E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE WHITE DESERT
COURTNEY RYLEY COOPER
Author of The Cross-Cut, Etc.
Frontispiece by Anton Otto Fischer
[Frontispiece: It was easier to accept the more precipitous journey, straight downward.]
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers ————— New York Copyright, 1922, by Little, Brown, And Company All Rights Reserved Published February, 1922 Reprinted March, 1922
To a Certain Little Gray Lady
who seems to like everything
I write, the main reason being
the fact that she is
THE WHITE DESERT
It was early afternoon. Near by, the smaller hills shimmered in the radiant warmth of late spring, the brownness of their foliage and boulders merging gradually upward to the green of the spruces and pines of the higher mountains, which in turn gave way before the somber blacks and whites of the main range, where yet the snow lingered from the clutch of winter, where the streams ran brown with the down-flow of the continental divide, where every cluster of mountain foliage sheltered a mound of white, in jealous conflict with the sun. The mountains are tenacious of their vicious traits; they cling to the snow and cold and ice long after the seasons have denoted a time of warmth and summer's splendor; the columbine often blooms beside a ten-foot drift.
But down in the hollow which shielded the scrambling little town of Dominion, the air was warm and lazy with the friendliness of May. Far off, along the course of the tumbling stream, turbulently striving to care for far more than its share of the melt-water of the hills, a jaybird called raucously as though in an effort to drown the sweeter, softer notes of a robin nesting in the new-green of a quaking aspen. At the hitching post before the one tiny store, an old horse nodded and blinked,—as did the sprawled figure beside the ramshackle motor-filling station, just opened after the snow-bound months of winter. Then five minutes of absolute peace ensued, except for the buzzing of an investigative bottle-fly before the figure shuffled, stretched, and raising his head, looked down the road. From the distance had come the whirring sound of a motor, the forerunner of a possible customer. In the hills, an automobile speaks before it is seen.
Long moments of throbbing echoes; then the car appeared, a mile or so down the canon, twisting along the rocky walls which rose sheer from the road, threading the innumerable bridges which spanned the little stream, at last to break forth into the open country and roar on toward Dominion. The drowsy gasoline tender rose. A moment more and a long, sleek, yellow racer had come to a stop beside the gas tank, chortled with greater reverberation than ever as the throttle was thrown open, then wheezed into silence with the cutting off of the ignition. A young man rose from his almost flat position in the low-slung driver's seat and crawling over the side, stretched himself, meanwhile staring upward toward the glaring white of Mount Taluchen, the highest peak of the continental backbone, frowning in the coldness of snows that never departed. The villager moved closer.
"Yep." The young man stretched again. "Fill up the tank—and better give me half a gallon of oil."
Then he turned away once more, to stare again at the great, tumbled stretches of granite, the long spaces of green-black pines, showing in the distance like so many upright fronds of some strange, mossy fern; at the blank spaces, where cold stone and shifting shale had made jagged marks of bareness in the masses of evergreen, then on to the last gnarled bulwarks of foliage, struggling bravely, almost desperately, to hold on to life where life was impossible, the dividing line, as sharp as a knife-thrust, between the region where trees may grow and snows may hide beneath their protecting boughs and the desolate, barren, rocky, forbidding waste of "timber line."
Young he was, almost boyish; yet counterbalancing this was a seriousness of expression that almost approached somberness as he stood waiting until his machine should be made ready for the continuance of his journey. The eyes were dark and lustrous with something that closely approached sorrow, the lips had a tightness about them which gave evidence of the pressure of suffering, all forming an expression which seemed to come upon him unaware, a hidden thing ever waiting for the chance to rise uppermost and assume command. But in a flash it was gone, and boyish again, he had turned, laughing, to survey the gas tender.
"Did you speak?" he asked, the dark eyes twinkling. The villager was in front of the machine, staring at the plate of the radiator and scratching his head.
"I was just sayin' I never seed that kind o' car before. Barry Houston, huh? Must be a new make. I—"
"Camouflage," laughed the young man again. "That's my name."
"Oh, is it?" and the villager chuckled with him. "It shore had me guessin' fer a minute. You've got th' plate right where th' name o' a car is plastered usually, and it plum fooled me. That's your name, huh? Live hereabouts—?"
The owner of the name did not answer. The thought suddenly had come to him that once out of the village, that plate must be removed and tossed to the bottom of the nearest stream. His mission, for a time at least, would require secrecy. But the villager had repeated his question:
"Don't belong around here?"
"I? No, I'm—" then he hesitated.
"Thought maybe you did. Seein' you've got a Colorado license on."
Houston parried, with a smile.
"Well, this isn't all of Colorado, you know."
"Guess that's right. Only it seems in th' summer thet it's most o' it, th' way th' machines pile through, goin' over th' Pass. Where you headed for?"
"The same place."
"Over Hazard?" The villager squinted. "Over Hazard Pass? Ain't daft, are you?"
"I hope not. Why?"
"Ever made it before?"
"And you're tacklin' it for the first time at this season o' th' year?"
"Yes. Why not? It's May, isn't it?"
The villager moved closer, as though to gain a better sight of Barry Houston's features. He surveyed him carefully, from the tight-drawn reversed cap with the motor goggles resting above the young, smooth forehead, to the quiet elegance of the outing clothing and well-shod feet. He spat, reflectively, and drew the back of a hand across tobacco-stained lips.
"And you say you live in Colorado."
"I didn't say—"
"Well, it don't make no difference whether you did or not. I know—you don't. Nobody thet lives out here'd try to make Hazard Pass for th' first time in th' middle o' May."
"I don't see—"
"Look up there." The old man pointed to the splotches of white, thousands of feet above, the swirling clouds which drifted from the icy breast of Mount Taluchen, the mists and fogs which caressed the precipices and rolled through the valleys created by the lesser peaks. "It may be spring down here, boy, but it's January up there. They's only been two cars over Hazard since November and they come through last week. Both of 'em was old stagers; they've been crossin' th' range for th' last ten year. Both of 'em came through here lookin' like icicles 'an' swearing t' beat four o' a kind. They's mountains an' mountains, kid. Them up there's th' professional kind."
A slight, puzzled frown crossed the face of Barry Houston.
"But how am I going to get to the other side of the range? I'm going to Tabernacle."
"They's a train runs from Denver, over Crestline. Look up there—jest to the right of Mount Taluchen. See that there little puff o' smoke? That's it."
"But that'd mean—."
"For you t' turn around, go back to Denver, leave that there chariot o' your'n in some garage and take the train to-morrow mornin'. It'd get you t' Tabernacle some time in the afternoon."
"When would I get there—if I could make the Pass all right?"
"In about five hours. It's only fourteen mile from th' top. But—"
"And you say two other cars have gone through?"
"Yep. But they knowed every crook an' turn!"
For a long moment, the young man made no reply. His eyes were again on the hills and gleaming with a sudden fascination. From far above, they seemed to call to him, to taunt him with their imperiousness, to challenge him and the low-slung high-powered car to the combat of gravitation and the elements. The bleak walls of granite appeared to glower at him, as though daring him to attempt their conquest; the smooth stretches of pines were alluring things, promising peace and quiet and contentment,—will-o-the-wisps, which spoke only their beauty, and which said nothing of the long stretches of gravelly mire and puddles, resultant from the slowly melting snows. The swirling clouds, the mists, the drifting fogs all appeared to await him, like the gathered hosts of some mighty army, suddenly peaceful until the call of combat. A thrill shot through Barry Houston. His life had been that of the smooth spaces, of the easy ascent of well-paved grades, of streets and comforts and of luxuries. The very raggedness of the thing before him lured him and drew him on. He turned, he smiled, with a quiet, determined expression of anticipation, yet of grimness.
"They've got me," came quietly. "I'm—I'm going to make the try!"
The villager grunted. His lips parted as though to issue a final warning. Then, with a disgruntled shake of the head, he turned away.
"Ain't no use arguin' with you Easterners," came at last. "You come out here an' take one look at these here hills an' think you can beat Ole Lady Nature when she's sittin' pat with a royal flush. But go on—I ain't tryin' t' stop you. 'Twouldn't be nothin' but a waste o' breath. You've got this here conquerin' spirit in your blood—won't be satisfied till you get it out. You're all th' same—I 've seen fellows with flivvers loaded down till th' springs was flat, look up at them hills an' figure t' get over an' back in time for supper. So go on—only jis' remember this: once you get outside of Dominion an' start up th' grade, there ain't no way stations, an' there ain't no telephones, ner diner service, ner somebody t' bring y' th' evenin' paper. You're buckin' a brace game when y' go against Hazard Pass at a time when she ain't in a mood f'r comp'ny. She holds all th' cards, jis' remember that—an' a few thet ain't in th' deck. But jis' th' same," he backed away as Barry stepped into the racer and pressed a foot on the starter, "I'm wishin' you luck. You'll need it."
"Thanks!" Houston laughed with a new exhilaration, a new spirit of desire. "It can't do any more than kill me."
"Nope." The villager was shouting now above the exhaust of the powerful engine, "But it shore can take a delight in doin' that! S' long!"
"So long!" The gears meshed. A stream of smoke from the new oil spat out for a second. Then, roaring and chortling with the beginning of battle, the machine swept away toward the slight turn that indicated the scraggly end of the little town of Dominion, and the beginning of the first grade.
The exhilaration still was upon Barry Houston. He whistled and sang, turning now and then to view the bright greenness of the new-leafed aspens, to watch the circling sallies of the jaybirds, or to stare ahead to where the blues and greens and purples of the foliage and rocks merged in the distance. The grade was yet easy and there was no evidence of strain upon the engine; the tiny rivulets which ran along the slight ruts at each side of the road betokened nothing to him save the slight possibility of chains, should a muddy stretch of straightaway road appear later on. But as yet, that had not occurred, and Barry was living for the moment.
The road began to twist slightly, with short raises and shorter level stretches winding among the aspens and spruces, with sudden, jagged turns about heavy, frowning boulders whose jutting noses seemed to scrape the fenders of the car, only to miss them by the barest part of an inch. Suddenly Barry found himself bending forward, eyes still on the road in spite of his half-turned head, ears straining to catch the slightest variation of the motor. It seemed to be straining,—yet the long, suddenly straight stretch of road ahead of him seemed perfectly level; downhill if anything. More and more labored became the engine. Barry stopped, and lifting the hood, examined the carbureter. With the motor idling, it seemed perfect. Once more he started,—only to stop again and anxiously survey the ignition, test the spark plugs and again inquire into the activities of the carbureter. At last, reassured, he walked to the front of the machine, and with the screwdriver pried the name plate from its position on the radiator and tossed it into the tumbling, yellow stream beside the road. Then he turned back to the machine,—only to stop suddenly and blink with surprise. The road was not level! The illusion which comes to one at the first effort to conquer a mountain grade had faded now. A few feet away was a deserted cabin, built upon a level plot of ground and giving to Barry a chance for comparison, and he could see that his motor had not been at fault. Now the road, to his suddenly comprehending eyes, rose before him in a long, steady sweep of difficult grades, upward, steadily upward, with never a varying downfall, with never a rest for the motor which must climb it. And this was just the beginning! For Barry could see beyond.
Far in the distance he could make it out, a twisting, turning, almost writhing thing, cutting into the side of the mountain, a jagged scar, searing its way up the range in flights that seemed at times to run almost perpendicular and which faded, only to reappear again, like the trail of some gigantic cut-worm, mark above mark, as it circled the smaller hills, cut into the higher ones, was lost at the edge of some great beetling rock, only to reappear once more, hundreds of feet overhead. The eyes of Barry Houston grew suddenly serious. He reached into the toolbox, and bringing forth the jack, affixed the chains, forgetting his usually cheery whistle, forgetting even to take notice when an investigative jay scrambled out upon a dead aspen branch and chattered at him. The true meaning of the villager's words had come at last. The mountains were frowning now, instead of beckoning, glowering instead of promising, threatening instead of luring. One by one he locked the chains into place, and tossing the jack once more into the tool-box, resumed his place at the wheel.
"A six per cent. grade if it's an inch!" he murmured. "And this is only the beginning. Wonder what I'm stepping into?"
The answer came almost before the machine had warmed into action. Once more the engine labored; nor was it until Barry had answered its gasping plea by a shift to second gear that it strengthened again. The grade was growing heavier; once Barry turned his head and stared with the knowledge that far beneath him a few tiny buildings dotted what seemed to be a space of ground as level as a floor. Dominion! And he had barely passed outside its environs!
He settled more firmly in his seat and gripped hard at the steering wheel. The turns had become shorter; more, Barry found himself righting the machine with sudden jerks as the car rounded the short curves where the front wheels seemed to hang momentarily above oblivion, as the chasms stretched away to seemingly bottomless depths beneath. Gradually, the severity of the grade had increased to ten, to twelve and in short pitches to even eighteen and twenty per cent! For a time the machine sang along in second, bucking the raises with almost human persistence, finally, however, to gasp and break in the smooth monotony of the exhaust, to miss, to strain and struggle vainly, then to thunder on once more, as Houston pressed the gears into low and began to watch the motormeter with anxious eyes. The mercury was rising; another half-hour and the swish of steam told of a boiling radiator.
A stop, while the red, hissing water splattered from the radiator cock, and the lifted hood gave the machine a chance to cool before replenishment came from the murky, discolored stream of melted snow water which churned beneath a sapling bridge. Panting and light-headed from the altitude, Barry leaned against the machine for a moment, then suddenly straightened to draw his coat tighter about him and to raise the collar about his neck. The wind, whistling down from above, was cold: something touched his face and melted there,—snow!
The engine was cool now. Barry leaped to the wheel and once more began his struggle upward, a new seriousness upon him, a new grimness apparent in the tightness of his lips. The tiny rivulets of the road had given place to gushing streams; here and there a patch of snow appeared in the highway; farther above, Barry could see that the white was unbroken, save for the half-erased marks of the two cars which had made the journey before him. The motor, like some refreshed animal, roared with a new power and new energy, vibrant, confident, but the spirit was not echoed by the man at the wheel. He was in the midst of a fight that was new to him, a struggle against one of the mightiest things that Nature can know, the backbone of the Rocky Mountains,—a backbone which leered above him in threatening, vicious coldness, which nowhere held surcease; it must be a battle to the end!
Up—up—up—the grades growing steadily heavier, the shifting clouds enveloping him and causing him to stop at intervals and wait in shivering impatience until they should clear and allow him once more to continue the struggle. Grayness and sunshine flitted about him; one moment his head was bowed against the sweep of a snow flurry, driving straight against him from the higher peaks, the next the brilliance of mountain sunshine radiated about him, cheering him, exhilarating him, only to give way to the dimness of damp, drifting mists, which closed in upon him like some great, gray garment of distress and held him in its gloomy clutch until the grade should carry him above it and into the sun or snow again.
Higher! The machine was roaring like a desperate, cornered thing now; its crawling pace slackening with the steeper inclines, gaining with the lesser raises, then settling once more to the lagging pace as steepness followed steepness, or the abruptness of the curve caused the great, slow-moving vehicle to lose the momentum gained after hundreds of feet of struggle. Again the engine boiled, and Barry stood beside it in shivering gratitude for its warmth. The hills about him were white now; the pines had lost their greenness to become black silhouettes against the blank, colorless background Barry Houston had left May and warmth and springtime behind, to give way to the clutch of winter and the white desert of altitude.
But withal it was beautiful. Cold, harassed by dangers that he never before knew could exist, disheartened by the even more precipitous trail which lay ahead, fighting a battle for which he was unfitted by experience, Houston could not help but feel repaid for it all as he flattened his back against the hot radiator and, comforted by the warmth, looked about him. The world was his—his to look upon, to dissect, to survey with the all-seeing eyes of tremendous heights, to view in the perspective of the eagle and the hawk, to look down upon from the pinnacles and see, even as a god might see it. Far below lay a tiny, discolored ribbon,—the road which he had traversed, but now only a scratch upon the expanse of the great country which tumbled away beneath him. Hills had become hummocks, towering pines but blades of grass, streams only a variegated line in the vast display of Nature's artistry. And above—
Barry Houston looked upon it with dazzled eyes. The sun had broken forth again, to stream upon the great, rounded head of Mount Taluchen, and there to turn the serried snows to a mass of shell-pink pearl, to smooth away the glaring whiteness and paint instead a down-like coverlet of beauty. Here and there the great granite precipices stood forth in old rose and royal purple; farther the shadows melted into mantles, not of black, but of softest lavender; mound upon mound of color swung before him as he glanced from peak to peak,—the colors that only an artist knows, tintings instead of solid grounds, suggestions rather than actualities. Even the gnarled pines of timber line, where the world of vegetation was sliced off short to give way to the barrenness of the white desert, seemed softened and freed from their appearance of constant suffering in the pursuit of life. A lake gleamed, set, it seemed, at an upright angle upon the very side of a mountain; an ice gorge glistened with the scintillation of a million jewels, a cloud rolled through a great crevice like the billowing of some soft-colored crepe and then—
Barry crouched and shivered, then turned with sudden activity. It all had faded, faded in the blast of a shrilling wind, bringing upon its breast the cutting assault of sleet and the softer, yet no less vicious swirl of snow. Quickly the radiator was drained and refilled. Once more, huddled in the driver's seat, Barry Houston gripped the wheel and felt the crunching of the chain-clad wheels in the snow of the roadway. The mountains had lured again, only that they might clutch him in a tighter embrace of danger than ever. Now the snow was whirling about him in almost blinding swiftness; the small windshield counted for nothing; it was only by leaning far outside the car that he could see to drive and then there were moments that seemed to presage the end.
Chasms lurked at the corners, the car skidded and lurched from one side of the narrow roadway to the other; once the embankment crumbled for an instant as a rear wheel raced for a foothold and gained it just in time. Thundering below, Barry could hear the descent of the dirt and small boulders as they struck against protruding rocks and echoed forth to a constantly growing sound that seemed to travel for miles that it might return with the strength of thunder. Then for a moment the sun came again and he stared toward it with set, anxious eyes. It no longer was dazzling; it was large and yellow and free from glare. He swerved his gaze swiftly to the dashboard clock, then back to the sun again. Four o'clock! Yet the great yellow ball was hovering on the brim of Mount Taluchen; dusk was coming. A frightened glance showed him the black shadows of the valleys, the deeper tones of coloring, the vagueness of the distance which comes with the end of day.
Anxiously he studied his speedometer as the road stretched out for a space of a few hundred feet for safety. Five miles—only five miles in a space of time that on level country could have accounted for a hundred. Five miles and the route book told plainly that there were four more to go before the summit was reached. Anxiously—with a sudden hope—he watched the instrument, with the thought that perhaps it had broken, but the slow progress of the mile-tenths took away that possibility. He veered his gaze along the dashboard, suddenly to center it upon the oil gauge. His jaw sagged. He pressed harder upon the accelerator in a vain effort. But the gauge showed no indication that the change of speed had been felt.
"The oil pump!" came with a half gasp. "It's broken—I'll have to—"
The sentence was not finished. A sudden, clattering roar had come from beneath the hood, a clanking jangle which told him that his eyes had sought the oil gauge too late,—the shattering, agonizing cacophony of a broken connecting rod, the inevitable result of a missing oil supply and its consequent burnt bearing. Hopelessly, dejectedly Barry shut off the engine and pulled to one side of the road,—through sheer force of habit. In his heart he knew that there could be no remedy for the clattering remonstrance of the broken rod, that the road was his without question, that it was beyond hope to look for aid up here where all the world was pines and precipices and driven snow, that he must go on, fighting against heavier odds than ever. And as he realized the inevitable, his dull, tired eyes saw from the distance another, a greater enemy creeping toward him over the hills and ice gorges, through the valleys and along the sheer walls of granite. The last, ruddy rim of a dying sun was just disappearing over Mount Taluchen.
Hazard Pass had held true to its name. There were yet nearly four miles to go before the summit of nearly twelve thousand feet elevation could be reached and the downward trip of fourteen miles to the nearest settlement made. And that meant—
Houston steadied himself and sought to figure just what it did mean. The sun was gone now, leaving grayness and blackness behind, accentuated by the single strip of gleaming scarlet which flashed across the sky above the brim of Mount Taluchen, the last vestige of daylight. The wind was growing shriller and sharper, as though it had waited only for the sinking of the sun to loose the ferocity which too long had been imprisoned. Darkness came, suddenly, seeming to sweep up from the valleys toward the peaks, and with it more snow. Barry accepted the inevitable. He must go on—and that as swiftly as his crippled machine, the darkness and the twisting, snow-laden, treacherous road would permit.
Once more at the wheel, he snapped on the lights and huddled low, to avail himself of every possible bit of warmth from the clanking, discordant engine. Slowly the journey began, the machine laboring and thundering with its added handicap of a broken rod and the consequent lost power of one cylinder. Literally inch by inch it dragged itself up the heavier grades, puffing and gasping and clanking, the rattling rod threatening at every moment to tear out its very vitals. The heavy smell of burnt oil drifted back to the nostrils of Barry Houston; but there was nothing that he could do but grip the steering wheel a bit tighter with his numbed hands,—and go on.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the indicator of the speedometer measured off a mile in dragging decimals. The engine boiled and Barry stopped, once more to huddle against the radiator, and to avail himself of its warmth, but not to renew the water. No stream was near; besides, the cold blast of the wind, shrilling through the open hood, accomplished the purpose more easily. Again a sally and again a stop. And Barry was thankful, as, huddled and shivering in his light clothing, he once more sought the radiator. Vaguely there came to him the thought that he might spend the night somewhere on the Pass and go on with the flush of morning. But the thought vanished as quickly as it came; there was no shelter, no blankets, nothing but the meager warmth of what fire he might be able to gather, and that would fade the minute he nodded. Already the temperature had sunk far beneath the freezing point; the crackling of the ice in the gulleys of the road fairly shouted the fact as he edged back once more from the radiator to his seat.
An hour—and three more after that—with the consequent stops and pauses, the slow turns, the dragging process up the steeper inclines of the road. A last final, clattering journey, and Barry leaped from the seat with something akin to enthusiasm.
Through the swirling snow which sifted past the glare of his headlights, he could discern a sign which told him he had reached the summit, that he now stood at the literal top of the world.
But it was a silent world, a black world, in which the hills about him were shapeless, dim hulks, where the wind whined, where the snow swept against his face and drifted down the open space of his collar; a world of coldness, of malice, of icy venom, where everything was a threatening thing, and never a cheering aspect except the fact that the grades had been accomplished, and that from now on he could progress with the knowledge that his engine at least need labor no longer. But the dangers! Barry knew that they had only begun. The descent would be as steep as the climb he had just made. The progress must be slower, if anything, and with the compression working as a brake. But it was at least progress, and once more he started.
The engine clanked less now, the air seemed a bit warmer with the down grade, and Barry, in spite of his fatigue, in spite of the disappointment of a disabled car, felt at least the joy of having conquered the thing which had sought to hold him back, the happiness of having fought against obstacles, of having beaten them, and of knowing that he now was on the down trail. The grade lessened for a few hundred feet, and the machine slowed. Houston pressed on the clutch pedal, allowing the car to coast slowly until the hill became steeper again. Then he sought once more to shift into gear,—and stopped short!
Those few moments of coasting had been enough. Overheated, distended, the bearings had cooled too suddenly about the crank shaft and frozen there with a tightness that neither the grinding pull of the starter nor the heavy tug of the down grade could loosen. Once more Barry Houston felt his heart sink in the realization of a newer, a greater foreboding than ever. A frozen crank shaft meant that from now on the gears would be useless. Fourteen miles of down grade faced him. If he were to make them, it must be done with the aid of brakes alone. That was dangerous!
He cupped his hands and called,—in the vain hope that the stories of Hazard Pass and its loneliness might not be true, after all. But the only answer was the churning of the bank-full stream a hundred yards away, the thunder of the wind through the pines below, and the eerie echo of his own voice coming back to him through the snows. Laboriously he left the machine and climbed back to the summit, there to seek out the little tent house he had seen far at one side and which he instinctively knew to be the rest room and refreshment stand of the summer season. But he found it, as he had feared he would find it, a deserted, cold, napping thing, without a human, without a single comfort, or the possibility of fire or warmth through the night. Summer, for Hazard Pass, at least, still was a full month away. For a moment he shivered within it, staring about its bleak interior by the aid of a flickering match. Then he went outside again. It was only a shell, only a hope that could not be realized. It would be less of a hardship to make the fight to reach the bottom of the Pass than to attempt to spend the night in this flimsy contraption. In travel there would be at least action, and Barry clambered down the hill to his machine.
Again he started, the brake bands squeaking and protesting, the machine sloughing dangerously as now and again its sheer weight forced it forward at dangerous speeds until lesser levels could be reached and the hold of the brake bands accomplish their purpose again. Down and down, the miles slipping away with far greater speed than even Barry realized, until at last—
He grasped desperately for the emergency brake and gripped tight upon it, steering with one hand. For five minutes there had come the strong odor of burning rubber; the strain had been too great, the foot-brake linings were gone; everything depended upon the emergency now! And almost with the first strain—
Careening, the car seemed to leap beneath him, a maddened, crazed thing, tired of the hills, tired of the turmoil and strain of hours of fighting, racing with all the speed that gravity could thrust upon it for the bottom of the Pass. The brakes were gone, the emergency had not even lasted through the first hill. Barry Houston was now a prisoner of speed,—cramped in the seat of a runaway car, clutching tight at the wheel, leaning, white, tense-faced, out into the snow, as he struggled to negotiate the turns, to hold the great piece of runaway machinery to the crusted road and check its speed from time to time in the snowbanks.
A mile more—halted at intervals by the very thing which an hour or so before Barry Houston had come almost to hate, the tight-packed banks of snow—then came a new emergency. One chance was left, and Barry took it,—the "burring" of the gears in lieu of a brake. The snow was fading now, the air was warmer; a mile or so more and he would be safe from that threat which had driven him down from the mountain peaks,—the possibility of death from exposure, had he, in his light clothing, attempted to spend the night in the open. If the burred gears could only hold the car for a mile or so more—
But a sudden, snapping crackle ended his hope. The gears had meshed, and meshing, had broken. Again a wild, careening thing, with no snow banks to break the rush, the car was speeding down the steepest of the grades like a human thing determined upon self-destruction.
A skidding curve, then a straightaway, while Barry clung to the wheel with fingers that were white with the tightness of their grip. A second turn, while a wheel hung over the edge, a third and—
The awful, suspended agony of space. A cry. A crash and a dull, twisting moment of deadened Suffering. After that—blackness. Fifty feet below the road lay a broken, crushed piece of mechanism, its wheels still spinning, the odor of gasoline heavy about it from the broken tank, one light still gleaming, like a blazing eye, one light that centered upon the huddled, crumpled figure of a man who groaned once and strove vaguely, dizzily, to rise, only to sink at last into unconsciousness. Barry Houston had lost his fight.
How long he remained there, Barry did not know. He remembered only the falling, dizzy moment, the second or so of horrible, racking suspense, when, breathless, unable to move, he watched the twisting rebound of the machine from which he had been thrown and sought to evade it as it settled, metal crunching against metal, for the last time. After that had come agonized hours in which he knew neither wakefulness nor the quiet of total unconsciousness. Then—
Vaguely, as from far away, he heard a voice,—the sort of a voice that spelled softness and gentleness. Something touched his forehead and stroked it, with the caress that only a woman's hand can give. He moved slightly, with the knowledge that he lay no longer upon the rocky roughness of a mountain side, but upon the softness of a bed. A pillow was beneath his head. Warm blankets covered him. The hand again lingered on his forehead and was drawn away. A moment more and slowly, wearily, Barry Houston opened his eyes.
It was the room of a mountain cabin, with its skiis and snowshoes; with its rough chinkings in the interstices of the logs which formed the mainstay of the house, with its four-paned windows, with its uncouthness, yet with its comfort. Barry noticed none of this. His eyes had centered upon the form of a girl standing beside the little window, where evidently she had gone from his bedside.
Fair-haired she was, though Barry did not notice it. Small of build and slight, yet vibrant with the health and vigor that is typical of those who live in the open places. And there was a piquant something about her too; just enough of an upturned little nose to denote the fact that there was spirit and independence in her being; dark blue eyes that snapped even as darker eyes snapped, as she stood, half turned, looking out the window, watching with evident eagerness the approach of some one Barry could not see. The lips carried a half-smile of anticipation. Barry felt the instinctive urge to call to her, to raise himself—
He winced with a sudden pain, a sharp, yet aching throb of agony which involuntarily closed his eyes and clenched tight his teeth until it should pass. When he looked again, she was gone, and the opening of a door in the next room told him where. Almost wondering, he turned his eyes then toward the blankets and sought to move an arm,—only again to desist in pain. He tried the other, and it responded. The covers were lowered, and Barry's eyes stared down upon a bandaged, splinted left arm. Broken.
He grunted with surprise, then somewhat doggedly began an inspection of the rest of his human machine. Gingerly he wiggled one toe beneath the blankets. It seemed to be in working order. He tried the others, with the same result. Then followed his legs—and the glorious knowledge that they still were intact. His one free hand reached for his head and felt it. It was there, plus a few bandages, which however, from their size, gave Barry little concern. The inventory completed, he turned his head at the sound of a voice—hers—calling from the doorway to some one without.
"He's getting along fine, Ba'tiste." Barry liked the tone and the enthusiastic manner of speaking. "His fever's gone down. I should think—"
"Ah, oui!" had come the answer in booming bass. "And has he, what you say, come to?"
"Not yet. But I think he ought to, soon."
"Oui! Heem no ver' bad. He be all right tomorrow."
"That's good. It frightened me, for him to be unconscious so long. It's been five or six hours now, hasn't it?"
"Lemme see. I fin' heem six o'clock. Now—eet is the noon. Six hour."
"That's long enough. Besides, I think he's sleeping now. Come inside and see—"
"Wait, m' enfant. M'sieu Thayer he come in the minute. He say he think he know heem."
The eyes of Barry Houston suddenly lost their curiosity. Thayer? That could mean only one Thayer! Barry had taken particular pains to keep from him the information that he was anywhere except the East. For it had been Fred Thayer who had caused Barry to travel across country in his yellow speedster, Thayer who had formed the reason for the displacement of that name plate at the beginning of Hazard Pass, Thayer who—
"Know him? Is he a friend?"
"Oui. So Thayer say. He say he think eet is the M'sieu Houston, who own the mill."
"Probably coming out to look over things, then?"
"Oui. Thayer, he say the young man write heem about coming. That is how he know when I tell heem about picking heem up from the machine. He say he know M'sieu Houston is coming by the automobile."
In the other room, Barry Houston blinked rapidly and frowned. He had written Thayer nothing of the sort. He had— Suddenly he stared toward the ceiling in swift-centered thought. Some one else must have sent the information, some one who wanted Thayer to know that Barry was on the way, so that there would be no surprise in his coming, some one who realized that his mission was that of investigation!
The names of two persons flashed across his mind, one to be dismissed immediately, the other—
"I'll fire Jenkins the minute I get back!" came vindictively. "I'll—."
He choked his words. A query had come from the next room.
"Was that heem talking?"
"No, I don't think so. He groans every once in a while. Wait—I'll look."
The injured man closed his eyes quickly, as he heard the girl approach the door, not to open them until she had departed. Barry was thinking and thinking hard. A moment later—
"How's the patient?" It was a new voice, one which Barry Houston remembered from years agone, when he, a wide-eyed boy in his father's care, first had viewed the intricacies of a mountain sawmill, had wandered about the bunk houses, and ridden the great, skidding bobsleds with the lumberjacks in the spruce forests, on a never-forgotten trip of inspection. It was Thayer, the same Thayer that he once had looked upon with all the enthusiasm and pride of boyhood, but whom he now viewed with suspicion and distrust. Thayer had brought him out here, without realizing it. Yet Thayer had known that he was on the way. And Thayer must be combatted—but how? The voice went on, "Gained consciousness yet?"
"No." The girl had answered. "That is—"
"Of course, then, he hasn't been able to talk. Pretty sure it's Houston, though. Went over and took a look at the machine. Colorado license on it, but the plates look pretty new, and there are fresh marks on the license holders where others have been taken off recently. Evidently just bought a Colorado tag, figuring that he'd be out here for some time. How'd you find him?"
The bass voice of the man referred to as Ba'tiste gave the answer, and Barry listened with interest. Evidently he had struggled to his feet at some time during the night—though he could not remember it—and striven to find his way down the mountain side in the darkness, for the story of Ba'tiste told Barry that he had found him just at dawn, a full five hundred yards from the machine.
"I see heem move," the big voice was saying, "jus' as I go to look at my trap. Then Golemar come beside me and raise his hair along his neck and growl—r-r-r-r-r-u-u-f-f-f—like that. I look again—it is jus' at the dawn. I cannot see clearly. I raise my gun to shoot, and Golemar, he growl again. Then I think eet strange that the bear or whatever he is do not move. I say to Golemar, 'We will closer go, ne c'est pas?' A step or two—then three—but he do not move—then pretty soon I look again, close. Eet is a man, I pick heem up, like this—and I bring heem home. Ne c'est pas, Medaine?"
Her name was Medaine then. Not bad, Barry thought. It rather matched her hair and the tilt of her nose and the tone of her laugh as she answered:
"I would say you carried him more like a sack of meal, Ba'tiste. I'm glad I happened along when I did; you might have thrown him over your shoulder!"
A booming laugh answered her and the sound of a light scuffle, as though the man were striving to catch the girl in his big embrace. But the cold voice of Thayer cut in:
"And he hasn't regained consciousness?"
"Not yet. That is, I think he's recovered his senses, all right, and fallen immediately into a heavy sleep."
"Guess I'll go in and stay with him until he wakes up. He's my boss, you know—since the old man died. We've got a lot of important things to discuss. So if you don't mind—"
"Certainly not." It was the girl again. "We'll go in with you."
"No, thanks. I want to see him alone."
Within the bedroom, Barry Houston gritted his teeth. Then, with a sudden resolve, he rested his head again on the pillow and closed his eyes as the sound of steps approached. Closer they came to the bed, and closer. Barry could feel that the man was bending over him, studying him. There came a murmur, almost whispered:
"Wonder what the damn fool came out here about? Wonder if he's wise?"
It was with an effort that Houston gave no indication that he had heard. Before, there had been only suspicions, one flimsy clue leading to another, a building-block process, which, in its culmination, had determined Barry to take a trip into the West to see for himself. He had believed that it would be a long process, the finding of a certain telegram and the possibilities which might ensue if this bit of evidence should turn out to be the thing he had suspected. He had not, however, hoped to have from the lips of the man himself a confession that conditions were not right at the lumber mill of which Barry Houston now formed the executive head; to receive the certain statement that somewhere, somehow, something was wrong, something which was working against the best interests of himself and the stern necessities of the future. But now—
Thayer had turned away and evidently sought a chair at the other side of the room. Barry remained perfectly still. Five minutes passed. Ten. There came no sound from the chair; instinctively the man on the bed knew that Thayer was watching him, waiting for the first flicker of an eyelid, the first evidence of returning consciousness. Five minutes more and Barry rewarded the vigil. He drew his breath in a shivering sigh. He turned and groaned,—quite naturally with the pain from his splintered arm. His eyes opened slowly, and he stared about him, as though in non-understanding wonderment, finally to center upon the window ahead and retain his gaze there, oblivious of the sudden tensity of the thin-faced Thayer. Barry Houston was playing for time, playing a game of identities. In the same room was a man he felt sure to be an enemy, a man who had in his care everything Barry Houston possessed in the world, every hope, every dream, every chance for the wiping out of a thing that had formed a black blot in the life of the young man for two grim years, and a man who, Barry Houston now felt certain, had not held true to his trust. Still steadily staring, he pretended not to notice the tall, angular form of Fred Thayer as that person crossed the brightness of the window and turned toward the bed. And when at last he did look up into the narrow, sunken face, it was with eyes which carried in them no light of friendship, nor even the faintest air of recognition. Thayer put forth a gnarled, frost-twisted hand.
"Hello, kid," he announced, his thin lips twisting into a cynical smile that in days gone by had passed as an affectation. Barry looked blankly at him.
"How'd you get hurt?"
"I don't know."
"Old Man Renaud here says you fell over the side of Two Mile Hill. He picked you up about six o'clock this morning. Don't you remember?"
"Remember what?" The blank look still remained. Thayer moved closer to the bed and bending, stared at him.
"Why, the accident. I'm Thayer, you know—Thayer, your manager at the Empire Lake mill."
"Have I a manager?"
The thin man drew back at this and stood for a moment staring down at Houston. Then he laughed and rubbed his gnarled hands.
"I hope you've got a manager. You—you haven't fired me, have you?"
Barry turned his head wearily, as though the conversation were ended.
"I don't know what you are talking about."
"You—don't—say, you're Barry Houston, aren't you?"
"I? Am I?"
"Well, then, who are you?"
The man on the bed smiled.
"I'd like to have you tell me. I don't know myself."
"Don't you know your name?"
"Have I one?"
Thayer, wondering now, drew a hand across his forehead and stood for a moment in disconcerted silence. Again he started to frame a question, only to desist. Then, hesitatingly, he turned and walked to the door.
"Come in here, will you? I'm up against a funny proposition. Mr. Houston doesn't seem to be able to remember who he is."
"Ah!" Then came the sound of heavy steps, and Barry glanced toward the door, to see framed there the gigantic form of a grinning, bearded man, his long arms hanging with the looseness of tremendous strength, his gray eyes gleaming with twinkling interest, his whole being and build that of a great, good-humored, eccentric giant. His beard was splotched with gray, as was the hair which hung in short, unbarbered strands about his ears. But the hint of age was nullified by the cocky angle of the blue-knit cap upon his head, the blazing red of his double-breasted pearl-buttoned shirt, the flexible freedom of his muscles as he strode within. Beside him trotted a great gray cross-breed dog, which betokened collie and timber wolf, and which progressed step by step at his master's knee. Close to the bed they came, the great form bending, the twinkling, sharp eyes boring into those of Houston, until the younger man gave up the contest and turned his head,—to look once more upon the form of the girl, waiting wonderingly in the doorway. Then the voice came, rumbling, yet pleasant:
"He no remember, eh?"
"No. I know him all right. It's Barry Houston—I've been expecting him to drop in most any day. Of course, I haven't seen him since he was a kid out here with his father—but that doesn't make any difference. The family resemblance is there—he's got his father's eyes and mouth and nose, and his voice. But I can't get him to remember it. He can't recall anything about his fall, or his name or business. I guess the accident—"
"Eet is the—" Ba'tiste was waving one hand vaguely, then placing a finger to his forehead, in a vain struggle for a word. "Eet is the—what-you-say—"
"Amnesia." The answer had come quietly from the girl. Ba'tiste turned excitedly.
"Ah, oui! Eet is the amnesia. Many time I have seen it—" he waved a hand—"across the way, ne c'est pas? Eet is when the mind he will no work—what you say—he will not stick on the job. See—" he gesticulated now with both hands—"eet is like a wall. I see eet with the shell shock. Eet is all the same. The wall is knock down—eet will not hold together. Blooey—" he waved his hands—"the man he no longer remember!"
This time the stare in Barry Houston's eyes was genuine. To hear a girl of the mountains name a particular form of mental ailment, and then to further listen to that ailment described in its symptoms by a grinning, bearded giant of the woods was a bit past the comprehension of the injured man. He had half expected the girl to say "them" and "that there", though the trimness of her dress, the smoothness of her small, well-shod feet, the air of refinement which spoke even before her lips had uttered a word should have told him differently. As for the giant, Ba'tiste, with his outlandish clothing, his corduroy trousers and high-laced, hob-nailed boots, his fawning, half-breed dog, his blazing shirt and kippy little knit cap, the surprise was all the greater. But that surprise, it seemed, did not extend to the other listener. Thayer had bobbed his head as though in deference to an authority. When he spoke, Barry thought that he discerned a tone of enthusiasm, of hope:
"Do they ever get over it?"
"Sometime, yes. Sometime—no. Eet all depend."
"Then there isn't any time limit on a thing like this."
"No. Sometime a year—sometime a week—sometime never. It all depend. Sometime he get a shock—something happen quick, sudden—blooey—he come back, he say 'where am I', and he be back again, same like he was before!" Ba'tiste gesticulated vigorously. Thayer moved toward the door.
"Then I guess there's nothing more for me to do, except to drop in every few days and see how he's getting along. You'll take good care of him?"
"Good. Want to walk a piece down the road—with me, Medaine?"
"Of course. It's too bad, isn't it—"
Then they faded through the doorway, and Barry could hear no more. But he found himself looking after them, wondering about many things,—about the girl and her interest in Fred Thayer, and whether she too might be a part of the machinery which he felt had been set up against him; about the big, grinning Ba'tiste, who still remained in the room; who now was fumbling about with the bedclothes at the foot of the bed and—
"Ouch! Don't—don't do that!"
Barry suddenly had ceased his thoughts to jerk his feet far up under the covers, laughing and choking and striving to talk at the same time. At the foot of the bed, Ba'tiste, his eyes twinkling more than ever, had calmly rolled back the covering and just as calmly tickled the injured man's feet. More, one long arm had outstretched again, as the giant once more reached for the sole of a foot, to tickle it, then to stand back and boom with laughter as Barry involuntarily sought to jerk the point of attack out of the way. For a fourth time he repeated the performance, followed by a fourth outburst of mirth at the recoil from the injured man. Barry frowned.
"Pardon me," he said rather caustically. "But I don't get the joke."
"Ho, ho!" and Ba'tiste turned to talk to the shaggy dog at his side. "L'enfant feels it! L'enfant feels it!"
"Feel it," grunted Houston. "Of course I feel it! I'm ticklish."
"You hear, Golemar?" Ba'tiste, contorted with merriment, pointed vaguely in the direction of the bed, "M'sieu l' Nobody, heem is ticklish!"
"Of course I'm ticklish. Who isn't, on the bottom of his feet?"
The statement only brought a new outburst from the giant. It nettled Houston; further, it caused him pain to be jerking constantly about the bed in an effort to evade the tickling touch of the trapper's big fingers. Once more Ba'tiste leaned forward and wiggled his fingers as if in preparation for a new assault, and once more Barry withdrew his pedal extremities to a place of safety.
"Please don't," he begged. "I—I don't know what kind of a game you're playing—and I'm perfectly willing to join in on it when I feel better—but now it hurts my arm to be bouncing around this way. Maybe this afternoon—if you've got to play these fool games—I'll feel better—"
The thunder of the other man's laugh cut him off. Ba'tiste was now, it seemed, in a perfect orgy of merriment. As though weakened by his laughter, he reeled to the wall and leaned there, his big arms hanging loosely, the tears rolling down his cheeks and disappearing in the gray beard, his face reddened, his whole form shaking with series after series of chuckles.
"You hear heem?" he gasped at the wolf-dog. "M'sieu l' Nobody, he will play with us this afternoon! M'sieu l' Ticklefoot! That is heem, my Golemar, M'sieu l' Ticklefoot! Oh, ho—M'sieu l' Ticklefoot!"
"What in thunder is the big idea?" Barry Houston had lost his reserve now. "I want to be a good fellow—but for the love of Mike let me in on the joke. I can't get it. I don't see anything funny in lying here with a broken arm and having my feet tickled. Of course, I'm grateful to you for picking me up and all that sort of thing, but—"
Choking back the laughter, Ba'tiste returned to the foot of the bed and stood wiping the tears from his eyes.
"Pardon, mon ami," came seriously at last. "Old Ba'teese must have his joke. Listen, Ba'teese tell you something. You see people here today, oui, yes? You see, the petite Medaine? Ah, oui!" He clustered his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss toward the ceiling. "She is the, what-you-say, fine li'l keed. She is the—bon bebe! You no nev' see her before?"
Barry shook his head. Ba'tiste went on.
"You see M'sieu Thayer? Oui? You know heem?"
"Never saw him before."
"So?" Batiste grinned and wagged a finger, "Ba'teese he like the truth, yes, oui. Ba'teese he don't get the truth, he tickle M'sieu's feet."
"Now listen! Please—"
"No—no!" The giant waved a hand in dismissal of threat. "Old Ba'teese, he still joke. Ba'teese say he tell you something. Eet is this. You see those people? All right. Bon—good. You don' know one. You know the other. Yes? Oui? Ba'teese not know why you do it. Ba'teese not care. Ba'teese is right—in here." He patted his heart with a big hand. "But you—you not tell the truth. I know. I tickle your feet."
"So, mebbe. Ba'teese have his trouble. Sometime Ba'teese wish he go crazy—like you say."
The face suddenly aged. The twinkling light left the eyes. The big hands knitted, and the man was silent for a long moment. Then, "But Ba'-teese he know—see?" He pointed to his head, then twisting, ran his finger down his spine. "When eet is the—what-you-say, amnesia—the nerve eet no work in the foot. I could tickle, tickle, tickle, and you would not know. But with you—blooey—right away, you feel. So, for some reason, you are, what-you-say?—shamming. But you are Ba'teese' gues'. You sleep in Ba'teese' bed. You eat Ba'teese' food. So long as that, you are Ba'teese' friend. Ba'teese—" he looked with quiet, fatherly eyes toward the young man on the bed—"shall ask no question—and Ba'teese shall tell no tales!"
The simple statement of the gigantic trapper swept the confidence from Houston and left him at a disadvantage. His decision had been a hasty one,—a thing to gain time, a scheme by which he had felt he could, at the proper time, take Thayer off his guard and cause him to come into the open with his plans, whatever they might be. Fate had played a strange game with Barry Houston. It had taken a care-free, happy-go-lucky youth and turned him into a suspicious, distrustful person with a constantly morbid strain which struggled everlastingly for supremacy over his usually cheery grin and his naturally optimistic outlook upon life. For Fate had allowed Houston to live the youth of his life in ease and brightness and lack of worry, only that it might descend upon him with the greatest cloud that man can know. And two years of memories, two years of bitterness, two years of ugly recollections had made its mark. In all his dealings with Thayer, conducted though they might have been at a distance, Barry Houston could not place his finger upon one tangible thing that would reveal his crookedness. But he had suspected; had come to investigate, and to learn, even before he was ready to receive the information, that his suspicions had been, in some wise at least, correct. To follow those suspicions to their stopping place Barry had feigned amnesia. And it had lasted just long enough for this grinning man who stood at the foot of the bed to tickle his feet!
And how should that grotesque giant with his blazing red shirt and queer little cap know of such things as amnesia and the tracing of a deadened nerve? How should he,—then Barry suddenly tensed. Had it been a ruse? Was this man a friend, a companion—even an accomplice of the thin-faced, frost-gnarled Thayer—and had his simple statement been an effort to take Barry off his guard? If so, it had not succeeded, for Barry had made no admissions. But it all affected him curiously; it nettled him and puzzled him. For a long time he was silent, merely staring at the grinning features of Ba'tiste. At last:
"I should think you would wait until you could consult a doctor before you'd say a thing like that."
"So? It has been done."
"And he told you—"
"Nothing. He does not need to even speak to Ba'teese." A great chuckle shook the big frame "Ba'teese know as soon as l' M'sieu Doctaire."
"On good terms, aren't you? When's he coming again?"
"Parbleu!" The big man snapped his fingers. "Peuff! Like that. Ba'teese call heem, and he is here."
Houston blinked. Then, in spite of his aching head, and the pain of the swollen, splint-laced arm he sat up in bed.
"What kind of—"
"Old Ba'teese, he mus' joke," came quickly and seriously from the other man. "Ba'teese—he is heem."
Slowly the big man nodded. Barry went on "I—I—didn't know. I thought you were just a trapper. I wondered—"
"So! That is all—jus' a trapper."
Quietly, slowly, the big man turned away from the bed and stood looking out the window, the wolf-dog edging close to him as though in companionship and some strange form of sympathy. There was silence for a long time, then the voice of Ba'tiste came again, but now it was soft and low, addressed, it seemed, not to the man on the bed, but to vacancy.
"So! Ba'teese, he is only a trapper now. Ba'teese, he had swear he never again stand beside a sick bed. But you—" and he turned swiftly, a broken smile playing about his lips—"you, mon ami, you, when I foun' you this morning, with your head twisted under your arm, with the blood on your face, and the dust and dirt upon you—then you—you look like my Pierre! And I pick you up—so!" He fashioned his arms as though he were holding a baby, "and I look at you and I say—'Pierre! Pierre!' But you do not answer—just like he did not answer. Then I start back with you, and the way was rough. I take you under one arm—so. It was steep. I must have one arm free. Then I meet Medaine, and she laugh at me for the way I carry you. And I was glad. Eet made Ba'teese forget."
"What?" Barry said it with the curiosity of a boy. The older man stared hard at the crazy design of the covers.
"My Pierre," came at last. "And my Julienne. Ba'teese, he is all alone now. Are you all alone?" The question came quickly. Barry answered before he thought.
"Then you know—you know how eet feel. You know how Ba'teese think when he look out the window. See?" He pointed, and Barry raised himself slightly that he might follow the direction of the gesture. Faintly, through the glass, he could see something white, rearing itself in the shadows of the heavy pines which fringed the cabin,—a cross. And it stood as the guardian of a mound of earth where pine boughs had been placed in smooth precision, while a small vase, half implanted in the earth, told of flowers in the summer season. Ba'tiste stared at his palms. "Julienne," came at last. "My wife." Then, with a sudden impulse, he swerved about the bed and sat down beside the sick man. "Ba'teese—" he smiled plaintively—"like to talk about Pierre—and Julienne. Even though eet hurt."
Barry could think only in terms of triteness.
"Have they been gone long?"
The big man counted on his fingers.
"One—two—t'ree year. Before that—bon!" He kissed his fingers airily. "Old Ba'teese, he break the way—long time ago. He come down from Montreal, with his Julienne and his Pierre—in his arm, so. He like to feel big and strong—to help other people. So, down here where there were few he came, and built his cabin, with his Pierre and his Julienne. And, so happy! Then, by'm'by, Jacques Robinette come too, with his petite Medaine—"
"That's the girl who was here?"
"Ah, oui. I am l' M'sieu Doctaire. I look after the sick for ten—twenty—thirty mile. Jacques he have more head. He buy land." A great sweep of the arm seemed to indicate all outdoors. "Ev'where—the pine and spruce, it was Jacques! By'm'by, he go on and leave Medaine alone. Then she go 'way to school, but ev' summer she come back and live in the big house. And Ba'teese glad—because he believe some day she love Pierre and Pierre love her and—"
Another silence. At last:
"And then war came. My Pierre, he is but eighteen. But he go. Ba'teese want him to go. Julienne, she say nothing—she cry at night. But she want him to go too. Medaine, she tell funny stories about her age and she go too. It was lonely. Ba'teese was big. Ba'teese was strong. And Julienne say to him, 'You too—you go. You may save a life.' And Ba'teese went."
Ba'tiste bowed his head.
"Long time Ba'teese look for his Pierre. Long time he look for Medaine. But no. Then—" his face suddenly contorted "—one night—in the cathedral at St. Menehould, I find heem. But Pierre not know his pere. He not answer Ba'teese when he call 'Pierre! Pierre!' Here, and here, and here—" the big man pointed to his breast and face and arms—"was the shrapnel. He sigh in my arms—then he is gone. Ba'teese ask that night for duty on the line. He swear never again to be l' M'sieu Doctaire. All his life he help—help—help—but when the time come, he cannot help his own. And by'm'by, Ba'teese come home—and find that."
He pointed out into the shadows beneath the pines.
"She had died?"
"Died!" The man's face had gone suddenly purple. His eyes were glaring, his hands upraised and clutched. "No! Murder! Murder, mon ami! Murder! Lost Wing—he Medaine's Indian—he find her—so! In a heap on the floor—and a bullet through her brain. And the money we save, the ten thousan' dollar—eet is gone! Murder!"
A shudder went over the young man on the bed. His face blanched. His lips lost their color. For a moment, as the big French-Canadian bent over him, he stared with glazed, unseeing eyes, at last to turn dully at the sharp, questioning voice of the trapper:
"Murder—you know murder?"
There was a long moment of silence. Then, as though with an effort which took his every atom of strength, Houston shook himself, as if to throw some hateful, vicious thing from him, and turned, with a parrying question:
"Did you ever find who did it?"
"No. But sometime—Ba'teese not forget. Ba'teese always wait. Ba'teese always look for certain things—that were in the deed-box. There was jewelry—Ba'teese remember. Sometime—" Then he switched again. "Why you look so funny? Huh? Why you get pale—?"
"Please—" Barry Houston put forth a hand. "Please—" Then he straightened. "Ba'tiste, I'm in your hands. You can help me, or you can harm me. You know I was shamming when I acted as though I had lost my identity. Now—now you know there's something else. Will you—"
He ceased suddenly and sank back. From without there had come the sound of steps. A moment later, the door opened, and shadows of a man and a girl showed on the floor. Thayer and Medaine had returned. Soon they were in the room, the girl once more standing in the doorway, regarding Barry with a quizzical, half-wondering gaze, the man coming forward and placing one gnarled hand on the Canadian's shoulder, staring over his head down into the eyes of the injured man on the bed.
"I couldn't go back to the mill without making one more try," he explained. "Has he shown any signs yet?"
Barry watched Ba'teese closely. But the old man's face was a blank.
"Signs? Of what?"
"Coming to—remembering who he is."
"Oh." Ba'tiste shrugged his shoulders. "I have give eet up."
"So far Ba'teese is concern'," and he looked down on the bed with a glance which told Barry far more than words, "he is already name. He is M'sieu Nobody. I can get no more."
Thayer scratched his head. He turned.
"Anyway, I'm going to make one more attempt at it. See what you can do, Medaine."
The girl came forward then, half smiling, and seated herself beside the bed. She took Barry's hand in hers, then with a laugh turned to Thayer.
"What shall I do? Make love to him?"
"Why not?" It was old Ba'tiste edging forward, the twinkle once more in his eyes. "Bon—good! Make love to him."
"Do you suppose it would help?" The girl was truly serious now.
"I don't think—" Thayer had edged forward, nervously. Ba'tiste pushed him gently.
"Peuff! And when did M'sieu Thayer become l' M'sieu Doctaire? Ba'teese say ask him if he like you."
"Do you like me?"
Brown eyes met blue eyes. A smile passed between them. It was with an effort that Houston remembered that he was only playing a part.
"I certainly do!"
"Ask him, 'Do you like me better than anybody you ever—'"
"What sense is there to all this?"
"Blooey! And why should you ask? Why should you stand with a frown on your face? Peuff! It is ugly enough already!" To Barry, it was quite evident that there was some purpose behind the actions of Old Ba'tiste, and certainly more than mere pleasantry in his words. "You ask Medaine to help Ba'teese, and then facher vous! Enough. Ask him, Medaine."
"But—" the girl was laughing now, her eyes beaming, a slight flush apparent in her cheeks—"maybe he doesn't want me to—"
"Oh, but I do!" There was something in the tone of Barry Houston which made the color deepen. "I—I like it."
"That's enough!" Thayer, black-featured, his gnarled hands clenched into ugly knots, came abruptly forward. "I thought this was a serious thing; I didn't know you were going to turn it into a burlesque!"
"Perhaps M'sieu Thayer has studied the practice of medicine?"
"Nor, pardon, the practice of politeness. Ba'teese will not need your help."
"Whether you need it or not, I'll come back when you're through with this infernal horseplay. I—"
"Ba'teese choose his guests."
"Ba'teese mean what he say."
"Very well, then. Come on, Medaine."
The girl, apparently without a thought of the air of proprietorship in the man's tone, rose, only to face Ba'tiste. The Canadian glowered at her.
"And are you chattel?" he stormed. "Do you stand in the cup of his hand that he shall tell you when to rise and when to sit, when to walk and where to go?"
"You were abrupt, Fred. I'm glad Ba'tiste reminded me. Personally, I don't see why I should have been drawn into this at all, or why I should be made the butt of a quarrel over some one I never saw before."
"I'm sorry—terribly sorry." Barry was speaking earnestly and holding forth his hand. "I shouldn't have answered you that way—I'm—"
"We'll forget it all." A flashing smile had crossed the girl's lips. "Fred never knows how to take Ba'tiste. They're always quarreling this way. The only trouble is that Fred—" and she turned to face him piquantly—"always takes in the whole world when he gets mad. And that includes me. I think," and the little nose took a more upward turn than ever, "that Ba'tiste is entirely right, Fred. You talked to me as though I were a sack of potatoes. I won't go with you, and I won't see you until you can apologize."
"There's nothing to apologize for!"
Thayer jammed on his hat and stamped angrily out the door. Medaine watched him with laughing eyes.
"He'll write me a letter to-night," came quietly. Then, "Lost Wing!"
"Ugh!" It was a grunt from outside.
"I just wanted to be sure you were there. Call me when Mr. Thayer has passed the ridge."
Medaine turned again to Ba'tiste, a childish appearance of confidence in her eyes, her hand lingering on the chair by the bed.
"Were you really fooling, Ba'tiste—or shall we continue?"
"Perhaps—" the twinkle still shone in the old man's eyes—"but not now. Perhaps—sometime. So mebbe sometime you—"
"Wah—hah—hai-i-e-e-e!" The Sioux had called from without. Medaine turned.
"When you need me, Ba'tiste," she answered, with a smile that took in also the eager face on the bed, "I'll be glad to help you. Good-by."
That too included Barry, and he answered it with alacrity. Then for a moment after she had gone, he lay scowling at Ba'tiste, who once more, in a weakened state of merriment, had reeled to the wall, followed as usual by his dog, and leaned there, hugging his sides. Barry growled:
"You're a fine doctor! Just when you had me cured, you quit! I'd forgotten I even had a broken arm."
"So?" Ba'tiste straightened. "You like her, eh? You like the petite Medaine?"
"How can I help it?"
"Bon! Good! I like you to like Medaine. You no like Thayer?"
"Less every minute."
"Bon! I no like heem. He try to take Pierre's place with Medaine. And Pierre, he was strong and tall and straight. Pierre, he could smile—bon! Like you can smile. You look like my Pierre!" came frankly.
"Thanks, Ba'tiste." Barry said it in wholehearted manner. "You don't know how grateful I am for a little true friendliness."
"Grateful? Peuff! You? Bah, you shall go back, and they will ask who helped you when you were hurt, and you—you will not even remember what is the name."
"Hardly that." Barry pulled thoughtfully at the covers. "In the first place, I'm not going back, and in the second, I haven't enough true friends to forget so easily. I—I—" Then his jaw dropped and he lay staring ahead, out to the shadows beneath the pines and the stalwart cross which kept watch there. "I—"
"You act funny again. You act like you act when I talk about my Julienne. Why you do eet?"
Barry Houston did not answer at once. Old scenes were flooding through his brain, old agonies that reflected themselves upon his features, old sorrows, old horrors. His eyes grew cold and lifeless, his hands white and drawn, his features haggard. The chuckle left the lips of Ba'tiste Renaud. He moved swiftly, almost sinuously to the bed, and gripped the younger man by his uninjured arm. His eyes came close to Barry Houston, his voice was sharp, tense, commanding:
"You! Why you act like that when I talk about murder? Why you get pale, huh? Why you get pale?"
The gaze of Ba'tiste Renaud was strained as he asked the question, his manner tense, excited. Through sheer determination, Barry forced a smile and pulled himself back to at least a semblance of composure.
"Maybe you know the reason already—through Thayer. But if you don't—Ba'tiste, how much of it do you mean when you say you are a man's friend?"
"Ba'teese may joke," came quietly, "but Ba'teese no lie. You look like my Pierre—you help where it has been lonesome. You are my frien'."
"Then I know you are not going to ask me for something that hurts in telling. And at least, I can give you my word of honor that it isn't because of my conscience!"
Ba'tiste was silent after that, walking slowly about the room, shaggy head bent, hands clasped behind his back, studious, as though striving to fathom what had been on the man's mind. As for Barry, he stared disconsolately at vacancy, living again a thing which he had striven to forget. It had been forced upon him, this partial admission of a cloud in the past; the geniality, the utter honesty, the friendliness of the old French-Canadian, the evident dislike for a man whom he, Barry, also thoroughly distrusted, had lowered the younger man's guard. The tragic story of Pierre and Julienne had furthered the merest chance acquaintance into what seemed the beginning, at least, of closest friendship. Houston had known Ba'tiste for only a matter of a few hours,—yet it seemed months since he first had looked upon the funny little blue cap and screaming red shirt of the Canadian; and it was evident that Renaud had felt the same reaction. Barry Houston, to this great, lonely man of the hills, looked like a son who was gone, a son who had grown tall and straight and good to look upon a son upon whom the old man had looked as a companion, and a chum for whom he had searched in every battle-scarred area of a war-stricken nation, only to find him,—too late. And with this viewpoint, there was no shamming about the old man's expressions of friendship. More, he took Barry's admission of a cloud in the past as a father would take it from a son; he paced the floor minute after minute, head bowed, gray eyes half closed, only to turn at last with an expression which told Barry Houston that a friend was his for weal or woe, for fair weather or foul, good or evil.
"Eet is enough!" came abruptly. "There is something you do not want to tell. I like you—I not ask. You look like my Pierre—who could do no wrong. So! Bon—good! Ba'teese is your frien'. You have trouble? Ba'teese help."
"I've had plenty of that, in the last two years," came quietly. "I think I've got plenty ahead of me. What do you know about Thayer?"
"He no good."
"Ba'teese don' know. On'y he have narrow eyes too close together. He have a quirk to his mouth Ba'teese no like. He have habit nev' talkin' about himself—he ask you question an' tell you nothing. He have hatchet-face; Ba'teese no like a man with a hatchet-face. Beside, he make love to Medaine!"
"Evidently that's a sore spot with you, Ba'tiste."
"No. Ba'teese no care. But if my Pierre had live, he would have make love to her. She would have marry him. And to have M'sieu Thayer take his place? No! Mebbe—" he said it hopefully, "mebbe you like Medaine, huh?"
"I do! She's pretty, Ba'tiste."
"Mebbe you make love?"
But the man on the bed shook his head.
"I can't make love to anybody, Ba'tiste. Not until I've—I've found something I'm looking for. I'm afraid that's a long way off. I haven't the privileges of most young fellows. I'm a little—what would you call it—hampered by circumstance. I've—besides, if I ever do marry, it won't be for love. There's a girl back East who says she cares for me, and who simply has taken it for granted that I think the same way about her. She stood by me—in some trouble. Out of every one, she didn't believe what they said about me. That means a lot. Some way, she isn't my kind; she just doesn't awaken affection on my part, and I spend most of my time calling myself a cad over it. But she stood by me—and—I guess that's all that's necessary, after all. When I've fulfilled my contract with myself—if I ever do—I'll do the square thing and ask her to marry me."
"You dam' fool," he said. "Buy 'em present. Thank 'em, merci beaucoup. But don' marry 'em unless 'you love 'em. Ba'teese, he know. Ba'teese, he been in too many home where there is no love."
"True. But you don't know the story behind it all, Ba'tiste. And I can't tell you except this: I got in some trouble. I'd rather not tell you what it was. It broke my father's heart—and his confidence in me. He—he died shortly afterward."
"And you—was it your fault?"
"If you never believe anything else about me, Ba'tiste, believe this: that it wasn't. And in a way, it was proven to him, before he went. But he had been embittered then. He left a will—with stipulations. I was to have the land he owned out here at Empire Lake; and the flume site leading down the right side of Hawk Creek to the mill. Some one else owns the other side of the lake and the land on the opposite bank of the stream."
"Oui. Medaine Robinette."
"Honestly? Is it hers?"
"When she is twenty-one. But go on."
"Father wouldn't leave me the mill. He seemed to have a notion that I'd sell it all off—and he tied everything up in a way to keep me from doing anything like that. The mill is rented to me. The land is mine, and I can do everything but actually dispose of it. But on top of that comes another twist: if I haven't developed the business within five years into double what it was at the peak of its best development, back goes everything into a trust fund, out of which I am to have a hundred dollars a month, nothing more. That's what I'm out here for, Ba'tiste, to find out why, in spite of the fact that I've worked day and night now for a year and a half, in spite of the fact that I've gone out and struggled and fought for contracts, and even beaten down the barriers of dislike and distrust and suspicion to get business—why I can't get it! Something or some one is blocking me, and I'm going to find out what and who it is! I think I know one man—Thayer. But there may be more. That's why I'm playing this game of lost identity. I thought I could get out here and nose around without him knowing it. When he found out at once who I was, and seemed to have had a previous tip that I was coming out here, I had to think fast and take the first scheme that popped into my head. Maybe if I can play the game long enough, it will take him off his guard and cause him to work more in the open. They may give me a chance to know where I stand. And I've got to know that, Ba'tiste. Because—" and his voice was vibrant with determination, "I don't care what happens to me personally. I don't care whether five minutes after I have made it, I lose every cent of what I have worked for. But I do care about this; I'm going to make good to my father's memory. I'm going to be able to stand before a mirror and look myself straight in the eye, knowing that I bucked up against trouble, that it nearly whipped me, that it took the unfairest advantage that Fate can take of a man in allowing my father to die before I could fully right myself in his eyes, but that if there is a Justice, if there is anything fair and decent in this universe, some way he'll know, some way he'll rest in peace, with the understanding that his son took up the gauntlet that death laid down for him, that he made the fight, and that he won!"
"Bon—good!" Old Ba'tiste leaned over the foot of the bed. "My Pierre—he would talk like that. Bon? Now—what is it you look for?"
"In the first place, I want to know how so many accidents can happen in a single plant, just at the wrong time. I want to know why it is that I can go out and fight for a contract, and then lose it because a saw has broken, or an off-bearer, lugging slabs away from the big wheel, can allow one to strike at just the wrong moment and let the saw pick it up and drive it through the boiler, laying up the whole plant for three weeks. I want to know why it is that only about one out of three contracts I land are ever filled. Thayer's got something to do with it, I know. Why? That's another question. But there must be others. I want to know who they are and weed them out. I've only got three and a half years left, and things are going backward instead of forward."
"How you intend to fin' this out?"
"I don't know. I've got one lead—as soon as I'm able to get into town. That may give me a good deal of information; I came out here, at least, in the hope that it would. After that, I'm hazy. How big a telegraph office is there at Tabernacle?"
"How big?" Ba'tiste laughed. "How petite! Eet is about the size of the—what-you-say—the peanut."
"Is there ever a time when the operator isn't there?"
"At noon. He go out to dinner, and he leave open the door. If eet is something you want, walk in."
"Thanks." A strange eagerness was in Houston's eyes. "I think I'll be able to get up to-morrow. Maybe I can walk over there; it's only a mile or two, isn't it?"
But when to-morrow, came, it found a white, bandaged figure sitting weakly in front of Ba'tiste's cabin, nothing more. Strength of purpose and strength of being had proved two different things, and now he was quite content to rest there in the May sunshine, to watch the chattering magpies as they went about the work of spring house-building, to study the colors of the hills, the mergings of the tintings and deeper hues as the scale ran from brown to green to blue, and finally to the stark red granite and snow whites of Mount Taluchen.
Ba'tiste and his constant companion, Golemar, were making the round of the traps and had been gone for hours. Barry was alone—alone with the beauties of spring in the hills, with the soft call of the meadow lark in the bit of greenery which fringed the still purling stream in the little valley, the song of the breeze through the pines, the sunshine, the warmth—and his problems.
Of these, there were plenty. In the first place, how had Thayer known that he was on the way from the East? He had spoken to only two persons,—Jenkins, his bookkeeper, and one other. To these two persons he merely had given the information that he was going West on a bit of a vacation. He had deliberately chosen to come in his car, so that there might be every indication, should there be such a thing as a spy in his rather diminutive office, that he merely intended a jaunt through a few States, certainly not a journey half across the country. But just the same, the news had leaked; Thayer had been informed, and his arrival had been no surprise.
That there had been need for his coming, Barry felt sure. At the least, there was mismanagement at the mill; contract after contract lost just when it should have been gained told him this, if nothing more. But—and he drew a sheet of yellow paper from his pocket and stared hard at it—there was something else, something which had aroused his curiosity to an extent of suspicion, something which might mean an open book of information to him if only he could reach Tabernacle at the right moment and gain access to the telegraph files without the interference of the agent.
Then suddenly he ceased his study of the message and returned it to his pocket. Two persons were approaching the cabin from the opposite hill,—a girl whom he was glad to see, and a man who walked, or rather rolled, in the background: Medaine Robinette and a sort of rear guard who, twenty or thirty feet behind her, followed her every step, trotted when she ran down the steep side of an embankment, then slowed as she came to a walk again. A bow-legged creature he was, with ill-fitting clothing and a broad "two-gallon" hat which evidently had been bequeathed to him by some cow-puncher, long hair which straggled over his shoulders, and a beaded vest which shone out beneath the scraggly outer coat like a candle on a dark night. Instinctively Barry knew him to be the grunting individual who had waited outside the door the night before,—Lost Wing, Medaine's Sioux servant: evidently a self-constituted bodyguard who traveled more as a shadow than as a human being. Certainly the girl in the foreground gave no indication that she was aware of his presence; nor did she seem to care.
Closer she came, and Barry watched her, taking a strange sort of delight in the skipping grace with which she negotiated the stepping stones of the swollen little stream which intervened between her and the cabin of Ba'tiste Renaud, then clambered over the straggling pile of massed logs and dead timber which strewed the small stretch of flat before the rise began, leading to where he rested. More like some graceful, agile boy was she than a girl. Her clothing was of that type which has all too soon taken the place of the buckskin in the West,—a riding habit, with stout little shoes and leather puttees; her hair was drawn tight upon her head and encased in the shielding confines of a cap, worn low over her forehead, the visor pulled aside by a jutting twig and now slanting out at a rakish angle; her arms full of something pink and soft and pretty. Barry wondered what it could be,—then brightened with sudden hope.
"Wonder if she's bringing them to me?"
The answer came a moment later as she faced him, panting slightly from the exertion of the climb, the natural flush of exercise heightened by her evident embarrassment.
"Oh, you're up!" came in an almost disappointed manner. Then with a glance toward the great cluster of wild roses in her arms, "I don't know what to do with these things now."
"Why?" Barry's embarrassment was as great as hers. "If—if it'll do any good, I'll climb back into bed again."
"No—don't. Only I thought you were really, terribly ill and—"
"I am—I was—I will be. That is—gosh, it's a shame for you to go out and pick all those and then have me sitting up here as strong as an ox. I—"
"Oh, don't worry about that." She smiled at him with that sweetness which only a woman can know when she has the advantage. "I didn't pick them. Lost Wing"—she pointed to the skulking, outlandishly dressed Indian in the background—"attended to that. I was going to send them over by him. But I didn't have anything to do, so I just thought I'd bring them myself."
"Thanks for that, anyway. Can't I keep them just the same—to put on the table or something?"
"Oh, if you care to." Barry felt that she was truly disappointed that he wasn't at the point of death, or at least somewhere near it. "Where's Ba'tiste."