SHORT STORIES

Flies!

H. Graham Starr July 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

Flies!

H. Graham Starr July 1 1910

Flies!

SHORT STORIES

H. Graham Starr

A MAN crouched over the pungent haze of a smudge he had kindled near the edge of the trail. His

smarting eyes blinked vacantly into space—brooding, hopeless, desperate. In a vague mechanical way his hands swept in constant monotony about his head. Once his unshaven, pitifully swollen face lifted skyward ; the thin lips parted exposing the small clenched teeth ; he uttered a groan. His head sank heavily into his folded arms and only the whine of innumerable insect life broke the hushed murmur of the wilderness.

Over the face of the bluff a new figure appeared and commenced scrambling down the steep trail. The poor wretch crouching over the smudge watched him pause at the base of the sharp descent and shift his pack to the point of equilibrium. As the weight came on the tump-strap, the stranger's head tipped back. The other man’s gaze slowly focused to an intense stare. His eyes narrowed ; he moved uneasily.

The new arrival slipped from the tump-line and unslung his pack-sack. Through the haze the two men eyed each other intently. The newcomer uttered a low laugh and sank down with great deliberation on his pack. He mopped his unshaven face with his arm, while h:s free hand groped for his pipe. He commenced to fill it with Great West.

“Well, Canfield,” he observed, “I haven t noticed anyone offering me the glad hand.”

The crouching man shrugged his shoulders. “I heard you were in this

district,” he replied without enthusiasm. “It's a relic of barbarism at best, anyway—the handshake ; and hardly symbolical." There was a suggestion of significance in the final utterance. His fingers worked nervously as he watched the other man light his pipe.

With a bushman’s care the other extinguished the match and looked up. The deep carmine of the lowering sun reflected red from the steady eyes. A slight smile crept into his rugged face and expanded to a broad grin. He chuckled.

“Still the same old sophistries; the same old platitudes !” He regarded his companion with quizzical eyes. “Isn't there any room in the legal profession for an enterprising young man who carries a full stock of canned aphorisms to suit all situations?” The laughter died from his face. “Haven't things gone right? What brought you into this Godforsaken country?”

Canfield looked up quickly. “I might ask the same question of you, Glendenning," he retorted shortly.

Glendenning raised his brows. “And get an unequivocal answer,” he replied calmly. “I have been knocking around such places as this ever since I left the Tech. What engineer does not.-' But you !" An unconscious note of contempt crept into his voice. “I was under the impression that your feet never left concrete pavements save to wear out other people's carpets or help polish hardwood floors." He looked about with puzzled countenance ; he could see no indications

of a camp. “It’s a great game, this prospecting. I suppose you are sitting in and calling for chips.”

“Someone must’ve told you,” came the sarcastic answer. He made a futile sweep at a mosquito. “Like a lot of other fools, I came up here to dig out a few bushels of silver and make stick-pins for my friends,” he continued, with savage irony. The ferocity faded from his face. He dropped his head with a dull groan.

Glendenning watched a ring of tobacco smoke drift away and mingle with the thick columns from the smudge.

“Strike anything?” he inquired without much show of interest. The unfailing reply is likely to become monotonous.

“Nothing I can’t carry away,” muttered the other drily. His hand reached mechanically behind his neck. He drew it back and regarded the palm with hopeless eyes; it was streaked with blood. The spluttering smudge burst into a feeble flame. Glendenning kicked free a piece of moss with the heel of his pack and tossed it on the flickering blaze, swearing softly at conditions in general.

“Flies are pretty bad,” he grunted.

“God !” It was a strangled sob, more prayer than profane. Glendenning looked up, startled. Canfield 'had half risen to his feet, beating impotently with clawing fingers at the little winged devils. His pitifully swollen face, streaked with congealed blood, was contorted with anguish—hopelessness—despair. He sank back to his crouching position with a low whimper, vainly endeavoring to hide his unprotected face in his arms. “It’s hell !” he moaned dully ; “not fit for white men. Sometimes it hardly seems worth while—” He stopped abruptly, his lip painfully pinched between his teeth. Across the smudge the dark eyes regarded him sardonically. Glendenning allowed the smoke to drift slowly from his lips, watching it form fantastic shapes and disperse.

“Go out into the world and prove your worth,” he murmured reflectively.

Canfield straightened. His lips drew back slightly and exposed the small clenched teeth. “How did you know she—” His jaws snapped shut. He searched wildly into the unsympathetic, mocking face, his eyes pouring out the questions his lips dare not utter, and searching in vain for the answers the cynical eyes would not divulge. He bowed his head slowly between his hands, nervously brushing away the fresh blood from his ears.

Far into the rose-stained heavens the blue-grey columns ascended', wavered to gentle undulations softly tinged with the glow of sunset and diffused in space. Across the still evening there intruded the fluctuating roll of distant rapids; a faint murmur as of distant breezes whispering among the pines, growing in volume to a delligerant crescendo roar, only to slowly fade to a distant rumble. The low tremulo of a loon, punctuated by the plaintive utterance of a whip-poorwill, burst into a wild, wailing laugh. The drowsy chirping of the retiring feathered creatures was interrupted by the hoarse croak of the more daring night prowlers. And over all the low monotonous whine of insects droned an obligato.

Glendenning tapped his pipe and nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said slowly, “it’s hell.” His eyes lingered on the crouched form; a gleam of pity swept across the hard face. “Two months’ flies, two months’ bad weather and the rest winter. Yes, it can be hell, this beautiful Northland.” He fingered his pack suggestively. “Camp far from here?” he inquired abruptly.

Canfield raised his head. In the feeble efforts of the smudge to burst into flame his brooding, swollen face gazed gloomily into space. Glendenning swore under his breath and tossed another piece of moss on the fire.

“I was asking—” he commenced again.

“I haven’t—there isn’t any,” was the dull reply.

Glendenning allowed the pack to sink slowly to the ground. “I don't think I—quite understand,” he said quietly. “You hardly mean you started out here—”

The other interrupted. “Except for a small cache I was wiped out, lock, stock and barrel, in the last bush fire.” He waved his arm vaguely to the south. There was pathos in the gesture.

Glendenning slowly reseated himself. “By God !” The harrd mouth twitched with a suggestion of pity. “That is playing to hard luck!” He commenced tugging at the tie straps of his pack. “These student fire rangers are about as much use as snowshoes in hell. Here !” He unsnapped the small pail from his belt. “Tote up some water. I'll start a fire.” He dived into his pack.

When the other returned he had an Indian fire crackling cheerfully, and was busy stringing a small tent between two saplings. He secured the last guy with a heavy boulder and commenced turning out supplies. Save for occasional vituperations hurled at the offending flies the coarse meal was eaten in silence, and the few tins washed. They sat down to smoke.

For an interval neither man spoke. The soft carmine tints had faded to gloom. The crackling fire threw weird, fantastic shadows on the sloping roof of the tent. A gentle evening breeze whispered softly amid the balsam and lofty pines, carrying with it a touch of chill. The perpetual whine of mosquitos had given place to the sharp wail of an occasional offender. The low hum of the black flies had ceased. Night had driven them from the field.

Glendenning uttered a grunt of satisfaction. “Evidently the little devils are not going to work night shift tonight,” he muttered into the bowl of his spluttering pipe. “They’ll be on the job bright and early in the morning though, and bring their allies with them.” He turned abruptly to the sil/. ent man beside him. “They’ve chew-b| ed you up pretty badly,” he observed.Ij

Canfield caressed his swollen face with trembling fingers. “They’ve driven me nearly mad,” he muttered hoarsely. “I was a fool, like the rest, and laughed at the idea of mere flies driving a grown man from the bush. I'm cured.” His mouth set grimly. “If people could only realize that a man can’t rest for a moment day or night; that the little fiends allow him to neither sleep nor eat nor work. God alone knows when I last slept.” A slight whimper of weariness, of heartsickness, stole into his voice. “I seem saturated with their poison. My head reels all day and at night a delirium of fever seizes me. I am almost afraid of myself then.” He looked away from the steady eyes before him and dropped his head in shame. “Oh, I know I'm squealing. The pride seems to be all sucked out of me.”

There ensued an awkward silence. Overhead, the celestial vault became studded with pinpoints of twinkling light. The fluctuating roll of the distant rapids had become a prolonged, resonant roar. The last traces of twilight had faded. Then descended the thick mantle of darkness, enfolding the bush in the deepest night, the night in the wilderness—ghostly, black, impenetrable. Flitting silently through the foliage, the blue-green flash of the fire-fly entered in feeble competition with the leaping flames of the fire. High overhead the gaunt old sentries of the wilderness gracefully bowed their heads one to another. whispering century-old secrets. A tottering rampike, creaking dismally in the breeze, warned his comrades that his race was run : that he was the plaything of the winds, soon to fall prone and lifeless, the pity of the greenwood.

Moved by a common impulse, the eves of the two men met. Glendenning spoke with sharp abruptness:

“Take my advice; it’s good. Chuck this. .Some men are born for this country. You aren’t. I love this ¡great country. You don't. Make good some other wav.” Canfield opened

his lips in protest. “Wait! What chance have you—utterly ignorant of woodcraft, of minerology, of formation—when experts are failing every day. There are twenty-five thousand men in these regions. About twentyfive make good. The chance is one in a thousand. Try poker; your chances are hundreds of times better. You’re full of fly poison. These little devils will get you yet. Once they down you—and, mark my word, they will—they’ll drain your last drop of blood. That’s straight ! If you had seen what I have—” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve warned you,” he concluded shortly.

Canfield had risen to his feet, gazing intently into the fire as though searching for an answer. The engineer sucked noisily at his pipe, swore under his breath as he spat out the noisome refuse and commenced to refill it. Canfield watched him pick a live ember from the fire, juggle it dexterously to his pipe and drop it :n the bowl. He puffed several times and flipped the ember back into the fire. To Canfield the act symbolized the difference between them. He turned from the fire, his face working convulsively.

“You want to get me out of the way—to leave a clear field for yourself!” He gesticulated violently. “It won’t work ! In spite of flies and all damnation, I’ll win her yet!.. He stopped with a low hissing intake of breath. The other man’s eyes glittered ominously. Very deliberately he removed his pipe and stood up.

“You have made several distinct references in feminine pronouns,” he said calmly. “I do not pretend to misunderstand you ; but if only for the sake of our self-respect I should recommend that we refrain from becoming more personal. You have deliberately misconstrued my motives. You have insulted me in the most deliberate manner. I have done my best to dissuade you from self-destruction without giving you pain. I could leave you to struggle on in a losing fight. I have endeavored to swing you to a

sensible frame of mind without being brutal. Had you a fighting chance I should keep my mouth shut. You haven’t. Ordinary humanity has forced my hand. I’ve won out !” He deliberately -turned his back.

Canfield swayed unsteadily, his hands working painfully,'his fly-bitten, tortured face twitching convulsively.

“You’re—you’re lying!” he mutterer thickly. “It can’t be. She promised—”

Glendenning cut in. “I’ve won out in the only thing on God’s green earth that she loves,” he snapped. “I have made a strike that will knock all Cobalt dizzy.”

His companion stood motionless, rigid. His thin lips were drawn back in a snarl. He turned slowly, his breath coming in painful little gasps.

“You’re lying,” he replied mechanically. His mouth worked in an ef-‘ fort to say more, but failed. Glendenning dropped one hand to his pocket.

“You have twice used a word that is a fighting term up here,” he said quietly. “If my word is not sufficient —” He withdrew his hand, and held a piece of rock on the extended palm. “That is a specimen,” he concluded.

In the red glow of the camp-fire the other’s eyes glittered wolfishlv. With feverish eagerness his hand shot out and seized the ore. By the firelight he glared at it with red, bloodshot eyes. His fingers trembled ; he could hardly hold the specimen. Once it slipped from his shaking hands. 'He uttered a despairing cry and snatched it wildly ere it reached the ground. He caressed it softly with his fingers, mumbling incoherently to himself. It was a rather disgusting scene.

“Silver!” he muttered hoarsely; “leaf silver !” He tore his eyes from it. Through the heavy stubble, through the painful swellings, the sunburnt raw flesh, his face was convulsed with passion—the lust of treasure. “Where —where—?” Twice his lips formed the forbidden question that his tongue could only mumble. His gaze devoured the piece of rock.

Glendenning regarded him in silence. Among many such scenes, this was the worst display of the passion he had encountered. Reluctantly, he touched the other on the shoulder. Canfield uttered a low cry and threw a look of terror over his shoulder as he hugged the mineral to his breast. Glendenning shrugged his shoulders.

“You forced my hand, Canfield. The game is finished—the stake’s mine. Trv poker; your chances are better. That’s right !”

Canfield gave forth a peculiar utterance, between a sigh and a moan. With a tremendous effort he drew himself together.

“The luck's yours,” he said wearily. His shaking fingers held out the rock. “It must go five thousand ounces,” he ended dismally.

The engineer nodded absently. “I'm on my way now to stake it properly. It’s only a few miles from here. Then I’ll have to hit the trail for Elk City to record. I’ll strike north through the bush to the portage. There should be a canoe of mine at the fire ranger’s cabin. It will take a good deal longer, but it’s easier going, and—” for the life of him he could not resist a little sigh of content. “Well, my hustling days are about over.”

His face set and drawn, Canfield watched the last feeble efforts of the fire. The ruddy glow reflected in the brooding eyes, smoldering restlessly in the hard countenance. Forgotten were the thousand little throbbing pulses ; forgotten the aching limbs, the raw, unprotected face so cruelly scorched by the sun. His mind traveled back through the weeks of struggle and anguish in the bush : through the months of striving and heart-sickness in the seething city: aye. through the years of grind in the university and law school. In the warm glow of the burning embers a picture of the ultimate prize, slowly resolved itself; and in the background ever stood the same towering figure—the man who won out. His teeth clenched savagely. The picture faded. Other thoughts crept in ; thoughts he endeavored to

push aside, but which would not be ignored. The smoldering gaze slowly gave place to a steely glitter, reflecting the red embers in a peculiarly ominous glow. Faithful windows of the soul, they alone betrayed’ the insidious thoughts that danced through his throbbing head. With a new alertness he watched his companion gazing moodily into the fire. A burnt ember snapped. Both men started and looked up. but their eyes did not meet. One felt manly shame for his success : the other feared the story his eyes might tell.

Far in the bush there rose a low wailing cry, swelling to a shrill scream, and then dying away in a low plaintive moan as the cry of an infant in the night. Canfield shivered.

“Lynx !” Glendenning laughed softly. “Woe to him who. ere moon-up. hears the cat scream!”

The solemn Indian lore brought gruesome shudders to the brooding man. His companion strode to the tent.

“I’m going to turn in. You’ll have to share my blankets.” he called as he vanished into the tent.

Canfield heard nothing. Long ere the last ember fell away to dust he crouched over the dead ashes thinking . . . thinking . . .

For perhaps ten heart-beats Canfield stood gazing in fascinated awe. The gaping fissure zig-zagged far up the face of the cliff, the open jaws packed with calcite and aplite. studded and entwined with tiny little threads of white metal. With a peculiar little strangled crv he pitched forward on all fours, clawing and snatching at the vein matter, breaking the long unkept finger-nails and cruelly lacerating the tapering fingers in a mad effort to tear away the beautiful cleavage. He uttered a savage oath, snatched the light axe from his belt and hacked furiously with the pick-end, smashing the soft calcite to atoms and scattering the small cubic blocks in white showers about him. A larger piece broke away. He dropped the axe and seized the piece of ore with'

both hands, his whole frame trembling with nervous excitement.

“Native silver!” he mumbled huskily. He gazed intently up the long fissure. “And tons and tons of vein matter in sight—and thousands and thousands under blanket.” He gazed fearfully about him. “And it’s mine,” he whispered hoarsely, “all mine !”

His blood-shot eyes caught sight of Glendenning’s discovery post planted in a little pyramid of rocks. He muttered horrible little mirthless chuckles as he read off the blue hieroglyphics of the other man on the face. In a nervous frenzy he attacked the stake with his axe, clumsily shaving off the kiel marks. His face distorted with beastly exultation, he scrawled his own name and data on the fresh wood and sank down exhausted.

He was a terrible and pitiful sight Perspiration poured down his face, perspiration not all due to physical effort, mingled with fresh blood, and ran in scarlet rivulets over the bloodsmeared face, only to coagulate and form fresh channels for the ever-flowing blood. He had followed the fresh blazes of the other man’s new trail and he had jumped his claim. He had identified himself with the most abhorred1 type of individual in the North Country—the claim-jumper. The rough trail had torn his bush clothes to ribbons, filthy rags streaked with grease and blackened with charcoal from his passage through the burnt country. He sat crouched upon the ground, a strangely huddled heap, his arms hugging his knees and glaring with wild blood-shot eyes at the partially-uncovered wealth of nature.

“The fool !” he muttered hoarsely. “He might as well have staked and recorded it for me,” he laughed sneeringly. “Told me all his plans and then blazed a trail right into his treasure. And he crowed over me, jeered at me, taunted me for my defeat. Defeat!” He broke into a hysterical laugh. Other thoughts commenced to steal in on his sluggish brain ; thoughts he tried desperately to ignore, but

would not be ignored. His brow puckered in a frown. He mumbled aloud ; strange incoherent protests that combated an argument of some unseen second person, his better self. Forgotten was the night before when the man he would rob 'had shared his blankets with him. Forgotten the little parcel of supplies left under the rock to tide him over till he reached civilization; the generous stake that had been offered him to put him on his feet again. Forgotten was all save the long, waving white streak up the side of the cliff.

“He could afford to be generous,” he snarled aloud as the disturbing twinges of conscience began to pinch. “He almost dared me ; threw the temptation right under my nose. And he’s going back by Purgatory Portage and a head wind on Lady Evelyn!’" He laughed mirthlessly. “And I’ll go back as I came and have half a day to the good. Hustling days over, eh?” Again the mirthless chuckle. “No need to hurry. Ah, well, all’s fair in—” He checked himself, and a grim smile swept his distorted features as he recollected Glendenning’s reference to platitudes.

He leaped to his feet. “Now to beat him to the recorder’s.” He shivered uneasily at the thought. “Everything is O.K. The other four stakes are altered. Now to hit the trail.”

His swollen half-closed eyes roamed about him, first carelessly, then more attentively, and finally with a trace of panic. He leaned weakly against the propped-up discovery post. It tottered under his weight and slowly fed over on the pile of rocks. A little shudder of apprehension shook the claim-jumper. Could the fallen post be significant? Was he to fail after all? He looked about uneasily. All directions were alike. Gaze where he might, not a single blaze met his wildly-staring eyes. He unconsciously searched for the sun, but the blue haze of distant forest fires obscured the valuable guide. He sat down limply, his throbbing head between his hands.

“Now hold on, son,” he muttered

aloúd, “there is no need to get panicy. You're bushed, but there is nothing to get scared about. One of the trunk trails is only three miles away. Now just keep your head and you're ail right.”

He sat thinking. He tried to orient himself. He drew the relative positions of the main trail and his present location on the ground with a stick. Somehow, his brain was sluggish. He could not recollect whether he had traveled north, south or east. He knew that it was not west, for he remembered they had plunged into the bush away from the sunset of the night before. Since then they might have gone in any direction. Gradually the pestering hum affected his nerves. He lost his temper and struck savagely at the swarming insects ; struck wildly, fruitlessly and with the knowledge that it was useless. He jammed his axe into his belt and stood up. All other thoughts had given place to the one all-important problem—how to get out. He snatched out his pocket compass. For a long time he stared down at the jumping needle. Twice he made false starts and returned, gazing down at the needle in bewilderment.

“It's no good,” he groaned, “and they told me it was the best on the market. Well, I wouldn't know what direction to start, anyway.” His hopeless eyes again turned to the compass. The needle was spinning and bobbing here and there in a most bewildering manner. In a fury of rage he dashed the delicate instrument to the earth, ground it to scrap metal beneath his heavy heel, jumped and stamped it into the soft turf, a torrent of vicious blasphemy pouring from his lips. In his frenzy the axe fell from his belt. For a long time he stared down at the rusty blade in stupid wonder ; then burst into hoarse, ironical laugh of derision. No wonder the needle had acted up with an axe-head within a foot of it!

In spite of the grey-white threads of treasure winding up the cliff, a dull

despair seized him. Again the thousand little pulses throbbed, the monotonous whine, the trickling blood became more and more in evidence. He sank down on the fallen tree to think. He searched through his pockets for matches. He would make a smudge and get the slight temporary relief while smothering in the smoke. A horrified panic crept over him as he turned out pocket after pocket in vain search. In his mad plunge for wealth he had come away without the bushman's first necessity. The noon was far away, yet a sudden terror gripped him at the fear of the coming night without the protection of a smudge. He examined the mutilated compass and shook his head in despair.

“I'll start into the wind,” he muttered. “It won't be hard to keep in a straight line if I'm careful. I must strike a trail sooner or later. I wonder if that beast Glendenning blazen only one side of the trees in order to trap me.”

He forgot the hills and valleys and waterways that deflected the wind in a hundred different directions. In his mad fear of a night in the bush he partially forgot the possible loss of the claim he had jumped. He cast one uneasy glance about him and then plunged blindly into the bush.

Glendenning was in a bad humor as he beached his canoe and struggled up the trail to the point where he had camped with Canfield two days before. The recorder had insisted on a more detailed map of the claim, and Glendenning had traveled back some thirty miles to make it.

He stared in mild surprise when he saw the little heap of supplies under the ledge of rock.

“Why, the concentrated jackass forgot his chuck f he growled. He stared about with a puzzled frown. His roving eye caught hobnail foot-prints on the soft turf just off the trail. Glendenning never wore hobnails. He uttered a little startled gasp of astonishment. “I wonder,” he muttered.

“if-that poor deluded fool trailed me in with an idea of jumping my claim! Well, those blazes were all on this side, and if he got in he’ll never in all God’s green world get out by himself,” he concluded grimly.

It was near sundown when Glendenning found him. He was crouching over the huge fissure, alternating childish prattle with foulest blasphemy. He was quite delirious and a fearful sight. Through the huge rents in his clothes the lacerated flesh was only concealed by the coagulated blood. In and out among the ragged tatters there crawled and whined innumerable pests of the North Country. His ragged garments were grey with them. They crawled through his hair, clung to his stubbly beard, gored and glutted themselves with his life fluid. His face was swollen past all possibility of recognition. Both eyes were completely closed. His ears had become flush with his cheeks. Destiny had carried him all one day in a huge circle till he had crossed Glendenning’s blazed trail. He did not recognize it and had uttered a scream of relief as he tore madly down the line of blazes, only to be carried back to that mocking fissure whose very jaws seemed to leer at him, and there to fall down unconscious with fatigue and despair; to suffer torture and maybe to die beside the treasure, his covetousness for which had brought him to this.

An hour later, seated before the gigantic smudge, Glendenning stared down at the delirious man. He heard his ravings and blasphemy with cold cynical eyes. It is hard to forgive a claim-jumper. He heard him curse and rant against the woman whose smile had sent them both out into the wilderness. He heard his ravings against himself. He smiled grimly as the torrent of accusations poured from the cracked and distorted lips. He accused his rescuer of leading him into

the bush by a blind trail so that he would die and leave a clear field. He heard him go back to childhood and prattle and sob to his mother. The hard glint in Glendenning’s eyes softened and he sighed. Time and again the delirious man beat wildly about his head at imaginary flies, choking and spluttering with the smoke, cracking open the sores about his lips and would fall groaning to the earth.

The smudge crackled into a blaze and Glendenning made no effort to smother it. He knew from the chill in the air that the pests would soon crawl to cover. As the flames leaped higher and higher, the man who had won out stared with unseeing eyes into the flames.

“Only beauty,” he muttered thoughtfully. “No heart, no soul, nothing but beauty. The price she demands is too heavy.” He regarded the softlymuttering man with dull eyes. “Yes, too heavy!” he repeated. “A woman’s greed would bring a straight, hardworking man to this. Poor Canfield !”

He took a small case from the bosom of his shirt, extracted a small card from it and gazed pensively down at it.

“A beautiful ornament for the home,” he murmured bitterly, “but the price would be too high.” He. did not mean dollars and cents.

Very deliberately he shoved the miniature within the flames till one corner charred and ignited. Just as deliberately he applied it to the bowl of his pipe, drew a long inhalation and puffed the smoke into space. The charred embers from the miniature wavered on top of the bowl and floated gently away. The man smiled painfully.

“Smoke,” he murmured reflectively. “All smoke—and ashes.”