HotFreeBooks.com
North of Fifty-Three
by Bertrand W. Sinclair
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

CHAPTER XI

WINTER—AND A TRUCE

In line with Roaring Bill's forecast, the weather cleared for a brief span, and then winter shut down in earnest. Successive falls of snow overlaid the earth with a three-foot covering, loose and feathery in the depths of the forest, piled in hard, undulating windrows in the scattered openings. Daily the cold increased, till a half-inch layer of frost stood on the cabin panes. The cold, intense, unremitting, lorded it over a vast realm of wood and stream; lakes and rivers were locked fast under ice, and through the clear, still nights the aurora flaunted its shimmering banners across the northern sky.

But within the cabin they were snug and warm, Bill's ax kept the woodpile high. The two fireplaces shone red the twenty-four hours through. Of flour, tea, coffee, sugar, beans, and such stuff as could only be gotten from the outside he had a plentiful supply. Potatoes and certain vegetables that he had grown in a cultivated patch behind the cabin were stored in a deep cellar. He could always sally forth and get meat. And the ice was no bar to fishing, for he would cut a hole, sink a small net, and secure overnight a week's supply of trout and whitefish. Thus their material wants were provided for.

As time passed Hazel gradually shook off a measure of her depression, thrust her uneasiness and resentment into the background. As a matter of fact, she resigned herself to getting through the winter, since that was inevitable. She was out of the world, the only world she knew, and by reason of the distance and the snows there was scant chance of getting back to that world while winter gripped the North. The spring might bring salvation. But spring was far in the future, too far ahead to dwell upon. As much as possible, she refrained from thinking, wisely contenting herself with getting through one day after another.

And in so doing she fell into the way of doing little things about the house, finding speedily that time flew when she busied herself at some task in the intervals of delving in Roaring Bill's library.

She could cook—and she did. Her first meal came about by grace of Roaring Bill's absence. He was hunting, and supper time drew nigh. She grew hungry, and, on the impulse of the moment, turned herself loose in the kitchen—largely in a mood for experiment. She had watched Bill make all manner of things in his Dutch ovens, and observed how he prepared meat over the glowing coals often enough to get the hang of it. Wherefore, her first meal was a success. When Roaring Bill came in, an hour after dark, he found her with cheeks rosy from leaning over the fire, and a better meal than he could prepare all waiting for him. He washed and sat down. Hazel discarded her flour-sack apron and took her place opposite. Bill made no comment until he had finished and lighted a cigarette.

"You're certainly a jewel, little person," he drawled then. "How many more accomplishments have you got up your sleeve?"

"Do you consider ordinary cooking an accomplishment?" she returned lightly.

"I surely do," he replied, "when I remember what an awful mess I made of it on the start. I certainly did spoil a lot of good grub."

After that they divided the household duties, and Hazel forgot that she had vowed to make Bill Wagstaff wait on her hand and foot as the only penalty she could inflict for his misdeeds. It seemed petty when she considered the matter, and there was nothing petty about Hazel Weir. If the chance ever offered, she would make him suffer, but in the meantime there was no use in being childish.

She did not once experience the drear loneliness that had sat on her like a dead weight the last month before she turned her back on Granville and its unhappy associations. For one thing, Bill Wagstaff kept her intellectually on the jump. He was always precipitating an argument or discussion of some sort, in which she invariably came off second best. His scope of knowledge astonished her, as did his language. Bill mixed slang, the colloquialisms of the frontier, and the terminology of modern scientific thought with quaint impartiality. There were times when he talked clear over her head. And he was by turns serious and boyish, with always a saving sense of humor. So that she was eternally discovering new sides to him.

The other refuge for her was his store of books. Upon the shelves she found many a treasure-trove—books that she had promised herself to read some day when she could buy them and had leisure. Roaring Bill had collected bits of the world's best in poetry and fiction; and last, but by no means least, the books that stand for evolution and revolution, philosophy, economics, sociology, and the kindred sciences. Bill was not orderly. He could put his finger on any book he wanted, but on his shelves like as not she would find a volume of Haeckel and another of Bobbie Burns side by side, or a last year's novel snuggling up against a treatise on social psychology. She could not understand why a man—a young man—with the intellectual capacity to digest the stuff that Roaring Bill frequently became immersed in should choose to bury himself in the wilderness. And once, in an unguarded moment, she voiced that query. Bill closed a volume of Nietzsche, marking the place with his forefinger, and looked at her thoughtfully over the book.

"Well," he said, "there are one or two good and sufficient reasons, to which you, of course, may not agree. First, though, I'll venture to assert that your idea of the nature and purpose of life as we humans know and experience it is rather hazy. Have you ever seriously asked yourself why we exist as entities at all? And, seeing that we do find ourselves possessed of this existence, what constrains us to act along certain lines?"

Hazel shook her head. That was an abstraction which she had never considered. She had been too busy living to make a critical analysis of life. She had the average girl's conception of life, when she thought of it at all, as a state of being born, of growing up, of marrying, of trying to be happy, and ultimately—very remotely—of dying. And she had also the conventional idea that activity in the world, the world as she knew it, the doing of big things in a public or semi-public way, was the proper sphere for people of exceptional ability. But why this should be so, what law, natural or fabricated by man, made it so she had never asked herself. She had found it so, and taken it for granted. Roaring Bill Wagstaff was the first man to cross her path who viewed the struggle for wealth and fame and power as other than inevitable and desirable.

"You see, little person," he went on, "we have some very definite requirements which come of the will to live that dominates all life. We must eat, we must protect our bodies against the elements, and we need for comfort some sort of shelter. But in securing these essentials to self-preservation where is the difference, except in method, between the banker who manipulates millions and the post-hole digger on the farm? Not a darned bit, in reality. They're both after exactly the same thing—security against want. If the post-hole digger's wants are satisfied by two dollars a day he is getting the same result as the banker, whose standard of living crowds his big income. Having secured the essentials, then, what is the next urge of life? Happiness. That, however, brings us to a more abstract question.

"In the main, though, that's my answer to your question. Here I can secure myself a good living—as a matter of fact, I can easily get the wherewithal to purchase any luxuries that I desire—and it is gotten without a petty-larceny struggle with my fellow men. Here I exploit only natural resources, take only what the earth has prodigally provided. Why should I live in the smoke and sordid clutter of a town when I love the clean outdoors? The best citizen is the man with a sound mind and a strong, healthy body; and the only obligation any of us has to society is not to be a burden on society. So I live in the wilds the greater part of the year, I keep my muscles in trim, and I have always food for myself and for any chance wayfarer—and I can look everybody in the eye and tell them to go to the fiery regions if I happen to feel that way. What business would I have running a grocery store, or a bank, or a real-estate office, when all my instincts rebel against it? What normal being wants to be chained to a desk between four walls eight or ten hours a day fifty weeks in the year? I'll bet a nickel there was many a time when you were clacking a typewriter for a living that you'd have given anything to get out in the green fields for a while. Isn't that so?"

Hazel admitted it.

"You see," Bill concluded, "this civilization of ours, with its peculiar business ethics, and its funny little air of importance, is a comparatively recent thing—a product of the last two or three thousand years, to give it its full historic value. And mankind has been a great many millions of years in the making, all of which has been spent under primitive conditions. So that we are as yet barbarians, savages even, with just a little veneer. Why, man, as such, is only beginning to get a glimmering of his relation to the universe. Pshaw, though! I didn't set out to deliver a lecture on evolution. But, believe me, little person, if I thought that any great good or happiness would result from my being elsewhere, from scrapping with my fellows in the world crush, I'd be there with both feet. Do you think you'd be more apt to care for me if I were to get out and try to set the world afire with great deeds?"

"That wasn't the question," she returned distantly, trying, as she always did, to keep him off the personal note.

"But it is the question with me," he declared. "I don't know why I let you go on flouting me." He reached over and caught her arm with a grip that made her wince. The sudden leap of passion into his eyes quickened the beat of her heart. "I could break you in two with my hands without half trying—tame you as the cave men tamed their women, by main strength. But I don't—by reason of the same peculiar feeling that would keep me from kicking a man when he was down, I suppose. Little person, why can't you like me better?"

"Because you tricked me," she retorted hotly. "Because I trusted you, and you used that trust to lead me farther astray. Any woman would hate a man for that. What do you suppose—you, with your knowledge of life—the world will think of me when I get out of here?"

But Roaring Bill had collected himself, and sat smiling, and made no reply. He looked at her thoughtfully for a few seconds, then resumed his reading of the Mad Philosopher, out of whose essays he seemed to extract a great deal of quiet amusement.

A day or two after that Hazel came into the kitchen and found Bill piling towels, napkins, and a great quantity of other soiled articles on an outspread tablecloth.

"Well," she inquired, "what are you going to do with those?"

"Take 'em to the laundry," he laughed. "Collect your dirty duds, and bring them forth."

"Laundry!" Hazel echoed. It seemed rather a far-fetched joke.

"Sure! You don't suppose we can get along forever without having things washed, do you?" he replied. "I don't mind housework, but I do draw the line at a laundry job when I don't have to do it. Go on—get your clothes."

So she brought out her accumulation of garments, and laid them on the pile. Bill tied up the four corners of the tablecloth.

"Now," said he, "let's see if we can't fit you out for a more or less extended walk. You stay in the house altogether too much these days. That's bad business. Nothing like exercise in the fresh air."

Thus in a few minutes Hazel fared forth, wrapped in Bill's fur coat, a flap-eared cap on her head, and on her feet several pairs of stockings inside moccasins that Bill had procured from some mysterious source a day or two before.

The day was sunny, albeit the air was hazy with multitudes of floating frost particles, and the tramp through the forest speedily brought the roses back to her cheeks. Bill carried the bundle of linen on his back, and trudged steadily through the woods. But the riddle of his destination was soon read to her, for a two-mile walk brought them out on the shore of a fair-sized lake, on the farther side of which loomed the conical lodges of an Indian camp.

"You sabe now?" said he as they crossed the ice. "This bunch generally comes in here about this time, and stays till spring. I get the squaws to wash for me. Ever see Mr. Indian on his native heath?"

Hazel never had, and she was duly interested, even if a trifle shy of the red brother who stared so fixedly. She entered a lodge with Bill, and listened to him make laundry arrangements in broken English with a withered old beldame whose features resembled a ham that had hung overlong in the smokehouse. Two or three blanketed bucks squatted by the fire that sent its blue smoke streaming out the apex of the lodge.

"Heap fine squaw!" one suddenly addressed Bill. "Where you ketchum?"

Bill laughed at Hazel's confusion. "Away off." He gestured southward, and the Indian grunted some unintelligible remark in his own tongue—at which Roaring Bill laughed again.

Before they started home Bill succeeded in purchasing, after much talk, a pair of moccasins that Hazel conceded to be a work of art, what with the dainty pattern of beads and the ornamentation of colored porcupine quills. Her feminine soul could not cavil when Bill thrust them in the pocket of her coat, even if her mind was set against accepting any peace tokens at his hands.

And so in the nearing sunset they went home through the frost-bitten woods, where the snow crunched and squeaked under their feet, and the branches broke off with a pistol-like snap when they were bent aside.

A hundred yards from the cabin Bill challenged her to a race. She refused to run, and he picked her up bodily, and ran with her to the very door. He held her a second before he set her down, and Hazel's face whitened. She could feel his breath on her cheek, and she could feel his arms quiver, and the rapid beat of his heart. For an instant she thought Roaring Bill Wagstaff was about to make the colossal mistake of trying to kiss her.

But he set her gently on her feet and opened the door. And by the time he had his heavy outer clothes off and the fires started up he was talking whimsically about their Indian neighbors, and Hazel breathed more freely. The clearest impression that she had, aside from her brief panic, was of his strength. He had run with her as easily as if she had been a child.

After that they went out many times together. Bill took her hunting, initiated her into the mysteries of rifle shooting, and the manipulation of a six-shooter. He taught her to walk on snowshoes, lightly over the surface of the crusted snow, through which otherwise she floundered. A sort of truce arose between them, and the days drifted by without untoward incident, Bill tended to his horses, chopped wood, carried water. She took upon herself the care of the house. And through the long evenings, in default of conversation, they would sit with a book on either side of the fireplace that roared defiance to the storm gods without.

And sometimes Hazel would find herself wondering why Roaring Bill Wagstaff could not have come into her life in a different manner. As it was—she never, never would forgive him.



CHAPTER XII

THE FIRES OF SPRING

There came a day when the metallic brilliancy went out of the sky, and it became softly, mistily blue. All that forenoon Hazel prowled restlessly out of doors without cap or coat. There was a new feel in the air. The deep winter snow had suddenly lost its harshness. A tentative stillness wrapped the North as if the land rested a moment, gathering its force for some titanic effort.

Toward evening a mild breeze freshened from the southwest. The tender blue of the sky faded at sundown to a slaty gray. Long wraiths of cloud floated up with the rising wind. At ten o'clock a gale whooped riotously through the trees. And at midnight Hazel wakened to a sound that she had not heard in months. She rose and groped her way to the window. The encrusting frost had vanished from the panes. They were wet to the touch of her fingers. She unhooked the fastening, and swung the window out. A great gust of damp, warm wind blew strands of hair across her face. She leaned through the casement, and drops of cold water struck her bare neck. That which she had heard was the dripping eaves. The chinook wind droned its spring song, and the bare boughs of the tree beside the cabin waved and creaked the time. Somewhere distantly a wolf lifted up his voice, and the long, throaty howl swelled in a lull of the wind. It was black and ghostly outside, and strange, murmuring sounds rose and fell in the surrounding forests, as though all the dormant life of the North was awakening at the seasonal change. She closed the window and went back to bed.

At dawn the eaves had ceased their drip, and the dirt roof laid bare to the cloud-banked sky. From the southwest the wind still blew strong and warm. The thick winter garment of the earth softened to slush, and vanished with amazing swiftness. Streams of water poured down every depression. Pools stood between the house and stable. Spring had leaped strong-armed upon old Winter and vanquished him at the first onslaught.

All that day the chinook blew, working its magic upon the land. When day broke again with a clearing sky, and the sun peered between the cloud rifts, his beams fell upon vast areas of brown and green, where but forty-eight hours gone there was the cold revelry of frost sprites upon far-flung fields of snow. Patches of earth steamed wherever a hillside lay bare to the sun. From some mysterious distance a lone crow winged his way, and, perching on a near-by tree-top, cawed raucous greeting.

Hazel cleared away the breakfast things, and stood looking out the kitchen window. Roaring Bill sat on a log, shirt-sleeved, smoking his pipe. Presently he went over to the stable, led out his horses, and gave them their liberty. For twenty minutes or so he stood watching their mad capers as they ran and leaped and pranced back and forth over the clearing. Then he walked off into the timber, his rifle over one shoulder.

Hazel washed her dishes and went outside. The cabin sat on a benchlike formation, a shoulder of the mountain behind, and she could look away westward across miles and miles of timber, darkly green and merging into purple in the distance. It was a beautiful land—and lonely. She did not know why, but all at once a terrible feeling of utter forlornness seized her. It was spring—and also it was spring in other lands. The wilderness suddenly took on the characteristics of a prison, in which she was sentenced to solitary confinement. She rebelled against it, rebelled against her surroundings, against the manner of her being there, against everything. She hated the North, she wished to be gone from it, and most of all she hated Bill Wagstaff for constraining her presence there. In six months she had not seen a white face, nor spoken to a woman of her own blood. Out beyond that sea of forest lay the big, active world in which she belonged, of which she was a part, and she felt that she must get somewhere, do something, or go mad.

All the heaviness of heart, all the resentment she had felt in the first few days when she followed him perforce away from Cariboo Meadows, came back to her with redoubled force that forenoon. She went back into the house, now gloomy without a fire, slumped forlornly into a chair, and cried herself into a condition approaching hysteria. And she was sitting there, her head bowed on her hands, when Bill returned from his hunting. The sun sent a shaft through the south window, a shaft which rested on her drooping head. Roaring Bill walked softly up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.

"What is it, little person?" he asked gently.

She refused to answer.

"Say," he bent a little lower, "you know what the Tentmaker said:

"'Come fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring Your Winter garment of Repentance fling; The Bird of Time has but a little way To flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.'

"Life's too short to waste any of it in being uselessly miserable. Come on out and go for a ride on Silk. I'll take you up on a mountainside, and show you a waterfall that leaps three hundred feet in the clear. The woods are waking up and putting on their Easter bonnets. There's beauty everywhere. Come along!"

She wrenched herself away from him.

"I want to go home!" she wailed. "I hate you and the North, and everything in it. If you've got a spark of manhood left in you, you'll take me out of here."

Roaring Bill backed away from her. "Do you mean that? Honest Injun?" he asked incredulously.

"I do—I do!" she cried vehemently. "Haven't I told you often enough? I didn't come here willingly, and I won't stay. I will not! I have a right to live my life in my own way, and it's not this way."

"So," Roaring Bill began evenly, "springtime with you only means getting back to work. You want to get back into the muddled rush of peopled places, do you? For what? To teach a class in school, or to be some business shark's slave of the typewriter at ten dollars a week? You want to be where you can associate with fluffy-ruffle, pompadoured girls, and be properly introduced to equally proper young men. Lord, but I seem to have made a mistake! And, by the same token, I'll probably pay for it—in a way you wouldn't understand if you lived a thousand years. Well, set your mind at rest. I'll take you out. I'll take you back to your stamping-ground if that's what you crave. Ye gods and little fishes, but I have sure been a fool!"

He sat down on the edge of the table, and Hazel blinked at him, half scared, and full of wonder. She had grown so used to seeing him calm, imperturbable, smiling cheerfully no matter what she said or did, that his passionate outbreak amazed her. She could only sit and look at him.

He got out his cigarette materials. But his fingers trembled, spilling the tobacco. And when he tore the paper in his efforts to roll it, he dashed paper and all into the fireplace with something that sounded like an oath, and walked out of the house. Nor did he return till the sun was well down toward the tree-rimmed horizon. When he came back he brought in an armful of wood and kindling, and began to build a fire. Hazel came out of her room. Bill greeted her serenely.

"Well, little person," he said, "I hope you'll perk up now."

"I'll try," she returned. "Are you really going to take me out?"

Bill paused with a match blazing in his fingers.

"I'm not in the habit of saying things I don't mean,"' he answered dryly. "We'll start in the morning."

The dark closed in on them, and they cooked and ate supper in silence. Bill remained thoughtful and abstracted. He slouched for a time in his chair by the fire. Then from some place among his books he unearthed a map, and, spreading it on the table, studied it a while. After that he dragged in his kyaks from outside, and busied himself packing them with supplies for a journey—tea and coffee and flour and such things done up in small canvas sacks.

And when these preparations were complete he got a sheet of paper and a pencil, and fell to copying something from the map. He was still at that, sketching and marking, when Hazel went to bed.

By all the signs and tokens, Roaring Bill Wagstaff slept none that night. Hazel herself tossed wakefully, and during her wakeful moments she could hear him stir in the outer room. And a full hour before daylight he called her to breakfast.



CHAPTER XIII

THE OUT TRAIL

"This time last spring," Bill said to her, "I was piking away north of those mountains, bound for the head of the Naas to prospect for gold."

They were camped in a notch on the tiptop of a long divide, a thousand feet above the general level. A wide valley rolled below, and from the height they overlooked two great, sinuous lakes and a multitude of smaller ones. The mountain range to which Bill pointed loomed seventy miles distance, angling northwest. The sun glinted on the snow-capped peaks, though they themselves were in the shadow.

"I've been wondering," Hazel said. "This country somehow seems different. You're not going back to Cariboo Meadows, are you?"

Bill bestowed a look of surprise on her.

"I should say not!" he drawled. "Not that it would make any difference to me. But I'm very sure you don't want to turn up there in my company."

"That's true," she observed. "But all the clothes and all the money I have in the world are there."

"Don't let money worry you," he said briefly. "I have got plenty to see you through. And you can easily buy clothes."

They were now ten days on the road. Their course had lain across low, rolling country, bordered by rugged hills, spotted with lakes, and cut here and there by streams that put Bill Wagstaff to many strange shifts in crossing. But upon leaving this camp they crossed a short stretch of low country, and then struck straight into the heart of a mountainous region. Steadily they climbed, reaching up through gloomy canons where foaming cataracts spilled themselves over sheer walls of granite, where the dim and narrow pack trail was crossed and recrossed with the footprints of bear and deer and the snowy-coated mountain goat. The spring weather held its own, and everywhere was the pleasant smell of growing things. Overhead the wild duck winged his way in aerial squadrons to the vast solitudes of the North.

Roaring Bill lighted his evening fire at last at the apex of the pass. He had traveled long after sundown, seeking a camp ground where his horses could graze. The fire lit up huge firs, and high above the fir tops the sky was studded with stars, brilliant in the thin atmosphere. They ate, and, being weary, lay down to sleep. At sunrise Hazel sat up and looked about her in silent, wondering appreciation. All the world spread east and west below. Bill squatted by the fire, piling on wood, and he caught the expression on her face.

"Isn't it great?" he said. "I ran across some verses in a magazine a long time ago. They just fit this, and they've been running in my head ever since I woke up:

"'All night long my heart has cried For the starry moors And the mountain's ragged flank And the plunge of oars.

'Oh, to feel the Wind grow strong Where the Trail leaps down. I could never learn the way And wisdom of the town.

'Where the hill heads split the Tide Of green and living air I would press Adventure hard To her deepest lair.'

"The last verse is the best of all," he said thoughtfully. "It has been my litany ever since I first read it:

"'I would let the world's rebuke Like a wind go by, With my naked soul laid bare To the naked Sky.'

"And here you are," he murmured, "hotfooting it back to where the world's rebuke is always in evidence, always ready to sting you like a hot iron if you should chance to transgress one of its petty-larceny dictums. Well, you'll soon be there. Can you see a glint of blue away down there? No? Take the glasses."

She adjusted the binoculars and peered westward from the great height where the camp sat. Distantly, and far below, the green of the forest broke down to a hazy line of steel-blue that ran in turn to a huge fog bank, snow-white in the rising sun.

"Yes, I can see it now," she said. "A lake?"

"No. Salt water—a long arm of the Pacific," he replied. "That's where you and I part company—to your very great relief, I dare say. But look off in the other direction. Lord, you can see two hundred miles! If it weren't for the Babine Range sticking up you could look clear to where my cabin stands. What an outlook! Tens of thousands of square miles of timber and lakes and rivers! Sunny little valleys; fish and game everywhere; soil that will grow anything. And scarcely a soul in it all, barring here and there a fur post or a stray prospector. Yet human beings by the million herd in filthy tenements, and never see a blade of green grass the year around.

"I told you, I think, about prospecting on the head of the Naas last spring. I fell in with another fellow up there, and we worked together, and early in the season made a nice little clean-up on a gravel bar. I have another place spotted, by the way, that would work out a fortune if a fellow wanted to spend a couple of thousand putting in some simple machinery. However, when the June rise drove us off our bar, I pulled clear out of the country. Just took a notion to see the bright lights again. And I didn't stop short of New York. Do you know, I lasted there just one week by the calendar. It seems funny, when you think of it, that a man with three thousand dollars to spend should get lonesome in a place like New York. But I did. And at the end of a week I flew. The sole memento of that trip was a couple of Russell prints—and a very bad taste in my mouth. I had all that money burning my pockets—and, all told, I didn't spend five hundred. Fancy a man jumping over four thousand miles to have a good time, and then running away from it. It was very foolish of me, I think now. If I had stuck and got acquainted with somebody, and taken in all the good music, the theaters, and the giddy cafes I wouldn't have got home and blundered into Cariboo Meadows at the psychological moment to make a different kind of fool of myself. Well, the longer we live the more we learn. Day after to-morrow you'll be in Bella Coola. The cannery steamships carry passengers on a fairly regular schedule to Vancouver. How does that suit you?"

"Very well," she answered shortly.

"And you haven't the least twinge of regret at leaving all this?" He waved his hand in a comprehensive sweep.

"I don't happen to have your peculiar point of view," she returned. "The circumstances connected with my coming into this country and with my staying here are such as to make me anxious to get away."

"Same old story," Bill muttered under his breath.

"What is it?" she asked sharply.

"Oh, nothing," he said carelessly, and went on with his breakfast preparations.

They finished the meal. Bill got his horses up beside the fire, loading on the packs. Hazel sat on the trunk of a winter-broken fir, waiting his readiness to start. She heard no sound behind her. But she did see Roaring Bill stiffen and his face blanch under its tan. Twenty feet away his rifle leaned against a tree; his belt and six-shooter hung on a limb above it. He was tucking a keen-edged hatchet under the pack lashing. And, swinging this up, he jumped—it seemed—straight at her. But his eyes were fixed on something beyond.

Before she could move, or even turn to look, so sudden was his movement, Bill was beside her. The sound of a crunching blow reached her ears. In the same instant a heavy body collided with her, knocking her flat. A great weight, a weight which exhaled a rank animal odor, rolled over her. Her clutching hands briefly encountered some hairy object. Then she was slammed against the fallen tree with a force that momentarily stunned her.

When she opened her eyes again Roaring Bill had her head in his lap, peering anxiously down. She caught a glimpse of the unsteady hand that held a cup of water, and she struggled to a sitting posture with a shudder. Bill's shirt was ripped from the neckband to the wrist, baring his sinewy arm. And hand, arm, and shoulder were spattered with fresh blood. His face was spotted where he had smeared it with his bloody hand. Close by, so close that she could almost reach it, lay the grayish-black carcass of a bear, Bill's hatchet buried in the skull, as a woodsman leaves his ax blade stuck in a log.

"Feel all right?" Bill asked. His voice was husky.

"Yes, yes," she assured him. "Except for a sort of sickening feeling. Are you hurt?"

He shook his head.

"I thought you were broken in two," he muttered.. "We both fell right on top of you. Ugh!"

He sat down on the tree and rested his head on his bloodstained hands, and Hazel saw that he was quivering from head to foot. She got up and went over to him.

"Are you sure you aren't hurt?" she asked again.

He looked up at her; big sweat drops were gathering on his face.

"Hurt? No," he murmured; "I'm just plain scared. You looked as if you were dead, lying there so white and still."



He reached out one long arm and drew her up close to him.

"Little person," he whispered, "if you just cared one little bit as much as I do, it would be all right. Look at me. Just the thought of what might have happened to you has set every nerve in my body jumping. I'm Samson shorn. Why can't you care? I'd be gooder than gold to you."

She drew herself away from him without answering—not in fear, but because her code of ethics, the repressive conventions of her whole existence urged her to do so in the face of a sudden yearning to draw his bloody face up close to her and kiss it. The very thought, the swift surge of the impulse frightened her, shocked her. She could not understand it, and so she took refuge behind the woman instinct to hold back, that strange feminine paradox which will deny and shrink from the dominant impulses of life. And Roaring Bill made no effort to hold her. He let her go, and fumbled for a handkerchief to wipe his glistening face. And presently he went over to where a little stream bubbled among the tree roots and washed his hands and face. Then he got a clean shirt out of his war bag and disappeared into the brush to change. When he came out he was himself again, if a bit sober in expression.

He finished his packing without further words. Not till the pack horses were ready, and Silk saddled for her, did he speak again. Then he cast a glance at the dead bear.

"By Jove!" he remarked. "I'm about to forget my tomahawk."

He poked tentatively at the furry carcass with his toe. Hazel came up and took a curious survey of fallen Bruin. Bill laid hold of the hatchet and wrenched it loose.

"I've hunted more or less all my life," he observed, "and I've seen bear under many different conditions. But this is the first time I ever saw a bear tackle anybody without cause or warning. I guess this beggar was strictly on the warpath, looking for trouble on general principles."

"Was he after me?" Hazel asked.

"Well, I don't know whether he had a grudge against you," Bill smiled. "But he was sure coming with his mouth open and his arms spread wide. You notice I didn't take time to go after my rifle, and I'm not a foolhardy person as a rule. I don't tackle a grizzly with a hatchet unless I'm cornered, believe me. It was lucky he wasn't overly big. At that, I can feel my hair stand up when I think how he would have mussed us up if I'd missed that first swing at his head. You'll never have a closer call. And the same thing might not happen again if you lived in a bear country for thirty years.

"It's a pity to let that good skin rot here," Bill concluded slowly; "but I guess I will. I don't want his pelt. It would always be a reminder of things—things I'd just as soon forget."

He tucked the hatchet in its place on the pack. Hazel swung up on Silk. They tipped over the crest of the mountain, and began the long descent.

The evening of the third day from there Bill traveled till dusk. When camp was made and the fire started, he called Hazel to one side, up on a little rocky knoll, and pointed out a half dozen pin points of yellow glimmering distantly in the dark.

"That's Bella Coola," he told her. "And unless they've made a radical change in their sailing schedules there should be a boat clear to-morrow at noon."



CHAPTER XIV

THE DRONE OF THE HIVE

A black cloud of smoke was rolling up from the funnel of the Stanley D. as Bill Wagstaff piloted Hazel from the grimy Bella Coola hotel to the wharf.

"There aren't many passengers," he told her. "They're mostly cannery men. But you'll have the captain's wife to chaperon you. She happens to be making the trip."

When they were aboard and the cabin boy had shown them to what was dignified by the name of stateroom, Bill drew a long envelope from his pocket.

"Here," he said, "is a little money. I hope you won't let any foolish pride stand in the way of using it freely. It came easy to me. I dug it out of Mother Earth, and there's plenty more where it came from. Seeing that I deprived you of access to your own money and all your personal belongings, you are entitled to this any way you look at it. And I want to throw in a bit of gratuitous advice—in case you should conclude to go back to the Meadows. They probably looked high and low for you. But there is no chance for them to learn where you actually did get to unless you yourself tell them. The most plausible explanation—and if you go there you must make some explanation—would be for you to say that you got lost—which is true enough—and that you eventually fell in with a party of Indians, and later on connected up with a party of white people who were traveling coastward. That you wintered with them, and they put you on a steamer and sent you to Vancouver when spring opened.

"That, I guess, is all," he concluded slowly. "Only I wish"—he caught her by the shoulders and shook her gently—"I sure do wish it could have been different, little person. Maybe you'll have a kindlier feeling for this big old North when you get back into your cities and towns, with their smoke and smells and business sharks, where it's everybody for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Maybe some time when I get restless for human companionship and come out to cavort in the bright lights for a while, I may pass you on a street somewhere. This world is very small. Oh, yes—when you get to Vancouver go to the Ladysmith. It's a nice, quiet hotel in the West End. Any hack driver knows the place."

He dropped his hands, and looked steadily at her for a few seconds, steadily and longingly.

"Good-by!" he said abruptly—and walked out, and down the gangplank that was already being cast loose, and away up the wharf without a backward glance.

The Stanley D.'s siren woke the echoes along the wooded shore. A throbbing that shook her from stem to stern betokened the first turnings of the screw. And slowly she backed into deep water and swung wide for the outer passage.

Hazel went out to the rail. Bill Wagstaff had disappeared, but presently she caught sight of him standing on the shore end of the wharf, his hands thrust deep in his coat pockets, staring after the steamer. Hazel waved the envelope that she still held in her hand. Now that she was independent of him, she felt magnanimous, forgiving—and suddenly very much alone, as if she had dropped back into the old, depressing Granville atmosphere. But he gave no answering sign save that he turned on the instant and went up the hill to where his horses stood tied among the huddled buildings. And within twenty minutes the Stanley D. turned a jutting point, and Bella Coola was lost to view.

Hazel went back into her stateroom and sat down on the berth. Presently she opened the envelope. There was a thick fold of bills, her ticket, and both were wrapped in a sheet of paper penciled with dots and crooked lines. She laid it aside and counted the money.

"Heavens!" she whispered. "I wish he hadn't given me so much. I didn't need all that."

For Roaring Bill had tucked a dozen one-hundred-dollar notes in the envelope. And, curiously enough, she was not offended, only wishful that he had been less generous. Twelve hundred dollars was a lot of money, far more than she needed, and she did not know how she could return it. She sat a long time with the money in her lap, thinking. Then she took up the map, recognizing it as the sheet of paper Bill had worked over so long their last night at the cabin.

It made the North more clear—a great deal more clear—to her, for he had marked Cariboo Meadows, the location of his cabin, and Bella Coola, and drawn dotted lines to indicate the way he had taken her in and brought her out. The Fraser and its tributaries, some of the crossings that she remembered were sketched in, the mountains and the lakes by which his trail had wound.

"I wonder if that's a challenge to my vindictive disposition?" she murmured. "I told him so often that I'd make him sweat for his treachery if ever I got a chance. Ah well—"

She put away the money and the map, and bestowed a brief scrutiny upon herself in the cabin mirror. Six months in the wild had given her a ruddy color, the glow of perfect physical condition. But her garments were tattered and sadly out of date. The wardrobe of the steamer-trunk lady had suffered in the winter's wear. She was barely presentable in the outing suit of corduroy. So that she was inclined to be diffident about her appearance, and after a time when she was not thinking of the strange episodes of the immediate past, her mind, womanlike, began to dwell on civilization and decent clothes.

The Stanley D. bore down Bentick Arm and on through Burke Channel to the troubled waters of Queen Charlotte Sound, where the blue Pacific opens out and away to far Oriental shores. After that she plowed south between Vancouver Island and the rugged foreshores where the Coast Range dips to the sea, past pleasant isles, and through narrow passes where the cliffs towered sheer on either hand, and, upon the evening of the third day, she turned into Burrard Inlet and swept across a harbor speckled with shipping from all the Seven Seas to her berth at the dock.

So Hazel came again to a city—a city that roared and bellowed all its manifold noises in her ears, long grown accustomed to a vast and brooding silence. Mindful of Bill's parting word, she took a hack to the Ladysmith. And even though the hotel was removed from the business heart of the city, the rumble of the city's herculean labors reached her far into the night. She lay wakefully, staring through her open window at the arc lights winking in parallel rows, listening to the ceaseless hum of man's activities. But at last she fell asleep, and dawn of a clear spring day awakened her.

She ate her breakfast, and set forth on a shopping tour. To such advantage did she put two of the hundred-dollar bills that by noon she was arrayed in a semi-tailored suit of gray, spring hat, shoes, and gloves to match. She felt once more at ease, less conscious that people stared at her frayed and curious habiliments. With a complete outfit of lingerie purchased, and a trunk in which to store it forwarded to her hotel, her immediate activity was at an end, and she had time to think of her next move.

And, brought face to face with that, she found herself at something of a loss. She had no desire to go back to Cariboo Meadows, even to get what few personal treasures she had left behind. Cariboo Meadows was wiped off the slate as far as she was concerned. Nevertheless, she must make her way. Somehow she must find a means to return the unused portion of the—to her—enormous sum Roaring Bill had placed in her hands. She must make her own living. The question that troubled her was: How, and where? She had her trade at her finger ends, and the storied office buildings of Vancouver assured her that any efficient stenographer could find work. But she looked up as she walked the streets at the high, ugly walls of brick and steel and stone, and her heart misgave her.

So for the time being she promised herself a holiday. In the afternoon she walked the length of Hastings Street, where the earth trembled with the roaring traffic of street cars, wagons, motors, and where folk scuttled back and forth across the way in peril of their lives. She had seen all the like before, but now she looked upon it with different eyes; it possessed somehow a different significance, this bustle and confusion which had seemingly neither beginning nor end, only sporadic periods of cessation.

She sat in a candy parlor and watched people go by, swarming like bees along the walk. She remembered having heard or read somewhere the simile of a human hive. The shuffle of their feet, the hum of their voices droned in her cars, confusing her, irritating her, and she presently found herself hurrying away from it, walking rapidly eastward toward a thin fringe of trees which showed against a distant sky-line over a sea of roofs. She walked fast, and before long the jar of solid heels on the concrete pavement bred an ache in her knees. Then she caught a car passing in that direction, and rode to the end of the line, where the rails ran out in a wilderness of stumps.

Crossing through these, she found a rudely graded highway, which in turn dwindled to a mere path. It led her through a pleasant area of second-growth fir, slender offspring of the slaughtered forest monarchs, whose great stumps dotted the roll of the land, and up on a little rise whence she could overlook the city and the inlet where rode the tall-masted ships and sea-scarred tramps from deep salt water. And for the time being she was content.

But a spirit of restlessness drove her back into the city. And at nightfall she went up to her room and threw herself wearily on the bed. She was tired, body and spirit, and lonely. Nor was this lightened by the surety that she would be lonelier still before she found a niche to fit herself in and gather the threads of her life once more into some orderly pattern.

In the morning she felt better, even to the point of going over the newspapers and jotting down several advertisements calling for office help. Her brief experience in Cariboo Meadows had not led her to look kindly on teaching as a means of livelihood. And stenographers seemed to be in demand. Wherefore, she reasoned that wages would be high. With the list in her purse, she went down on Hastings—which runs like a huge artery through the heart of the city, with lesser streets crossing and diverging.

But she made no application for employment. For on the corner of Hastings and Seymour, as she gathered her skirt in her hand to cross the street, some one caught her by the arm, and cried:

"Well, forevermore, if it isn't Hazel Weir!"

And she turned to find herself facing Loraine Marsh—a Granville school chum—and Loraine's mother. Back of them, with wide and startled eyes, loomed Jack Barrow.

He pressed forward while the two women overwhelmed Hazel with a flood of exclamations and questions, and extended his hand. Hazel accepted the overture. She had long since gotten over her resentment against him. She was furthermore amazed to find that she could meet his eye and take his hand without a single flutter of her pulse. It seemed strange, but she was glad of it. And, indeed, she was too much taken up with Loraine Marsh's chatter, and too genuinely glad to hear a friendly voice again, to dwell much on ghosts of the past.

They stood a few minutes on the corner; then Mrs. Marsh proposed that they go to the hotel, where they could talk at their leisure and in comfort. Loraine and her mother took the lead. Barrow naturally fell into step with Hazel.

"I've been wearing sackcloth and ashes, Hazel," he said humbly. "And I guess you've got about a million apologies coming from everybody in Granville for the shabby way they treated you. Shortly after you left, somebody on one of the papers ferreted out the truth of that Bush affair, and the vindictive old hound's reasons for that compromising legacy were set forth. It seems this newspaper fellow connected up with Bush's secretary and the nurse. Also, Bush appears to have kept a diary—and kept it posted up to the day of his death—poured out all his feelings on paper, and repeatedly asserted that he would win you or ruin you. And it seems that that night after you refused to come to him when he was hurt, he called in his lawyer and made that codicil—and spent the rest of the time till he died gloating over the chances of it besmirching your character."

"I've grown rather indifferent about it," Hazel replied impersonally. "But he succeeded rather easily. Even you, who should have known me better, were ready to believe the very worst."

"I've paid for it," Barrow pleaded. "You don't know how I've hated myself for being such a cad. But it taught me a lesson—if you'll not hold a grudge against me. I've wondered and worried about you, disappearing the way you did. Where have you been, and how have you been getting on? You surely look well." He bent an admiring glance on her.

"Oh, I've been every place, and I can't complain about not getting on," she answered carelessly.

For the life of her, she could not help making comparisons between the man beside her and another who she guessed would by now be bearing up to the crest of the divide that overlooked the green and peaceful vista of forest and lake, with the Babine Range lying purple beyond. She wondered if Roaring Bill Wagstaff would ever, under any circumstances, have looked on her with the scornful, angry distrust that Barrow had once betrayed. And she could not conceive of Bill Wagstaff ever being humble or penitent for anything he had done. Barrow's attitude was that of a little boy who had broken some plaything in a fit of anger and was now woefully trying to put the pieces together again. It amused her. Indeed, it afforded her a distinctly un-Christian satisfaction, since she was not by nature of a meek or forgiving spirit. He had made her suffer; it was but fitting that he should know a pang or two himself.

Hazel visited with the three of them in the hotel parlor for a matter of two hours, went to luncheon with them, and at luncheon Loraine Marsh brought up the subject of her coming home to Granville with them. The Bush incident was discussed and dismissed. On the question of returning, Hazel was noncommittal. The idea appealed strongly to her. Granville was home. She had grown up there. There were a multitude of old ties, associations, friends to draw her back. But whether her home town would seem the same, whether she would feel the same toward the friends who had held aloof in the time when she needed a friend the most, even if they came flocking back to her, was a question that she thought of if she did not put it in so many words. On the other hand, she knew too well the drear loneliness that would close upon her in Vancouver when the Marshes left.

"Of course you'll come! We won't hear of leaving you behind. So you can consider that settled." Loraine Marsh declared at last. "We're going day after to-morrow. So is Mr. Barrow."

Jack walked with her out to the Ladysmith, and, among other things, told her how he happened to be in the coast city.

"I've been doing pretty well lately," he said. "I came out here on a deal that involved about fifty thousand dollars. I closed it up just this morning—and the commission would just about buy us that little house we had planned once. Won't you let bygones be bygones, Hazie?"

"It might be possible, Jack," she answered slowly, "if it were not for the fact that you took the most effective means a man could have taken to kill every atom of affection I had for you. I don't feel bitter any more—I simply don't feel at all."

"But you will," he said eagerly. "Just give me a chance. I was a hot-headed, jealous fool, but I never will be again. Give me a chance, Hazel."

"You'll have to make your own chances," she said deliberately. "I refuse to bind myself in any way. Why should I put myself out to make you happy when you destroyed all the faith I had in you? You simply didn't trust me. You wouldn't trust me again. If slander could turn you against me once it might a second time. Besides, I don't care for you as a man wants a woman to care for him. And I don't think I'm going to care—except, perhaps, in a friendly way."

And with that Barrow had to be content.

He called for her the next day, and took her, with the Marshes, out for a launch ride, and otherwise devoted himself to being an agreeable cavalier. On the launch excursion it was settled definitely that Hazel should accompany them East. She had no preparations to make. The only thing she would like to have done—return Roaring Bill's surplus money—she could not do. She did not know how or where to reach him with a letter. So far as Granville was concerned, she could always leave it if she desired, and she was a trifle curious to know how all her friends would greet her now that the Bush mystery was cleared up and the legacy explained.

So that at dusk of the following day she and Loraine Marsh sat in a Pullman, flattening their noses against the car window, taking a last look at the environs of Vancouver as the train rolled through the outskirts of the city. Hazel told herself that she was going home. Barrow smiled friendly assurance over the seat.

Even so, she was restless, far from content. There was something lacking. She grew distrait, monosyllabic, sat for long intervals staring absently into the gloom beyond the windowpane. The Limited was ripping through forested land. She could see now and then tall treetops limned against the starlit sky. The ceaseless roar of the trucks and the buzz of conversation in the car irritated her. At half after eight she called the porter and had him arrange her section for the night. And she got into bed, thankful to be by herself, depressed without reason.

She slept for a time, her sleep broken into by morbid dreams, and eventually she wakened to find her eyes full of tears. She did not know why she should cry, but cry she did till her pillow grew moist—and the heavy feeling in her breast grew, if anything, more intense.

She raised on one elbow and looked out the window. The train slowed with a squealing of brakes and the hiss of escaping air to a station. On the signboard over the office window she read the name of the place and the notation: "Vancouver, 180 miles."

Her eyes were still wet. When the Limited drove east again she switched on the tiny electric bulb over her head, and fumbled in her purse for another handkerchief. Her fingers drew forth, with the bit of linen, a folded sheet of paper, which seemed to hypnotize her, so fixedly did she remain looking at it. A sheet of plain white paper, marked with dots and names and crooked lines that stood for rivers, with shaded patches that meant mountain ranges she had seen—Bill Wagstaff's map.

She stared at it a long time. Then she found her time-table, and ran along the interminable string of station names till she found Ashcroft, from whence northward ran the Appian Way of British Columbia, the Cariboo Road, over which she had journeyed by stage. She noted the distance, and the Limited's hour of arrival, and looked at her watch. Then a feverish activity took hold of her. She dressed, got her suit case from under the berth, and stuffed articles into it, regardless of order. Her hat was in a paper bag suspended from a hook above the upper berth. Wherefore, she tied a silk scarf over her head.

That done, she set her suit case in the aisle, and curled herself in the berth, with her face pressed close against the window. A whimsical smile played about her mouth, and her fingers tap-tapped steadily on the purse, wherein was folded Bill Wagstaff's map.

And then out of the dark ahead a cluster of lights winked briefly, the shriek of the Limited's whistle echoed up and down the wide reaches of the North Thompson, and the coaches came to a stop. Hazel took one look to make sure. Then she got softly into the aisle, took up her suit case, and left the car. At the steps she turned to give the car porter a message.

"Tell Mrs. Marsh—the lady in lower five," she said, with a dollar to quicken his faculties, "that Miss Weir had to go back. Say that I will write soon and explain."

She stood back in the shadow of the station for a few seconds. The Limited's stop was brief. When the red lights went drumming down the track, she took up her suit case and walked uptown to the hotel where she had tarried overnight once before.

The clerk showed her to a room. She threw her suit case on the bed and turned the key in the lock. Then she went over, and, throwing up the window to its greatest height, sat down and looked steadily toward the north, smiling to herself.

"I can find him," she suddenly said aloud. "Of course I can find him!"

And with that she blew a kiss from her finger-tips out toward the dark and silent North, pulled down the shade, and went quietly to bed.



CHAPTER XV

AN ENDING AND A BEGINNING

Unconsciously, by natural assimilation, so to speak, Hazel Weir had absorbed more woodcraft than she realized in her over-winter stay in the high latitudes. Bill Wagstaff had once told her that few people know just what they can do until they are compelled to try, and upon this, her second journey northward, the truth of that statement grew more patent with each passing day. Little by little the vast central interior of British Columbia unfolded its orderly plan of watercourses, mountain ranges, and valleys. She passed camping places, well remembered of that first protesting journey. And at night she could close her eyes beside the camp fires and visualize the prodigious setting of it all—eastward the pyramided Rockies, westward lesser ranges, the Telegraph, the Babine; and through the plateau between the turbulent Frazer, bearing eastward from the Rockies and turning abruptly for its long flow south, with its sinuous doublings and turnings that were marked in bold lines on Bill Wagstaff's map.

So trailing north with old Limping George, his fat klootch, and two half-grown Siwash youths, Hazel bore steadily across country, driving as straight as the rolling land allowed for the cabin that snuggled in a woodsy basin close up to the peaks that guard Pine River Pass.

There came a day when brief uncertainty became sure knowledge at sight of an L-shaped body of water glimmering through the fire-thinned spruce. Her heart fluttered for a minute. Like a homing bird, by grace of the rude map and Limping George, she had come to the lake where the Indians had camped in the winter, and she could have gone blindfolded from the lake to Roaring Bill's cabin.

On the lake shore, where the spruce ran out to birch and cottonwood, she called a halt.

"Make camp," she instructed. "Cabin over there," she waved her hand. "I go. Byemby come back."

Then she urged her pony through the light timber growth and across the little meadows where the rank grass and strange varicolored flowers were springing up under the urge of the warm spring sun. Twenty minutes brought her to the clearing. The grass sprang lush there, and the air was pleasant with odors of pine and balsam wafted down from the mountain height behind. But the breath of the woods was now a matter of small moment, for Silk and Satin and Nigger loafing at the sunny end of the stable pricked up their ears at her approach, and she knew that Roaring Bill was home again. She tied her horse to a sapling and drew nearer. The cabin door stood wide.

A brief panic seized her. She felt a sudden shrinking, a wild desire for headlong flight. But it passed. She knew that for good or ill she would never turn back. And so, with her heart thumping tremendously and a tentative smile curving her lips, she ran lightly across to the open door.

On the soft turf her footsteps gave forth no sound. She gained the doorway as silently as a shadow. Roaring Bill faced the end of the long room, but he did not see her, for he was slumped in the big chair before the fireplace, his chin sunk on his breast, staring straight ahead with absent eyes.

In all the days she had been with him she had never seen him look like that. It had been his habit, his defense, to cover sadness with a smile, to joke when he was hurt. That weary, hopeless expression, the wry twist of his lips, wrung her heart and drew from her a yearning little whisper:

"Bill!"

He came out of his chair like a panther. And when his eyes beheld her in the doorway he stiffened in his tracks, staring, seeing, yet reluctant to believe the evidence of his vision. His brows wrinkled. He put up one hand and absently ran it over his cheek.

"I wonder if I've got to the point of seeing things," he said slowly. "Say, little person, is it your astral body, or is it really you?"

"Of course it's me," she cried tremulously, and with fine disregard for her habitual preciseness of speech.

He came up close to her and pinched her arm with a gentle pressure, as if he had to feel the material substance of her before he could believe. And then he put his hands on her shoulders, as he had done on the steamer that day at Bella Coola, and looked long and earnestly at her—looked till a crimson wave rose from her neck to the roots of her dark, glossy hair. And with that Roaring Bill took her in his arms, cuddled her up close to him, and kissed her, not once but many times.

"You really and truly came back, little person," he murmured. "Lord, Lord—and yet they say the day of miracles is past."

"You didn't think I would, did you?" she asked, with her blushing face snuggled against his sturdy breast. "Still, you gave me a map so that I could find the place?"

"That was just taking a desperate chance. No, I never expected to see you again, unless by accident," he said honestly. "And I've been crying the hurt of it to the stars all the way back from the coast. I only got here yesterday. I pretty near passed up coming back at all. I didn't see how I could stay, with everything to remind me of you. Say, but it looked like a lonesome hole. I used to love this place—but I didn't love it last night. It seemed about the most cheerless and depressing spot I could have picked. I think I should have ended up by touching a match to the whole business and hitting the trail to some new country. I don't know. I'm not weak. But I don't think I could have stayed here long."

They stood silent in the doorway for a long interval, Bill holding her close to him, and she blissfully contented, careless and unthinking of the future, so filled was she with joy of the present.

"Do you love me much, little person?" Bill asked, after a little.

She nodded vigorous assent.

"Why?" he desired to know.

"Oh, just because—because you're a man, I suppose," she returned mischievously.

"The world's chuck-full of men," Bill observed.

"Surely," she looked up at him. "But they're not like you. Maybe it's bad policy to start in flattering you, but there aren't many men of your type, Billy-boy; big and strong and capable, and at the same time kind and patient and able to understand things, things a woman can't always put into words. Last fall you hurt my pride and nearly scared me to death by carrying me off in that lawless, headlong fashion of yours. But you seemed to know just how I felt about it, and you played fairer than any man I ever knew would have done under the same circumstances. I didn't realize it until I got back into the civilized world. And then all at once I found myself longing for you—and for these old forests and the mountains and all. So I came back."

"Wise girl," he kissed her. "You'll never be sorry, I hope. It took some nerve, too. It's a long trail from here to the outside. But this North country—it gets in your blood—if your blood's red—and I don't think there's any water in your veins, little person. Lord! I'm afraid to let go of you for fear you'll vanish into nothing, like a Hindu fakir stunt."

"No fear," Hazel laughed. "I've got a pony tied to a tree out there, and four Siwashes and a camp outfit over by Crooked Lake. If I should vanish I'd leave a plain trail for you to follow."

"Well," Bill said, after a short silence, "it's a hundred and forty miles to a Hudson's Bay post where there's a mission and a preacher. Let's be on our way and get married. Then we'll come back here and spend our honeymoon. Eh?"

She nodded assent.

"Are you game to start in half an hour?" he asked, holding her off at arm's length admiringly.

"I'm game for anything, or I wouldn't be here," she retorted.

"All right. You just watch an exhibition of speedy packing," Bill declared—and straightway fell to work.

Hazel followed him about, helping to get the kyaks packed with food. They caught the three horses, and Bill stripped the pony of Hazel's riding gear and placed a pack on him. Then he put her saddle on Silk.

"He's your private mount henceforth," Bill told her laughingly. "You'll ride him with more pleasure than you did the first time, won't you?"

Presently they were ready to start, planning to ride past Limping George's camp and tell him whither they were bound. Hazel was already mounted. Roaring Bill paused, with his toe in the stirrup, and smiled whimsically at her over his horse's back.

"I forgot something," said he, and went back into the cabin—whence he shortly emerged, bearing in his hand a sheet of paper upon which something was written in bold, angular characters. This he pinned on the door. Hazel rode Silk close to see what it might be, and laughed amusedly, for Bill had written:

"Mr. and Mrs. William Wagstaff will be at home to their friends on and after June the twentieth."

He swung up into his saddle, and they jogged across the open. In the edge of the first timber they pulled up and looked backward at the cabin drowsing silently under its sentinel tree. Roaring Bill reached out one arm and laid it across Hazel's shoulders.

"Little person," he said soberly, "here's the end of one trail, and the beginning of another—the longest trail either of us has ever faced. How does it look to you?"

She caught his fingers with a quick, hard pressure.

"All trails look alike to me," she said, with shining eyes, "just so we hit them together."



CHAPTER XVI

A BRIEF TIME OF PLANNING

"What day of the month is this, Bill?" Hazel asked.

"Haven't the least idea," he answered lazily. "Time is of no consequence to me at the present moment."

They were sitting on the warm earth before their cabin, their backs propped comfortably against a log, watching the sun sink behind a distant sky-line all notched with purple mountains upon which snow still lingered. Beside them a smudge dribbled a wisp of smoke sufficient to ward off a pestilential swarm of mosquitoes and black flies. In the clear, thin air of that altitude the occasional voices of what bird and animal life was abroad in the wild broke into the evening hush with astonishing distinctness—a lone goose winged above in wide circles, uttering his harsh and solitary cry. He had lost his mate, Bill told her. Far off in the bush a fox barked. The evening flight of the wild duck from Crooked Lake to a chain of swamps passed intermittently over the clearing with a sibilant whistle of wings. To all the wild things, no less than to the two who watched and listened to the forest traffic, it was a land of peace and plenty.

"We ought to go up to the swamps to-morrow and rustle some duck eggs," Bill observed irrelevantly—his eyes following the arrow flight of a mallard flock. But his wife was counting audibly, checking the days off on her fingers.

"This is July the twenty-fifth, Mr. Roaring Bill Wagstaff," she announced. "We've been married exactly one month."

"A whole month?" he echoed, in mock astonishment. "A regular calendar month of thirty-one days, huh? You don't say so? Seems like it was only day before yesterday, little person."

"I wonder," she snuggled up a little closer to him, "if any two people were ever as happy as we've been?"

Bill put his arm across her shoulders and tilted her head back so that he could smile down into her face.

"They have been a bunch of golden days, haven't they?" he whispered. "We haven't come to a single bump in the road yet. You won't forget this joy time if we ever do hit real hard going, will you, Hazel?"

"The bird of ill omen croaks again," she reproved. "Why should we come to hard going, as you call it?"

"We shouldn't," he declared. "But most people do. And we might. One never can tell what's ahead. Life takes queer and unexpected turns sometimes. We've got to live pretty close to each other, depend absolutely on each other in many ways—and that's the acid test of human companionship. By and by, when the novelty wears off—maybe you'll get sick of seeing the same old Bill around and nobody else. You see I've always been on my good behavior with you. Do you like me a lot?"

His arm tightened with a quick and powerful pressure, then suddenly relaxed to let her lean back and stare up at him tenderly.

"I ought to punish you for saying things like that," she pouted. "Only I can't think of any effective method. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof—and there is no evil in our days."

"Amen," he whispered softly—and they fell to silent contemplation of the rose and gold that spread in a wonderful blazon over all the western sky.

"Twenty-fifth of July, eh?" he mused presently. "Summer's half gone already. I didn't realize it. We ought to be stirring pretty soon, lady."

"Let's stir into the house, then," she suggested. "These miserable little black flies have found a tender place on me. My, but they're bloodthirsty insects."

Bill laughed, and they took refuge in the cabin, the doorways and windows of which were barricaded with cotton mosquito net against the winged swarms that buzzed hungrily without. Ensconced in the big chair by the fireplace, with Bill sprawled on the bearskin at her feet, Hazel came back to his last remark.

"Why did you say it was time for us to be stirring, Billum?"

"Because these Northern seasons are so blessed short," he answered. "We ought to try and do a little good for ourselves—make hay while the sun shines. We'll needa da mon'."

"Needa fiddlesticks," she laughed. "What do we need money for? It costs practically nothing to live up here. Why this sudden desire to pursue the dollar? Besides, how are you going to pursue it?"

"Go prospecting," he replied promptly. "Hit the trail for a place I know where there's oodles of coarse gold, if you can get to it at low water. How'd you like to go into the Upper Naas country this fall, trap all winter, work the sand bars in the spring, and come out next fall with a sack of gold it would take a horse to pack?"

Hazel clapped her hands.

"Oh, Bill, wouldn't that be fine?" she cried. Across her mind flashed a vivid picture of the journey, pregnant with adventure, across the wild hinterlands—they two together. "I'd love to."

"It won't be all smooth sailing," he warned. "It's a long trip and a hard one, and the winter will be longer and harder than the trip. We won't have the semi-luxuries we've got here in this cabin. Not by a long shot. Still, there's a chance for a good big stake, right in that one trip."

"But why the necessity for making a stake?" she inquired thoughtfully, after a lapse of five minutes. "I thought you didn't care anything about money so long as you had enough to get along on? And we surely have that. We've got over two thousand dollars in real money—and no place to spend it—so we're compelled to save."

Bill blew a smoke ring over his head and watched it vanish up toward the dusky roof beams before he answered.

"Well, little person," said he, "that's very true, and we can't truthfully say that stern necessity is treading on our heels. The possession of money has never been a crying need with me. But I hadn't many wants when I was playing a lone hand, and I generally let the future take care of itself. It was always easy to dig up money enough to buy books and grub or anything I wanted. Now that I've assumed a certain responsibility, it has begun to dawn on me that we'd enjoy life better if we were assured of a competence. We can live on the country here indefinitely. But we won't stay here always. I'm pretty much contented just now. So are you. But I know from past experience that the outside will grow more alluring as time passes. You'll get lonesome for civilization. It's the most natural thing in the world. And when we go out to mix with our fellow humans we want to meet them on terms of worldly equality. Which is, to say with good clothes on, and a fat bank roll in our pocket. The best is none too good for us, lady. And the best costs money. Anyway, I'll plead guilty to changing, or, rather, modifying my point of view—getting married has opened up new vistas of pleasure for us that call for dollars. And last, but not least, old girl, while I love to loaf, I can only loaf about so long in contentment. Sabe? I've got to be doing something; whether it was profitable or not has never mattered, just so it was action."

"I sabe, as you call it," Hazel smiled. "Of course I do. Only lazy people like to loaf all the time. I love this place, and we might stay here for years and be satisfied. But—"

"But we'd be better satisfied to stay if we knew that we could leave it whenever we wanted to," he interrupted. "That's the psychology of the human animal, all right. We don't like to be coerced, even by circumstances. Well, granted health, one can be boss of old Dame Circumstance, if one has the price in cold cash. It's a melancholy fact that the good things of the world can only be had for a consideration."

"If you made a lot of money mining, we could travel—one could do lots of things," she reflected. "I don't think I'd want to live in a city again. But it would be nice to go there sometimes."

"Yes, dear girl, it would," Bill agreed. "With a chum to help you enjoy things. I never got much fun out of the bright lights by myself—it was too lonesome. I used to prowl around by myself with an analytical eye upon humanity, and I was always bumping into a lot of sordidness and suffering that I couldn't in the least remedy, and it often gave me a bad taste in my mouth. Then I'd beat it for the woods—and they always looked good to me. The trouble was that I had too much time to think, and nothing to do when I hit a live town. It would be different now. We can do things together that I couldn't do alone, and you couldn't do alone. Remains only to get the wherewithal. And since I know how to manage that with a minimum amount of effort, I'd like to be about it before somebody else gets ahead of me. Though there's small chance of that."

"We'll be partners," said she. "How will we divide the profits, Billum?"

"We'll split even," he declared. "That is, I'll make the money, and you'll spend it."

They chuckled over this conceit, and as the dusk closed in slowly they fell to planning the details. Hazel lit the lamp, and in its yellow glow pored over maps while Bill idly sketched their route on a sheet of paper. His objective lay east of the head of the Naas proper, where amid a wild tangle of mountains and mountain torrents three turbulent rivers, the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Naas, took their rise. A God-forsaken region, he told her, where few white men had penetrated. The peaks flirted with the clouds, and their sides were scarred with glaciers. A lonesome, brooding land, the home of a vast and seldom-broken silence.

"But there's all kinds of game and fur in there," Bill remarked thoughtfully. "And gold. Still, it's a fierce country for a man to take his best girl into. I don't know whether I ought to tackle it."

"We couldn't be more isolated than we are here," Hazel argued, "if we were in the arctic. Look at that poor woman at Pelt House. Three babies born since she saw a doctor or another woman of her own color! What's a winter by ourselves compared to that. And she didn't think it so great a hardship. Don't you worry about me, Mr. Bill. I think it will be fun. I'm a real pioneer at heart. The wild places look good to me—when you're along."

She received her due reward for that, and then, the long twilight having brought the hour to a lateness that manifested itself by sundry yawns on their part, they went to bed.

With breakfast over, Bill put a compass in his pocket, after having ground his ax blade to a keen edge.

"Come on," said he, then; "I'm going to transact some important business."

"What is it?" she promptly demanded with much curiosity.

"This domicile of ours, girl," he told her, while he led the way through the surrounding timber, "is ours only by grace of the wilderness. It's built on unsurveyed government land—land that I have no more legal claim to than any passing trapper. I never thought of it before—which goes to show that this double-harness business puts a different face on 'most everything. But I'm going to remedy that. Of course, it may be twenty years before this country begins to settle up enough so that some individual may cast a covetous eye on this particular spot—but I'm not going to take any chances. I'm going to formally stake a hundred and sixty acres of this and apply for its purchase. Then we'll have a cinch on our home. We'll always have a refuge to fly to, no matter where we go."

She nodded appreciation of this. The cabin in the clearing stood for some of those moments that always loom large and unforgettable in every woman's experience. She had come there once in hot, shamed anger, and she had come again as a bride. It was the handiwork of a man she loved with a passion that sometimes startled her by its intensity. She had plumbed depths of bitterness there, and, contrariwise, reached a point of happiness she had never believed possible. Just the mere possibility of that place being given over to others roused in her a pang of resentment. It was theirs, hers and Bill's, and, being a woman, she viewed its possession jealously.

So she watched with keen interest what he did. Which, in truth, was simple enough. He worked his way to a point southeast of the clearing till they gained a little rise whence through the treetops they could look back and see the cabin roof. There Bill cut off an eight-inch jack pine, leaving the stump approximately four feet high. This he hewed square, the four flat sides of the post facing respectively the cardinal points of the compass. On one smoothed surface Bill set to work with his pocketknife. Hazel sat down and watched while he busied himself at this. And when he had finished she read, in deep-carved letters:

W. WAGSTAFF'S S. E. CORNER.

Then he penned on a sheet of letter paper a brief notice to the effect that he, William Wagstaff, intended to apply for the purchase of the land embraced in an area a half mile square, of which the post was the south-east corner mark. This notice he fastened to the stump with a few tacks, and sat down to rest from his labors.

"How long do you suppose that will stay there, and who is there to read it, if it does?" Hazel observed.

"Search me. The moose and the deer and the timber wolves, I guess," Bill grinned. "The chances are the paper won't last long, with winds and rains. But it doesn't matter. It's simply a form prescribed by the Land Act of British Columbia, and, so long as I go through the legal motions, that lets me out. Matter of form, you know."

"Then what else do you have to do?"

"Nothing but furnish the money when the land department gets around to accept my application," he said. "I can get an agent to attend to all the details. Oh, I have to furnish a description of the land by natural boundaries, to give them an idea of about where it's situated. Well, let's take a look at our estate from another corner."

This, roughly ascertained by sighting a line with the compass and stepping off eight hundred and eighty yards, brought them up on a knoll that commanded the small basin of which the clearing was practically in the center.

"Aha;" Bill exclaimed. "Look at our ranch, would you; our widespread acres basking in the sun. A quarter section is quite a chunk. Do you know I never thought much about it before, but there's a piece of the finest land that lies outdoors. I wasn't looking for land when I squatted there. It was a pretty place, and there was hay for our horses in that meadow, and trout in the creek back of the cabin. So I built the old shack largely on the conveniences and the natural beauty of the spot. But let me tell you, if this country should get a railroad and settle up, that quarter section might produce all the income we'd need, just out of hay and potatoes. How'd you like to be a farmer's wife, huh?"

"Fine," she smiled. "Look at the view—it isn't gorgeous. It's—it's simply peaceful and quiet and soothing. I hate to leave it."

"Better be sorry to leave a place than glad to get away," he answered lightly. "Come on, let's pike home and get things in order for the long trail, woman o' mine. I'll teach you how to be a woodland vagabond."



CHAPTER XVII

EN ROUTE

Long since Hazel had become aware that whatsoever her husband set about doing he did swiftly and with inflexible purpose. There was no malingering or doubtful hesitation. Once his mind was made up, he acted, Thus, upon the third day from the land staking they bore away eastward from the clearing, across a trackless area, traveling by the sun and Bill's knowledge of the country.

"Some day there'll be trails blazed through here by a paternal government," he laughed over his shoulder, "for the benefit of the public. But we don't need 'em, thank goodness."

The buckskin pony Hazel had bought for the trip in with Limping George ambled sedately under a pack containing bedding, clothes, and a light shelter tent. The black horse, Nigger, he of the cocked ear and the rolling eye, carried in a pair of kyaks six weeks' supply of food. Bill led the way, seconded by Hazel on easy-gaited Silk. Behind her trailed the pack horses like dogs well broken to heel, patient under their heavy burdens. Off in the east the sun was barely clear of the towering Rockies, and the woods were still cool and shadowy, full of aromatic odors from plant and tree.

Hazel followed her man contentedly. They were together upon the big adventure, just as she had seen it set forth in books, and she found it good. For her there was no more diverging of trails, no more problems looming fearsomely at the journey's end. To jog easily through woods and over open meadows all day, and at night to lie with her head pillowed on Bill's arm, peering up through interlocked branches at a myriad of gleaming stars—that was sufficient to fill her days. To live and love and be loved, with all that had ever seemed hateful and sordid and mean thrust into a remote background. It was almost too good to be true, she told herself. Yet it was indubitably true. And she was grateful for the fact. Touches of the unavoidable bitterness of life had taught her the worth of days that could be treasured in the memory.

Occasionally she would visualize the cabin drowsing lifeless in its emerald setting, haunted by the rabbits that played timidly about in the twilight, or perhaps a wandering deer peering his wide-eyed curiosity from the timber's edge. The books and rugs and curtains were stowed in boxes and bundles and hung by wires to the ridge log to keep them from the busy bush-tailed rats. Everything was done up carefully and put away for safekeeping, as became a house that is to be long untenanted.

The mother instinct to keep a nest snug and cozy gave her a tiny pang over the abandoned home. The dust of many months would gather on the empty chairs and shelves. Still it was only a passing absence. They would come back, with treasure wrested from the strong box of the wild. Surely Fortune could not forbear smiling on a mate like hers?

There was no monotony in the passing days. Rivers barred their way. These they forded or swam, or ferried a makeshift raft of logs, as seemed most fit. Once their raft came to grief in the maw of a snarling current, and they laid up two days to dry their saturated belongings. Once their horses, impelled by some mysterious home yearning, hit the back trail in a black night of downpour, and they trudged half a day through wet grass and dripping scrub to overtake the truants. Thunderstorms drove up, shattering the hush of the land with ponderous detonations, assaulting them with fierce bursts of rain. Haps and mishaps alike they accepted with an equable spirit and the true philosophy of the trail—to take things as they come. When rain deluged them, there was always shelter to be found and fire to warm them. If the flies assailed too fiercely, a smudge brought easement of that ill. And when the land lay smiling under a pleasant sun, they rode light-hearted and care-free, singing or in silent content, as the spirit moved. If they rode alone, they felt none of that loneliness which is so integral a part of the still, unpeopled places. Each day was something more than a mere toll of so many miles traversed. The unexpected, for which both were eager-eyed, lurked on the shoulder of each mountain, in the hollow of every cool canon, or met them boldly in the open, naked and unafraid.

Bearing up to where the Nachaco debouches from Fraser Lake, with a Hudson's Bay fur post and an Indian mission on its eastern fringe, they came upon a blazed line in the scrub timber. Roaring Bill pulled up, and squinted away down the narrow lane fresh with ax marks.

"Well," said he, "I wonder what's coming off now? That looks like a survey line of some sort. It isn't a trail—too wide. Let's follow it a while.

"I'll bet a nickel," he asserted next, "that's a railroad survey." They had traversed two miles more or less, and the fact was patent that the blazed line sought a fairly constant level across country. "A land survey runs all same latitude and longitude. Huh!"

Half an hour of easy jogging set the seal of truth on his assertion. They came upon a man squinting through a brass instrument set on three legs, directing, with alternate wavings of his outspread hands, certain activities of other men ahead of him.

"Well, I'll be—" he bit off the sentence, and stared a moment in frank astonishment at Hazel. Then he took off his hat and bowed. "Good morning," he greeted politely.

"Sure," Bill grinned. "We have mornings like this around here all the time. What all are you fellows doing in the wilderness, anyway? Railroad?"

"Cross-section work for the G. T. P.," the surveyor replied.

"Huh," Bill grunted. "Is it a dead cinch, or is it something that may possibly come to pass in the misty future?"

"As near a cinch as anything ever is," the surveyor answered. "Construction has begun—at both ends. I thought the few white folks in this country kept tab on anything as important as a new railroad."

"We've heard a lot, but none of 'em has transpired yet; not in my time, anyway," Bill replied dryly. "However, the world keeps right on moving. I've heard more or less talk of this, but I didn't know it had got past the talking stage. What's their Pacific terminal?"

"Prince Rupert—new town on a peninsula north of the mouth of the Skeena," said the surveyor. "It's a rush job all the way through, I believe. Three years to spike up the last rail. And that's going some for a transcontinental road. Both the Dominion and B. C. governments have guaranteed the company's bonds away up into millions."

"Be a great thing for this country—say, where does it cross the Rockies?—what's the general route?" Bill asked abruptly.

"Goes over the range through Yellowhead Pass. From here it follows the Nachaco to Fort George, then up the Fraser by Tete Juan Cache, through the pass, then down the Athabasca till it switches over to strike Edmonton."

"Uh-huh," Bill nodded. "One of the modern labors of Hercules. Well, we've got to peg. So long."

"Our camp's about five miles ahead. Better stop in and noon," the surveyor invited, "if it's on your road."

"Thanks. Maybe we will," Bill returned.

The surveyor lifted his hat, with a swift glance of admiration at Hazel, and they passed with a mutual "so long."

"What do you think of that, old girl?" Bill observed presently. "A real, honest-to-God railroad going by within a hundred miles of our shack. Three years. It'll be there before we know it. We'll have neighbors to burn."

"A hundred miles!" Hazel laughed. "Is that your idea of a neighborly distance?"

"What's a hundred miles?" he defended. "Two days' ride, that's all. And the kind of people that come to settle in a country like this don't stick in sight of the cars. They're like me—need lots of elbow room. There'll be hardy souls looking for a location up where we are before very long. You'll see."

They passed other crews of men, surveyors with transits, chainmen, stake drivers, ax gangs widening the path through the timber. Most of them looked at Hazel in frank surprise, and stared long after she passed by. And when an open bottom beside a noisy little creek showed the scattered tents of the survey camp, Hazel said:

"Let's not stop, Bill."

He looked back over his shoulder with a comprehending smile.

"Getting shy? Make you uncomfortable to have all these boys look at you, little person?" he bantered. "All right, we won't stop. But all these fellows probably haven't seen a white woman for months. You can't blame them for admiring. You do look good to other men besides me, you know."

So they rode through the camp with but a nod to the aproned cook, who thrust out his head, and a gray-haired man with glasses, who humped over a drafting board under an awning. Their noon fire they built at a spring five miles beyond.

Thereafter they skirted three lakes in succession, Fraser, Burns, and Decker, and climbed over a low divide to drop into the Bulkley Valley—a pleasant, rolling country, where the timber was interspersed with patches of open grassland and set with small lakes, wherein schools of big trout lived their finny lives unharried by anglers—save when some wandering Indian snared one with a primitive net.

Far down this valley they came upon the first sign of settlement. Hardy souls, far in advance of the coming railroad, had built here and there a log cabin and were hard at it clearing and plowing and getting the land ready for crops. Four or five such lone ranches they passed, tarrying overnight at one where they found a broad-bosomed woman with a brood of tow-headed children. Her husband was out after supplies—a week's journey. She kept Hazel from her bed till after midnight, talking. They had been there over winter, and Hazel Wagstaff was the first white woman she had bespoken in seven months. There were other women in the valley farther along; but fifty or sixty miles leaves scant opportunity for visiting when there is so much work to be done ere wild acres will feed hungry mouths.

At length they fared into Hazleton, which is the hub of a vast area over which men pursue gold and furs. Some hundred odd souls were gathered there, where the stern-wheel steamers that ply the turgid Skeena reach the head of navigation. A land-recording office and a mining recorder Hazleton boasted as proof of its civic importance. The mining recorder, who combined in himself many capacities besides his governmental function, undertook to put through Bill's land deal. He knew Bill Wagstaff.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse