt’s home, he swaps the furs in the coat closet, and begs to be excused home as he left his wallet behind. Under this veil, he escapes with the sable.
Meanwhile, Oskar is waiting outside the theatre. He wants to see the effect of the sable on Jean. However, the fur was not given to Jean to please her; rather, it was placed there to tempt Mr. Orcutt’s wife, whom is a fur connoisseur, but refuses to buy from McNabb on general principle that they are sworn business enemies. To his horror, the sable is not wrapped about her. It’s the wrong fur!
In mortal terror, he flees the scene, returns to the store, has the guard open up and rummage through the fur department. Both furs are gone! Realizing his fate, to be sacked and possibly jailed, he awaits the inevitable. When business opens, he confesses to John, and while John believes him, he places him under arrest.
Oskar punches out the policeman and escapes, only to be recaptured shortly thereafter and jailed.
The scenario is later explained to Jean, and she cries that Oskar is innocent, and could never have stolen the fur. John is surprised by her passion, but elated because he both likes the young man and, secretly, had hoped that Oskar and Jean might one day wed. Before Wentworth had materialized, she had been interested in Oskar.
Oskar then finds that someone has posted for his $10,000 bail. Returning home, he is confronted by John, whom lays out a plan to confirm Wentworth as crook, schemer, and, nail his competitor, Orcutt, to the wall.
Under the imbecile guise of Sven Larsen, Oskar is sent north to God’s Lake (a real location). He shaves off his mustache and grows a beard, and plays the part of bumbling idiot and retained only for his superior knowledge of furs. This part he plays well, much to the ire of Wentworth, whom arrives days later, after being hired on by John McNabb.
John’s game is deep, and a win / win. He sends Wentworth to investigate the area for business feasibility in setting up a mill, transport of trucks and pulp-wood, etc. This Wentworth does, but sends the data to John and his enemy, Orcutt. Why the duplicity on Wentworth’s part? Pure strategy, to ensure he keeps a paying job, either way. John (lyingly) let slip that his contract expired in August, but it expires in July. Hence, if John never figures out the slip, Orcutt gets the deal and Wentworth gets a permanent position, with higher pay. If John does figure out his reportedly erroneous slip, then, well, Wentworth still is paid for his time, etc.
On arriving at God’s Lake, Wentworth is all-a-steam about his Indian guide, whom he beat with a whip. One RCMP Corporal Downey, whom happens to be on the scene, mentions that that particular Indian is bad medicine, and will kill him for his assault, but never fear, when he does, Downey will capture the Indian. Wentworth sluffs off the casual remark and is all arrogance over the matter.
He fails entirely to recognize Oskar for anything but a Scandinavian moron, and Wentworth goes on to fulfill his tasks. The appointed time in July arrives, John fails to make an appearance, and Orcutt shows up instead with the funds and signs the paperwork. Believing that he now owns the entire pulp-wood area, he and Wentworth strike out immediately to investigate the area.
Half hour later, the lawyer that signed over the project is approached by the erstwhile dimwit Oskar, whom suddenly is anything but, and wishes to sign the documents. The lawyer, Cameron, is flabbergasted, and states that the papers were already signed at noon, as agreed. Oskar notes that that is impossible, as it is only 11:30am. Cameron fails to see, and suspects a cruel joke. But, on viewing his own pocket watch, realizes that Orcutt’s watch was still set an hour later (clearly indicating the Terrace City is fictional in this story and could not possibly be WEST of God’s Lake, but must be EAST). Ergo, the contract is null and void.
Oskar, appointed representative, signs the new contract and hands over the funds.
Long story short, Orcutt is in financial ruin. He failed to recognize the trick for a whole month, in which time, he had already built up a trucking fleet and extracted the wood. John buys him out at 10 cents on the dollar, a nefariously crude offer that Orcutt himself had once earlier offered John, in spite!
Wentworth eventually arrives, and sneers in their faces that John and Jean are fools. He thinks the Orcutt deal is still on! They finally inform him it is not, after Cameron finally arrives on the scene and explains what happened in the past month that Cameron spent traipsing over Canada trying to track them down. He returns the $350,000 to Wentworth, as Orcutt’s rep, to return to Orcutt.
Oskar finally has his say and beats the man senseless, then digs in the man’s coat pocket for a key to the man’s trunk, and has a local Indian open the trunk and bring them the stolen Russian sable.
Wentworth is permitted to leave. Realizing he is bust, he makes to keep and steal the money, but his only avenue of escape is neither by road or trail. He must take to the river by canoe. This he does, and here, Hendryx enters the dark, horrific world of blood-and-thunder. He sends our whipped Indian after him. He chases him down the river and slowly catches up. All a game to him, our Indian, one Cree half-breed name of Alex Thumb, mentally tortures Wentworth, informing that he will kill him, then cut out his heart, and maybe eat it. Taxed by the threats, Wentworth flees.
Alex Thumb laughs, and allows him a four-hour lead, then pursues. Wentworth is eventually found, mired in muck and trying to stay alive holding onto a spruce. Extracted, Wentworth is tied to the same tree, and Alex eventually shoots him.
Far away, RCMP Downey hears the shot. He was already on Thumb’s trail, knowing he would kill Wentworth. An expert tracker himself, he finds the man shot dead, his heart dug out, and Alex roasting the $350,000 over a fire-pit.