OVER THE BORDER
BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
PERRIN shut his eyes for a second. He opened them again.
Nothing had changed. He did not expect anything to be changed. He would have been startled if any change had occurred. Closing his eyes had been merely an instinctive action, the sort of thing a man does when he stares too long at something which he cannot clearly make out.
Perrin was puzzled, quite unable to account for what had happened. But there it was; his hand resting on the table, a stub of a pencil grasped in his fingers, a piece of paper—the back of an old envelope, to be precise—with six words written on it:
Go out—go out—go out, each phrase connected to its neighbor by a short heavy line where the pencil-point had slid an inch across the paper.
The words were written in a round, smooth hand which scarcely resembled Perrin’s writing. He habitually formed cramped, angular letters when he wrote, but his hand had traced those six words.
It was an extraordinary thing, Perrin thought. He sat staring at the pencil and the paper, as if he half-expected this mysterious force to set his hand in motion
And suddenly he flung down the pencil with an impatient exclamation, put on his cap and coat and went outside.
The winter air struck his face like the invigorating shock of a cold shower. He stood to his knees in dry, loose snow, crisp and powdery as granulated sugar. His breath went out in white, steamy puffs.
All about him there was a vast stillness, a cold, scintillating sunshine, and snow— a snow-buried world, spreading away toward the Chilcotin in rolling hills, lifting on two sides of him and behind him in sheer canyon walls, that ran up to lofty mountains whose heights were shrouded in wraiths of frost-fog. All this dazzling whiteness was scantily relieved by thin forests of pine on the hills, and a sparse growth of timber and willow brush in patches on the canyon floor.
Perrin gazed about him with no particular interest. He was not oppressed by the solitude, by the immensity of either the snowy waste or the overshadowing mountains. Snow, frost, blizzards were a natural part of that environment. Perrin had been gazing into the cold eyes of winter for three months. He would continue that unabashed stare for three months longer. Then the warm breath of spring would sigh across the snows until they disappeared. The grass would thrust up green blades through the warm earth, and all the harshness would be forgotten. The North was an old story to Perrin. He had watched the ice go out of its great rivers many a spring. He had felt the iron teeth of the frost setting themselves into the land many a fall. It was all familiar, natural, to be expected.
SO HE was not shrinking from that bleak aspect, bleak and solitary and silent in spite of the brilliancy, the sparkling whiteness. He was thinking abstractedly of the strange thing his hand had done in that cabin. And he was also wondering if his partner had been lucky, if Hood and Santell were at their daily cribbage duel, and whether he should go over there or chop some wood all the ordinary reflections of the ordinary man keeping pace in his brain with a curious inquiry as to the real source of those pencilled words.
Perrin shook himself. He glanced at the cabin where the other two men—Hood and Santell lived; a small eabin, a hut of pine logs fifty yards farther up a flat which ran between an ice-bound creek and the steep foot of a mountain. Smoke poured from the chimney. There was life and warmth land very likely a wordy discussion; Hood and Santell being given to interminable goodnatured argument) within the four low, brown walls. He stood for a time staring at the creek bed, speculating pleasantly on how big the clean-up would he in the spring. Then his eye, following the winding course of the stream out through the receding foothills, saw a black speck moving on the field of white and he knew that his partner was returning from the hunt. He picked up an axe and set to work chopping lengths off a pine log, each blow of the steel blade ringing with a strange, bell-like clearness in that silent place.
He chopped wood and carried it in until the black speck resolved itself into a man laboriously dragging be-
hind him some object in the snow, a burden which, when he reached the cabin, proved to be a deer.
“This is luck,” Perrin commented. “Thought sure they’d all gone to the lower country.”
“So’d I,” his partner grunted. “But you can’t always tell about deer.”
He raised his voice in a shout, and a red head thrust out of the other cabin.
“Come and get half uh this,” Cooper invited, “before it freezes stiff.”
Dark came, after the long twilight, and the aurora shimmered and waved above the Pole. Perrin marked it when he opened the door to throw out the refuse of their supper. But he merely glanced at the coruscating banner that gleamed and shifted across the sky. He had seen it many a time. He would see it many more times. But it struck him, as he stood for a moment bareheaded in the knife-edged frost, that if this creek lived up to its promise, he might not watch the Northern Eights another winter.
That thought was lingering in his mind when he lay down on his bunk for a smoke. His partner sat mending the web of a snowshoe, and Joe Hood and Mike Santell squatted on the dry, earthen floor, before the fireplace.
Cooper finished mending his snowshoe. Hood proposed a solo game. They made it three-handed, on a piece of canvas before the bright fire, when Perrin refused to play.
So Perrin was left to his pipe and his thoughts, as he desired. The solo game progressed in silent concentration, monosyllabic comment, indicative grunts. Perrin stared at the roof, blowing smoke up to the shadowy ridge-log. His mind turned persistently to the pencil and paper.
He swung his legs at last over the side of his bunk and lit the lamp—“lamp” by courtesy, for it was
only a bit of rag afloat in a saucer of grease. But it gave a light of sorts.
gleam Perrin ; his fingers, an of paper. Hef But he had thi ment. That pure accident may he coin design. Perrin wa;
And in this dubious P. waiting with the pencil in tinpoint resting on a piece It himself a fool for his pains, impulse to persist, to experihioh happens once may be A second like occurrence idence. Repetition argues not disposed to mysti-
i'isra. He was merely puzzled, curious, deeply interested in an unfamiliar pheno-
After a long time the pencil began to move slowly. Without conscious volition, almost in spite of a resolution to keep his hand still, it moved - slowly—across the paper, forming letters in a round hand, with an uncanny deliberation.
Go out—go out—go out.
Three times repeated. Then, as if a wild impatience had become embodied in his hand, the pencil moved more rapidly, in jerks, in short loops, in swift, powerful erratic dashes that broke the pencil point and tore the envelope in a final paroxysm.
Perrin’s hand went limp, as if some tremendous force had suddenly been cut off. The pencil dropped. He sat staring in mute wonder at the six plain words, the meaningless scrawls and dashes. His arm ached as if a strain had been imposed upon the muscles. While his hand had been forming those characters, it felt as if it were being urged by some external force. But Perrin could not think in terms of an external, unseen, unknown force. He could consider only the fact of himself sitting down with a pencil in his hand and a curiosity to see what his hand would do. His mind had not been a blank, nor his will in abeyance. Yet that movement of his hand had been involuntary, a compelled action. He was satisfied of that. He had a conviction that he could not have stopped his hand if he had tried.
Perrin was not precisely an ignorant man. In many ways his intelligence was acute. He was competently educated along various lines. But he was completely ignorant of psychic phenomena. He had never heard of Daniel Durg’as Home and his disputed levitations, nor even of Sir Oliver Lodge and Eusapia Palladme. He knew nothing of that school which treats consciousness, thought, life itself as a mode of vibration, as something which may function, unimpaired, without a material body. He knew little more of psychic messages, of clairvoyance, of automatic writing, of all the contradictory, confusing body of hearsay visions, messages, materializations, so inextricably entangled with fraud and trickery. Perrin’s knowledge of these things was casual, vague. He had no adequate, readyto-hand explanation for this amazing experience of his. He was too healthy-minded, too normally sceptical, to straight-way fall back upon the purely supernatural. There it was. He could not fathom the thing. And he was forced to let it go at that.
Go out—go out.—go out.
What did it mean? Whence did those words—almost a command come? And why?
Perrin shook his head and lay back on his bunk. Immediately he began to contemplate an action which seemed to him as childish, as idiotic, a procedure as any man in his situation could possibly entertain.
So much for the power of suggestion.
PERRIN and Billy Cooper, Joe Hood and Mike Santell were not wintering in the mountains on the borders of the desolate Chilcotin for their health, nor for the sake of the rugged scenery. They had not withdrawn into that voiceless solitude to commune with nature in its most primitive aspect. They were not living on beans and dried prunes and sour dough bread, supplemented with what fish and game they could secure. I« cause they preferred that way of living N■•r wenthey housed in two small log huts througt crude makeshifts in the way ■ 1 for anything hut a definite, .1
purpose was to grasp forever emanciparb.g they were now pat ic.il I Perrin and Cooper : nine months earlic o; infinite labor a twelv
,.nthi of inactivity, of oil, clothing and shelter, erial purpose, and that •dually the means of . from the sort of thing
over the coastal divide . the high ■ nun try with grubst ah« Wood and
strangers to each other, had come together in this mountain-enfolded branch of the Ak-tla River in Northern British Columbia late in August. They had not separated since, because they had jointly found goldbearing sand on the same stream and traced it into this canyon where "pay dirt,” the lure they had followed so long, halted them with coarse gold showing yellow in every pan.
it was quite simple, quite in accord with geology and mineralogy, the Gog and Magog before whom the prospector bows down. They found a place where the stream shifted from its ancient channel and looped in a new course. The old channel had four feet of gravel overlying bedrock. And on this bed-rock the gold was trapped in just such quantities as these men had sought for years; as every prospector feels sure he will some day find.
A few weeks of autumn weather allowed them to filch perhaps six thousand dollars’worth of coarse gold from this natural mint. Then the frost shut down, the water froze and the earth also. The snow buried the land. Placer mining requires running w'ater in sluice box, rocker, or pan, and w'ater does not run when it is forty below. Nor will damp gravel yield to aught butdynamite in zero weather. They could no longer work, winter locked iron doors upon the treasure.
So there was nothing for it but to winter there. They would no more have turned their backs upon that group of discovery claims than a lover w'ould turn his back upon his mistress, than a broker would foreswear stocks and bonds because the market was dull. To these men, inured to lonely camps, feeding their endurance of hardship with dreams that sometimes came true, there was no great privation involved. They might run short of staple food—but they would not go hungry. They might not see other faces nor hear other voices save their own, but they would not be lonely. And the gold was there, to be taken in the spring.
Billy Cooper summed it up in a sentence when he said: “There was never a winter yet that spring didn’t come.”
Now, with January W’aning and the back of the winter broken, a few' formless words, scrawled on a piece of paper by his own hand, had shaken Bob Perrin out of his patient checking off the days until the creeks ran and the hills were green again. He lay on his bed and submitted himself to the implication of that mysteriously delivered command. That was how it already began to affect him—as a command: a command he was reluctant to obey.
LJE CONSIDERED this, lying on his bunk, warmed by a glowing fire, sheltered by the rude walls from the hard, white moonless night, out of which arose the far, melancholy howling of a wolf. To that sound, no matter that it was one often heard, the four men lifted their heads as one.
“Smells blood where I killed that deer,” Billy Cooper said. “Howl, you---, howl!”
Perrin stepped outside, into the wan, cold night. The frost nibbled at him with its invisible merciless teeth. The wolf lifted his voice again in that sobbing cry, a voice of sorrow wailing in the cold, in the pale darkness. Perrin shivered and went back in.
The solo game broke up. Billy Cooper whittled shavings, split fine kindling, in methodical preparation for the morning fire. He kicked off his shoes and sat dangling his legs on the edge of a bunk opposite Perrin while he wound his watch.
t Your turn to cook to-morrow, Bob,” he grinned.
I 11 have a T-bone smothered with mushrooms for lunch, potatoes Julienne, and crab flakes with Thousand Island dressing. Huh?”
Perrin grunted, only half-hearing. He wanted to try again, to take that pencil in his hand again and see. Already he was beginning to doubt the evidence of his senses, to wonder if he were the victim of an hallucination. He felt that he must try again, and repeat the tr'al: ’ *’at he must attempt to verify the incomprehensible; to see if unbidden his hand would trace those characters again. But he stifled that craving for further experiment, with Billy Cooper’s shrewd gray eyes on him. It was a little too fantastic even to talk about. It was childish. Perrin thought, to be seriously impressed. Nevertheless, (he thing did impress him. It puzzled him. He could not fathom it. But it neither frightened him nor made him nervous. hen the fire on the hearth sank to a faint glow he fell asleep and slept soundly until his accustomed hour for waking.
These men were too well aware of the penalties inherent in six months of inaction to let themselves grow slothful. Mooning in a stuffy cabin, grumbling about cold instead of facing it, letting the mind dwell on the vagaries of a partner until the way he opened his mouth oi stirred his coffee became an unbearable irritation, has killed more men in the North than the rigors of the climate or the stress of its forlorn trails. They knew better than to let themselves grow soft and slack and quarrelsome. They disciplined themselves by regular hours, by daily stirring about in all weathers, by a variety of self-imposed tasks.
It being Perrin’s day to cook he rose first. Breakfast over, they sat smoking their pipes. The first steely gray of dawn found Billy Cooper swinging his axe on the woodpile, and Perrin finishing up his simple housekeeping.
Then he sat down at the table with the pencil in his fingers. It was all nonsense, he said to himself. But in spite of what he said there was the sharp urge of—what? He could not quite say. Natural curiosity? Some occult influence urging him to dabble in mystery? Perrin was not sure which. The thing had occurred. He wanted to test the possibility of repetition.
BUT nothing happened. His hand lay inert on the paper. Perrin smiled deprecatingly. He lifted his other hand and scraped with his fingernail a clear space in the coating of frost on the glass, one of the four sixinch squares he had been so often tempted to throw out of his pack as they toiled across the ranges early in the summer. And while he looked at Billy Cooper slashing at the pine log, his pencil hand began to move. He felt a curious, prickling sensation in his wrist and forearm, a queer tension that affected his biceps and shoulder. By an effort of will he kept his eyes at the window. He did not look until his hand grew limp. When he did look there were the same words.
Go out —go out—go out.
No more. No less. But it was sufficient. Perrin’s will combated with lessening power the suggestion of a command issued to him out of nothingness. That was how he put it—out of nothingness—although his own hand had been the means of conveyal. He put on his heavy clothes and went for an aimless tramp along the creek-bed. The dry snow crisping under his feet seemed to intone those words. They ran in his mind like a refrain. Why should he yield to that suggestion and go out? There was no reason why he should go. There were many sound reasons why he should not. But Perrin knew, when he returned to the cabin, that if the message were repeated he would go. He would have to go. He could not help himself. And he did not want to go. That was the queer part of it. His reason negatived it flatly, but there was an instinct stirring in him which he could not gainsay. There was rising in him an unreasoning impulse to act, to act at once.
By noon the pressure of this feeling had grown intolerable, and Perrin made up his mind. He said to Billy Cooper as they sat over their dinner:
“I’m going out.”
Some quality in his tone made Cooper put down his knife and fork and bestow a deliberate scrutiny on his partner.
In the North, a definite significance attaches to the words Perrin had just uttered. The meaning is precise, not to be misunderstood. When a man says he is going “out” he does not need to qualify or elaborate the statement. Billy Cooper knew exactly what his partner meant.
“You joshin’?” he asked at last.
“No. I mean it.”
“Have you gone batty?”
"I don’t think so.”
“Well, if you go out now, I’d say you were shavin’ close,” Cooper drawled. “You wouldn’t any more than get out before it would be time to turn around and start back in. What’s the idea?”
“None in particular except that I’ve a notion to go out and I’m going,” Perrin answered.
“Well, you’re of age,” Cooper observed without heat, and resumed his dinner. But his tone implied that while Perrin might be of age and his own master he needed a guardian. And although Cooper did not say so, Perrin knew that such a move savored of disloyalty. A man did not quit his partner in the middle of a northern winter unless for a good and sufficient reason. If the going was tough he saw it through. Perrin began to smart under a curious sense of shame. But the compulsion to go was stronger than any other influence or consideration. He was conscious of losing ground in Billy Cooper’s regard. He was weakening—and he could not explain the source of his weakness.
Perrin would have given a good deal in the next twentyfour hours to have made a rational explanation of his necessity to go out. But that was impossible. His only explanation would have made matters worse. They would promptly have declared him crazy, and very likely would have tried to compel him to stay. As it was they said very little, in spite of the fact that their manner was illuminating. Perrin knew exactly what they thought, because he knew' what he himself w'ould have thought! So he made no attempt to justify his move. He said he was going out, and he got ready to go. That was all. If they chose to regard him as a deserter, if they privately despised him as falling a victim to “cold feet,” if they even credited him with some such ulterior motive as going out to start a stampede with news of their strike, he could not help it now.
When he took that paper out of his pocket and looked at the w'ords written on it he felt that imperative
necessity to obey, just as he would have felt a compulsion to obey if the skies had opened and the voice of the Deity had issued a direct command. He looked at that paper and he did not know what to believe. He could not admit to himself that it was a message, a communication. He was highly sceptical of a guardian spirit at his elbow. But he was quite certain of one thing, which might or might not be related to those words so mysteriously inscribed by his hand without the co-operation of his will— and that was that he wanted to go out, that he was unable to resist the idea of going out, purposeless as such a bitter journey might be, no matter what effort it cost.
And there was a long-drawn effort, a continuous endurance of hardship involved in such a journey. No one realized that more keenly than Bob Perrin when he had said the last good-bye, shaken the last hand, and trudged away through the loose snow, dragging a small sled by a harness over his shoulders.
He was smarting a little under the attitude of his friends. They did not ask him when he would be back. They did not lay upon him any commissions to be executed—except the posting of a few letters. There was none of the hearty, profane instruction to bring in this or that which is invariably bestowed upon the man who of necessity takes the winter trail to the outside, from such an isolated camp. Their very quietness implied a criticism with which Perrin could not quarrel because he felt it justified. So much did he feel the justness, the sound sense of their unspoken disapproval, that he sat over his first camp-fire and seriously debated turning back.
But he went on. He bore steadily up along that dwindling branch of the Ak-tla River, fighting his way mile by mile through deep snow, over the shoulders of great mountains, through forbidding gorges. He suffered the sting of frost-bite, the ache of tired limbs, the loneliness of campfires in the hushed places. Yet he pressed on until he came at last to the wind-swept summit and dropped down into the timbered course of a river that ran westward to the sea. Perrin cursed himself many a time for a fool. Once or twice in sullen, exasperated mystification, he deliberately sat down with the pencil in his hand and a piece of paper on his knee. Each time after a few minutes of waiting his hand traced those words. No more. No less. Just six words. And Perrin would go on—when he had perhaps said to himself that he would turn back.
Tj'ROM the site of those cabins on the Ak-tla, Perrin had to work his way through canyons and passes, across as gloomy and forbidding a region as lies in all North America. It was well over a hundred miles in a true line from where Perrin started to where he would strike salt water at the head of one of those long inlets which here and there thrust deep into the British Columbia coast. It was over two hundred miles as Perrin came, in the dead of winter, harassed by blizzards, carrying his bedding and his food on his back over places impossible to a hand-sled.
The frost gnawed at him day and night. The cold winds buffetted him unmercifully. Sometimes he was on short rations. And always he was lonely. The wilderness pressed on him harder than it had ever done. He did not know why. He merely knew that it did. But he pushed on in the dogged fashion that enables such men to reach the end of the hardest trail, and eventually he came down to the lower Homalko, where the fir and spruce trees rise like the pillars of a temple out of soft, damp snow, where the teeth of the frost are blunted against a rainy seaboard. And a few miles below that, where the tides of the Pacific rise and fall in the mouth of the Homalko, Perrin found a logging camp and heard the voices of men for the first time in twenty-seven days.
He rested there. The man who leaves the gold-bearing hinterlands of the North does not feel himself truly “outside” until he hears the roar of street traffic, until his eyes are dazzled by blazing shop windows, until, in short, he reaches town. But Perrin felt himself “out” when he laid off his pack in the logging bunkhouse and sat down beside a glowing stove. He had a few dollars in currency and five pounds troy of virgin gold, but it did not burn his pockets. His mind was on his partner, on his claim buried in snow and sheathed in overflow ice, back beyond the ranges. He had not wanted to come. He marvelled at the strength of the impulse that had driven him, and marvelled further that it ceased to drive him as soon as he reached tidewater.
He could sit for an hour now with a pencil in his hand, and his hand would not even quiver. He sometimes wondered if he had been mildly insane, if he had suffered from an hallucination which had brought him where he was. But there was no hallucination in the fact of his being there, nor the cool, practical consideration of getting back as soon as spring opened. So he stayed on at the logging camp, hired himself out as an axeman, until April brought the snow-water down in a flood and he knew that he could cross the mountains again.
When the time came he hired two Siwashes with a dugout canoe, purchased from the camp commissary a full Continued on page 40
Over the Border
Con/inued from J)age 22
load of such supplies as he knew his partner as well as Hood and Santell would need, and bore back up the Homalko.
If the hardships of this journey were less than the other the labor was greater. For thirty miles the Homalko was passably navigable for a canoe. Beyond that there were rapids to buck, canyons to be portaged, stiff climbing and fierce carrys, until the river became a creek, the creek shrunk to a streamlet, gurgling down the gut of a canyon flanked by mountains still white with snow. Here they abandoned the canoe and resorted to the pack, fifty pounds to a man. They relayed the goods forward day after day, carry and cache and back-track for another load, creeping up toward the summit of the Coast range with infinite toil, gaining five miles in ten bitter hours and lying down at night exhausted.
BUT all trails have an end. A day came when Perrin paid off his Indians and bade them good-bye. He cached his goods in a stone cairn against the prowling bears. He stood astride the roof of the world. Canyons fell away east and west from his feet. His eye marked eagerly a route by which in two days of travelling light he would reach the cabins. At that height the snow still lay deep, but far beyond he could see green slopes and the air was soft. Down in the flat by the camp the wild crocus would be showing. Winter was gone. It was a pleasant prospect and Perrin’s thoughts were also pleasant.
He would tell them why he went out, and perhaps the joke would not be altogether on him when he told them of a summer’s food supply transported within two days’ carry of the claims.
After all: going out was simply a hunch. Anyone of them might have got the same sort of a hunch from a different source. Any one of them would have acted on a hunch. That is how gold is found. That is the way prospectors are made. Thus Perrin—as he swung downhill, through pine timber that gave off a pungent aroma, along canyon bottoms, over melting snowdrifts, with the spring sun on his face and that pleasant sense of well-being which sometimes comes to men who traverse the silent places, who are at home in the wilderness.
His gait insensibly quickened as he crossed a low point and dropped into the head of the flat where the cabins stood. Prom a distance of half a mile he caught a glimpse of figures moving across from the gold-bearing channel toward where the houses huddled under the steep hillside. He could see also a faint line where the sluice-boxes emerged from the stream and bore over the pay-streak. The thin stream of running water flashed in the noon sun.
Then Perrin could see no more because of the screen of willows and scrub pine which grew on the flat. But in a few minutes he was clear of that, fairly the open within a hundred yards of the
He pulled up short. There was only one cabin. The chimney belched smoke and Joe Hood was chopping a pine log at the door. He could tell Hood by the red gleam of his hair.
But the other cabin was gone. On the spot where' he and Billy Cooper had lived there rose a great mound of earth, boulders, broken timber, the skeleton roots of trees. It was piled to a height of fifty feet. The nearer edge pressed within a few' yards of where Joe Hood swung his axe.
Perrin stared. Then he strode on, bowed a little forward under the weight of his pack. From a little distance he hailed the cabin. Hood rested his axe on the log. Mike Santell came out with a dish in his hand. Perrin knew they were glad to see him. He knew' it by the way their faces lit up, by the hearty grip of their hands. And he was glad to see them. But he looked at the up-piled debris of the slide and a question rose to
The three of them faced the spot. Santell spoke first.
“He’s buried under that. It came dow'n one night about two weeks after you pulled out. It didn’t seem hardly any use to dig for him. There’s a thousand ton of rocks and dirt and pine trees on top of him. He’s as well buried there as anywhere.”
Men who have spent years prospecting in the far places, grow accustomed to the desperate chances of their environment. They become acquainted at first hand with pain, grief, the uncertainties of life, the swift obliterating stroke of death. If the bony one lays his hand upon aman, that man’s companions honestly regret him, they are saddened beyond words, but they do not grow hysterical. They are alive, and since it may be their turn next they do not sit and weep. All men must die. On the frontier, in the wilderness, where emotion must be repressed rather than stimulated, men pay their dead the tribute of a sigh, a regret, and they pass on, for life and life’s affairs still press insistently upon the living.
Perrin and Billy Cooper had been, partners two seasons. Perrin looked at the débris of the slide which had entombed his partner. He felt sad. But he felt also a curious wonder at the manner of his escape from the same fate.
In the middle of the meal to which the three sat down after Santell had finished cooking it, Joe Hood halted his fork in mid-air to say:
“You’d ’a’ been killed in that slide too, Bob, if you hadn’t taken a crazy notion to pull for the coast. What made you go out. anyhow?”
Perrin shook his head.
I don’t know,” he answered soberly.
That was the sober truth. He did not know. He felt that he never would known It was a matter which passed his understanding, although he was gratefully aware that it had saved his life.