A Book-length Novel, Complete in This Issue The Itch of the Wandering Foot
BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
The Itch of the Wandering Foot
BUCK HARRISON rose from his
bed one morning, put on a
dressing-gown and paced about the four rooms of his suite, taking stock of his surroundings with a sudden unaccountable disfavor.
“I ought to be pleased to death with myself, but I don’t seem to be even half satisfied,” he observed reflectively. “I don’t seem to be getting as much out of this as I’ve got out of a heap less here and there.”
He poked his head and shoulders out of an open window and planted both elbows on the sill. The breath of the September trades fanned his face, salt-laden off the Pacific.x He could >
see the tranquil ocean sparkling in the distance. The morning was very clear, and from his aerie on the seventh floor of an apartment house, situated on one of San Francisco’s seven hills, he saw the Farallones, purple specks on the horizon, rarely visible except on just such a day as this. The fogs that cap old Tamalpais had betaken themselves to parts unknown and left that ancient peak bared to the California sun. The bay and the Golden Gate shimmered between. All about him spread the roofs of the city, windows flashing, far-running vistas of street, sky-scrapers jutting here and there like islands in a sea, the gilt Liberty on the gray City Hall a figure of burnished gold. '
It was impressive and beautiful and Buck sensed keenly its charm. But— somehow he had lost his enthusiasm for it. Months of San Francisco had wearied him. Things came too easy.
He was surfeited with pleasurebored to death. For years hehad promised himself that when he made a stake he would betake’himself to this mother city of the Pacific coast and live like a gentleman. The stake had been long a thing purely visionary, but visions coupled with determined endeavor sometimes become realities.
In Buck Harrison’s case it became so overnight, figuratively speaking. He had found wealth where he least expected it. Taking over a placer claim in a played-out Alaska district, thinking only to work out a grubstake,
Buck opened up an old creekbed and found the wings of the golden goddess fluttering in his face. So that presently he was outbound to San Francisco with a hundred thousand dollars to his credit.
He had landed here, gotten himself a homelike place in a bachelor apartment, with a Japanese boy to keep his house in order, and straightway found the manifold activities of this cosmopolitan seaport a fascinating spectacle—for awhile.
BUCK, in the brief span of his thirty years, had been everywhere west of the Mississippi, had tried his hand at many things, mines,-the cattle ranges, the-woods of the north. Always he had absorbed clean-cut impressions of what he saw and the folk he mingled with. Wherefore, when he cared to be, he was excellent company. To an
alert mind nature had joined a vigorous body. Buck was~f the sort of man that women take a second look at, that other men find a good fellow. During his brief sojourn in San Francisco he had found no lack of friends.
But these variegated experiences, which had given him so broad an outlook and a humorous tolerance of things and persons, had also fastened upon him more firmly than he realized the curse—or the blessing, according as one views it—of the wandering foot. From Texas to
the Canada line Buck had slept under the stars, thirsted in deserts, groped in snow-blindness across wintry prairies. A due measure of adventure, the taking of long chances, close shaves upon occasion, the lure of the unknown, sundry hardships arising by the way; these had been his portion. These twelve years had been keyed to one clear note—Action, action. In last analysis, he was only tired of sitting still, not wearied of the city with its spirit of carnival, its beautiful women, its plentitude of things that gave him keen pleasure. He was only begin-
ning to feel cramped, imprisoned to a. little round of eating good food, being waited upon, sleeping in a soft bed, nogreater tax on his resourcefulness than to extract some interest from each passing day. This morning found him uneasy, restless.
“A man’s a queer animal,” Buck soliloquized. “I worked and sweated and generally exerted myself prowling up and down the face of the earth for years trying to make a bunch of money. Now I’ve got it, it don’t seem to get me anything much but an easier living. I wonder if a man ever is satisfied. If I didn’t have a ■bankroll big as I’ll ever need, I suppose I’d be with that bunch stampeding into the Klinkut.”
He fell to wondering irrelevantly over this last; the new Klinkut gold-rush. The papers were daily setting forth items concerning a placer discovery in a little known section of the North. Discounting exaggerated reports, Buck could easily visualize the scene. He had been in gold stampedes himself. There would be men trekking hopefully in there, old-timers that he had met on divers, trails. Gold or no gold, it was a man’s game.
He fell into a brown study. There would be a bunch of men that he knew without a doubt—real, honestto-God prospectors, who knew gold when they saw it in the pan, fellows who would split their last bannock with a hungry stranger, men who had done things even if they had nothing to show for it—not lily-fingered listeners* who could talk glibly of adventure without ever having; faced adventurous mischance.
“I’ve a mind to go, just for the fun of the thing,” Buck grunted. “I never got into that Klinkut country. They used to say there was game in there. I could hunt, anyway.”
He took his elbows off the window sill and dressed, * Then he called a hack—for
this happened before the day of the ubiquitous taxi— and went down to a café on Mason street for his breakfast. Seated in this quiet eating place Buck Harrison decided that being footloose and fancy free, he would see what was in this Klinkut stampede. Not that he particularly wanted to fatten his bank account, but to get somewhere, dosomething, be on the move. San Francisco was all right, a good place to call headquarters. But a man didn’t have to sit down and take root just because he had as much money as he thought he would ever need.
In one circumstance only did Buck depart from former custom when he thus abruptly made up his mind to fare forth on new trails. Always before he had gone with all his worldly goods in a grip and war-bag, or rolled in a bundle öf bedding, This time he paid a year’s rental on his apartment, bargained with the janitor to care for it during his absence, and left it as it stood, books lying about, clothing hung in closets, sundry articles which he had accumulated scattered in all a careless man’s disorder. Probably he would be back before spring, and the place would be his when he did come back, a comfortable corner to walk into and hang up his hat.
sundering all ties behind.
A i\ wk later he was in Skagway. A month after that he was poling a Siwash dugout up a glacial stream in the interior. In another like craft his partner labored at the pole. Winter was closing in on them. In a few days more they would be forced to back-pack, to advance by devious ways and means, bearing their winter’s grubstake with them, upon the new gold-fields.
They reached the established camp in the fullness of time, finding a thousand others before them. And the Klinkut, tike many another of these n.*u| pilgrimages, proved a fizzle, the pay’streak scant in area, and nowhere over-rich, except in rare spots. Buck and his partner accumulated a team of malamutes, a little more grub, and pressed on for a valley said to lie two hundred miles south and east where two men. so it was further said, had taken coarse gold on a dry bench digging.
Somehow they failed to find any such spot, and when winter was half-spent they were sick of facing frosts and deep snow in an unbroken wilderness. So they built themselves a log cabin and holed up til! spring.
With the first thaw they bore on again, still pressing eastward and southerly. Eventually they came out on a sizable stream which also flowed eastward, and Buck elected to follow this.
At the first Hudson’s Bay post they encountered they outfitted anew, and since Buck’s whimsical excursion eastward did not meet favor with his partner they separated.
And that is how it happened that Buck Harrison, came in early summer, after months of wandering in a land that treats wanderers none too gently, to a town on the sunrise side of the Rocky mountains. And being for the time sated with hardships and loneliness, just as in San Francisco he had been sated with easy living. Buck put himself up at the best hotel, dressed himself according to his means and taste, and tarried in Moosewaton awhile.
The Moth and the Beautiful Candle
ONCE upon a time a certain man read a book of adventurous happenings, and amused himself by keeping an atlas at his elbow whereby he traced the course of the principal character on a map. If you should attempt to find Moosewaton in this manner you will seek a long time—unless you have personal knowledge of the North and are a good guesser besides. An educated Northern Cree might give you the English of the place, but it is not written so on the maps. Nevertheless, it was once the gateway to a rich portion of the North. Through it has come many a king’s ransom in furs.' In days long past it was a simple trading-post. To-day it is a city of parts, •with banks and shops and street railways, with a palatial residence district, with real estate brokers by the score, and a mayor and aldermen and civic disturbances. Progress has overtaken it, so the citizens say—proudly. Numbered among its residents are many who have piled up wealth in its amazing development. Railroads have made Moosewaton an important point on transcontinental routes. But all agree that Moosewaton is perhaps unique among western cities, in that it sits on the edge of nothingness. Behind it lie untrodden forests, virgin territory held virgin by long winters and great distances. From these hinterlands still issue furs and gold. Always there are hardly souls who are only content in unpeopled areas. The settlements north of Moosewaton are but scattered homesteads on the principal streams. Beyond these lies the wilderness, as it was a century since.
To Moosewaton then came Buck Harrison well upon a year after leaving San Francisco, brown-skinned, hard as nails, a little glad to turn his back on lonely trails, a little inclined to look upon luxurious idleness with a kindly eye. Buck was human and he liked variety.
“It is a blamed good thing to have money,” he addressed his image in the mirror when he was shaved and bathed and dressed in tailored clothing once more. “I can loaf when I feel like it. or hit the trail when I want to— and do either in style. Yes. a bank-roll’s a handy thing.” Without any special effort on 'his part, Mr. Buckley Harrison fell in with some few of the rising generation of Moosewaton’s elect. When he played Buck did it wholeheartedly. as he did everything. He was not good at parlor tricks, but give him a horse, a gun, a tennis racquet—or a good floor and suitable music—and he was in his element. He fell into step light-heartedly. This and that social diversion carried him well into the winter at Moosewaton, with r.o recurrence of that itch for new scenes and new faces which was wont to afflict him.
Then, before he quite realized what he was about, Buck fell in love with a girl. He was quite honest with himself about it, and rather glad. It was the way of all
flesh, he knew. Soon or late in every man’s life the mating instinct becomes the dominant one. And there was no reason why he should not mate., He had felt similar emotions before, when marriage would have meant only ultimate disaster, for Buck had the gift of self-analysis and he knew that drudgery, responsibilities that would, tie him down to one spot and a continual struggle against poverty, meant nothing but unhappiness. And he had dodged the issue, preferring his wings unclipped. Buck was a good deal of an idealist, as men of his type often are. What did not measure up to his ideal he would have none of.
But there was now no reason why he should not marry,
and he could sum.up many reasons why he should. The greatest of these was that he wanted to, and the next in order was that he could do so without fear of unavoidable consequences. A man, he complained to himself, could hit the trail single-handed, he could adventure in search of fortune by himself, he could even get an astonishing amount of enjoyment out of ordinary, everyday affairs —but he could not make a home. Not alone. This last trip had somehow set Buck to wondering if he were to go on indefinitely roaming about the face of the earth, void of all ties, a.periodic victim of restlessness. This, which had always seemed good to him, grew less and less attractive the more he thought of Letty Stephens. With her, now—
T ETTY’S eyes were blue as the windflowers that döt
' the prairies with the first grass of spring, and her heavy hair was yellow like ripe wheat-straw in the August sun. And when she laughed it sounded to Buck like the liquid ripple of a mountain stream. So you can see that he was far gone indeed.
But whether he aroused in her similar emotions he wag unable to determine. Letty was coy, evasive, holding him at arm’s length by devices peculiar to her sex, and particularly effective where a man like Buck Harrison was concerned. For all Buck’s lore of wood and camp and trail had taught him much of men, but little of women. The Letty Stephens kind of woman was to him a radiant being, whose favors were to be sought humbly. That lack of sophistication on his part gave Letty all the advantage. She was proud of this captive of her bow and spear, but she was careful to conceal that from Buck himself. He courted her assiduously enough, but he lacked the assertive egotism that would have enabled a lesser man to compel her regard in a briefer time.
A hot-house flower—that very well describes Letty Stephens. Sheltered and petted, much sought after because of her undeniable attractiveness, she fell in reality far short of Buck’s idealized conception of her. That, however, would appear to be one of Nature’s little devices to maintain an average of quality throughout succeeding generations. Invariably the Buck Harrisons, strong, adaptable, resourceful and courageous, marry women whose beauty of face and form is their sole attraction. And vice versa.
Buck stopped short of the crucial test, inasmuch as he did not corner Letty and ask her to marry him when at last he did feel sure that she would. He had old-fashioned notions of respect for age and parental authority, ideas such as his generation, his and Letty’s, had largely outgrown. And so he called upon her father one afternoon and straightforwardly demanded to know if that gentleman had any objection to him as a son-in-law.
Now it happened that to Mr. Alexander Stephens, Buck Harrison was merely one of several likable young men whom he had met upon various occasions during the social activities of the winter. He knew nothing of Buck’s resources. Nor did Moosewaton at large know Buck as other than a very agreeable individual who appeared to
have sufficient means to live decently, who dressed and talked equally well, comported himself as a gentleman, and as such was generally accepted. Where he hailed from, from what source his revenues were derived, what the extent of his bank account might be, were questions which none but Buck himself could have answered. Such pertinent queries naturally were never addressed to him by any of the set he moved in. And Buck, while he valued his possessions, such as they were, never thought of advertising the fact that he could write a check for a hundred thousand dollars, and have it honored at least once. Indeed he discovered himself to derive less satisfaction, or perhaps it should be put less sensation, from mere possessing, than he had experienced in the struggleforitsacquirement. Money was a good thing to have. That hè would cheerfully admit. But lack of it had never soured him, and so plenty of it in nowise changed his normal attitude toward life. It never occurred to him that anyone might think he had one eye on the Stephens coffers while the other rested on Letty’s charming self. , 1
Stephens heard him out in polite silence.
“Have you proposed to my daughter?” he asked at length.
Buck made an impatient gesture.
“If I’d proposed and been accepted,” said he, “I’d simply be asking for your blessing instead of your permission. Letty likes me. But I felt that it would be the square thing to speak to you first.”
Stephens rose from his chair. He was a tall, spare man, still straight-backed and square-shouldered despite his sixty years. Age had whitened his hair and thinned it a trifle on top, the lines in his face were deep and many, but flesh had not assailed him to destroy his activity. There was power, and a hint of harshness on that thin countenance with its straight-lipped mouth and deep-set eyes.
“Come over to the window, Harrison,” he said.
'T'HEY were in Stephens’ study on the second floor. A wide window opened over a balcony. The house sat on a little eminence, so that Moosewaton spread before them in slanting bird’s-eye view, rows and blocks of buildings where the business of a city throve, wide fringes of residential property spreading away in all directions, and bordering all on the south a wide river, locked fast now under a three-rfoot thickness of ice that gleamed in the winter sun. But Stephens was not intent on the view.
“Look,” he said, pointing. To Buck he seemed to expand visibly. “There’s a city. When I came here thirty years ago it was a fur post. You see it now. I am an oldtimer, Mr. Harrison. I have grown with the country. I came here with a strong back, two good hands, and determination. Nothing more. For ten years before that' I had struggled for an existence, one might say. And for another ten years the struggle was not much less. But always with an eye to the future. You see that white building with the big clock—thé Stephens Building. That’s mine. You can’t point a finger to a thriving proposition in Moosewaton that I haven’t an interest in. I drive the biggest individual fur trade annually in the North-west. I’m the only man who ever successfully competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company—and I learned how to do that from the Company itself. I’m a rich man, even in this day of big fortunes. I’m not cataloguing my possessions to impress you. But it is the net result of application and bull-dog persistence.”
“Very true, I daresay,” Buck remarked. He could not quite see whither this led, but it was making him uncomfortable. “I understand, of course, that you’re wealthy. .But I can’t see where this bears on me.”
“In this way,” Stephens said curtly. “Letty is my only child. I’ve put velvet cushions between her and all the hárd knocks I had to take. She knows no more of want and struggle than a babe unborn. When I’m through, all this will be hers. I’ve got to know that the man who marries her has something of the quality I had to have to get this. He has to grade number one.”
Buck looked at him half-offended.
“I’m asking you for your consent to us marrying, in the event that your daughter cares enough to marry me,” he answered quietly. “The question of your money is nothing to me. You can easily satisfy yourself that I’m a respectable Canadian citizen. And so far as money is concerned you don’t imagine for a minute, do you, that I care two whoops whether Letty is heiress to a million or a dime?”
Stephens smiled. But Buck was not smiling. Indeed he was glaring at his prospective father-in-law with a pronounced scowl.
“I did not say that,” the older man declared. “From what I’ve seen of you, Harrison, I wouldn’t get that
impression. No. But the fact remains that I know very ' little about you. You’ve passed muster here quite easily —but I know dozens of young men, fine, gentlemanly chaps that I would not cafe to see a daughter of mine marry—for her own good. Tut, tut,” he laughed shortly. “They’re dainty, lily-handed gentlemen who’d starve to death if you chucked them out on a hard trail.”
DUCK laughed softly. He himself entertained similar sentiments, with the mental reservation, born of much experience, that hard trails sometimes harden a soft man. But if that were all, if Stephens demanded only an upstanding, two-fisted man for his daughter’s husband, Buck thought he would come up to par.
“A man that I can be sure is a man is welcome to marry Letty if she wants him,” Stephens continued. “Two things he must have—nerve and brains. Money, as you say, doesn’t matter. That combination will always enable a man to'get money when money is needed. A girl might make a mistake in sizing a man up. That has never been one of my weaknesses. I am free to say that in those two important respects, Harrison, you are an unknown quantity to me.”
“Well,” Buck drawled quizzically, “what sort of demonstration will satisfy you? I want to tell yoji that you’re making a great mistake if you class me as a lily of the field. I’ve toiled and spun, and while I haven’t got your fortune to show for it, still I don’t think the wolf will ever camp on my doorstep. I’m not a business man in your sense of the word, but that is no sign I could not tackle business successfully. I think you’ll find my nerve and brain fairly well developed. However, I asked you a blunt question, Mr. Stephens, and we haven’t got anywhere yet. Will you, or will you not?”
“If I refuse, what then?” Stephens inquired, eyeing him keenly.
“In that case,” Buck returned slowly. “There is only one thing to be done. Letty is free, white, and of age. If she’s the woman I imagine, and wants to marry me, we’lj be married. I think I can manage to give her pretty nearly everything she’s been accustomed to! I recognize your point of* view and your rights in the matter, but when it comes to a showdown it rests with her. I hope it won’t come to an open break of that sort. But we’ve got our own lives to live, and I don’t think that she’d let you stop us from paddling our own canoe, in our own way. You’re not omnipotent, by any means, you know.”
Stephens took a couple of turns across the room, his long, bony hands clasped behind him.
“I do not refuse,” he said finally, halting before Buck. "‘But my consent has certain conditions attached. Sit -down. I’ll make my meaning clear.”
He motioned Buck to a chair, and going over to the wall took down a large map of the North-west. This he spread on the table.
“A little over a year ago,” he began abruptly, “a man in my employ, a man I had trusted to a great' extent, absconded with a sum of money—and what is more important, certain documents of mine. He knows the North like a book. He speaks several Indian dialects. He can pass muster among the tribes anywhere. Therefore he is a hard man to catch, harder than you would imagine. He is now, I have reliable information, about here—•”
Stephens’ forefinger ran down a black wavering line that stood for a river and came to rest on the northern tip of a big lake bulking large between two parallels of latitude.
“Around in there hiding out with a band of Little Athabascans,” the iur merchant said. “It is a long way north, in a broken, timbered region.
A good country for an outlaw who stands in with the natives.”
“Well?” Buck interrogated, meeting the ap’ praising stare steadily.
“I want that man,”
Stephens said. “Either the man or the papers he stole. Go get him for me. If it’s in you to do that, you’re man enough to marry Letty, if you had only the clothes you stand in. If you’re not, you can’t. Is that plain?”
As a Knight of Old
“TT SOUNDS plain A enough,” Buck answered impatiently. “But
I can’t quite gee the sense of it. Where does it make me more fit to take care of a woman—this making myself a human bloodhound for you?”
“I know next to nothing about you,” Stephens rejoined evenly. “This is, in a measure, a test of your quality. It will take nerve and patience and resource to accomplish this.”
“It is a Mounted Police job,” Buck declared tartly. “I don’t like it. You people up here are strong on law and order. Why should I, an alien without a vestige of legal authority, go after a fugitive?”
“I have told you why,” Stephens said grimly. “Take it or leave it. It is not a job for the Police. The man is a fox. A uniformed officer might spend five years hunting him and fail—because the Indians would always pass the warning word ahead of him. You can go as a trader. I will equip you for that. Your real object will not be suspected. You will eventually locate him. It will depend on your own woodcraft and cunning whether you ever get close enough to have speech with him. When you do—well, I do not care about the man. But I require those papers; even if it is necessary for you to bring him out and hand him over to the law. I shall give you a minute description so that you will have no doubts when you set on eyes on him. Also I shall give you a letter which you will deliver into his hands. When he reads it he will either give you . these documents, or he will try to kill you—and you must govern yourself accordingly. But either the man himself or the papers he stole you must bring back here to me.” Buck pored over the map a minute.
“By the scale,” said he, “it is six hundred miles in an air-line, through as God forsaken a country as lies outdoors. It will take me at least six months.”
“At least six months,” Stephens agreed. “Likely longer. I do not wish you to consider it an easy task.” ,
Buck got up out of his chair.
“I think you are putting foolish difficulties in mÿ way,” he said coldly. “If it is, as you put it, merely a test of my quality, there are other, more positive, ways of. finding out. I know this north country probably a good deal better than you think possible. And I tell you frankly that I won’t set out on any such useless, thankless errand unless Letty herself asks me to do so. If she cares for me I hardly think she will want me to spend six months or a year wandering about in snow and muskegs and flies merely to satisfy a whim of yours.”
“Very well,” Stephens said. “We will leave it to her. Ask her. If she wants to marry you, state to her the proposition I have made exactly as I made it. If she asks you to, will you go?”
“I wouldn’t have much choice, would I?” Buck replied. “I think it’s damned nonsense, but in that case I’d go —yes.”
“Ask her then,” Stephens said with an air of finality. “You will likely find her in the conservatory. I heard her down there just before you came in.”
Buck found her in that warm annex to the house, amid hanging pots of asparagus fern and geraniums and fragrant violet beds, snipping mid-winter carnations and humming a little tune to herself. She greeted him with a pretty air of surprise. And Buck being above all things straightforward and being fresh from an interview which had moved him more than was apparent on the surface,
took her by the shoulders so that she faced him whether or no, and told her rather huskily what had been trembling on his lips for weeks.
Letty flushed a little and lowered her eyes, and Buck unconsciously drew her closer, and tilted back her head. “You do like me, don’t you?” he questioned hopefully. The color in Letty’s cheeks deepened, and when she did not answer Buck kissed her.
“You know you do,” he declared—and the girl, quivering a little in the closing pressure of his embrace, nodded and snuggled a soft white arm, bare to the elbow, around his neck, and returned his kiss. All the heady liquors Buck Harrison had ever sampled, and they had been many, were never half so intoxicating as that warm pressure of her lips.
THERE was a nook close by, enfolded in creeping plants and into this Buck presently drew his sweetheart. A rustic bench crossed one side. They sat there, holding hands, smiling at each other, wordless. Then Buck came back to realities, knowing that he was not yet out of the woods, but happily reckless of the future. As concisely as Stephens had put it, he set forth to Letty the terms and conditions upon which her father would countenance their marriage.
She laid her yellow head on Buck’s shoulder with a sigh. “I don’t want you to go away from me now,” she said slowly. “I’d just dread you to be away for months and months in that desolation. And still—it would be an achievement that would make papa everlastingly swear by you. You don’t know how he has drilled that into me; that the man I marry must have what he calls the sterling qualities. He’s a good deal of a Spartan, that old dad of mine. And—and I’d know you really and truly loved
me, Buck, if you were willing to do a thing like that.” “Have you any doubts?” Buck chided gently. “You know I do.” _ ,
“But would you make any particular sacrifice for me?” she asked. “I’ve never met a man who attracted me as you do. In fact it makes me just a little bit afraid. But I’d like to be positively and absolutely sure of you, dear boy.. Jacob labored seven years for Rachael.”
If he had been less completely under the sway of his emotions Buck might have grown irritated at this highly romantic attitude. As it was he thought only of looming the biggest figure in Letty Stephens’ sight. For her favor at any price seemed small—-at the moment. But he made one more try. .
“I’m no kid-glove parlor hero,” he said gently. ‘Tough trails are no new thing to me. Your father calls it a test of my quality. But to me it isn’t any test—merely an ¡ aggravating separation, a useless delay. If I start now, atv best it will be away late next summer before I get back, ^ even with good luck. If this fellow is real slippery, it might be a year, or two years. I don’t want to be away, completely out of touch with you that long. I feel as ifj every day we’re separated now, is sheer wasted time.” .-,1 “I don’t insist,’’she said thoughtfully. “I’ll be lonesome. Waiting for anything I want has always been dreary work for me. Still—I do think that since papa has put it that way it would really be a big thing for you to do. ; I like you, and you’re a dear, and I know that you’re a* real man—but that would clinch it. Papa would trust you;
always and in every-1 thing after that.”
“But I’m not wanting* to marry your esteemed papa,” Buck objected] in perplexity. “If you’rej dead sure of me I don’t! care a hang—”
“Go and get this ab-*seo nder, B u c k,” she] whispered. “Isn’t that little enough price to; pay for our future hap-.; piness? Perhaps I’m ; silly, but even though Ij dread to have you go, I want you to do as papa wishes. He’s inflexible. He’s getting old, and Ij don’t want to quarrel with him over our mar-j riage. Would you? Ij can’t exactly say why-4 a woman doesn’t alwaysj account for her feelings —but I do have a little the same feeling that hq has. I love you, but f want to be sure you’re; the man I think you are¿ We haven’t known each other so very long, Buck.*'!
“Oh, if you put it tha' way,” he capitulated] “I’ll go. That’s settled, I’d go down to the ho^ place after a coal for yofl if you wanted me to.”
“To Red Moss Lake,” she murmured pensively. “It’s a long, long way. I’ll miss you dreadfully, dear. But I’ll be thinking of you all the time.”
“You want to have that wedding gown all ready when I get back,” Buck warned playfully.
They lingered in that vine-enfolded nook, where the air was redolent of scented flowers and green growing things, in contrast to the high-piled drifts of snow outside, and the lance-toothed frost that held all the North-west in its merciless grip. At last Buck bethought himself of Mr. Alexander Stephens w aiting to know how he had decided.
■'I’ll have to go and tell your esteemed parent that I'm going to fulfill his requirements. Letty,” hesaid. “Might as well have it understood. But Lord. 1 sure hate the idea of breaking away on such a jaunt at this stage of the game.”
“Am l not worth the effort?” Letty made believe to pout.
"Oh, if you put it that way,” Buck smiled. "Why, there's only one answer."
Red Moss Lake
\ WEEK from that day Buck Harrison left Moose•i »■ waton. journeying by mail-sled to a hamlet one hundred arid twenty miles north-east—the jumping-off place. There he outfitted at a Hudson’s Bay store, secured two dog teams, grub, and all things needful for the trail, including a reliable half-breed hunter to drive the second team. And thus equipped he set off one morning, his road the frozen surface of a great waterway which by devious courses at last pours its flood into the Arctic Sea.
It was March, and very cold. The frosts gnawed unceasingly. And he was out-running the spring, bearing for a latitude that would be whipped by storms six weeks after the grass was green at Moosewaton. At first the dry crunch of the snow under the flat toboggans sounded in his ears like an old, well-remembered melody. For he was a wanderer born, and new roads still held their lure.' Albeit, the trail he now took was not new to him. Once upon a time, nearly nine years earlier, to be exact, Buck had gone with a hunting party down this self-same stream and fared even unto the Circle before he returned again. He had not told Stephens that. Nevertheless, he had a vivid memory of Red Moss Lake. Sundry memorable events had transpired along its dreary shores. Buck had been an outsider in that party, a hired guide, but he had bulked large in the outcome. Also, that particular section of the North remained ever after a cheerless and rigorous area in his mind, more so than even the Yukon and the beaches at Nome.
Still, there was the old fascination of new country, of action, getting somewhere, doing something that was beyond weaklings. But as the days slipped by, days through which he trudged behind a dog-team from before dawn till after the long twilight closed in, with the breath of him and the breath of his dogs exhaling in white, steamy puffs, he began to sense more keenly the bigness of his undertaking.
Outwardly acquiescent, there had lurked at the back of his mind from the beginning a stifled protest at the task laid upon him, merely that he should prove himself enduring and resourceful—qualities that Buck Harrison held as matter of fact virtues, demonstrated on harder trails than this. To him it seemed altogether needless. Once in a while a treasonable doubt of Letty’s sincerity arose, only to be instantly crushed. Even on the trail the spell of her was potent over Buck. He reminded himself that he had not blown his own hom. He was always diffident about that, never a boaster. He had not tabulated his abilities and possessions. He had told Stephens that he felt competent to support a wife in decent comfort, and let the question of his means go at that. So far as they knewhe might be a penniless adventurer. All this Buck occasionally set forth to himself sitting over the evening fire, a gargoyle faced breed his only company. He would get out the little picture of Letty that he carried, and stare at it until a lump would rise in his throat. He did not grudge the effort nor the hardships—but he did grudge the wasted time. And he was very lonely.
FORGING down that frozen river, a white hand splitting the frost-spangled forest, day after day they kept on till Buck lost track of the calendar. They broke at last away from the ice and crossed a height of land to strike the southern end of Red Moss Lake. The timber was small, for they were now verging far north, and great areas of scrub thicket made passage slow. Though it was the first week in April, the only sign of seasonal change was in the lengthening days. Everywhere the snow lay heavy on the land, and the cold abated little of its merciless attack. Buck had called it a God-forsaken country. Many a man before him had voiced those words. Through the day they plodded on patiently, breaking trail by turns, the steady lift and fall of the snow shoes on the yielding surface bringing tiny beads of sweat out on the skin. And at night the damp undergarments lay clammily on the flesh; no matter that they slept in robe of wolf-skin, that searching cold struck through.
But in the end they came out upon Red Moss Lake, and midway of its eastern shore drew in to a fur-post, ruled by a Frenchman with a native wife and a brood of dark-skinned children. From this man Buck gained the first definite trace of Stephens’ absconder. The factor had information which corroborated Stephens’ declaration.
“Ah cannot say for sure, M’sieu; Ah have not seen thees man ma-self,” he replied to Buck’s minute description. “But thees Ah know: for months now there ees a white man weeth Dog Tooth’s band. He does not come on de pos’ for trade. The breeds are see heem only. An’ he ees ver’ shy—w’eech ees not lak mos’ squaw man. Ah’m not teenk much ’b.ouj dees. But eet ees your man, maybeso.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Buck made answer. “Where is he supposed to hang out?”
“Well, de las’ tam’ Ah’m hear off heem he ees nort’ de Lak,” the factor wrinkled his brows in thought. “Eef he ees steel weeth old Dog Tooth, they are mos’ly Weenter on de nort’ end of Red Moss. How far back they are trap I cannot say, maybeso, feefty, a hundred mile. An’ they weel be scatter somewhat, each familee to hees own trapeen’ groun’. You see?”
DUCK took on fresh supplies, cautioned the man to say nothing of his errand, and pushed on. Three, weeks later he came on the first of the Dog Tooth Athabascans. And here also, spring overtook him.’ For days a perceptible softening of the air had teen growing. Then a swift thaw overspread the land. While the rotting ice still held fast on stream and lake, despite the puddles of water gathering here and there, ducks and geese in scouting squadrons began to pass, whistling above and squawking harsh • messages of summer as they went. Presently, with sundry crackings and groanings, lanes of water opened over the lake, and with the creeks pouring the melted snow into the huge basin Red Moss lifted and broke its winter fetters. Floes drifted here and there, a southerly wind piled banks of crushed ice on the beaches to vanish in the chinook and the strengthening sun. Then the blue-green water stretched away like a sea, and all the surrounding woods took on a richer hue of green, odorous with bursting buds and the rank vegetation that sprang riotously from the thawed bosom of the earth to flourish during the brief summer of the North.
•A hundred feet back from the shore on a grassy bank beside a stream wherein trout lurked under every lilypad six lodges of Dog Tooth’s band were staked. And here Buck pitched a camp and tarried. He could do little else now. To break away into the woods, scouting trap lines as he found them would be to give a hint to those woodwise folk that he was there for a purpose other than he had made known. So he decided to lie on the Lake shore and wait patiently for his man. He had learned from the Frenchman at Halfway House that this was the spring rendezvous for Dog Tooth’s band. Here, from their overwinter trapping grounds, they gathered and advanced in a brigade on the trading-post to wipe out their “debt” and provision for the summer with the take of pelts.
And presently he began to see the wisdom of this course. Out of the woods, single families, lone young men, groups of a dozen, drifting in birch canoes down shallow streams, appearing silently at noon or midnight or at break of day, the Indians began to gather. Fires stabbed the dark with yellow tongues along the beach. Dozens of smoke blackened lodges lifted against the springing green of the birch and poplar. Dogs and children and old women scurried about their several activities. The men sat about talking, smoking kinnikinik in little stone pipes.
BUCK let it be known that he desired fox skins, skins of the cross fox and silver, rare and costly furs. The heaviest burden on his two toboggans all that long trail had been goods for this trade, and the craft of Stephens’ suggestion was apparent. He did not have to load up with an unnecessary bulk of furs. There were few enough of the kind he asked for—but every Indian with fox skins, prime or otherwise, came to his camp to drive a bargain. Thus he saw them all.
But the man he sought for did not come. This tried Buck’s patience, but he knew that it must be a waiting game. And his waiting was at length rewarded. He sat with his back against the bole of a tree one evening when the sun was hovering on the edge of the westward forest, watching Alphonse fashion for their use a canoe of birchbark. His eyes, roving, caught an object hugging the shore distantly, a blur on the water, but a craft he knew, by the glint of the sun on wet paddle blades, as they dipped and rose and dipped and rose again. Buck watched it creep along shore, come abreast and pass within fifty yards of where he sat. And though the girl in the bow was blanketed and black of hair, and brownskinned, the man kneeling in the stern was white.
Even at the distance he felt sure of his quarrry. The man was bareheaded, very fair, and above average size, dovetailing with his description. Buck did not stir from the tree, but he was thinking hard. The canoe drove in on the sand beach the far end of the clustered lodges, and
the man and his Indian woman began to pitch a camp. Buck filled his pipe afresh. He would let the matter rest till morning. If this were not Campbell, itdid not matter ; and if it were Campbell, he would scarcely take to flight because there was another white man camped nearby, a trader of fox skins. Here among the lodges of his adopted people he would feel tolerably safe.
So Buck finished his pipe and went to bed.
In the morning Buck had hardly finished his breakfast when the man walked into his camp with two beautiful skins of the cross fox. He affected the more or less broken talk of the typical half-breed. Instead of the educated man Buck knew him to be, he posed as the illiterate trapper. At close quarters there was no room for doubt. Campbell had-a forefinger missing at the first joint, a slight triangular scar on his left cheek-bone, and a cluster of minute small-pox pits on his nose. This man bore all these unquestionable marks. And otherwise he was as Stephens had described him,’ above medium size, well-built, very fair—a good-looking man. i
Buck looked at the skins, wondering all the while how he should best come at him. He did not wish, and had not intended from the beginning, to take the man a prisoner to Moosewaton. It irked Buck to be doing police work. He had no stomách to be the instrument of an avenging law—particularly for an offence against property, which Buck, like many another, regarded as ?a debatable offence at best. If a man stole from him he might inflict summary punishment, but he had an instinctive aversion to cold-blooded jailing. Years behind iron bars always seemed to Buck a penalty disproportionate to any money value. To his mind Stephens could easily lose the specific sum Campbell had taken, and be none the worse for it; if it had been his last dollar the affair would be of a different complexion. The papers, however, were another matter. Why the man should take papers which were of deep concern to Stephens and valueless to himself was something that Buck had speculated upon without arriving at any conclusion.
While he haggled over the fox skins he made up his mind to have it over with at once. Reaching within the pocket of his coat, he drew out the letter Stephens had given him to hand to the fugitive when he should be found.
“Be careful when he is cornered,” the fur merchant had warned. “This man on his own ground is dangerous. His answer to this may be conveyed with a knife or a gun.”
“This is for you, Campbell,” Buck said Quietly. “It’s you, I want, not your fox skins. And don’t get fussy, because it won’t help you any.”
. The man’s teeth shut with a snap. He recoiled from the paper. For an instant Buck, recalling the fur merchant’s words, thought Campbell meant to jump him without parley. But the man’s savage expression passed as suddenly as it had come. He smiled—if somewhat nervously, still he smiled.
“I perceive how the land lies,” he said—in queer contrast to the illiterate dicti on,he had before employed. “I —you rather took me by surprise. I have never seen a Policeman on a man-hunt out of uniform before.”
BUCK opened his mouth to reply, and. ended by shrugging his shoulders. If Campbell took him for one of the Force in plain clothes, so much the better. He might prove moré amenable to persuasion, and Buck did not wish to resort to force. He was quite satisfied to wear for a little the mantle of that well-respected authority. But he was rather hazy as to a Mounted Policeman’s power to drive such a bargain as he contemplated; which was little short of compounding a felony before it got into court.-He thought fast. He could hold Campbell under a semblance of arrest, gain access to his belongings if he would not voluntarily produce the documents, and with them in his possession he could turn the man loose.
“You have undoubtedly seen many strange things happen in the North,” said he. “How do you,suppose I would ever have got close to you unsuspected, with a ted coat and brass buttons on me? Do you wish to read this?”
Campbell ripped open the envelope and ran his eyes over the enclosure. His gaze turned questioningly on Buck.
“Suppose I refuse to give you what Mr. Alexander Stephens asks?” he inquired slowly.
‘Til have to take you in,” Buck answered bluntly. Campbell stood turning the letter over and over in his hands, staring thoughtfully out across the lake.
“I seem to be between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he observed moodily.
Buck said nothing. He had the man in a corner, he considered, and it was not his habit to talk overmuch when engaged upon serious business, nor to argue once he had issued an ultimatum.
“Well,” Campbell said at length, “seeing I have a choice, I can’t do anything but make the best of it, I guess. I certainly don’t want to go back and fight this thing in court-—not at present, anyway. Stephens has influence enough to bury me alive. Come over to my camp and I’ll give you these papers he wants.”
“You’re mighty sensible,”1 Buck answered drily.
Even as he followed along the beach two steps behind Campbell Buck found himself wondering. The man acted little like a cornered thief—yet by his own admission he was expecting pursuit. And he was apparently quite willing to purchase immunity with these documents which Stephens had said he would only give up after a struggle. There was something queer about the whole matter, Buck decided—a good deal that he could not comprehend. But it was not for him to fathom thewhys and wherefores. His object was to secure indubitable evidence that he had found the man, since that was the demand Stephens had made. For Stephens, Campbell, and their private affairs Buck cared less than the proverbial straw. But he wanted Letty. And he found himself jubilating over success. He reckoned now that he could get back ‘
to Moosewaton by the end of August. All the waterways were open, and the days were long. '
He smiled to himself.
/CAMPBELL walked up to his lodge. It sat ^ at the edge of a thicket, the long canoe on the beach in front. Beside the circular teepee an Indian girl squatted crosslegged on the turf, stitching a moccasin. Campbell pointed at the Buckskin and said something in the guttural native tongue—which Buck could neither speak nor understand, except for certain simple words. He took the moccasin from her hands and continued to speak, as if he were instructing her in the work. The girl had cast the briefest glance at Buck, and her countenance did not change as Campbell talked. She replied in one or two monosyllables, laying her finger on the toe of the moccasin* and holding up the threaded sinew. Then she resumed her sewing.
Campbell stuck his head through the lodge opening, and Buck crowded at his heels, not desiring to take chances on his man ducking out under the farther side of the lodge and taking flight. And as Buck came up close Campbell launched a vicious side-wiping kick that knocked Buck’s feet from under him and sent him down in a tumbled heap. Campbell leaped instantly for the thicket.
Buck fell with considerable force. He was lightning fast in his muscular reactions—but so, it seemed, was the other man. Buck’s gun was buckled on him, but by the time he had straightened to his knees and drawn it there was nothing to shoot at—only a faint cracking in the brush to tell of the man’s escape. And Buck would not have shot in any case unless Campbell had, with a weapon, attacked him. The Indian girl was on her feet, looking rather frightened. Buck spat an angry expletive and plunged into the brush after the fugitive.
HUNTER and woodsman as he was, he failed to catch a single glimpse of his man.
For a long time he kept track of him by faint sounds ahead, cracking of twigs and the like. -Then reaching up to higher ground the thickets gave way to solid ranks of spruce, needle-carpeted, where the foot of moceasined man made neither mark nor sound, where a man could run without breaking branches, and where vision was cut off as completely as in the heavier bush. Having then run himself partly out of breath, Buck stopped, berated himself for a careless, over-confident fool, and turned back.
He loafed at first, trying to plan what his next move should be. Then it occurred to him that he ought to look sharp. Campbell, so far as he had seen, was unarmed. All his outfit was on the beach. He would have to get that or part of it, to go very far. Buck broke into a dog-trot. If he kept close watch on the man’s outfit and woman he might get him after all.
But Buck, when he came out on the lake shore, was reluctantly compelled to admit that he had not rightly gauged Campbell’s resourcefulness, nor shone by comparison in a matter of strategy. The lodge was there, but an empty husk, stripped of bedding, grub, cooking utensils and arms. The Indian girl was gone, and the canoe.
“Damnation!” Buck mourned. “What a saphead I am. I was easy. I suppose, now, all that palaver over the moccasin was him telling her what to do if he managed to get away from me.”
He went on to his own camp, where Alphonse labored patiently at the birch-bark, and demanded of that worthy which way the canoe had gone.
“Bagosh, me, Ah don’ can say,” the breed answered. “She’s go ’roun dat point—but dere’s two-t’ree canoe go besides. An’ dere’s two-t’ree go dees oder way. Ah don’ can tell for sure w’ich ees dees one. Ah’m scare for poke ’roun moch, bagosh. Dees Dog Tooth she’s s’pose for be bad med’ceen eef dere don’ lak you.”
“Well,” Buck declared, “it looked like I made several
mistakes, all right. I ought to have explained things to you more. You’ll have to back my play if I’m going to win anything in this game; I see that. I’m going to get that duck if it takes me ten years. Let’s tackle these blanket boys for a canoe.”
He failed to get one, however. Through Alphonse, as interpreter, he offered goods and money enough to have enriched any one of the tribe, for the use of a canoe, and got nothing but decided negatives for his pains.
“Well, I didn’t expect they would,” Buck declared, sourly. “There’s nothing for it but to finish this craft of yours, Alphonse, and take after this blamed Scotchman. He’ll have a good start before we’re ready, but, by Jiminy, I’ll take him. You can bet on that.”
It sometimes takes a very small thing to stir up the
hunting instinct in a man. An hour earlier this search for Campbell had been to Buck a rather disagreeable task, imposed upon him by necessity, grudgingly performed. He had no feeling toward the man, except perhaps one of impatience, tinged with pity. In fact he had a more distinctly hostile spirit toward Stephens.for laying such an onerous job on his shoulders, than he had toward the offender he was out to hunt down.
Now he was eager for the chase, determined to bring Campbell to account, to trail him like a bloodhound. It had become, in the twinkling of an eye, a personal matter. Buck was angry, his pride hurt. His face burned when he thought of the figure he cut tumbling about on the turf before the lodge—to say nothing of the raw bruise on one of his shins where Campbell’s bony ankle had struck. He had a full-fledged feud with the absconder now. He would get him yet. He swore by all the gods he knew that he would get him.
And so he labored with Alphonse all day in the sun, getting the canoe into shape, nursing a spirit of reprisal.
In Vain Pursuit
TT TOOK them forty-eight hours almost incessant labor *■ to finish their canoe. Buck was all for embarking as soon as it had reached the stage where it would hold water, but Alphonse proved immovable.
“Eeet ees one beeg job we have een sight, Bock,” he declared. Buck had taken him fully into his confidence as to what he purposed doing, and why he was doing it. “Dees canoe eet mus’ carry beeg load, weet us, de grob, an’ de ten dog. Oui! I mak dem seam tight, so dey stay tight, bagosh me, right hon de start. We’re don’ wan’
for sweem, no?” We save tam by do it right.”
So Alphonse prepared and laid on the sealing pitch with skilful deliberation and Buck had to wait until the successive applications, had made the overlapping bark secure and water-tight.
Then piling aboard their goods and dogs—which they perforce carried with them against time of need, if it should so happen that snow again overtook them before they got out of the Red Moss country. Buck hoped against any such contingency—but he took no chances. When a man is in the heart of the North, seven hundred miles in an airline from all mode of transportation, save what he himself can furnish, he learns to anticipate emergencies.
So Buck carried along the ten dogs—a toboggan they could fabricate anywhere as need arose. It maddened him to think of a whole summer beyond reach of even a message from the outside. Y et there was no closing his eyes to the fact that Campbell would be hard to catch in that wilderness,while the waterwayswere open and a man could flit across a hundred miles of territory and leave no mark of his passing save campfire ashes a day’s journey apart. Buck reflected that it was certainly an effective method of weeding out troublesome suitors; he wondered if Stephens had thought to eliminate him in this way. But that did not apply to Letty. She had sent him out in pure romanticism. She loved him; she had made that plain enough. But she was not quite sure of him. That was it. It was a test. He was not quite so sure of Stephens’ motives. There was something more to this absconder-hunting than lay on the surface—Buck had grown sure of that. When he got this far, he would scowl and finger the raw place on his shin.
They bore off around the point whence Alphonse had seen the Indian girl disappear with the loaded canoe. Buck suspected a blind trail there from the first, which suspicion was heightened when they traversed several miles of the shore without opening out any size of a stream. So they doubled back, passing the Dog Tooth camp in the concealing shadows of dusk, and paddled westward skirting the beach. A little later the moon sailed serenely out above the forest top and gave them a clear view of the shore. And when they were weary with paddling, Buck sighted a broad stream flowing in from the north.
“I guess we’ve done a day’s work,” he grunted. “We’ve got to have daylight to find if they went up this. We’ll camp.”
“Ver’ good,” Alphonse the faithful returned. “Me, I am hongree, an’ sore weet de arm for paddle, yes.”
At daybreak they took stock of the river. It was no great stream, as streams go in the North, but the width of it was such that they , could not both stay in the canoe and observe
forsaken each bank for signs of a landing. .
“Let’s see, now,” Buck calculated. “Campbell pulled out about eight in the morning. Suppose they did turn in here, how far up would they get before they stopped for noon? We travelled about four hours to get here. Say they paddled six, before stopping to rest and have a cup of tea. We’ll go upstream an hour. Then I’ll take one bank and you the other and we’ll see what we can see.”
ALPHONSE agreed that this was the method they ■£*must pursue. Noon found them still uncertain. Buck drove the canoe along the right bank while Alphonse trudged along the left. But they found no mark.
“Foxy pair that,” Buck observed over their noon meal. “Might not go ashore first stop. Might just tie up and eat a piece of jerky.”
“But dey weel mak night camp, Ah theenk,” Alphonse declared.
“I should think they would,” Buck reflected. “We ought to get track of them before night if they’re on this stream at all. If they’re not, it’s down to the lake again for us and two more days lost. I’ve a hunch they went up. here though. By the looks of this river she’s a long one. Take ’em to hell and gone.”
The nameless stream flowed placidly, even sluggishly in places, A hundred yards wide it was, and very deep, a black watery aisle out through the thick, green forest. Two walls of spruce lifted on either hand, set off -with a narrow fringe of birches and poplar along the water’s edge where lily pads floated and coarse sedge grass rooted in the muck. Here and there the bank gave on a little sandy shore, here gravelly bars showed, but mostly the bordering land was semi-muskeg, cut deep by paths where moose and caribou came down to drink and to feed on the lilies.
Buck’s hunch proved correct, when he was beginning to lose faith in it. About four that afternoon he marked a fresh chip floating in a back eddy. He cut across and took.
the breed aboard. Back on the right bank again they tied up and went ashore, and were rewarded after a brief search by the remains of a campfire, the patted down square in the long grass where a bed had been made, and faint traces of a canoe binding. The visible marks were certainly not more than twenty-four hours old.
••Bock," said he, "dees man she's fox for sure. Look. Dey are keep off dem sand-bar. Dey are leeft de canoe two foot straight op hon de bank w’ere ees grass. Kef you don’see dal cheep, we’re go pas’. Nex’camp she’s ees not beso foxy maybeso.”
They prowled that camping spot like two huntingdogs, and felt reasonably sure they were on the right track. Thus encouraged they bore on upstream.
Next day at mid-afternoon they found the second night camp, this time open to plain view, a clutter of half-burned sticks at the base of a tree, and the triangular mark in the sand where the canoe had been hauled up. Also there were tracks, one small, one large, w hich Buck himself knew was made by a white man. even if he had lacked the positive assurance of his native companion. A moo casined white man does not step like an Indian. Anatomically he cannot, unless he takes every stride with conscious purpose. For countless generations the red man has walked narrowpaths, gone striding through woods and thickets, setting one foot down in line before the other. Mechanically he toes in. The white man from centuries of stepping in open roads, as naturally toes out. Try walking a crack in the floor and you
will get a practical illustration of the difference. Beyond any doubt the two tracks on the sand-bar were those of a white man and a small-footed Indian—hence, logically, Campbell and his native woman. Buck grew optimistic. The pair would follow this waterway, or another leading off it. that was certain. Remained only to come up with them by stealth. That would be no easy trick, Buck knew, but it was something gained to be on their trail.
THE stream took a sudden left-hand twist, flowing down from nearly due west. There was no great current to buck against, no rapids to portage, but the very nature of their journey prevented much speed. They had to make sure of every camping-place of the two ahead, which necessitated close watch of the banks. Occasionally small creeks joined the river. These they passed, reckoning that Campbell would hold to the parent stream. By now the absconder took no pains to conceal his various camps. He drove on by easy stages, fifteen, twenty miles a day. And Buck was two days behind.
He was satisfied to remain so. There was small chance of coming at Campbell on the move. Drawing on his knowledge and that of the breed. Buck formed a theory that Campbell would presently consider himself safe from pursuit, and make a permanent camp. But he would scarcely camp on the river. Somewhere he would branch off. It ail depended on the lay of the land. There was nothing for it but to proceed with caution.
Ten days upstream from Red Moss, with the river reduced to half its original size and still flow-ing out of the westward point. Buck and Alphonse camped one evening, using for their supper fire the same three flat rocks the fugitives had arranged for a fireplace. Fish bones and a litter of duck feathers showed that the wanderers had taken toll of the wild for their needs.
"I think they laid over here a day,” Buck remarked to Alphonse.
"Looks lakY’ the breed agreed.
Dusk came dow-n. They lay on the ground in the smoke of the fire and their pipes joined forces with the wood-smoke to fend off the hungry mosquitoes that now swarmed about them day and night. Below, the river ran black and sluggish in the voiceless night, a long straight stretch. Above, it took a sharp bend. They had taken a look around that curve as a matter of precaution. seeing nothing but the green wall of the woods where the stream took another sudden twist.
Suddenly the breed’s finger pressed warningly on Buck's arm.
"S—sh,” he whispered, so low that the sound scarce carried to Buck’s ears. “Lis’.”
Buck lay flat on his stomach. Without moving his head he let his gaze travel the blank wall of woods outside the radius of their fire glow. Certainly there was no chance of seeing anything. And he could hear no sound that had not been continually in his ears for a week—the faint ripple of water, the croaking of ten thousand frogs, faint rustling of leaves above as stray currents of air stirred them.
"Lis',” Alphonse murmured again.
They remained prone, quiescent, watchful for an interminable time. Buck’s patience gave out. ,
“Aw, you’re—,” he started to tell Alphonse he must be dreaming. The breed cut the sentence short by heaving up on one elbow and letting fly a stick of firewood into the choke-cherry thicket back of the fire.
FOLLOWING the brief disturbance this missile set up as it drove through the pliant branches, Buck heard a rustle that was not of wind-stirred leaves, and following that the crack of a breaking twig. After a lapse of a minute this latter sound was repeated, but this time more distantly.
“ Nom de Dieu," said he. “Ah’m don’ lak Eenjun for, look at me hout de brosh.”
“I wonder if itwas Campbell’s squaw?” Buckmuttered. He was very sure those sounds were made by a human being in soft-footed retreat. A woods animal would go either in absolute silence or with a crashing through the timber.
“Darn you, why didn’t you keep still?” he continued. “We might have caught her if you hadn’t fired that stick.”
“Hah,” Alphonse derided. “You catch dem deer or de fox een de brosh after dark, eh? Ah theenk not. Ah’m not know, me, teel Ah t’row de steeck. Ah theenk Ah see de eyes one tam. But maybeso dat’s lynx or pant’er. W’en she’s ron Ah’m know eets ese no annymal. Dat’s Eenjun woman. Fox, you bet.”
“Darn the luck,” Buck grumbled. “We’re right on top of ’em, I suppose—and we’d as well be a hundred miles away now. Campbell knows we’re hard on his tr^il. He’ll slip us sure.”
“Ah tell you, Bock,” Alphonse said after a minute, “dem cloud he soon get pretty theeck. We put hout dees fire. Nobody she’s don’ can see us load dat canoe. Den we’re sneak ’long onder dees bank an’ look hout sharp. Maybeso we’re spot heem. She’s not camp so far from here. Not more dan one-two mile. What you theenk?” “Worth trying,” Buck decided. -
When a bucket of water had doused the fire to a steaming sizzle, the dark of a cloudy night in deep woods shrouded them with a mantle through which they were compelled to grope for their various belongings. There was no danger of being seen in that murk, but there was also small chance of seeing anything. There was only the slender possibility that Campbell might have a fire himself. If the Indian girl followed the river, which she would be almost compelled to do, they two in the birch-bark might beat her upstream to a point where Campbell’s fire would be visible before she could reach
and warn him to put it out. So they went to their paddles and slid along under the shade of the wooded bank, Alphonse with his guiding paddle in the stern, Buck at the bow, the huskies squatting amidships, their sharp ears acock at this night journey.
Over water that slunk beneath the canoe like oil, dark and forbidding, working their paddles in the silent underwater stroke, they slid around the first and second bends Then the main stream forked, Alphonse swúng the canoe into the right-hand channel. That was the side on which they had received their silent visitor.
TWENTY minutes they paddled through a highbanked passage, black as the bottomless pit except for the dusky strip of sky overhead, So thick the timber and so narrow the way that at times the topmost branches all but met above. Then it widened a trifle, made a turn—and Buck and the breed checked the canoe without a word.
For they had come to the end of the narrow stream. Before them spread the dull light of wide water. Blurred shores ran into utter darkness on right and left. And no betraying gleam of light showed along those murky reaches. Near at hand a , gravel beach made a lighter band between woods and water, and there was the sound of tiny.wavelets lapping thereon. A warm wind . was freshening out of the west. They sidled into the bank, drew one end of the canoe into some sedgy hummocks, and stepped ashore. ,
“Don’t look very promising,” Buck whispered. “I guess he was laying low all the time. Pretty wise
jasper, this Campbell.”
-“Dees reever she’s got two mouth,” Alphonse declared. “We go back hon de fork an’ go up dees oder branch, eh, Bock?”
“All right,” Buck agreed. “But I imagine he’s out on the lake by now. She’s a chünk of a lake too, by the way the wind’s making her roll at this end. All right, we’ll try the other channel.”
But this produced no result, save that it afforded them a better landing, without going out on the open shore of the lake. And giving it up as a had job they carried the canoe bodily into some brush, tied up the dogs as a matter of precaution, and made their beds in the concealing thicket to wait for dawn. Under a fold of mosquito netting which served to keep off the worst of these bloodthirsty pests, they managed to get some three hours’ sleep.
In Which Patience and Perseverance Do Not Prevail
DAYBREAK revealed the lay of the land to them, and Buck, staring out from the shelter of the brush, frowned at the prospect. They were on an island, a triangle lying between the twin outflowing streams that joined to form the river a half-mile below. The lake itself spread away beyong eye range, opening out to a breadth of five miles immediately before them.
“Our man’s a long way by now,” Buck said. “And no telling in what direction. They wouldn’t lose any time , last night moving out. They could go three ways. Back down stream, or up along either side the lake.”
“Ees camp she’s close som’were,” Alphonse suggested. “I expect it is,” Buck replied. “And we may as well take a look around. We can cook breakfast after a while.” They loaded up once more and skirted the lake till they crossed the second outlet. There they beached their craft, and one followed the lake front while the other backtracked the stream. It fell to the breed’s sharp eyes to discover Campbell’s last halting place. Buck came back from a fruitless quest down stream, to find Alphonse sitting on a log puffing sedately at his pipe. . '
“Ah’m fin’ dat place,” said he. “Come hon, Ah show you.”
He led Buck along the beach less than a hundred yards. In the fine gray sand were blurred tracks and the unmistakable mark were a canoe had slid. Back into the woods Alphonse turned then and well back from the lake in a tiny ravine where a spring bubbled from under a rock, and the spruce ringed close and tall, they came to where Campbell had evidently been minded to stay awhile.
There was a heavy bed of spruce boüghs ñéátiy piled, â‘J square patch of ground cleared of all rotten woods and such litter, an ingenious fireplace built up of rocks, two saplings cleaned of branches, and cross-bars lashed to them whereon to hang camp sundries.
“Blast the luck,” Buck grumbled. “We were right on top of him, all right. The chances are they heard us, and came down in the canoe, and the girl sneaked up along the bank to make sure if I was the right white man.”
They walked back to the lake. Buck glanced out over the water, now beginning to sparkle and gleam in streaks like liquid gold, where the first rays of the sun shot across the forest and touched the smooth surface.
“I’m it, now, in this game of tag,” he said whimsically. “Let’s eat, Alphonse. Then we’ll toss up a quarter to see which side of the lake we start around. It’s a head or tail proposition now, all right. We might have, got him right here, too, if luck had been with us.” ,
The ceremony of spinning the silver coin elected them to take the southern shore, and to the flip of the coin Buck adhered. Not that he was essentially superstitious, but it was all a gamble now. There was nothing to guide the way. And while still stubbornly determined to get Campbell, he was not nearly so sanguine as he had been a month back.
When he thought of Letty Stephens and her father now, it was with a peculiar detachment. They seemed very remote, in this place of uncanny silences, untracked woods, and still, shadowy streams. He sometimes visualized Letty as he had seen her last, fair-haired, smiling at him over a great cluster of carnations in the hot-house; But somehow the memory of her did not thrill him any more. He loved her? Yes. He was proving himself for her sake—living out a hard-bitted test of his resources and endurance; witness the paddle-callouses on his hands, and the itching, swollen places, where mosquitoes had poisoned his face and neck. And this he had set out to do for her sake, as Jacob had labored of old for the woman he loved. Nevertheless, where he had in the beginning rather shrank from his business with the absconder, he began to look upon it as the biggest thing in view. Buck had lived up and down a fast-vanishing frontier, and he was not accustomed to being bested at any sort of game. With midsummer drawing near, and his man thoroughly alive to pursuit and already in a way to evade all further tracking, Buck found himself making plans for the winter. With the snow—he would guarantee to trg.il and corner any fugitive that ever stepped on a snow shoe, with the white page of the Northern drifts to read as he ran. '7 And with that came also into Buck’s mind a queer thought, apparently without relation to his affairs. He recalled a tale once heard of a Roman beauty who threw a glove into the arena where the lions prowled and poutingly told her lover that if he truly loved her he would get the glove. Buck recalled this, and shrugged his shoulders.
THE choice of the coin seemed as unfortunate as the rest of the luck that had overlain much of the trip. Though they scanned the beach till their eyes ached there w,as never a mark save the cloven prints of the moose, or the lesser tracks of' other forest animals. So looking, they swung in a circle full sixty miles around the lake and drew back at length to the twin outlets again.
And here at the starting point both Buck and Alphonse abruptly voiced a similar idea. The possibility had tantalized Buck all around the lake.
“Bagosh, Ah’m theenk da’s right,”
Alphonse said, poising his dripping paddle as he drove in on the beach.
“She’s go back down reever.”
“Be just like him to double on his trail. Here was the logical place to do it,” Buck drawled. “Well, he can double and twist all he pleases, I’m going to get him sometime. But I don!t think we stand much chance now. If we get him this summer it’ll be by blundering on him unexpectedly. We’ 11 go b ack downstream, though, and keep our eyes open.”
But what they profited by keeping their eye open -was a minus quantity.
They did establish the correctness of a theory, which afforded slight satisfaction; namely that Campbell had indeed doubled on his trail. One . or two landing places demonstrated
that, though they were well concealed, and might easily have been missed by men less skilled in woodcraft than Buck and his breed. They watched like hawks, and no mark escaped them. Campbell had gone downstream again.
But that knowledge was all they gained. They could not keep track of him. His camping places were too well chosen. Before they were halfway down to Red Moss Lake, Buck and Alphonse did not know whether they were ahead or behind their man. Buck said it mattered little.
“They can dodge us all summer,” he declared to Alphonse. “What we’ve got to do is wait for snow. Then find where he makes his winter camp if we have to look over every trap line between here and the Mackenzie river. Darn him, if I ever get him on the run in the snow he’s my meat. He has to leave a trail behind him then.”
The snows which would eventually come, however, availed them nothing at present. Campbell had vanished out of their reckoning, and there was no basis to reckon where. Nor could Buck see anything to be gained by blind groping in a wilderness where all the odds were in favor of the man pursued. So beyond watchfulness which was habitual with him and instinctive with his companion, they drifted by easy stages down to the lake without any further stress of man-hunting.
Dog Tooth’s band had gone its way. Where the circular lodges had been staked, green grass was springing and the fish bones and camp litter was bleaching with alternate sun and showers. Buck looked over the ground and made a discovery.
“Aha,” said he to Alphonse. “Look there. Now I wonder if Mr. Campbell had it cut and dried that he was to give us the slip and join this bunch again—or part of it?”
That to which Buck called the breed’s attention was a camp site but recently vacated. All the othqrs were old, as if they had flitted simultaneously. But this was not more than three days gone. And it had been used much. The ground was bare and patted smooth, the fire ashes still comparatively fresh.
“One, she’s stay long tam’,” Alphonse remarked. “Maybeso wait for Cam’all. Ah don’ know.”
They surveyed the beach.
“Dere hees track,” the breed presently said. “You bet. She’s com’ back hon de lak for sure.”
Buck scrutinized the faint tracks. He could not be sure himself, but he was willing to rely on the breed’s judgment.
“Well, that don’t buy us much,” he said. “We knew he was on the way, anyhow—and the Lord only knows where he is now. We got no show as it stands. So I guess we’ll take it easy for awhile—go over our outfit and get organized for winter. It wouldn’t hurt us to clean and mend our clothes, Alphonse. We look like a pair of amateur Robinson Crusoes.”
THEY coasted along Red Moss until theyfound a small creek trickling down from a gradual rise, a stream of pools and foaming ripples that promised trout. This they explored, and finding a little grassy plot some two hundred yards inland, portaged the canoe and all their belongings in to this and made permanent camp. Here, with thickets and tall timber between them and the lake, the smoke of their fire could not be seen under most conditions, while they themselves with but little effort could overlook the wide stretch of water so that nothing which came and went upon its surface could escape them.
Here Buck resurrected his razor and soap and he and Alphonse barbered each other, for they had accumulated two months’ beard, and their hair was grown long and shaggy. Out of a hank of fish cord they fashioned a net, which properly set at the mouth of the creek snared pike and whitefish which they split and cured and smoked on a rack over a fire of green maple. Also Buck went into the woods and killed a moose. This meat they stripped and salted and dried in the sun. All this with an eye to travelling light and continuously when they took to the trail again. Of jerked meat and dried fish Buck calculated they had a six months’supply for themselves and the dogs. After awhile they would paddle up to Halfway House and get more tea, flour, sugar, and tobacco. Once they took up the fugitive’s track again, there would be no hunting, save in emergency. They could set overnight snares for rabbits to feed the dogs, but they could not shoot and crash out a warning that would carry miles in that crisp, still air.
THE queer object of his expedition,« and the manner in which he has? been constrained to set out upon it grew less exasperating to Buck as he? loafed through those summer days, fishing, curing meat, fabricating moccasins out of the moosehide when Alphonse had tanned it, patiently preparing against the seasonal rigors to come. He was now seven months from Moosewaton, and like to be another seven before he got back again. But he did not chafe and fume as he had done at first. Théj thing would come out all right in the end. He schooled himself to patience —and he did not think of Moose-, waton and Letty if he could help it;; There was a goodly slice of primitives man in Buck Harrison’s make-up. Hei had been on long trails before, oh harder than this, and always found something that appealed to him as worthwhile. Lifewasnotsobad. The woods were filled with pleasant odors; with soft, warm currents of air thaï wafted scents of spruce and balsam} and those strange, indefinable grow? ing smells that can be sensed buj defy analysis. Wherever the sut struck the naked earth there wilt flowers blossomed, the gorgeous tigerl lily beside the humble lady-slippers a profusion of color and petal thaj Buck could not name. And for com pany he had Alphonse of the gat goyle face, with his quaint speech naive superstitutions, and a wondei ful budget of ‘ folk-lore which h spouted garrulously over the eveni fire when Red Moss Lake shone silver under the moon.
Nevertheless, Buck knewr too we that this was but a pleasant interlud between the grim seasons. He couJ appreciate the North when it smile« But he knew more genial lands, aii sometimes his brow puckered though fully.
“If that jasper hadn’t kicked on the shin and generally made monkey of me!” he said to himsi • once. “There’s something qué about this whole business. I umncl what’s back of it.”
He did not reflect much upon how the personal equation had entered in between himself and this man Campbell. Offhand he would have said that a man was a fool to persist in following another all up and down a trackless waste, largely because the other had kicked him on the shins— absurd. And chiefly the reason why Buck seldom thought of it in just that light was, that whenever he thought of the problem his mind always flew to Moosewaton—and he would wonder if Letty Stephens ever looked longingly out toward the north trail.
"By God, it's a hell of a test!” he broke out of one of these sober reveries.
"Eh? Wat you say?” Alphonse looked up in surprise— more at the tensity of the tone than the words, which probably he did not understand.
"Ah, nothing,” Buck answered. "Just thinking out loud, that's all.”
FOR a month they tarried on the little creek; a quiet, restful month of bright, hot days when the sun swung in a wide arc and the nights were brief, with a long twilight, and a ruddy dawn following close. A constant plague of sharp-billed mosquitoes proved the only drawback, and with these they contended philosophically. But the hot moist weather merged swiftly into Indian summer. A haze as of smoke from distant fires enveloped the land. The blossoms withered. Berries ripened, the sweet blue service-berry, tart choke-cherries in black clusters, the red pin-cherry on its gray, thorny bush, a bitter thing in the mouth until the frosts sweetened it, these served the two men with a pleasant change of fare.
Living quietly on the creek-bank the fat, well-fed huskies sleeping lazily about camp, making little or no noise, Buck sawmany a forest creature come out along the lake shores—the high-shouldered moose, the woodland caribou. black bear in families of three and four, mother bear and paterfamilias and roly-poly cubs. In the sand along the foreshore fresh tracks were printed overnight by mink and marten, lynx, fox, wolf, the various nightprowling fur-bearers. In every pond and slough through the woods, and in every reedy backwater along the lake wildfowl by the tens of thousands hatched out and schooled their young. Life swarmed, but life that was purely of the wild. No human being ever hailed their camp nor any canoe dot ever so distantly the greenishblue surface of Red Moss Lake.
With the coming of autumn Buck and Alphonse daubed the seams of the birch bark with-fresh pitch and set out for Half-way House. There they renewed their supplies, trading in the few foxskins garnered that spring from Dog Tooth's band. The factor had no further news of their man. The Athabascans had come, traded in their furs, and gone again, after their annual custom. -
"Ver' soon now they weel begin to com’ here on de pos’, M'sieu,” the factor told Buck. “Een de summaire dees people veesit tother village Toun de lak’. Bimeby dey are com' for supply, an’ den go on de trap groun’ for weenter once more. 'Mos' tam Dog Tooth hees ban’ ees gather here an' go nort’ all together, yes.”
"Well, I don’t want ’em to think I’m following them up," Buck declared. “The chances are Campbell gave them his pelts to trade. He may be with them now, and again he may be loafing around the other end of the lake waiting for them to bring in his winter’s supplies. I’ll have to pick up his trail there—providing he hasn’t jumped clean out of the country. And I don’t think he’d do that, because north of Red Moss is one of the finest spots I’ve ever seen for a man to lie low.”
Wherefore they tarried only a matter of three days at Half-way House, then went paddling back again.
Presently a change began to come over the North. Along with the gradually shortening days came a chill in the night air, and with that a transformation of the forest coloring. The birch and poplar and maples lost their vivid green. Their leaves turned yellow and russet brown and began to flutter earthward at every stirring of the wind. Buck wakened one morning and found white frost on the edge of his blanket, where his breath had condensed as he slept. A thin scum of ice crusted water left standing in a tin basin.
"She'll be winter first thing we know, Alphonse,” he said.
"Da's w’at,” the breed grinned. “B-r-r-r. Som’ long, coi' night she’s hon de way.”
Buck shrugged his shoulders. He had no desire for the bite of the frosts and the stinging pelt of wind-blown snow. But he had set his hand to the thing, and he would not admit failure until it stared him in the face.
Thirty-six hours later they' sighted far southward a duster of dots crawling close inshore. This in the slanting beams of a setting sun. At mid-forenoon of the following day a score of canoes drew in and hauled up on the beach at their spring camping ground. All that day others came gliding up at intervals, until the full strength of Dog Tooth’s band was gathered.
Being encamped a mile and a half distant and well
back in the bush, Buck and Alphonse felt reasonably secure from observation. They took the precaution of tying up the dogs and feeding them plenty to keep them quiet. Also they screened the smoke of their fires. If they could keep the Indians from knowing they were there, so much the better. Campbell thinking them gone south, might be less furtive and wary in his winter activities. So long as the Athabascans did not range far from their main camp, they would be none the wiser. They, themselves, could see the Dog Tooth camp with ease.
For a little while the regathered band loafed at the rendezvous. Then they began slipping away by pairs and families. One fleet of six canoes bore off into the mouth of that river whereon Buck had lost Campbell. Others paddled away into the west. A few disappeared up the creek that emptied by the main creek. In three or four days the last fire ceased to twinkle on the beach when night shut down.
And then one day the flight of the waterfowl began. In V-shaped squadrons the wild goose bore down from the higher latitudes, went honking south, flying high and fast. Flying lower, but as fast and straight, like ships holding to a set course, passed innumerable flocks of ducks. Whenever Buck wakened in the night, he would lie for a minute and in the darkened sky he would hear the faint whir of wings, distant callings of some leader to his flock. And the next day Alphonse, blinking up at a sky as yet devoid of cloud, observed:
“Ver’ soon, now, we geet heem—whoof!”
The front of the coming storm gathered while the rearguard of the waterfowl still winged swiftly above; gathered slowly, a graying of the sky, then a raw wind that whistled mournfully through leafless branches, and set the pointed spruce-tops quivering and swaying. When they arose again the last of the hurrying flocks had vanished, and save that restless wind, a sullen silence lay thick on woods and lake. Whitecaps lifted and broke off shore. The heavy clouds pressed down, slaty gray, somber, threatening. It grew colder. At dusk came the first spitting of the snow.
For a week it snowed and blew alternately. Always the air was thick with the whirl of the blizzard or the falling flakes. Buck and the breed kept to the little silk tent and fed the stove with blocks of wood, waiting for the break of the storm. And upon the seventh mornihg as they filled their pipes after breakfast, dawn lifted over the tree-tops, and the sun laid yellow fingers over the dark spruce and struck sparkling over a far field of glaring white that when they last saw it had been a heaving stretch of windwhipped water.
Tracking Weather -,
II TELL, Alphonse, I guess we’ll have tracking weath-
’ ' er from now on,” Buck remarked. “So let’s get ready to look for the needle in the haystack. That’s about what it amounts to.”
In that week of storm Buck had thought over his plans and found no flaw therein. He had to grope for the man, but he proposed to grope systematically. Before the snow they had built a rock cache on a knoll back from the creek, and placed in it a reserve supply of food, jerked meat, smoked fish, a canister of tea, some sugar and flour, all wrapped in a waterproof canvas sheet. No prowling beast of the forest, not even the stout-clawed wolverine, could break in through the piled stones. . Two blazed trees cunningly marked the spot. If disaster overtook them, if the luck of the trail deprived them of all else, they could hark back to this. Though their search might lead them far afield, yet Buck fully expected that somewhere within a hundred mile radius Campbell would be about his winter trapping. At the worst, grub or no grub, even minus dogs, they could always get back here, where was grub. They carried five months’ supplies on the toboggans, and there was always meat to be had by the way.
They bore away eastward, out past the mouth of the unnamed river, on into deep forests of spruce. Back off the lake the march became dreary work in the soft new snow. One went ahead to break trail, setting one snowshoe carefully before the other, sinking deep, lifting again with a stress that created wearying strains on the leg muscles, but packing the snow so that the first team tugging in the harness followed on firmer footing. The weight of the man before, and the two dog teams and the loaded toboggans left an eighteen inch path in which Alphonse strode easily. When Buck tired, the breed took his place. Thus they relieved each other through the day. And at night they huddled in the little seven by nine tent, grateful for the warmth of the funnel-shaped stove, their grub hung in a tree away from the insatiable huskies. Being well-clothed, well-equipped, and trail-wise, they did not suffer from frost-bite, though each day the cold grew more intense.
Five days out from the lake they struck the first traplines—a single-man-track in the snow, going and coming. Stopping short before they over-ran this, they pulled back a few hundred yards and camped. Three days they watched by turns. An Indian trudged its length the
fourth morning.. When he camè back again with two marten and a mink slung over his back Buck and Alphonse crossed his track and bore on again. This experience recurred six times in the four weeks following. There would be the discovered trap-line, the careful concealment of their presence, and the patient watch. And each time only the sight of a fur-clad native rewarded them. They had. swung in a great crescent and were now drawing up to the spot where Campbell had given them the slip that night. Twice it snowed heavily. Once the wind raged for two days, tossing and swaying the pointed tops of the spruce as summer breezes ripple a field-of wheat. But otherwise the days and nights succeeded each other wondrously clear and cold. All the North seemed fast in the grip of a hollow stillness. The woods creatures stole with added furtiveness about their affairs, unseen, as if they too, attuned their movements to accord with that funeral hush in which the blow of axe on wood, the snap of a broken bough or the pistol-like cracking of trees in the frost, sounded, when they did sound, with uncanny distinctness, reverberating, echoing away to great distances.
O UCK iraversed these hushed areas with dogged patience. To the breed, whose life had run always alongsimilar ways, it was all in the day’s work for a day’s pay. But often Buck sat humped by the fire wondering why he should spend his days in loneliness and hardship, spend; his hours in struggle with a harsh environment, when it was all unnecessary. Sometimes after a particularly hard day he called himself names, fool, sentimentalist, and the like. A year chopped bodily out of his life, just when life had begun to take on a greater significance than it had ever held for him. And to show for it—what? Nothing of value, that he could reckon. Nothing learned that he had not known before, nothing of moment accomplished. And he had not even the solace of stray messages from where his heart was', to give him heart for'the task.
It was as if he had passed out of the world—her world —as indeed he had. Pessimistic moods seized him. A man is but a man, a single unit of the species, between the best and the worst of which there are but minor shades of variation. Love, he knew, does not flourish without something to keep the flame glowing, no more than a seed will germinate and reach its growth without warmth and moisture and a kindly soil. Distance may lend enchantment, but in Buck Harrison’s experience it frequently led to forgetfulness. And he had no such great conceit in himself as to be cocksure a woman would continue to love him through a long absence when she was out in the thick of life, subject to a thousand influences, a variety of possible emotions to waylay her, meeting scores of men as apt to catch her fancy as he. Oh yes, Buck could easily imagine himself, who had once stirred her so deeply, growing a dim figure in her mind.
All this Buck knew. He had everything to remind him, and Letty had everything to make her forget. But when he thought of abandoning this foolhardy pursuit, he could not. He had given his word, made a bargain,'and Buck had never welshed on a bargain in his life, no matter how mad a thing it was. That was his creed. He had said he would do this thing, and unless he made up his mind that the game was not worth the candle, unless he held that love was not worth either pain or endeavor, he must see it through. And yet he was not willing to say that, either to himself nor to Letty Stephens. Neither was he willing to own simple failure. Stephens in the beginning, and Campbell at their first meeting had roused that ego which-lurks in every man. To be beaten—to quit—to throw up one’s hands in the face of a hard job and say “I can’t”—it was not in Buck Harris'on.
OE WOULD have to get Campbell and take him back to Moosewaton, either the man or the papers. That was final. If he threw up his hands now he would always have the "uncomfortable feeling that he was not quite so much of a man as he fancied himself. A man may suffer grievous losses, but his own pride in himself he clings to in the face of death itself. Love, friendship, ease of body and fatness of purse, are small things weighed against the smart of self-contempt—which accounts in a measure for the mad things some men do. The Buck Harrison type does not always follow the line of least resistance.
But it made Buck gloomy and crabbed by spells, short-tempered, a terror on the trail, driving himself and the breed long marches between periods of watching and waiting on some Indian’s trap line. He felt himself in a tangle, snared by his love. And whether the thing in the end was worth while or not, he did not know.
Thus trudging unhappily through illimitable forests of spruce, wallowing in snow, enduring cold that never relaxed, eating, sleeping, finding trap lines and letting his hopes rise only to be dashed again, Buck fared across the North, swung half-way back to Red Moss Lake, turned again and zig-zagged westward—until Christmas found them on the shore of a long, narrow lake within a hundred miles of the Mackenzie river.
In their wandering they had crossed two score trap lines, had stolen looks at many an Indian with furtiveness
Continued on page 54
The Itch of the Wandering Foot
Continued from page 20
greater than his own, and on three different occasions spied on permanent camps of Dog Tooth’s band. But never a camp where Roy Campbell held forth, nor any trap line that he tended. So far as they knew they themselves had not been seen. Their trail would tell an Indian nothing, unless he followed it, and whenever they crossed a trap line they went far and fast before halting. So that Buck did not believe Campbell had taken alarm and laid low or left the region. It was a big country. That was all.
And here at the lake one of those accidents of the trail which no man can foresee or forestall, befell Alphonse. For weeks they had been drinking melted snow, insipid tasting stuff, lacking those salts and minerals that give the waters of the earth palatability. Alphonse declared for a drink of spring water, and Buck abetted him. A creek ran down by their camp. Through the four-foot thickness of ice covering this stream he set out to chop with their keen-edged camp-axe. And careful though his trail and wilderness training had made him, the breed let the axe slip and gashed his foot at the instep.
Buck dressed the wound, drawing the gaping lips of the cut together and bandaging it tight.
“You won’t travel for a month, oldtimer,” he observed. “At that, you’re lucky you didn’t chop the foot plumb off. Well, we need a rest, I guess. Maybe it’ll change the luck if we sit still and wait for something to turn up.”
It never occurred to Buck that sometimes a jesting word proves ultimate truth.
Meat and a Meeting .
EING in one place and daily encroaching upon their food supply, the two men and ten dogs began to make inroads upon their stock of dried meat and fish. Buck tried fishing through the ice. But either he had no skill or there were no fish in those waters, for his baited hooks captured nothing. Rabbits proved scarce. The wire snares produced no more than one or two a night, sometimes none—never enough to feed a single dog over the day. Thé breed’s wounded foot healed nicely, but he could only hobble with great care after a period of two weeks. In that deadly cold he dared take no chances outside. Frost-bite in a healing cut might mean the loss of the foot, or worse.
“I’ll have to get out and make connection with some meat, I guess,” Buck observed, one afternoon. “We don’t want to run short, and I might as well be at that while we can’t do anything else. There ought to be caribou or moose around here.”
“We’re cross som’ track dat las’ day, Ah theenk,” Alphonse said.
“Yes, I remember. About eight or ten miles back, wasn’t it?” Buck replied. “I think I’ll get out and try my luck tomorrow.”
He left a big pile of firewood for the crippled»breed, and taking his rifle set out in the crackling dawn. That was how it seemed to Buck—as if the coming of the sun above the trees made everything snap and crackle.
Upon his back Buck carried a wolfskin sleeping-bag, a package of tea and sugar, a few pounds of dried meat. At his belt swung a small axe and a heavy-bladed hunting knife. Thus he went prepared against the contingencies of storm or of getting lost, equipped with food and the means to provide fire and shelter. These exigencies might never arise, but only the foolhardy trifle with the North. Buck was a woodsman, yet he had been lost within shouting distance of his own camp before now, in heavy timber. Secure in the knowledge that he could trace his way
back to the tent even should a sudden storm obliterate his tracks, still he went prepared to subsist even in the face of disaster.
Bearing eastward, he trudged on till noon was past without crossing the trail of any beast save inconsequent furbearers. There had been no snowfall since their forced encampment. He came at length to the tracks crossed by the old trail of the toboggans. Those he judged to be moose. Caribou, even the woodland caribou, went usually in larger bands. Of these beasts there were but five. He turned off on these tracks. Winter is not the season when the moose range wide areas. Something, wolves, perhaps an Indian hunter, after meat, had driven them from some chosen winteringground. The tracks were old. But Buck surmised that they would only travel till . another place suited their fancy or their need.
The afternoon drew into the pale glimmer of the long twilight. Buck cast an appraising glance westward.
“I guess I’ll have to lay out to-night,” he reflected. “I may as well follow these tracks till I make.sure: If I should
get one tonight I can go home by the stars.”
But dark eventually fell and he had not yet come up with the moose, though by certain freshening of the signs, a purposeful meandering of the tracks, and browsed-off shrubbery here and there, he judged that the animals had been recently in the neighborhood. A swampy area it was that he had come to, underlain with mosses, dotted with clumps of willow and young poplar—a proper winter feedingground for moose.
BUCK sought a sheltered place against an out-running tongue of spruce, laid aside his pack and rifle and dug into the mossy floor with one snowshoe wielded as a shovel, clearing a space perhaps seven feet square. On one side of this he built a fire. While the blaze licked up on the wood he trimmed a young spruce and laid the boughs for his bed. Along one side of the pit and partly over it he piled other boughs, banking them with snow. The pit was approximately four feet deep. Thus, when he dropped lightly therein and spreading the wolfskin bag before the fire sat down on it, he was well sheltered. No wind could touch him. The snow walls and the brush at his back and over his head reflected the heat of the fire, setting at naught the terrible cold. While the fire burned the place was as warm as any tent. And Buck meant the fire to burn. While his little tin bucket boiled for tea he chopped a pile of mixed and green poplar to last the night.
Then he ate and lay down to sleep, blinking up through the square opening above his head at cold stars flickering in a sky struck with gleams of iridescence from the Aurora, thinking of Letty Stephens snug in her bed at Moosewaton, eight hundred miles south.
At daybreak he stole out among the thicket, moving warily, for he might come upon the moose at any moment. But not until the morning was far spent did he get sight of any game larger than a rabbit, though he walked in a maze of fresh tracks, as if a herd of cattle had wandered there, marks of browsing, paths beaten down to the moss, cut through a welter of thickets. The area of that semi-yarded place covered the greater portion of two square miles, and he worked painstakingly, with infinite patience, a trained still-hunter’s caution. At last he raised the game, took a snap shot at a swift-disappearing bulk behind some brush.
The crack of his rifle ripped the hush of the solitude to tatters. Spang. Like the roar of a field-piece against a vast sounding board. It made Buck start and listen. Those tremendous echoes!
A dozen times the report was flung back at him in staccato explosions.
“What an infernal racket this gun makes,” he grumbled to himself. “If there’s anybody within ten miles I’m sure advertised.”
This while he ran toward his moose.. The echoing shots died abruptly. In the brush ahead arose a thrashing, a weak sound compared to that resounding crash. He advanced cautiously when he beheld the great beast facing toward him, hard hit, but standing with head lowered, defiant. An infinitesimal breath of air carried his scent to the animal, and it charged drunkenly. So that Buck was forced to demolish that impressive hush again, strike fresh clamors from the still snowfields and somber woods. He had a momentary shrinking, quite involuntary, as his finger hooked on the trigger, a reluctance to precipitate that tremendous outburst of sound, and he was relieved when the moose pitched heavily forward at the second shot, kicking spasmodically, though he held himself in readiness to fire again.
It was a good kill, a great bulk of meat; a young büll in fair flesh. Away beyond in the thickets he could hear the retreat of the surviving members of the little band. Buck stood his rifle and pack against a tree, drew his knife and fell to work. There was no sport to this. Even pawing the hot carcass, his fingers, numbed. But presently he had the hide stripped clear, the brute disembowelled, and quartered with the little axe. He cut from the Tapidly freezing hide long strips and twisted them together. Making one fast in the leg tendon of each quarter, he hoisted the heavy haunches each to the limb of a tree, hauling it with much strain and effort to the level of his head, beyond reach of those lank marauders, the wolves. When he came again the head, hide, and offal would be gone, feven the blood-soaked snow licked up clean. Buck knew. , He had wintered once on Great Slave Lake. Life for man and beast alike was'no thing of half-way measures in those wintry latitudes. One must eat to live, and keen hunger is not dainty.
He bore away then for camp, well satisfied with his expedition. There was, after all, little likelihood, of any of Dog Tooth’s followers investigating those two shots. In a trapping country one must now and then shoot, for the sake of meat. And when Buck reflected, he knew that the terrific crash of his rifle was in a measure unreal, flung loudly into his eardrums by way of contrast to continuous intensity of silence. The forest would blanket sound within _ a short radius, no matter how resonant it seemed in one’s, unaccustomed ears.
HE FOUND Alphonse philosophically waiting, unworried. The breed knew now that Buck needed no lessons from the North in matters of endurance, fortitude, and woodcraft. A night in -the forest was " a mere item to a man inured to the trail.
Buck reached camp by starlight. In starlight he was away again, long before the slow dawn, with the full string of dogs to one toboggan, himself riding thereon wrapped in a fur robe, cracking his whip over the eager huskies like a true lord of the North as he sped toward the kill. Before noon he had loaded the meat, warmed himself with a pot of hot tea and started back. What of the heavy burden behind the dogs, his return pace was slow. -
Midway of the distance there was a wide opening to cross, a shallow reedy slough where in summer the wildfowl bred. It may have been a mile or more in extent. Buck mushed over the open. Making a turn around a tangle of windfalls a husky broke a trace. Short-tempered, wolfishly aggressive, the cock-eared brute chose at this moment to nip his neighbor on the haunch. Whereby a general, snarling combat immediately ensued. When Buck had quelled the canine not with foot and whip-butt, profanely disentangled the resulting mixup of his team and mended the broken trace, a matter of twenty minutes had been consumed.
Instinctively, or rather from force of habit which was fast becoming instinctive, when Buck took up his whip to set the dogs in motion he took a backward look. A thin screen of branchy timber lay between him and the white glare of the opening. And over on the farther side of this dazzling spot in the green and silver woods his eye alighted upon something that was mot there before. A human figure. All
he had was a glimpse, ho more, and that too brief for certainty—but Buck’s vision was keen.
“Indian or what?” he said to himself. _
For a space he stared back along his trail. From that position he could see without being seen. He stood looking till the cold began to strike through his sweat-dampened clothing. Nothing stirred.
“It might be an animal,” he conjectured. “I’d gamble my moose it was a two-legged one, though. But I can’t stand here all day on the chance. If it’s a Cree he’ll come on till he’s sized the situation up for himself. If it should happen to be Mr. Campbell, now; why he’ll get another good start, confound him. However—hit the trail there, you wolves! Marchons.”
Daylight still held, for already the days were lengthening imperceptibly, when Buck came out upon the smooth, glistening field of the lake, beyond which lay his camp. Half a mile on this space where the snow was packed hard in windrows like frozen 'waves Buck cast another backward glance—and beheld two trudging figures and a dog team debouching from the woods, following in his track.
“Ha,” he grunted. “I did see somebody, all right. They aren’t afraid to show themselves, whoever they are. So I guess it isn’t my place to worry. ‘Oh, come ye as friend or as foe, Oh, come ye to war or to woo,’ ” he quoted lightly. “It’s pretty chilly to stand around here, but I think I’ll stop awhile and let you catch up.”
THE wayfarers crawled slowly across the ice. Over that exposed sweep a wind that struck to the marrow came sighing. Buck threshed his arms to keep the blood moving. One cannot long stand inert in such cold without feeling its iron grip. Presently the dogs, impatient at the halt and freedom from the traces, with camp looming close, broke into one of their numerous quarrels. By the time Buck had quieted the savage brutes, the other team was drawing near enough for him to see what manner of folk they were who followed in his tracks. And his brows crinkled.
“I never saw breeds or Indians—or anybody else for that matter—piking across this country in skirts,” he muttered, “they can’t be women, surely.”
But that, if clothing were any guide, was indeed their sex. And. when they drew a little closer he saw that one limped.
At two hundred yards distance the leader quickened her pace and pulled ahead of the team. Buck himself, curious beyond words, walked a few steps to meet her, and his curiosity became utter surprise when he perceived that he was facing not only a woman, but, incomprehensible in that latitude and season, a white woman. Within the parka hood not wholly hidden by the strip of rabbit skin across the nose, her skin showed fair as that of his own Letty. A yellow wisp of hair lay against the darker fur.
“Well, for the love of Mike,” was all Buck found to say.
She was nearly up to him then, close enough that Buck was aware of two darkly blue eyes intent upon his face, intent and inscrutable. Across her shoulder she carried a rifle, and she swung the broad, webbed show-shoes freely as any man.
“How’d do,” Buck at length made formal greeting.
“How do you do,” she replied in a voice at once musical and deep, richly contralto—with a perfect enunciation of the simple words. Whereat, Buck, being both straightfor-ward by nature and vastly astonished at the situation, asked bluntly:
“What in Sam Hill are you doing plugging around in this God-forsaken country in the dead of winter?”
“Why,” she made answer, and hesitated momentarily, “might I not justly ask the same question of you?”
“I beg your pardon,” Buck swallowed the obvious rebuke and evasion. “That’s right. But a man is apt to do a little wondering when he meets a white woman trailing around in these—these snows.” “I daresay,” she returned drily. “Just now I’m going to follow in your rear to the timber, if you don’t mind. A broken trail is a great help just now. My dogs are very tired and my—my partner has a sore foot.”
The “partner” who plodded behind the
team that was now almost up to where they stood, was a dark-faced, short-bodied person in feminine attire: a breed orlndian woman, Buck guessed. He bestowed the briefest sort of scrutiny upon her, enough to see that she was perceptibly favoring one foot. Also he observed that the dogs were indeed tired, though they were six able huskies to only a fair load.
"Sure,” he said. “My own camp’s right on the timber’s edge. I wondered what outfit you were, and waited to see, that’s all.”
The girl or woman,—Buck could not positively establish her age, but he had an impression of youth and energy under the shapeless swaddle of her winter garmentsmade no reply to this, and so Buck picked up his whip and gave his team the word.
FOR the remaining distance the others trudged bravely at his heels, losing only a little ground, since Buck’s team was heavy loaded. They drew up the bank a bare hundred yards behind him.
Alphonse stuck out his black head as Buck pulled up by the tent. When his eyes alighted upon the new-comers he voiced a splutter of mingled French, English and Cree, finding, apparently, one language totally inadequate to express his wonder. The two women had come by now nearly to the tent and were turning off to oné side. When the dark sister caught the tones of Alphonse she called back something in French—and Alphonse came out bare headed, in his shirt sleeves, and hobbled toward her, talking excitedly with both hands and tongue. The two shook hands, chattering. A brief span of time sufficed for the cold to set its sharp teeth into the breed’s scantily clad extremities. He came hobbling back again.
“Bagosh! dat ees su’prise for me, for sure, yes,” he chortled. “W’at you theenk? Dam fonee theeng, dat. Da’s ma fren’ Adele Lemieux. Las’ tam Ah’m see her hon Athabasca Landeeng. W’at for’s dat w’ite ladee com’ hon dees dam contray? Ver’ fonee theeng, yes. Sacre, eet ees, yes.”
There was a little space fairly clear of brush just beyond Buck’s camp, a matter of forty yards or so. Here the women halted, and loosed their dogs. Buck left the business of hanging up his meat till a later period, and moved by those chivalrous impulses which have become inherent in white men where women are concerned, walked over to where the two were tearing camp equipment off the toboggan—an outfit similar to Buck’s own, small square tent, stove, and such like.
“It’s a pretty frosty night. Let me give you a hand to set up your camp,” he offered.
The fair-haired woman straightened up with one corner of the canvas in her hand.
“Thank you,” she said coolly. “But if we were not well able to do such things for ourselves, we would hardly be here.” “Quite so—to be sure,” Buck answered as coolly, though inside the parka hood his face flushed at the pointed rebuff. “Again, I beg your pardon.”
He walked back to his own camp, visibly huffed.
“Hang it,” he said to himself. “She needn’t think I’m trying 'to scrape acquaintance or pry into her blooming business because I offer to lend a hand. That lady’s got a few things to learn about the trail yet.”
BUT Buck’s peevishness at this reception of his well-meant offer did not prevent him from risking another courtesy. He heaped up a great armful of chopped wood and bearing this over to where the tent now rose flapping on its ridge-pole, duiriped the wood before it and departed without ceremony. It comforted him somewhat to observe some twenty minutes later that his ready-cut fuel had not been taken amiss. It was bad enough for trail-hardened men, he considered, to set up camp and chop wood before they could get a fire to warm them against that bitter cold. Still, these two were both capable and hardy, he reflected; •otherwise they would not be there. He had seen many a man who would hesitate to strike out into those snowy solitudes that lie between Red Moss Lake and the upper Mackenzie.
By the time Buck had his quarters of moose hoisted into convenient trees for safe-keeping, and Alphonse within the tent was crooning a Voyageur ditty over two slabs of fresh meat that sizzled in the pan, dusk was creeping in. The stove-
pipe of the tent beyond belched smoke and sparks. Buck stood a second, looking wistfully at that camp. Yellow hair, and eyes of violet! It stirred forlorn longings, brought Letty Stephens vividly before his eyes, red-lipped, smiling, tantalizingly desirable. And as he stood the breed’s voice hushed for a space. In the accentuated stillness, he distinctly heard the sound of a woman sobbing.
“Chu--chu, Mam’selle. Cheer up.
You do not cry on ze cold or w’en ze day ees long an’ hard. Don’ cry. You weel spoil dose beauty eyes, yes.”
Buck only resisted an impulse to rush over, by recalling that it had been clearly manifested to him that he was not wanted. So presently hewent back into his tent, chucked his mitts and parka into one corner and humped much, perplexed, by the glowing stove, returning the curtest of monosyllables to the breed’s eager chatter.
“ A LPHONSE,” Buck looked up after xi. a little, “say nothing to this lady friend of yours about what we’re after— this man Campbell. We’re hunters, and traders when summer comes. Women talk too much. Understand?”
“For sure,” the breed replied. “Adele she’s dam’ fine girl all righ’, but maybeso she tell Eenjun som’theeng. Me, Ah’m say no word ’bout deès Cam’mel. Com’ hon Bock—dees meat she’s smell good you bet. All ready for heat.”
They ate, a strip of twisted cotton in a saucer of grease affording them light. After that a pipe rounded out the day. Full-stomached and weary Buck rolled into his bed, his last conscious impression a puzzled wonder why the woman cried. The weeping kind do not fare along such trails. What manner of grief assailed her? Who was she and from where? And why was she here? Idle questions, but he asked them all before he fell asleep.
In that latitude and season if a man slept till dawn he would soon grow bedweary. Buck and Alphonse breakfasted and consumed two pipes of tobacco each before day began to break. There was nothing to do. Meat hung plenty at han'd. Firewood stood all about them for the chopping. Until the breed’s foot healed fully there was nothing for it but tljis inaction.
But they had neighbors now. How long they would have the pleasure of other voices and faces about them Buck had no idea. He went forth therefore in the gray light between dawn-gleam and sunrise with a curious eye upon the other camp, half-expecting to see it in process of dismantling.
“They’re late starters if they figure to travel,” he said to himself.
The dogs curled in the snow, warily, distant of his own quarrelsome pack, and the little tent stood gray against the timber, its pipe shooting up a blue column of smoke that lifted straight toward the sky in the dead, frost-bound air.
Alphonse emerged, fully dressed, and hobbled toward the camp. Nearing it, he called something in French. A black head poked out between the tent flaps, replying in the same tongue.
“Ah, mak veesit hon ma fren’ Adele,” Alphonse grinned back at Buck. “She’s wan’ for talk to me.”
When the breed had disappeared within the tent Buck took up his axe and fell to chopping firewood. He rather resented the distant attitude of his fair-haired neighbor. It was not the spirit of the trail. Men, when they meet_ in those lonely places, shake hands and sit by each other’s fire, and talk. Hard weather and lonely ways leave no room for formality. It rather nettled Buck that his man should be welcome and he himself kept aloof. Sex cuts little figure, he considered, in such case.
SO WRAPPED up in his own thoughts was he, meanwhile making the axe ring on the frosty timber and sending sharp-edged chips flying, that he was not aware of anyone’s approach till a voice close by startled him to attention. The fair-haired stranger stood just beyond the sweep of his axe. She had left off the strip of rabbit-skin, and he stared into a well-nigh perfect oval of a face framed in the dark fur border of her parka hood.
“You are evidently a person who gets completely absorbed in his task,” she said with a smile. “I have been trying for nearly a minute to make my presence known.”
Buck notched the blade of his axe in the wood and rested both hands on the butt.
“I suppose it would be proper for me to beg your pardon,” he said drily. “But it seems to me I’ve done that often enough, considering the brief period of our acquaintance. So I won’t apologize. You might have yelled a little louder.”
She laughed softly.
“You don’t believe in being patient and long-suffering, then?” she inquired sweetly. “Well, I have to apologize for being very rude and surly last night. But I was àwfully tired and out of sorts. I know it wasn’t nice of me. You won’t hold a grudge, will you? Because I’ve really come to ask a favor this morning.”
“Name it and it’s yours,” Buck promised largely.
“Why,” she said, “I’d like a little piece of one of those quarters of moose.’'
“You’re more than welcome to all you want,” Buck said. “That isn’t any favor at all. Moosemeat’s just grub, and grub’s supposed to be common property on trail.”
“Well,” she replied, “I can’t truthfully say that we’re in need. We’ve got jerky and fish, but your breed said you had more than you needed, so I thought it would be a change. I haven’t seen a moose or caribou for over a month.”
“You must have been travelling some,, then,” Buck ventured.
“Pretty much,” she returned indifferently—-and Buck did not follow that lead. It was none of his business-anyway, he reflected.
He pulled his axe out of the log and they moved over to the tree where the meat hung.
“How long are you going to stay camped?” he asked. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll pack over a quarter, and what you don’t use or can’t take you can leave.”
She looked up at the huge pieces of meat.
“If you’re sure it won’t make you short,” she said, “I’ll be glad to take it. I might be able to get out and get one for myself before long. You see that breed girl with me twisted her ankle rather badly yesterday. We’ll have to camp for a few days.”
“I’m laid up myself by a breed with a crippled foot,” Buck said lightly. “Believe me I won’t object to having neighborö for awhile. You needn’t worry about us running short. There’s meat enough in this tree to keep us all going for two months if we had nothing else. I expect to be a long way from here before that time. There’s plenty if you took two quarters.”
“One will do just now,” she laughed. “Thank you, just the same.”
BUCK slashed off the hide strip that held the quarter suspended. When it dropped in the snow he shouldered it and bore it over to the other tent, whence sounded the light-hearted tones of the two half-breeds, coincidently crippled in the feet. Buck and the lady between them hoisted the quarter of meat to a stout bough. He turned to go then.
“Come over at noon and have a cup of tea with us,” she invited in the same offhand fashion that an old sourdough might have said “come over and smoke a pipe.” And Buck answered over his shoulder, “All right, I will.”
Alphonse came back in an hour or so. He curled up on his bed and stoked the old brier pipe.
“Ver fonee theeng, ’bout dees womans,” he observed presently. “W’at for you s’pose hees on dees contray een weentaire, Bock?”
“Hanged if I know,” Buck answered. “Ah’m ask Adele, but she’s don’ say,” Alphonse continued in a puzzled tone. “She’s laugh an’ tell me dere travel for healt’. Sacre. Dat ladee hees not seeck woman, bagosh no. She strong lak de man, Ah theenk. Seek woman hees don' go hon dees trail nort’ of Red Moss. Ah’m theenk dat queer theeng, dees, by gar.”
So did Buck Harrison. He himself was on a more or less surreptitious mission, and there might easily be other men in the North who would not care to be open about what business concerned them. But why a woman such as this-—by her speech and manner Buck was forced to differentiate her from the types common to the North. She was no fur-post woman,
or she would be travelling, if at all, with a considerable retinue and outfit. Besides, to Buck’s certain knowledge, Alphonse knew by sight or hearsay every white woman within five hundred miles of Red Moss Lake—and they numbered less than the fingers of one hand. Here then was something of a mystery, and although . Buck was sighing for a girl long miles away and himself engaged upon a serious man-hunt in the meantime, a mystery which involved a woman of evident beauty and breeding was as tantalizing to him as to any man. On a city street or in a drawing-room Buck might have passed her with an appreciative stare. Here in the wilderness, where trifling incidents bulk large, her présence was a challenge. Whatever her business and destination, Buck reflected, she was at once courageous and hardy. This brought him back to his starting-point—the perplexing why? For white women of her type—of any type, for that matter—do not venture into those far and inhospitable regions without §ome pressing reason.
“Oh, well, hang it,” Buck concluded, “it isn’t my affair. She certainly put a tight lid on any information about where she’s from or where she’s going. As Alphonse says, ’eets dam’ fonee,’ But I don’t know why I should do all this wondering about ’em. It’s not my funeral. I got troubles of my own trying to locate this slippery cuss of a Campbell.”
So in a measure he turned his mind to other things, until noon drew near.
“You go hon dat camp, Buck?” Alphonse inquired, when he saw Buck look at his watch. “We are spose for come an’ drink the tea.”
“Sure,” said Buck. “Gome on. It’s twelve o’clock.”
Buck experienced a queer shock when he seated himself within the tent. In her outdoor clothing he had gotten only a general view of this fair-haired stranger; the shapeless parka had draped her like a sack, and the hood of it showed only eyes, nose, and mouth, and even these shaded by the dark fur. The sub-Arctic sun fell squarely on the little tent, so that within it was light as outdoors. The girl—for she was no more than in her early twenties— wore a waist of gray flannel, a skirt of brown cloth with a belt of beaded buckskin, and quill decorated moccasins on her feet. Even with the contrast in dress, Buck caught his breath. There was more than pansy-blue eyes a,nd yellow hair to remind him of Letty Stephens. Feature for feature the astonishing resemblance was carried out. The same curving red lips, straight fine nose, perfect skin. The same little wisps of tawny hair curling down about her ears. Buck eyed her almost resentfully—until she turned her head unexpectedly, and caught his expression. Smiling queerly to herself, she went on dropping measured spoonfuls of tea in the bucket that served for a pot.
TXTHOEVER she was and whatever ▼ V the nature of her business there, she was perfectly at home in her surroundings. That cropped out in her actions, as well as speech. Four people cannot well spend an. hour and a half in conversation without committing themselves to some point of view", without displaying flashes of their real selves. And Buck surmised that she would be equally at home in more luxurious surroundings.
There was no formality in the impromptu tea-party. The girl neither asked Buck his name nor gave him her own. Nor did the lack hamper either of them in talk. Aside from the depressing effect of that extraordinary and disturbing resemblance, Buck spent a pleasant,hour.
Other days followed more or less monotonously. The breed girl’s twisted ankle mended. So did the wound in Alphonse’s foot. As the time for him to take up the search again drew near Buck experienced again that feeling of puzzled curiosity. Two weeks had passed. He knew no more of his neighbor than at first, save that his first impression of refinement had been confirmed by association. Here was no backwoods nymph, no illiterate beauty trafficking along accustomed ways. Sometimes Buck caught her gaze fixed on him, as if in cool, impersonal appraisement. But their conversation never verged on the intimate. Both had something to conceal, reasons for that concealment. _
“By jiminy,it’s an odd go to be meeting a woman every day and not even know her name, except that the breed girl ealls her Mees Lois,” Buck reflected. “Still, I don’t know. One doesn’t need a tag much, up here.”
He sat pondering over his plans one evening. The breed declared himself fit for any march again—and day after tomorrow they would begin once more that patient nosing through the woods. And these other two? They would shake hands and the N!orth would swallow them up. So men meet in those solitudes, sit by each other’s campfire an hour, a day or a week, and when the spruce has enfolded them, they pass out of each others lives.
This man Campbell, the absconder, now. Buck reflected. What was his side of it? He had a defense; a justification? Surely. Yet he chose flight. What a life for a man to tie himself to—a native woman and a trap-line, with the shadow of the law’s arm hanging over him always. Buck had had a long time to think over tiiese things. There was more in this than Stephens had made clear to him. He began to feel sure of it.
"Damn it,” he muttered to himself. “I’m getting sick of this man-hunt. I’ll stay with it till spring. If I haven’t cornered him by that time, I quit. If that isn’t demonstration enough for Stephens1 he can go to the devil. If Letty feels like I do we can get along without the paternal blessing—I don’t know that I altogether fancy it as the price of running down a poor devil that happened to make a break. I’m in kind of small business, tp tell the truth. However—” /
They tore down their tent before dawn of the day that began the chase afresh, and while they were harnessing the dogs to the loaded toboggans the two girls came over. Buck hitched the last trace.
“Well, so-long,” he said.
“So-long,” she gave him her hand with the word.
Buck took up his whip. Driving the lead team he headed them toward the ice. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Alphonse start his team, take a few steps, stop them suddenly, and run back to Adele. He kissed her, and turned again with a wave of his mittened hand. Thereafter his dogs crowded close on Buck, and Alphonse warbled a throaty little tuneless chant, such as the meadow-lark sings when he comes north with the spring. His good spirits rather grated on Buck.
FROM the site of this forced encampment Buck turned west. If fifty or sixty miles in that direction brought no results he proposed to turn back toward Red Moss and look for his man somewhere within the circumference of the great circle he had already described. One day’s march toward the Mackenzie they came within an ace of mushing squarely into a camp, observing the smoke from the squat log house barely in time to sheer off in a wide detour. By various signs it was but the camp of another native trapper. Buck’s small field-glasses confirmed him in one thing which he had begun to doubt; namely that he was still in territory trapped by members of Dog Tooth’s band. He saw at this cabin a limping nativewhom he remembered from the spring gathering at the lake.
“They certainly spread themselves over lots of ground, that bunch,” he remarked to Alphonse. “We may have to go farther north for Campbell, yet.”
“There ees many een dees band, an’ one trap line ees cover mooch contray,” the breed returned.
Beyond this spot, however, they broke two days’ trail before another trap-line stayed them. And they came upon that with a snowshoe track fresh printed toward home.
“Hees not com’ back for two-tree day, Ah theenk,” Alphonse conjectured. “You see. Hees go hout yesterday, sleep hon de far end, an’ jus’ go back weeth hees catch. She’s long line dees.”
So again it was a case of lie up and watch and wait. Late in the next forenoon Buck came out of the tent with a muttered imprecation. One of the dogs— of all the ten the single dog which was not a full-blooded malamute—had barked. The others were sitting on their haunches snuffing and whining. And as Buck emerged the mongrel offender barked again. Buck silenced him with a stick of wood. Then he observed the way of the wind. The rest of the dogs still sniffed inquisitively. What slow current of air moved came from the east.
Buck hurried into his clothes, took his rifle and set off through the timber. There was something there. It might be an
animal. It might be a man. Whatever it was Buck desired to know. It was hardly like an Indian to spy on a camp from the windward side. He doubted that Campbell would make that error of woodcraft. At any rate, be it man or beast, there would be tracks in the snow to betray.
Buck ranged this way and that till an hour had passed and he was fully a mile from camp. There he swung back across his own track where he and Alphonse had trailed in the night before. On this he stopped short, for the old trail was overrun with fresh marks of travel—a toboggan and snowshoe prints in the rear.
“Huh,” he grunted. “Somebody on our trail, I wonder? I guess I’ll look these travellers up. That’s what old Pug barked at. Now I wonder.”
He turned in on the tracks, hurrying. Inside two hundred yards he raised a blue wisp of smoke as he crossed the top of a little bare ridge. It lifted out of a patch of low spruce, almost a thicket. With that he turned off the trail and went stealthily through the timber screening his advance by trees and patches of scrub until he drew near enough to see. Moving carefully in the soft snow he flitted from point to point as noiselessly as a rabbit.
His brow puckered thoughtfully. He looked upon a wall tent that seemed familiar. And while he watched a figure emerging from the tent set the seal of surety upon his recognition. Buck waited till the girl gathered an armful of dead timber and went back inside.. Then he walked away through the woods to his own camp, pondering.
“Well, w’at you fin’?” Alphonse inquired.
“My own tracks,”, Buck returned, truthfully enough if a trifle incompletely^
“Pug, she’s smell wil’cat, Ah speck,” the breed remarked. And there the matter rested.
BUCK was suddenly grown suspicious.
Otherwise he would have told Alphonse and discussed the thing with him. Over in the other camp was the breed’s sweetheart, and Buck knew by his own experience how pliant in a woman’s hands love sometimes makes a man. Why were these two hugging his trail, camping in seclusion near at hand? What was this yellow-haired girl looking for in the North in the dead of winter? These and other related queries irritated Buck. It might very well be that these two were headed for some fur-post on the upper Mackenzie and merely following Buck’s trail so long as it ran that way. But again he knew that folk travelling in that manner and season seldom stretch a tent for a noon halt—a fire at the base of a tree servesevery purpose. He knew this young woman to be a cool-headed and resourceful person. It looked to him rather like a parallel of his own tactics. If so—what then? Buck gave it up. There were too many unanswerable whys. ' '
That afternoon he and Alphonse hugged the tent, grateful for the respite from the searching cold. When morning came again, he charged the breed to keep a sharp eye for wayfarers on the trap-line and struck off himself into the woods. And he had not gone so very far before he crossed a snowshoe track that made his eyebrows lift—though it was not wholly unexpected.
“Somebody else sizing up the situation,” he observed sardonically.
He went on till he gained a view of the tent. He fully expected to find it still there, but he wished to make sure. Then he retraced his steps till he picked up the fresh track again and that he followed out of sheer curiosity to see whither it ran and how close to his own quarters.
The trail of the webbed ovals came close enough to give whoever wore them a glimpse of his camp, and then sheered off southerly, paralleling the trap-line for two miles or more. Then it turned square in on the trapper’s path and followed it steadfastly. Buck paused.
. vNow if that lady goes into the camp, and it happens to be Mr. Campbell’s camp, why he’ll be on the move quite shortly, I should imagine,” Buck reflected. “If it’s an Indian she’ll talk to him, and the fat’ll be in the fire anyway, perhaps. I guess I’ll just make sure.”
So he bore on, striding at his best gait— and Buck was a fast man on any sort of trail when he hurried. Long-legged, blessed with sinewy limbs and good wind, inured to snowshoe travel, he covered ground at a rapid pace. Such time did he make that he pulled within sight of the trapping hut just as the girl reached the
place. He saw a bent old squaw chopping wood, two papooses playing hardily in the snow, and a squad of dogs that rushed to meet the visitor. By these and sundry other tokens Buck knew that it was but another native wintering camp. His man was not there.
The girl addressed the old squaw, held speech with her a minute or more. Then the two went into the cabin. Buck tarried briefly. There was nothing to be gained by waiting, and it was too cold to stand long in one spot. Moreover he was growing hungry, so he took the back trail:
‘T went and took a look at the camp; it’s more Indians,” he told Alphonse. “We’ll hit it again in the morning.”
Even yçt he was far from certain that this capable young woman was deliberately following and watching him. For all he could positively say she might be attending strictly to her own legitimate business, with no ulterior object whatever. But he intended to make sure, and it was simple enough to evolve an effective plan.
When they started at the first glimmer of dawn Buck took the lead and he moved leisurely, just fast enough to keep warm, until the sun was well clear of the timber. Then he swung in a half-mile loop, doubling back on his own trail and halting within a hundred yards of it, behind a patch of young spruce, branchy saplings dense as a hedge.
“Tie up the dogs while I make a little fire,” he said to Alphonse. “And be very quiet, and don’t go out from behind this thicket.”
“Eh? W’at ees happen?” the breed, inquired as he set about peeling off harness.
“I don’t know,” Buck answered. “Something maybe. Maybe nothing. But keep your eye on the back trail, and your ears open.”
AN HOUR passed, and another. The dry sticks they laid on the fire burned with a clear smokeless flame. Alphonse eventually began to glance questioningly at Buck, and that gentleman merely shrugged his shoulders and lifted a fresh coal to his pipe. When the hands of Buck’s watch were drawing close, to twelve o’clock a sound, faint in the timber, brought them both to rigid attention. After that came a period of silence; then the unmistakable sounds of travel, pluff-pluff of snowshoes, the slithering sound of a toboggan sliding over the snow. Buck stepped softly to the side of that side of the sapling grove where he could look back a little way along the trail. Alphonse trod stealthily at his heels.
“Sacre Nom de Dieu'.'’ he heard the breed mutter, as the two girls swung into view.
“Back up,” Buck whispered. “We stay by the fire. If they’re trailing us they’ll come around on the loop we made.”
Which in the course of thirty minutes or so proved a true forecast. The two women passed the thicket unconscious of their presence, went out of sight, and holding fast to the track did not see them until they were within a dozen rods of the fire, looking through fairly thick timber.
“Don’t look; don’t let on you see ’em,” Buck warned the breed. Himself he sat in such .a position that while his back appeared to be turned he was in reality watching every move. Alphonse humped over the blaze, toying with a stick of wood, genuine puzzled surprise the dominant expression on his face.
The two women stopped short. Very carefully and quietly they turned the dogs about and flitted out of sight along the way they had come. And when he saw that Buck rose and slipped his toes under the loops of his snowshoes.
“Make a pot of tea,” he instructed Alphonse. “I’m going to talk to that lady. I’ll be back in afewminutes, though, and we’ll pike on.”
The breed nodded assent, though from his expression he, too, would have liked a word with the travellers.
Buck hurried and had no great difficulty in getting within sight of them. The pair were evidently keeping close watch of their back trail now, for they saw Buck almost as soon as,be saw them, and they halted, almost immediately. After a brief look at him, one began to free the dogs while the other undid the sled lashings.
“Camp now, since they’ve given themselves away,” Buck reflected, as he drew up within speaking distance.
“How do you do,” Lois greeted with perfect self-possession.
“Quite nicely, thank you,” Buck re-.
turned with exaggerated politeness. Then quite bluntly he asked: “What are you trailing us for?”
The girl regarded him steadfastly for a few seconds.
“It’s a free country,” she said coldly. “Have you a monopoly of the trail you make? Must no one else use it?”
Buck made an impatient gesture. “That’s pure evasion,” he said. “People don’t tag along by stealth and spy on a man’s camp and visit trapping outfits ahead of him without some purpose.” “Quite logical,” she returned. “One doesn’t.”
“Then what’s the idea?” he asked. “You might as well show your hand.” \ “Will you show yours?” she countered calmly.
“That depends,” Buck replied slowly. “I am not interfering with you. You rather act as if you proposed to interfere with me. I might be wrong in that guess, but it doesn’t look that way. It’s up to you to show me if I am. If you’ll explain why you are—are sort of keeping an inquisitive eye on my movements, I might explain my own business.”
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. “I don’t suppose you could tell me much that I cannot guess. You are looking for a' man. I happen to be looking for that same man. I had an idea you knew where to find him. That’s why I followed you.” “You’ve got more nerve than any woman I’ve ever chanced to meet,” Buck said sincerely. “Far as I’m concerned, you’ve got my permission to trail me till I find Campbell, without doing it on the dodge.” She stared at him steadily for half a minute.
“Are you an officer?” she asked gently. “A Mounted Policeman out of uniform?” “No.”
“Then where do you get your authority to hunt Roy Campbell?” she demanded., “He’s a fugitive,” Buck answered.
“But you’re not after him because he’s a fugitive,” the girl broke out. “You’re hunting him because Mr. Alexander Stephens has commissioned you to hunt him. What a business to be in! A manhunter for hire— an earner of blood money—tracking for pay! It will be big pay, too, I suppose. Don’t you sometimes feel that it’s a despicable job?”
BUCK opened his mouth to reply. But he had no words. His face burned. “There is the law,” the girl went on, a sudden emotion coloring her tone. “If Roy has broken it there are men whose duty it is to seek him out and bring him to answer before the law. Yet there are no Mounted Policemen on his trail. There is no charge laid against him in the courts. Yet here you are prowling through the woods month after month, trying to nose him out for God only knows what purpose. Fine business for a man to be in, don’t you think? I find1 it hard to understand such things.”
“There are a good many things in this world you’d probably find rather hard to understand, young lady,” Buck retorted, and swinging about went back to his own camp.
For an hour or so he sat glumly by his own fire, dismissing with a grunt the food Alphonse had prepared. The breed looked in wonder, but like a wise man ate his own meal and said nothing. -And Buck glowered into the fire, unmindful of the cold that chilled his back.
After all it was true, he said to himself —in last analysis he was man-hunting for hire. Put into words it sounded bald and ugly. A man may sell himself for a price outside of money. This undertaking which Stephens had so glibly defined as a test of his quality, a thing to establish his hardihood and resource, it was no more than a subterfuge to gain some advantagè—what, Buck could not even hazard a guess, but he was ready now to believe that it was something other than Stephens had set forth. Sitting there in the snow Buck experienced a feeling of self-revulsion. He had been bribed with his love. That was the ultimate sting. It had taken the half-scornful words of a stranger to make him see it, but he saw it now clearly; the more clearly perhaps for having in the past weeks stifled many such tentative thoughts. He had no feud with Roy Campbell. He could not say with certitude that Campbell was even guilty of the least infraction of the law. He had undertaken to run him down, on the strength of Stephens’ statement. And Letty was to be his reward—his pay!
Buck stared into the crackling blaze. A year of loneliness and hardship; twelve
months of self-deception. What a colossal folly. Yet—yet it had seemed different in the beginning. Only that he had considered nothing but his own self-cravings; he had not conceived of this man Campbell as other than something which stood in the way of his happiness. And Buck, normally, was not the egotist who stalks heavy-footed over everything and everyone who stands between him and his desires. In moments of passion he, like any other virile being, might strike hard and unthinkingly—but he would be sorry afterwards. He was neither sordid nor selfcentered. He could make sacrifices to his sense of right. And he made one there, sitting beside that fire, very lonely and depressed, wondering if the fine things he had dreamed were all to prove vain. He seemed to have lost faith in Letty Stephens, in love, in himself, in everything which he had esteemed, for that brief hour of retrospection. How it stung—“a man-hunter for hire—a tracker for pay!”
He looked over at the breed.
“Let’s put up the tent, Alphonse,” he said. “In the morning we’ll head south— for Moosewaton.”
The Fingers of Death
“\T7AS dat joke w’at you say las’
VV night, Bock?” Alphonse inquired diffidently as they ate breakfast; the first mention he had made of Buck’s sullen announcement.
“No. I’m going to get out of this country as fast as we can travel,” Buck assured him. “We’ve been here long enough. I’ve decided I don’t want this Campbell, after ail.”
The breed finished his meal in silence.
“Ah weesh for spik weeth Adele, bifor we’re start,” he announced.
“Go to it,” Buck told him.
While Alphonse sought the other camp, Buck packed their outfit and lashed everything on the toboggan but the stove and tent which was always the top of the load. By the time he had finished this ' the breed was back. They tore down the tent and harnessed the dogs. Buck hesitated a moment when they were ready, casting a look toward where the smoke from that other stovepipe floated up through the trees in the graying dawn. Then he shrugged his shoulders and started the dogs, bearing straightly away through the spruce toward the northern end of Red Moss Lake, a hundred miles to the south.
“I’d kinda like to explain jto that yellow-haired person,” he said to himself. “But what’s the use? I couldn’t very well —and it doesn’t matter anyway, I guess.
. Funny, how a few words will sometimes make a man feel like a dog. I wonder if she’ll find Campbell?”
He wondered too, if she loved Campbell that she sought him so patiently in so terrible a land. And if, loving him, she did find him, there was a hurt in store for her, too. There was the Indian girl. Buck frowned. The thing was common enough in the North—a white man and a native woman. He understood Campbell’s side of it. He was alone and constrained to remain there alone apparently, and a man does not slough his natural instincts even in the wilderness. He follows frequently along the lines of least resistance, is guided by the idea that it matters little anyway—which is to say he takes himself a native partner. But in this case—well, Buck reflected, probably Campbell never dreamed of this tawny-haired girl braving the frosts and the huge spaces to seek him out.
“She must surely think a heap of him,” Buck said to himself. “Would Letty come after me like that? Hardly! I don’t suppose she could stand the trail, if she wanted to.”
He thought a great deal as he plodded along through the woods. There were many quêstions to which he craved answer —many phases of this queer undertaking which he failed to understand. He felt that Stephens had fooled him somehow. It did seem that if Campbell were a common absconder, a trusted employee who made off with funds and documents, that his employer would have had recourse to the usual method and set the N. W. M. P. after him forthwith. That vigilant organization seldom failed, Buck knew. To be sure, Stephens had explained that at the time, but his explanation no longer seemed so plausible to Buck. The more he mulled over it the more he became con-
vínced that behind what he knew lay something of deeper significance. He recalled that Stephens had seemed to expect* violent measures, had warned him against Campbell as a desperate man.
“Hang it, it doesn’t concern me, anyway,” Buck grumbled, “except that it makes me sore to think I’ve wasted a year on a job I hated from the start. Well, I’ll tell Mr. Stephens a thing or two when I get to have speech with him. Lord, it’ll seem good to get back to where there’s comfort and decent grub and people to talk to. And Letty.”
He had to reassure himself about her ' now and then. He found himself sometimes harboring a feeling of resentment against her too—and that, he told himself, was unjust. Probably she was as anxious for his return as he was to get back.
THE days held clear and hard and they , reeled off the miles patiently, until a blizzard overtook them and made going impossible. They laid up through fortyeight hours of that. Then it cleared. They set out at noon. The days were lengthening now. The short month of February was drawing to a close.
“It’s near a year now since we pulled out of Pelt Landing, Alphonse,” he remarked. “It seems like ten to me.”
“Long tarn’ all righ’,” Alphonse agreed. “When’s your girl coming out?” Buck inquired idly.
“Bagosh, she’s don’ know,” the breed returned disconsolately. “Dees spreeng, Ah’m hope. Da’s dam’ fine girl, Adele. Ah theenk Ah marry dat girl, me.”
“Let me know when it comes off,” Buck laughed. “I’ll give you an up-todate housekeeping outfit. You’re an allright old boy on the trail, AÍ.”
The breed grinned his appreciation of this. So far as he considered it, he was merely earning his pay.
Late that afternoon they came to a small creek hard bound under snow and ice, but marked by a depression through the forest. In this as they crossed it Alphonse called Buck’s attention to the body of a marten swinging by a fore paw from the up-sprung length of a willow.
“We’re hon trap-line,” he said. “Dat marten she’s be long tam een de trap too, Ah theenk.”
A quarter of a mile down the creek— which they followed because it ran southerly, an open path through the woods— they found another marten dangling from a sprung trap.
“Fonee theeng dat,” Alphonse observed. “Dees Eenjun she’s not tend de trap ver’ good. Dat marten hees there bifor dees storm. You see, Bock? Hees fur all fill weeth fine snow.”
Buck nodded carelessly. Whether an Indián tended his trapline properly was no particular concern of his. His mind was full of other, more vitally personal, matters. And the sun was now dropping low and he was casting his eye for a likely campground.
The creek took a short bend and widened into a small basin, that would be a swampy lake in summer, Buck guessed. They bore out on its hard storm-beaten surface.
“Hello,” Buck grunted. “Found a camp, by jiminy. See the smoke.”
“Caban een de teember,” Alphonse returned. “Enjun, Ah spose.” ,
The outlet of the little lake bore westward. The faint pillar of smoke lay square in their southerly path, and since there was no longer need to be wary of camps Buck kept straight on. Two hundred yards through the timber stepping through new snow as silently as ghosts, they turned the corner of the cabin—a sixteen-foot-square house of logs, with windows of scraped deerskin. A canoe stood up-ended against the side. Dogs, the inevitable dogs of the Cree, there were none.
But there was a fur-clad figure chopping wood by the door. A woman. And when at the subdued sounds of their approach she turned with a start Buck recognized her for Campbell’s woman. He remembered her face distinctly. She was young and slender, much like the usual round-faced squaw, a beauty in her dark way. The irony of the thing brought a twisted smiled to Buck’s face. '
The girl stared at him an instant, then she backed quickly to the door, carrying the light-bladed axe in her hands. Buck saw her breast heave.
“You speak their lingo, Alphonse,” he said hastily. “Tell her she needn’t be afraid. Tell her I don’t want her man— that we won’t bother them.”
HE HAD a second surprise then, for the Indian girl cried sharply, in perfect English:
“Do you mean that?”
“I certainly do,” Buck ejaculated. “I’m on the way out. Campbell is perfectly safe as far as I’m concerned.”
“But why?” she persisted. “Yotrhave hunted him for months. I know. Why this sudden change of heart?”
“Oh, confound it,” Buck growled, “I got sick of the job, that’s all. Campbell never did me any harm. I’m sorry I got after him in the first place. He’s dead safe from me now, though.”
“Yes,” she said slowly, and set down the axe. “I think he is. But not the way you mean. He is very sick. I do not think he will live. So you see it doesn’t matter much.”
Buck shuffled in the snow with one moccasined foot. The hopelessness, the resigned misery of her tone, hurt him, as if in some obscure fashion he was to blame.
“If there’s ànything I could do?” he said haltingly.
“What can any one do?” she answered wearily. “No doctor, no medicine, nothing. But you might see him. He won’t know you. He doesn’t know me most of the time.”
“If he’s that bad,” Buck, decided instantly, “I’ll stick and see it through. It’s a tough place for a man to be down and out. You set up camp, Alphonse, over there some place.”
He turned to the girl, and she opened the door for him to enter. The windows were of thin-scràped deerhide, and coming into that dim light from the glare of the snow Buck could see but faintly at first. He stood a minute pulling loose the icicles that had gathered on his mustache, until his eyes accustomed themselves to the semi-gloom. Campbell lay on his bed in the corner, flat on his back, one hand stretched on the bed-clothes, the other resting on his chest. From where he stood Buck could hear plainly the labored effort of his breathing, short, jerky respiration. He moved over to the bedside. The man’s face was flushed, the lips livid. His eyes were wide open, expressionless, unrecognizing. And as Buck bent over him he coughed sharply several times and a faint trace of frothy reddish substance showed at his mouth.
“Poor devil,” Buck muttered to himself. “I wouldn’t give much for his chances in the face of this.”
He laid off his parka and cap and turned to the bed again, feeling for the pulse and finding it badly quickened. He . laid his ear to the bared chest and heard what he knew he would hear—a faint crackling sound in the lungs as Campbell drew in and expelled his breath. He straightened up and turned to the girl, silent at his elbow.
“How long has he been like this?” “Nearly a week, I think,” she answered.
“I can hardly tell. I’m so near worn out I’ve sort of lost track of the days. But about a week.”
“Come on him rather suddenly with a sort of funny stiffening up?”
“What have you been doing for him?” Buck pursued his inquiry.
“Nothing, except to give him a little soup now and then when he would take it,” she whispered. “At first, when his breast was so sore I rubbed it with alcohol. But I have no more—and lately he has been out of his head so that I couldn’t do anything but watch him suffer. What is it? Do you know?”
“Pneumonia,” Buck answered tersely. “If he’s been sick a week he should be now at the critical stage. There’s not much we can do. Get him to take liquids to keep up his strength. Sponge him off with a cold cloth once in a while.
A little chopped ice in a towel on his chest will help keep down fever and pain. The fact that he’s still alive after a week of this argues that he has a chance. He’s a pretty husky customer or he’d have been dead before now. Yes, I should say he has a fighting chance.”
THE girl—and now that she had discarded her outdoor clothing Buck saw that she w'as even younger and slimmer than he had thought—slipped suddenly to her knees and hid her face in her hands. Buck shook her gently by the shoulder.
“Brace up,” he said kindly. “You’ve toughed it out here alone a long time. Don’t lose heart now.”
Her shoulders shook with choked-back sobs.
“I am not—not losing heart,” she whispered. “But I have been afraid— afraid.”
“Come on, there’s no time to cry. We’ve got work to do,” Buck rallied. “I’m no doctor, but I had a considerable experience with a whole camp full of pneumonia cases one time, and I’m going to pull him through. Brace up. Faith’s a lot.”
She pushed back her heavy hair and looked up at Buck.
“Thank you,” she said. “You are a' white man—as they say on the trail. Tell me what to do. I’m no chicken-hearted whiner. I’ve been, seeing Death’s fingers clawing at Roy for days, and it unnerved me, that’s all. Just to sit alone and watch him die by inches. I’d have been ihsane in another forty-eight hours, I think.”
“Forget it,” Buck counseled. “I was as near gone and with the same thing as he is right now,' and I’m still in the ring. First thing we’ll get a few of these clothes off him. He’s hot enough with fever, much less blankets.”
Over by a thick clump of brush Alphonse got the tent up, a fire going and supper under way while Buck and the girl did the few simple things they could do for the fever-burned man. Meagre as the treatment was, Buck declared at the end of two hours that Campbell was holding his own. For the girl’s assurance mostly he made this assertion. Himself he saw no change. Privately he doubted Campbell’s chance—but he knew also that so long as there is breath in a man’s body he has a chance for life.
' Night had long since come. At one end of the cabin a log crackled cheerfully in a gaping fireplace of rough stone. On the log mantel above it burned a candle run from the tallow of the moose. The dull yellow gleam of it fell across the sick man’s flushed face. He lay, inert, semiconscious, breathing short and fast like an animal spent from a long chase. At intervals he coughed.
Alphonse came at last to the door to know if Buck would come and eat his supper. Buck glanced at the girl. She sat on a wolfskin by one side of the fire, her body leaning against the wall. She was fast asleep. They had been sitting quietly for the space of twenty miriutes.
“Poor kid, clean worn out,” Buck muttered. “Say, you bring me something to eat over here, Alphonse. Enough for her, too.”
There was nothing to do now, save keep vigil, watch for a change. It must come soon, Buck knew. Either the fever and inflammatory process in Campbell’s affected lungs must lessen—or the man must die. With that burning in his veins, that fire of disease which consumed him, he had not far to go.
When the breed lugged over a bannock, a pot of stewed meat, and tea, Buck shook the girl to wakefulness. She straightened with a start, staring wide-eyed.
“Here’s a bite to eat,” Buck said. “Then you better lie down and take a real sleep.”
“Thank you,” she said. “But I must watch. Queer, I’d fall asleep. I haven’t been able to sleep for ages, it seems to me.”
She was nodding again before they finished the meal. But she would not lie down. She drew a stool up beside the bed and sat there. Little by little her head drooped. And Buck laid a bearskin robe on some blankets by the fireplace, and lifting her bodily laid her on that without disturbing her exhausted slumber. Then he covered her with a coat and sat down to wait the hours by.
A little before daybreak the girl sat up with a violent start.
“Oh,” she said. “I had a horrible dream.”
She came over to the bédside with a shudder.
Buck laid his fingers on his lips.
“He’s over the hump,” he said. “He’s sleeping now, perfectly natural sleep. See? About an hour ago he began to sweat. The fever’s broke.”
SHE passed her palm lightly over the brow that had been hot and dry. Her hand came away moist. Campbell’s eyes were closed. Otherwise there was little change.
“He’ll get well?” she whispered.
“Sure,” Buck answered. “There’s always a crisis in this disease about the sixth or eighth day. It’s then either a case of a break in the fever, a sloughing of the waste through the pores, and restful sleep—or death. I think he shook hands
with the old boy last night, all right.”
* She shuddered again.
“And I slept,” she breathed. “Queer, when you came in and sort of took charge I should go all to pieces. You’ve pulled him through.”
“Nonsense,” Buck returned. “His own vitality pulled him through. Well, I think I’ll have a sleep myself. Holler to Alphonse if you want me for anything. Let him sleep as long as he wants to. I’ll have Alphonse make some rabbit broth and bring over. Give him that as soon ashe wakes.”
Buck went to his own camp, ate, and rolled into his bed.
“Ver’ fonee, bagosh, as AÍ says,” he mused as he dozed off. “When I quit looking for this jasper I come straight to him. And I kind of think it’s lucky for the old boy I did. That bathing and ice on his chest cooled him off at the right time. He’d have burned out last night like an empty lantern, I think. Pretty close shave for Mr. Campbell. His Indian .girl's a trump, too—wonder where she got her education. I do seem to be running across some rather remarkable women lately. I wonder—”
But in the midst of his wondering he fell asleep.
BUCK wakened about sundown, dressed and went over to the cabin. The girl opened the door with a warning sign for silence.
“How’s the patient?” Buck inquired. “Lot’s better,” she said. “He slept until near noon. Then I fed him the broth, and he said he felt a lot easier. He has slept most of the time since.”
“Good. I’ll go back and have my supper then,” Buck said. “I’ll come over after a while,and you can get some sleep.”
“Have supper here,” she invited. ‘ I’m just getting a bite for myself.”
“Are you pretty well fixed for grub?” Buck asked.
“Oh, yes,” she smiled assurance— rather a wan smile, for she still bore the marks of anxious days and nights. “It’s a poor house that can’t feed a stranger anyway, whether there’s much grub or little. But there is plenty—such as it is.” “I’ll be glad to, then,” Buck said and came in.
Dark closed in while they ate, with care of their plates and voices lest they disturb the sick man who slept peacefully in the corner. After the girl had put away the dishes they sat before the fire, silent, staring into the flames.
“You’re on the road somewhere,” the girl said presently. “Is it any bother, this delay? Somehow I can’t quite reconcile you with the first time I saw you—and the last.”
“That was in the brush up near that lake where you gave üs the slip last summer, eh?” Buck smiled reminiscently. “Was it you that Alphonse heaved the stick at?”
She nodded assent.
“No, it’s no hardship laying off the trail for a while,” Buck continued. “I’d be a pretty poor specimen to keep on going. I’m bound for Moosewaton, but a few days more or less makes no difference to me.”
“Why have you given up?” she demanded abruptly.
Buck shrugged his shoulders.
“I could tell you, but I don’t want to,” he said bluntly. “It would sound too selfrighteous, I’m afraid. I guess I crowded your man pretty hard for awhile. And I meant to keep on till I got him. But I’ve changed my mind about that. If Stephens wants him or anything he’s got he can ‘come after him himself: I wasn’t cut out for man-hunting.”
“You don’t give up easily,” she murmured. “You kept us worrying. Twice this winter we heard of you—from the Crees. I think you have been misled in this matter.”
“Very likely,” Buck agreed moodily. “It has chopped a year out of my life, which I could have spent to better advantage. I believe I have been rather credulous about certain things. However, that’s the way life goes. A man starts out along certain lines and everything seems simple and straightforward. Then first thing he knows he finds himself looking at it from a different angle, and he’s bogged in all sorts of ethical difficulties.” The girl looked at him curiously, but made no comment. Indeed Buck was speaking largely to himself, thinking
aloud, a habit that was growing on him out of the complete isolation of the last few months.
A few minutes later, turning his head he became aware of two blue eyes, feverbright'but alertly comprehending, fixed upon him from the bed. He got up and went to Campbell.
“Well, sick man,” he said cheerfully. “How do you feel at this stage of the game?”
“So you found me at last? You’re a stayer, aren’t you?” Campbell said with an effort.
“Pure accident,” Buck assured. “Don’t worry about that, though. I reniged on the man-hunt quite a while back. I don’t want you. Better not talk much. You’re pretty weak. I’m going to hang around till you get on your feet again. Meantime, 'all you have to do is to eat and sleep and not worry.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Campbell returned huskily. “Lord, but I’ve had a session. I’m sore inside, sore as a boil.”
“You went up and took a look over the big divide,” Buck said genially. “But you weren’t due to go over, I guess.”
“You laid hold of my coat-tail and pulled me back, you mean,” Campbell smiled. “Saksa told me awhile ago. Kind of a medicine man, you are, eh? We didn’t even know what was the matter, much less what to do.”
“You can’t do much in a case of pneumonia,” Buck said. “I don’t take any credit for your having the vitality of a bull moose. You keep quiet now.”
CAMPBELL turned his eyes toward his woman. She stood up before the fire watching him, a smile on her dark face. When he looked she came and perched on the side of his bed. His wasted hand stole out and was snuggled in between her two slender brown ones.
“The old hulk’s good for another voyage or two, I guess, Saksa,” he whispered.
“Many of them,” she smiled. “And the, crew is still standing by.”
Campbell smiled back. Presently he closed his eyes, and in a little while his deeper breathing told that he was asleep. Buck sat on the stool studying the two faces in the dim candle-light, one fair, pure Anglo-Saxon, the other dark, aquiline, womanly—both of them uncommonly strong facep he thought. Proud, keen, courageous folk, these two. Certainly this was no ordinary type of squaw. Her language and manner belied that, no less than her straight slender body, and smooth dusky skin.
He smiled to himself. Saksa was trying gently to free her hand, over which Campbell’s fingers were gripped tight.
“I am a prisoner,” she whispered, observing Buck’s expression.
She worked her hand free, arranged the bed-clothing with a gentle pat here and there and sat down beside the fire again to gaze steadily into the glowing coals, a tender, absent expression lifting the corners of her mouth. Buck noticed then for the first time that she wore a plain gold ring on the third finger of her left hand.
“The fair-haired lady hasn’t much of a look-in if her heart’s leading her here,” Buck reflected. “If these two aren’t quite sufficient to each other I never saw a couple that was.”
He sat awhile pondering over the matter of the tawny-haired girl. But he soon came to a blank wall there. From that he proceeded to envisage Moosewaton, and Letty, thoughts which bred impatient lonesomeness.
“The chances are I’ll row with her esteemed parent right off the bat,” Buck thought. “Hang it, he simply made a cat’s paw of me, and I don’t even know what for, yet.”
Shortly after that he bade Saksa goodnight and went back to his tent. There was no critical stage to watch anxiously for now. Saksa could sleep, and Campbell could easily waken her if he needed anything in the night. It was now but a case of rest and nourishment.
Upon the morrow Campbell showed greater improvement. Buck looked in during the forenoon, and again toward night. Alphonse chopped a pile of wood for the cabin, and skinned the rabbits he had snared overnight to make the sick man broth of fresh meat.
For a week this was their routine. Buck would look in for a cheerful word twice a day. Then one morning he entered to find Campbell ensconced in a chair, wrapped in a heavy blanket.
“Take off your coat and stop awhile,”
he said. “Saksa’s going out for a walk. She’s been cooped in this shack too long for her own health. Light up the pipe so I can get a smell of tobacco. I’d like to smoke myself, but the nurse won’t allow it.”
“The idea of a man with lungs in such a condition wanting to smoke,” the girl laughed. “You’re lucky to be able to breathe pure air much less tobacco vapors. Bye-bye.”
She kissed the tips of her fingers to her man, sitting white-faced by the fire and blew out the door with a parting smile.
Buck drew a stool up to the fire and filled his pipe.
“Say,” Campbell began abruptly, “I’m awfully curious to know why you let up on me. Would you mind telling me why? I’ve laid here and thought about it a lot, and the more I think the more I wonder. I know you’re no officer. I knew that in the beginning, because I don’t think Stephens wants to mix any law in this business. But he’s evidently anxious to get me foul or to get those papers he thinks I’ve got. I wish I did have what he thinks I’ve got. I wouldn’t be on the dodge in the North very long, I don’t think.”
THE bitterness in the man’s tone made Buck look up.
“Is that straight?” he asked. “Mind you, I don’t know as much about this business as you might think. I undertook to find you and deliver that letter. Then if you refused to hand me certain documents—a marriage certificate and three promissory notes, to enumerate specifically—why I was to bring you out and turn you over to the authorities. You would be formally charged with embezzling a certain sum of money. Stephens accuses you of that. You haven’t the papers? I’m not prying, remember. I’m through with the job, for reasons of my own. But I’ve been puzzled a lot lately and what you say puzzles me still more.”
“The marriage certificate I have never laid eyes on,” Campbell answered slowly. “If I ever had it in my hands it was sent back to him. Yet apparently he thinks I have it—and I wish I did. I would be only too glad to use it as a club to tame the old devil, for there is something crooked about that particular document or he wouldn’t be in such a sweat about it. The three promissory notes—well, I got ’em and burned ’em. That was merely the only way I could right a rank injustice and I have mo regrets, although it has practically outlawed me. He might make a charge of embezzlement stick, although I assure you I got away with none of his cash. He coüld easily cook accounts, and get a dozen clerks to perjure themselves, if he said the word. Mr. Alexander Stephens isn’t particular about his methods when he sets out to get results. I learned that in the four years I worked for him. He’s vindictive. He has made a lot of money, and he figures himself above the law. He pays for what he wants, but he doesn’t pay for anything but results, which you probably know as well as I do. That’s why I don’t understand your laying off on this job, when you have practically got me in a corner.” .
, Buck smiled.
“Well,” he returned thoughtfully, “I guess I was not cut out for this kind of a job—not as a business proposition. I wouldn’t do this sort of thing for money. But he got at me in quite another way, and while it seemed all right at first, I got a jolt not so very long ago that made me feel that I was selling myself pretty cheap after all. And when a man feels that he’s being bribed to do a thing that’s really against all his natural inclinations, why he quits right there. At least, I do. I won’t tell you what started me after you. I don’t care to talk about that part of it. But a woman headed me off. I’d have been right after you yet — until spring anyway, only for that. Just a few pointed remarks she made that set me thinking. I met her about seventy miles north of here, piking through the timber with a breed girl for company. A fine looking yellowhaired girl about twenty-one or two. She was looldng for you.”
Campbell leaned forward in his chair. “Suffering Moses!” he said, “It must be Lois.”
“That, as it happens,” Buck returned, “is what I heard the breed girl call her.” “Good Lord, what’s brought her into the bush?” Campbell muttered. “Seventy miles north of here, you say? And travelling with a breed girl. Lord, if I were just on my feet again.”
Buck eyed him silently, thinking of
Saksa the dark-faced. Campbell’s eyes were bright and he was smiling, and amazed, like a man who has just been most happily surprised. And he caught and seemed to interpret Buck's look.”
“Eh? Oh, I can guess what you’re thinking.” he laughed. “Lois evidently didn’t do any explaining. I daresay she’d even he hostile if she knew that you were after me. She’s my sister, you know, and pretty clannish where her own peopld are concerned.”
BUCK sat hack with a strangely relieved feeling. He had had no clue. There was not enough resemblance, beyond the matter of extreme fairness to hint the relationship. And he mentally apologized to Campbell for certain thoughts that had flitted briefly through his mind.
“There is certainly something in the wind,” Campbell came back to the subject. “She wouldn’t be up here looking for me, otherwise. Let me see. Which way was she travelling?”
That, of course, Buck could not say. He related briefly to Campbell the circumstances of their meeting and parting.
“If I weren’t on the shelf,” Campbell mourned. "By jiminy, though, I have an idea. I believe I can head her off. There’s Wolf Tail’s camp twenty miles west of here. He has two sons that are blamed good snowshoe men. I’ll send Saksa over to his camp. He’ll get word to the next, and so on, and the first trap-line Lois crosses there’ll be an Indian to tell her where I am. That’s the best and quickest way of all.”
“You must stand pretty well with these native folk up here?” Buck commented.
“Saksa’s a full-blooded Objibwáy; the daughter of an educated old savage who did a lot of real understanding missionary work among these people many years ago,” Campbell explained simply. “And seeing she’s my wife, they’d do most anything for us.”
“A man would have a fat chance taking you out of this country then, if you didn’t want to be taken,” Buck remarked. Campbell grinned cheerfully.
“That’s about right,” he admitted. “Dog Tooth’s bunch would have made short work of you at the lake last summer, if I’d just said the word. No, Harrison, between you and me and the gatepost, I don’t think even a squad of redcoats could take me out of here if I didn’t want to go. I’ve got some rather primitive friends on my side—money doesn’t talk very loud up here. Which I don’t think Mr. Stephens quite understands.”
A Family Council
RECALLING that conversation afterwards, Buck perceived that he was but little wiser. There was a tantalizing vagueness still. Campbell had sidestepped in a way, or rather the hub of the matter had been crowded into the background when Lois Campbell’s presence in the North came to the fore. After all, Buck said to himself, it did not really matter that he should know what manner of feud lay between Stephens and Campbell. He was through. There was nothing ahead of him but to get on to Moosewaton without further delay. Once there —well Buck did not try to forecast the future. True, he was a man and Letty Stephens had stirred him deeply, but lately he could not help entertaining a dubious attitude. He was not so sure that Letty could stand so long a separation, so blank a silence. It hurt Buck to think these things, but that was the trend of his reflection. He was beginning to feel decidedly rancorous toward Stephens yere. He sensed something thatwasnotopenand above board in that gentleman’s transactions, both with himself and Campbell, and Buck abhorred the underhanded and scheming. A man should undoubtedly stand behind his own acts. He was no man if he did not. That was the code Buck had lived his life by, and he held it good. So he did not forsee a joyous welcome at Moosewaton. It did not occur to Buck that deep down in the varying strata of his consciousness he had been drawing comparisons between Letty Stephens, living her sheltered existence while her lover struggled with ruthless, elemental forces in a snowy waste, over a year of time, and this other woman of as gentle breeding, as soft-bodied and dainty and womanly who faced uncomplainingly the cold and endless solitudes to bear a
message to her brother. He never consciously embodied this thought. Nevertheless it colored his outlook.
Things happened even as Campbell had outlined. Saksa trudged the twenty miles to Wolf Tail’s camp, taking the journey as a matter of course, with a light pack on her shoulders against emergency. Three days after her return in the dusk of evening Buck’s mongrel dog, Pug, set up a prolonged barking. Saksa opened the door a moment, letting in a blast of icy air. But she heard nothing. They resumed their talk. Within the space of five minutes a light tap came. And a .familiar figure stood framed in the candle-glow when the Indian girl drew the latch.
“Saksa, Saksa, dear," the tawnyhaired girl cried, and bestowed a kiss upon her dark-faced sister. Then she threw her arms about her brother.
“Dear people,” she said, “I thought I’d never find you. I don’t know that I ever would if an Indian hadn’t come across us yesterday morning and given us explicit directions how to find your cabin. Wasn’t that queer? Every Indiair I’ve come across for weeks and weeks has been absolutely dumb about you.”
“We sent him to tell you as soon as we knew you were up here,” Campbell told her. “It’s good to see you again, Lois. But what’s up? What brought you into this howling wilderness looking for me? It’s a devilish road for a man, let alone a woman.”
Buck rose up out of the nook ^eyond the fireplace. He knew that the girl, dazzled by the transition from forest gloom to fire and candle light, had not seen him, or at best but dimly. And he felt á sudden reluctance at overhearing any disclosures that might not be intended for his ears.
Her face underwent a swift change.
“ You here,” she said—with disagreeable emphasis on the pronoun.
“I seem to be,” Buck answered calmly. “But I’m on my way. Goodnight.”*
He caught up his coat and cap and closed the door upon himself. Outside he drew on the heavy jacket and then looked about for the new-arrived dogteam. There was a chattering and laughing at the cabin-end. He heard the deep voice of Alphonse and the feminine giggle of Adele, and saw the two figures bent over the dogs unfastening harness. His own huskies hovered in the background, gray, slinking shapes, ready to fraternize or give battle according to their mood. He grunted dissatisfaction.
“There’s one female person that don’t fancy me nor my works,” he said to himself. “Well, I guess I can hit the trail, again, now. First thing I know it will be spring.”
A LPHONSE came back to the tent presently, and a very long face he pulled when Buck curtly announced that to-morrow they would resume the southward journey.
The breed was up and abroad bright and early. A belated moon cast a wan light over the forèsts, and in its glimmerBuck saw him talking to Adele over by the cabin, while the breakfast pot boiled. This talk bore speedy fruit. They were just done eating when Saksa came over.
“Your man told Adele that you were going to pull out this morning,” said she. “Is that true?”
“Why, yes,’’ Buck admitted. “Your man’s pretty well on his pins, and you aren’t alone now. I may as well be getting on.”
“Roy wants to talk to you,” she said. “Will you come over to the house?”
“All right,” Buck agreed. “I was coming, anyway, to say good-bye.”
, “Come now, then,” she urged.
Buck followed her. Lois sat by the fire sewing a patch on a moccasin. She gave him a cool, impersonal nod when he entered. Campbell was propped up in bed.
“What’s all your mad haste?” said he.
“Nothing much,” Buck answered. “Except that I’m rather superfluous here now—and I’m not in love with this country as a permanent residence. I’ve been fooling around in this region for over a year, and I’ve a hankering for a pleasanter climate.”
“I don’t blame you much there,” Campbell smiled. “In fact we’re stricken with pretty much the same idea ourselves. You’re going out to Moosewaton?”
“Yes,” Buck said.
“What’s the matter with waiting a week or so longer and making a brigade of it?” Campbell proposed. “I’ll be able to
travel pretty soon. We’re going out to Moosewaton ourselves.”
A shade of incredulity crossed Buck’s face. Campbell grinned.
“No sabe, huh?” he said. “Well, it would be more talking than I feel equal to, to make it all plain, but there’s one thing. You didn’t come up here after me just for the fun of the thing, I know. There was something pretty big in it for you, wasn’t there?”
Buck flushed. There was, and it irked him to recall that in last analysis he had sold himself for even such a price. He had not looked at it so in the beginning.
“You undertook to deliver me or those papers,’’ Campbell continued. “For some reason known principally to yourself you chose to leave me alone when you have every chance to make good apparently. More than that, you practically yanked me back to life by the scruff of the neck, and laid up here a good many days to see me through. I know you don’t want pay for that—a man doesn’t do that sort of thing for what may be in it. But I’d like to see you get something out of this year you’ve put in on the job. I’m perfectly willing to go straight to Moosewaton with you. You found me all right. There’s no dispute about that. You can go to Stephens and say truthfully, ‘there’s your man’.”
“But I don’t want to,” Buck broke in. “I’ve told you that plain enough before now.”
“Well, ,I’m going anyway,” Campbell declared. “Don’t imagine for a minute that I’m offering myself as a voluntary prisoner out of sheer gratitude. Not much. I think you’re a pretty decent sort, all right, but I’m not a self-sacrificing man myself. Your delivery of me will be purely nominal. I’ve got Mr. Alexander Stephens backed into the tightest corner he ever was in. I’ll guarantee that he’ll be the tamest specimen you ever saw once I get a few words with him. And seeing you’ve put in a year looking after me on his behalf, there’s no reason why your time should be wasted. Besides I have a purely selfish reason for wanting you along. I’m not going to be much good, and an able man or two in the party won’t come amiss. I’ll bet Alphonse will second the motion quick enough.”
“/^\H, WELL, if you put it that way,” Buck gave in. “I’m willing to wait and make a party of it. I’m not crazy about this solitary travelling myself. But I’m not going to make any bluff about delivering you to Stephens. That’s a finished chapter so far as I’m concerned. I may have a bone to pick with him when I get back, but it won’t be over any reward he sets on you.”
“If you have trouble with him, let me know,” Campbell said grimly. “I’ll make him eat out of your hand.”
“Roy, Roy,” Lois protested in a warning tone.
“I will,” Campbell growled. “The old devil has no claim for consideration and he won’t get any from me.”
“After you’ve had as much time to think it over as I have,” the girl returned quietly, “you’ll perhaps feel differently, a little more charitable. There’s facts that you can’t dodge. There is always a decided recoil in human intercourse. If you go to extremes it’ll only react on yourself —on me and Saksa. Perhaps even on Mr. Harrison. Who knows? Don’t be so vindictive. It isn’t worth while.”
“You people talk in riddles—not that I want ’em read to me.” Buck put in hastily. “Let’s put Stephens and his works oh the shelf till we get to Moosewaton. Then we’re at the end of the road, and our several problems are our own concern.”
“That,” Lois said briefly, “is the most sensible thing I’ve heard said about the matter yet.”
“All right, then, that goes,” her brother agreed promptly. “Stephens is taboo. The question is, how soon are you doctors and nurses going to let me out? I "think I could waddle a mile or two anytime now. I don’t want to keep Harrison sitting around here too long. He’ll get impatient.”
“A few days more or less don’t make much difference to me,” Buck observed. “When your lungs and strength get somewhere near normal it’s time enough to travel. If you should try it in these hard frosts while the lung tissue is still raw, you’d never see Moosewaton.”
“I’m going to fool you all,” Campbell declared positively. “I’ve never had a sickness in my life that I couldn’t shake
off in jig time. That is going to be no exception. I’ll give myself a week or ten days. No more. Maybe less.”
CAMPBELL fulfilled his prophecy.
In ten days they were 'on their way south, by short marches, for his sickness had left him weak. Two days brought them to Red Moss Lake, a week more to its southern end, with a brief stop at Halfway House to replenish supplies. The three dog-teams were ample to haul what equipment sufficed for them all. And they were a fairly merry brigade that bore steadily toward a kindlier latitude, the merrier that spring was near at hand.
Even Buck shook off the misgivings and discontent which had afflicted him through the long winter. He had played the game. If he were due to encounter trouble or disappointment at his journey’s end, that was still in the future. He had had a year and over to school himself to patience. There is no emotion so intense that it can flame at white heat over infinite time with nothing to fan that flame. And while there was a peculiar singlemindedness about Buck, no taint of the fickle in his affections, he was thrown in daily and hourly contact with a girl whose every lineament and look reminded him of Letty Stephens, to Letty’s disadvantage—if he had permitted himself to indulge in conscious comparisons.
As a party they fell naturally into pairs. Campbell and his Saksa, Alphonse and the plump Adele. The mutual absorption of these two couples in themselves naturally threw Buck Harrison and Lois more or less upon each other. Yet they did not become even friendly. There was always a certain restraint between them. Buck quite understood that Lois Campbell did not approve of him. His business in the North having been directed against the peace and liberty of her brother accounted for that easily enough. Buck never got in the mood to attempt selfjustification. He had long since branded himself a fool for undertaking the job. When he discounted the state of mind he was in at the time Stephens proposed the expedition, he perceived that he had undertaken a very unsavory task indeed. So he did not blame Lois for thinking rather poorly of him. Nevertheless, being a man with a full share of masculine vanity he rather resented standing in a bad light. Lois was courteous but never comradely, for all that the trail is a breaker-down of artificialities and a builder of friendship. When people face hardship and discomforts together, of necessity overcoming both through mutual aid, they do not -cultivate an attitude of aloofness. Either they sink their differences in the common struggle or they grow to hate each other. She did neither. Buck observed that whenever she did bestow her attention upon him it was purely impersonal, such interest as one might feel in some abstract proposition. Which served occasionally to irritate hima trifle.
Mostly, however, he plodded along without any particular concern. The biggest boulder in his way was ahead of him. He shrank a little from what heartburnings Moosewaton might have in store. And so he did not think of it at all, except when he could not help his mind focusing upon it There were six of them in the party, and there were all the usual shifts of the trail, the physical distractions of travel and camp-making and the like. Work is the sovereign remedy for unpleasant quirks of the mind, if one has a healthy body to bear the exertion.
The last of March was drawing close when they pulled up to the southern tip of Red Moss. The days were growing longer, striking a better balance between the hours of darkness and the hours of light, and the sun was fast acquiring an appreciable measure of warmth in his beams. Cold still rode the land, but not with the same ferocious intensity. Spring was hurrying from afar, the soft breath of it already contending stoutly with the frost. No more scintillating frost-specks danced in the air at noon. At night the warmth of the day was set forth by deep encrustation of hoar frost that covered every tree and shrub with glistening white moisture in the air condensed and frozen overnight, only to disappear in the eye of the sun. When the wind blew at all it no longer thrust lancewise into unprotected flesh.
SO THAT none of them was in thé ieâst surprised when they broke camp in sharp, stinging cold at dawn, and found the snow growing damp and soggy under their feet by noon. That night Winter withdrew his forces before his ancient enemy, the south-west wind, whooping across the snows. The trees dripped. Through the sodden, shrinking drifts began to appear rocks and outlines of fallen timber, hidden away since the storms of last November. All the sky was gray and slaty. The very air, now warm—so that the wayfarers unburdened themselves of fur clothing and sat bareheaded about the evening fire—seemed to have a new exhilarating qualify, to be full of those fragrant forest smells, held in abeyance so long by the harsh hand of winter.
“By jiminy, I’m mighty grateful for a touch of spring,” Campbell remarked. “But I wish it had held off another day. It’s going to be heavy, sloppy going across this arm of the lake.”
They had talked that over during the night. Between them and the mouth of La Blanche, the great river up yrhich they would go many long miles on their way to Moosewaton, lay an east running arm of Red Moss Lake, a tongue of ice-locked water. To journey around its/timbered border meant three days’ tramp through soft, wet snow. To bear straight across to the mouth of La Blanche was a matter of five hours’ march.
“It will be sloppy going, all right,” Buck commented. “The snow’s just slush on the ice now. We’ll be wading in four inches of water before we get there. Still weil save time. If the women can stand it, I suppose we ought to go.”
“We’ve got to go,” Campbell declared. “We’d lose all kinds of time. There’s no birch here to amount to anything, and I know for a fact that there’s none along this east waterway, until we get clear around to the mouth of La Blanche. Lots there; big stuff, too. We can lay up there and build our canoes while the ice goes out. Here we’d just have to twiddle our thumbs. And then break our backs packing stuff around the arm. Let’s get across.” ■
"La Blanche, she’s somtam’ bost up at hees mout’ long tam’ bifor de lak’ she’s break,” Alphonse observed.
“With four or five foot of ice on the lake, and this only the second day of thaw?” Campbell scoffed. “Get out! You’re crazy with the spring heat, Alphonse. Red Moss never was known, in the memory of the oldest Cree, to be elear of ice before the end of May.”
So it was settled, and shortly thereafter they were under way. No sun greeted them at the appointed time, for the sky was overcast, a gray ruck of cloud scudding before the wind, very low and giving promise of squally bursts of rain or snow. A damp, clammy feel was in the air.
Along the boulder-strewn' and brushlined shores the snow was shrinking to dirty, saturated heaps. Out on the ice the toboggans slid through slush that thinned in places to shallow, icy pools. Before a mile was traversed they were wet above the ankles. So long as they moved steadily this was mere discomfort, to be remedied by the glow of the first campfire. They forged ahead until the shore they had left was a purple blur behind them and the timber on the south bank was beginning to take form and color.
Another vagary of the uncertain spring weather threatened now to harass them as they hurried toward the nearing shore. Squally bursts.of sleet had pelted them once or twice during the forenoon. Now a blanket of vaporous fog brushed over the top of the forest and settled low as it pushed out on the ice. The wind had stilled to a mere breath.
Alphonse drove in the lead; behind him Campbell driving his sister’s dogs. At the tail of this toboggan walked the three women. Buck brought up the rear with his own team. Without any particular design, that had been the order in which they took to the ice, and that was the order they maintained until 1^hey were almost into the mouth of La Blanche, the thick-timbered delta less than six hundred yards away.
There chance elected to halt Buck—a water soaked buckskin trace that was stretching out of all proportion, and must needs be remedied. That shortened properly, Buck tarried to fill his pipe. The others kept on. A gap of two hundred yards opened between them and him. Buck put the match to his pipe, and
fathered üp hiá Whip. The misty swirl of f&g-’cloud was driving up thick and gray. Büßk could not see behind it but he “felt” snow; the air was smitten with a sudden chill.
AND then suddenly under his feet the solid ice heaved. Ahead of him a crevice opened. Out of this crevice water spurted two feet above the general level. Behind and on either side of him arose dull, ominous reports as the rigid surface broke and lifted with some mysterious, terrific pressure from beneath. Buck’s heart stood in his mouth. The dogs twisted in the traces, whining. For a brief second or two he stood uncertainly, looking at the figures ahead, now drawn quickly together in a compact little group. Then the ice he stood upon buckled under his feet, and over the surrounding surface arose a menacing grind and crackla.
Buck went to his knees with the sharp oscillations. A cake of ice lifted and drove at him edgewise over that on which he scrambled to keep his balance. He leaped and landed on it, as it ground the life out of his harness-tangled dogs. Then that in turn broke and flung him into a thirty-foot stretch of open water. The ice edges closed in upon him like the jaws of a sprung trap as he went down. His head bumped sharply against the edge of a moving floe when he came up, and in the nick of time he laid hold of the slippery rim and clawed up to safety, suffering even then a squeezing of one foot in the closing gap that made him sick with pain.
And as he gained this temporary foothold he looked for his companions. Among the lift and fall of the içe cakes he made out once a head that rose shoulder high and disappeared abruptly. And once two figures that lifted with the upending of a floe and went down from sight again holding fast to each other. Then like a drop eurtain the fog slipped down between him and them and the aír thickened and grew dark with flying snow, great damp flakes that whirled and danced on the feeble breath of a west wind.
Buck shivered. The floe on which he crouched seemed to move steadily, jostling other floes, being jostled by them. All about him was sound and motion, a dull, crunching monotone, wrapped in the murk of the squall. Gauged'by the wind this movement of the ice was northward. Between the float ice water bubbled and swirled. Buck had much experience of breaking streams and lakes in the spring thaws. But this he could not rightly fathom. It was beyond all reason, incomprehensible. Nevertheless, it was an accomplished fact, which had stripped him of dogs and food, and drowned or crushed to death three women and two men. He could not doubt that. Where they stood the phenomenon of the upheaval was doubly violent. He had seen great cakes of ice stand momentarily on edge. And he had seen those two figures go down out of sight where the other had gone. He shivered again, with something besides the icy saturation of his clothes, and the throbbing pain in his ankle.
The thirty-foot square of ice on which he huddled continued in the mysterious onward progress of its fellows, impelled by some force that was not to be denied. But within him the will to live asserted itself dominantly. He rose to his feet. The ankle pained, but he stood upon it. And now he became aware that through the involuntary plunge and feverish scramble to safety he had clung fast to his rifle.
Next to him moved a bigger floe. He jumped a four-foot gap to this, crossed itand on to another. Taking his direction from the wind he bore toward the shore, progressing from floe to floe. About him a steady fall of snow gyrated thickly, blotting out everything beyond a short distance. But he got ahead, little by little, very slowly, for he was crippled— and sometimes a narrow lane of water opened up and stayed him until that flake jostled another.
Dusk was coming on. The wet clothing chilled him to the bone. ' Once dark closed in—he doubted if a man could survive a night in soaked clothing out on the ice. There was a growing chill in the air. It might freeze up again—one of those sudden drops in temperature. Buck knew the ways of the North. It was an early thaw. There was no guarantee of its continuation. He stood peering through the diminishing light, thrashing his arms across his breast.
PRESENTLY the floe he rode grounded with a scraping tremor. What little way he could see others likewise ceased that strange advance, pushing close together. He could advance now without jumping spaces. Hurrying forward, he came at length to a cake of ice beyond which water stretched gray. He tried the depth with his rifle stock and found it less than knee deep, with firm ice below.
“Queer thing,” he reflected. “All that broken up stuff has floated out on top of the solid lake ice.”
He stepped cautiously off into the water. There was a fair chance to reach shore now, if the wind did not fail him. If it changed—well, he did not suffer his mind to dwell on the alternative, but trudged on, splashing through slushy water that was fast numbing his feet.
Dark closed down blackly. He plodded doggedly, keeping the wind always on his right cheek. Hours and hours it seemed to him he went blundering through that icecold water. His feet were heavy now, devoid of much feeling, two dead weights that he swung with an effort. The numbness was creeping up into his thighs. If it struck his body—Buck felt glad that he had saved the rifle. At least he would not have to lie down and die by inches in a puddle of ice-water.
Then in the pitch black of the night he splashed suddenly out of shallow water into a sodden bank of snow, and knew that he was on the beach at last. A few steps took him into the brushy flank of the timber. Fumbling here and there he felt for and found a few dry sticks of willow, and with them in his arms brought up against the base of a sturdy hemlock where there was a bit of clear ground and sheltering brush surrounding. He had his knife and perhaps two score matches in p water-tight case in his pocket. In a matter of twenty minutes he had a roaring fire1—not too soon, for his teeth were chattering.
He stripped off his underclothes, and sat on a piece of rotten log, turning now and then, his wet undergarments steaming in the heat. ,
Sitting so, his mind went back to the crunch and groan of the breaking ice, to Campbell and Saksa, to Alphonse and Adele, and Lois. His hands shook a little. The solid earth was under his feet once more. Hé had matches, a knife, a rifle and thirty cartridges. But they—
The Last Lap
THE mail road from Pelt Landing to Moosewaton curled about the base of a small hillock, and from this curve Buck had his first returning glimpse of the city. It spread its busy avenues along the broad river which he had last seen shrouded in ice and snow, and now flowed sparkling in the hot June sun. Between him and the town the rolling land was dotted with farms, cultivated squares of waving green—an area of peace and plenty. Far behind him lay the forested solitudes, the hushed wild land. But it had left its mark on Buck.
Here within sight of hié destination, one wheel of the vehicle in which he had been jolted over a hundred-odd miles of rough trail, chose to give way before contact with a rock in the road. The driver pulled up.
“Goldarn it,” he complained. “I told the old man he’d oughto have them tires set last trip. Well, I guess I got to leave the wagon here. Too much of a load to haul on that dished wheel. Kin you walk it, pardner?”
“I expect so,” Buck returned. “It isn’t so far.”
The driver unhitched his team, shouldered the mail-sack, and started down the road. Buck followed, but he soon lost ground. The other man had two good legs to carry him. Buck could only hobble. He was weak, half-sick. He made slow progress, and coming presently to a mound of earth crowned with a few poplars, he sat down to rest. Humped there, regaining his strength for the last lap of a weary journey, a swift succession of mental pictures came crowding one upon the heels of the other, as a moving-picture projects filmed objects on a screen, silently and rapidly, with marvellous distinctness. All the long way from the southern end of Red Moss he had been seeing these things now and then, brooding over them. A sorry ending to something begun in high hope. Pictures of deep snow, of
hushed cold forests, of hardship, of death. Himself, he moved through this grim pantomime as a bringer of disaster. But innocently so, he'felt. For the five lives snuffed out in the breaking ice, the guilt lay at the door of Chance. If there was blame upon others it was only by indirection. What tangled coil involved Stephens with Roy and Lois Campbell he did not know, and probably never would know. Indeed, he did not care to know now. His own part in it was a thing of regret. They were gone, these five, and he was hobbling back to Moosewaton, crippled in body and sick at heart with brooding and privation. There was no joy in the homecoming. Buck’s fly-bitten face twisted into a sardonic grin at the thought of presenting himself before Letty Stephens as he stood. He was a sorry object. Hair shaggily long, beard rough and unclipped, hollow-eyed, lame and sick. He had struggled over that long reach between La Blanche and Pelt Landing alone, unequipped, saving by determined effort. The foot which had been squeezed between the ice cakes had broken out with festering sores, painful and swollen still, though near three months had gone.
A knife, a few matches, a gun meagerly supplied with ammunition is a slender store of resources whereby a sick man and laine may encompass six hundred miles of wilderness. But he had come out at length to Pelt Landing, a stranger, trailworn and penniless, grimed with the smoke of many campfires, and disinclined to tell his business or how he came by such a strait. His rifle he traded for passage out on the mail stage. And he now sat here in sight of his starting-point, eighteen months gone by. Buck stared down at the city. He wanted only to get in there, where he would have access to his funds, to be cleaned and clothed once more, to have a pregnant word or two with Alexander Stephens, and then get out of the country. He could not help a feeling of something sinister behind him in those still wooded vastnesses. He wanted no more of the North. He did not even wish to be near it.
HE PULLED a tattered old felt hat, that he had picked up at the Landing, lower over his eyes, and went on. He was no more recognizable as the Buck Harrison who had set out from that same place to which he now returned. Physically he was a wreck. He had come a hard trail, dragging a crippled leg that tainted his blood with the poison of its sores, and it had sapped his vitality to its lowest stage. He could scarce walk four hundred yards without resting. A sudden weakness seemed to have come over him that morning. Except for the continual hurt and irritation of his sore ankle, the daily shifts for food, and the incessant attack of flies and mosquitoes, he had not felt himself particularly weak-kneed until this last few hours.
“There’s some blame thing radically wrong with me, besides this game leg,” he muttered. “Well, I’ll soon be where money heals pretty much all ills.”
He moved along slowly. His head ached. When he came again to the next timber he sat down again.
“There’s no rush,” he said to himself. “It’s not more than three miles to Main Street. I’d just as soon have dusk hide my general disreputableness. Gad! I must be a sight.”
He progressed by short stretches. The afternoon was far spent. But he could not have hurried even if he had wished to hurry. His limbs seemed to drag at each step. Even so, he turned away from the mail-road and drew into the outskirts of the town about sunset, along a street lined with neat little cottages. He remembered that a car-line crossed this street farther on. He had a little small change in his pocket. The car would land him at the Regent Hotel, where he had lived when he was idling in Moosewaton. A wry grin crossed his face. His signature would have to identify him. He was a far cry in looks from the days when he lounged in the Regent lobby. No matter. He was out of the woods.
He limped up abreast of a relic of earlier days—a small log house set back from the street beyond the smug line of frame cottages. There were climbing roses over its front, and a restful square of green lawn with a branchy maple rising therefrom. A flash of dizziness overtook Buck. He took a step or two and his knees wabbled under him. He sat down heavily on the edge of the plank walk, A block and á half beyond he saw a yellow street-
car rumble over a crossing. In the confused processes of his mind Buck'retained one clear and determined idea—he must get to that car-line if he had to crawl.
He sat there resting, with little betterment of the sudden accentuatiomof weakness, and with his ordinary clarity of perception still troubled and confused,so that he saw and thought crookedly, like a man intoxicated, and he decided mistily that he must be getting on, if he were ever to get on by his own effort. And in the act of attempting to rise he heard footsteps on the walk and the clink and 'dash of a gate opened and shut.
“Let ’em go by,” he said to himself. “You don’t need to make a spectacle of yourself. They’ll think you’re drunk.”
THEY passed. Two women and a man.
Momentarily their gaze turned sidewise upon him, a tramp by the roadside. He looked up. And for an instant Buck’s heart, fluttering as it was with the sickness that was upon him, stood still. They went on, he staring after.
“I must be pretty bad,” he whispered, “if I can’t look at a woman without seeing her—and seeing double at that. I’m a sick man, all right. Lord, Lord, I’ve got to get down to that car-line. I’ve got to.”
He managed to gain his feet. Ahead of him the three figures moved in the mellow haze that follows sun-down. They seemed to dance before his eyes, to waver and gyrate. So did other things, the houses, the bordering street trees. He held grimly fast to one thing, that he must keep on, slowly, setting one foot down before the other, that he .must not fall or he would not be able to rise again. But it appeared now as if one of those blurred figures had detached itself from the other two and was coming back toward him. He tripped on an uneven plank and lurched against a telephone pole. Supporting himself by this he strove to retain erectness, to take fresh heart for that trifling stretch of a® block and a half to the car.
But in spite of himself he sank slowly and unwillingly to a sitting posture, and everything began to take on a queer faraway semblance. There was a voice speaking in his ear, calling him by name; a voice that he knew. And he could see Lois Campbell’s eyes peering into his own, her face with the creamy-white skin and red lips, like Letty’s, and twisted coils of heavy, tawny hair. And that too, of course, was àbsurd and patently impossible. Buck steadied himself against the telephone pole and fought to rid himself of these disturbing illusions. He seemed to feel a gentle pressure on his arm. And all the while things were getting more and more hazy and indistinct. He heard voices, felt himself being moved, sensed other pressures, hands that supported him. Then he suddenly lost his dubious grip,of all this.
Some Belated Explanations
WHEN he felt again the stirrings of conscious inquiry he found himself in bed in a room with two windows that were flooded with sunshine. It puzzled Buck to know how he came there. There was a decided gap in his recollections. And while he was trying to bridge this gap an intervening door opened and Lois Camp-bell appeared. She stopped an instant in the doorway.
“Oh, Saksa,” she called. “Our patient has awakened.”
Buck hoisted himself up on one elbow. “You didn’t get caught in the break-up . then?” he demanded. “Did you all get out? Was it you I saw on the sidewalk last night?”
“What a battery of questions for a sick man,” she smiled. “Do I look like a ghost from the waters of Red Moss Lake? No, we got out safely; all of us.”
“Amen,” Buck said, and lay back on his pillow. “I thought I was the only one. Well, that helps some.”
She came up beside the bed, and smoothed out the covers he had disarranged in his moment of exictement. Saksa looked in, showing her white, even teeth in a friendly smile. And a heavier footstep ushered in Campbell himself.
“Well, old-timer,” said he. “You must have had a hard deal on the road out, eh? How’d you feel now?”
“Rotten,” Buck returned tersely, “so far as this crippled carcase of mine is concerned. Easier in my mind. Where am I and how did I get here?”
“I’ll let Sis explain that,” Campbell
laughed. “Sorry, but I’ve got about two minutes and a half to get downtown. All you have to do is to take life easy, and we’ll do the rest.”
He went out whistling. Saksa left the room presently. Lois, in a summer dress of white muslin, stood looking down at him soberly.
“I don’t think you’d better talk much,” she said. “The doctor will be here soon.”
“Oh, hang the doctor, I need a barber worse. I must look like a wild man from Borneo,” Buck complained. “Would you mind telling me how I got here?”
She drew up a chair and sat down.
“Why,” she said evenly, “you came walking along here yesterday evening from nowhere in particular, and I suppose you got faint right opposite here, because you sat down on the walk. And I was passing and saw you. And Saksa and I brought you in. We live here. This place belongs to Saksa’s father. Did you notice it—a log house with roses over the front?”
“Hm-m-m.” Buck closed his eyes a second. He had now a vivid recollection of last night—up to a certain point.
“You passed me once,” he said. “You and your brother. But the other girl;— was I seeing double?”
Lois flushed—he thought.
“Either that—or the other girl was Letty Stephens,” Buck declared. “Was it?”
“She didn’t know me, eh?” Bunk muttered. “You did, in spite of the fact ¡(¿hat you supposed I was drowned. You turned around and came back to me, if I remember right. I was seeing pretty wobbly at the time.”
. ' “You have it about correct,” Lois answered. “It startled me when I saw you,—the resemblance. Roy just glanced and went on. But I was only going part way with them anyway, and I came back to see if it could possibly be you. And of course it was. You must have had a terrible time of it?”
“Rather,” Buck said absently. He was thinking of the queer twist of the thinghis promised bride passing him as she would pass by any sick dog in the street.
“You and your brother and Letty appear to be on rather intimate terms,” he commented slowly. “I don’t quite get the hang of it, in view of what took me into the North. Oh, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“It matters rather more than you think, perhaps,” she said. “But you’ll hear about that in good time. Here’s the doctor.”
THE medical man looked Buck over for the second time, felt his pulse, took his temperature, and asked a few questions.
“You’ve the constitution of a horse,” said he. “Otherwise exposure and bad food would have finished you. As it is, there’s nothing much wrong. You need rest. I’ll give you something to clear up your blood. That leg is the only bad thing. However, that will heal. It will require dressing twice a day for some time.” “I don’t have to stay in bed, do I?” Buck inquired.
“Better. For a day or two,” said the doctor.
Buck thought a minute.
“Do you happen to have a blank check on the Royal Bank of Canada?” he asked.
The doctor felt in his pocket and produced a checkbook made out on the forms of that particular institution, and Buck borrowed a couple. After the physician ha'd renewed the bandaging on the ulcerated leg he took his departure.
“Will you do something for me?” Buck asked Lois as soon as the rattle of departing wheels floated in the open window. “Surely, if I can,” she replied.
“I want someone to take a check to the bank and get it cashed,” he said. “Also phone for a messenger for me. I want to send for a barber, and some clothes—I’ve got a trunkful of ’em molding at the Regent Hotel.”
“Saksa’s going down town in a little while,” Lois said. “She’ll go to the bank for you. I’ll telephone for a messenger.” “Thank you,” he said. “And now, will you shed a little light on my darkness, as you said you would a little while ago?!’
“I think you’d better have some breakfast first,” Lois declared. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Come to think of it,” Buck smiled, “I’ve got quite an appetite now you call my attention to the fact.”
She betook herself to the kitchen with-
out further comment, and in the course of a few minutes returned with coffee and toast and boiled eggs on a tray, all of which Buck consumed and felt better for it.
“Now,” said he when he had finished. “First, how did you get out of that breakup. That’s still rather unaccountable to me — I mean the ice breaking up like that.”
“It has been known to happen before, at'the mouth of the La Blanche,” Lois answered. “It’s a big stream, you know, deep and swift. And the old-timers claim that the river flooding above pours a heavy head of water under the ice for miles and miles upstream, until the pressure simply lifts up the ice for a half mile or so around the mouth. Anyway, it happened. We were closer in, you remember. Why did you stop?”
“To fix a trace and light my pipe,” Buck replied.
“Oh, well, the ice heaved and tumbled and broke all to pieces under our feet. I think we all clambered out of the water on to floes two or three times. And once Roy was under a floe. But finally it jammed, and we hopped from one lump to another and reached the bank within a few minutes of the break—minus dogs, grub, and everything but some matches and a pistol Roy had in his pocket.”
“I see,” Buck nodded. “And just as I figured you’d all gone under, so I suppose you gave me up for a goner.”
“^TOT at first,” she said. “We got a -L ^ fire started and then it was too dark to look for anything. The next day we hunted along shore. It was snowing off and on, you remember? We found nothing to show you’d got out safe. So we started on. Found an Indian camp twenty miles up La Blanche, and got outfitted with a canoe and grub from them. How did you get out, and where did you get to that we couldn’t find you?”
Buck told her briefly.
“I wasn’t able to walk for a week,” he finished. “I snared rabbits and laid by the fire, with my ankle as big as my head. Afterward, when I started, I found that I was about six miles from where the ice broke. I drifted on it for a while, you know, and in the snow and the dark I must have walked at a long angle to the shore.”
“And you didn’t get any trace of us on the way out?” she asked. “Didn’t hear of us, even, on the way out from Pelt Landing?”
“No. I didn’t ask. There’s only one post on La Blanche, I didn’t get much there except a little grub, and that grudgingly, seeing I was broke. Well, we’re lucky to be all out of that scrape. Where’s Alphonse?”
“On the river about twenty miles below here. He and Adele are fishing and honeymooning at the same time.”
“Huh,” Buck grunted. “He got something out of the trip, anyway. He’ll be pleasantly surprised when I turn up. He has about seven hundred dollars and a wedding present due him from me. That’ll be quite a stake for Alphonse. How about your brother? He has patched up his feud with Stephens, eh? Or is it any of my business? I’m merely putting two and two together. If you were still at war Letty would hardly have been with you last night.”
Lois looked out the window.
“Queer, eh?” Buck murmured. “She didn’t recognize me in the wild-looking, whiskered thing her skirt almost brushed. And you did. It should have been the other way about.”
“Letty thought you were dead,” the girl protested. “You can’t blame her.”
“I don’t. I am blaming nobody,” Buck answered drily. “Has Letty been unburdening herself to you?”
Lois did not answer directly. When she did speak it was of more commonplace affairs.
“I must give this check to Saksa,” she said, “and phone for your messenger.”
She left the room. For a half hour or more Buck lay drowsily on his pillow. He did not even wonder any more about things. He was quite content to take them as they came. Then Lois ushered in a despatch-boy. To him Buck gave a note addressed to the Regent management.
“They’ll open my trunk for you,” he instructed. “They will also furnish you with an empty suit-case of mine. You will find a brown suit near the top of the trunk, and a pair of tan shoes. Bring a shirt, a suit of underclothing, collars and ties out of the till. There is a gray felt hat
in the hat-tray. And bring any mail that may have accumulated for . me, and certain papers they will get for you out of the safe.”
He instructed him further to stop at a barber shop and send a man to the house.
“I don’t believe you should exert yourself so much,” Lois said doubtfully, when the boy was gone.
“Fiddlesticks!” Buck returned. “I feel fifty per cent stronger than I did when I came hobbling down this street last night. Don’t worry about me exerting myself too much.”
“Call me if you want anything,” she said. “Sadsa’s gone, and I have some work to do.”
“All right,” Buck àgreed. “I’ll yell.”
He dozed a little, till the barber came. He sat up in bed then while that individual sheared away his flowing locks and the accumulation of beard. He held up a hand mirror before Buck when the job was done. Buck eyed himself critically. Barring the hollowness of his cheeks and eyes that now sat deeper under his heavy brows than he ever remembered them, he looked somewhat himself again, a fairly presentable young man, brown-haired, gray-eyed, deeply tanned, a sardonic twist to the corners of his mouth.
ƒT guess I’ll pass,” he said, and dismissed the man with a tip—for Saksa had returned with the money. And shortly thereafter the messenger brought him his Äitcase full of neatly folded garments, and an accumulation of letters forwarded from the south. These Buck laid aside, being in no humor to read them at that moment.
LOIS came in no more until late afterJ noon. Saksa attended to his wants. Campbell came home and sat with Buck smoking his pipe. They brought him a supper for which Buck invoked a blessing, sirloin of beef, a bit of salad, coffee, a dish of savory custard. And when twilight began to dim the windows the two girls and Campbell came in to keep him company. The talk was desultory. Buck propped up on pillows, smoked cigarettes and listened.
Dark brought arc lights out in gleaming rows down the street. For half an hour or so after that they sat there, the night wind bringing the scent of roses that twined about the pillars of the porch. Then somewhere in the city a great bell tolled the hour, and they bade Buck goodnight. He lay awhile, pondering. Then his eyes closed. His dreams that night were a queer medley.
He was awake with the sunrise. A paper carrier passed and heaved a twisted sheet so that it fell at the threshold of the open door. After a long wakeful period Buck heard a stir in the kitchen, a clink of dishes. Shortly after that Lois brought him his breakfast. The meal demolished —and demolished is the proper term—he felt that lying abed was nothing short of sinful. He rose and dressed, finding himself a bit wobbly on his legs but able to get around very well in spite of that. Bethinking himself of the paper, he got it and sat down in a wide-armed chair to read while the rest of the household took their breakfast. He could hear them talking, and the clatter of tableware.
Within the pages he presently found something that seemed to rivet his attention, something that brought creases between his eyes and a curl to his lip. When he-had digested that particular item, he folded the paper thoughtfully and stuck it in the arm of his chair, and sat there looking absently out into the street until Campbell and Lois came in. Roy had his hat in his hand.
“Well, lookwho’s here,” said he. “Can’t keep you down long, that’s sure.”
He paused a moment in the doorway. “You better expound the riddle, to Harrison, sis,” he said. “I think he ought to know.”
He went out. Buck watched him stride away down the street. He turned to Lois expectantly.
“Roy feels that you should know the ins and outs of this queer thing that you have been involved in,” she said. “He does not particularly relish your retaining the impression Stephens gave you-—that he was a crook, a man who violated a trust. And he has left it to me because I have been, in a way, responsible for some of the things that have happened.”
“If you feel the least reluctance about explaining any of the things that have puzzled me,” Buck said slowly, “don’t do it. It isn’t necessary that I should know
—that ray curiosity should be satisfied. We’ll let it go just asit stands, if you like.”
“No,” she said. “It is only fair to tell you. There are only two people besides ourselves who know. It isn’t a thing that some of us would care to have generally known.”
“I don’t gossip,” Buck grunted.
“\ I 7ELL, then,” said she, taking a seat
VV in the rocker, “I’ll tell you as briefly as possible. Twenty-odd years ago my father was a struggling fur-dealer in a little backwoods community in eastern Canada. Two months before I was born, and when Roy was little more than a year old, he disappeared. Utterly and completely. Vanished overnight, and never was heard of again. It practically broke my mother’s heart. She was a proud woman, and there was a hard struggle to provide for two babies as well as the usual country sneers for a deserted wife. She died when I was four years old. An unmarried aunt gave us a home. Do you know Prince Albert?”
Buck nodded. It was a frontier town in the North-west, on the North Saskatchewan.
“We moved there when I was about ten. Saksa Douglas, Roy, and I went to school together about six years. Then Saksa’s father—he’s a full-blooded Indian with a university education, you know— came back here. He had spent many years here when Moosewaton was a mere outpost, and owned a little property here. Roy came with them. I stayed with my aunt.
“So much for that part of our life. Roy got into Stephens’ employment. Presently he began to know a good deal of Stephens’ affairs. Stephens is wealthy, and he has grown wealthy by the fur-trade and money-lending. He is absolutely without mercy in a business way, ruthlessly exacting, Saksa’s father had some dealing with him. The details do not matter, but he gave,certain promissory notes, He was an amiable, idealistic old gentleman whose hobby is the betterment of his own people’s condition. He was never very successful in business matters. He was at Pelt Landing when these notes came due, and in his old-fashioned way he walked into Stephens’ place at Pelt Landing one day, turned the money over to a clerk and walked out again without even a receipt for the inoney, much less demanding the cancelled notes. Stephens waited till the notes were overdue, then sued for payment. Either the clerk had appropriated the money—or Stephens was reaching for what he could get.
“Roy and Saksa were engaged. Roy knew all the details of this deal. He knew that Saksa’s father had paid the money in at Pelt Landing. He knew where the notes were in Stephens’ safe. He thought about the injustice of the thing, until it got on his mind, and he did a very foolish thing. He did not know the combination to Stephens’ safe, but he got it somehow. How, he never explained to me, and it doesn’t matter. But he went into the office one night and, opened the safe. A watchman in the building startled him— saw him, in fact—and he grabbed the papers, as he thought, and got away. It was a rash thing, done on impulse, out of a burning sense of injustice. I had just come to Moosewaton on my first visit and he came straight to me. He burned the notes in the fire, and gave me the other papers to put in an envelope addressed to Stephens and drop in a letter" box.
“Then he and Saksa took shoulderpacks and started away. Roy knew that he was a marked man. and that he would get no mercy from Stephens. He had gained his point. There could be no evidence to prove an unjust claim produced in court. And having done what heset out to do he did not want to go to the penitentiary for it. So he ran away—he and Saksa.
“I only glanced at these papers,” Lois continued, after a pause. “I saw that one was a marriage certificate, Alexander Stephens to Myrtle Cole, issued in the biggest town in eastern Canada. I put the papers in an envelope and mailed it next day.”
“Then why—” Buck interrupted.
“It went astray,” Lois said calmly. “He never got it. Of course I did not know that until I found Roy and learned what you were after him for. But I waited here, and there was nothing about the safe-robbing ever appeared in the papers. Roy was gone, and Saksa. I went back to Prince Albert. There are some
odd things happen in this world now and then. I had been home nearly a year when I met an old gray-haired man who had known my mother. He swore to me that he had seen my father twice in ten years after his mysterious disappearance. Once in Toronto—once in Moosewaton.”
“The mischief!”, Buck broke in. “Is that why 'you look so much like Letty Stephens?”
“You are a good guesser,” she answered a slight cloud on her face.
“Y/ES, that is the key to the whole
1 affair. Letty is half-sister to Roy and me. When I compared this old man’s tale with the fact that Roy.had once written to me that his employer’s daughter could pass for my twin, and that while I was here a clerk in a store once mistook me for Miss Stephens, I recalled that marriage certificate. I remembered the names, and the place where it was given, but not the date. I did a lot of hard thinking over that. Men have done stranger things. If Alexander Stephens, the plutocrat of Moosewaton, should prove to be my father, and I could establish the fact, it would take the ban off Roy, you see. He would scarcely persecute his own son, I thought. But I had to have some proof to use as a club. I had to bé sure. So I started out to follow up this lead. I went to the place where this marriage certificate was issued—and I got the club. I got proofs' sufficient to establish his identity in spite of the change of name and the lapse of years. He had married this other woman and come west to Moosewaton while mymother was still alive.”
“Huh,” Buck grunted. “Bigamy for Mr. Stephens, eh? And I suppose he knew he was taking a chance. Makes Letty illegitimate. I don’t wonder he was 'worried about that certificate getting into the wrong hands. Go ahead.”
“Well, it frightened me,” Lois confessed. “I was sure he did not have the least idea that Roy was his son, and I knew him to be merciless. A man who would deliberately abandon a woman with two babies and marry another one on the heels of that, would do anything. I was afraid to go straight to him with my story so long as Roy was hiding up North. I wasn’t trying to establish any rights, or claims. All I wanted was my brother’s immunity—but I was afraid he would defy me, and perhaps get Roy out of the way. That sounds far-fetched, but things like that have been done back there when a man may so easily, by apparent accident, be killed, and no one know anything of it for months. It seemed the best way to find Roy myself. So far as I knew, Stephens was letting the matter rest— lest he stir up the past, I supposed—well, I didn’t know why. With Roy here, I knew he would be glad to let the thing drop rather than face exposure and disgrace. And while I didn’t want to leave him a single loophole, I didn’t want to bring shame on him I didn’t want any airing of our family skeleton. There was this other girl to consider, as well as ourselves.
“So* I went back into that wilderness and found him—largely through you, as it happened. If ou hadn’t been mixed up in it, I might never have found him.”
Buck made a gesture of dissent.
“It happened that way, at least, she continued. “I learned that there was a white man hunting for another white man, up there. I worried and wondered if Stephens had begun to suspect, and was trying to forestall me. Then when Adele and I found where you had killed the moose and caught up with you, I thought surely you were Roy—until I saw you. That was an awful disappointment. I was beginning to lose heart. And I felt you must be one of Stephens’ men, and so I tried to keep in touch with you until I knew for sure, if you were close on him. The rest after that you know—except that when we did get back here well, the past seems to have sat rather heavily on his conscience, after all. The thing is dead and buried, so far as we are concerned. Roy is out of his difficulty. Stephens has no more occasion to fear that the past will trouble him. That’s the end of it.”
“Letty knows, of course?” Buck remarked.
“No,” Lois answered. “At least she only knows that it was a mistake about
Roy-” , , '
“Well, your father owes you a lot, one way and another,” Buck commented thoughtfully. “He gets off light, considering his sins.”
“LJE BROKE my mother’s heart,” LT. Lois said gently. “He’s a hard, selfcentered old egotist with only one redeeming feature—he worships Letty, and he would make any sacrifice for her, I believe. He says he wants to make amends, I believe, but I don’t want anything of him, and neither does Roy. We’re leaving here soon, and I hope never
to see him again:”
Buck sat siler t a minute, staring soberly out the window
“An odd tangle, all around,” he said at length. “DicLStephens or Letty tell you how I came to go after your brother?” “Yes,” she said.
“But seeing that I got myself drowned in an ice break-up,” Buck continued sardonically, “I suppose I was no longer a factor to be reckoned with. The knighterrant had failed to deliver the goods. The test had, after all, demonstrated that he lacked quality.”
Lois did not answer.
“I found a very interesting bit of news in the morning paper,” Buck continued in the same tone. “Very interesting. Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. In this case it doesn’t seem to have worked that way.”
He picked up the folded sheet out of the chair beside him, and opened it at an announcement among the social news.
This paragraph set forth the engage-, ment of Miss Letty Stephens to Mr. Arthur Bodley Carrol of Montreal, the only son of a wealthy family. There was
certain brief comment on the uniting of two great fortunes alike built on the furtrade. Buck read aloud a sentence here and there with sardonic emphasis, then laid aside the paper.
“Don’t you feel sorry for me?” he asked mockingly. “Can’t a forsaken man get some sympathy somewhere? _ Oh, it’s well,” he chanted ironically, “it is well to be off with the old love—”
Lois looked away.
“I was sorry for you,” she said gently. “I’ve been thinking about that the last few hours. It doesn’t seem fair—after that eighteen months in the North. ■ Still—”
Buck rested his chin in one palm and gazed at her reflectively.
“Still, you don’t see me bowed down with grief and woe,” he observed. “I’m not. I shed no tears. I don’t know anything better than a long stretch of hardship and isolation to give one a true measure of certain emotional values. It was a test of quality—but not quite in the way old man Stephens and Letty meant.”
' He sat deep in thought a little while.
“You see,” he continued, “a fool man like me when he cares about a woman naturally wants her to be loyal and_ constant. If he doesn’t find those qualities in one woman, he’s apt to look for them in another.”
“But you haven’t given Letty a chance,” Lois murmured.
“Oh yes,” Buck smiled. “A while ago when the house was all quiet I called her up on the phone. We were both agreed that we’d been mistaken in our feeling for each other. That trip north—oh, that was a mere detail. As a matter of fact I sent her a letter out from Athabasca Landing three weeks ago. I wasn’t able to travel, but I wrote that I was coming soon. So you see—”
He made a quick gesture of dismissal with his hands. Then he continued to look steadfastly at this girl who was so much like Letty Stephens and, yet—as he knew with preternatural certainty—was so unlike her, until the fixity of his gaze brought a slow flush welling up across her cheeks. She stared down at the tip of one white shoe. A silence that held a curious sort of tension fell between them.
Lois rose suddenly.
“Would you like a cup of tea after awhile?” she asked constrainedly.
Buck leaned forward in his chair. If his legs were a little the worse for wear there was nothing wrong with his arms. He reached and caught both her hands with a quick, eager movement. \
“No,” he said quietly, “I don’t want tea. I want you.”
Lois looked down at him, startled. She tried gently to disengage her hands. Useless. Buck’s grip was sure. Then she smiled mischievously at the anxious shadow that began to gather slowly on Mr. Buckley Harrison’s earnest countenance.
“Well,” she said hesitatingly, “the way" to get what you want is to—to ask for it. Or to take it—if you can.”
Which seemed to Buck a fairly satisfactory reply.