Storm Freed

Being the chronicle of a man of the woods who dared to match his strength against the fury of the north country and thereby snatched a prize which a poltroon could not hold.

H. MORTIMER BATTEN December 1 1926

Storm Freed

Being the chronicle of a man of the woods who dared to match his strength against the fury of the north country and thereby snatched a prize which a poltroon could not hold.

H. MORTIMER BATTEN December 1 1926

Storm Freed

Being the chronicle of a man of the woods who dared to match his strength against the fury of the north country and thereby snatched a prize which a poltroon could not hold.

H. MORTIMER BATTEN

RANCE SINCLAIR was so busily at work that he neither saw nor heard his guide, David Hawker, approaching from the creek below. They had parted about an hour previously, Sinclair stating that he would take a stroll round on the off chance of game for the pot, while the guide made camp and straightened the gear. Hawker could not have explained why he had followed. Life in the woods quickens a man’s sixth sense, and the guide had, perhaps, felt that something was not quite right. Certainly, he had no intention of spying upon his employer, but when a guide hears a shot, succeeded by silence, he is quite entitled to follow, even though his services may be temporarily dismissed; there may be game to cut up and skin.

Now, arriving on the scene, Hawker realized at once that his services were neither needed nor welcome, for Sinclair, streaming sweat, was burying something in a muskeg swamp under the cedars. Hawker caught sight of a cloven hoof protruding, and from its slenderness, he knew that it was the hoof of a very young moose.

“Made a mistake that time, didn’t you, Mr. Sinclair,” Hawker remarked; whereupon, his employer started visibly as he looked up. His pale, narrow face, somehow out of place in the great woods, showed no signs of embarrassment, save that his eyes narrowed a trifle.

“Yes, I did,” he admitted shortly. “But hang you, Hawker, why d’you turn up when you aren’t wanted! I told you I’d go alone.”

Hawker made no answer. He took hold of the small polished hoof, and plying his strength, which was pretty considerable, he dragged the illegal kill out from its hiding. On his face was an expression of contempt.

“Upon my soul, Hawker, it was a mistake!” the young huntsman quickly emphasized. “I could only see her ears, and I mistook her in the shadows for a big bull.

The guide permitted himself a faint smile. “Not much

bull about it, Mr. Sinclair,” he protested.

“A cow calf not half grown, and in any event you aren’t supposed to shoot till you can see, else—what are the Game Laws for?”

An angry flush was suffusing Sinclair’s pale cheeks. He had known from the first hour of their trip that Hawker did not like him, and since then, his guide’s superior manner had nettled him more and more. No doubt, Hawker was the best guide available for this country, but there are some men who cannot pull together.

“Everyone makes a mistake now and then,” Sinclair argued. “You won’t report this case I suppose?”

Hawker turned on his heel. “I’ll have to,” he answered. “I won’t be doing what I’m paid for if I don’t.”

“Well, if it’s a matter of pay—” Sinclair blurted out the words before he gave himself time to think, but as the guide wheeled round he realized his mistake.

“I was afraid it would come to this,” said Hawker. “You’ve blazed away at everything you’ve seen, whether we wanted it or not. It was a damn shame shooting those loons yesterday, and the fish-hawks the day before, and I can tell you this, Mr. Sinclair, there are some sportsmen we don’t want in these woods. Ever hear of a game hog? If not, you needn’t go far!”

The young man glared at him. “That’s a pretty serious remark,” he observed, and they went on in silence. Gaining the canoe, Hawker took up the paddle and knelt in the stern, while Sinclair settled himself amidships.

“It’s a first offence,” he said presently, “and it will be hard luck if you go and dirty my ticket. They’d suspend my license, I suppose?”

“Nothing surer!” Hawker remarked unemotionally. “As for it being your first offence, Mr. Sinclair, I’m not so sure of that. What about two days ago, when you told me you’d fired at a timber wolf? Wolf or not, a whitetail doe passed me trailing a hind leg. I backtracked her by the blood, and found your shell case!”

“That’s a lie, anyway!” cried Sinclair, turning savagely about, but he could not meet the steady gaze of the other man.

“I overlooked that,” the guide went on, as though uninterrupted. “I gave you to understand that I knew you were lying, so that was your chance.”

Sinclair shot out the next sentence like a rattlesnake striking venom. “You insolent swab! You can report me, and to blazes with you! You’ll find it don’t pay! Hell, I could buy you up and the rest of your blinking outfit! Call yourselves game wardens, eh? Well, I could tell a tale or two about one or another of you. Even Everett, your chief—”

“You’d better talk to Mr. Everett about that,” Hawker advised quietly, as he steadily plied the paddle, and the serried ranks of the tamaracks drifted by. Then, as they landed below their camping site, Sinclair demanded. “Supper ready?”

“Not yet,” said Hawker, mechanically tethering the canoe.

“No, it never is!” grumbled Sinclair. “If you’d obey my orders instead of sneaking around, it would be—!” Hawker approached him in three strides. “See here, Mr. Sinclair,” he said, “I’m not going to quarrel on the trail, but we’re men out here face to face—at least we’re supposed to be. I don’t go sneaking round after anyone. I heard your shot, so I just came along, as any honest man would expect.”

Sinclair appeared to shrink under the steady gaze, and his narrow eyes sought the trail for camp. He turned in that direction, and at a safe distance he sneered over his shoulder—“Man to man I’m as good a man as you are!

You’re just about the most inefficient guide I ever came across!”

'T''HE supper was ready in double quick time that evening, and it was a wonderfully good supper; be it admitted they were packing good stores. Sinclair declined coffee. He had his flask, and resorted to it fairly freely. Around them was the great shadowy loneliness, and the first tang and crackle of frost in the air. Hawker ate little, for big and able though he was, he took his business seriously, and what had happened that night troubled him. There was a great deal he wished to say, but he said nothing at all, leaving his employer to correct the awkward silence. At length Sinclair spoke.

“Well, that’s that,” said he, flinging the empty flask into the packs and groping in his vest for a matchbox. “You know, Hawker, you’re a good chap—a derned good chap, but you and me haven’t just hit it off as we might. All my fault, I suppose, ’cos—you’re a derned good chap!” Hawker sat over the fire, the light shining red on his strong face and on his big hands, which clasped and unclasped, but at Sinclair’s grip on his shoulder, he straightened rigidly.

“Not at all, sir,” he began awkwardly, but Sinclair cut him short with an impatient wave.

“Now sit still, sit still!” said he none too steadily. “It’s me who’s talking!” He lit his cigar. “I’m a good fellow, too, Hawker, though you don’t get me square. We need to know each other better. See here—I could buy you up and your whole derned outfit!”

Hawker wearily. “I know that,” said he. “Go on.” “Well now, listen! What you intend to do is a serious thing for me. I’m engaged to old man Howick’s daughter, going to marry her—you get me? You know old Howick? He hunts hereabout.”

“Yes,” said Hawker, “I know him. A sportsman and a gentleman. Go on!”

“That so?” muttered Sinclair. “Well, I suppose I’m not a sportsman. Truth is, hunting’s no fun to me, except when you can shoot what you like. Up here you can’t. It’s all red tape. Why the blazes we shouldn’t when we pay our licenses and all you blood-suckers, I don t know! But that’s neither here nor there. I have to go hunting, because that girl would think nothing of me in my position if I didn’t go out in the fall, and I wanted to get a moose head to whack her dad’s, and that’s why I offered you any money for the best head in this valley, with its tamaracks and its cedar swamp! So there you are, Hawker. If you suspend my license, the old man will take it terrible sore, and I’ll have to quit.”

“I’m afraid you’ve thought about all that a bit late,” Hawker said. “I’ll have to report you, Mr. Sinclair.” “Why?” queried Sinclair after a pause. “We’re all alone, aren’t we? WTho knows but you and me?”

“I don’t care who knows,” replied Hawker. "111 have to report you. It’s my job.”

“Job!” drawled Sinclair. He sat back with affected laughter. “Don’t talk that bilge to me! \ ou’ve got to live, the same as the rest of us. A man’s first duty is to himself, and don’t all your outfit know it, from Everett down! You talk like a child. Hawker, unless maybe you’re trying to force my hand! Now state* your figure and we’ll talkbusiness.”

There was a long silence, while both men sat motionless, save that Hawker still clasped and unclasped his hands. At length he laughed, a free and easy laugh. “I reckon our next business is to our blankets,” said he. “We’d better go before I’ve to take you down to the creek to sober you. Why didn’t you stick to your powder puff and your face cream away at home. I’ve been calling you ‘sir,’ but it was a mistake. Damned if I’ll call any man ‘sir’ unless I respect him, and I don’t respect you, for all your money!”

Sinclair grunted. “Think I care?” he retorted. “Think I want the respect of a guide whom I pay by the day? I tell you I’d buy you up—!”

But Hawker was busying himself about camp, leaving the man still talking, and presently the guide sought his scented brushwood mattress, but it was not to sleep. He was wondering what sportsman Howick’s daughter was like. Either she was very different from the old man, or she had seen this fellow in the wrong light. Anyway, God help her.

THEY packed out the following morning. There was nothing else for it. Sinclair did not forget to rub it in that he had come out there for pleasure.

As the day wore on, he was, nevertheless, filled again with wonder at the wiry strength of his companion. For hour after hour, Hawker-swung his paddle, and the frail craft fairly foamed over drift and shallow, for all the world like a russet autumn leaf borne by the wind. The scenery was of the choicest, and Sinclair himself paddled when he thought he would, smoked a good deal, and shot with a .22 rifle at the water fowl which had come to disregard man as a source of danger in that fairyland of lake and forest. But he was a young man, and all day he was turning something over in his mind, and dismissing it with the thought—-“Anyway, I’m as good a man as he is!” Certainly that conclusion became rather difficult to explain when he tried to compare notes, and as the day wore on, and the sinuous arms of the guide never faltered in their rythmic beat, Sinclair had to reassure himself more and more often.

They camped that night within twelve miles of the outlying prospects and the motor boat services, and the following morning they faced the last portage. There was a hunter’s cabin where they left the creek, and here they planted their gear to be called for latersuch as Hawker could not pack on his shoulders.

The trail lay over the ridge, and reaching a high point, with an eternity of forest stretching into invisibility below— though now prospects of mines and, indeed, flourishing mining camps were wrapped within its mighty folds—Hawker remarked: “We’ll have to watch for squalls. It might blow every which way of a weekday any minute.”

Both men knew the peril of the terrific north country storms, which at a moment’s notice are apt to sweep the forests, crashing the dead timber in all directions, until there is no safety for man or beast, save in some sheltered hollow, or under a sturdy windfall.

Sinclair wondered how Hawker knew, for it was deadly still, and there was not a cloud in the sky, but anyway he was prepared to take the guide’s word for it, since it was his business to know.

Sinclair, travelling light, set the pace, and they were within half a mile of Aurora Lake and the first landing stage, when the storm smote them like a living fury.

The roar and the crash of it was enough to frighten the stoutest soul unaccustomed to woodland travel, but some how Hawker’s strong grip was reassuring.

“We’d better run for it, Mr. Sinclair,” said he. “It’s mostly poplar lower down, and the clearing isn’t far off.”

So they ran, and gaining the clearing, a scene of excitement met their eyes. Here were a group of low log cabins, the characteristic tip-heap opposite the cookhouse door, and, at the foot of the steep banking, the deep blue lake, churned into a fury of white-crested waves. At the margin, a group of men were standing, most of them gesticulating wildly as they looked across the stormy water. They were foreigners, at a glance, and the only white man present, the cook, leaned against the door of the central cabin, looking on with cool indifference.

Hawker summed up the situation at a glance, and his keen gaze sought the open water. “Look!” he cried, and clutched Sinclair’s arm as he pointed.

Sinclair looked and he also, saw. About half a mile from the shore, and rapidly travelling further away, since the wind was against her, a white motor boat flashed in the sullen, heavy light as she rose and fell—one of the regular service launches plying at this landing. She was clearly derelict, her engines useless, for she lay broadside on, and at intervals it seemed they could almost see her keel as wind and wave caught her. They could see, too, that she was full of people, but with the peculiar indifference of those who live in the world’s stormy places, the pilot evidently had no oars aboard, and with the failure of his engine he was helpless.

“She’ll sink, a thousand to one!” remarked Hawker as he took in the situation. He looked at Sinclair, but there was no emotion in the young man’s face. Next moment Hawker was in the midst of the crowd of foreigners. “Isn’t there a man amongst you?” he cried. “Come on and lend me a hand, or I’ll fire up the whole ding-dong crew of you!”

He ran down to the floating cedar landing-stage, and took up the pole which lay across it. “Cut her free!” he ordered, and as the foreigners worked with their axes to sever the sturdy rope moorings, Hawker looked at Sinclair, and Sinclair might have seen that once again he was being given a man’s chance. “Coming, Mr. Sinclair?” asked Hawker simply.

Sinclair went up to him, funnelling his hands to make himself heard. “You must be mad!” said he. “The raft’s rotten. She’ll go to bits half a mile out, and it ain’t our show anyway!”

Then, as the sturdy structure of logs, caught by the gale, drifted out, with only Hawker aboard, the guide’s cool but meaning smile burned for all time into Sinclair’s memory, and at that precise moment someone aboard the gasoline launch remarked' “Anyway, there’s one man amongst them! Here he comes—alone!”

And someone answered: “God help him!”

THAT was no ordinary storm. It represented weeks of pent-up energy—it was a living, shrieking, devilish thing, which tried to tear the clothing from one’s body, and which left an eighty mile belt of death and destruction in its wake.

To those on shore, standing back from the water’s edge for fear of being blown in, it seemed that the raft was as often under water as on the surface. For several seconds it would disappear, then they would see just the head and shoulders of the man aboard it, and with each reappearance the foreigners shouted and waved, prepared at least to lend the encouragement of their voices to the proceedings. Smaller, smaller it became, till it looked no larger than a postage stamp on the desert of sea, the man aboard it clinging like an.ant, and once when it rose, silence fell upon the watchers, for the man could not be seen, since he was lying full length. He struggled up, plying the pole as though for dear life, while only just beyond flashed and bobbed the white speck of the motor launch, with precious little freeboard left.

Of the spectators, two men stood apart. One was the cook, leaning against the door, sucking unemotionally at his corn-cob pipe. His position was, perhaps, excusable. He had been five years by that lake, and he had seen a good many tragedies—many concerning the scum of the earth. Had he made a habit of butting in, he would not have been there now. He was one of that vast multitude which goes North simply to attain the wherewithal by which to return South. The other was Sinclair -—keen, well-knit, standing a little apart from the foreigners, an impressive figure, though small, and he stared with eyes of cold indifference, though in his mind still throbbed the old thought—which of us is the better man?

The heavy, unwieldy raft was slewing east from the stricken launch, but those on shore saw the man aboard her pull her back, drag her by sheer physical force along the line he wished her to take. Sinclair took out his glasses and watched. He, alone, saw what really happened. To the others, it seemed that the launch simply went under when the raft was somewhere near. They thought every soul was lost, till a few seconds later they saw more black ants appear upon the raft, dragging at each other, hauling each other up. The crowd cheered lustily—all save the cook and Sinclair.

The distance now was becoming an obstacle, and the men mounted the bank, the better to watch, but presently the raft was lost in the gathering darkness. The men were all round the cookhouse door, and the cook, knocking out his pipe, strode over to the stranger with the glasses. As he reached him, Sinclair closed them with a click, and looking into the eyes of the cook he said, “Hell!”

“What’s happened?” drawled his new companion.

Sinclair hands were behind him. “The raft’s gone to bits, as I knew she would,” he answered. “The headstrong fool might as well have stayed ashore, as I told him!” The cook’s smile became definitely fixed, as though there for all time. He reached for the glasses. “Well, we’re all better ashore!” was his only comment.

Sinclair turned about with a foolish, half inane grin. “Lend me your gun,” said he to the Continued on page 68 cook. “My girl was aboard that launch! I’ll swear it was she!”

Storm Freed

Continued, from page 15

With a humorous twinkle, the cook unhitched his gun and handed it, butt first, to the stranger. But the stranger did not take it. “No,” said he. “Strychnine might be easier!”

Then they both laughed.

WHEN Hawker saw himself running alongside, he dashed the water from his face with muttered thankfulness, but next moment the inevitable occurred. Launch and raft were hurled together, the heavy structure of cedar logs stove in the side of the boat, already more than half full, and on the point of sinking. Most of the men leapt, and the launch sank like a broken bottle, leaving the surface strewn with packs. From Hawker’slips four words escaped “My God! A woman!” Next moment he had the woman by the arm, dragging her up from the water. “Lie down and hold tight!” said he, simply.

But the crazy old raft had received her death blow, and Hawker felt her disintegrate under him. It was a case now of every man for himself, and in a mon ent Hawker had his arms about the girl, and Hawker had spent more than one season with the drifters. What he did not know about floating logs was hardly worth knowing. His only fear was of being crushed and pulped, while the raft, though disjointed, still clung together. So when he saw a free log floating apart and separate from the struggling drift of humanity, he made for it, and he had the girl with him.

“My soul!” he muttered, as they looked back from the bosom of the heavy sea. “There’s going to be trouble there. Anyone belonging to you?”

“No,” she answered. “Dad’s coming by the next boat.”

Thereafter they said nothing at all for what seemed like a lifetime. Once the girl cried out at the bitter, cramping cold, then she fell quite silent, and Hawker found himself looking into a small, white face, which frightened him.

He himself was deadly weary and deadly chill now, and though life was really dear to him, he thought how easy it would be and how much trouble it would save just to let go and sink, with this small white thing in his arms. He thought it over dazedly, yet painstakingly but ere he had come to a definite conclusion he realized that the gale had blown itself out and they were floating on the bosom of a quiet bay with the shore within ninety yards! Ninety yards! It looked but a stone’s throw, yet how were they to make it?

They did make it, just how, Hawker never knew, nor how long it took. He seemed to remember creeping on all fours up a stony beach, and with infinite labor, dragging something—someone—after him. He remembered the nightmare weakness of his legs, and how his big hands would not hold, till eventually he succeeded in twining a part of her clothing round his wrist to ease his aching grip. He remembered how he longed to lie down and sleep, but could not, because of his infernal sense of duty; how he gathered brushwood, drew out his little corked bottle, and somehow managed to strike a match. He remembered lighting the fire, then how life, and the love of life, came creeping back into his veins as he held her up to imbibe its life-giving warmth, and saw her pale eyelids quiver. He remembered how he cried out because of something at his soul, and something moreover which was not the love of a man for a woman, but an even higher thing, if such can be. For it took no count of yesterday or tomorrow, but dwelt only in the great victory of life over death. He felt like a god,

a creator. Then, as the fire warmed and welded, he could feel the responding warmth of her body about his knees, and he stooped and kissed her lips. Understanding returned to him, and he wondered at himself for doing it, for, after all, he was awake and she was sleeping, and he shuddered and ‘thought like a fool of the sleep of death.’

She stirred, opened her eyes and looked at him steadily and thoughtfully—a clear, sincere, womanly look, which, though he knew so little of women, did not embarrass, but seemed to leave him with an easier and better understanding.

“I don’t know you,” she said, quietly.

“Nor I you,” stammered the guide. “My name’s Hawker—David Hawker.”

Her eyes opened a little wider now. There was clear understanding in their gaze. “Hawker, the guide?” she asked. “So you’ll know Ranee Sinclair, the mine owner?”

“Sure,” answered Hawker, thoughtfully.

“I’m his guide.”

The girl nodded. “My name’s Howick,” she answered. “Cynthia Howick.”

Still Hawker did not realize, and proceeded to pile whole trees on the fire. They needed all the warmth they could get to take the chill out of their sodden clothing, beside which the fire would serve as a beacon. It did, for before long two more of the shipwrecked crew came shivering into its friendly circle. Night was near now, and the girl, on her feet by the fire, looked steadily at Hawker. He saw now that she was not so pale and frail as he had thought her when she lay in his arms, and a touch of animation had come into her cheeks, dispelling their pitiful wanness. The old, primeval instinct to put his arms about her, to shield and protect her, came to the guide, but he knew now that she no longer needed his support.

“It was you who saved us?” she asked.

He nodded. “It was I who put off,” he answered, then as though to shield others of his sex—-“They’re all foreigners over there!”

“Oh!” The girl’s exclamation stabbed the silence of the woods above the crackling of the big fire. “Wasn’t Ranee Sinclair with you?” she asked.

Hawker thought a moment, then he realized that this was the girl to whom Ranee Sinclair was engaged. In an instant it seemed that the hands of the devil were at his throat, and his fingers became the claws of an eagle, eager to clutch their prey. Quickly he mastered himself. That was the wild man in his veins—he had lived so long in the wilderness. Steadily he strove to think it out, and in his weariness one thought rang through his mind. “It is not worth while when man and woman are face to face to lie.”

“Yes,” he answered, quietly. “Sinclair was with me.”

She turned slowly about, facing the fire. “I’m glad,” she said, “that there was at any rate one white man present.”

A little while later voices came through the woods. At the head of the search party was Tom Howick, keen, closely cropped, lithe as a schoolboy, but anxious as a doe with her fawn till he saw his daughter safe. They took each other’s hands, then the girl turned, her eyes upon Hawker. “Father,” she said, “the white man!”

And as the great sportsman, known from Alaska to the Gulf, held out his hand, a sudden realization came to Hawker. “Lord!” he muttered to himself. “I’m a hero—the ding-dong hero of the hour!”

But somehow he did not at all mind being the hero of that hour, for the love of life, the mighty, primeval desire to strive and live and rise, was tingling through his veins.