BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
MORRIS laid aside his axe and took up a mattock. But before he resumed his attack on the brush with his tool he leaned for a moment or two on the ash haft, breathing deeply. Sweat gathered like dew on his forehead, began to trickle down his nose, to creep unpleasantly into his eyes. He wiped it away with a soiled khaki handkerchief. When he had returned this to his pocket he stood looking about with a slow turning of his head.
He stood on one side of a small clearing perhaps two acres in extent, dotted by charred stumps, ringed about by a forest of towering Douglas fir and thick trunked cedars, from the topmost boughs of which the red squirrels criticised querulously this trespass upon their domain, this invasion of axe and saw and fire.
The complaint of the squirrels, however, was lost upon Dave Morris. He stood in the shade cast by the timber. Ten paces beyond him a warm May sun beat upon the raw earth of his cleared land, upon the deep green of potato plants and the paler leaves of cabbage contending with the stumps for possession of the soil. Through an opening in the woods Morris could catch glimpses of the spring sun striking on the Gulf seas, flashing like polished metal. He could hear the mutter of surf on the shore near by—the loud, spaced beat of the surf on one side and the gentle lap of a slow swell on the other— for he stood on an island barely four hundred yards across. He could look from where he stood to the first rampart of the mainland ranges, mountains ragged as shark’s teeth, mountains rounded like a dome, mountains that wore white caps upon their lofty heads the year around.
But he did not look at the hills. He had seen them so often. He would have missed them if they had been taken away. But now he seldom lifted his eyes in dumb appreciation of their gn.ndeur. And at that moment his gaze was lingering pleasantly on the patch of ground he had won from the forest. Then it turned for a second or two to the coppery red of a split-shake roof looming above the thickets of vine maple and wild cherry that lined the shore on the channel side of Sorrowful Island.
“Anyway, it’s better’n a job in town,” he said under his breath.
He muttered something further when he bent his look thoughtfully on the spot where he had been slashing, and a> if the sight set him going he began to peck away with his mattock. He poked and pulled and slashed gingerly. An expression of mild wonder gathered on his face.
He laid down the mattock and worked with his bare hands, casting aside bits of moss, rotten wood, crooked shoots of vine maple, salai. Now and then he would pause to glance about, but immediately he would resume his picking and cutting and gathering up and casting .aside. He seemed to work with a delicacy of touch wholly needless in a landclearing operation. His face gradually took on a look that was partly doubt and partly distaste.
From the direction of his cabin a hail sounded. Morris laid aside his
tools. He stood to look down a moment. He crossed the clearing, and paused in the edge of the timber, to lookback. He gave a peculiar shake of his head before he went on down the short path beaten through the strip of virgin woods still standing between his house and the clearing.
The cabin was very small. It gave off the aromatic smell of newsplit red cedar. It sat on a low bank that slopede gntly to a gravel beach. Fifty yards off shore a half-decked Fraser River fish-boat swung at a mooring. A cable beyond that the mainland shore rose bluff and bold, and the forest receded in waves of deep green till it merged at last in the purple of those distant mountains.
Morris washed his hands in a tin basin on a bench by the door. He seated himself at a table laid for t w o—a table,
like every fabricated thing there, the work of his own hands applied with simple tools to the raw stuff of the forest. It was covered with worn oilcloth. The dishes were tin and chipped porcelain.
His wife stood by the stove taking slices of fried salmon out of a pan. When Morris seated himself she put the plate of fish, a dish of steaming potatoes, a platter of bread and a pot of tea on the table between them.
They began to eat. Until they finished nothing but monosyllables passed between them. The heat of the stove added to the beat of the sun on the shake roof made it uncomfortably warm. A shiny film of moisture bedewed the woman’s face when she drained her second cup of tea, and leaning back let her hands rest idly in her lap. Morris pushed back his chair and began to fill his pipe.
Neither was young. Nor had age yet laid his withering finger upon them. Each was about thirty, that debatable ground, in the life of those who work hard with their hands, when youth is lost and middle-age is shadowed faintly in the offing. They were curiously alike for man and wife, both quite fair and burned to brickish redness by sun and wind. Both were blue-eyed, and the woman’s eyes were the only distinguishing feature she possessed. They were large, almost violet-blue, and just now seemed wistful, a little absent, as she gazed through the open doorway.
“Isn’t it hot working in the bush to-day, Dave?” she asked at length.
“Kinda,” Morris answered. He puffed away at his pipe, elbows propped on the table.
“I wish there was some neighbors,” the woman murmured presently. “We aint seen a soul for three weeks except fishermen passing in boats.”
“I suppose,” Morris said slowly, “it’s natural we’d be lonesome in a place like this till we get used to it.”
“I don’t seem to get used to it,” she replied.
“Well, you will, Jess,” he assured her hopefully. “Anyway it’s better to be a bit lonesome and be sure of your living than to live in a crowd and worry your head off about where the next dollar’s cornin’ from.”
His wife smiled faintly.
“It’s something not to worry about the rent,” she admitted, “nor about losingyour jobatthe end of the week.” “This job’s steady enough,” he grinned. “I got to get at it again.” Morris began work at the place where he left off. Carefully, indeed with a most extraordinary care, he picked up and cast aside all sorts of such stuff as litters the floor of a forest, pausing now and then to stoop and stare at the spot upon which he bestowed such uncommon pains. Then he would shake his head and mutter inaudible comment. Finally he stood up and had recourse to his pipe. For a long time he puffed away without his gaze shifting from the ground at his feet until he glanced around at the sound of his wife’s approach.
It was her custom to help him during the afternoon, to pile for burning the brush and light branches that fell before his axe. She came up to him now. When her eyes fell on that to which her husband's gaze involuntarily turned she exclaimed :
"For Heaven's sake, Dave Morris, what’s that?”
"Looks to me like the family skeleton,” he returned drily.
Mrs. Morris drew nearer. She stared down at the bony framework with a distinct repulsion.
"Ugh!” she said. "Right here in our garden. It gives me the shivers.”
"It’s just bones,” Morris grunted. "Same as we got inside us. Look. Seems like he draped himself across that rock to die. Must’a’ been a long time ago, yet it’s never been disturbed. I been half the mornin’
pickin’ stuff from around it.” "" """"""........
THEY stood talking about this strange find, wondering how the man—they judged it to be the skeleton of a man—came to die there, how many seasons his bones had Iain in the forest shadows. They could not answer, nor could their bony guest. Time and weather had brought about a partial collapse.
But no part was missing. The wood rats had gnawed a bone or two but they had carried none away.
The vertebrae were still joined. The ends of the earth-stained thighbones still hung in the pelvic sockets. The entire skeleton lay face
downward over a small boulder, as .................
if in death it had sought something permanent to embrace.
"I don’t like it,” the woman repeated plaintively. “Right here in our garden spooky. What are you going to do with it?”
“Oh, gather it up in a box and bury it somewhere, I guess,” Morris replied. “Maybe I ought to notify the authorities. But I don’t know as I will. They’d only send a constable to ask a lot of damn fool questions and look as wise as a treeful of owls. It’s nothin’ but a bunch of bones, after all.”
Morris looked thoughtfully at the skeleton for a minute. Then he said to his wife that he would get a box, and started for the house. She followed him as if fearful to be left alone with that mute reminder of what all life comes to in the end. And when her husband found the sort of box he wanted she did not return with him. She sat down on the threshold of the cabin, and looked absently across the narrow channel that separated Sorrowful Island from the mainland shore. The wistful look grew in her blue eyes. Her slight shoulders sagged. Her mouth drooped at the corners.
Morris picked up the bones gingerly. Supported for years by moss and leafmold, all the gathered detritus of the woods which had made it a cushion, the skeleton came to pieces at his touch. The skull rolled aside. Its eyeless sockets, empty nasal orifice and slack lower jaw seemed to grin at Morris with a mockery of his unspoken questions. They were mere bones, but once they had been sentient, clothed with flesh that knew passion and pain, and they had come untimely to this pass—how else would a man lie stark in the hushed forest till his flesh rotted and his bones grew bleached and brittle? Morris could only reconstruct imaginatively a theory to fit the case, and he felt a wonder and a great curiosity. But he could get no answer from those jumbled bones, and the queer feeling that came over him when he held the skull for a moment in his hand made him hurry the task.
He carried the box away to the far end of the island, dug a hole and buried the skeleton—all jumbled together in what had been a wooden container of canned goods. He piled rocks over the filled hole.
"There, that’s done,” he said to himself when he returned to the clearing.
He lit his pipe and set to his interrupted work, slashing down brush, felling small trees, grubbing out roots, piling the accumulation in a heap to be burned. As he worked he would pause now and then to glance at the rock over which ho had found the skeleton draped in that peculiar, suggestive posture. Suggestive of what? Morris could not say. The skeleton and the rock seemed jointly the possessors of some secret. Morris was tantalized by a vague impression that there was some significance in finding a skeleton bowed over a rock, but what it might signify he had no idea whatever. He had scraped away all the litter about the rock, cut down all the brush. He took some pains to make bare all the earth immediately surrounding that stone so that it stood forth like a mark—as if indeed Morris was mindful to regard it as a mark. He was piling stuff well aside from this space and he kept adding to this pile as he freed the land foot by foot with sweat and effort from the ancient dominion of the forest, the green, tangled mask of undergrowth—the first step in converting the soil to ordered production.
He set fire to this pile a little later. When the smoke went billowing out through the trees his wife came up from the cabin.
"Where'd you put it?” she asked i curiously subdued
cd the direction with
“Up at the other end,” be indica a jerk of his head.
As he slashed down brush and saplings bis wife gathered what lay within her strength to move and piled it on the fire. They worked steadily, with scarcely a pause to talk, until afternoon was far gone. Then Mrs. Morris went to the cabin to cook supper. Morris puttered around among his growing vegetables, pulling a weed here, hoeing earth about the root of a plant there, stopping now
The Tiger of Cawnpore
¥ NDIA in the colorful days of the East India Company, before the days of steamboats ■*• and railroads and telegraph. India, the far flung outpost of commercial endeavour. Such are the days about which W. A. Fraser weaves his story “Caste.” Here appears that tiger-like Nana Sahib, the wild beast of Cawnpore, but then a young man before the black record had besmirched him. It is a colorful, alluring tale of Britain's great eastern Empire, told by a master story-teller, of the land he knows and understands. "Caste” will commence in the October 1st issue, and will run four issues.
and then to regard it all with a mild satisfaction. There was a strange sense of satisfaction in seeing the stuff grow, a curiously well-defined sense of security in the possession of this coastwise island upon which he had reared a roof of his own, whereon he was growing foodstuffs, about which he was beginning to weave a dream of independence.
A ND when the supper call sounded he strode toward ■C*. the cabin, halting as he did at noon for a backward look w'hen he came to the clearing’s edge. His gaze travelled slowly over the small space he had opened in the ninety acres of wooded island, came to fixity on the spot where he had that day laid bare the skeleton.
“Anyway, it’s better than a job in town,” he said with emphasis; and repeated, with the scorn of the man emancipated from a futureless vista of wage-working, “A job—in town.”
Morris was aware that his wife did not quite see eye to eye with him in this. Or rather he understood dimly that while her spirit embraced this opportunity of making a home in the face of difficulties her flesh sometimes rebelled. She suffered from a feeling of being shut away from all life. He could grasp that because it W'as a feeling he experienced now and then himself on this lonely island fronting the long roll of the Gulf seas, huddling against a shore jealously guarded by somber forests and backed by a rampart of gfeat mountains.
Morris’ forefathers had been pioneering folk, seeking through three generations new places to root their feet in the soil. Neither isolation nor the enormous labor of clearing wooded land had discouraged them. His great grandfather had settled at the foot of the Alleghanies. His grandfather had shifted northward, hewed himself a homestead out of the maples of Ontario. His own father had spent thirty years in stubborn contention with frosts and hail and insect pests, clinging to a half-section of wheatland in Manitoba. Morris himself had departed early from the way of his forbears in that he had learned a trade and sought his living in towns. And in the face of industrial pressure he had been driven back to the land, had turned instinctively to land that was virgin, as if to subdue it to ordered uses was a hereditary task.
But his wife came of different stock. If, like her husband’s people, her own had migrated in three generations from the Atlantic to the Pacific, they hadshifted onlyfrom town to town, fro.m marketplace to marketplace, arriving there only after other men had blazed the trail, made roads, put land to the plow, created streets and harnessed waterpowers and set the wheels of industry spinning. His wife’s instincts were the sort that rise naturally from long-practised gregariousness.
Sitting over his pipe after supper Morris watched his wife. He had suddenly become aware of a different quality of nervousness about her. He wished he had bundled that skeleton into a hole in the ground at once and kept still about his find. He was not an analytical man but he knew his wife, and he foresaw complications. These were not long in coming.
In the night he was wakened by a frantic clutch at his arm. He could feel his wife quaking beside him.
"What’s that?” she whispered tensely. “What’s that?”
Morris raised his head. A westerly had begun to blow. The marching seas flung themselves against the island
shore, boom —boovi, with a growling undertone running between the break of each wave. The wind droned high in the fir tops. There was a sibilant rustle and shiver in the agitated thickets alongshore. Under the sable robe of night the rumble of the waves, wind sighing in the trees, the minor voices of a gathering storm—that was all.
“Don’t hear nothin’,” he said. “What was it?”
"I don’t know, I guess I was asleep and woke up scared. It’s spookier here than ever, at night.”
"Tain’t any spookier than a back alley in Vancouver would be at midnight,” Morris grumbled. He was suddenly free from drowsiness, alert to all the murmur-
“"■’■ ..........""" ings in that dark forest. They were
ghostly sounds, faint scrapings of branch to branch, of leaf to leaf, agitated by that melancholy wind. He felt his wife huddle closer to him while he listened. He put his arm over her.
“There, there,” he said soothingly. “All them’s natural noises, Jessie. Go to sleep.”
“I keep thinkin’ about that skeleton,” she whimpered. “Makes me feel like I’d laid down in a graveyard. I wonder if it was a murder?”
“Quit thinkin’ such fool things,” he admonished gently.
For a long time he could tell by the uncommon tension of her body that she was awake and listening and
mui............... IIIIIIIIIIII troubled. But his own drowsiness
presently returned and overpowered him. When he wakened again his wife was cooking breakfast and the sun blazed gloricuäly through the uncurtained windows.
Left to himself Morris would perhaps have forgotten that skeleton forthwith. But he was not permitted to forget. In the daytime when light bathed Sorrowful Island even to its shadowiest recesses under the heavy standing timber, when the hot sun blazed in the clearing, his wife’s spirits expanded. She worked in the house or with her husband, forgetting, or at least gaining temporary immunity from the overpowering sense of solitude that so often oppressed her.
But when night shut down it was different, or when a storm banked the sky with low clouds that spat gray lines of rain and the wind whined among the trees and rattled the cabin windows; when all the Gulf and the mainland coast was a dull reach of mist and shifting vapors; on days like that and in the inky nights, unlighted by the moon, Morris knew with a curious certainty that his wife suffered, that she was oppressed by solitude and a victim to forebodings.
She was afraid. Fear stood always at her elbow, ready to clutch her without rhyme or reason. She would scarcely stay ten minutes alone in the clearing in broad day. She would not step beyond the light from the house door after dark. She did not complain. She did not say she was afraid. She denied it at first, like a child that dreads a scolding for its foolish fears. In the end she admitted, what Morris knew, that she dreaded something. Some vague distress afflicted her. She did not know why.
“It’s spooky here, Dave. It don’t feel right,” she declared when he tried to reason away this unreasonable feeling. “I can’t help it.”
“But that’s crazy,” he protested. “That’s like a kid getting all googly-eyed over some old woman’s ghost stories. There’s nothin’ here to hurt.”
“I krfow that,” she answered patiently. “It ain’t anything real. It’s just a feeling. It comes over me when I’m alone, or when it gets dark.”
“Land alive,” Morris grunted, “you’re old enough not to be afraid in the dark.”
“Ain’t you—ever?” she asked.
“Course not,” he declared stoutly.
But this was no longer strictly true. Feeling is a contagion that leaps from heart to heart. Fear is the most radio-active of emotions. It is like an emanation of evil —the poison gas of the mind. Morris was no more superstitious than the average man. But he presently began to feel less sure of himself, less matter-of-factly unconscious when he had occasion to go about Sorrowful after dark shut down. He would find himself in the blackest part of the woods wanting to look back over his shoulder, to listen, feeling uneasy. He became acutely sensitive to sounds. The crack of a breaking limb startled him. To stand on the beach close-wrapped in the darkness hearing the shock and grumble of breaking seas, to listen to the subdued voices of the forest complaining in a gale, gave him a strange sense of being surrounded by the unseen, by the inexplicable, which might at any moment be translated into some threatening reality.
Then he would frown and think harshly of his wife, and curse the skeleton as the starting-point of these morbid fancies.
“Damn bag o’ bones,” he would mutter. “Wisht I hadn’t let Jessie lay eyes on it.”
As a concession to this factor he resurrected the box containing the skeleton and rather shamefacedly—for he was aware of a certain childishness in the act—took it half a mile to sea and sank it in forty fathoms of Gulf water. He had hope that this would rid Sorrowful Island of its Jonah, kill the jinx, break the hoodoo—he expressed it variously.
But the cause lay deeper than those ancient bones and it was beyond Dave Morris to fathom. All he knew was that his wife had lost her nerve. She had become a prey to fears and fancies which by some obscure psychological process were slowly fastening upon him. She blamed it upon something malign, some sinister influence in or on or about the island itself.
Morris scouted that conclusion. It was unthinkable to him. To blame green timber and good brown earth for an oppression of the mind. Out of the soil came everything that a man used, needed, or deserved. He grew hot and indignant over this implied slander upon the soil that promised to feed them, that gave warrant against future necessity. He came as near a quarrel with his wife as it was in the man to quarrel with anything he cared for. And he got in his boat at the close of one of these lop-sided discussions and went away along to Pender Harbor to buy wedges and stumping-powder.
The afternoon was half spent beforê he started. Tidal currents and a garrulous postmaster delayed him. It was dark when he beached his rowboat.
There was a light in the kitchen.
He found Jessie sitting in a corner behind the cookstove crying hysterically. It took him an hour to quiet her, to get her into bed. He sat beside the bed another hour watching uneasily the spasmodic jerk of her hands, the nervous, uncertain intake and exhalation of her breath long after she fell asleep.
Sitting over a cold supper he brooded his way to a solution— w'hich he offered to his wife in the morning.
OFF SHORE from the mouth of the Fraser River, drifting to the end of a sockeye net, one unit of a fleet a thousand strong reaping the annual salmon harvest that begins in late July, Morris would look at the bobbing float lanterns, the gloww'orm lights from porthole and cabin window, and he would look away through the dark to where Sorrowful Island lay down below the horizon. He could see it quite distinctly at times though it was far beyond the range of his eye either in darkness or daylight. He would lie in his narrow bunk, rising and falling and lurching in the Gulf swell or the wash of passing steamers, and a pessimistic reckoning of his possible earnings in the short fishing season would mingle with a vision of the clearing on Sorrowful, of his neglected garden contending with the weeds, his abandoned cabin huddling in the edge of the forest. He would project a vista of the future and see all the Island cleared, set to garden and orchard—all but a park-like grove of great trees and an emerald square of gras? surrounding a comfortable house.
It was a pleasant picture to contemplate while the salmon tangled themselves in the nine hundred feet of linen mesh strung from the end of his launch like an enormous tennis net.
He would be glad to get back whether the salmon run was good or bad. He had hated to leave Sorrowful Island, even for the dual purpose of earning a few dollars and trying the medicine of change for his wife’s sake. He hoped Jessie would not be nervous when they went back to Sorrowful.It was just being lonesome—nobody within miles—and her always used to towns. Anyway they wouldn't be finding skeletons in the bush every day.
Morris frequently speculated upon that bony habitant —one of the early settlers—a regular old-timer—he would grow facetious. Neverthelesss now and then he
would think seriously about this framework of a man and wonder. W’ho was he? What had happened him?
Things like that would pop into his mind at unexpected times. And it annoyed him that they could go no farther. Sometimes he wished that he had reported his find to the Provincial police. Then he could have discussed the mystery with all and sundry. As it was he suffered the irritation of being compelled to keep silence upon a matter which he was bursting to talk about, to discuss and speculate upon publicly. He could not talk about it to his wife. Mention of that skeleton to Jessie was taboo. .. He did not w'ant to revive in her that groundless fear, that strange uneasiness. Morris was determined to make Sorrowful Island a home and a security against the sordid want of the past. He would clear that land and cultivate it no matter if there were a skeleton under every bush. He came of people whose feet were rooted in the soil. To own, to clear and cultivate land was instinctive with him, an instinct all the stronger for having been long repressed.
Also he loved his wife. He wanted her partnership, her complete accord in this Sorrow'ful Island undertaking.
When it was time to go back he wanted her to go cheerfully, without forebodings of any sort. He was not exactly a brilliant man, but he knew that people forget fear and pain—as well as other things. So he did not once mention the skeleton to Jessie, no matter how often and uselessly he speculated upon the mystery of those bleached bones.
On a day late in August a northwest gale came whooping down the Gulf and turned the salmon fleet back before they had cleared the rips where the river current met the incoming tide. The storm broke with thunder and lightning and racing clouds. The clouds vanished overnight but the wind harried the Gulf all next day under a clear sky. The fishermen lay in the river, in the delta sloughs. When they cocked their ears to the whistle of the wind they were well content to be there, to mend nets in the sunshine, to smoke and gossip.
Morris had overhauled his gear. He had gathered and piled firewood at the door of the shack where he lived. His wife was away helping another fisherman’s wife make clothes for an expected baby. Morris found time heavy on his hands. He wandered restlessly down to the float where his boat was tied cheek by jowl with half a dozen others.
In the craft rubbing gunwales with his own two men sat talking. One dangled his legs over the coaming. The other had made a seat for his angular frame in the bight of a coiled rope. Morris joined them for lack of better employment.
JOHN o’ the Black Beard, who sat in the coil of rope, was six foot two overall and about fourteen inches beam, which would be a seaman’s way of saying that for his height he was very spare. He was an old man. For thirty-two years—he would sometimes remark in a superior manner to younger men—he had fished salmon, halibut, cod, and herring anywhere between Puget Sound and Yakutat Bay. He had done other things too, not so legitimate, if water-front gossip were credible. And he looked as if these yarns might be true. He had a long, scraggy moustache, deep-set eyes, a hooked thin nose, and a short pointed beard —whereby he had gotten his name. But the beard was nolonger black. Like his thinning hair it was a grizzly gray. And his face was thin and brown and full of fine, deep lines. Mostly he was a silent man, who discoursed in brief growls. But this day he was unreeling to his companion the tale of a storm recalled by the screaming wind’ above. He grunted to Morris and went on with his story.
Afterward Morris could never quite determine what obscure impulse, what inner compulsion led him into confidences. Men with nothing else to do have foregathered and spun yarns, true and otherwise, since theworld began. At any rate he presently found himself telling how he found the skeleton on Sorrowful Island. And he did not mark at the time how instantly he fixed the attention of John o’the Black Beard and the other man.
“Uh-huh,” John remarked when Morris had finished. “Thewhole coast’s a boneyard, for that matter. There wasn’t nothing but bones, eh? No clothes? No rusty old gun or anything, eh?”
There hadn’t been. Just the skeleton bent over that rock, as if he had embraced it in his death agony. John o’ Black Beard wandered off to other subjects, fishing, the iniquity of the cannery operators. But now and then he threw out a casual remark about Morris’ skeleton, and Morris would embellish his tale with such details as occurred to him. The other man said' nothing. He sucked at his pipe and listened.
Presently Jessie Morris hailed her husband.
“Dinner’s ready, Dave.”
Morris heaved himself out of the fishboat and walked away to his meal. The two men looked after him silently until he entered his shack. Then they looked at each other. A curious light began to glimmer in John o the Black Beard’s deep-set old eyes. Wells got down off the coaming. He pointed his pipe at John like a pistol. “Say, look a here,” he pitched his voice low, but it was eager, vibrant as the tone of a hound giving tongue on a hot trail. “Did it strike vou that if that's straight maybe—well—” “You needn’t holler your head off,” .John o’ the Black Beard responded instantly. “Keep your shirt on.”
Continued on page 58
Continued from page 15
Wells wriggled as if he disliked the suggestion. He pitched his voice lower still, crouched down beside John to talk. John o’ the Black Beard nodded, stroked his whiskers, twisted his long moustacheends. That peculiar gleam kept coming into his eyes.
“It struck me too,” he said at last.
“That damn farmer,” he went on in > tone of infinite scorn, “never thought of that or he wouldn’t ’a’ talked about it. It’s worth a try.”
“I’m with you,” Wells declared. “Soon as she flats off.”
The wind went down with the sun. The hard, crystal brightness of the day turned to soft, diffused light. The white caps vanished off the Gulf and the seas took on delicate gray shadings and touches of pearl alongshore where the breakers still ran. A swell that would be killed by the changing tide burst with a spaced beat no the delta sands. The storm was over, and the fishing fleet put out to sea in the gathering dusk.
Continued, from page 58
John o’ the Black Beard’s gasboat chugged down the river with the rest. John jumped over the steering-gear, a solitary figure leaning on the low deckhouse. He answered a hail or two. Once he lifted his voice to carry on a brief conversation with another old-timer across three boats abreast. And the dusk deepened, closed in, made at last a velvet background for the bobbing lights. The dark was at full strength when the fleet cleared the outer can buoy and scattered fanwise over the Gulf to shoot their gear.
But John o’ the Black Beard held on until running and riding lights and the fiery eye of the Sandheads lightship were yellow glimmers astern. He held his boat’s bow west by north, a half north, nosing into the slow swell, plunging to the sheerstrakes in one to rise dripping over the next.
HE WAS no longer alone. A second figure loomed in the dark beside him. The voice of Matt Wells rose above the bark of the exhaust, the throb and clank of the engine.
“Take her,” John o’ the Black Beard broke into Wells’ monologue, “while I get something to eat.”
They were drawing up to White Rock light by then. The blinker untended and solitary on a bleak offshore pinnacle stabbed at them over the darkened sea with a dazzling beam, winking like a heliograph. They left that astean. In another hour the black smudge of the Trail Islands showed dim over the starboard bow.
And all this time Wells continued to talk, a natural volubility accentuated by two drinks of moonshine whisky just before they set sail. His unceasing clatter broke at last through the thin crust of John o’ the Black Beard’s patience.
“Shut up!” he snarled. “Give your jaw a rest. You’re like a damned bluejay on a branch—wauk—wauk—wauk."
Wells flung out a profane, insulting
“Shut up, d’ye hear,” John repeated fiercely. “I’d oughto known better’n to bring you along. Talk, talk, talk. I never see a man that loved the sound of his own voice like you do. You make me sick. You spent a million dollars already —twice over—in your own mind.”
“I’ll make you sicker,” Wells thrus't his face close to John o’ the Black Beard’s and shouted in a passion. “All ails you is you’d like to hog the whole thing. I sabe. You can’t put nothin’ over on me. Yah! You old pirate. You Chink-smuggler, you! You’d oughto been in jail long ago. Maybe you know more about that there skeleton than you let on. Don’t get gay with me. I’m in on this an’ don’t you forget it. An’ if I want to talk, I’ll talk. See!”
John o’ the Black Beard continued to hump over the steering gear while this tirade was delivered. The darkness hid his face. Only his few old snags of teeth were bared andjhis eyes turned craftily, maliciously sidewise—and almost with the last word he flung himself at Wells with an inarticulate sound of fury bursting from his lips.
They fell together from the short deck into the cockpit. Scuffling sounds, the thresh of bodies, arose out of that deeper gloom. Then that ceased and John o’ the Black Beard arose bareheaded, panting, his fingers spread and crooked like the talons of some predatory bird.
The boat was veering wide from her course. He straightened her up, steadied the helm. Then he stepped back down into the cockpit, and busied himself there for a time, rising now and then to put the boat’s head true.
At daybreak he was at anchor in the channel behind Sorrowful Island. He stood looking fixedly at the island as the light grew, as the sun sent its first golden spears flashing through notches in the Coast Range. His face was calm, expressionless. And with scarcely any change of countenance he slid overboard a flat-bottomed skiff, put into it a pick and shovel and rowed ashore. Carrying these tools he went straight to Dave Morris’ clearing and walked about there studying the ground, more particularly one or two outstanding boulders of moderate size.
He began to dig beside one. After
a time the removal of the dirt allowed the rock to settle slightly. John o’ the Black Beard tried to lift it, to roll it aside, but he was not quite equal to that. He got a stick or two, thrust them under the edge of the boulder and continued his digging.
The shores held up the stone and the hole grew. As it enlarged there came a change of expression over the man’s face, a concentrated eagerness in his eyes, a vast impatience. He dug more rapidly. The sweat poured off his seamed face. Once or twice he got down on his knees and peered into the excavation.
The blade struck something at last. He cast the tool aside with an exclamation, flung himself prone, clawed in the loose earth with his fingers. He wormed his head and shoulders under the rock, sustained by the wooden shores. His fingers dug and clawed.
And in the midst of his clawing something suddenly pinned John o’ the Black Beard by the throat with strong cruel fingers and squeezed the breath out of him as a closing hand squeezes water from a sponge.
DRIFTING on the Gulf with his net that night Morris kept thinking of the skeleton. The mere fact of having that afternoon spoken of it in the face of his intention to keep the thing a secret seemed to have set the current of his thought running strongly in that direction, to have put in motion streams of reflection, of imagination, which he could not stem, by which he was carried along in spite of himself. He had a disagreeable sense of a mistake made in telling that story to John o’ the Black Beard. He felt as if he had betrayed a confidence in gabbling about those poor bones. A man shouldn’t tell all he knew. He reassured himself with the reflection that, after all, it didn’t matter. But he had a feeling that it did matter. And he could not seem to stop his brain from rehashing various scenes, the finding of the skeleton, the queer, unnerving effect on his wife, the curious impulse that forced him to talk about his discovery with John o’ the Black Beard.
He could not get his thought out of that channel—as if, though corporeally absent from Sorrowful Island, his consciousness and his imagination established so close a connection that he was in the clearing and about the cabin even while he stood hauling his net and later hearing the salmon up on the cannery floor.
It was Morris’ custom to eat the breakfast his wife got ready when she saw him come in to unload, and afterward lie down to sleep an hour or two to supplement the broken rest he snatched at intervals in the night watch on the Gulf. This day when he wakened about noon his wife sat on the edge of the bed looking at him with a curious expression.
“You were talking in your sleep,” she said. “About that skeleton. Did you dream about it?”
He sat up, rubbing his heavy eyelids. It was the first time Jessie had referred to the skeleton for weeks.
“Was I? I don’t recollect no dream. What’d I say?”
“It’s funny though,” she went on, after a brief hesitation.
“I dreamed about that skeleton myself last night,” she answered composedly. “I dreamed about it and woke up and went to sleep and dreamed the same thing a second time. Dave--do you suppose there’s anything under that rock? I dreamed he was trying to lift it.”
Morris stared at her. An idea which had been germinating in his mind for days burst into full leaf. The bony one had died embracing that rock. He had died in the act of trying to lift it. Therefore there must be something beneath it— something of value. Firate gold—hidden jewels—robber’s loot—buried treasure. Morris’ imagination was suddenly stimulated to wild flights. He was convinced of the incredible. In all the drabness of his life nothing like this had ever arisen. His mind grasped at the suggestion as if it were a certitude.
“By golly, I wonder?” he breathed. “I’ve been thinkin’ that myself.”
“Lots of queer things has happened along this coast, if half you hear is true,” Jessie said. “Dave, I believe we ought to go right up there and see. I don’t know why. I just got that feeling. It’s our land. Anything we found would be ours, wouldn’t it?”
He nodded. Why hadn’t he seen this at the beginning? Or rather why hadn’t he accepted it? - forhe saw now that he had been stifling just such a conclusion ever since he uncovered those bones.
The man who stupidly fails to grasp fortune when she stands before him will run with great speed to clutch at the hem of her garment when she has passed by. So now Morris was moved to haste.
“By Golly, I’d oughto done it before,” he said with decision. “Get our^ stuff ready to put on the boat. We’ll go.”
“Sure. I’ve made a hundred and fifty dollars fishin’. That’s enough even if— supposin'
His wife nodded comprehension. She understood what hewas reluctant to utter. Her imagination also could play unrestrained about what might lie under that rock the dead man had chosen for his last couchbut she hesitated to translate those pleasant imaginings into words. Words were cold. They somehow chilled the w'armth of her visions. She guessed it was the same with her husband. What Morris had meant to say was that even if this high adventure in buried treasure failed them he had that hundred and fifty dollars to carry them over the winter on Sorrowful. He was a practical man, even though he dreamed of buried treasure.
THEY acted swiftly under this spur.
By mid-afternoon they were aboard and away. Fifty sea-miles lie between the mouth of the Fraser and Sorrowful Island, a nine hour run—for a fishing boat. But luck ran a little against them. With sundown the first of the Autumn fogs rose before them like billowing smoke and forced them into an anchorage. They lay all that night and till noon the next day. Again that night the obscuring vapor spread its clammy veil upon the Gulf waters. They tied up behind the Trail Islands, where all night they heard the tugs and coastwise steamers blow to each other minute by minute, blind in the fog.
Next morning broke clear and flawless as a mirror. The sun struck sparkling on the sea as they drew clear of Welcome Pass, and at nine o’clock they hauled into the channel behind Sorrowful. A mile astern, holding dead on their course, Morris marked a grey powerboat, with a high pilothouse, walking up on him, her bow wave curling out in white foam.
“Fishery inspection likely,” he told his wife. “Or maybe—”
Morris bit the sentence in two. He had swung into the small bight upon which their cabin faced. The familiar lines of the fishboat swinging at anchor there gave him a start. His wife—to whom all fishboats looked as like as peas—wondered audibly. But Morris did not enlighten
He was filled with regret for his loose talk. What was John o’ the Black Beard doing there? It made him uneasy, made him regret his impulsive disclosure.
He dropped anchor. He had no more than made the line fast on his bitts and started to launch his rowboat before the grey paint and polished brass of the government boat showed. She hauled in beside him and let go her hook. The heavy wash from her broke on the beach like surf. A man stood on the after deck training a glass on John o’ the Black Beard’s fishboat. And Morris felt his uneasiness grow. She was not fisheries—she was Provincial Police. He knew the constable on the after deck. She was putting a dinghy overside too, and as Morris and his wife pulled clear the police dinghy came alongside.
“Hello, Morris,” the constables nodded. They passed on to John o’ the Black Beard’s craft, clambered aboard. Morris slid the forefoot of his boat up on the beach, gathered an armful of stuff and went up the short path to his house, his wife at his heels. In the doorway Jessie Morris turned to look steadfastly at the timber, the channel between its gravel beaches, the hills that shaded away from deep green on the lower slopes to the misty blue of mountains capped with everlasting snow.
“It’s kinda good to get back,” she said simply. “After all there’s no place like a place that’s your own.”
Morris nodded comprehension. If it had not been for the uneasiness that afflicted him he would have been glad to hear Jessie speak like that about Sorrowful Island. That was how he had always felt. But he could not get his mind off John o’ the Black Beard and the unpleasant significance of that Police boat.
The gathered dust and cobwebs of six veeks outraged all Jessie Morris’ housevifely instincts. If she had been hugging •o herself a dream of treasure hidden beîeath a rock and guarded by a moldering skeleton, she abandoned it forthwith in he face of her neglected home. Morris eft her starting a fire in the stove, exlaiming over dust and mice and the havoc flayed by rats, planning an instant cam>aign of brooms and hot water. He huried up the path to the clearing. For a econd he was halted by the sight of his 'arden with its lusty cabbages and maure potato vines. The husbandman in lim warmed to the luxuriant growth, ["hen he strode on to the farther side.
hriVE minutes later he broke out on the IJ beach, waving his arms, shouting excitedly to the constables. Two of them tot in the dinghy and rowed ashore.
“John o’ the Black Beard—you lookin’ or him?” Morris sputtered.
“Well, yes,” one answered.
“He’s up here in my clearin’,” Morris ireathed .“Come on.”
“Steady now,” one officer said. “We yant John, and maybe he knows we do— (nd we want him without a fuss. What’s íe doing up there?”
! “Nothin’,” Morris answered slowly. ‘He won’t make no fuss. He’s dead.” They followed him through the timber, cross the clearing, and when Morris lalted the constables stood for a few secnds looking down with awed curiosity at pair of legs and part of a body sticking t a grotesque angle from under a sizable
“How do you know it’s John?” one
“I know his boots,” Morris replied, “and hem plaid pants.”
The three of them laid hold of the tone. With a moderate effort they turnd it over and laid bare the distorted eatures.
“It’s John all right. Probably saves im a hanging. But how in blazes did he ome to get mashed under that rock?” “Hangin’?” Morris caught at the word. “Uh-huh. He and a fellow name of I at Wells left the Fraser together Wedesday night. Yesterday a cod fisherman ooked Wells’ body—weighted down with sad-line and the face all bruised up—off he bottom a mile outside the Trail Ismds. That’s why we’re looking for John. rou have any idea what he was doing ere, Morris?”
Morris shook his head. The time for riling of his skeleton was past. He reacted that he had talked once too often 'hen he told John o’ the Black Beard and flat Wells. He was afraid to tell now. iesides it didn’t matter to the police why ohn o’ the Black Beard had been digging nder a rock on Sorrowful Island. .. They ad wanted John as the probable perperator of a crime. They had John now. Vhy should he gratify their curiosity— nd perhaps let loose another pack of roubles.
The constables squatted on their heels nd lighted cigarettes and talked. They omplimented Morris on his land clearing, is garden. He had the making of a nice lace, they observed sagely. One was an Id-timer, grown grey in the government ervice. He grew reminiscent of the coast n general, of Sorrowful Island in particuar. Morris listened eagerly.
He helped them carry the dead man to he beach. They put John o’ the Black Jeard in the cockpit of his own boat and aking the boat in tow hauled their anchor aid stood back along the course whence hey had come.
Morris watched until the grey launch vas a receding speck on the Gulf. Then he went back to the clearing, took a pick und shovel from a hollow cedar where he ;ached his tools when he went away, and ¡walked to the rock upon which he had f ound the skeleton.
John o’ the Black Beard had guessed vrong. He had pitched on a stone forty ,eet from the right one. Probably he vould have tried them all—if he had been ¡¡^ranted time. But Morris did not have fj.cr guess.
: He began digging. After a little he ‘!;ave a tentative pry. To his surprise he rock lifted easily. He saw that it was flat on the bottom. He laid hold of it, and with no great effort turned it over. Then he dug rapidly, with growing excitement—the point of his shovel had .'truck something foreign to the soil.
In a few minutes Morris had cleared Away a six-inch layer of earth, and so jared the outline of a box—a cedar box,
badly rotted, but nevertheless a box. He scraped the loose dirt with his hands and laid hold of the top board. It came away in crumbling pieces.
Morris sat back on his haunches with a gasp, a look of dumbfounded surprise. He reached in, picked up something, let it drop back with a metallic clank. Then his gaze travelled slowly about the clearing, over the tall firs and branchy cedars that made a green wall about the open ground where his garden grew, where the charred stumps stood black, where piles of brush and roots lay ready for the burning as he had left them. He picked up a handful of earth, looked at it thoughtfully, let it sift slowly through his fingers.
He roused out of this brown study at the approach of his wife. She came across the clearing with quick steps.
“What did you find, Dave?” she asked breathlessly.
“Buried treasure,” he said solemnly.
She bent over the hole. A comical blankness replaced her eager, anticipating look. She looked reproachfully at her husband.
He bent over and threw out two axes, a mattock, two pickheads, a dozen heavy iron wedges, a few other miscellaneous tools, the wooden handles punky with dry-rot, the steel and iron caked and pitted with rust.
“Is that all?”
“That’s all,” Morris said, and began to fill his pipe.
“Well, of all things.”
They looked at each other silently.
“Well, of all things,” Jessie Morris repeated. “I wouldn’t have been so much surprised to find nothing. But rusty old tools! And a skeleton camped over them. And I dreamed he was trying to lift it, Dave.”
“I expect he was,” Morris nodded. “I expect that’s just what he was tryin’ to do when he dropped dead. Old Thompson, the Sechelt constable, he—”
“What did they want?” she interrupted “They towed that fishboat away.”
“They were lookin’ for John o’ the Black Beard,” Morris told her. (He did not say why—nor how they had found John—there was time enough for that.) “Thompson told me that twenty-five years ago a feller took up this island. It was him built that old log shack on the point, and started this clearing. Thompson knew him. He used to stay here winters. In summer he’d go somewhere and work for wages. Thompson says he was queer. He used to think everybody along the coast was a thief. If he went away for as much as one day, he cached everything on the place, even his dishes. He left a loggin’ camp in Jervis Inlet one fall to come here. He turned up missin’. They found his rowboat hauled out on the beach and his blankets in the log shack, but nobody ever saw him again. That was twenty-five years ago. I guess I found him, Jessie. Somethin’ happened to him when he was tryin’ to open up his cache of tools.”
Jessie Morris stared at the rusted axeheads.
“I guess so,” she agreed. Then, whimsically, “Well, we got the ranch, even if there’s no buried treasure.”
“There’s buried treasure here,” Morris said thoughtfully. “We’ll dig it up, if we dig hard enough. We’ll have to sweat for it—but it’s here. Here in this,” he picked up a handful of the rich, brown leaf-mold and dribbled it back and forth in his palms. “It’s rich—rich enough to grow five-dollar gold-pieces—if you plant the right kind of seed. That’s what my grandfather used to say about good land.”
They walked across to the garden. Mrs. Morris went down to the cabin to cope with a practical problem devoid of all mystery, the getting of dinner. Morris stood looking about him. Deer had swum across from the mainland in his absence to browse on the garden stuff. He reflected that he must build a picket fence against these marauders. He saw in his mind’s eye the growth of that cultivated area, fruit trees in blossom and bearing, flowers, beauty for the eye and ease for the body arising out of the tilled soil.
And in the face of that realizable dream, which he knew he could bring to reality in sweat and effort applied to the earth under his feet, that which had befallen the moldering skeleton, the evil which had overtaken John o’ the Black Beard, his own brief and giddy visions of treasure trove, seemed no more than incidental grotesqueries.