"Git a doctor?" echoed Sam in vast surprise. "And ain't I tryin' to git a doctor? Where'll I git a doctor?"
"Go to the hospital, ye gawk, and ask for Dr. Turnbull, and tell him the young lad is a stranger and that his folk are in Scotland. Hoots, ye gomeril, be off noo, an' the puir lad wantin' ye. Come, I'll pit ye on yer way." The maid by her speech was obviously excited.
Sam glanced at the clock as he passed out. He had been away an hour and a half.
"Jumpin' Jeremiah! I've got to hurry. She'll take my head off."
"Of course ye have," said the maid sharply. "Go down two streets there, then take the first turn to your left and go straight on for half a dozen blocks or so. Mind ye tell the doctor the lad's frae Scotland!" she cried to Sam as he drove off.
At the hospital Sam was fortunate enough to catch Dr. Turnbull in the hall with one or two others, just as they were about to pass into the consulting room. Such was Sam's desperate state of mind that he went straight up to the group.
"I want Dr. Turnbull," he said.
"There he is before you," replied a sharp-faced young doctor, pointing to a benevolent looking old gentleman.
"Dr. Turnbull, there's a young feller hurt dreadful out our way. His leg's broke. Guess he's hurt inside too. And he's a stranger. His folks are all in Scotland. Guess he's dyin', and I've got—I've got a horse and buggy at the door. I can git you out and back in a jiffy. Say, doctor, I'm all ready to start."
A smile passed over the faces of the group. But Dr. Turnbull had too long experience with desperate cases and with desperate men.
"My dear Sir," he replied, "I cannot go for some hours."
"Doctor, I want you now. I got to have somebody right now."
"A broken leg?" mused the doctor.
"Yes, and hurt inside."
"How did it happen?" said the doctor.
"Eh? I don't know exactly," replied Sam, taken somewhat aback. "Somethin' fell on him. But he needs you bad."
"I can't go, my man, but we'll find some one. What's his name did you say?"
"His name is Cameron, and he's from Scotland."
"Cameron?" said the sharp-faced young doctor. "What does he look like?"
"Look like?" said Sam in a perplexed voice. "Well, the girls all think he looks pretty good. He's dark complected and he's a mighty smart young feller. Great on jumpin' and runnin'. Say, he's a crackajack. Why, at the Dominion Day picnic! But you must a' heard about him. He's the chap, you know, that won the hundred yards. Plays the pipes and—"
"Plays the pipes?" cried Dr. Turnbull and the young doctor together.
"And his name's Cameron?" continued the young doctor. "I wonder now if—"
"I say, Martin," said Dr. Turnbull, "I think you had better go. The case may be urgent."
"Cameron!" cried Martin again. "I bet my bat it's—Here, wait till I get my coat. I'll be with you in a jerk. Have you got a good horse?"
"He's all right," said Sam. "He'll git you there in an hour."
"An hour? How far is it?"
"Great heavens! Come, then, get a move on!" And so it came that within an hour Cameron, opening his eyes, looked up into the face of his friend.
"Martin! By Jove!" he said, and closed his eyes again. "Martin!" he said again, looking upon the familiar face. "Say, old boy, is this a dream? I seem to be having lots of them."
"It's no dream, old chap, but what in the mischief is the matter? What does all this fever mean? Let's look at you."
A brief examination was enough to show the doctor that a broken leg was the least of Cameron's trouble. A hasty investigation of the resources of the farm house determined the doctor's course.
"This man has typhoid fever, a bad case too," he said to Mandy. "We will take him in to the hospital."
"The hospital?" cried Mandy fiercely. "Will you, then?"
"He will be a lot of trouble to you," said the doctor.
"Trouble? Trouble? What are you talkin' about?"
"We're awful busy, Mandy," interposed the mother, who had been roused from her bed.
"Oh, shucks, mother! Oh, don't send him away," she pleaded. "I can nurse him, just as easy." She paused, with quivering lips.
"It will be much better for the patient to be in the hospital. He will get constant and systematic care. He will be under my own observation every hour. I assure you it will be better for him," said the doctor.
"Better for him?" echoed Mandy in a faint voice. "Well, let him go."
In less than an hour's time, such was Dr. Martin's energetic promptness, he had his patient comfortably placed in the democrat on an improvised stretcher and on his way to the city hospital.
And thus it came about that the problem of his leave-taking, which had vexed Cameron for so many days, was solved.
IN APPLE TIME
"Another basket of eggs, Mr. Cameron, and such delicious cream! I am deeply grieved to see you so nearly well."
"For you will be leaving us of course."
"Thanks, that is kind of you."
"And there will be an end to eggs and cream. Ah! You are a lucky man." And the trim, neat, bright-faced nurse shook her finger at him.
"So I have often remarked to myself these six weeks."
"A friend is a great discovery and by these same tokens you have found one."
"Truly, they have been more than kind."
"This makes the twelfth visit in six weeks," said the nurse. "In busy harvest and threshing time, too. Do you know what that means?"
"To a certain extent. It is awfully good of them."
"But she is shy, shy—and I think she is afraid of YOU. Her chief interest appears to be in the kitchen, which she has never failed to visit."
The blood slowly rose in Cameron's face, from which the summer tan had all been bleached by his six weeks' fight with fever, but he made no reply to the brisk, sharp-eyed, sharp-minded little nurse.
"And I know she is dying to see you, and, indeed," she chuckled, "it might do you good. She is truly wonderful." And again the nurse laughed. "Don't you think you could bear a visit?" The smile broadened upon her face.
But unaware she had touched a sensitive spot in her patient, his Highland pride.
"I shall be more than pleased to have an opportunity to thank Miss Haley for her great kindness," he replied with dignity.
"All right," replied the nurse. "I shall bring her in. Now don't excite yourself. That fever is not so far away. And only a few minutes. When we farmers go calling—I am a farmer, remember, and know them well—when we go calling we take our knitting and spend the afternoon."
In a few moments she returned with Mandy. The difference between the stout, red-faced, coarse-featured, obtrusively healthy country girl, heavy of foot and hand, slow of speech and awkward of manner, and the neat, quick, deft-fingered, bright-faced nurse was so marked that Cameron could hardly control the wave of pity that swept through his heart, for he could see that even Mandy herself was vividly aware of the contrast. In vain Cameron tried to put her at her ease. She simply sat and stared, now at the walls, now at the floor, refusing for a time to utter more than monosyllables, punctuated with giggles.
"I want to thank you for the eggs and cream. They are fine," said Cameron heartily.
"Oh, pshaw, that's nothin'! Lots more where they come from," replied Mandy with a giggle.
"But it's a long way for you to drive; and in the busy time too."
"Oh, we had to come in anyway for things," replied Mandy, making light of her service.
"You are all well?"
"Oh, pretty middlin'. Ma ain't right smart. She's too much to do, and that's the truth."
"And the boys?" Cameron hesitated to be more specific.
"Oh, there's nothin' eatin' them. I don't bother with them much." Mandy was desperately twisting her white cotton gloves.
At this point the nurse, with a final warning to the patient not to talk too much and not to excite himself, left the room. In a moment Mandy's whole manner changed.
"Say!" she cried in a hurried voice; "Perkins is left."
"I couldn't jist stand him after—after—that night. Dad wanted him to stay, but I couldn't jist stand him, and so he quit."
"I jist hate him since—since—that night. When I think of what he done I could kill him. My, I was glad to see him lyin' there in the dust!" Mandy's words came hot and fast. "They might 'a killed you." For the first time in the interview she looked fairly into Cameron's eyes. "My, you do look awful!" she said, with difficulty commanding her voice.
"Nonsense, Mandy! You see, it wasn't my leg that hurt me. It was the fever that pulled me down."
"Oh, I'll never forget that night!" cried Mandy, struggling to keep her lips from quivering.
"Nor will I ever forget what you did for me that night, Mandy. Sam told me all about it. I shall always be your friend."
For a moment longer she held him with her eyes. Then her face grew suddenly pale and, with voice and hands trembling, she said:
"I must go. Good-by."
He took her great red hand in his long thin fingers.
"Good-by, Mandy, and thank you."
"My!" she said, looking down at the fingers she held in her hand. "Your hands is awful thin. Are you sure goin' to git better?"
"Of course I am, and I am coming out to see you before I go."
She sat down quickly, still holding his hand, as if he had struck her a heavy blow.
"Before you go? Where?" Her voice was hardly above a whisper; her face was white, her lips beyond her control.
"Out West to seek my fortune." His voice was jaunty and he feigned not to see her distress. "I shall be walking in a couple of weeks or so, eh, nurse?"
"A couple of weeks?" replied the nurse, who had just entered. "Yes, if you are good."
Mandy hastily rose.
"But if you are not," continued the nurse severely, "it may be months. Stay, Miss Haley, I am going to bring Mr. Cameron his afternoon tea and you can have some with him. Indeed, you look quite done up. I am sure all that work you have been telling me about is too much for you."
Her kindly tones broke the last shred of Mandy's self-control. She sank into her chair, covered her face with her great red hands and burst into tempestuous weeping. Cameron sat up quickly.
"What in the name of goodness is wrong, Mandy?"
"Lie down at once, Mr. Cameron!" said the nurse sternly. "Hush, hush, Miss Haley! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Don't you know that you are hurting him?"
She could have chosen no better word. In an instant Mandy was on her feet, mopping off her face and choking down her sobs.
"Ain't I a fool?" she cried angrily. "A blamed fool. Well, I won't bother you any longer. Guess I'll go now. Good-by all." Without another look at Cameron she was gone.
Cameron lay back upon his pillows, white and nerveless.
"Now can you tell me," he panted, "what's up?"
"Search me!" said the nurse gaily, "but I forbid you to speak a single word for half an hour. Here, drink this right off! Now, not a word! What will Dr. Martin say? Not a word! Yes, I shall see her safely off the place. Quiet now!" She kept up a continuous stream of sprightly chatter to cover her own anxiety and to turn the current of her patient's thoughts. By the time she had reached the entrance hall, however, Mandy had vanished.
"Great silly goose!" said the indignant nurse. "I'd see myself far enough before I'd give myself away like that. Little fool! He'll have a temperature sure and I will catch it. Bah! These girls! Next time she sees him it will not be here. I hope the doctor will just give me an hour to get him quiet again."
But in this hope she was disappointed, for upon her return to her patient she found Dr. Martin in the room. His face was grave.
"What's up, nurse? What is the meaning of this rotten pulse? What has he been having to eat?"
"Well, Dr. Martin, I may as well confess my sins," replied the nurse, "for there is no use trying to deceive you anyway. Mr. Cameron has had a visitor and she has excited him."
"Ah!" said the doctor in a relieved tone. "A visitor! A lady visitor! A charming, sympathetic, interested, and interesting visitor."
"Exactly!" said the nurse with a giggle.
"It was Miss Haley, Martin," said Cameron gravely.
The doctor looked puzzled.
"The daughter of the farmer with whom I was working," explained Cameron.
"Ah, I remember her," said the doctor. "And a deuce of a time I had with her, too, getting you away from her, if I remember aright. I trust there is nothing seriously wrong in that quarter?" said Martin with unusual gravity.
"Oh, quit it, Martin!" said Cameron impatiently. "Don't rag. She's an awful decent sort. Her looks are not the best of her."
"Ah! I am relieved to hear that," said the doctor earnestly.
"She is very kind, indeed," said the nurse. "For these six weeks she has fed us up with eggs and cream so that both my patient and myself have fared sumptuously every day. Indeed, if it should continue much longer I shall have to ask an additional allowance for a new uniform. I have promised that Mr. Cameron shall visit the farm within two weeks if he behaves well."
"Exactly!" replied the doctor. "In two weeks if he is good. The only question that troubles me is—is it quite safe? You see in his present weak condition his susceptibility is decidedly emphasised, his resisting power is low, and who knows what might happen, especially if she should insist? I shall not soon forget the look in her eye when she dared me to lay a finger upon his person."
"Oh, cut it out, Martin!" said Cameron. "You make me weary." He lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
The nurse threw a signal to the doctor.
"All right, old man, we must stop this chaff. Buck up and in two weeks we will let you go where you like. I have something in mind for you, but we won't speak of it to-day."
The harvest was safely stored. The yellow stubble showed the fields at rest, but the vivid green of the new fall wheat proclaimed the astounding and familiar fact that once more Nature had begun her ancient perennial miracle. For in those fields of vivid green the harvest of the coming year was already on the way. On these green fields the snowy mantle would lie soft and protecting all the long winter through and when the spring suns would shine again the fall wheat would be a month or more on the way towards maturity.
Somehow the country looked more rested, fresher, cleaner to Cameron than when he had last looked upon it in late August. The rain had washed the dust from the earth's face and from the green sward that bordered the grey ribbon of the high road that led out from the city. The pastures and the hay meadows and the turnip fields were all in their freshest green, and beyond the fields the forest stood glorious in all its autumn splendour, the ash trees bright yellow, the oaks rich brown, and the maples all the colours of the rainbow. In the orchard—ah, the wonder and the joy of it! even the bare and bony limbs of the apple trees only helped to reveal the sumptuous wealth of their luscious fruit. For it was apple time in the land! The evanescent harvest apples were long since gone, the snows were past their best, the pippins were mellowing under the sharp persuasion of the nippy, frosty nights and the brave gallantry of the sunny days. In this ancient warfare between the frosty nights and the gallant sunny days the apples ripened rapidly; and well that they should, for the warfare could not be for long. Already in the early morning hours the vanguard of winter's fierce hosts was to be seen flaunting its hoary banners even in the very face of the gallant sun so bravely making stand against it. But it was the time of the year in which men felt it good to be alive, for there was in the air that tang that gives speed to the blood, spring to the muscle, edge to the appetite, courage to the soul, and zest to life—the apple time of the year.
It was in apple time that Cameron came back to the farm. Under compulsion of Mandy, Haley had found it necessary to drive into the city for some things for the "women folk" and, being in the city, he had called for Cameron and had brought him out. Under compulsion, not at all because Haley was indifferent to the prospect of a visit from his former hired man, not alone because the fall plowing was pressing and the threshing gang was in the neighbourhood, but chiefly because, through the channel of Dr. Martin, the little nurse, and Mandy, it had come to be known in the Haley household and in the country side that the hired man was a "great swell in the old country," and Haley's sturdy independence shrank from anything that savoured of "suckin' round a swell," as he graphically put it. But Mandy scouted this idea and waited for the coming of the expected guest with no embarrassment from the knowledge that he had been in the old country "a great swell."
Hence when, through a crack beside the window blind, she saw him, a poor, pale shadow, descending wearily and painfully from the buggy, the great mother heart in the girl welled with pity. She could hardly forbear rushing out to carry him bodily in her strong arms to the spare room and lay him where she had once helped to lay him the night of the tragedy some eight weeks before. But in this matter she had learned her lesson. She remembered the little nurse and her indignant scorn of the lack of self-control she had shown on the occasion of her last visit to the hospital. So, instead of rushing forth, she clutched the curtains and forced herself to stand still, whispering to herself the while, "Oh, he will die sure! He will die sure!" But when she looked upon him seated comfortably in the kitchen with a steaming glass of ginger and whiskey, her mother's unfailing remedy for "anything wrong with the insides," she knew he would not die and her joy overflowed in boisterous welcome.
For five days they all, from Haley to Tim, gave him of their very best, seeking to hold him among them for the winter, for they had learned that his mind was set upon the West, till Cameron was ashamed, knowing that he must go.
The last afternoon they all spent in the orchard. The Gravensteins, in which species of apple Haley was a specialist, were being picked, and picked with the greatest care, Cameron plucking them from the limbs and dropping them into a basket held by Mandy below. It was one of those sunny days when, after weeks of chilly absence, summer comes again and makes the world glow with warmth and kindly life and quickens in the heart the blood's flow. Cameron was full of talk and fuller of laughter than his wont; indeed he was vexed to find himself struggling to maintain unbroken the flow of laughter and of talk. But in Mandy there was neither speech nor laughter, only a quiet dignity that disturbed and rebuked him.
The last tree of Gravensteins was picked and then there came the time of parting. Cameron, with a man's selfish desire for some token of a woman's adoration, even although he well knew that he could make no return, lingered in the farewell, hoping for some sign in the plain quiet face and the wonderful eyes with their new mystery that when he had gone he would not be forgotten; but though the lips quivered pitifully and the heavy face grew drawn and old and the eyes glowed with a deeper fire, the words, when they came, came quietly and the eyes looked steadily upon him, except that for one brief moment a fire leaped in them and quickly died down. But when the buggy, with Tim driving, had passed down the lane, behind the curtain of the spare room the girl stood looking through the crack beside the blind, with both hands pressed upon her bosom, her breath coming in sobs, her blue lips murmuring brokenly, "Good-by, good-by! Oh, why did you come at all? But, oh, I'm glad you came! God help me, I'm glad you came!" Then, when the buggy had turned down the side lane and out of sight, she knelt beside the bed and kissed, again and again, with tender, reverent kisses, the pillow where his head had lain.
THE CAMP BY THE GAP
On the foot-hills' side of The Gap, on a grassy plain bounded on three sides by the Bow River and on the other by ragged hills and broken timber, stood Surveyor McIvor's camp, three white tents, seeming wondrously insignificant in the shadow of the mighty Rockies, but cosy enough. For on this April day the sun was riding high in the heavens in all his new spring glory, where a few days ago and for many months past the storm king with relentless rigour had raged, searching with pitiless fury these rock-ribbed hills and threatening these white tents and their dwellers with dire destruction. But threaten though he might and pin them though he did beneath their frail canvas covers, he could not make that gang beat retreat. McIvor was of the kind that takes no back trail. In the late fall he had set out to run the line through The Gap, and after many wanderings through the coulees of the foothills and after many vain attempts, he had finally made choice of his route and had brought his men, burnt black with chinook and frost and sun, hither to The Gap's mouth. Every chain length in those weary marches was a battle ground, every pillar, every picket stood a monument of victory. McIvor's advance through the foot-hill country to The Gap had been one unbroken succession of fierce fights with Nature's most terrifying forces, a triumphal march of heroes who bore on their faces and on their bodies the scars and laurels of the campaign. But to McIvor and his gang it was all in the day's work.
To Cameron the winter had brought an experience of a life hitherto undreamed of, but never even in its wildest blizzards did he cherish anything but gratitude to his friend Martin, who had got him attached to McIvor's survey party. For McIvor was a man to "tie to," as Martin said, and to Cameron he was a continual cause of wonder and admiration. He was a big man, with a big man's quiet strength, patient, fearless of men and things, reverent toward Nature's forces, which it was his life's business to know, to measure, to control, and, if need be, to fight, careful of his men, whether amid the perils of the march, or amid the more deadly perils of trading post and railway construction camp. Cameron never could forget the thrill of admiration that swept his soul one night in Taylor's billiard and gambling "joint" down at the post where the Elbow joins the Bow, when McIvor, without bluff or bluster, took his chainman and his French-Canadian cook, the latter frothing mad with "Jamaica Ginger" and "Pain-killer," out of the hands of the gang of bad men from across the line who had marked them as lambs for the fleecing. It was not the courage of his big chief so much that had filled Cameron with amazed respect and admiration as the calm indifference to every consideration but that of getting his men out of harm's way, and the cool-headed directness of the method he employed.
"Come along, boys," McIvor had said, gripping them by their coat collars. "I don't pay you good money for this sort of thing." And so saying he had lifted them clear from their seats, upsetting the table, ignoring utterly the roaring oaths of the discomfited gamblers. What would have been the result none could say, for one of the gamblers had whipped out his gun and with sulphurous oaths was conducting a vigourous demonstration behind the unconscious back of McIvor, when there strolled into the room and through the crowd of men scattering to cover, a tall slim youngster in the red jacket and pill-box cap of that world-famous body of military guardians of law and order, the North West Mounted Police. Not while he lived would Cameron forget the scene that followed. With an air of lazy nonchalance the youngster strode quietly up to the desperado flourishing his gun and asked in a tone that indicated curiosity more than anything else, "What are you doing with that thing?"
"I'll show yeh!" roared the man in his face, continuing to pour forth a torrent of oaths.
"Put it down there!" said the youngster in a smooth and silky voice, pointing to a table near by. "You don't need that in this country."
The man paused in his demonstration and for a moment or two stood in amazed silence. The audacity of the youngster appeared to paralyse his powers of speech and action.
"Put it down there, my man. Do you hear?" The voice was still smooth, but through the silky tones there ran a fibre of steel. Still the desperado stood gazing at him. "Quick, do you hear?" There was a sudden sharp ring of imperious, of overwhelming authority, and, to the amazement of the crowd of men who stood breathless and silent about, there followed one of those phenomena which experts in psychology delight to explain, but which no man can understand. Without a word the gambler slowly laid upon the table his gun, upon whose handle were many notches, the tally of human lives it had accounted for in the hands of this same desperado.
"What is this for?" continued the young man, gently touching the belt of cartridges. "Take it off!"
The belt found its place beside the gun.
"Now, listen!" gravely continued the youngster. "I give you twenty-four hours to leave this post, and if after twenty-four hours you are found here it will be bad for you. Get out!"
The man, still silent, slunk out from the room. Irresistible authority seemed to go with the word that sent him forth, and rightly so, for behind that word lay the full weight of Great Britain's mighty empire. It was Cameron's first experience of the North West Mounted Police, that famous corps of frontier riders who for more than a quarter of a century have ridden the marches of Great Britain's territories in the far northwest land, keeping intact the Pax Britannica amid the wild turmoil of pioneer days. To the North West Mounted Police and to the pioneer missionary it is due that Canada has never had within her borders what is known as a "wild and wicked West." It was doubtless owing to the presence of that slim youngster in his scarlet jacket and pill-box cap that McIvor got his men safely away without a hole in his back and that his gang were quietly finishing their morning meal this shining April day, in their camp by the Bow River in the shadow of the big white peaks that guard The Gap.
Breakfast over, McIvor heaved his great form to the perpendicular.
"How is the foot, Cameron?" he asked, filling his pipe preparatory to the march.
"Just about fit," replied Cameron.
"Better take another day," replied the chief. "You can get up wood and get supper ready. Benoit will be glad enough to go out and take your place for another day on the line."
"Sure ting," cried Benoit, the jolly French-Canadian cook. "Good for my healt. He's tak off my front porsch here." And the cook patted affectionately the little round paunch that marred the symmetry of his figure.
"You ought to get Cameron to swap jobs with you, Benny," said one of the axemen. "You would be a dandy in about another month."
Benoit let his eye run critically over the line of his person.
"Bon! Dat's true, for sure. In tree, four mont I mak de beeg spark on de girl, me."
"You bet, Benny!" cried the axeman. "You'll break 'em all up."
"Sure ting!" cried Benny, catching up a coal for his pipe. "By by, Cameron. Au revoir. I go for tak some more slice from my porsch."
"Good-bye, Benny," cried Cameron. "It is your last chance, for to-morrow I give you back your job. I don't want any 'front porsch' on me."
"Ho! ho!" laughed Benny scornfully, as he turned to hurry after his chief. "Dat's not moch front porsch on you. Dat's one rail fence—clabbord."
And indeed Benoit was right, for there was no "porsch" or sign of one on Cameron's lean and muscular frame. The daily battle with winter's fierce frosts and blizzards, the strenuous toil, the hard food had done their work on him. Strong, firm-knit, clean and sound, hard and fit, he had come through his first Canadian winter. No man in the camp, not even the chief himself, could "bush" him in a day's work. He had gained enormously in strength lately, and though the lines of his frame still ran to angles, he had gained in weight as well. Never in the days of his finest training was he as fit to get the best out of himself as now. An injured foot had held him in camp for a week, but the injury was now almost completely repaired and the week's change of work only served to replenish his store of snap and vim.
An hour or two sufficed to put the camp in the perfect order that he knew Benoit would consider ideal and to get all in readiness for the evening meal when the gang should return. He had the day before him and what a day it was! Cameron lay upon a buffalo skin in front of the cook-tent, content with all the world and for the moment with himself. Six months ago he had engaged as an axeman in the surveyors' gang at $30 per month and "found," being regarded more in the light of a supernumerary and more or less of a burden than anything else. Now he was drawing double the wage as rodman, and, of all the gang, stood second to none in McIvor's regard. In this new venture he had come nearer to making good than ever before in his life. So in full content with himself he allowed his eyes to roam over the brown grassy plain that sloped to the Bow in front, and over the Bow to the successive lines of hills, rounded except where the black rocks broke jagged through the turf, and upward over the rounded hills to the grey sides of the mighty masses of the mountains, and still upward to where the white peaks lost themselves in the shining blue of the sky. Behind him a coulee ran back between hills to a line of timber, and beyond the timber more hills and more valleys, and ever growing higher and deeper till they ran into the bases of the great Rockies.
As Cameron lay thus luxuriating upon his buffalo skin and lazily watching the hills across the river through the curling wreaths that gracefully and fragrantly rose from his briar root, there broke from the line of timber two jumping deer, buck and doe, the latter slow-footed because heavy with young. Behind them in hot pursuit came a pack of yelping coyotes. The doe was evidently hard pressed. The buck was running easily, but gallantly refusing to abandon his mate to her cowardly foes. Straight for the icy river they made, plunged in, and, making the crossing, were safe from their pursuing enemy. Cameron, intent upon fresh meat, ran for McIvor's Winchester, but ere he could buckle round him a cartridge belt and throw on his hunting jacket the deer had disappeared over the rounded top of the nearest hill. Up the coulee he ran to the timber and there waited, but there was no sign of his game. Cautiously he made his way through the timber and dropped into the next valley circling westward towards the mountains. The deer, however, had completely vanished. Turning back upon his tracks, he once more pierced the thin line of timber, when just across the coulee, some three hundred yards away, on the sky line, head up and sniffing the wind, stood the buck in clear view. Taking hurried aim Cameron fired. The buck dropped as if dead. Marking the spot, Cameron hurried forward, but to his surprise found only a trail of blood.
"He's badly hit though," he said to himself. "I must get the poor chap now at all costs." Swiftly he took up the trail, but though the blood stains continued clear and fresh he could get no sight of the wounded animal. Hour after hour he kept up the chase, forgetful of everything but his determination to bring back his game to camp. From the freshness of the stains he knew that the buck could not be far ahead and from the footprints it was clear that the animal was going on three legs.
"The beggar is hearing me and so keeps out of sight," said Cameron as he paused to listen. He resolved to proceed more slowly and with greater caution, but though he followed this plan for another half hour it brought him no better success. The day was fast passing and he could not much longer continue his pursuit. He became conscious of pain in his injured foot. He sat down to rest and to review his situation. For the first time he observed that the bright sky of the morning had become overcast with a film of hazy cloud and that the temperature was rapidly falling. Prudence suggested that he should at once make his way back to camp, but with the instinct of the true hunter he was loath to abandon the poor wounded beast to its unhappy fate. He resolved to make one further attempt. Refreshed by his brief rest, but with an increasing sense of pain in his foot, he climbed the slight rising ground before him, cautiously pushed his way through some scrub, and there, within easy shot, stood the buck, with drooping head and evidently with strength nearly done. Cameron took careful aim—there must be no mistake this time—and fired. The buck leaped high in the air, dropped and lay still. The first shot had broken his leg, the second had pierced his heart.
Cameron hurried forward and proceeded to skin the animal. But soon he abandoned this operation. "We'll come and get him to-morrow," he muttered, "and he is better with his skin on. Meantime we'll have a steak, however." He hung a bit of skin from a pole to keep off the wolves and selected a choice cut for the supper. He worked hurriedly, for the sudden drop in the temperature was ominous of a serious disturbance in the weather, but before he had finished he was startled to observe a large snowflake lazily flutter to the ground beside him. He glanced towards the sky and found that the filmy clouds were rapidly assuming definite shape and that the sun had almost disappeared. Hurriedly he took his bearings and, calculating as best he could the direction of the camp, set off, well satisfied with the outcome of his expedition and filled with the pleasing anticipation of a venison supper for himself and the rest of the gang.
The country was for the most part open except for patches of timber here and there, and with a clear sky the difficulty of maintaining direction would have been but slight. With the sky overcast, however, this difficulty was sensibly increased. He had not kept an accurate reckoning of his course, but from the character of the ground he knew that he must be a considerable distance westward of the line of the camp. His training during the winter in holding a line of march helped him now to maintain his course steadily in one direction. The temperature was still dropping rapidly. Over the woods hung a dead stillness, except for the lonely call of an occasional crow or for the scream of the impudent whiskey-jack. But soon even these became silent. As he surmounted each hill top Cameron took his bearings afresh and anxiously scanned the sky for weather signs. In spite of himself there crept over him a sense of foreboding, which he impatiently tried to shake off.
"I can't be so very far from camp now," he said to himself, looking at his watch. "It is just four. There are three good hours till dark."
A little to the west of his line of march stood a high hill which appeared to dominate the surrounding country and on its top a lofty pine. "I'll just shin up that tree," said he. "I ought to get a sight of the Bow from the top." In a few minutes he had reached the top of the hill, but even in those minutes the atmosphere had thickened. "Jove, it's getting dark!" he exclaimed. "It can't be near sundown yet. Did I make a mistake in the time?" He looked at his watch again. It showed a quarter after four. "I must get a look at this country." Hurriedly he threw off his jacket and proceeded to climb the big pine, which, fortunately, was limbed to the ground. From the lofty top his eye could sweep the country for many miles around. Over the great peaks of the Rockies to the west dark masses of black cloud shot with purple and liver-coloured bars hung like a pall. To the north a line of clear light was still visible, but over the foot-hills towards east and south there lay almost invisible a shimmering haze, soft and translucent, and above the haze a heavy curtain, while over the immediate landscape there shone a strange weird light, through which there floated down to earth large white snowflakes. Not a breath of air moved across the face of the hills, but still as the dead they lay in solemn oppressive silence. Far to the north Cameron caught the gleam of water.
"That must be the Bow," he said to himself. "I am miles too far toward the mountains. I don't like the look of that haze and that cloud bank. There is a blizzard on the move if this winter's experience teaches me anything."
He had once been caught in a blizzard, but on that occasion he was with McIvor. He was conscious now of a little clutch at his heart as he remembered that desperate struggle for breath, for life it seemed to him, behind McIvor's broad back. The country was full of stories of men being overwhelmed by the choking, drifting whirl of snow. He knew how swift at times the on-fall of the blizzard could be, how long the storm could last, how appalling the cold could become. What should he do? He must think and act swiftly. That gleaming water near which his camp lay was, at the very best going, two hours distant. The blizzard might strike at any moment and once it struck all hope of advance would be cut off. He resolved to seek the best cover available and wait till the storm should pass. He had his deer meat with him and matches. Could he but make shelter he doubted not but he could weather the storm. Swiftly he swept the landscape for a spot to camp. Half a mile away he spied a little coulee where several valleys appeared to lose themselves in thick underbrush. He resolved to make for that spot. Hurriedly he slipped down the tree, donned belt and jacket and, picking up gun and venison, set off at a run for the spot he had selected. A puff of wind touched his cheek. He glanced up and about him. The flakes of snow were no longer floating gently down, but were slanting in long straight lines across the landscape. His heart took a quicker beat.
"It is coming, sure enough," he said to himself between his teeth, "and a bad one too at that." He quickened his pace to racing speed. Down the hill, across the valley and up the next slope he ran without pause, but as he reached the top of the slope a sound arrested him, a deep, muffled, hissing roar, and mingled with it the beating of a thousand wings. Beyond the top of the next hill there hung from sky to earth the curtain, thick, black, portentous, and swiftly making approach, devouring the landscape as it came and filling his ears with its muffled, hissing roar.
In the coulee beyond that hill was the spot he had marked for his shelter. It was still some three hundred yards away. Could he beat that roaring, hissing, portentous cloud mass? It was extremely doubtful. Down the hill he ran, slipping, skating, pitching, till he struck the bottom, then up the opposite slope he struggled, straining every nerve and muscle. He glanced upward towards the top of the hill. Merciful heaven! There it was, that portentous cloud mass, roaring down upon him. Could he ever make that top? He ran a few steps further, then, dropping his gun, he clutched a small poplar and hung fast. A driving, blinding, choking, whirling mass of whiteness hurled itself at him, buffeting him heavily, filling eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, clutching at his arms and legs and body with a thousand impalpable insistent claws. For a moment or two he lost all sense of direction, all thought of advance. One instinct only he obeyed—to hold on for dear life to the swaying quivering poplar. The icy cold struck him to the heart, his bare fingers were fast freezing. A few moments he hung, hoping for a lull in the fury of the blizzard, but lull there was none, only that choking, blinding, terrifying Thing that clutched and tore at him. His heart sank within him. This, then, was to be the end of him. A vision of his own body, stark and stiff, lying under a mound of drifting snow, swiftly passed before his mind. He threw it off wrathfully. "Not yet! Not just yet!" he shouted in defiance into the face of the howling storm.
Through the tumult and confusion of his thoughts one idea dominated—he must make the hill-top. Sliding his hands down the trunk of the little poplar he once more found his rifle and, laying it in the hollow of his arm, he hugged it close to his side, shoved his freezing hands into his pockets and, leaning hard against the driving blizzard, set off towards the hill-top. A few paces he made, then turning around leaned back upon the solid massive force of the wind till he could get breath. Again a few steps upward and again a rest against the wind. His courage began to come back.
"Aha!" he shouted at the storm. "Not yet! Not yet!" Gradually, and with growing courage, he fought his way to the top. At length he stood upon the storm-swept summit. "I say," he cried, heartening himself with his speech, "this is so much to the good anyway. Now for the coulee." But exactly where did it lie? Absolutely nothing could he see before him but this blinding, choking mass of whirling snow. He tried to recall the direction in relation to the hill as he had taken it from the top of the tree. How long ago that seemed! Was it minutes or hours? Downward and towards the left lay the coulee. He could hardly fail to strike it. Plunging headlong into the blizzard, he fought his way once more, step by step.
"It was jolly well like a scrimmage," he said grimly to the storm which began in his imagination to assume a kind of monstrous and savage personality. It heartened him much to remember his sensations in many a desperate struggle against the straining steaming mass of muscle and bone in the old fierce football fights. He recalled, too, a word of his old captain, "Never say die! The next minute may be better."
"Never say die!" he cried aloud in the face of his enemy. "But I wish to heaven I could get up some of that heat just now. This cold is going to be the death of me."
As he spoke he bumped into a small bushy spruce tree. "Hello! Here you are, eh!" he cried, determined to be cheerful. "Glad to meet you. Hope there are lots more of you." His hope was realised! A few more steps and he found himself in the heart of a spruce thicket.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed. Then again—"Yes, thank God it is!" It steadied his heart not a little to remember the picture in his mother's Bible that had so often stirred his youthful imagination of One standing in the fishing boat and bidding the storm be still. In the spruce thicket he stood some moments to regain his breath and strength.
"Now what next?" he asked himself. Although the thicket broke the force of the wind, something must be done, and quickly. Night was coming on and that meant an even intenser cold. His hands were numb. His hunting jacket was but slight protection against the driving wind and the bitter cold. If he could only light a fire! A difficult business in this tumultuous whirlwind and snow. He had learned something of this art, however, from his winter's experience. He began breaking from the spruce trees the dead dry twigs. Oh for some birch bark! Like a forgotten dream it came to him that from the tree top he had seen above the spruce thicket the tops of some white birch trees purpling under the touch of spring.
"Let's see! Those birches must be further to my left," he said, recalling their position. Painfully he forced his way through the scrubby underbrush. His foot struck hard against an obstruction that nearly threw him to the ground. It was a jutting rock. Peering through the white mass before his eyes, he could make out a great black, looming mass. Eagerly he pushed forward. It was a towering slab of rock. Following it round on the lee side, he suddenly halted with a shout of grateful triumph. A great section had fallen out of the rock, forming a little cave, storm-proof and dry.
"Thank God once more!" he said, and this time with even deeper reverence. "Now for a fire. If I could only get some birch bark."
He placed his rifle in a corner of the cave and went out on his hunt. "By Jove, I must hurry, or my hands will be gone sure." Looking upwards in the shelter of the rock through the driving snow he saw the bare tops of trees. "Birch, too, as I am alive!" he cried, and plunging through the bushes came upon a clump of white birches.
With fingers that could hardly hold the curling bark he gathered a few bunches and hurried back to the cave. Again he went forth and gathered from the standing trees an armful of dead dry limbs. "Good!" he cried aloud in triumph. "We're not beaten yet. Now for the fire and supper." He drew forth his steel matchbox with numb and shaking fingers, opened it and stood stricken dumb. There were only three matches in the box. Unreasoning terror seized him. Three chances for life! He chose a match, struck it, but in his numb and nerveless fingers the match snapped near the head. With a new terror seizing him he took a second match and struck it. The match flared, sputtering. Eagerly he thrust the birch bark at it; too eagerly, alas, for the bark rubbed out the tiny flame. He had one match left! One hope of life! He closed his matchbox. His hands were trembling with the cold and more with nervous fear that shook him in every limb. He could not bring himself to make the last attempt. Up and down the cave and out and in he stamped, beating his hands to bring back the blood and fighting hard to get back his nerve.
"This is all rotten funk!" he cried aloud, raging at himself. "I shall not be beaten."
Summoning all his powers, he once more pulled out his matchbox, rubbed his birch bark fine and, kneeling down, placed it between his knees under the shelter of his hunting jacket. Kneeling there with the matchbox in his hand, there fell upon his spirit a great calm. "Oh, God!" he said quietly and with the conviction in his soul that there was One listening, "help me now." He opened the matchbox, took out the match, struck it carefully and laid it among the birch bark. For one heart-racking moment it flickered unsteadily, then, catching a resinous fibre of the bark, it flared up, shot out a tiny tongue to one of the heavier bunches, caught hold, sputtered, smoked, burst into flame. With the prayer still going in his heart, "God help me now," Cameron fed the flame with bits of bark and tiny twigs, adding more and more till the fire began to leap, dance, and snap, and at length gaining strength it roared its triumph over the grim terror so recently threatened.
For the present at least the blizzard was beaten.
"Now God be thanked for that," said Cameron. "For it was past my doing."
ON THE WINGS OF THE STORM
Shivering and hungry and fighting with sleep, Cameron stamped up and down his cave, making now and then excursions into the storm to replenish his fire. On sharpened sticks slices of venison were cooking for his supper. Outside the storm raged with greater violence than ever and into the cave the bitter cold penetrated, effectually neutralizing the warmth of the little fire, for the wood was hard to get and a larger fire he could not afford.
He looked at his watch and was amazed to find it only five o'clock. How long could he maintain this fight? His heart sank at the prospect of the long night before him. He sat down upon the rock close beside his cooking venison and in a few moments was fast asleep.
He awoke with a start and found that the fire had crept along a jutting branch and had reached his fingers. He sprang to his feet. The fire lay in smouldering embers, for the sticks were mere brushwood. A terrible fear seized him. His life depended upon the maintaining of this fire. Carefully he assembled the embers and nursed them into bright flame. At all costs he must keep awake. A further excursion into the woods for fuel thoroughly roused him from his sleep. Soon his fire was blazing brightly again.
Consulting his watch, he found that he must have slept half an hour. He determined that in order to keep himself awake and to provide against the growing cold he would lay in a stock of firewood, and so he began a systematic search for fallen trees that he might drag to his shelter.
As he was setting forth upon his search he became aware of a new sound mingling with the roaring of the storm about him, a soft, pounding, rhythmic sound. With every nerve strained he listened. It was like the beating of hoofs. He ran out into the storm and, holding his hands to his ears, bent forward to listen. Faintly over the roaring of the blizzard, and rising and falling with it, there came the sound of singing.
"Am I mad?" he said to himself, beating his head with his hands. He rushed into the cave, threw upon the fire all the brushwood he had gathered, until it sprang up into a great glare, lighting up the cave and its surroundings. Then he rushed forth once more to the turn of the rock. The singing could now be plainly heard.
"Three cheers for the red, white—Get on there, you variously coloured and multitudinously cursed brutes!—Three cheers for the red—Hie there, look out, Little Thunder! They are off to the left."
"Hello!" yelled Cameron at the top of his voice. "Hello, there!"
"Whoa!" yelled a voice sharply. The sound of hoof beats ceased and only the roaring of the blizzard could be heard.
"Hello!" cried Cameron again. "Who are you?" But only the gale answered him.
Again and again he called, but no voice replied. Once more he rushed into the cave, seized his rifle and fired a shot into the air.
"Crack-crack," two bullets spat against the rock over his head.
"Hold on there, you fool!" yelled Cameron, dodging back behind the rock. "What are you shooting at? Hello there!" Still there was no reply.
Long he waited till, desperate with anxiety lest his unknown visitors should abandon him, he ran forward once more beyond the ledge of the rock, shouting, "Hello! Hello! Don't shoot! I'm coming out to you."
At the turn of the rocky ledge he paused, concentrating his powers to catch some sound other than the dull boom and hiss of the blizzard. Suddenly at his side something moved.
"Put up your hands, quick!"
A dark shape, with arm thrust straight before it, loomed through the drift of snow.
"Oh, I say—" began Cameron.
"Quick!" said the voice, with a terrible oath, "or I drop you where you stand."
"All right!" said Cameron, lifting up his hands with his rifle high above his head. "But hurry up! I can't stand this long. I am nearly frozen as it is."
The man came forward, still covering him with his pistol. He ran his free hand over Cameron's person.
"How many of you?" he asked, in a voice sharp and crisp.
"I am all alone. But hurry up! I am about all in."
"Lead on to your fire!" said the stranger. "But if you want to live, no monkey work. I've got you lined."
Cameron led the way to the fire. The stranger threw a swift glance around the cave, then, with eyes still holding Cameron, he whistled shrilly on his fingers. Almost immediately, it seemed to Cameron, there came into the light another man who proved to be an Indian, short, heavily built, with a face hideously ugly and rendered more repulsive by the small, red-rimmed, blood-shot eyes that seemed to Cameron to peer like gimlets into his very soul.
At a word of command the Indian possessed himself of Cameron's rifle and stood at the entrance.
"Now," said the stranger, "talk quick. Who are you? How did you come here? Quick and to the point."
"I am a surveyor," said Cameron briefly. "McIvor's gang. I was left at camp to cook, saw a deer, wounded it, followed it up, lost my way, the storm caught me, but, thank God, I found this cave, and with my last match lit the fire. I was trying to cook my venison when I heard you coming."
The grey-brown eyes of the stranger never left Cameron's face while he was speaking.
"You're a liar!" he said with cold insolence when Cameron had finished his tale. "You look to me like a blank blank horse thief or whiskey trader."
Faint as he was with cold and hunger, the deliberate insolence of the man stirred Cameron to sudden rage. The blood flooded his pale face.
"You coward!" he cried in a choking voice, gathering himself to spring at the man's throat.
But the stranger only laughed and, stepping backward, spoke a word to the Indian behind him. Before he could move Cameron found himself covered by the rifle with the malignant eye of the Indian behind it.
"Hold on, Little Thunder, drop it!" said the stranger with a slight laugh.
Reluctantly the rifle came down.
"All right, Mr. Surveyor," said the stranger with a good-natured laugh. "Pardon my abruptness. I was merely testing you. One cannot be too careful in these parts nowadays when the woods are full of horse thieves and whiskey runners. Oh, come on," he continued, glancing at Cameron's face, "I apologise. So you're lost, eh? Hungry too? Well, so am I, and though I was not going to feed just yet we may as well grub together. Bring the cattle into shelter here," he said to Little Thunder. "They will stand right enough. And get busy with the grub."
The Indian grunted a remonstrance.
"Oh, that's all right," replied the stranger. "Hand it over." He took Cameron's rifle from the Indian and set it in the corner. "Now get a move on! We have no time to waste."
So saying he hurried out himself into the storm. In a few minutes Cameron could hear the blows of an axe, and soon the stranger appeared with a load of dry wood with which he built up a blazing fire. He was followed shortly by the Indian, who from a sack drew out bacon, hardtack, and tea, and, with cooking utensils produced from another sack, speedily prepared supper.
"Pile in," said the stranger to Cameron, passing him the pan in which the bacon and venison had been fried. "Pass the tea, Little Thunder. No time to waste. We've got to hustle."
Cameron was only too eager to obey these orders, and in the generous warmth of the big fire and under the stimulus of the boiling tea his strength and nerve began to come back to him.
For some minutes he was too intent on satisfying his ravenous hunger to indulge in conversation with his host, but as his hunger became appeased he began to give his attention to the man who had so mysteriously blown in upon him out of the blizzard. There was something fascinating about the lean, clean-cut face with its firm lines about the mouth and chin and its deep set brown-grey eyes that glittered like steel or shone like limpid pools of light according to the mood of the man. They were extraordinary eyes. Cameron remembered them like dagger points behind the pistol and then like kindly lights in a dark window when he had smiled. Just now as he sat eating with eager haste the eyes were staring forward into the fire out of deep sockets, with a far-away, reminiscent, kindly look in them. The lumberman's heavy skin-lined jacket and the overalls tucked into boots could not hide the athletic lines of the lithe muscular figure. Cameron looked at his hands with their long, sinewy fingers. "The hands of a gentleman," thought he. "What is his history? And where does he come from?"
"London's my home," said the stranger, answering Cameron's mental queries. "Name, Raven—Richard Colebrooke Raven—Dick for short; rancher, horse and cattle trader; East Kootenay; at present running in a stock of goods and horses; and caught like yourself in this beastly blizzard."
"My name's Cameron, and I'm from Edinburgh a year ago," replied Cameron briefly.
"Edinburgh? Knew it ten years ago. Quiet old town, quaint folk. Never know what they are thinking about you."
Cameron smiled. How well he remembered the calm, detached, critical but uncurious gaze with which the dwellers of the modern Athens were wont to regard mere outsiders.
"I know," he said. "I came from the North myself."
The stranger had apparently forgotten him and was gazing steadily into the fire. Suddenly, with extraordinary energy, he sprang from the ground where he had been sitting.
"Now," he cried, "en avant!"
"Where to?" asked Cameron, rising to his feet.
"East Kootenay, all the way, and hustle's the word."
"Not me," said Cameron. "I must get back to my camp. If you will kindly leave me some grub and some matches I shall be all right and very much obliged. McIvor will be searching for me to-morrow."
"Ha!" burst forth the stranger in vehement expletive. "Searching for you, heh?" He stood for a few moments in deep thought, then spoke to the Indian a few words in his own language. That individual, with a fierce glance towards Cameron, grunted a gruff reply.
"No, no," said Raven, also glancing at Cameron. Again the Indian spoke, this time with insistent fierceness. "No! no! you cold-blooded devil," replied the trader. "No! But," he added with emphasis, "we will take him with us. Pack! Here, bring in coat, mitts, socks, Little Thunder. And move quick, do you hear?" His voice rang out in imperious command.
Little Thunder, growling though he might, no longer delayed, but dived into the storm and in a few moments returned bearing a bag from which he drew the articles of clothing desired.
"But I am not going with you," said Cameron firmly. "I cannot desert my chief this way. It would give him no end of trouble. Leave me some matches and, if you can spare it, a little grub, and I shall do finely."
"Get these things on," replied Raven, "and quit talking. Don't be a fool! we simply can't leave you behind. If you only knew the alternative, you'd—"
Cameron glanced at the Indian. The eager fierce look on that hideous face startled him.
"We will send you back all safe in a few days," continued the trader with a smile. "Come, don't delay! March is the word."
"I won't go!" said Cameron resolutely. "I'll stay where I am."
"All right, you fool!" replied Raven with a savage oath. "Take your medicine then."
He nodded to the Indian. With a swift gleam of joy in his red-rimmed eyes the Indian reached swiftly for Cameron's rifle.
"No, too much noise," said Raven, coolly finishing the packing.
A swift flash of a knife in the firelight, and the Indian hurled himself upon the unsuspecting Cameron. But quick as was the attack Cameron was quicker. Gripping the Indian's uplifted wrist with his left hand, he brought his right with terrific force upon the point of his assailant's chin. The Indian spun round like a top and pitched out into the dark.
"Neatly done!" cried the trader with a great oath and a laugh. "Hold on, Little Thunder!" he continued, as the Indian reappeared, knife in hand, "He'll come now. Quiet, you beast! Ah-h-h! Would you?" He seized by the throat and wrist the Indian, who, frothing with rage and snarling like a wild animal, was struggling to reach Cameron again. "Down, you dog! Do you hear me?"
With a twist of his arms he brought the Indian to his knees and held him as he might a child. Quite suddenly the Indian grew still.
"Good!" said Raven. "Now, no more of this. Pack up."
Without a further word or glance at Cameron, Little Thunder gathered up the stuff and vanished.
"Now," continued the trader, "you perhaps see that it would be wise for you to come along without further delay."
"All right," said Cameron, trembling with indignant rage, "but remember, you'll pay for this."
The trader smiled kindly upon him.
"Better get these things on," he said, pointing to the articles of clothing upon the cave floor. "The blizzard is gathering force and we have still some hours to ride. But," he continued, stepping close to Cameron and looking him in the eyes, "there must be no more nonsense. You can see my man is somewhat short in temper; and indeed mine is rather brittle at times."
For a single instant a smile curled the firm lips and half closed the steely eyes of the speaker, and, noting the smile and the steely gleam in the grey-brown eyes, Cameron hastily decided that he would no longer resist.
Warmed and fed and protected against the blizzard, but with his heart full of indignant wrath, Cameron found himself riding on a wretched cayuse before the trader whose horse could but dimly be seen through the storm, but which from his antics appeared to be possessed of a thousand demons.
"Steady, Nighthawk, old boy! We'll get 'em moving after a bit," said his master, soothing the kicking beast. "Aha, that was just a shade violent," he remonstrated, as the horse with a scream rushed open mouthed at a blundering pony and sent him scuttling forward in wild terror after the bunch already disappearing down the trail, following Little Thunder upon his broncho.
The blizzard was now in their back and, though its force was thereby greatly lessened, the black night was still thick with whirling snow and the cold grew more intense every moment. Cameron could hardly see his pony's ears, but, loping easily along the levels, scrambling wildly up the hills, and slithering recklessly down the slopes, the little brute followed without pause the cavalcade in front. How they kept the trail Cameron could not imagine, but, with the instinct of their breed, the ponies never faltered. Far before in the black blinding storm could be heard the voice of Little Thunder, rising and falling in a kind of singing chant, a chant which Cameron was afterwards to know right well.
"Kai-yai, hai-yah! Hai! Hai!! Hai!!! Kai-yai, hai-yah! Hai! Hai!! Hai!!!"
Behind him came the trader, riding easily his demon-spirited broncho, and singing in full baritone the patriotic ode dear to Britishers the world over:
"Three cheers for the red, white and blue! Three cheers for the red, white and blue! The army and navy for ever, Three cheers for the red, white and blue!"
As Cameron went pounding along through the howling blizzard, half asleep upon his loping, scrambling, slithering pony, with the "Kai-yai, hai-yah" of Little Thunder wailing down the storm from before him and the martial notes of the trader behind him demanding cheers for Her Majesty's naval and military forces, he seemed to himself to be in the grip of some ghastly nightmare which, try as he might, he was unable to shake off.
The ghastly unreality of the nightmare was dispelled by the sudden halt of the bunch of ponies in front.
"All off!" cried the trader, riding forward upon his broncho, which, apparently quite untired by the long night ride, danced forward through the bunch gaily biting and slashing as he went. "All off! Get them into the 'bunk-house' there, Little Thunder. Come along, Mr. Cameron, we have reached our camp. Take off the bridle and blanket and let your pony go."
Cameron did as he was told, and guided by the sound of the trader's voice made his way to a low log building which turned out to be the deserted "grub-house" of an old lumber camp.
"Come along," cried the trader heartily. "Welcome to Fifty Mile Camp. Its accommodation is somewhat limited, but we can at least offer you a bunk, grub, and fire, and these on a night like this are not to be despised." He fumbled around in the dark for a few moments and found and lit a candle stuck in an empty bottle. "There," he cried in a tone of genial hospitality and with a kindly smile, "get a fire on here and make yourself at home. Nighthawk demands my attention for the present. Don't look so glum, old boy," he added, slapping Cameron gaily on the back. "The worst is over." So saying, he disappeared into the blizzard, singing at the top of his voice in the cheeriest possible tones:
"The army and navy for ever, Three cheers for the red, white and blue!"
and leaving Cameron sorely perplexed as to what manner of man this might be; who one moment could smile with all the malevolence of a fiend and again could welcome him with all the generous and genial hospitality he might show to a loved and long-lost friend.
The icy cold woke Cameron as the grey light came in through the dirty windows and the cracks between the logs of the grub-house. Already Little Thunder was awake and busy with the fire in the cracked and rusty stove. Cameron lay still and watched. Silently, swiftly the Indian moved about his work till the fire began to roar and the pot of snow on the top to melt. Then the trader awoke. With a single movement he was out upon the floor.
"All hands awake!" he shouted. "Aha, Mr. Cameron! Good sleep, eh? Slept like a bear myself. Now grub, and off! Still blowing, eh? Well, so much the better. There is a spot thirty miles on where we will be snug enough. How's breakfast, Little Thunder? This is our only chance to-day, so don't spare the grub."
Cameron made but slight reply. He was stiff and sore with the cold and the long ride of the day before. This, however, he minded but little. If he could only guess what lay before him. He was torn between anxiety and indignation. He could hardly make himself believe that he was alive and in his waking senses. Twenty-four hours ago he was breakfasting with McIvor and his gang in the camp by The Bow; now he was twenty or thirty miles away in the heart of the mountains and practically a prisoner in the hands of as blood-thirsty a looking Indian as he had ever seen, and a man who remained to him an inexplicable mystery. Who and what was this man? He scanned his face in the growing light. Strength, daring, alertness, yes, and kindliness, he read in the handsome, brown, lean face of this stranger, lit by its grey-brown hazel eyes and set off with brown wavy hair which the absence of a cap now for the first time revealed.
"He looks all right," Cameron said to himself. And yet when he recalled the smile that had curled these thin lips and half closed these hazel eyes in the cave the night before, and when he thought of that murderous attack of his Indian companion, he found it difficult wholly to trust the man who was at once his rescuer and his captor.
In the days of the early eighties there were weird stories floating about through the Western country of outlaw Indian traders whose chief stock for barter was a concoction which passed for whiskey, but the ingredients of which were principally high wines and tobacco juice, with a little molasses to sweeten it and a touch of blue stone to give it bite. Men of reckless daring were these traders, resourceful and relentless. For a bottle of their "hell-fire fluid" they would buy a buffalo hide, a pack of beaver skins, or a cayuse from an Indian without hesitation or remorse. With a keg or two of their deadly brew they would approach a tribe and strip it bare of a year's catch of furs.
In the fierce fights that often followed, the Indian, poorly armed and half dead with the poison he had drunk, would come off second best and many a wretched native was left to burn and blister upon the plains or among the coulees at the foothills to mark the trail of the whiskey runners.
In British territory all this style of barter was of course unlawful. The giving, selling, or trading of any sort of intoxicant to the Indians was absolutely prohibited. But it was a land of vast and mighty spaces, and everywhere were hiding places where armies could be safely disposed, and therefore there was small chance for the enforcement of the laws of the Dominion. There was little risk to the whiskey runners; and, indeed, however great the risk, the immense profits of their trade would have made them willing to take it.
Hence all through the Western plains the whiskey runners had their way to the degradation and demoralization of the unhappy natives and to the rapid decimation of their numbers. Horse thieves, too, and cattle "rustlers" operating on both sides of "the line" added to the general confusion and lawlessness that prevailed and rendered the lives and property of the few pioneer settlers insecure.
It was to deal with this situation that the Dominion Government organised and despatched the North West Mounted Police to Western Canada. Immediately upon the advent of this famous corps matters began to improve. The open ravages of the whiskey runners ceased and these daring outlaws were forced to carry on their fiendish business by midnight marches and through the secret trails and coulees of the foothills. The profits of the trade, however, were still great enough to tempt the more reckless and daring of these men. Cattle rustling and horse stealing still continued, but on a much smaller scale. To the whole country the advent of the police proved an incalculable blessing. But to the Indian tribes especially was this the case. The natives soon learned to regard the police officers as their friends. In them they found protection from the unscrupulous traders who had hitherto cheated them without mercy or conscience, as well as from the whiskey runners through whose devilish activities their people had suffered irreparable loss.
The administration of the law by the officers of the police with firm and patient justice put an end also to the frequent and bloody wars that had prevailed previously between the various tribes, till, by these wild and savage people the red coat came to be regarded with mingled awe and confidence, a terror to evil-doers and a protection to those that did well.
To which class did this man belong? This Cameron was utterly unable to decide.
With this problem vexing his mind he ate his breakfast in almost complete silence, making only monosyllabic replies to the trader's cheerful attempts at conversation.
Suddenly, with disconcerting accuracy, the trader seemed to read his mind.
"Now, Mr. Cameron," he said, pulling out his pipe, "we will have a smoke and a chat. Fill up." He passed Cameron his little bag of tobacco. "Last night things were somewhat strained," he continued. "Frankly, I confess, I took you at first for a whiskey runner and a horse thief, and having suffered from these gentlemen considerably I was taking no chances."
"Why force me to go with you, then?" asked Cameron angrily.
"Why? For your good. There is less danger both to you—and to me—with you under my eye," replied the trader with a smile.
"Yet your man would have murdered me?"
"Well, you see Little Thunder is one of the Blood Tribe and rather swift with his knife at times, I confess. Besides, his family has suffered at the hands of the whiskey runners. He is a chief and he owes it to these devils that he is out of a job just now. You may imagine he is somewhat touchy on the point of whiskey traders.
"It was you set him on me," said Cameron, still wrathful.
"No, no," said the trader, laughing quietly. "That was merely to startle you out of your, pardon me, unreasonable obstinacy. You must believe me it was the only thing possible that you should accompany us, for if you were a whiskey runner then it was better for us that you should be under guard, and if you were a surveyor it was better for you that you should be in our care. Why, man, this storm may go for three days, and you would be stiff long before anyone could find you. No, no, I confess our measures may have seemed somewhat—ah—abrupt, but, believe me, they were necessary, and in a day or two you will acknowledge that I am in the right of it. Meantime let's trust each other, and there is my hand on it, Cameron."
There was no resisting the frank smile, the open manner of the man, and Cameron took the offered hand with a lighter heart than he had known for the last twelve hours.
"Now, then, that's settled," cried the trader, springing to his feet. "Cameron, you can pack this stuff together while Little Thunder and I dig out our bunch of horses. They will be half frozen and it will be hard to knock any life into them."
It was half an hour before Cameron had his packs ready, and, there being no sign of the trader, he put on his heavy coat, mitts, and cap and fought his way through the blizzard, which was still raging in full force, to the bunk-house, a log building about thirty feet long and half as wide, in which were huddled the horses and ponies to the number of about twenty. Eight of the ponies carried pack saddles, and so busy were Raven and the Indian with the somewhat delicate operation of assembling the packs that he was close upon them before they were aware. Boxes and bags were strewn about in orderly disorder, and on one side were several small kegs. As Cameron drew near, the Indian, who was the first to notice him, gave a grunt.
"What the blank blank are you doing here?" cried Raven with a string of oaths, flinging a buffalo robe over the kegs. "My word! You startled me," he added with a short laugh. "I haven't got used to you yet. All right, Little Thunder, get these boxes together. Bring that grey cayuse here, Cameron, the one with the rope on near the door."
This was easier said than done, for the half-broken brute snorted and plunged till Cameron, taking a turn of the rope round his nose, forced him up through the trembling, crowding bunch.
"Good!" said the trader. "You are all right. You didn't learn to rope a cayuse in Edinburgh, I guess. Here's his saddle. Cinch it on."
While Cameron was engaged in carrying out these orders Little Thunder and the trader were busy roping boxes and kegs into pack loads with a skill and dexterity that could only be the result of long practice.
"Now, then, Cameron, we'll load some of this molasses on your pony."
So saying, Raven picked up one of the kegs.
"Hello, Little Thunder, this keg's leaking. It's lost the plug, as I'm a sinner."
Sure enough, from a small auger hole golden syrup was streaming over the edge of the keg.
"I am certain I put that plug in yesterday," said Raven. "Must have been knocked out last night. Fortunately it stood right end up or we should have lost the whole keg."
While he was speaking he was shaping a small stick into a small plug, which he drove tight into the keg.
"That will fix it," he said. "Now then, put these boxes on the other side. That will do. Take your pony toward the door and tie him there. Little Thunder and I will load the rest and bring them up."
In a very short time all the remaining goods were packed into neat loads and lashed upon the pack ponies in such a careful manner that neither box nor keg could be seen outside the cover of blankets and buffalo skins.
"Now then," cried Raven. "Boots and saddles! We will give you a better mount to-day," he continued, selecting a stout built sorrel pony. "There you are! And a dandy he is, sure-footed as a goat and easy as a cradle. Now then, Nighthawk, we shall just clear out this bunch."
As he spoke he whipped the blanket off his horse. Cameron could not forbear an exclamation of wonder and admiration as his eyes fell upon Raven's horse. And not without reason, for Nighthawk was as near perfection as anything in horse flesh of his size could be. His coal-black satin skin, his fine flat legs, small delicate head, sloping hips, round and well ribbed barrel, all showed his breed. Rolling up the blanket, Raven strapped it to his saddle and, flinging himself astride his horse, gave a yell that galvanised the wretched, shivering, dispirited bunch into immediate life and activity.
"Get out the packers there, Little Thunder. Hurry up! Don't be all day. Cameron, fall behind with me."
Little Thunder seized the leading line of the first packer, leaped astride his own pony, and pushed out into the storm. But the rest of the animals held back and refused to face the blizzard. The traditions of the cayuse are unheroic in the matter of blizzards and are all in favor of turning tail to every storm that blows. But Nighthawk soon overcame their reluctance, whether traditional or otherwise. With a fury nothing less than demoniacal he fell upon the animals next him and inspired them with such terror that, plunging forward, they carried the bunch crowding through the door. It was no small achievement to turn some twenty shivering, balky, stubborn cayuses and bronchos out of their shelter and swing them through the mazes of the old lumber camp into the trail again. But with Little Thunder breaking the trail and chanting his encouraging refrain in front and the trader and his demoniac stallion dynamically bringing up the rear, this achievement was effected without the straying of a single animal. Raven was in great spirits, singing, shouting, and occasionally sending Nighthawk open-mouthed in a fierce charge upon the laggards hustling the long straggling line onwards through the whirling drifts without pause or falter. Occasionally he dropped back beside Cameron, who brought up the rear, bringing a word of encouragement or approval.
"How do they ever keep the trail?" asked Cameron on one of these occasions.
"Little Thunder does the trick. He is the greatest tracker in this country, unless it is his cayuse, which has a nose like a bloodhound and will keep the trail through three feet of snow. The rest of the bunch follow. They are afraid to do anything else in a blizzard like this."
So hour after hour, upward along mountainsides, for by this time they were far into the Rockies, and down again through thick standing forests in the valleys, across ravines and roaring torrents which the warm weather of the previous days had released from the glaciers, and over benches of open country, where the grass lay buried deep beneath the snow, they pounded along. The clouds of snow ever whirling about Cameron's head and in front of his eyes hid the distant landscape and engulfed the head of the cavalcade before him. Without initiative and without volition, but in a dreamy haze, he sat his pony to which he entrusted his life and fortune and waited for the will of his mysterious companion to develope.
About mid-day Nighthawk danced back out of the storm ahead and dropped in beside Cameron's pony.
"A chinook coming," said Raven. "Getting warmer, don't you notice?"
"No, I didn't notice, but now that you call attention to it I do feel a little more comfortable," replied Cameron.
"Sure thing. Rain in an hour."
"An hour? In six perhaps."
"In less than an hour," replied Raven, "the chinook will be here. We're riding into it. It blows down through the pass before us and it will lick up this snow in no time. You'll see the grass all about you before three hours are passed."
The event proved the truth of Raven's prediction. With incredible rapidity the temperature continued to rise. In half an hour Cameron discarded his mitts and unbuttoned his skin-lined jacket. The wind dropped to a gentle breeze, swinging more and more into the southwest, and before the hour was gone the sun was shining fitfully again and the snow had changed into a drizzling rain.
The extraordinary suddenness of these atmospheric changes only increased the sense of phantasmic unreality with which Cameron had been struggling during the past thirty-six hours. As the afternoon wore on the air became sensibly warmer. The moisture rose in steaming clouds from the mountainsides, the snow ran everywhere in gurgling rivulets, the rivulets became streams, the streams rivers, and the mountain torrents which they had easily forded earlier in the day threatened to sweep them away.
The trader's spirits appeared to rise with the temperature. He was in high glee. It was as if he had escaped some imminent peril.
"We will make it all right!" he shouted to Little Thunder as they paused for a few moments in a grassy glade. "Can we make the Forks before dark?"
Little Thunder's grunt might mean anything, but to the trader it expressed doubt.
"On then!" he shouted. "We must make these brutes get a move on. They'll feed when we camp."
So saying he hurled his horse upon the straggling bunch of ponies that were eagerly snatching mouthfuls of grass from which the chinook had already melted the snow. Mercilessly and savagely the trader, with whip and voice and charging stallion, hustled the wretched animals into the trail once more. And through the long afternoon, with unceasing and brutal ferocity, he belabored the faltering, stumbling, half-starved creatures, till from sheer exhaustion they were like to fall upon the trail. It was a weary business and disgusting, but the demon spirit of Nighthawk seemed to have passed into his master, and with an insistence that knew no mercy together they battered that wretched bunch up and down the long slopes till at length the merciful night fell upon the straggling, stumbling cavalcade and made a rapid pace impossible.
At the head of a long slope Little Thunder came to an abrupt halt, rode to the rear and grunted something to his chief.
"What?" cried Raven in a startled voice. "Stonies! Where?"
Little Thunder pointed.
"Did they see you?" This insult Little Thunder disdained to notice. "Good!" replied Raven. "Stay here, Cameron, we will take a look at them."
In a very few minutes he returned, an eager tone in his voice, an eager gleam in his eyes.
"Stonies!" he exclaimed. "And a big camp. On their way back from their winter's trapping. Old Macdougall himself in charge, I think. Do you know him?"
"I have heard of him," said Cameron, and his tone indicated his reverence for the aged pioneer Methodist missionary who had accomplished such marvels during his long years of service with his Indian flock and had gained such a wonderful control over them.
"Yes, he is all right," replied Raven, answering his tone. "He is a shrewd old boy, though. Looks mighty close after the trading end. Well, we will perhaps do a little trade ourselves. But we won't disturb the old man," he continued, as if to himself. "Come and take a look at them."
Little Thunder had halted at a spot where the trail forked. One part led to the right down the long slope of the mountain, the other to the left, gradually climbing toward the top. The Stonies had come by the right hand trail and were now camped off the trail on a little sheltered bench further down the side of the mountain and surrounded by a scattering group of tall pines. Through the misty night their camp fires burned cheerily, lighting up their lodges. Around the fires could be seen groups of men squatted on the ground and here and there among the lodges the squaws were busy, evidently preparing the evening meal. At one side of the camp could be distinguished a number of tethered ponies and near them others quietly grazing.
But though the camp lay only a few hundred yards away and on a lower level, not a sound came up from it to Cameron's ears except the occasional bark of a dog. The Indians are a silent people and move noiselessly through Nature's solitudes as if in reverence for her sacred mysteries.
"We won't disturb them," said Raven in a low tone. "We will slip past quietly."
"They come from Morleyville, don't they?" enquired Cameron.
"Why not visit the camp?" exclaimed Cameron eagerly. "I am sure Mr. Macdougall would be glad to see us. And why could not I go back with him? My camp is right on the trail to Morleyville."
Raven stood silent, evidently perplexed.
"Well," he replied hesitatingly, "we shall see later. Meantime let's get into camp ourselves. And no noise, please." His voice was low and stern.
Silently, and as swiftly as was consistent with silence, Little Thunder led his band of pack horses along the upper trail, the trader and Cameron bringing up the rear with the other ponies. For about half a mile they proceeded in this direction, then, turning sharply to the right, they cut across through the straggling woods, and so came upon the lower trail, beyond the encampment of the Stonies and well out of sight of it.
"We camp here," said Raven briefly. "But remember, no noise."
"What about visiting their camp?" enquired Cameron.
"There is no immediate hurry."
He spoke a few words to Little Thunder in Indian.
"Little Thunder thinks they may be Blackfeet. We can't be too careful. Now let's get grub."
Cameron made no reply. The trader's hesitating manner awakened all his former suspicions. He was firmly convinced the Indians were Stonies and he resolved that come what might he would make his escape to their camp.
Without unloading their packs they built their fire upon a large flat rock and there, crouching about it, for the mists were chilly, they had their supper.
In undertones Raven and Little Thunder conversed in the Indian speech. The gay careless air of the trader had given place to one of keen, purposeful determination. There was evidently serious business on foot. Immediately after supper Little Thunder vanished into the mist.
"We may as well make ourselves comfortable," said Raven, pulling a couple of buffalo skins from a pack and giving one to Cameron. "Little Thunder is gone to reconnoiter." He threw some sticks upon the fire. "Better go to sleep," he suggested. "We shall probably visit the camp in the morning if they should prove to be Stonies."
Cameron made no reply, but, lying down upon his buffalo skin, pretended to sleep, though with the firm resolve to keep awake. But he had passed through an exhausting day and before many minutes had passed he fell into a doze.
From this he awoke with a start, his ears filled with the sound of singing. Beyond the fire lay Raven upon his face, apparently sound asleep. The singing came from the direction of the Indian camp. Noiselessly he rose and stole up the trail to a point from which the camp was plainly visible. A wonderful scene lay before his eyes. A great fire burned in the centre of the camp and round the fire the whole band of Indians was gathered with their squaws in the background. In the centre of the circle stood a tall man with a venerable beard, apparently reading. After he had read the sound of singing once more rose upon the night air.
"Stonies, all right," said Cameron exultantly to himself. "And at evening prayers, too, by Jove."
He remembered hearing McIvor tell how the Stonies never went on a hunting expedition without their hymn books and never closed a day without their evening worship. The voices were high-pitched and thin, but from that distance they floated up soft and sweet. He could clearly distinguish the music of the old Methodist hymn, the words of which were quite familiar to him:
"There is a fountain filled with blood Drawn from Immanuel's veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood. Lose all their guilty stains."
Over and over again, with strange wild cadences of their own invention, the worshippers wailed forth the refrain,
"Lose all their guilty stains."
Then, all kneeling, they went to prayer. Over all, the misty moon struggling through the broken clouds cast a pale and ghostly light. It was, to Cameron with his old-world religious conventions and traditions, a weirdly fascinating but intensely impressive scene. Afar beyond the valley, appeared in dim outline the great mountains, with their heads thrust up into the sky. Nearer at their bases gathered the pines, at first in solid gloomy masses, then, as they approached, in straggling groups, and at last singly, like tall sentinels on guard. On the grassy glade, surrounded by the sentinel pines, the circle of dusky worshippers, kneeling about their camp fire, lifted their faces heavenward and their hearts God-ward in prayer, and as upon those dusky faces the firelight fell in fitful gleams, so upon their hearts, dark with the superstitions of a hundred generations, there fell the gleams of the torch held high by the hands of their dauntless ambassador of the blessed Gospel of the Grace of God.
With mingled feelings of reverence and of pity Cameron stood gazing down upon this scene, resolved more than ever to attach himself to this camp whose days closed with evening prayer.