SHORT STORIES

The Mammoth Tusk

A Tale of British Columbia

William A. Bryce November 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

The Mammoth Tusk

A Tale of British Columbia

William A. Bryce November 1 1910

The Mammoth Tusk

A Tale of British Columbia

William A. Bryce

SHORT STORIES

VERNON the boss pulled out his ’kerchief and his watch as he strode along to where St. Elco was spraying fruit trees with an enormous metal syringe. The boss’s “ticker,” as he himself called it, was the 24-hour timepiece they use out west, and he wore it, as most men wear watches in the “dry belt” of British Columbia, swathed in a handkerchief to protect it from dust.

“Fourteen o’clock, St. Elco, my tulip !” he cried cheerily. “Belay all —that is to say, cease fire! No more spraying to-day. The flume’s dry as 66

a whistle. Must be a leak somewhere up yonder in the wToods. A murrain on’t, as Shakespeare says. A hundred degrees in the shade, the flume dry, and the lake two miles off! And they call this a wet season—one downpour and two showers in six months. Who wouldn’t sell a Columbian fruit farm and go to sea?”

“I wouldn’t,” came in positive tones from the young fellow as he laid down his syringe and rose to stretch himself. “The sea? Not for me, thanky. I had enough coming over. I’d rather rest easy under my own or someone

else’s fig tree—rather study arboriculture and pomology under you, boss, if you don’t mind.”

Charlie St. Elco was just an ordinary young Britisher, dressed in the garments of the country—grey flannel shirt and trousers, cowboy hat, thick boots and canvas overalls. A leather belt with a pruning knife in a sheath proclaimed his avocation. His face was not without a touch of the sadness and sentimentality of the Celt, and not improved by the fact that it was pitted with tiny red blotches where the black fly had bitten him.

“Chacun à son goût ” said the elder man with a laugh that showed he was not ill-pleased at the answer. “Eh, you’re six months out, you’ve sampled most of the work of the farm—deuced hard work—and you say that? Well, well! You’ve got sand, St. Elco. There’s not much you can’t do, from hoeing carrots to clearing land and picking cherries. You’re an out and out Canook, and that’s something very different to the Kelvingsighed city clerk of six months back—eh, my tulip ?”

The tulip reddened under his tan, “I was a bit green then, boss, and that’s a fact.”

“Well!” laughed the jovial boss, “you’re full-blown now. You’ll soon be quite capable of managing your own little ten-acre lot, and I shall be sorry to lose you. Come along. We’ll strike for to-day, though we ought to be spraying like Trojans. Hang that flume ! Must go up the woods and put it right, by hook or by crook.”

“By the way,” he said a few minutes later, as they went up the wide wooden stairway into the ranch, “seen any signs of that harum-scarum daughter of mine this afternoon? I wonder where she’s got to?”

Charlie shook his head.

Vernon’s orchard occupied a wide and lovely valley, surrounded by ranges of mountains as far as the eye could reach—and hundreds of miles farther. From the brow of the hill one could see the Selkirk Range, adjoining the Rocky Mountains ; and all

around lay a wild and picturesque country—a country that will always remain wild, defying the taming advance of civilization — a country shaggy with woods that teem with life.

St. Elco’s ten-acre orchard was a couple of leagues distant over the brow of the “rise.” He was working hard at Vernon’s, trying to earn the purchase money, five hundred pounds, which he had arranged to pay in instalments; but it was an uphill fight for a needy young fellow with no capital, and the company who were exploiting this part of the fruitful “dry belt” threatened to sell the lot over his head if he did not pay promptly.

It was tiresome to be so young and so poor, and he heartily wished his “learning” time was over, so that he could start in his own ranch. But as things were going he could not hope to do this inside a couple of years.

Thinking of this, Vernon’s “learner” cantered over the ridge that sultry afternoon. He had a few hours at his disposal ; the sun was burning hot, the woods looked inviting, and a distant gleam of the Okanagan Lake called him northward like a lure.

The sturdy young fellow made a pleasant picture as he rode under the fresh green leaves. The horse shone glossy brown where the sun struck its flank, and the rider, tricked out in a gay red scarf that struck a salient note amid the encircling leafage, sat gracefully poised in his saddle, sitting down, cowboy fashion, but quite upright, and holding the reins loosely in the left hand, high up, level with the chest.

There was little or no trail, and the horse wound a sinuous way round huge fallen trunks, and forced a passage through tall, thickly-bunched raspberry canes, its hoofs crashing noisily at times over littered branches and matted undergrowth, but more often falling soundless on carpet-like mast or loose, crumbly soil.

Presently they broke through an ancient copse of trees into a clearing

where a broad rift in the encircling woodage gave an outlook upon the lofty peaks of the Range. They were more than a hundred miles away— those mountains—but in the clear air they looked nearer than ten, and it was a grand sight to see them, swathed in fleecy scarfs of mist, towering up so clearly in the stillness of the perfect day. A magnificent scene, but—

“Lonesome,” said Vernon’s “learner” with a sigh.

Below, in a gorge, the merest trickle of water marked the course of what had been a month before a dashing, frothing stream.

“Dried up,” St. Elco muttered, turning in his saddle, “dried up, like the flume—dash it.”

He had become obsessed bv the uneasy, aimless feeling that comes over hard-working men who suddenly find themselves with nothing to do. He took unkindly to idleness. He wished the flume had not dried up;

he wished he were still laboring among the cherry trees, with the overpowering sun scorching the back of his neck. Some bitter lines from Locksley Hall mingled with his reflections :

“I . . . must mix with action, lest I wither by despair.

What is that which I should turn to, lighting upon days like these ? Every door is barr’d with gold, and opens but to golden keys.”

“Dash it all—dash it all ! I’ll go and see what’s the matter with the

flume. Must have something to do, or I’ll go crazy.”

Though barely twenty-five, St. Elco had “a past.” He had done little harm away back there in the old country—certainly nothing to be very much ashamed of—but he had done little good. There were times when those sickening spectres—wasted opportunity and abject failure—laid chilly fingers on him.

Thank God that there are countries like Canada and British Columbia for

men like these, where, if you would eat, you must help yourself, fetch your rations raw from wood and stream, gather your own faggots and light your own fire, bustle around and arrange and prepare everything!

“Come, Robin—mush!” he cried, with something like an oath, as he swung his horse aside and crashed through an ocean of breast-high fern.

A moment later he pulled up with an abruptness that cost him his seat and sent him asprawl on the animal’s neck. >

“The fair Emily’s hat, as I’m a sinner!” he muttered excitedly as, recovering himself, he reached out his riding crop and lifted a large strawbrimmer with trimmings of pale blue from an overhanging bough.

He had dismounted, tethered his horse, and was standing with the hat in his hand, rubbing a red smear on his cheek where a branch had smote him, when the drumming of hoofs and a clear, musical cry heralded a mounted figure which, dashing out of a wood at the foot of a steep slope on the left, came careering along at a neck-break pace. It was Vernon’s daughter, a young girl of about twenty, hatless, her dark hair streaming about her, her riding-skirt blown aside, and two vivid spots of color on her warm-tinted face.

The young man’s eyes grew keen and bright as he watched her. “Emily Vernon on the randan! What’s the young helicat up to now?”

The ground to the right fell sheer, almost vertically, into a gash in the hillside. In that gash, or ravine, the flume from Vernon’s ranch wound along, a great wooden tube, like a sinuous snake. The slope to the left, where Charlie St. Elco stood, canted downwards to where a fringe of undergrowth marked the edge of the ravine, and then, at a less acute angle, dropped away to the wood from wThich the girl had emerged.

Even an Italian cavalryman would have hesitated to tackle such a “snell brae,” but the girl, seeing St. Elco on the crest, charged it full pelt,' and came

floundering up, hailing the young fellow with a resounding view-halloo !

“By Jove! why didn’t old Vernon call her Diana? Emily, forsooth! She’s Diana Vernon to a ‘t’.”

He watched her with fascinated eyes and parted lips.

Some time in the late fall a fire had swept the bluff. It had been the scene of a big brûlé. There was charcoal underfoot, and fine, feathery ashes, and near St. Elco rose a monstrous blackened trunk, tottering on the brow of the slope, quite lifeless and with only a few charred stumps for limbs.

Had Charlie’s attention not been fixed on Emily Vernon, he would never have ventured within such a danger zone, for trees like this are liable to fall at any moment. But he had eyes for one object only—the young Diana.

“Ca’ canny there, Miss Vernon!” he shouted. “You’ll break the knees of your nag, sure as a gun!”

“No fear!” came the cheery response. “Take a lot to break Bobby’s knees. I say—that my hat you’ve got there?”

Charlie was about to repeat the admonition, when, with a whip-like crack and without the least warning, the huge blackened trunk at his elbow tilted over, hung quivering for a second or two, and, missing him by a hair-'breadth, crashed like a thunderbolt down the slope.

“Good God !”

Gasping, deafened, and half-blinded amidst a stifling cloud of dust, it was some moments ere St. Elco regained his eyesight. When he did so he stood for a time as if petrified, gazing down the bluff. He had heard a shriek, and now looked in vain for the girl and her horse. All that could be seen was a deep trench ploughed by the fallen tree down the hillside, and a pearly cloud of dust rising from the spot where the blackened trunk had dashed over into the ravine.

Complete silence had followed the catastrophe. Charlie stared about him, scarcely breathing. Then a groan burst from him' as he realized the

significance of that deeply-ploughed trench. The huge trunk, in hurtling down, had dashed into horse and girl and swept them into the ravine.

He raced down the slope. His distraction was such that he blundered through a clump of the horrible devil’sclub-thorn without feeling in the least its venomous stings. The dust stung his eyes like caustic; and almost bereft of sight he would have gone headlong into the ravine had not something gripped him above the left ankle on the very verge of the cliff.

A sharp, spike-like object had pierced one leg of his canvas overalls. It was yellow and smooth and hornlike, and protruded from the clayey subsoil in which it was firmly rooted. The monstrous charred tree-trunk had swept away the clump of brushwood and the ton of gravel under which it had lain buried for centuries. It held him fast, and saved him a fall of sixty feet, but it sent him asprawl down the face of the declivity, and held him suspended, upside down, like the immortal Bailie in “Rob Roy.”

The shock racked every nerve in his

body. Involuntarily he flung out his arms to save himself. They embraced something warm and yielding, whilst in his ear a low voice moaned : “Charlie!”

“Diana!” In his perturbation he called her Diana. She had fallen upon a ledge-like outcropping of rock less than six feet down the cliff.

The cloud of dust had settled, so that he saw her clearly. Her white face and affrighted eyes were close where he hung.

“Lift me up, Charlie,” she muttered feebly. “You said I’d break Bobby’s knees, but I’ve broken my own, I’m afraid. . . . Where’s Bobby?”

“Lie still, my dear,” he said, brokenly. Then sternly—“Don’t move. I’ll have you up in a jiffy.”

But it took him more than fifteen minutes of the most desperate exertion to raise himself to the cliff-top, and quite half an hour to bring up the girl. She had swooned twice or thrice in the interim, though she was quite conscious when he set her down on a pile of dust. She had broken a leg, but this did not seem to trouble

her so much as her little tip-tilted Irish nose, which was not broken, but which bled profusely.

“Oh, bother,” she said whimsically whilst he set her broken limb in a rude splint. “It’s so unbecoming to have one’s claret tapped like this. Have you a key I could put down my back?” Then, with tears in her eyes, she repeated: “Where’s Bobby?”

“Oh—er—Bobby’s gone home,” he answered weakly, for he had seen the horse lying at the bottom of the ravine, near the flume, a mangled mass, with all the life knocked out of it.

He felt that he must divert her attention from that unpleasant subject. “D’y know what yon is?” he said with his Glasgow accent, pointing to the yellow, horn-like object that had caught in his overalls and saved him from the fate of Bobby. “Looks like a huge tooth, doesn’t it? I wonder what it is!”

“What a queer thing!” said she; “it’s like an elephant’s tusk. . . .”

But there was another matter of greater import than all the elephant’s tusks in the world. “Why did you call me Diana down there?” she asked with a sidelong look as he lifted and bore her off in his strong arms. “I heard you.”

Charlie’s explanation was slightly involved, but he had finished to their mutual satisfaction when the boss who had come out prospecting for the leak in the flume, met them hurrying home through the woods.

Vernon was considerably surprised to see his daughter slung across the front of his “learner’s” saddle, with that happy young man’s arms round her. He was still more surprised when Emily, now slightly delirious in addition to being dirty and dishevelled, greeted him thus:

“I say, Dad ! my nose is bleeding like one o’clock; we’ve found such a queer thing like an elephant’s tusk; my right leg’s fractured, and I’m engaged to Charlie St. Elco!”

Charlie always said that it was the tusk that brought him the luck. It turned out to be of value from an archaeological point of view. It was the canine tooth of a prehistoric monster, and he sold it to one of the Canadian museums for £260—not a very large sum, but sufficient to pay most of the remaining instalments for his ten-acre lot and enable him to marry Emily.

Last time I saw them their first . child was cutting his first tooth, and making as much row as if it were a second Mammoth Tusk.