The Unexpected Siege
H. Mortimer Batten
The stories of H. Mortimer Batten are so different from those of many other writers because they always have a real personal interest. He almost tells of his own experiences in them. And it is always experience at first hand, too,—out in the rugged wilds of the Canadian North, where he spent much time in gathering material for articles which have come from his pen since his return to England. In “The Unexpected Siege” we have one of Mr. Batten’s typical Canadian tales.
IT was early spring when I took up my quarters in the Slatewater district, and the many lakes and creeks that intercept the country like a great network were still at winter level. Dave Sharman’s ranch had just been put up for sale, and I bought it at a mere song, considering the price of apple grounds about there, and on the whole was thoroughly well pleased with myself. The only point that worried me was—why was Dave Sharman, having cleared the ground and completed the bulk of the heart-rendering and back-breaking donkey work, selling the place at such a low price? The only reason to which I could attribute his extraordinary conduct was that he had found the flies and the loneliness too much for him. I, however, was young and ambitious, and such considerations did not daunt me in the least. Dave had certainly spared no pains in fitting up an habitable outfit, and already the wall creepers were beginning to flourish. The hut was provided with a large-sized window, a bunk, a cupboard, and an extraordinarily good stove. At right angles from the door was a very useful storeroom, suitable for keeping agricultural implements, apples, potatoes, and such like provider. Also there was a pig-stv, a hen-run, and a dog kennel. The whole outfit was dry, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and well sheltered from the northerly winds.
Moreover there was excellent fishing to be had by way of recreation. With-
in twenty yards of the door stretched the lake, occupying some four or five acres, and overflowing at its far end through a narrow rocky cutting, not more than twenty feet wide, but carrying the whole of the river waters. The ranch and the homestead lay within the very basin of this Lake, and before buying the property I had the forethought to ask whether a “jam” had ever occurred across the lake outlet, which would certainly have meant the submersion of the apple grounds. I was assured, however, that the property was safely above high-water level, and that it had never been flooded since the history of that part of the world began.
“Don’t you worry about too much water,” laughed a neighboring rancher. “Think yourself blamed lucky if you get enough.”
By the end of April I was thoroughly installed, having carted all my belongings over four miles of abominable country by the sweat of my own brow. The spring swiftly merged into summer, the river rose, carried down its cargo of logs, and fell to its normal level without in any way interfering with any domestic felicity. With Dagoe, my small cocker spaniel, the hens and the pig as company, I was as happy as a Lord, and wished for nothing better, during the day I worked hard, ate heartily when I felt that I needed it, and smoked abundant quantities of “blacktack.” In the evening I slaked it by the lake with rod and pipe, strolled round with my rifle potting gophers, or ^ook a walk to the hotel to see Jack Robinson, who was an easterner, like myself.
Sometimes I went into the saloon and discussed apples and politics and magazines with the woodsmen, though the smoke-laden atmosphere of the place had little charm for me.
Thus the weeks slipped by, and it was late in the summer when one evening I happened to walk down the river past the narrow chute by which the lake adjoining my property emptied itself. Below the chute followed a short stretch of rapids, boiling and tumultous, which, further on emptied themselves into another lake, not very wide, comparatively shallow, and drained in turn by a second narrow chute.
“If ever my lake gets over-fished,” I told myself, “I’ll try this one. Guess nobody fishes it all summer.”
This supposition proved erroneous, however, for on returning after dusk I discerned a large raft, occupied by two anglers, out in the centre of the expanse of water. It was too dark to recognize the men, and they did not see me as I walked through the shadow of the foliage, with Dagoe at my heels. As I neared the home lake I was surprised to see quite a quantity of timber drifting towards the outlet, and concluded that someone had been busy dislodging the stranded logs up stream. It was getting chilly, however, so I turned * in, fed the dog, and having cooked myself a flapjack went to bed. As usual I left the door wide open and the sweet summer breezes fanning in on my face, for both Dagoe and I had become used to the occasional nocturnal visits of skunk and porcupine. Dagoe, as usual, curled himself up under the' bunk.
It must have been near midnight when I woke suddenly—wide awake— conscious in some mysterious manner that something was out of order. As I opened my eyes I caught sight of a large black shape seated calmly on the foot of the bunk. Presently it turned and looked at me without apparent discomposure, and I realized that this new
bedfellow was nothing more dangerous than master Dagoe.
• . What on earth was he doing up there? Never before had I known* the dog to take such a liberty, but after a moment’s thought my sudden anger vanished. Clearly something had made the animal uncomfortable in his own bed, and as we were partners in most things he had quietly assayed to share mine.
Turning my head to search for the cause of the dog’s unusual behavior, I was greeted by a scene that held me spellbound with amasement. This, then, accounted for the strange lap-lap I had heard in my dreams—for the mysterious rustling and awakening that filled the air like the sound of gentle showers. The floor was flooded, and as far as I could see through the open doorway lay a still expanse of water, scintillating in the light of the low summer moon. Here and there things were floating on the surface -—newspapers, tin cans, one or two pairs of boots, and all manner of household treasures that had previously occupied a place on the floor.
Still half asleep I realized that something extraordinary had happened,— that there must have been a cloud-burst somewhere up the valley and temporarily flooded the creek. While I was still considering it I heard a low, threatening growl from Dagoe, and at' the same instant something slipped across the blanket, and touched my face with a cold, clammy touch. It was a snake ! Taking the blanket in both hands I soon disposed of the reptile, and threw it out of the door. Then I felt many other creatures running about on my hands and face, and jumping up, plunged into the icy flood of besieging waters.
Striking a match I lit the oil lamp, and instantly became aware of the fact that the air was thick with minute winged insects. They bumped into the lamp chimney and fell with tiny splashes into the water, and presently I glanced towards the bunk on which I had been sleeping.
What a sight for .an entomologist! The blanket was literally alive with creeping things. Moths, beetles, ants, centipedes—insects such as I had never before seen or dreamt of, and of all the varied hues in creation. It reminded me of a poster I had seen in Nelson advertising a patent insect exterminator.
To some people the sight would have proved horrifying, but since a boy I have always taken a vast interest in the wonderful creeping inhabitants of the woodland. Here were insects of all shapes and sizes,—yellow, copper, green and gold; a veritable congress of tints.
It was some seconds before I realized the full significance of the predicament. The insects were probably angry. Like myself they had been rudely disturbed by the flood. Creeping before it, they had sought the highest points of land, creeping further and further from the water as it advanced behind them, forcing them upwards. Some of them might be capable of stinging or inflicting painful bites. I considered it prudent not to handle them.
Taking Dagoe in my arms I transferred him to a sugar box on the other side of the hut. As I did so I felt something creeping up my leg, and before I had time to sweep it away it stung me badly just above the waterline. Looking down I saw that the offender was a large black and yellow fly, like a hornet, save that the roots and tips of his wings were tinted with brown.
After that I rolled the blankets into a heap, placed them on the cupboard, and took my seat on the naked boards of the hunk. One or two insects still continued to creep up the woodwork, so snatching up a fragment of broken wood I proceeded to hold the fort against the invading army, instantly demolishing anything that bore the least resemblance to a yellow and black hornet.
Before very long, however, I became painfully aware of the fact that the flood waters were still rising. I had used the lower hinge of the door as a gauge, but it was now totally submerged. Moreover the water was beginning to creep between the lower boards of the bunk, and greatly interfering with my comfort, which was none too great un-
der any conditions. Pulling on my high knee boots I joined Dagoe on the sugar box, much to that isolated gentleman’s delight. Determined to make the best of things I drew up my legs, lit rny pipe, and continued to wage war against the insects. f
Anyhow, I determined to write a very humorous letter home about it all, for far from expecting to sustain any losses through the flood, I was speculating on the vast amount of good the thorough soaking would do my sunbaked orchard.
While thus ruminating, however, a sudden loud cackling outside diverted my attention. GoodnessWhat an ass 1 was! I had forgotten all about the hens and the pig!
I have often read that in time of an earthquake, the people who are unfortunate enough to be in the district are reduced to a state of dazed stupidity. They regard the whole hideous melee as a matter of course, are not at all overwhelmed, and do the most absurd things. It seems to me that any great and unexpected event, arousing one from one’s slumbers, has much the same effect. Those hens and that pig had been my daily consideration for weeks past, yet here was I sitting calmly on a sugar box not twenty yards away, and leaving the poor beasts to drown without .so much as a thought!
Jumping up, I plunged into the water, now almost hip deep, and wallowed hurriedly towards the outhouses. Fortunately the pig-sty stood on high ground, but five inches of water already covered the floor. After much tussling and screeching on the part of the pig I managed to get a rope round his neck, passing it in a loop round his hind quarters so that it would not cut. This done, T placed a rickety, home-made ladder against the eaves of the house, and dragged the expostulating pig into the flood. On reaching the foot of the ladder I managed to get the beast under my arm—fortunately, it was onlv halfgrown—and step bv step began the precarious ascent.
Scarcely had we ascended two fee* when the pig gave a huge tussle, just at the wrong moment, totally upsetting the balance of affairs. The ladder turned round, and still hugging the sceaming porker I fell full length into the muddy flood. - The pig passed under water, still screaming, and for a second disappeared from view.
Choking and angry I struggled to my feet, again clasped the animal, and made a frantic dash for the ladder.
This time we safely reached the slightly-slanting roof, and with soft and soothing words deposited my unwieldly burden. With a snort of rage the animal instantly dashed for the open, and a second later disappeared with a squeal of dismay over the other side of the hut.
I wallowed hurriedly round, and found the foolish creature endeavoring to ascend the perpendicular wall, but without much success. Having again conveyed him to the roof, I tied him securely to the chimney pipe, leaving him just enough spare rope to lie down.
The hens gave little trouble. I found them sitting in a row within two inches of the water, and transplanted them, two at a time, to the roof of the hut. They seemed too sleepy to grasp what was happening, and squatted without complaint just where I put them. After that I returned for Dagoe and my overcoat, and in a few minutes, hens, pig, dog and man were seated on the roof, gazing out sombrely across the expanse of moonlight water.
Before many minutes had elapsed I felt heartily glad that the dog and I had abandoned the hut. Peering over the eaves I saw a large black snake swim at a terrific speed into the open door. Looking down I watched the reptile wriggle onto the floating soap box, lie still for a moment, then dart back into the water. The movements of^ the venomous reptile were so quick that I should have experienced some difficulty in evading it.
Of all the strange nights I have ever experienced, that was the strangest. The air was filled with incessant sounds, the hum of myriads of insects, the weird cries of disquieted birds—low,
guttural whispers and a thousand and one eerie notes for which there was no accounting. Now and then a vivid flash of summer lightning lit up the shadowy scene. I was clad in a thick overcoat, but bit by bit began to feel chilly, and was ultimately compelled to pace the roof. The pig was thoroughly determined to make a nuisance of himself and to commit suicide at the same time. Lying back to the full length of the rope he would squat resignedly on his haunches,'the noose pulled so tight round his neck that his ears were pushed forward to where his eyes ought to have been. Every now and then it was necessary to go and give him a “budge up/5 whereupon Dagoe, who thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the situation, would consider it his duty to round up the hens—a task at which he considered himself somewhat of an adept. But sure enough, when I had restored order, the pig would be back again in his old position, and the chimney on the point of collapsing.
How long was the siege going to last? If the abnormal abundance of water were due to a cloudburst—which, though vastly improbable, was the only cause I could think of—the river should be down at normal level before daybreak. I was thoroughly sick of this Robinson Crusoe business, but was too disturbed to spend the hours in peaceful slumbers. Suddenly the cockerel, awakening to a sense of his responsibilities, crowed lustily, greatly startling Dagoe, myself and the pig. After that we kept a watchful eye on the old bird, and directly he began to stretch out his long neck we hardened our nerves, knowing what to expect, A few minutes after this slight diversion, our party was joined by yet another refugee from the flood. Á little red squirrel, wet and bedraggled, scrambled up the ladder, eyed our family gathering narrowly, then scuttled away round the eaves. He stayed with us till the end of the siege, which came about an hour after his arrival.
It must have been four o’clock in the morning when a terrific explosion sounded from the far end of the lake. The whole earth and air seemed to shake, and glancing towards the distant chute I saw a huge tongue of flame, against which danced black fastastic shadows, leap high into the air. The uproar died down as suddenly as it had begun, and a strange whisper, soft, but disquieting, succeeded the explosion. Glancing down I saw that the flood waters were rapidly receding, and creeping with an oily swirl back towards the lake.
In a flash, I understood what had happened. Someone had dammed the outlet of the lake, and thus caused the flooding of the basin. The roar I had just heard was the blasting of the dam, and now the lake was rapidly sinking to its normal level.
What could it mean? Determined to solve the mystery, I climbed hurriedly down, and without so much as a thought for snakes and hornets, waded into the hut, snatched up my light sporting rifle and struck out for dry land.
In a few minutes I had reached the outlet of the lake, and standing in the shadows, caught sight of a man, busily ladening a pack mule, under the trees a short distance away. The man was wearing a soft hat, overall breeches tied at the knees, and a tarpaulin jacket. As I drew near he turned and nodded as though in no way disconcerted.
“What’s the game, boy?” I queried. “Suppose you know you’ve flooded me out?”
The man grunted. “Sorry partner,” he said. “We didn’t intend to disturb you, or sure, we’d have dropped you a line.”
Just at this juncture a second man appeared from somewhere in the shadows. He was tall and sinuous, with a fair moustache, and a pleasant sunburnt face. His jacket lay open at the neck, and he was wearing loose rubber boots from which his trousers bulged loosely. •
“My name’s Dave Sharman,” he introduced himself, “Maybe you’ll remember making a cheque out to me when you bought the ranch?”
“Just so,” I agreed. “But what in thunder is the game at this time of
The two men glanced at each other and back at me. “Just a little venture,” said Sharman. “Maybe you’ll keep your mouth shut, partner, and with luck I’ll be writing you in a month or two.”,
“Oh, I shan’t talk,” 1 promised. “But i t seems a mighty strange business, anyway.”
With that I returned to my disordered home, now high and dry, and with a sigh of relief restored the pig to his proper quarters. Needless to say, I kept quiet about the mysterious affair, for in the backwoods it isn't worth while for a man to take upon himself the duties of policeman. Men have to help each other as best they can without taking any responsibilities for each other’s spiritual affairs.
A month later I received a letter bearing a Vancouver postmark and the name of a well known hotel of that city. It was from Dave Sharman, and ran as follows:
“Dear Partner: Thanks for keeping mum. It wasn’t you I was afraid of anyway—it was the power stations lower down. I enclose cheque for $200, which I hope will pay for damage done bv the flood.
“Say ! You bought that ranch of mine almighty cheap. It didn’t suit me; apple growing isn’t the right game for an old prospector. I soon wanted to get back to the hills, and one day, when fishing the lake below the ranch, I dropped my reel, and tried to fish it out with a snow rake. I didn’t get the reel, but I got a chunk of quartz that gave me the fever properly, and set me thinking. The mining rights about there belong to the Railway Co., of course, but I didn’t feel inclined to pay their fancy prices.
“You know the rest. A few yards of cable netting, a few logs and young spruce, and the dam was complete. Pretty risky business working below it, I can tell you, but we cleared something like $4,000 worth, and I guess the Railway Co. won’t miss it. Finding’s keeping, any road, and hope you’ll think we’ve treated you square.
That two hundred dollars kept me awake all night. I didn’t just fancy
giving it to a hospital. Couldn’t bear the idea of poor helpless invalids being carried into a building that had been partly paid for with stolen money. At last, to ease my conscience, I bought a strip more land from the Railway Co., and sold it two years ago for just under one thousand I