FICTION

Trail Breaker

Youth and old age clash in drama on a mountain-top

ANN MORSE March 1 1936
FICTION

Trail Breaker

Youth and old age clash in drama on a mountain-top

ANN MORSE March 1 1936

Trail Breaker

Youth and old age clash in drama on a mountain-top

ANN MORSE

THERE WASN’T much chance that they could save him. Not in that blizzard, not on those icy slopes. And even if they did fight through to him, there wasn’t much hope that he would live through it, he being so very old. Old man Millar, that was.

But they went out after him. Into the blizzard and up along those steep trails they all know so well. They always go when an S.O.S. comes through to them. A club they call themselves, which seems a pretty puny title for them, those mountain-climbing human St. Bernards. Skilled mountaineers, all of them, whether they’re lumbermen or fruitgrowers or merchants— even bankers. They’ve got to be. They’re enduring and tough and fearless, and they’re all the kind that will risk a life for a life and neither expect nor accept rew'ard for it. It’s hard to be taken into their club.

Old man Millar found that out. Oh, yes. he knew' his way about the Selkirks. He had spent most of his life climbing their rocky peaks, and it had given him a certain local fame. He was proud of that; it was all he had to be proud of. Give him a mountain to climb and he was a man. In the towns he was nobody, just another grizzled, skinny old dodderer. But the Club, when it was formed, wouldn’t take him in. Too old. for one thing, it said. He was indignant. Indignant?

Mild term. He was shaking with rage when he came into the mountain inn that afternoon of the blizzard.

“Wouldn’t take me,” he shrilled at the innkeeper, Lloyd. “Pups. I was climbin’ these here hills before they was dry behind the ears. I can outclimb any of ’em. They say you got to climb all the chief peaks hereabouts to belong. I’ve done’em all. Fifty times. A hundred. I can do them again. Too old, that high and mighty young Chase says.” He mimicked Chase’s voice. “Tooold . . .”

And the innkeeper, Lloyd, who liked him. tried to quiet him. “Well, after all, you’re not as young as you used to be.” he said.

It w'as the wrong thing to say. Old Millar glared. “Know what I’m goin’ to do?” he shouted. “I’m goin’ up old Baldy. Show ’em. They can’t keep me ofT’n mountains, even if they keep me out of their club.”

Lloyd, glancing at the thickening sky, tried to stop him. But old Millar had (lung wide the inn door, was facing the rising gale. He knew better, but he slammed out. thin old back bent to his pack, fur parka tightened against the cold.

“I’ll be back before it breaks.” he shouted, and the w'ind snatched the w'ords out of his mouth.

BUT HE didn’t come back. The wind rose. The clouds blackened, and he didn’t come back. Lloyd watched for him. Lloyd’s wife watched. A party of half-frozen hikers stumbled into the inn, gasped that a roaring night was making, shivered near the welcome fire. Lloyd served them, one eye on the windows, on the sudden how'ling blackness outside. And Lloyd’s wife began to whimper: “Poor old man. The poor old man ...”

Until Lloyd couldn’t stand it any more, but put through an alarm to the Club’s headquarters, forty miles down country; told them there that old Millar was out in the storm and no sign of him returning. And the Club never refuses an S.O.S.

Two hours later and they were driving up to the inn, fourteen of them, with alpenstocks, ice axes, all their equipment; big. quiet men. grimly intent on saving a fife —any life. And it was Chase, Chase who had refused old

Millar, who headed them this time. A Valley fruit-grower, Chase—tall, youngish, with a hammered-out profile and a hard mouth. The rest of them followed him with a military precision.

He wasted no time, but crisply asked which trail old Millar had taken, narrowed his eyes as Lloyd’s finger ixfinted up to frowning Baldy. “Should have known better,” Chase growled. “Doddering old fool.”

Lloyd’s wife whimpered: “Poor old man. He just

wanted to show you. That w'as all. Just wanted to show he w'as as good as you . . . ”

Chase glanced sharply at her. He drained his drink. Swiftly, decisively, he held conference with the others. “Ready?” he snapped, turned on his heel, stamped out. A few' yards, and the fourteen were lost to sight in the sleet.

They moved swiftly, the man at the head stepping aside every hundred paces, letting the rest pass, resting as he waited, taking his place again at the end of the file. And their flashlights barely biting through the snow and gloom. A brief halt, a base set up, then on again according to plan, deploying, four one w'ay. three another, chopping ice, climbing, covering every foot of the mountain side.

So, at last, they found old Millar. Chase found him at dawTi, huddled in the lee of a ledge. And alive, too tough for a night and a blizzard to kill. He could glower feebly as Chase came up to him.

“What you come for me for?” His voice w'as a frozen thread. “I can take care of myself. Just restin’ a mite. Sorta—twisted my ankle.”

But he hadn’t twisted his ankle. He had been lost. Old Millar. His pale eyes were red with seeking through the storm. His tracks, where the wind had left them, stamped

here and there, drunkenly. He saw Chase appraising them, contemptuously reading that tale, and his pride shrank within him.

Chase said, “You were lost all right,” coldly, and helped to carry him down, back to the base.

OLD MILLAR didn’t say a word on the way. When Chase and another rubbed his face and his hands with snow, he said nothing. Only looked straight ahead with the empty look of an old man who has had something and has it no longer. He drank what they gave him. he sat near the blazing fire, and he didn’t seem to notice that, men came stamping in, looking at him, beaming, glad that he had been found.

“We’ll take him back to the inn,” Chase was saying. “We’ll make a sling, carry him down. Parkas and sticks. He’s pretty well done in.”

It was then old Millar got unsteadily to his feet. “Chase,” he quavered, “Chase.”

And Chase turned brusquely, as a man might who does not know what to expect, abuse or thanks, and wants neither.

“You were right.” Millar’s grizzled chin was up. “I was lost. Me, Bob Millar, lost in these hills. I’ve got you to thank for findin’ me. But I don’t thank you much. It would’ve been the right way out for me—up here. As it is, I’m goin’ down with you, but on my feet. My last time down . ” There was a dignity about him as he spoke,

but it shrivelled when he had done. He swayed.

Chase coldly eyed him. “Think you can make it?”

A last spark flickered up in old Millar. “I can,” he snapped.

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Continued from page 24

So they started down. The storm still howling, the daylight that had come, only a bitter grey ness. Chase took the lead, head bent to the blast, shoulders bowed under his pack, and old Millar plodding in his wake, head also down, but eyes open, hating Chase’s back. And the other thirteen plowed after, rhythmically in file, not falling out or resting now. Down trail they pushed, until Millar, like some old hound dog, abruptly lifted his head, looked suspiciously about him, shouted: “Hey! Hey ...”

Chase did not hear him. Didn’t seem to, anyway. He tramped on. Again old Millar shouted his reedy shout into the wind. And this time Chase half turned.

"I got my bearings again now,” Millar howled at him. “This ain’t the way down.”

And Chase’s face, looking at him across his shoulder, was an icy, angry mask. “I’m in charge here,” he said and plunged ahead.

“I’m telling you—”

“You? You’re telling me?” Chase laughed back at him, laughter cutting as the gale.

But old Millar was sure. His frozen, seamy cheeks were white, his pale eyes were flaring. Like an ancient mule he balked, put out a mittened hand, caught Chase’s sleeve. The men at his back collided to a halt. Chase faced about, furiously. But old Millar stood his ground.

“You can’t get away with it. Chase.” His fist shook thinly under Chase’s nose. “You know you’re off the trail. You know you’re lost. You ain’t goin’ to freeze me and all these men to death goin’ round in circles weather like this,” he howled. “Not for your pigheadedness ...”

' I 'HE OTHER men stood back, dimmed A in the snow and wind, waiting Chase’s orders. Their lives were in his hands, they weren’t questioning him. But old Millar was. Millar who had spent his life in those mountains. He was dancing with fury, knowing himself right. And Chase stared at him a long moment, and then abruptly he looked away. Wearily, Chase’s shoulders sagged, his head went down.

“All right,” Chase mumbled. “I’m lost. I thought I could hit the trail down again before they’d realize. But I can’t. I’ll ask one of them to take the lead, pick up the way ...”

“One of them?” Old Millar snorted. “If any of them knowed, wouldn’t they have stopped you like I did?” A light leaped

into the old man’s eyes. “No. I took the trail down here when you and them wasn’t even thought of yet. I’ll take us down.”

For a moment, Chase hesitated. Then, shrugging his defeat, he sullenly stepped aside, took his place in back of old Millar, waved the others on to follow the new command. And old Millar, turning, swept them with a long, prideful look, turned again, started painfully, slowly tacking back to the trail he knew so well. And the others plowed after him, all of them bent to the winds, like blurred ghosts.

It was numbing work; it was heartbreaking. But old man Millar’s grin was frozen to his face when they reached the inn. Three hours later, that was. And old Millar strutted, even as he staggered, in at the inn door. Inside, he turned, faced Chase exultmgly. And humbly Chase thrust out his hand. Before all the men crowding into the warm place and curiously watching, Chase said: “You did it. You brought us in safe. You’re the better man, Millar.”

Old Millar stood, straight and shining

He could be generous now. “You’re young yet, boy,” he said, “and I admit I ain’t what I used to be. But I’m good enough yet, ain’t I? Still pretty good ...” And then his skinny old bones began to shake; he fell in a heap where he stood.

OLD MILLAR is a life member of the Club now. Proud as Punch about it. Most of the time he sits about the headquarters with the dignity of a banker in a club window. He doesn’t go out after emergency calls, just stays at home and advises Chase or whoever is taking charge w'hen an S.O.S. comes in. And they all listen to him respectfully. And if they agree with the innkeeper, Lloyd, they never let anyone suspect it. Least of all, old man Millar.

Lloyd? Oh, he says: “Gus Chase is a top sergeant, all right. But a good guy underneath. Him get lost on the down trail? Listen, friend, he’ll have to be as old as old Millar before he gets to straying off any trails around these parts. Say, he’s broken more new and shorter routes up and down from here than old Millar ever heard of. Why just last year he broke a new trail from here to where they usually make their base that takes only an hour down, where the only one old man Millar ever knew takes twice as long anyway.”