THE SNOWSHOE TRAIL
Author of "The Strength of the Pines," "The Voice of the Pack," etc.
With Frontispiece by Marshall Frantz
A.L. Burt Company Publishers, New York Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.
Copyright 1921, By Little, Brown, and Company. All rights reserved
To Agnes, of the South—this story of the North
The Snowshoe Trail
It was not the first time that people of the forest had paused on the hill at twilight to look down on Bradleyburg. The sight always seemed to intrigue and mystify the wild folk,—the shadowed street, the spire of the moldering church ghostly in the half-light, the long row of unpainted shacks, and the dim, pale gleam of an occasional lighted window. The old bull moose, in rutting days, was wont to pause and call, listen an instant for such answer as the twilight city might give him, then push on through the spruce forests; and often the coyotes gathered in a ring and wailed out their cries over the rooftops. More than once the wolf pack had halted here for a fleeting instant; but they were never people to linger in the vicinity of men.
But to-night it was not one of these four-footed wild folk—this tall form—that emerged from the dark fringe of the spruce forest to gaze down at the town. But he was none the less of the forest. Its mark was upon him; in the silence of his tread, the sinuous strength of his motions; perhaps it lay even in a certain dimness and obscurity of outline, framed by the thickets as he was, that was particularly characteristic of the wild denizens of the woods. But even in the heavy shadows his identity was clear at once. He was simply a woodsman,—and he held his horse by the bridle rein.
The long file of pack horses behind him halted, waiting for their master to go on. He stood musing, held by the darkened scene below him. Hard to read, in the deepening shadows, was the expression on his bronzed face. It revealed relief, of course, simple and heartfelt joy at the sight of his destination. Men do not wander over the blazed trails of the North Woods and not feel relief at the journey's end. There was a hint of fatigue in his posture, the horses' heads were low; and the shacks below meant food and rest. But there was also a pensiveness, a dreamy quietude in his dark eyes that revealed the greater sweep of his thoughts.
He had looked down on Bradleyburg on many previous occasions, but the scene had never impressed him in quite this way before. Already the shadows had crept out from the dark forests that enclosed the little city and had enfolded it in gloom: the buildings were obscured and the street was lost, and there was little left to tell that here was the abode of men. A dim light, faint as the glowing eyes of the wild creatures in the darkness, burned here and there from the window of a house: except for this the wilderness would have seemed unbroken.
"It's getting you down," the man muttered. "It's closing you in and smothering you—just as it has me."
Perhaps, had his words carried far enough in the silence, the townspeople in the houses below wouldn't have understood. His horses, sniffing at his knees, did not seem to hear. But the woodsman could not have made himself any clearer. Words never come easy to those that dwell in the silences of the North. To him it seemed that the twilight was symbolic of the wilderness,—stealing forth with slow encroachments until all of the little town was enfolded within itself. It was a twilight city, the little cluster of frame shacks below him. It could be brave and gay enough in the daylight, a few children could play in its streets and women could call from door to door, but the falling darkness revealed it as it was,—simply a fragment that the dark forests were about to claim. The day was done in Bradleyburg; as in the case of many of the gold camps of the North the wilderness was about to take back its own.
It had had a glorious past, this little city lost in the northern reaches of the Selkirks. In the man's own boyhood it had been one of the flourishing gold camps of the North; and miners had come from all over the continent to wash the gravel of its streams. In all directions up the hillside the tents and shacks had stretched, dance halls were gay, freighters plied along the winding road to the south. The man's mother had been one of the first women in the camp; and one of the last to go. The mines were fabulously rich; tens of thousands in dust were often taken in a single day by a lone miner, fortunes were made and lost at the gambling tables, and even the terrible winters could not triumph over the gold seekers. But in a little while the mines gave out, one terrible winter night the whole town was destroyed by fire, and now that the miners were drifting to other camps, few of the shacks were rebuilt. Of the six thousand that had been, scarcely threescore remained. A few trappers ran their lines out from the town, a few men had placer claims in the old diggings, two or three woodsmen made precarious livings as guides for such wealthy men as came to hunt moose and caribou, and Bradleyburg's course was run. The winter cold had triumphed at last, and its curse was over the city from October till June. The spruce forest, cleared away to make room for the cabins, had sprung up again and was steadily marching toward the main street of the town.
But the man on the hilltop felt no regret. Except for a few memories of his young days he had no particular fondness for the little cluster of shacks. Long ago the wilderness had claimed him for its own; his home was the dark forest from which even now he was emerging. Bradleyburg was simply his source of supplies and his post office, the market for his furs. He had reached back and stroked the warm nose of his horse.
"Another half mile, old fellow," he said gently. "Then oats—rice and meat for me at Johnson's—and oats—honest-to-goodness oats—for you. What you think about that, eh, Mulvaney? Then show a little speed this last half-mile."
The man swung on his horse, and even the cattlemen of the plains would have found something to admire in the ease and grace with which his body slipped down into the saddle. The horse moved forward, the pack animals pushed on behind him. A few minutes later they had swung down into the still street of the town. Tired as he was, his hands were swift and strong as he unpacked the animals and tied them in the bar back of Johnson's,—the little frontier inn. As always, after the supper hour, a group of the townsmen were gathered about the hotel stove; and all of them spoke to him as he entered. He stood among them an instant, warming his hands.
They had few words at first. The lesson of silence is taught deeply and sure in the North. The hostess went to her kitchen to order the man's supper, the townsmen drew at their pipes.
"Well, Bill," one of them asked at last, "how's everything with you?"
It was not the usual how-d'ye-do of greeting. The words were spoken in actual question, as if they had special significance.
The man straightened, turning sober eyes. "Nothing startling yet," he replied.
"In after supplies?"
"Yes—and my mail."
There was a long pause. The conversation was apparently ended. Bill turned to go. A stranger spoke from the other side of the fire.
"How's Grizzly River?" he asked. Bill turned to him with a smile.
"Getting higher and higher. All the streams are up. You know that bald-faced bay of Fargo's?"
Fargo was the Bradleyburg merchant, and the stranger knew the horse,—one of the little band that, after the frontier custom, Fargo kept to rent. "Yes, I remember him."
"Well, I've got him this fall. You know he's a yellow cuss."
The stranger nodded. In this little community the dumb brutes were almost as well known as the human inhabitants. The meaning was wholly plain to him too, and the term did not apply to the horse's color. Yellow, on the frontier, means just one thing: the most damning and unforgivable thing of all. When one is yellow he gives up easily, he dares not lift his arms to fight, and the wilderness claims him quickly. "There's a little creek with a bad mudhole just this side of the ford," Bill went on. "All the horses got through but Baldy, and he could have made it easy if he'd tried. But what did he do but just sit back on his haunches in the mud, like an old man in a chair, his head up and his front legs in his lap, and just give up? Quite a sight—that horse sitting in the mud. I had to snag him out."
The others smiled, but none of them with the brilliance of the story-teller himself. The wilderness picture—with the cowardly horse sitting in the mud—was again before his eyes; and none of the hardship of the journey could cost him his joy in it. Bill Bronson was no longer just a dim form on the twilight hilltop. The lamplight showed him plain. In this circle of townspeople he was a man to notice twice.
The forests had done well by him. Like the spruce themselves he had grown straight and tall, but his form was sturdy too. There was a lithe strength about him that suggested the larger felines; the hard trails of the forest had left not a spare ounce of flesh on his powerful frame. His mold, except for a vague and indistinct refinement in his long-fingered and strong hands, was simply that of a woodsman,—sturdy, muscular, untiring. His speech was not greatly different from that of others: the woodspeople, spending many of the long winter days in reading, are usually careless in speech but rarely ungrammatical. His clothes were homely and worn. He wore a blue mackinaw over a flannel shirt, dark trousers and rubber boots: garments that were suited to his life.
But it was true that men looked twice into Bill Bronson's face. His features were rugged, now his mouth and jowls were dark with beard, yet written all over his sunburned face was a kindliness and gentleness that could not be denied. There was strength and good humor in plenty; and it was hard to reconcile these qualities with an unquestioned wistfulness and boyishness in his eyes. They were dark eyes, the eyes of a man of action who could also dream, kindly, thoughtful eyes which even the deep shadows of the forest had not blinded to beauty.
As he waited for his meal he crossed the dark road to the little frontier post office, there to be given his two months' accumulation of letters. He looked them over with significant anxiety. There were the usual forders from fur buyers, a few advertisements and circulars, and a small batch of business mail. The smile died from his eyes as he read one of these communications after another. Their context was usually the same,—that his proposition did not look good, and no investment would be made in a plan as vague as his. The correspondents understood that he had been grubstaked before without result. They remained, however, his respectfully,—and Bill's great hand crumpled each in turn.
Only one letter remained, written in an unknown hand from a far-off city; and it dropped, for the moment, unnoticed into his lap. His eyes were brooding and lifeless as he stared out the hotel window into the darkened street. There was no use of appealing again to the business folk of the provincial towns; the tone of their letters was all too decisive. The great plans he had made would come to nothing after all. His proposition simply did not hold water.
He had been seeking a "grubstake,"—some one to finance another expedition into the virgin Clearwater for half of such gains as he should make. In a few weeks more the winter would close down; the horses, essential to such a trip as this, had to be driven down to the gate of the Outside,—three hundred miles to the bank of a great river. He had time for one more dash for the rainbow's end, and no one could stake him for it. He had some food supplies, but the horse-rent was an unsolved problem. He could see no ray of hope as he picked up, half-heartedly, the last letter of the pile.
But at once his interest returned. It had been mailed in a far distant city in the United States, and the fine, clear handwriting was obviously feminine. He didn't have to rub the paper between his thumb and forefinger to mark its rich, heavy quality and its beauty,—the stationery of an aristocrat. The message was singularly terse:
My Dear Mr. Bronson:
I am informed, by the head of your provincial game commission, that you can be employed to guide for hunting parties wishing to hunt in the Clearwater, north of Bradleyburg. I do not wish to hunt game, but I do wish to penetrate that country in search of my fiance, Mr. Harold Lounsbury, of whom doubtless you have heard, and who disappeared in the Clearwater district six years ago. I will be accompanied by Mr. Lounsbury's uncle, Kenly Lounsbury, and I wish you to secure the outfit and a man to cook at once. You will be paid the usual outfitter's rates for thirty days. We will arrive in Bradleyburg September twentieth by stage. Yours sincerely, Virginia Tremont.
Bill finished the note, pocketed it carefully, and a boyish light was in his eyes as he shook fragrant tobacco into his pipe. "The way out," he told himself. "She won't care if I do my prospecting the same time."
His thought swung back to a scene of many Septembers before, of a camp he had made beside a distant stream and of a wayfarer who had eaten of his bread and journeyed on,—never to pass that way again. There had been one curious circumstance connected with the meeting, otherwise it might not have lingered so clearly in Bill's memory. It had seemed to him, at the time, that he had encountered the stranger on some previous occasion. There was a haunting familiarity in his face, a fleeting memory that he could not trace or identify. Yet nothing in the stranger's past life had offered an explanation. He was a newcomer, he said,—on his first trip north. Bill, on the other hand, had never gone south. It had been but a trick of the imagination, after all. And Bill did not doubt that he was the man for whom the girl sought.
The little lines seemed to draw and deepen about the man's eyes. "Six years—but six years is too long, for Clearwater," he murmured. "Men either come out by then, or it gets 'em. I'm afraid she'll never find her lover."
* * * * *
He went to make arrangements with Fargo, the merchant, about supplies. At midnight he sat alone in the little lobby of the inn; all the other townsmen had gone. The fire was nearly out; a single lamp threw a doubtful glow on the woodsman's face. His thoughts had been tireless to-night. He couldn't have told why. Evidently some little event of the evening, some word that he had not consciously noticed had been the impulse for a flood of memories. They haunted him and held him, and he couldn't escape from them.
His thought moved in great circles, always returning to the same starting point,—the tragedy and mystery of his own boyhood. He knew perfectly that there was neither pleasure nor profit in dwelling upon this subject. In the years that he had had his full manhood he had tried to force the matter from his thoughts, and mostly he had succeeded. Self-mastery was his first law, the code by which he lived; and mostly the blue devils had lifted their curse from him. But they were shrieking from the gloom at him to-night. In the late years some of the great tranquility of the forest had reposed in him and the bitter hours of brooding came ever at longer intervals. But to-night they held him in bondage.
It was twenty-five years past and he had been only a child when the thing had happened. He had been but seven years old,—more of a baby than a child. He smiled grimly as the thought went home to him that childhood, in its true sense, was one stage of life that he had missed. He had been cheated of it by a remorseless destiny; he had been a baby, and then he had been a man. There were no joyous gradations between. The sober little boy had sensed at once that the responsibilities of manhood had been thrust upon him, and he must make good. After all, that was the code of his life,—to take what destiny gave and stand up under it.
If the event had occurred anywhere but in the North, the outcome might have been wholly different. Life was easy and gentle in the river bottoms of the United States. Women could make a brave fight unaided; even fatherless boys were not entirely cheated of their youth. Besides, in these desolate wastes the code of life is a personal code, primitive emotions have full sway, and men to not change their dreams from day to day. Constancy and steadfastness are the first impulses of their lives; neither Bill nor his mother had been able to forget or to forgive. Here was an undying ignominy and hatred; besides—for the North is a far-famed keeper of secrets—the mystery and the dreadful uncertainty, haunting like a ghost. As a little boy he had tried to comfort his mother with his high plans for revenge; and she had whispered to him, and cried over him, and pressed him hard against her; and he had promised, over and over again, that when manhood came to him he would right her wrongs and his own. He remembered his pathetic efforts to comfort her, and it had never occurred to him that he had been in need of comforting himself. He had been a sober, wistful-eyed little boy, bearing bravely the whole tragic weight upon his own small shoulders.
The story was very simple and short,—nothing particularly unusual in the North. His father had come early to the gold fields of Bradleyburg, and he had been one of few that was accompanied by his wife,—a tender creature, scarcely molded for life in the northern gold camps. Then there had been Rutheford, his father's partner, a man whom neither Bill nor his mother liked or trusted, but to whom the elder Bronson gave full trust. Somewhere beyond far Grizzly River, in the Clearwater, Bronson had made a wonderful strike,—a fabulous mine where the gravel was simply laden with the yellow dust; and because they had prospected together in times past, Bronson gave his partner a share in it.
They had worked for months at their mine, in secret, and then Rutheford had come with pack horses into Bradleyburg, ostensibly for supplies. He had been a guest at the Bronson cabin and had reported that all was well with his generous partner. And the next night he had disappeared.
Weeks were to pass before the truth was known. Rutheford did not return to the mine at all; he was traced clear to the shipping point, three hundred miles below Bradleyburg. And he did not go empty-handed. The pack horses had not carried empty saddlebags. They had been simply laden with gold. And Bronson never returned to his family in Bradleyburg.
There was only one possible explanation. The gold had represented the season's washings—an amount that went into the hundreds of thousands—and Rutheford had murdered his benefactor and absconded with the entire amount. No living human being except Rutheford himself knew where the mine lay; there was no way for Bronson's family either to reclaim the body or to continue to work on the mine. Search parties had sought it in vain, and the lost mine of the Bronsons became a legend, a mystery that had grown constantly more dim in the passing years.
"When I am gone," little Bill would whisper to his mother, as she knelt crying at his feet, "I will go out and find my papa's mine. Also I will chase down Rutheford, and track him all over the world until I find him, and make him suffer for all he has done!"
This was a northern child, and his baby eyes would gleam and his features draw, and then his mother, half-frightened, would try to quiet him in her arms. This was the North, the land of primitive emotions, take and give, receive and pay, simple justice and remorseless vengeance; and when the storm swept over the cabin and the snow deepened at the doorway, those terrible, whispered promises seemed wholly fitting and true.
"I'll follow him till I die, and he and his wife and his son will pay for what he has done to us."
But the years had come and passed, and Rutheford had not been brought to justice nor the mine found. It was true that in a past summer Bill had traced his father's murderer as far as the shipping point, but there all trace of him was irremediably lost. Bill had made many excursions into the Clearwater in search of the lost mine, all without success. He had had but one guide,—a hastily scrawled map that Bronson had once drawn for his wife, to show her the approximate position of the claim. There had been no hope of avenging the murder, but with each recurring spring Bill had felt certain of clearing up the mystery, at least of finding the mine and its wealth and the bones of his father. But the last days of his mother, gone at last to her old home in the United States, could be made easier; but his own future would be assured. But now, at thirty-two, the recovery of the mine seemed as far distant as ever. Devoting his life to the pursuit of it, he had not prepared himself for any other occupation; he had only a rather unusual general education, procured from the Bradleyburg schools and his winter reading, and now he was face to face with economic problems, too.
He would try once more. If he did not win, the dream of his youth would have to be given over. He had devoted his days to it; such a force as was about to send Virginia Tremont into the wilderness in search of her lover had never come up in his life. He sat dreaming, the ashes cold in is pipe.
He was called to himself by a distinct feeling of cold. The fire was out, the chill of the early midnight hours had crept into the room. The man rose wearily, then strode to the door for a moment's survey of the sky.
For a breath he stood watching. His was the only lamp still glowing: only the starlight, wan and pale, lay over the town. The night wind came stealing, an icy ghost, up the dark street; and it chilled his uncovered throat. The moon rose over the spruce forest, ringed with white. Already the frost was growing on the roofs.
The ring around the moon, the nip in the air, the little wind that came so gently, yet with such sinister stealth, all portended one thing,—that the great northern winter was lurking just beyond the mountains, ready to swoop forth. Of course there would be likely time in plenty for a dash into Clearwater; yet the little breath of fall was almost gone. Far away, rising and falling faint as a cobweb in the air, a coyote sang to the rising moon,—a strange, sobbing song of pain and sadness and fear that only the woodsman, to whom the North had sent home its lessons, could understand.
Bill Bronson found that he had the usual number of difficulties to contend with, when arranging for the journey. He had to procure more horses for the larger outfit, and he was obliged to comb the town of them before he had enough. This was not an agricultural land, this wild realm of the Selkirks, and all of the animals were originally Indian stock,—the usual type of mountain cayuses with which most big-game hunters are acquainted. Some of them were faithful and trustworthy animals, but many were half-broken, many cowardly and vicious. On those he rented he took the risk; he would be charged on the books for all those that were not returned to their owners at Bradleyburg by October twentieth.
Bill knew perfectly that he would play in good fortune if the loss in horseflesh did not cost him most of the gains of the undertaking. Even the sturdy mustangs were not bred for traversing the trails of Clearwater. There were steep hills where a single misstep meant death, there were narrow trails and dangerous fords, and here and there were inoffensive-looking pools where the body of a horse may sink out of sight in less time than it takes to tell it. These were not the immense-chested moose or the strong-limbed caribou, natives of the place and monarchs of its trails. Besides, if the winter caught them on the higher levels, they would never eat oats in Johnson's barn again. The six feet of snow covers all horse feed, and the alternatives that remain are simply a merciful bullet from the wrangler's pistol or death of slow starvation.
Bill had certain stores in his cabins,—the long line of log huts from which he operated in the trapping season,—yet further supplies were needed for the trip. He bought sugar, flour, great sacks of rice—that nutritious and delightful grain that all outdoor men learn to love—coffee and canned goods past all description. Savory bacon, a great cured ham of a caribou, dehydrated vegetables and cans of marmalade and jam: all these went into the big saddle-bags for the journey. He was fully aware that the punishing days' ride could never be endured on half-rations. Camp equipment, rifles, shells and a linen tent made up the outfit.
He encountered real difficulty when he tried to hire a man to act as cook. Evidently the Bradleyburg citizens had no love for the mountain realms in the last days of fall. For the double wage that he promised he was only able to secure a half-rate man,—Vosper by name, a shifty-eyed youth from one of the placer mines, farther down toward the settlements.
Up to the time that he heard the far-off sound of their automobile struggling up the long hill, he had made no mental picture of his employers. He rather hoped that Mr. Kenly Lounsbury—uncle of the missing man—would represent the usual type of middle-aged American with whom he had previously dealt,—cold-nerved, likeable business men that came for recreation on the caribou trails. Virginia Tremont would of course be a new type, but he felt no especial interest in her. But as he waited at the door of the hotel he began to be aware of a curious excitement, a sense of grave and portentous developments. He did not feel the least self-conscious. But he did know a suddenly awakened interest in this girl who would come clear to these northern realms to find her lover.
The car was in evident difficulties. It was the end of the road: in fact, the old highway for the last three miles of its length was simply two ruts on the hillside. As soon as it came in sight Bill recognized the driver,—a man who operated a line of auto-stages, during the summer months, on the long river-road below. The next instant the car drew up beside the hotel.
To a man of cities there would have been nothing particularly unusual in this sight of a well-groomed man and girl in the tonneau of an automobile. The man was a familiar type, of medium size, precise, his outing clothes just a trifle garish; the girl trim and sweet-faced, and stylish from the top of her head to the soles of her expensive little boots. But no moment of Bill's life had ever been fraught with a greater wonder. None had ever such a quality of the miraculous. None had ever gone so deep.
He had not known many women, this dark man of the forests. He had seen Indian squaws in plenty, stolid and fat, he had known a few of the wives of the Bradleyburg men,—women pretty enough, good housekeepers, neatly clad and perhaps a little saddened and crushed by the very remorselessness of this land in which they lived. But there had been no girls in Bradleyburg to grow up with, no schoolday sweethearts. He had known the dark and desolate forests, never a sweetheart's kiss. His mother was now but a memory: tenderness, loveliness, personal beauty to hold the eyes had been wholly without his bourne. And he gazed at Virginia Tremont as a man might look at a celestial light.
If the girl could have seen the swift flood of worship that flowed into his face, she would have felt no scorn. She was of the cities, caste had hardened her as far as it could harden one of her nature, she was a thoroughbred to the last inch, used to flattery and the attentions of men of her own class; yet she would have held no contempt for this tall, bronzed man that looked at her with such awe and wonder. The surge of feeling was real in him; and reality is one thing, over the broad earth, that no human being dares to scorn. If she could have read deeper she would have found in herself an unlooked-for answer, in a small measure at least, to a lifelong dream, an ideal come true, and even she—in her high place—would have known a little whisper of awe.
All his life, it seemed to him, Bill had dreamed dreams—dreams that he would not admit into his conscious thought and which he constantly tried to disavow because he considered their substance did not exist in reality and thus they were out of accord with the realism with which he regarded life. On the long winter nights, when the snow lay endless and deep over the wilderness, and the terrible cold locked the land tight, he would sit in his trapping cabins, gazing into the smoke clouds from his pipe, and a tender enchantment would steal over him. He would have admitted to no human being those wistful and beautiful hours that he spent alone. He was known as a man among men, one who could battle the snows and meet the grizzly in his lair, and he would have been ashamed to reveal this dreamy, romantic side of his nature, these longings that swept him to the depths. He would go to his bed and lie for long, tingling, wakeful hours stirred by dreams that through no earthly chance could he conceive as coming true. Arms about him, lips near, beauty and tenderness and hallowed wakenings,—he had imagined them all in his secret hours.
In the deep realms of his spirit, it seemed to him, he had always known this girl,—this straight, graceful, lovely being with eyes of an angel and smile of a happy child. He had denied her existence, and here she was before him. Dark hair, waving and just a little untidy in the brisk wind, oval face and determined little chin, shadowing lashes and the exquisite contrasts of brunette beauty, a glimpse of soft, white flesh at the throat through her dark furs, smart tailored suit and dainty hands,—they were all known to him of old. For all the indifference and distance with which she looked at him and at the other townspeople, there was a world of girlish sweetness in her face. For all her caste, there was spiritual beauty and gracious charm in every facial line.
Curiously, Bill had no tinge of the resentment he might have expected that his dream should come half-true only to be shattered like the bubble it was. Because he had no delusions. He knew that he was only an employee, that a girl of her caste would ever regard him as the great regard those that serve them—kindly but impersonally—but for now he asked for nothing more. To him she was a creature past belief, a being from another world, and he was content to serve her humbly. He knew that he was of the forest and she of the cities of men, and soon they would take separate trails. His only comfort, heretofore, had been that his dream could not possibly come true, that the stuff of which it was made could never exist in the barren, dreadful, accursed place that was his home; but his nature was too big and true for any bitterness—to hate her because she was of a sphere so infinitely apart from his. But he wouldn't give her his love, he told himself, only his adoration. He wasn't going to be foolish enough to fall in love with a star! Yet he was swept with joy, for did not a whole month intervene before she would go back to her kind? Would she not be in his own keeping for a while, before she left him to his forests and his snows? Could he not see her across the fire, exult in her beauty, even aid her in finding her lost lover? His eye kindled and his face flushed, and he leaped to help her from the tonneau.
"I suppose you are Mr. Bronson?" she asked.
It was the same friendly but impersonal tone that he had expected, but he felt no resentment. His spirits had rallied promptly; and he was already partly adjusted to the fact that his joy in the journey would consist of the mere, unembellished fact of her presence.
"Yes. Of course this is Miss Tremont and Mr. Lounsbury. And just as soon as I pack the horses we'll be ready to start."
"I don't see why you haven't got 'em already packed," Lounsburg broke in. "If I ran my business in this shiftless way——"
Bill turned quickly toward him. He saw at once that other elements beside pleasure were to enter into this journey. The man spoke querulously, in a tone to which Bill was neither accustomed nor reconciled. If the girl had chosen to abuse him, he would have taken it meekly as his due; but it hadn't been his training to accept too many rude words from a fellow man. Yet, he remembered, he was the uncle of the girl's fiance, and that meant he was a privileged person. Besides, his temper had likely been severely strained by the rough road.
"Don't be ridiculous, Uncle," the girl reproved her. "How did he know exactly when we were going to arrive?" She tuned back to Bill. "Now tell us where we can get lunch. I'm starved."
"This country does—stimulate the appetite," Bill responded gravely. Then he showed them into the hotel.
He did a queer and sprightly little dance as he hurried toward the barn to get his horse.
Mr. Kenly Lounsbury, addressed affectionately as Uncle by his nephew's fiancee, was in ill humor as he devoured his lunch. In the first place he hadn't been getting the attention that he had expected. He was used to being treated with a certain deference, an abject humility was as fitting to a man of wealth and position. These northern people, however, didn't seem to know how to fawn. They were courteous enough, gave good service, but were inclined to speak to him as man to man,—an inference of equality that he regarded with great displeasure. His nephew's penniless fiancee, instead of himself, received all the attentions. Even the burly ruffian who was to guide them looked at her as if she were an angel.
The girl's voice rang over the table. "What's worrying you now, Uncle?" she asked.
Lounsbury looked up angrily. "What's worrying me now is—that I was such a fool as to come up into this country at the approach of winter. I don't like the place, and I don't like the people, and I abominate the service! Fancy eating on these great, thick plates for a month! I don't trust that big outlaw who is going to take us into the woods, either. Virginia, I have a distinct premonition of disaster."
"I rather think—that we'll be glad enough to have any china plates at all before we get back. And Mr. Bronson——"
"By the way, don't call him Mr. Bronson. You must learn to teach these beggars their places. Call him just Bronson. You'll get twice the service."
"Yes, Uncle. I was just going to say that he seemed very trustworthy. And it's hardly—well, the sporting thing to become discouraged so soon."
All through the journey so far this had been Lounsbury's one satisfaction—that he was doing the sporting thing. He knew perfectly that many of his business associates, many of his city's great whom he would have been flattered to know, came up into these gloomy forests every year in pursuit of big game; and he had heard of enduring hardships in a "sporting" way. But the term was already threadbare,—and the journey only commenced. The reason went back to the simple fact that Lounsbury was not a sportsman and never could be, that the red corpuscle content in his blood was wholly within the law.
Yes, Virginia felt at a disadvantage. This man's money had financed the trip; the fortune her own father had left had been almost depleted from reverses resulting from the war, and only the most meager sort of an income—according to her standards—was left. An orphan, she had always looked up to her fiance's uncle as her guardian and adviser; to see signs of discouragement in him now was a serious blow to her.
She had been somewhat surprised, in the first place, at his willingness to undertake the journey. He usually did not care to go so far from the White Way of his native city. The years had taught her to look for selfish motives behind his every action; certainly, she told herself, he was not of the unselfish mold of his nephew, Harold Lounsbury, the sweetheart of her youth, but in this particular case the expedition seemed entirely altruistic. She wondered now whether, after all her dreams, she would be forced to turn back before her purpose was accomplished.
They pushed back their chairs and started to leave the dining room. But it was not written that Kenly Lounsbury should reach the door without further annoyance. The waiter came shouting after them.
"Excuse me, Mister," he said kindly, holding out a quarter, "you left some money on the table."
Virginia laughed with delight and pocketed the coin herself, but Lounsbury's face became purple. These northern fools did not even know the meaning of a tip.
A few minutes later the pack train emerged through the little alley at the side of the hotel and halted in front. Bill Bronson led his own bay, Mulvaney, and the pack horses were tailed,—the halter rope of each tied to the tail of the horse in front, like elephants on parade. The idea was simply to keep them in formation till they were launched forth upon the trail. Vosper, the cook, led three horses with riding saddles at the end of the line.
Virginia had changed to outing clothes when she emerged into the street, leaving her tailored suit in charge of the innkeeper. Bill beamed at her appearance. "Miss Tremont," he began, doing the honors, "this is Mr. Vosper, who will cook the beans."
Both nodded, the girl smiling rather impersonally, and Bill noticed a horrifying omission. Vosper actually lacked the intelligence to remove his hat! The first instinct of the woodsman was to march toward him and inflict physical violence for such an insult to his queen, but he caught himself in time. Vosper, damaged in the encounter, would likely refuse to make the trip, upsetting all their plans.
But at that instant Bill forgot all about it. He suddenly noticed his employers' clothes. And he gazed in open-mouthed astonishment.
Both Virginia and Lounsbury were well gotten up according to their idea of proper garb for outdoor people. The man wore knickerbockers with gold stockings, riding habit and stock, the girl a beautifully tailored, fine-textured lady's riding habit. Both were immediately conscious of the guide's stare, and Virginia was aware of a distinct embarrassment. Something, somewhere, had evidently gone wrong. Lounsbury took refuge in hauteur.
"Well?" he demanded icily.
"Excuse me," Bill replied. "But those aren't—are those the clothes you're going to wear on the trip?"
"We're not parading for any one's benefit, I hope," was the sarcastic answer. "These are our rough clothes. Have you any objections to 'em?"
The guide's eyes puckered about the corners. "No, sir—not any objections—and they'd be all right for a day or two—until bad weather. But they are hardly the togs for the North. What you want is a good pair of slicker pants, both of you, and plenty of wool inside. Also a rubber coat of some kind, over sheepskin. In the first good snow those clothes would just melt away. If you'll come with me, I'll help you lay in some—and I'll pack 'em right on one of the horses for the time of need. There's a store adjoining the hotel——"
Virginia's confusion had departed, giving way to mirth, but Lounsbury was swollen and purple with wrath. "You—you——" he began. His face grew crafty. "I suppose you get a commission on every garment you sell."
Bill turned rather quiet eyes on the man; and for one little instant the craven that dwelt under Lounsbury's skin told him he had said one sentence too many; but he took heart when Bill looked away. "I'll keep what I've got on," he announced. "I'm not used to being told what kind of clothes to wear. Virginia, we'll start on."
"Wait just a minute, Uncle," the girl replied coolly. She turned to Bill. "You say these won't do at all?"
"They'll be torn off of you in the brush, Miss Tremont. And they won't turn the cold and the snow, either. This is the North, you know."
"Then I, for one, am going to take your advice. Please help me pick out the things, Bronson."
They left Lounsbury fuming in the road, and they had a rather enjoyable ten minutes searching through Fargo's stock for suitable garb. He selected a pair of slicker pants to wear over riding trousers, a coat lined with sheepskin, boy's size, and an awkwardly made but effective rubber coat for outside wear when the snow lay on the branches. It was not, Virginia decided, quite like choosing gowns at her modiste's; yet she was bright-eyed and laughing at the end.
Bill unhitched a pack, inserted the bundle of clothes, then bracing his boots against the horse's side pulled and tugged until the pack was right again. "You'll be glad you've got these things before the trip is done," he prophesied. He pointed to the North, an unlooked for sobriety upon his face.
Far against the horizon the clouds were beginning to spread, dark and gray and strange, over the northern hills. These were not the clouds of summer rains. They were the first banners of an enemy—a grim and dreadful foe who had his ramparts in the wilds, and his ambush laid for such feeble creatures as would dare to brave his fastness.
* * * * *
Bill Bronson gave his last directions, tightened the last cinch, and slipped his rifle into the saddle scabbard. "There's just one thing more—the choice of horses," he said. "Miss Tremont, of course you can take your pick." His tone was trustful. "Of course that will be all right with the other gentlemen—for you to have the best and safest horse."
Strangely, neither of the two men seemed to greet this suggestion with especial enthusiasm. "I want a good and a safe horse," Lounsbury said evenly. "Of course you must provide Miss Tremont with the same."
The woodsman sighed, ever so softly. He returned to Vosper, but if the latter had any suggestions to offer, the hard eyes of the guide caused him to think better of them. "I'm sorry to say that good horses—and safe horses—aren't to be found in the same animal up here," Bill explained. "If you have a good horse—one that'll take the mud and swim the river and stand up under the day's march—he'll likely have too much sense and spirit to be safe. He'll more than likely prance around when you get on and buck you off if he thinks he can get away with it. If you've got a safe horse, one that's scared to death of you, he won't be a good horse—a yellow cuss that has to be dragged through every mud-puddle. These are all Indian ponies, the best that can be got up here, but they're not old ladies' driving mares. Miss Tremont, the best horse in this bunch is my bay, Mulvaney—but nobody can ride him but me. I'd love to let you ride him if you could, and after a day or two I'd be willing for you to try it. But he doesn't know what fear is, and he doesn't know when to give up."
The man spoke soberly. It was wholly plain that Mulvaney was very dear to his heart. Men do not ride over the caribou trails without engendering strong feelings toward their mounts. Sometimes it is love. And not unusually it is detestation.
"That little black there—Buster, we call him—is the next best bet. It's an important choice you're making, and I'll tell you about him. He threw a man off once, and when I got him he was supposed to be the most vicious animal in the Northwest. The truth is, he hasn't got a vicious hair on his head. But he will try to get away, and he will dance a bit when you first get on and wheel in circles, and he's hard to catch in the morning. But he's sure-footed and courageous and strong; he'll take you up hills where the others can't go. The other two horses—Colt and Scotty—maybe seem safer, but they haven't got the life Buster has, nor the sense."
Bill reached to pet the black Buster, and the animal shied nervously. Virginia walked up to him and seized his bridle rein. In an instant she had vaulted into the saddle.
He wheeled and plunged at first, but soon she quieted him. In none too good humor, Lounsbury made his selection, and Vosper took what was left. Bill led his animal to Virginia's side.
"And are there any special instructions—before we start?" he asked.
"I can give you some special instructions," Lounsbury interrupted. "I didn't come up here to risk my life on a wild mustang in the mountains. I want you to pick easy trails—you can if you've just got energy enough to try."
A half-smile lingered a moment at the woodsman's lips. There was no choice of trails into Clearwater. He might have told Lounsbury that once they were out of sight of the roofs of the town they were venturing into the Unknown, a land where the caribou and the moose made trails through the forest but where men came not, a land of beasts rather than men, of primeval grandeur but savage might. "Have you any orders to give?" he asked the girl again.
"None. All I can do is tell you what I have already done—and then let you do the best you can. As you know, he left six years ago."
"I know. I saw him when he came through."
His eyes were fast upon her, and he saw her start. Her face seemed to flame. Stranger as he was to the hearts of women, Bill could understand. It was word of her lover, a message from the dead, and it moved her to the depths. But he couldn't understand the curious weight of depression that descended upon him.
"You did?" she answered quickly. "Was he all right—then?"
"All right, but that was just after he came to the North. I was camping on this side of Grizzly River, and he stayed to eat with me. He said his name was Lounsbury. I've never heard of him since."
The surface lights died in her eyes. "Then that doesn't help us much, except to know that he got that far, at least," she went on. "I'll tell you the whole thing, simply; maybe it will help you in deciding where to look for him. He was twenty-seven then—and he'd spent the fortune his father left him. He had to have more, and he came up here—to look for gold.
"Like many other men—before him," Bill interrupted gravely.
"He had some sort of definite plan—a vacation place to go—but he never told me what it was. He told me he was going into Clearwater. He had to have money—he was in debt and besides, he was engaged to marry me. The last word I ever heard of him was a note he wrote from Bradleyburg. I was just a girl then—and I've waited ever since. His friends, his aunt, sometimes even his uncle thought that he was dead. I've always felt, just as sure as I am here, that he was still alive—and in some trouble—and he couldn't come back. Mr. Lounsbury has hired detectives, but none of them have ever made a real search. He's financing this trip now—I've been able to persuade him at last to make one great try to find him. What's what we've hired you to do."
"It's a big order," Bill spoke softly. "There's just one thing we can do—to look into the country where he's gone and try to trace him. Every man who goes through Clearwater leaves his mark—there's not so many of them that their trails get crossed. My plan would be to watch for the camps he made—there'd be some sign of 'em yet—the trees he cut and the trails he blazed—and trace him clear to the Valley of the Yuga."
"And what is there?"
Bill's ears, trained to the silences of the woodland, caught the almost imperceptible tremor in her voice. "There are a few Indians who have their tents there—trappers and fishers—and I know how to get things out of 'em. If he's passed that way, they'd know about it. If he hasn't—something has happened to him—somewhere between here and there. He couldn't have remained out of sight so long."
"I want you to make every try. I can't bear—to give up."
Even this woodsman, knowing men to the heart but stranger to the world of women, knew that she meant what she said. She wasn't of the mold that gives up quickly. For all her cool exterior, her impersonal voice, the grace and breeding that went clear to her finger tips, he had some measure of understanding of an ardor and an intensity that might have been native to his own wilderness. Not often has girlhood love stood such a test as this,—six years of silence. He could not doubt its reality; no small or half-felt emotion could have propelled her forth into these desolate wastes. Her love had gone deep and it lived.
He answered very gravely and humbly, perhaps a even a little sadly: "I'll do everything I can to find him for you, Miss. I'll get your sweetheart for you if it can be done."
To Vosper and Lounsbury the two little sentences were just the assurances of a hired employee, half-felt and forgotten soon. But Virginia heard more clearly. She had a vague feeling that she was a witness to a vow. It seemed to her that there was the fire of a zealot in his dark eyes, and by token of some mystery she did not understand, this strong man had seen fit to give her his oath. She only knew that he spoke true, that by a secret law that only strong men know he would be as faithful to this promise as if he had given bond.
It was one of the decrees of the forest gods that no human being shall ride for five miles through the spruce forests of the Selkirks and fail to glean at least some slight degree of wilderness knowledge. Both Virginia and Lounsbury had been on horseback before. Virginia had ridden in the parks of her native city: long ago and far away a barefoot, ragged boy—much to be preferred to the smug and petulant man who now tried to hard to forget those humble days—had bestrode an old plow horse nightly on the way to a watering trough. But this riding had qualities all its own. There was no open road winding before them. Nor was there any trail,—in general or particular.
It was true that the moose had passed that way, leaving their great footprints in the dying grass. They had chosen the easiest pathway over the hills, and Bill was enough of a woodsman to follow where they led. Traversing the Clearwater was simply a matter of knowing the country and going in a general direction. Almost at once the evergreen thickets closed around them.
Virginia found that safety depended upon constant watchfulness. The evergreen branches struck cruel blows at her face, the spruce needles cut like knives. Sometimes the horse in front would bend down a young tree, permitting it to whip back with a deadly blow; she had to watch her knees in the narrow passages between the trunks; and the vines reached and caught at her. Sometimes the long-hanging limbs of the young trees made an impassable barrier, and more than once she was nearly dragged from the saddle. Shortly they came to the first fallen log.
Mulvaney, Bill's horse, took it lightly; and the man turned to watch the girl. Her horse stepped gingerly, making it without trouble. Then the guide saw fit to give her a little good advice.
"Kick Buster in the ribs just before you come to a log," he said. "He'll jump 'em then. It's a whole lot safer—if he tries to step over 'em he's apt to get his foot caught and give you a bad fall."
Virginia looked up coldly. She wasn't accustomed to being spoken to in quite this tone of voice, particularly by an employee. But she saw his sober eyes and immediately forgot her resentment. And she found an actual delight in bounding over the next obstruction.
"And there's one more thing," the guide went on. "I've ridden plenty of horses, and I've found there's only one way to handle 'em. I'm going to try a new way to-day, because there's a lady in the party. But if I'm tried too heavy——"
"Go ahead," the girl replied, smiling. "I suppose you mean—to swear."
"Not just to swear. Call names. These horses won't think we're present if we don't swear at 'em. And the only name they know refers to them is one that casts slurs upon their ancestry, but I'll try to avoid it to-day. I suppose I can make a roaring sound that sounds enough like it to fool the horses."
Virginia was naturally alert and quick-witted, and she needed both of these traits now. The guide helped her all he could, warning her of approaching thickets; yet the first hour was a grim initiation to the woods. Lounsbury was having even a more difficult time. He was afraid of his horse, to start with—and this is never an auspicious beginning. A frightened rider means a nervous, excited animal—and nervousness and excitement are unhealthy qualities in the Selkirks. Neither put trust in the other, and Lounsbury's cruel, lashing blows with the long bridle ends only made matters worse. The horse leaped and plunged, slipped badly on the hills, progressed awkwardly over the fallen logs, and flew into wild panic when he came to the quagmires. The man's temper fell far below the danger point in the first hour, and he was savage and desperate before half of the afternoon's ride was done.
The thickets were merciless. They knew him, those silent evergreens: they gave no welcome to his breed; and it seemed to him they found a hundred ways to plague him. Their needles scratched his face, their branches whipped into his eyes, the limbs dealt cruel blows at his side and the tree trunks wrenched at his knees. Worse still, they soon came to a hill that Bill advised they take on foot.
"Not me," Lounsbury shrilled. "I'll swear I won't walk any hills. You've provided a vicious horse for me, and I'm going to ride him up if it kills him. I didn't come out here to break my wind on mountains—and this horse needs the devil taken out of him, anyway."
It was in Virginia's mind that none of the emphatic but genial oaths that Bill had let slip from time to time grated on her half so much as this frenzied complaint of her companion, but she kept her thoughts to herself. But Bill turned with something dangerously like a smile.
"Suit yourself, of course," he replied. "I'm not asking you to walk up to spare your horse. Only, from time to time a horse makes a misstep on this hill—just one little slip—and spins down in backward somersets a thousand feet. If you want to try it, of course it's all right with me."
He swung off his horse, took the bridle reins of both his own animal and Virginia's, and started the long climb. And it was to be noticed that at the first steep pitch Lounsbury found that he was tired of riding and followed after meekly, but with wretched spirit.
They stopped often to rest; and from the heights Virginia got her first real glimpse of Clearwater. Her first impression was simply vast and unmeasured amazement at the dimensions of the land. As far as she could see lay valley after valley, range upon range, great forests of spruce alternating with open glades, dim unnamed lakes glinting pale blue in the afternoon sun, whole valleys where the foot of white man had never trod. She felt somewhat awed, scarcely knowing why.
Rivers gleamed, marshes lay yellow and somber in the sun, the dark forests stretched until the eyes tired; but nowhere were there any homes, any villages or pastures, not a blaze upon a tree, not the smoke of a camp fire. Bradleyburg was already obliterated and lost in the depths of the woodland. The silence was incredible,—as vast and infinite as the wilderness itself. It startled her a little, when they paused in their climb, to hear the pronounced tick of her wrist watch, even the whisper of her own breath. It was as if she had gone to an enchanted land, a place that lay in a great sleep that began in the world's young days, and from which the last reaches of time it could never waken.
Bill, standing just above her, pointed to a dash of golden across the canyon. "That's quivering asp," he told her, "turned by the frost. It seems good to see a bit of color in this world of dark woods. It's just like a flash of sunshine in a storm."
She listened with some surprise. The same detail had held her gaze, the same thought—almost the same simile—had come into her mind; but she had hardly expected to find a love of the beautiful in this bronzed forester. In fact, she found that a number of her preconceived ideas were being turned topsy-turvy.
Heretofore, it seemed to her, her thought had always dwelt on the superficialities rather than the realities of life. Her income was pitifully small according to her standards, yet she had never had to consider the question of food and shelter. She had known social success, love of beauty and of art, gayety and luxury; she had had petty discouragements and triumphs, worries and fears, but of the simple and primitive basis of things she took no cognizance. She had never dealt with essentials. They had always seemed outside her life.
Virginia had never lived in the shadow of Fear,—that greatest and most potent of realities. In truth she didn't know the meaning of the word. She had been afraid in her bed at night, she had been apprehensive of a block's walk in the twilight, but Fear—in its true sense—was an alien and a stranger. She had never met him in the waste places, seen him skulking on her trail through the winter snows, listened to his voice in the wind's wail. She didn't know the fear of which the coyotes sang from this hill, the blind and groping dread of an immutable destiny, the ghastly realization of impotence against a cruel and omnipotent fate. She hadn't ever learned about it. Living a protected life she didn't know that it existed. Food and shelter and warmth and safety had always seemed her birthright; about her house marched the officers of the law protecting her from evildoers; she lived in sight of great hospitals that would open their doors to the sick and injured and of charitable institutions that would clothe and feed the needy: thus the world had kept its bitter truths from her. But she was beginning to learn them now. She was having her first glimpse of life, life stripped of all delusion, stark and naked, the relentless reality that it was.
Fear was no stranger to these forests. Its presence, in every turn of the trail, filled her with awe. A single misstep, a little instant of hesitation in a crisis, might precipitate her a thousand feet down the canyon to her death. Dead trees swayed, threatening to fall; snow slides roared and rumbled on the far steeps; the quagmire sucked with greedy lips, the trail wandered dimly,—as if it were trying to decoy her away into the fastnesses where the wilderness might claim her. No one had to tell her how easy it would be to lose the trail, never to find it again. The forests were endless; there were none to hear a wanderer's cry for help. Wet matches, an accident to the food supplies, a few nights without shelter in the dismal forest,—any of these might spell complete and irrevocable disaster.
What had she known of Death? It was a thing to claim old people, sometimes to take even her young friends from their games among the flowers, but never had it been an acquaintance to hers. It was as wholly apart from her as the beings of another planet. But here she had come to the home of Death,—cold and fearful obliteration dwelling in every thicket. She found herself wondering about it, now, and dreading it with a new dread that she had never dreamed of before. The only real emotions she had ever known were her love for Harold Lounsbury and her grief at his absence: in these autumn woods she might easily learn all the others. She had never known true loneliness; here, except for her fiance's uncle with whom she had never felt on common ground and two paid employees—the latter, she told herself, did not count—she was as much alone as if she had been cast upon an uninhabited sphere. Already she knew something of the great malevolence that is the eternal tone of the wilderness, the lurking peril that is the North.
This new view influenced her attitude toward Bill. At first she had felt no interest in him whatever. Of a class that does not enter into a basis of equality with personal employees, to her he had seemed in the same category with a new house servant or chauffeur. He had been hired to do her service; he was either a bad servant or a good one, and from her he would receive kindness and patronage, but never real feeling or friendship, never more than an impersonal interest. But now that she knew something of the real nature of this expedition, affairs had taken a new turn. She suddenly realized that her whole happiness, her comfort, perhaps even life itself depended upon him. He was their protector, their source of supplies, their refuge and their strength as well.
The change did not mean that she was willing to enter upon a basis of comradeship with him—yet. But she did find a singular satisfaction in the mere fact of his presence. Here was one who could build a fire in the snow if need be, whose strong arms could cut fuel, who could manage the horses and bring them safe to the journey's end. His rifle swung in his saddle scabbard, his pistol belt encircled his waist; he knew how to adjust the packs, to peg the tent fast in a storm, to find bread and meat in the wilderness. She began to notice his lithe, strong figure as he sat in his saddle, the ease with which he controlled his horse and avoided the pitfalls in the trail. When the moose tracks were too dim for her eyes to see, he followed them with ease. When the horses bolted from some unfamiliar smell in the thicket, he was quick to round them up. The animals were swift in obedience when he spoke to them, but they were only terrified by Lounsbury's shrill shouts. He was cool of nerve, self-possessed, wholly self-reliant. She listened with an eager gladness to his soft whistling: simple classics that she herself loved but which came strangely from the lips of this son of the forest.
His eyes were bright and music was in his heart,—in spite of the dark menace of these northern woodlands. He was not afraid: rather he seemed to be getting a keen enjoyment out of the afternoon's ride. And the great truth suddenly came to her that in his strength lay hers, that she had entrusted her welfare to him and for the present, at least, it was secure. And she put her own cares away.
She would not have admitted that she had simply followed the example of the uncounted millions of women that had preceded her through the long reaches of the centuries that had found strength and peace in the shelter of a strong man's arm. She only knew that her mind no longer dwelt on danger, but it had marvelously opened to receive the image of the grim but ineffable beauty of this wild land through which she rode. She felt secure, and she began to have an intangible but ever-increasing delight in the wonderland about her.
* * * * *
Her first impression of the wilderness was that of a far-stretching desert, forgotten and desolate and unpeopled as the fiery stars. Likewise this was Lounsbury's view, as in the case of every tenderfoot who had preceded him, but Lounsbury would likely grow old and perish without discovering his mistake. Clear eyes are needed to read the secrets of the wild: the dark glass through which he gazed at the world had never cleared. Vosper had lived months and years in the North, but he had only hatred in his heart of these waste places and thus received no glory from them. But Virginia soon found out the truth.
"There's an old bull been along here not twenty minutes ago," Bill told her after they reached the hilltop. "The mud hasn't begun to dry in his tracks."
"An old bull?" she repeated. "Do cattle run here——?"
"Good Lord, there isn't a cow this side of the shipping point. I mean a bull moose. And he's a lunker, too. Maybe we'll catch a glimpse of him."
In her time she had talked enough to big-game hunters to have considerable respect for the moose, the largest of all deer tribe, and she thrilled a little at the thought that she was in his own range. She didn't get a sight of the great creature, but she began to pay more attention to the trail. Seeing her interest the guide began to read to her the message in the tracks,—how here a pair of otters had raced along in the dawn, stopping at intervals to slide; how a cow caribou and calf had preceded them at midday; how a coyote had come skulking the previous night. Beside a marsh he showed her the grim evidence of a wilderness tragedy,—the skeleton and feathers of a goose that a stalking wolf had taken by surprise. And once he showed her a great tear in the bark of a tree, nearly as high as she could reach on horseback.
"What is it?" she inquired.
"That's the sign that the lord of the manor has been along. Miss Tremont, did you ever hear of an animal called the grizzly bear?"
"Good heavens! A bear couldn't reach that high——"
"Couldn't? Some of these bears could scoop the man out of the moon!"
He showed her gray, crinkling hairs that had caught in the bark, explaining that mysterious wilderness custom of the grizzly of measuring his length on the tree trunks and leaving a mark, as high as he can bite, for all to see. According to many naturalists any bear that cannot bite an equal height immediately seeks a new range, leaving the district to the larger bear. But Bill confessed that he took the legend with a grain of salt. "I've seen too many bear families running around the woods together," he explained. "Pa bears, ma bears, and baby bears, all different sizes."
Virginia noticed that he spoke with great respect for that huge forest king, the grizzly; but she needn't have wondered. The great creature was worthy of it.
Perhaps the most intelligent wild animal that roams the American continent—on the same intellectual plane with the dog and elephant—he was also the most terrible. The truth has been almost established among the big-game hunters that wild animals, with few exceptions, even when wounded practically never charge or attack the hunter. But his imperial majesty, the grizzly, was first on the list of exceptions. He couldn't be entirely trusted. His terrible strength, his ferocity, most of all his courage won him a wide berth through this mountain land.
She began to catch glimpses of bird life,—saucy jays and glorious-colored magpies and grossbeaks. She cried out in delight when a pine squirrel scampered up a little tree just over her head, pausing to look down at these strange forms that had disturbed the cathedral silence of the tree aisles. And all at once Bill drew up his horses.
"Miss Tremont, do you like chicken?" he asked.
She was somewhat startled by the abrupt question, and her horse nosed Mulvaney's flanks before she drew him to a halt. It occurred to her that such a query scarcely came under the title of small talk, and she found some difficulty in shaping her answer. "Why yes," she agreed. "I'm very fond of chicken."
"It's pretty good, boiled with rice," the man went on gravely. "We'll have some for supper."
Virginia stared at him in blank amazement as he slipped down from the saddle and drew his automatic, small-calibered pistol from the holster. He stole forward into the flaking shadows of late afternoon, and at once the brush obscured him. Then he shot,—four times in succession.
She was wholly unable to guess what manner of target he had. Chickens were one thing that she found it hard to believe ranged in these northern woods. She felt certain that he had missed the first three shots, but she waited with considerable interest the result of the fourth. And soon he pushed through the thickets to her side.
In his hand he held a queer, gray, shapeless bundle that at first she could not recognize. Then she saw that they were gray grouse, almost the color of a Plymouth Rock hen, and there was not one, but four! He started to stuff them into his saddlebag. "Pretty lucky that time," he explained. "Got 'em through the neck. That leaves the meat clean——"
He seemed wholly matter-of-fact about the incident, but Virginia continued to stare at him in open-mouthed astonishment. "Four of them?" she cried.
"One apiece. There was five in the flock, but the other looked like a tough old hen. But don't look so amazed, Miss Tremont. They are fool hens—Franklin's grouse—and that means that they'll set all day and let you pepper at 'em. And with a little practice it's easy to get them in the neck pretty near every time."
He swung into the saddle, and they started forth upon the last hour of their day's journey. And Vosper made the only remark worth recording.
"When I was in Saskatchewan last year," he began in a thin, far-carrying voice, "I must 'a shot a thousand grouse and didn't miss one."
Virginia felt that she'd like to go back and shake him.
Now that they were upon the last hour of the day's ride Virginia began to be aware of the full measure of her fatigue. She was strained and tired from the saddle, her knees ached, her face burned from the scratch of the spruce needles. Ever she found it more difficult to dodge the stinging blows of the boughs, she was less careful in the control of her horse. From sheer exhaustion Lounsbury had stopped his complaints.
The first grayness of twilight had come, like mist, over the distant hills; but the peaks were still bathed in the sunset's glow. She began to have a real and overwhelming longing for camp and rest. And in the midst of her dejection the dark man in front threw her a smile.
"It goes hard at first," he told her gently. "But we'll soon be in camp—with a good fire. You'll feel better right away."
It had not been Virginia's way—or the way of Virginia's class—to depend upon their menials for encouragement; but, strangely, the girl felt only grateful.
She was hungry, chilled through by the icy breath of the falling night, half-sick with fatigue. The last mile seemed endless. And she was almost too tired to drag herself off the horse when they came to camp.
Back among the dark spruce, by the edge of a fast-flowing trout stream, Bill had built a cabin,—one of the camps of his trap line. It was only a hut, perhaps ten feet long by eight wide; it had no floor and but slabs for a roof, no window and no paneled interior; only the great logs, lifted one upon another; yet no luxurious hotel that had been her lodging for the night on previous journeys had ever seemed to her such a haven; none had ever been such a comfort to her tired spirit. Her heart flooded with joy at the sight of it. Bill smiled and held the door open wide.
"Sit down on that busted old chair," he advised. "I'll have a fire for you in a minute."
A rusted camp stove had been erected in the cabin and she watched, fascinated, his quick actions as he built a fire. With astonishingly few strokes he cut down a pitch-laden spruce, trimmed the branches, and soon came staggering into camp with a four-foot length of the trunk across his brawny back, grunting like a buffalo the while. This he split and cut into lengths suitable for the stove. With his hunting knife he cut curling shavings, and in a moment a delicious warmth began to flood the cabin. The girl's body welcomed it, it stole into her tissues and buoyed up her spirits. She opened her hands to it as to a beloved friend.
It was only warmth,—the exhalation from a rusted stove in a crudely constructed cabin. Yet to Virginia it was dear beyond all naming. In one little day on that dreadful trail she had, in some measure at least, got down to essentials; the ancient love of the fire, implanted deeply in the germ plasm, was wakened and recalled. It was not a love that she had to learn. The warp and woof of her being was impregnated with it; only in her years of ease she had forgotten what an ancient friend and comfort it was.
In her past life Virginia had never known the real meaning of hunger. Her meals were inadvertent; she had them more from a matter of habit than a realization of bodily craving. But curiously, for the last hour her thought had dwelt on food,—the simple, material substance with no adornment. The dainty salads and ices and relishes that had been her greatest delight in her city home hadn't even come into her mind, but she did remember, with unlooked-for fondness, potatoes and meat. And now she watched Vosper's supper preparations with an eagerness never known before.
Although Vosper had been hired for cook, Virginia noticed that Bill kept a watchful eye over the preparation of the food; and she felt distinctly grateful. She saw the grouse in the process of cleaning, and the red stains on Vosper's hands did not repel her at all. She beheld the smooth cascade of the rice as Bill poured it into the boiling water, her own hand opened a can of dehydrated vegetables that was to give flavor to the dish. She gave no particular thought to the fact that the hour was revealing her not as an exquisite creature of a higher plane, but simply a human animal with an empty stomach. If the thought did come to her she didn't care. She only knew she was hungry,—hungry as she had never dreamed she could be in all her days.
The white flesh of the grouse was put with the rice, one bird after another, until it seemed impossible that four human beings could consume them all. In went the seasoning, spaghetti and the vegetables, and not even Lounsbury railed at the little handful of ashes that floated on top the mixture. And Virginia exulted from head to toes when Bill passed the tin plates.
It was well for Virginia's peace of mind that no one told her how much she ate. In her particular set it wasn't a mark of breeding to eat too heartily; and an entire grouse, at least two cups of the stew and several inch-thick slices of bread with marmalade would have been considered a generous meal even for a harvest-hand.
As soon as the meal was done she felt ready for bed. Bill ventured into the darkness with an ax over his shoulder, but not until his return did she understand his mission. His arms were heaped with fragrant spruce boughs. These he laid on the cot in the cabin, spreading the blankets he had provided for her over them. He placed the pillow and turned down the blanket corners.
"Any time you like," he told her gently. "Vosper is putting up the linen tent for we three men, and I'll build a fire in front of it to keep us warm while we smoke. You must be tired."
She smiled wanly. "I am tired, Bronson," she confessed. "And thank you, very much."
She didn't notice the wave of color that flowed into his bronzed cheeks and the strange, jubilant light in his eyes. She only knew that she was warm and full-fed, and the wind would bluster and threaten around her cabin walls in vain.
For a long hour after Virginia was asleep Bill sat by the fireside alone, his pipe glowing at his lips. Lounsbury had gone to his blankets, Vosper was splitting wood for the morning's fire. As often, late at night, he was held and intrigued by the mystery about him,—the little, rustling, whispered sounds of living things in the thicket, the silence and the darkness and the savagery.
He knew perfectly the tone and spirit of these waste places: their might, their malevolence, their sadness, their eternal beauty. He hated them and yet he loved them, too. He had felt their hospitality, yet he knew that often they rose in the still night and slew their guests. They crushed the weak, but they lent their own strength to the strong. And Bill felt that he was face to face with them as never before.
He was going to plumb their secret places,—not only for the missing man, but for the lost mine he had sought so long. He must not only fight his own battles, but he had in his charge a helpless, tender thing of whom his body must be a shield. Never, it seemed to him, had he met the wilderness night in just this mood,—threatening, vaguely sinister, tremulous and throbbing with impending drama.
"You've got something planned for me, haven't you?" he asked his forest gods. "You've got your trap all set, and you're going to test me as never before. And Heaven give me strength to meet that test!"
At that instant he started and looked up. The stars were obscured, the firelight died swiftly in unfathomable darkness, the tops of the spruce were lost in gloom. A flake of wet snow had fallen and struck his hand.
* * * * *
All night long the storm raged over the spruce forest; lashing rain that beat and roared on the cabin roof, then the unutterable silence of falling snow. The camp fire hissed and went out, the tent sagged with the load, the horses were wet and miserable in the glade below. Virginia slept fitfully, waking often to listen to the clamor of the storm, then falling into troubled dreams. Bill lay at the tent mouth for long hours, staring into the darkness.
In the morning the face of the wilderness was changed. Every bough, every spruce needle, every little grass blade had its load of snow. The streams were higher, a cold and terrible beauty dwelt in the forest. The sky was still full of snow, dark flakes against the gray sky, and the clouds were sullen and heavy. Bill rose before daylight to build the fire at the tent mouth.
This was no work for tenderfeet, striking a blaze in the snow-covered grass. But Bill knew the exact course to pursue. He knew just how to lay his kindling, to protect the blaze from the wind, to thrust a fragment of burning candle under the shavings. Soon the blaze was dancing feebly in the darkness. He piled on fuel, and with Vosper's aid started breakfast preparations.
When the meal was nearly ready he knocked at the cabin door. "Yes?" Virginia called.
Bill hesitated and stammered. He didn't exactly know whether or not he was stepping outside the bounds of propriety. "Would you like to have me come in and build a fire for you to dress by?" he asked.
Virginia considered. Few were the eyes, in her short days, that had beheld her in bed; but to save her she could not think of a reason why this kind offer should not be accepted. She was down to the realities; besides, the room was disagreeably chilly. She snuggled down and drew the blankets about her throat.
"Come ahead," she invited.
With scarcely a glance at her he entered and built a fire, and a few minutes later he brought in her steaming breakfast. The door was open then, and she saw the snow without.
Her face was a little pale and her voice was strained when she spoke again. "What does it mean?" she asked.
"What? The snow?"
"Yes. Does it mean that winter has come?"
"No. When winter does come, there never is any question about it—and it really isn't due for another month. If I thought it was real winter I'd advise going back. But I think it's just an early snowfall—to melt away the first warm day."
"But isn't there danger—that by going farther we'd be snowed in?"
"Even if winter should close down, and we find the snow deepening to the danger point, it wouldn't be too late to turn back then. Of course we've got to keep watch. A week or so of steady snow might make these mountains wholly impassable—the soft, wet snow of the Selkirks can't even be manipulated with snowshoes to any advantage. We'd simply have to wait till the snow packed—which might not be for months. But we can go on a few days, at least, and ride safely back through two feet of snow or more. Of course—it depends on how badly you want to go on."
"I want to go—more than anything in the world."
"Then we will go on. I've already sent Vosper to get the horses."
He turned to his work. Lounsbury, his mood still unassuaged, called from his bed. "Bring me my breakfast here, Bronson," he commanded. "Lord, I've had a rotten night. This bed was like stones. I can't compliment you on your accommodations."
Bill brought him his breakfast, quietly and gravely. "They're not my accommodations," Bill replied. "They're God Almighty's. And I made it just as comfortable for you as I can."
"I think you could have provided folding cots, anyway. I've a great mind to turn back." He looked into the snow-filled sky. "By George, I will turn back. There's no sense in going any farther in this wild goose chase. It's a death trip, that's all it is—going out in this snow. Tell Miss Tremont that we're starting back."
Bill stood straight and tall. "I've already talked that over with Miss Tremont," he answered quietly. "She has given the order to go on."
The fleshy sacks under Lounsbury's eyes swelled with wrath. "She has, has she? I think she's already told you that I'm financing this trip, not her, and I've told you so too. I'm doing the hiring and giving the orders."
"In that case, it's your privilege to order me to turn back, and of course I will obey. You will owe me, however, for the full thirty days."
For a moment a spectator would have eyed Lounsbury with apprehension; to all appearances he had swollen past the danger mark and was about to explode. "You'd hold me up, would you—you—you—I'd like to see you get it."
Bill eyed him long and grimly. There was a miniature flake of fire in each of his dark eyes and a curious little quiver, vaguely ominous, in his muscles. There was also a grim determination in the set of his features. "I'd get it all right," he assured him. Then his voice changed, friendly and soft again. "But you'd better talk it over with Miss Tremont, Mr. Lounsbury. The snow is likely only temporary. I'll see that you turn back before it gets too deep for safety."
They folded the tent and packed the horses, and shortly after eight Bill led the way deeper into the forest. The snow-swept trees, the white glades between, the long line of pack horses following in the wake of the impassive form of Bill made a picture that Virginia could never forget. And ever the snow sifted down upon them, ever heavier on the branches, ever deeper on the trail.
If the record of the wild things had been clear in yesterday's mud it was an open book to-day. Everywhere the trail was criss-crossed with tracks. In that first mile she saw signs of almost every kind of living creature that dwelt in this northern realm. Besides those of the larger mammals, such as bear and moose and caribou, she saw the tracks of those two savage hunters, the wolverine and lynx. The latter is nothing more nor less than an overgrown tomcat, except for a decorative tuft at his ears, and like all his brethren soft as flower petals in his step; but because he mews unpleasantly on the trail he has a worse reputation than he deserves. But not so with the wolverine. Many unkind remarks have been addressed to him, but no words have ever been invented—even the marvelous combinations of expletives known to the trapper—properly to describe him. The little people of the forest—the birds in the shrubbery and the squirrels in the trees and the little digging rodents in the ground—fear him and hate him for his stealth and his cunning. Even the cow caribou, remembering his way of leaping suddenly from ambush upon her calf, dreads him for his ferocity and his strength; and the trapper, finding his bait stolen from every trap on his line, calls down curses upon his head. But for all this unpopularity he continues to prosper and increase.
Virginia saw where a marten and a squirrel had come to death grips in the snow: the tracks and an ominous red stain told the story plainly. The squirrel had attempted to seek safety in flight, but the marten was even swifter in the tree limbs than the squirrel himself. The little animal had made a flying leap to the ground,—a small part of a second too late. The marten, Bill explained, were no longer numerous. Fur buyers all over the world were paying many times their weight in gold for the glossy skins.
"Marten can catch squirrel, but fisher can catch marten," is an old saying among the trappers; and as they rode Bill told her some of his adventures with these latter, beautiful fur bearers. The fisher, it seemed, hunted every kind of living creature that he could master except fish. When the names of the animals were passed around, Bill said, the otter and the fisher got their slips mixed, and the misnomer had followed them through the centuries. He showed her the tracks of the ermine and, now that they were reaching the high altitudes, the trail of the ptarmigan in the snow. Mink, fox, and coyote had hunted each other gayly through the drifts, and all three had hunted the snowshoe rabbit and field mouse; a half-blind gopher had emerged from his den to view the morning and had ducked quickly back at the sight of the snow; an owl had snatched a Canada jay from her perch and had left a few clotted feathers when the daylight had driven him from his feast.
The rigors of the day's travel were constantly increasing. The wet snow steaming on their sides sapped the vitality of the horses; to keep them at a fair pace required a constant stream of nervous energy on the part of their riders. Virginia found it almost impossible to dodge the snow-laden branches. They would slap snow into her face, down her neck and into her sleeves: it sifted into her eyes and hair and chilled her hands until they ached. The waterproof garments that she wore were priceless after the first mile.
Lounsbury had an even more trying time. His clothes soaked through at once, and the piercing, biting cold of the northern fall went into him. He was drenched, shivering, incoherent with wrath when they stopped for noon. He was not enough of a sportsman to take the consequences of his arrogance in good spirit. He didn't know the meaning of that ancient law,—that men must take the responsibility of their own deeds and with good spirit pay for their mistakes. He didn't know how to smile at the difficulties that confronted him. That ancient code of self-mastery, of taking the bitter medicine of life without complaint clear to the instant of death was far beyond his grasp. "You've made everything just as hard for us as you could," he stormed at Bill. "If I ever get back alive I'll get your guide's license snatched away from you if I never do another thing. You don't know how to guide or pick a trail. You brought us out here to bleed us. And you'll pay for it when I get back."
Bill scarcely seemed to hear. He went on with his work, but when the simple meal was over and the packing half done, he made his answer. He drew a cloth sack from one of the packs, swung it on his shoulder, and stepped over to Lounsbury's side.
"There's a couple of things I want to tell you," he began. He spoke in a quiet voice, so that Virginia could not hear.
Lounsbury looked up with a scowl. "I don't know that I want to hear them."
"I know you don't want to hear 'em, but you are going to hear 'em just the same. I want to tell you that first I'm doing everything any human being can to make you more comfortable. You can't take Morris chairs along on a pack train. You can't take electric stoves, and you can't boss the weather. It's your own fault you didn't provide yourself with proper clothes. And I'm tired of hearing you yelp."
Lounsbury tried to find some crushing remark in reply. He only sputtered.
"I can only stand so much, and then it makes me nervous," the guide went on, in a matter-of-fact tone. "I don't care what you do when you get back to town. I just don't want you pestering me any more with your complaints. I've stood a lot for Miss Tremont's sake—she probably wouldn't like to see anything happen to you. But just a few more little remarks like you made before lunch, and you're apt to find yourself standing in mud up to your knees in one of these mud holes—wrong end up! And that wouldn't be becoming at all for an American millionaire."
Lounsbury opened his mouth several times. The same number of times he shut it again. "I see," he said at last, clearly.
"Good. And here's some clothes of mine. They're not handsome, and they'll not fit, but they'll keep you dry."
He dumped the larger portion of his own waterproofs on the ground at Lounsbury's feet.
In the two days that followed, the pack train crossed the divide into Clearwater. From now on the little rivers, gathering headway as they coursed down into the ravines, flowed into the Grizzly and from thence into the great Yuga, far below. The party had crossed ridge on ridge, hill on hill that were a bewilderment to Virginia; they had gained the high places where the marmots whistled shrill and clear at the mouth of their rocky burrows and the caribou paced, white manes gleaming, in the snow; they had seen a grizzly on the far-away slide rock; they had lost their way and found it again; walked abrupt hillsides where the horses could scarcely carry their packs, descended into mysterious, still gullies, forded creeks and picked their way through treacherous marshes; and made their noon camp on the very summit of a high ridge. The snow was deeper here—nearly eighteen inches—but the gray clouds were breaking apart in the sky. Apparently the storm was over, for the time being at least.