‘The wilderness was a cold, green fire, separating the dross from the true metal’
BYRON HILLSON stood on the shingle and watched the six guides load the canoes. They needed constant supervision. Hort James, the head guide, was the worst of the lot. Hillson had never encountered such a sullen brute before. True, he said little, but his employer suspected that he thought a great deal. Woodsmen made impossible servants.
Three of the light canvas-covered canoes were loaded so heavily that freeboard was perilously narrow. Boxes, leather cases and canvas bags piled high above the gunwales left only space enough in bow and stern for the paddlers. Hort returned for a final survey of the camp site.
“Here you, move that mandolin case,” snapped Hillson. “Don’t you know that a drop of water would ruin it? And look out for that rifle. Show some sense.” A swarthy lad of nineteen obeyed, grinning shamefacedly.
“What are you putting that camera under the bedding for?” Hillson shouted at another.
Hort sauntered back to the beach. He had a cool eye and a sharp chin.
“I would suggest, Mr. Hillson, that you explain your wishes through me,” he drawled. “The boys are kind of used to having me boss them around.”
Hillson’s white face flushed.
“Mind your damn business, will you! Who is paying these fellows? I’ll run my own show my own way, and if you don’t like it get out. I’ve had about enough of your interference. Go to hell!”
The guide’s weathered features remained impassive, but he brushed his left forearm once across his forehead.
“All right, sir.” Then in a louder voice: “Unload Mr. Hillson’s baggage, boys.”
The outfit was evicted promptly and unceremoniously, cluttering the beach for fifty feet with a weird assortment 0f bundles. Then Hort again turned to Hillson.
“I suppose you’ll want a canoe and a couple of paddles, sir? Counting the wages due it will come to $258.” Hillson’s lower lip was protruding obstinately. He drew out his pocket-book and extracted a couple of hundred dollar bills, a fifty, and eight ones, dropping them one by one on the sand. Hort raked them up, stuffed them into his pocket and stepped into a canoe.
“Sure we’ve got everything that belongs to us and nothing more?” he inquired, casting his eyes over the outfit. “All right. All aboard. No, Mack, leave that green one for Mr. Hillson.” Without another word he and George pushed into deeper water, turned the bow up stream and fell into stroke. The others promptly followed, leaving Byron Hillson in his tailored tweeds to glare after them in stubborn fury.
Lovely had been sitting up the shore on a boulder, waiting to be called. As she gazed dejectedly upon the hurrying Opawika, the scrubby spruce and cedar shoreline beyond, seeing nothing, hating everything, sick with self pity over her marriage with Byron Hillson and the lunacy that had sent them into the wilds of Quebec
at such a time, she became conscious of the passing canoes. Rising, she could see the scattered baggage with her husband standing in the midst of it.
“My word, what has happened now?” she muttered, beginning to walk towards him. Although a graceful girl, straight-limbed and tall, she moved awkwardly enough over the rough beach in traveling suit and slippers.
“Well, what is it?” she asked.
“Can’t you see?” he choked. “They’ve cleared out.”
“But surely they are coming back?”
“No doubt—if we sit here long enough.” And then in a burst of fury: “By Heavens, I’ll have the law on them for this!”
Byron had been bitter and sarcastic from the hour that they had entrained at Montreal, first bitter with her and afterwards bitter with the guides who had met them at the wilderness station according to arrangements. She had fully expected unpleasantness, but nothing quite so unpleasant as this.
“Oh, you fool—you fool!” was all she could find to say.
He stared at her contemptuously, then turned and strode off up the beach and disappeared.
TT WAS ten o’clock and the August sun was hot.
Lovely went back into the shade and lay down. There was nothing else to do. She had sold herself into his hands, futile as they were in such a predicament, and must await his pleasure. For once she repented not having made herself a ‘sports’ girl, or at least ‘capable’. But who would have dreamt of Gladys Gerow ever finding herself in a position from which money could not extricate her? A lot of use the Hillson millions were to her now! How she could ever have been persuaded into marrying young Byron was beyond her comprehension. Why, they had hardly known each other except in a ‘fashionable’ way, over teacups and cards. The ‘thing to do’ scarcely seemed such an irrefragable argument a hundred miles from the nearest railway.
As the sun was sinking Byron returned to find his wife' mauling over the stores for something to eat. After considerable effort he laid his hands on a tin of beef, butter and hard-tack. They sat apart and nibbled in silence.
“Well, what do you propose to do about it?” she inquired at last.
“Get out of here—get home. What do you suppose?"
“It’s not up to me to suppose. You got me into this hole and I presume that you can get me out of it.”
“That’s it, of course,” he retorted scornfully. “You’ve been the poor abused thing ever since we left. No matter. We can’t return quick enough to suit me. We’ll start in the morning.”
Hillson was incapable of pitching a tent unaided and was too proud to ask assistance. So he tied it to a tree, pegging out one side only. Then he took an armful of blankets and crawled under a fir, where he smoked and dozed away the night. Lovely was too miserable, as well as fearful, to sleep. Now that the guides were gone she was certain she heard bears prowling about the camp. There were spiders everywhere. The morrow seemed hopeless.
When she emerged from her shelter the sky was opalescent and the far shore blanketed with mist, but Byron was already fussing over the fireplace. She could hear him scratching innumerable matches and cursing under his breath. After the fire got well under way she found an aluminum kettle, filled it at the river and set it close to the heat.
“I’m getting the breakfast,” he growled.
“I suppose I can have some hot water for washing?”
He endeavored to heat a tin of beans and burnt both the beans and his hands in the process. The coffee was as thick as soup and bitter. By the time Lovely had completed an elaborate toilet it was also cold. It was her first experience of cold coffee and she threw it away in disgust, appeasing her hunger with marmalade and biscuits. By nine o’clock Byron was shaved and washed and ready to pack the canoe.
This was a difficult problem. He began by putting in the things he considered indispensable, only to find the craft sunk to the gunwales before he had half on board. Certain things must go—the rest he would cache. After pulling everything out he began again—two bags of bedding, cooking kit, tent, case of rods, shotgun, three valises of personal effects, mandoline case and food. But there was scant room for food. Most of it was stored in bulk, necessitating breaking into boxes and tins or else sacrificing variety. Finally he spread a tarpaulin over the remainder of the baggage, weighted it down with rocks and beckoned his wife.
She came in her slippers and pleated skirt and seated herself on the bag designated. Byron had never paddled stern before, but it looked easy. He stepped in rather carelessly and all but upset the canoe. Twice in the first fifty feet water slopped over the side, and he realized that he must move with the utmost caution. A rapids would be disastrous. They made slow headway against the current. After two hours’ paddling, first on one side and then on the other, he felt that he had gained little in return for aching arms and blistered hands. He was tempted to ask Lovely to paddle, but thought better of it. When they came out on a large lake he ran the canoe ashore for food and rest.
A breeze sprang up and chopped the surface. He realized that he must abandon more baggage or delay their going. The ten by twelve tent seemed the object of least importance to him but not to her. The thought of being left in the wilderness without substantial shelter filled her with dread. After a few terse words he discarded a case of groceries and a roll of blankets. Even
then they were compelled to keep within the shallow water and the protection of the points.
Byron thought it would be a simple matter to return the way they had come. But when one lake kept opening into another, each filled with similar islands and bays, he lost all idea of direction and could only push on doggedly, trusting to luck to bring him out. True, the railroad lay somewhere south of him and the sun sank in the west, but little good these facts did him since he must follow the channel.
That night they camped early, and then it was dark before the tent was pitched and the supper of corned beef and hard-tack out of the way. Byron kept his hands swathed in handkerchiefs and cursed at every twinge. Lovely was too immersed in self-pity to have any for the man responsible for her plight. She blamed him for everything, but most of all for her mesalliance and the inevitable scandal. He was a brute. But her misery even yet was less than her vanity. Tfye care of her skin and her bronze-black hair was her chief concern.
It was not until the fourth day that she discovered that they were hopelessly lost.
“I never saw this rapid before,” she said,
“Neither did I,” he admitted.
“Why—why, how far are we from the railway?”
“Damned if I know!”
“Don’t you know?
Don’t you know where we are?” He was too exasperating for words.
“No. Haven’t known for a couple of days.”
There was a long pause after this.
“What are we going to do about it?”
“Nothing. Just keep paddling.” His voice was dogged.
“Whateverwill happen to us?”
“Wait and see.”
She forgot her resentment long enough to weep. Was she to be left to starve in this terrible country? Was she to drown in one of these awful bottomless lakes? Her father’s palatial home seemed poignantly dear to her now. Why had she ever left it— why, why?
There was a slight jar, a sickening swerve, and the water closed over her face. Fortunately the river was shallow and she gained her feet immediately. The canoe, bottom up, lay beside her. Byron was grabbing at pieces of baggage as they wallowed past in the swift current. She waded ashore and turned her back on his efforts to salvage the wreck. She was still convinced that it was none of her business. But after he had spent an hour exploring the shore and the eddies at the foot of the rapids for their belongings and succeeded in recovering only a paddle, a roll of blankets and a box of biscuits she thought it very much her business. Her valise containing all her toilet articles, even to towels and soap, was gone. She who had been used to changing her clothes many times a day, posssessed only those she
then had on. It was a greater tragedy than merely being lost. It sank her to the level of the beast.
“You must find it,” she stormed.
“Little use it would be without food. Didn’t you hear me say that everything is gone except the biscuits? Come, get in. We can’t sit here and starve.”
She obeyed mechanically. She was losing the temptation to argue with him, even to sneer. What was the use? He waded, letting the canoe down the rapid. At the foot he spied an object bouncing about in an eddy and fished it out. The mandoline! With a curse he smashed it over a rock.
When it got too dark to proceed he ran into the bank, turned the canoe over, and they crawled under. They nibbled damp biscuits in silence until overcome with weariness. She knew she could not sleep, and yet when she lifted her long lashes the sunlight was streaming in her face.
npwo days later a party of Indians and breeds came upon a couple of travelers in a green canoe. They had met some queer people in that part of the country before but never beyond the protection of guides.
"Goo’ day,” greeted Tom Sky, resting on his paddle
Byron nodded. “How far are we from the railway?” “Railway? No see ’urn this way. This way railway,” pointing over the white man’s shoulder.
“Hell! How far?”
“One—two hundred mile maybe. You no got gun, no
“Lost everything in a rapid. If you’ll give me a couple of men and enough grub to get me back I’ll pay you well.” Tom Sky thoughtfully eyed the man and then the woman.
“Him your wife, eh?”
“Certainly. What do you say?
“How much you pay?”
“A hundred dollars.”
“You show me.”
Hillson pulled out his pocketbook and found a couple of fives. Suddenly he remembered that he had given most of his money to Hort James.
“It’s all right. I’ll give you a check when we get out.” “Him no all right.” Tom could not be bamboozled so easily.
“Good Lord, man, I’m rich! I could buy out your whole blessed tribe and not miss it!”
Tom wagged his shaggy head cunningly. He knew a
rich man when he saw him. Rich men were not torn and dirty and unshaven; they did not travel in patched canoes, or take their squaws with them.
“Me give you fish, pork, you bet. That’s right — five dollar, eh?”
“I tell you I’ll give you four—five hundred dollars, anything you say, if you’ll take us out. My name’s Byron Hillson. My father owns half the timber limits in Quebec. Haven’t you heard of William H. Hillson? Even if you don’t believe me can’t you take a chance? Don’t be a damned fool!” Byron was growing desperate over the Indian’s stupidity.
But the extravagance of his promises was enough to defeat his ends even if appearances had not been so decidedly against him. Five hundred dollars! The white man was obviously crazy.
“Fifty dollar, you show me. Tom Sky goo’ guide.”
Hillson looked around at the other canoes that had closed in during this controversy, but there was no credulity in the dull, flat faces confronting him. He was helpless.
“Where are you going?” he groaned.
“Post on Washbakouchi.”
“Tirty mile maybe. You no come, eh?” Hillson pushed off and headed back up stream, following in the wake of the three bark canoes. He paddled strongly, fearing to be left behind, but soon was compelled to shout for help. The last canoe fell back, and in exchange for one of his bills a squat, grizzled breed climbed into the bow. An hour later the party
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pitched their lean-tos and lit their fires.
No one paid the strangers the slightest attention. Lovely, filled with loathing, kept as far to windward of her hosts as her dread of the deepening shadows would permit. To her they seemed less than human. There was no understanding in their little brown eyes and uncouth gutturals. Might they not murder them in their sleep? But when the lake trout were fried Tom motioned for Hillson to join them by the fire. First, however, he went up the beach for his wife.
“They’re inviting us to eat with them,” he explained.
“I’m not hungry, thanks. Go on, don’t mind me.” Her voice was as smooth and cold as a knife-blade.
He shrugged his shoulders and left her —a slim bedraggled figure—to munch a biscuit and stare with wide, unseeing eyes across the shadowy river. Presently he was wolfing a meal of fry-pan bread, fish and boiled tea, and marvelling that food could taste so good. There was a great weight off his mind. They would appeal to this independent fur trader for assistance, and no doubt be back to the land of porcelain tubs and limousines in no time. Their marriage, of course, had been a dreary fizzle, but accidents of that kind happened in the best of families. She should have her divorce as soon as it could be arranged and they would be none the worse for their little faux pas. Who would have thought that the beautful Gladys Gerow could have turned out such a broken reed under adversity? There was nothing like the woods to bring out one’s true character.
He expected to share a tent with the Indians, but the odors drove him out to the shelter of a tree. They were up again at dawn, ate a hurried meal of salt pork and potatoes and pushed on. Hillson insisted on paddling stern. His hands had begun to callous and his muscles to harden. Better still he was fast conquering the knack and gaining confidence. He had lost his coat and hat, and his breeches were torn,but the lack of a shave was the only item that really caused him concern. A razor would be the first thing he would demand of the trader.
That day Lovely deigned to accept fried fish and strong tea with her biscuit. She even smiled at Tom Sky when he addressed a remark to her. After all, Tom was rescuing them from starvation and acting the part of a gentleman in the process. If he would only cut his hair and use a little soap!
Another dreamless sleep under the canoe and they came to Washbakouchi and the lonely collection of huts surrounding the post. A tall, gaunt man with unkempt red hair and patched trousers slouched down to the beach in a swarm of squaws and half-naked brats.
“Him Red McDow,” said Tom.
Hillson went up to him as soon as he landed.
“Mr. McDow, I believe? I’m Byron Hillson, of Montreal. My guides abandoned us a week ago. Do you think you could help us out?”
The trader’s pig-like eyes were staring past him.
“Who’s that?” he growled, in his beard.
“Come up to the house. Annie’ll give you some grub.”
The house was three-parts store, crowded with goods, smelling of oakum and green pelts. McDow led his guests into a back room and waved them to a bench. He asked no questions, but continued his staring at Lovely through a cloud of rank tobacco smoke, while Annie, a fat squaw, laid out food on the oilcloth-covered table. Hillson carried on a one-sided conversation.
“Now if you can let us have a guide and a little grub we won’t inflict ourselves
upon you another day,” he wound up.
“We don’t hurry round here,” rumbled McDow. “You can stay as long as you like. There’s a cabin at your disposal.”
“That’s very kind of you. But you’ll understand that we naturally want to get home as soon as possible. We have no clothes, nothing.”
“Plenty of clothes here. She will need a rest. No hurry.”
“We’d like to start in the morning,” persisted the other.
The trader puffed away for some time.
“You say you haven’t any money? The boys’ll be going out in a couple of weeks, though. Maybe they’ll take you.”
Hillson jumped up. "Good Heavens, man, you don’t expect us to wait for that? Why, my father could buy up this whole lake if it was any use to him. He’s William H. Hillson, the lumber king. You’ve heard of him?”
McDow slowly wagged his head, “So you say, young man, but how am I to know it. You don’t look the part. Any letters or anything?”
“No; I lost everything in the rapid. But if you’ll take my word for it I’ll promise to make it well worth your while. Do I look like a rogue?”
“Not especially. Help yourself, Mrs. Hillson. Annie makes good bread. You’ll find maple syrup in the jug.”
Their host’s suspicions did not dampen their appetites. It was their first real meal since they had been left to the mercies of the wilderness and Annie was kept busy replenishing their plates and cups.
“I tell you what,” began the trader, breaking a long silence, "you start tomorrow with Tom and leave your wife till you can send for her. What?”
“Sure, I’m willing.” After all it was no use both of them being prisoners in this God-forsaken spot.
But Lovely quietly, but emphatically, said no. If one was to go it would be she.
“All right, then, you go and I’ll stay,” conceded her husband.
But McDow would not hear of that. What, send a white woman off alone with an Indian? No, the man would go alone or both would stay. It wouldn’t be for long, anyway, and he would put the post entirely at their service. He confessed to a keen hankering for company. It was a hard life, this being marooned in the heart of the wilderness year in and year out, with nothing but Indians and breeds to console one. They would decide the point later. He would show them their cabin.
The cabin consisted of one room, furnished with a stove, table, benches and bunks. They could help themselves from the fuel pile outside and the shelves of the post.
“Don’t skimp. It won’t cost you anything,” reassured McDow. “I’ll send Annie to do your cooking. Cooking ain’t a white woman’s job—especially if she’s a lady. I’ll expect you to spend most of your time at the post. It’s a tough life for a man, especially a bachelor.” His last remarks were addressed directly to Lovely. Then, just as he was leaving1 “You think you’ll be starting to-morrow, Mr. Hillson?”
“No: I guess we will stick it out together,” he replied, cheerfully.
For the first time on the trip his wife cast a grateful look in his direction.
TF THE first day was a sample of those A to follow Hillson wondered how he would stand it. A hundred yards beyond the shacks in either direction lay the interminable gray beach. Behind was a trackless forest of stunted spruce and in front the dreary expanse of the lake. Curs and youngsters dogged his heels whenever he went out. A cold wind was blowing out of the north. Could Siberia be' worse? Finally he was driven to seek the company of the uncouth factor who thought him a rogue. On the wall was a Geological Survey map of the regions about James Bay. He studied this minutely, locating the post and the most direct route to the railway. It seemed comparatively simple
on the map, and he kicked himself for having been such a greenhorn. If he only had a bow-paddler he believed that he could make the trip without a guide.
But part of the course entailed portaging and heavy upstream work. No, it was next to impossible.
“Would you like to try the fishing?” interrupted the trader. “Here’s a copper line and troll. I’ll send a boy with you.”
He thrust the tackle into Hillson’s hands and went out. Hillson was in no mood for fishing, but after all it would serve to while away an hour. He followed to the beach and stepped into the canoe indicated by Pete.
“Good luck,” grunted McDow.
Pete insisted on taking him far down the lake before throwing over the line. In an hour’s fishing he had caught enough for the whole post and was bored. But Pete insisted on taking him farther.
“Heap big uns quick. Him dog food.
But the fish refused to gain weight and Hillson finally lost his temper at the fellow’s obstinacy, threatening to brain him with the gaff if he did not take him back. Pete obeyed so sullenly that it was long after dark before they beached.
Hillson went straight to the store to return the tackle. The store itself was in darkness, but a light gleamed under the inner door. As he groped towards it he heard his wife’s voice raised in withering scorn.
“You call that being a gentleman, Mr.
McDow! When my husband hears—!”
A contemptuous laugh broke into her tirade.
“A damn lot you care for him, my dear.
A damn lot I care for him either, the cur.
If he interferes he’ll wish he hadn’t. Come now, my dear—”
“Open that door and let me out!”
There was an ominous silence and then the shuffle of heavy boots approaching the door. Hillson turned and ran on tiptoe for the exit. It would never do for them to discover him eavesdropping.
They might expect him to take a melodramatic interest in the proceedings.
What if his wife had been insulted? She was quite capable of taking her own part as she had just proved. It would be folly to pit his strength against this huge backwoods bully. The better part of valor hurried him out into the night and down to the waterfront.
But his musings were far from sweet.
It was clear how he had been packed off like a child so McDow should have a clear field. After all she was his wife, and it was a strange creature that would not fight for its mate. His actions had appeared very sensible back there, but he was not so pleased with them under the stars. He should have warned them of his approach and taken her away with him. Ah, there was a light in his cabin at last. Think of that dirty beast trying to pay court to his wife!
In a way he was responsible for it all.
It was certainly his vile temper that had driven off the guides and perhaps been the chief cause of his wife’s estrangement. It had been such a devil of a shock suddenly to find that he did not love the woman, but it must have been a worse one to her.
Even McDow had marked their indifference and had imagined that he could take advantage of it. Perhaps he was not such a cur after all. The last week’s roughing it had taken a lot of superfluous flesh off his body and he was certainly no chicken.
By Jove! If she was only some use in the canoe he would get out of this rotten hole immediately.
He sauntered up to the cabin. By the flame of the kerosene lamp he saw her lying face down on the bunk. Her hair had escaped bounds and was trailing on the floor. It was beautiful hair. Her figure appeared slimmer than usual; indeed, more like a child’s than a woman’s.
There was something deeply pathetic about it.
“Lovely, do you want to stay here for two weeks?”
“No,” came a faint whisper from the blankets.
“Are you game to start for home with me?”
She turned and sat up at that. Her eyes were swollen and her cheeks damp. She threw back her hair.
“Yes, yes!” she cried eagerly. “Anything is better than this.”
“It’s a long, hard trip. You would have to paddle.”
“I’ll paddle all the time. I’ll not complain, I promise you. Oh, when can we start?”
“Now, this instant. McDow might interfere if we gave him a chance. Roll up the blankets and I’ll pack the grub.”
Luckily the trader had brought them a slab of bacon, dried fruit, beans and other articles of food. These Hillson stuffed into an empty flour sack. He made Lovely discard her blouse and skirt for an old pair of homespun trousers and a red jersey, and confine her hair under a shapeless felt hat that even Pete might have shunned. A smelly pair of moosehide moccasins replaced the shredded slippers. He also helped himself to a pair of moccasins and a weathered coat, taking care to pocket the fishing-tackle and plenty of matches. Before blowing out the light he pinned his last bill to the • table.
The lake was smooth as ice under the starlight. A few dogs barked them away, and after that the only sounds were the trickle and splash of water and the weird hooting of distant loons. They went quickly, gained the foot of the lake, and sped along on a steady current. Until the next lake was reached they could not go wrong. Lovely knelt in the bow, placed her slim fingers as directed and paddled valiantly. Every stroke was taking her farther from Red McDow. Not until the sun was high above the wall of spruces did he suggest a pause. Then she was so cramped that he had to assist her out and her hands'were bleeding.
They hid the canoe and stores in the underbrush, unrolled the blankets over a bed of ferns and went to sleep. In the middle of the afternoon they awoke, got themselves a hurried meal and went on. And not once since they had left the post had Byron lost his temper; nor had Lovely complained! The wilderness was a cold green fire, separating the dross from the true metal. They were combining to outwit a common foe. The fear of failure made them tolerant of minor troubles. She preferred to perish in the woods rather than return to the trader’s ugly blandishments, and he had begun to feel somewhat the same way about it.
Either McDow did not pursue them or else they succeeded in evading him, for they were not molested. For nine days they traveled south by west, picking the right course from lake to lake, climbing or shooting the smaller rapids, portaging around the larger ones, trolling for fish without stopping, rolling under the canoe where night happened to overtake them. By that time the girl’s wiry body had become used to the unwonted exercise and she could take her share of the daily tasks without difficulty.
She had found it absurdly easy to master the simple cooking once she was willing to try. That aroused her ambition in other directions, until he had to look to his laurels. Their intercourse was,still brief and to the point, but at least they had something in common. Most significant of all they were beginning to take a surreptitious interest in each other’s personality. The third day she had sacrificed her glorious hair to efficiency. He had hacked it off with his jack-knife and made a smooth-cheeked boy of her. The effect was vastly becoming.
She could not but note a tightening of the lines about his lips and jaw, a steadier gleam in his gray eyes when he looked into hers. His arms had become hard and brown. He swung the canoe to his shoulders and went striding down the trail as though he had been doing it all his
life. She remembered the immaculate, white-skinned business man of the cities and wondered at the transformation. This bearded woodsman was surely the real man, the other the counterfeit.
One night, as they were eating their supper by the fire-light, they heard a familiar sound—the distant bellow of a train—and knew that their harsh adventures were coming to an end. A sense of depression fell upon him as he realized that the last few days had been the most satisfying in his life. She had come to mean all that he had once imagined her to mean, yes, a thousand times over, and how could such a girl put up with a man like him! Civilization must inevitably thrust them apart. He sat staring at the coals long after she had gone to sleep, and the pictures he saw there were far from reassuring.
T'HE river they were on was turbulent and tortuous and they were all the next day arriving at the spot where it tunneled the embankment. They landed and scrambled hastily to the top. There was no sign of a building. The converging threads of steel lay through interminable forest.
“How are we going to flag it?” asked Lovely. “It will soon be dark.”
“Make a fire between the rails, I guess.”
They set aboutcollecting dead twigs, bark, other inflammable stuff. Then they waited. They had no watch, but calculated the time they had heard the whistle the night before. Remembering that Lovely had not eaten since noon, Byron left her to keep guard while he brought up what remnants of food remained. They munched in silence, engrossed in their own thoughts. Was she delighted at the approaching rescue? What was she thinking? He knew well enough what he was thinking—that being rescued was the worst part of the whole affair. He would have cheerfully turned around and taken her all the way back to Lake Washbakouchi, even into the presence of Red McDow. Red McDow would have found a vastly different man on his hands now.
An hour dragged by before they heard the far-away hoot. They sprang up and waited, each with matches ready. It was a long time, however, before the rails began to hum softly in the dark. Then the head-light gleamed small, expanded rapidly, and blazed furiously upon them. They lit rolls of bark and thrust them under the pile. They waved other torches around their heads. They were sharply out-lined in a puddle of light. They
heard the whistle bark two or three times and then the scream of the air-brakes.
Scarcely had the transcontinental come to a stop before a couple of train hands were upon them. A lantern was shoved up to Lovely’s face.
“What in hell d’you think you’re doing?”
“Where’s the conductor?” demanded Hillson.
“What d’you want the conductor for, you hobo?”
“None of your damn business. I’ll explain to him.”
Now that was scarcely the way for a couple of the toughest looking tramps that ever flagged an express to address suddenly alarmed members of its crew. But Hillson was in no mood to allow for appearances. After all they had been through, the fellow’s insolence was intolerable.
“None of my business, eh? Well, you git off this track or I’ll make it my business!” and one of the trainmen planted a big hand on Hillson’s chest.
Then Hillson’s temper snapped. He struck out blindly with both fists. The lantern crashed over the embankment, Lovely was thrust aside and the three men fought in the dim light of the stars.
The melee was of brief duration, fortunately for the trainmen. Strong hands tore the combatants apart and this time both a lantern and a pistol barrel were thrust into Hillson’s face.
“What’s the matter here?” came an authoritative voice.
There was a sharp scream, and Lovely was between them, clutching frantically at the conductor’s arm.
“Don’t, don’t! He’s Byron Hillson!”
“By Jupiter, it’s the kid!” roared someone in the darkness behind, and next moment Peabody Gerow had his daughter in his arms.
Because of the confusion of explanations and apologies that followed, from which Byron gathered that their absence had created a considerable furore about the north country and that the millionaire merchant had been organizing search parties all along the line, he did not see his wife again until they had reached the pullman steps. Then, without warning, she turned and threw herself with a sob into his arms. He gathered her up like a child and mounted the steps.
“Don’t you know you might have been shot?” he muttered huskily.
“So might you!” and with that she burst into a tempest of weeping and clung so tightly that he knew that she would never let him go.