The Hand in the Dark

Theodore Roberts August 1 1913

The Hand in the Dark

Theodore Roberts August 1 1913

The Hand in the Dark

Editor’s Note.—Anyone who has felt the lure of the lone trail, who has responded to the instinct inherited from some primitive ancestor to follow the call of the wild, will thoroughly enjoy this story of the Northland. It tells of a hunting adventure, “worth more than a million dollars.”

Theodore Roberts

Author of “For the Sake of Argument,” “The Hunger Test,” etc.

DAVID KEMP and a score more of big men went out like snuffed candles on the day that Bertram W. Strang did his great trick. “Trick” is the only name for it. Even in the Great Market it was a three days’ wonder—for there nine days’ wonders are unknown. Strang had worked underground, and had struck the final blow in the dark; and daylight had found him a great man^ with his original five millions multiplied by ten. David Kemp, who had once loomed so large, vanished from the Great Market and from the mind and sight of r.s slaves.

As Bertram W. Strang wore on past middle life, day by day his interest in money-making declined. He knew the game so thoroughly that at last every trick of it grew stale to him. By degrees he became a sportsman—a pursuer and slayer of the beasts of the field—“a mighty hunter before the Lord.” He did not sit on air-cushions and take pot-shots at animals that were driven up to him. No, he was not that kind. He went after things hard, and got them fair. His methods in the wildernesses of the world were not the methods he had practised so assiduously in the Great Market. There he had been something between a conjurer and a pirate; but now he was a sportsman.

In Africa, in Asia, in Europe, and in South America his rifle had found its prey ; and at the age of sixty, hardy as a pioneer, lean as an Indian, and

sound as an athelete of twenty, he realized that for new experiences in woodcraft the wilds of his own continent alone remained to him. He had roughed it in every sort of jungle and forest in the world except in the black swamps and black forests of the American North. He had pitched his tent and followed the lure in every desert in the world save the boulder-strewn, moss-carpeted barrens of that vast, unpeopled land that lies to the west and north of Hudson’s Bay and to the east and north of the wheat-lands. So he decided to go thither and pit his skill and endurance against the sagacity and wariness of the musk-ox.

The railways carried him as far as they went in the desired direction. Then rough-coated ponies took him and his rifles over another stage of the journey. On Little Moose Lake three men of the Arrowheads, two canoes, and his outfit awaited him; and, with three months’ provisions, he embarked on the long trail which, by way of six rivers and innumerable portages, was to bring him into the final dash. ' The final dash was to be made by sledge and dogs into the desolate, un timbered lands of the musk-ox.

Strang’s hopes were high. Every rod of the country through which he was to pass was new to him, and the greater part of it was unmapped and unexplored. The game was also new to him, and^was worthy of his skill and of his steel-jacketed bullets. He would

go up beyond the arctic circle by a way that no white man and few red men had ever traveled before him. He would run the gauntlet of many dangers—and risk of death by forest and flood had become as the spice of life to him. He would accomplish *what more than one mighty hunter had told him he could not do.

Strang had spent both time and money liberally and with judgment in acquiring information and perfecting arrangements before even so much as the first railway-ticket was purchased. For months before the commencement of the expedition he had corresponded with men in the outposts of civilization and in the lodges beyond—with trappers, factors of the H.B.C., missionaries, and the like. Through such agencies had his party of three been engaged, along with his supplies and outfit, the canoes at Little Moose Lake, and the dogs and sledge and driver awaiting him at the frozen edge of the musk-ox pastures.

The evening was coming on—the evening of the third day of the stage by water. Strang sat in the leading canoe, with a wolf-skin robe across his knees. The air was chilly, and the pungent scent of frost on wilted fern hung between the rocky, spruce-clad banks of the river. The brief summer was gone; a few days of that mystic, elusive season known as Indian summer were still to come; and then the sudden winter would strike the wilderness with scarring, rending cold and enshrouding immensities of snow and ice.

But the anticipation of these things did not daunt the spirit of Bertram Strang. He was toughened, body and mind, to all moods of the wild and all seasons of the year. In northern Asia he had camped for weeks in a horsehide tent banked around by six feet of drifted snow. He leaned back comfortably against folded blankets, smoking his pipe and idly surveying the shores of the stream through halfclosed lids.

The stream ran northward, with a little westing in it, deep and strong.

Skin-um-Mink, the proven, the inscrutable, squatted astern, paddling a swinging, tireless stroke. He was the trusted one—honored by factors, the right hand of missionaries, the pride of his people. Great was his name in his own tongue—and even Skin-um-Mink, as the white men called him, was honorably meant. It was because Strang was a mighty hunter, and not because he was the owner of many millions of dollars, that the lords of the north had procured for him the services of this great chief.

The second canoe followed, a hundred yards distant, with most of the outfit, and with Strong Pipe and Waitfor-Snow at the paddles.

“Camp here,” said Skin-um-Mink, swinging the bow of the canoe toward the left bank with a twist of brown wrist and broad blade. That was the second remark he had made since noon.

Strang, as reticent as the Indian, did not reply. He pushed the wolf-skins from his knees, and when the canoe hung motionless against a flat rock he stood up, perfectly balanced, and stepped lightly over the gunwale. Within ten minutes of the time of the landing, the little tent was pitched, a small cooking-fire was blazing cheerily, and Waitfor-Snow was groping through the black interior of a dunnage-bag for materials for the evening meal. The axes of Strong Pipe and Skin-um-Mink rang sharp in the darkling bush. Strang, who hated idleness, busied himself in unpacking his sleeping-bag and preparing a couch of spruce tips for the night.

While Strang ate his supper of bacon, flapjacks, and tea, the men erected their own lean-to on the opposite side of the fire from the shelter-tent. Then they ate, while the sportsman went down by the canoes at the edge of the black stream to smoke a meditative pipe. He sat on the roots of an ancient cedar that had been torn almost clear of its hold on the rocky bank by some freshet, and gazed down the dark valley. Tie was happy in his queer, uncompanionable way, thinking of other

nights and other camps, and feeling the glow of strength and health in every sinew and vein of him. His mind was drowsy, and did not go further back into the past than to a few of his most exciting wilderness experiences. It did not stir the lights and shadows of his old life.

His reverie was disturbed by a tiny yellow flare against the darkness into which he was gazing—a light that seemed, at the distance, scarcely larger or brighter than the flame of a sulphur match. It sank and shone bright again twice, and then blinked out.

“Now, what in the world would that be?” muttered Strang.

He sat motionless for another minute or two, staring at the unbroken dark that filled the valley down-stream. Then, returning to the fire, he stood for a moment in hesitation with his eyes on Skin-um-Mink’s expressionless face, and seated himself at the open flap of his tent.

He had not found courage to speak to the stolid guide of the unaccountable flame against the blackness of the wilderness. Skin-um-Mink would have thought him fanciful, perhaps—or even ignorant. The brief light may have been entirely of his own eyes—an internal flash brought on by gazing so much, of late, on running waters. Or perhaps it was due to some common natural phenomenon peculiar to the country. So he pulled off his moccasins and outer clothing, and crawled into his sleeping-bag.

The guides transformed the little cooking-fire into a glowing, crackling hummock of flame fully six feet in length. The heat and the music of it beat into the open tents. For a few drowsy minutes. Strang watched the red light dancing on the canvas over his head; then he drifted into the strong, refreshing slumber that is the gift of the clean winds and the breathing spruces of the north.

II.

The light of dawn was filtering

through the canvas when Strang awoke. The flaps of the tent had been

left wide open, and he lay still for a little while, looking out. The great fire of the night lay gray and black, with one eye of red glowing through a film of ashes. A thread of sky-blue smoke crawled up from it, straight as an arrow. The „three guides stood beside the expiring fire, heedless of its need, close together, intent on something in the open hand of Skin-um-Mink.

“What have you found?” inquired Gray Feather.

The three turned to him as in a single -movement, and stood for a second, gazing at the little tent. Then Wait-for-Snow stooped and blew upon the heart of live coals in the carcass of gray and black ashes. Strong Pipe took up an ax and strode into the bush. Skin-um-Mink replied to Strang’s question by stepping over to the front of the tent, stooping, and extending his right hand. Between thumb and forefinger he held a slender gray feather.

Strang sat up and inspected the feather; then he looked at the guide’s expressionless copper visage and veiled eyes.

“Well, what about it?” he asked.

“Bad sign,” said Skin-um-Mink. “Find um in front lean-to, stickin’ in ground. Him mean go back, turn ’round, quit!”

“Do you want to go back—you and the others?” demanded Strang scornfully. “Do you want to go home? Are you quitters?”

Skin-um-Mink shook his head.

“Very good. Then we go on. Be quick with breakfast,” said Strang.

The Indian nodded, and thrust the feather into the front of his shirt.

“Bad sign, too,” he said as he turned away.

In knowing many wilderness people Strang understood something of them all; therefore he did not jeer openly at the men for their concern over the discovery of a gray feather sticking in the moss. But in his heart he sneered at their superstition, and hoped that no further foolishness of the kind might crop up to bungle his plans and delay his journey. As to any fear of such

nonsense putting an end to his expedition—well, he would go on to the musk-ox grounds if he had to go alone !

The day passed without unusual incident. In the leading canoe no reference was made to the brief conversation of the morning. Three days and nights went by without any further word or sign of evil omens; but on the morning of the fourth day Skin-umMink came to the little tent with another slender gray feather in his hand.

“Is it the same feather?” asked Strang wearily.

The guide shook his head, and produced the other feather from the front of his shirt. He stared impassively at the sportsman.

“Well?” queried Strang.

“Strong Pipe, him say no good. Him stop here,” said the guide.

So Strong Pipe was told to remain in camp on that river until further orders, and to employ his time in hunting and trapping and in smoking the flesh of any game that he might procure. He was provided with a small bag of flour, tea, tobacco, a rifle, and ammunition.

Two nights later there came a light fall of snow; and this was followed by a week of gold-and-azure Indian summer. Many arduous portages were made in that time, and [the canoes tasted the waters of four different rivers.

Then came the third feather. It was found in the morning, sticking upright in front of the lean-to; and it proved to be too much for the peace of mind of Wait-for-Snow. So provisions were cached at this point, and Wait-for-Snow was left in charge. The loading of the canoes was rearranged, and Skin-um-Mink took one and Strang the other.

Again and yet again a gray feather was found beside Skin-um-Mink’s sleeping-place.

“If you feel shaky about this feather business, you had better stop here, and I’ll go on alone,” said Strang.

“Bad sign, yes. Bad sign no scare

Skin-um-Mink,” replied the trusty one ; but he was uneasy, for all that.

Next day snow fell soft and deep over the wilderness. It broke from the banks and drifted down the swift, black water in vanishing patches. Ice, sharp and thin as shell, filmed the quiet pools; but though the snow lay undiminished over swamp and barren and hill, the cold did not strike severely enough to bind the lively currents of the river until five days later. By then the journey of the canoes was completed—and not once since the spreading of the snow-blanket had the sign of the gray feather reappeared.

The man wdth the dogs and toboggan was waiting for them at that point of the river from which the dash for the musk-ox grounds was to be made. Truly, the expedition had been wonderfully planned, and the plans wonderfully carried out! They had traveled for weeks without seeing a human being other than the members of their dwindling party; and here, in the desolate region of the Country of Little Sticks, not a day’s journey from the arctic circle, were the five dogs, the man, and the toboggan, as had been arranged over a month ago, far back in the lands where people live. It seemed wonderful even to Bertram Strang, who was not unused to wonders, and he congratulated himself, Skin-umMink, and the man with the dogs.

III.

The man with the sledge was a white man. He did not show the faintest trace of native blood.

“How, cap’n! Where Big John?” said Skin-um-Mink.

“Him an’ my boy gone sou’west to Porcupine,” replied the other, drawing a scrap of paper from a pocket of his fur coat and passing it to the Indian.

“Yes, him all right,” said Skin-umMink.

The scarred canoes were lifted from the icy water and covered with brush, on the chance that they might prove useful, next summer, to some far-farer of the wilderness. The provisions were overhauled, and most of them

given into the charge of Skin-umMink. The dogs were fed, the sledge was loaded, and camp was made for the night.

The sight of the new man’s blue eyes and brown beard had awakened in Strang a hunger for conversation. When the three sat by the little fire after they had eaten, and tobacco was burning in three pipes, he told the man called “cap’n“ of the gray feathers, and of the effect they had produced on Strong Pipe and Wait-for-Snow. The fellow listened in a silence as sphinxlike as that of Skin-um-Mink.

“This gray feather sticking in the ground is supposed to be an ill omen for the journey, or a warning to give up an enterprise, I believe,” said Strang.

The man with the blue eyes nodded, staring at the fire.

“Did you ever hear of it before?” asked Strang.

“Something of the kind,” replied the other.

And there the conversation died. The reticence of the wilderness had touched the lips of the man with the blue eyes and brown beard.

They struck northward under a sky as clear as glass, running beside the sledge. The snow was dry as powder under their feet, and the motionless, frost-charged air cut their lips and eyes as keenly as a driving wind. They left Skin-um-Mink to smoke and meditate alone beside the frozen river and cached provisions. Their way led into a vast barren, untimbered, and lumped and scarred with hummocks of the eternal granite ribs of the world. So tensedrawn with frost were sky and snow that it seemed to Strang as if a cry, or a sudden stamp of the foot, might bring it all tinkling and shattering about his ears.

Both men wore smoked glasses, as a protection against snow-blindness. All morning they loped northward in silence ; and so intense was the cold that they dared not attempt to smoke their pipes. At noon they rested for an hour. The guide found dry moss and an armful of stunted spruce-tuck in a sheltered crevice between two blocks of gran-

ite. With this scanty material he built a fire sufficient for the boiling of snow for tea and the frying of a few slices of dried moose meat.

Again the dogs were fastened to the leather trace and urged forward into the silent, glittering waste. Camp for the night was made by the shifting, whispering illumination of the northern lights. A patch of frozen moss was uncovered, and here the tent was pitched and fastened down with stones. It was banked high with snow on both sides and the back ; and in front was built a fire of dead partridge-berry vines and black, gnarled fagots no thicker than a finger. Food was tossed to the dogs—a big, red-bellied frozen trout to each. A tarpaulin, blankets, and the two sleeping-bags were arranged within the tent; then the men squatted in front of the flap for a little while, close to the dwindling fire, ate, and drank the scalding tea, and smoked their pipes.

So on the last red spark of the fire expired. The dogs curled themselves in the^ deep snow against the tent, with their brushes over their muzzles. The men knocked the ashes from their pipes, backed into the tent, laced down the flaps, crawled into their sleepingbags, grunted “good night,” and closed their eyes. Outside, the northern lights continued their flashing, crackling dance for an hour or so, and then vanished and let the darkness in upon the wilderness.

IV.

Strang was awakened by the fumbling of a hand across his face. He gripped the hand in his and opened his eyes in the same instant of time. The interior of the snow-banked tent was in pitch blackness. He could hear his companion’s hurried breathing' close above him.

“Wake up, man!” said Strang, violently shaking the hand that he gripped so securely and yet could not see.

“I am awake, thank you,” replied the other. “But don’t move.” Here Strang felt the touch of a steel muzzle upon his forehead. “I have waited for you a long time, Mr. Bertram W. Strang—and now I have you!” con-

tinued the voice. “I have waited and worked for this interview.”

There was nothing the matter with Strang’s nerves.

“Who are you, and what do you want?” he asked.

“Have you forgotten the name of David Kemp?” asked the other.

“I do not remember it,” replied the sportsman, after a moment’s reflection.

“I don’t blame ^ou for making a point of forgetting it,” said the other bitterly. “A murderer would try to forget the name and face of his victim, I imagine. Well, I am David Kemp. Once upon a time I was worth a million dollars—and they were honestly made dollars. Then you took an interest in my affairs. You lured me into the market, struck in the dark, and ruined me.”

“I remember you now,” replied Strang. “What brought you here?”

“Don’t move your left hand,” said David Kemp, “Keep it down inside the bag, or there’ll be trouble. What brought me to this part of the world? Well, when you left me in possession of a wife, a child, and eighty dollars, I was not entirely helpless. I had been something of a woodsman all my life, in a wealthy amateur way. I knew woodcraft and the northern wilderness —so I was not without a trade. Steady with your left hand! If I twitch my finger, your whole head will go! I brought my family straight up to Quebec and established them in a backwoods settlement, I trapped fur in winter,^ and guided sportsmen on the rivers in summer and in the woods in autumn. For the first ten years it was a hard struggle to feed and clothe my family, for the other guides looked on me as an outsider ; but I won their confidence and friendship at last, and wiped the jealousy out of their minds. I began moving farther and farther north every winter for the trapping. I became known to the H. B. C.. and worked for them in opening new country for the trade. Now I am one of their explorers, and the founder of several of their new posts. I am hand and glove with the northern Indians—the

Broad Arrows, and such. Oh, yes, I am quite a valuable man—and people call me the captain. But my wife is almost an old woman. It has been harder on her than on me, for she has had to wait and watch—sometimes with the little house snowed to the eaves —and with no share in the excitement. Her shoulders are bent now, and her hands are hard. My eldest son is a trapper, and the second is learning the crafty My girl will marry a young man who intends to build a lumber-mill in our settlement,”

“Your case might have been much worse if you had not lost your million,” said Strang. “But light a candle, and let us talk and look at each other at the same time. I give you my word I’ll not jump on you or make any aggressive move while you are getting the light,” #

# “Is it the word of Strang the financier or Strang the hunter that you offer me?” asked Kemp.

“Of Strang the hunter,” replied the other, unruffled.

Kemp fumbled about until he found a candle in one of the provision-bags. He Jit it, and propped it up somehow against the toe of one of his discarded mocassins, on the tarpaulin between the two sleeping-bags. The little flame illumined the low and narrow tent with a sinister light like that of a low-turned wick in a smoky lantern. One of the huskies moved uneasily in the snow against the walhof the tent. Strang sat up. Kemp returned to his own sleeping-place, reclining with his face toward the other and the revolver still in his hand.

“And how is it that you were waitting here with the dogs—you, of all men? That, surely, was not chance,” said Strang.

“Chance! No, there was nothing of chance about that,” replied Kemp. He stared fixedly at the sportsman for

nearly a minute. “This position _

this situation—is the result of as careful planning a^ over went to the preparation of any of your expeditions.” he continued. “When T first heard that you were coming up into this

country—I already knew a good deal about you as a sportsman—I began to lay out my plans. It is amusing to think that we were mapping things out at the same time—and the result is all that a reasonable man could possibly desire. My son and I took up your trail a few miles this side of Little Moose Lake. I did not expect to have to follow you all the way before managing to get a private talk with you—but there I was wrong. Knowing the Broad Arrows and their superstitions, I began the feather game; and I kept it up until that last fall of snow put a stop to it. And there was old Skinum-Mink still sticking to you ! I had expected to bluff him out with the others, for this feather omen is a deadly one. I thought you would go on alone, angry and pig-headed—and then my time would come! Well, I had fooled myself by underestimating Skin-um-Mink. He seems to be growing superior to the superstitions of his people. So my boy and I hid our canoe, passed you on foot, and reached Bob Hushie and his dogs just half a day ahead of you. I knew exactly where to find Bob. I had a letter ready for him—a scrawl of ink on a piece of wrapping-paper-which he believed to be an order from the factor at McNab’s. I sent him and the boy off to Porcupine, to wait there for me. In case I don’t turn up at Porcupine inside of ten days, they’ll come this way, looking for me. No, it was not what you’d call a chance meeting! Well, Strang, that is the story—as far as it has gone.”

“And a remarkable story, too,” said Strang. “But tell me what it is all about? What are you after?”

“I was after you—and now I have you,” replied Kemp dryly. “I have heard an expression in the settlements that seems to fit the case—I have you where I want you. That’s the idea— where I want you! You see, Strang, we’re a long way from interference, away out here beyond the Country of Little Sticks!”

“You talk very well, Mr. Kemp: but I wish you would come to the point,” said Strang, smiling grimly.

“Well, it is just this—you don’t get out of here until you promise to make good to me the million dollars you’ve robbed me of,” replied Kemp.

“I suppose I should feel offended at the way you put it; but I don’t,” returned Strang. “It happened a long time ago, when my ideas of honesty were somewhat vague. You see me now, Kemp, a man who would not take a pound of pemmican out of another’s cache or a mink-skin out of a trap I had not set myself—and yet, long ago, and in the city, I took your million, along with plenty of other people’s money, without a twinge of conscience. Well, I am changed. I regret having been the cause of Mrs. Kemp’s discomfort and anxiety for all these years. I’ll give you back your money without a word or a kick—on one condition.”

“I am not making any conditions, for it does not matter to me whether you kick or not,” said Kemp.

“You will agree to my conditions, because it is a fair and sporting one,” replied Strang coolly. “I will pledge myself, in black and white, to the payment of the money — check, letter to my bankers, witnessed agreement, and everything—if you will come along and finish this trip and do your best to get me within range of a herd of musk-oxen.”

“And what if I do not agree to the condition?” asked the other.

“Then I’ll kick,” replied Strang crisply. “You may get the best of the fight, but you’ll not get the money. You can count on that.”

They gazed at each other for a second or two, grim as wooden idols. Then they both began to smile, with reserve but without bitterness.

“I agree,” said Kemp. “I’ll do my best to bring you to a herd of muskoxen. Will you shake on the agreement?”

“By all means. Delighted, I’m sure,” replied Strang.

They shook hands. Then Kemp blew out the candle and they both lay down and fell asleep,

V

Strang got his musk-ox. After hardships and frost-bites and hunger, the expedition, augmented by David Kemp and his son, won back to little Moose Lake. From there, Strang and the two Kemps made their way out to the settlement that was Kemp’s home. All this was not accomplished in a day, nor yet in a month.

After a short rest, David Kemp started forth again, this time for Montreal. He had Strang’s check for a million dollars, a signed and witnessed agreement, and an open letter to a Montreal banker, snug in his pocket. Strang refused to accompany him, saying that he would remain with the family and play at trapping furs until his return.

David Kemp sat at a polished desk opposite the great banker. In front of the banker lay the check, the letter, and the agreement. The banker was fiddling with his eye-glasses and gazing mournfully at his visitor.

“For how long has Mr. Strang been out of touch with the world?” he asked.

“He has spent close upon four months on this expedition,” replied Kemp.

“My check for this amount is as good as Mr. Strang’s,” said the banker sadly.

“I don’t doubt it,” returned Kemp heartily.

The banker’s large and benevolent face brightened for a moment, only to gloom again even more gloomily than before.

“You don’t quite get my meaning, sir,”^ he said. “Bertram W. Strang is a ruined man.”

David Kemp leaned back in his chair, speechless with amazement and incredulity.

“It happened within the last two weeks,” continued the banker. “His huge fortune was all in the market, the plaything of a reckless and unscrupulous nephew. For years Strang has neglected everything.^ The nephew has made the most of his opportunities— and last week, in an unfortunate attempt to get possession of all the cotton in the world, he enriched the market with something over sixty millions of dollars.”

Kemp’s reply was nothing more than a feeble gurgle.

# “I am very sorry, Mr. Kemp,” continued the banker. “Strang has been behaving like a fool for the last ten years.”

“You must not say that,” replied Kemp. “He is less of a fool than he used to be, and a particular friend of mine.”

He gathered up his papers and returned them to his pocket, shook hands with the banker, and went away. At a news-stand he found the papers that described in full the sudden disappearance of the great Strang fortune into the open maw of the market. The end of Strang’s financial activities had made even more stir than the beginning.

“Poor old fellow !” murmured Kemp, standing there with his eyes intent on the week-old news and his ears deaf to the hum and clatter of the busy street. “Well, it looks to me as if we might end our days together, trapping mink and otter and fox. And it will be a fine thing for Jane and the children to have a man of Strang’s culture and knowledge to talk to now and then—a finer thing, perhaps, than a million dollars!”