"Wise man," he nodded, over the description. "If some more uh these boys that have blazed trails through this country would do the same thing, they'd be better off. A chunk of land anywhere in this country is a good bet now. We'll have rails here from the coast in a year. Better freeze onto a couple uh lots here in Hazleton, while they're low. Be plumb to the skies in ten years. Natural place for a city, Bill. It's astonishin' how the settlers is comin'."
There was ocular evidence of this last, for they had followed in a road well rutted from loaded wagons. But Bill invested in no real estate, notwithstanding the positive assurance that Hazleton was on the ragged edge of a boom.
"Maybe, maybe," he admitted. "But I've got other fish to fry. That one piece up by Pine River will do me for a while."
Here where folk talked only of gold and pelts and railroads and settlement and the coming boom that would make them all rich, Bill Wagstaff added two more ponies to his pack train. These he loaded down with food, staples only, flour, sugar, beans, salt, tea and coffee, and a sack of dried fruit. Also he bestowed upon Nigger a further burden of six dozen steel traps. And in the cool of a midsummer morning, before Hazleton had rubbed the sleep out of its collective eyes and taken up the day's work of discussing its future greatness, Roaring Bill and his wife draped the mosquito nets over their heads and turned their faces north.
They bore out upon a wagon road. For a brief distance only did this endure, then dwindled to a path. A turn in this hid sight of the clustered log houses and tents, and the two steamers that lay up against the bank. The river itself was soon lost in the far stretches of forest. Once more they rode alone in the wilderness. For the first time Hazel felt a quick shrinking from the North, an awe of its huge, silent spaces, which could so easily engulf thousands such as they and still remain a land untamed.
But this feeling passed, and she came again under the spell of the trail, riding with eyes and ears alert, sitting at ease in the saddle, and taking each new crook in the way with quickened interest.
THE WINTERING PLACE
On the second day they crossed the Skeena, a risky and tedious piece of business, for the river ran deep and strong. And shortly after this crossing they came to a line of wire strung on poles. Originally a fair passageway had been cleared through low brush and dense timber alike. A pathway of sorts still remained, though dim and little trodden and littered with down trees of various sizes. Bill followed this.
"What is the wire? A rural telephone? Oh, I remember you told me once—that Yukon telegraph," Hazel remarked.
"Uh-huh. That's the famous Telegraph Trail," Bill answered. "Runs from Ashcroft clear to Dawson City, on the Yukon; that is, the line does. There's a lineman's house every twenty miles or so, and an operator every forty miles. The best thing about it is that it furnishes us with a sort of a road. And that's mighty lucky, for there's some tough going ahead of us."
So long as they held to the Telegraph Trail the way led through fairly decent country. In open patches there was ample grazing for their horses. Hills there were, to be sure; all the land rolled away in immense forested billows, but the mountains stood off on the right and left, frowning in the distance. A plague of flies harassed them continually, Hazel's hands suffering most, even though she kept religiously to thick buckskin gloves. The poisonous bites led to scratching, which bred soreness. And as they gained a greater elevation and the timbered bottoms gave way to rocky hills over which she must perforce walk and lead her horse, the sweat of the exertion stung and burned intolerably, like salt water on an open wound.
Minor hardships, these; scarcely to be dignified by that name, more in the nature of aggravated discomforts they were. But they irked, and, like any accumulation of small things, piled up a disheartening total. By imperceptible degrees the glamour of the trail, the lure of gypsying, began to lessen. She found herself longing for the Pine River cabin, for surcease from this never-ending journey. But she would not have owned this to Roaring Bill; not for the world. It savored of weakness, disloyalty. She felt ashamed. Still—it was no longer a pleasure jaunt. The country they bore steadily up into grew more and more forbidding. The rugged slopes bore no resemblance to the kindly, peaceful land where the cabin stood. Swamps and reedy lakes lurked in low places. The hills stood forth grim and craggy, gashed with deep-cleft gorges, and rising to heights more grim and desolate at the uttermost reach of her vision. And into the heart of this, toward a far-distant area where she could faintly distinguish virgin snow on peaks that pierced the sky, they traveled day after day.
Shortly before reaching Station Six they crossed the Naas, foaming down to the blue Pacific. And at Station Seven, Bill turned squarely off the Telegraph Trail and struck east by north. It had been a break in the monotony of each day's travel to come upon the lonely men in their little log houses. When they turned away from the single wire that linked them up with the outer world, it seemed to Hazel as if the profound, disquieting stillness of the North became intensified.
Presently the way grew rougher. If anything, Roaring Bill increased his pace. He himself no longer rode. When the steepness of the hills and canons made the going hard the packs were redivided, and henceforth Satin bore on his back a portion of the supplies. Bill led the way tirelessly. Through flies, river crossings, camp labor, and all the petty irritations of the trail he kept an unruffled spirit, a fine, enduring patience that Hazel marveled at and admired. Many a time, wakening at some slight stir, she would find him cooking breakfast. In every way within his power he saved her.
"I got to take good care of you, little person," he would say. "I'm used to this sort of thing, and I'm tough as buckskin. But it sure isn't proving any picnic for you. It's a lot worse in this way than I thought it would be. And we've got to get in there before the snow begins to fly, or it will play the dickens with us."
Many a strange shift were they put to. Once Bill had to fell a great spruce across a twenty-foot crevice. It took him two days to hew it flat so that his horses could be led over. The depth was bottomless to the eye, but from far below rose the cavernous growl of rushing water, and Hazel held her breath as each animal stepped gingerly over the narrow bridge. One misstep—
Once they climbed three weary days up a precipitous mountain range, and, turned back in sight of the crest by an impassable cliff, were forced to back track and swing in a fifty-mile detour.
In an air line Roaring Bill's destination lay approximately two hundred miles north—almost due north—of Hazleton. By the devious route they were compelled to take the distance was doubled, more than doubled. And their rate of progress now fell short of a ten-mile average. September was upon them. The days dwindled in length, and the nights grew to have a frosty nip.
Early and late he pushed on. Two camp necessities were fortunately abundant, grass and water. Even so, the stress of the trail told on the horses. They lost flesh. The extreme steepness of succeeding hills bred galls under the heavy packs. They grew leg weary, no longer following each other with sprightly step and heads high. Hazel pitied them, for she herself was trail weary beyond words. The vagabond instinct had fallen asleep. The fine aura of romance no longer hovered over the venture.
Sometimes when dusk ended the day's journey and she swung her stiffened limbs out of the saddle, she would cheerfully have foregone all the gold in the North to be at her ease before the fireplace in their distant cabin, with her man's head nesting in her lap, and no toll of weary miles looming sternly on the morrow's horizon. It was all work, trying work, the more trying because she sensed a latent uneasiness on her husband's part, an uneasiness she could never induce him to embody in words. Nevertheless, it existed, and she resented its existence—a trouble she could not share. But she could not put her finger on the cause, for Bill merely smiled a denial when she mentioned it.
Nor did she fathom the cause until upon a certain day which fell upon the end of a week's wearisome traverse of the hardest country yet encountered. Up and up and still higher he bore into a range of beetling crags, and always his gaze was fixed steadfastly and dubiously on the serrated backbone toward which they ascended with infinite toil and hourly risk, skirting sheer cliffs on narrow rock ledges, working foot by foot over declivities where the horses dug their hoofs into a precarious toe hold, and where a slip meant broken bones on the ragged stones below. But win to the uppermost height they did, where an early snowfall lay two inches deep in a thin forest of jack pine.
They broke out of a canon up which they had struggled all day onto a level plot where the pine stood in somber ranks. A spring creek split the flat in two. Beside this tiny stream Bill unlashed his packs. It still lacked two hours of dark. But he made no comment, and Hazel forbore to trouble him with questions. Once the packs were off and the horses at liberty. Bill caught up his rifle.
"Come on, Hazel," he said. "Let's take a little hike."
The flat was small, and once clear of it the pines thinned out on a steep, rocky slope so that westward they could overlook a vast network of canons and mountain spurs. But ahead of them the mountain rose to an upstanding backbone of jumbled granite, and on this backbone Bill Wagstaff bent an anxious eye. Presently they sat down on a bowlder to take a breathing spell after a stiff stretch of climbing. Hazel slipped her hand in his and whispered:
"What is it, Billy-boy?"
"I'm afraid we can't get over here with the horses," he answered slowly. "And if we can't find a pass of some kind—well, come on! It isn't more than a quarter of a mile to the top."
He struck out again, clambering over great bowlders, clawing his way along rocky shelves, with a hand outstretched to help her now and then. Her perceptions quickened by the hint he had given, Hazel viewed the long ridge for a possible crossing, and she was forced to the reluctant conclusion that no hoofed beast save mountain sheep or goat could cross that divide. Certainly not by the route they were taking. And north and south as far as she could see the backbone ran like a solid wall.
It was a scant quarter mile to the top, beyond which no farther mountain crests showed—only clear, blue sky. But it was a stretch that taxed her endurance to the limit for the next hour. Just short of the top Bill halted, and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. And as he stood his gaze suddenly became fixed, a concentrated stare at a point northward. He raised his glasses.
"By thunder!" he exclaimed. "I believe—it's me for the top."
He went up the few remaining yards with a haste that left Hazel panting behind. Above her he stood balanced on a bowlder, cut sharp against the sky, and she reached him just as he lowered the field glasses with a long sigh of relief. His eyes shone with exultation.
"Come on up on the perch," he invited, and reached forth a long, muscular arm, drawing her up close betide him on the rock.
"Behold the Promised Land," he breathed, "and the gateway thereof, lying a couple of miles to the north."
They were, it seemed to Hazel, roosting precariously on the very summit of the world. On both sides the mountain pitched away sharply in rugged folds. Distance smoothed out the harsh declivities, blurred over the tremendous canons. Looking eastward, she saw an ample basin, which gave promise of level ground on its floor. True, it was ringed about with sky-scraping peaks, save where a small valley opened to the south. Behind them, between them and the far Pacific rolled a sea of mountains, snow-capped, glacier-torn, gigantic.
"Down there," Roaring Bill waved his hand, "there's a little meadow, and turf to walk on. Lord, I'll be glad to get out of these rocks! You'll never catch me coming in this way again. It's sure tough going. And I've been scared to death for a week, thinking we couldn't get through."
"But we can?"
"Yes, easy," he assured. "Take the glasses and look. That flat we left our outfit in runs pretty well to the top, about two miles along. Then there's a notch in the ridge that you can't get with the naked eye, and a wider canon running down into the basin. It's the only decent break in the divide for fifty miles so far as I can see. This backbone runs to high mountains both north and south of us—like the great wall of China. We're lucky to hit this pass."
"Suppose we couldn't get over here?" Hazel asked. "What if there hadn't been a pass?"
"That was beginning to keep me awake nights," he confessed. "I've been studying this rock wall for a week. It doesn't look good from the east side, but it's worse on the west, and I couldn't seem to locate the gap I spotted from the basin one time. And if we couldn't get through, it meant a hundred miles or more back south around that white peak you see. Over a worse country than we've come through—and no cinch on getting over at that. Do you realize that it's getting late in the year? Winter may come—bing!—inside of ten days. And me caught in a rock pile, with no cabin to shelter my best girl, and no hay up to feed my horses! You bet it bothered me."
She hugged him sympathetically, and Bill smiled down at her.
"But it's plain sailing now," he continued. "I know that basin and all the country beyond it. It's a pretty decent camping place, and there's a fairly easy way out."
He bestowed a reassuring kiss upon her. They sat on the bowlder for a few minutes, then scrambled downhill to the jack-pine flat, and built their evening fire. And for the first time in many days Roaring Bill whistled and lightly burst into snatches of song in the deep, bellowing voice that had given him his name back in the Cariboo country. His humor was infectious. Hazel felt the gods of high adventure smiling broadly upon them once more.
Before daybreak they were up and packed. In the dim light of dawn Bill picked his way up through the jack-pine flat. With easy traveling they made such time as enabled them to cross through the narrow gash—cut in the divide by some glacial offshoot when the Klappan Range was young—before the sun, a ball of molten fire, heaved up from behind the far mountain chain.
At noon, two days later, they stepped out of a heavy stand of spruce into a sun-warmed meadow, where ripe, yellow grasses waved to their horses' knees. Hazel came afoot, a fresh-killed deer lashed across Silk's back.
Bill hesitated, as if taking his bearings, then led to where a rocky spur of a hill jutted into the meadow's edge. A spring bubbled out of a pebbly basin, and he poked about in the grass beside it with his foot, presently stooping to pick up something which proved to be a short bit of charred stick.
"The remains of my last camp fire," he smiled reminiscently. "Packs off, old pal. We're through with the trail for a while."
FOUR WALLS AND A ROOF
To such as view with a kindly eye the hushed areas of virgin forest and the bold cliffs and peaks of mountain ranges, it is a joy to tread unknown trails, camping as the spirit moves, journeying leisurely and in decent comfort from charming spot to spots more charming. With no spur of need to drive, such inconsequential wandering gives to each day and incident an added zest. Nature appears to have on her best bib and tucker for the occasion. The alluring finger of the unknown beckons alluringly onward, so that if one should betimes strain to physical exhaustion in pursuit, that is a matter of no moment whatever.
But it is a different thing to face the wilderness for a purpose, to journey in haste toward a set point, with a penalty swift and sure for failure to reach that point in due season. Especially is this so in the high latitudes. Natural barriers uprear before the traveler, barriers which he must scale with sweat and straining muscles. He must progress by devious ways, seeking always the line of least resistance. The season of summer is brief, a riot of flowers and vegetation. A certain number of weeks the land smiles and flaunts gay flowers in the shadow of the ancient glaciers. Then the frost and snow come back to their own, and the long nights shut down like a pall.
Brought to it by a kindlier road, Hazel would have found that nook in the Klappan Range a pleasant enough place. She could not deny its beauty. It snuggled in the heart of a wild tangle of hills all turreted and battlemented with ledge and pinnacle of rock, from which ran huge escarpments clothed with spruce and pine, scarred and gashed on every hand with slides and deep-worn watercourses, down which tumultuous streams rioted their foamy way. And nestled amid this, like a precious stone in its massive setting, a few hundred acres of level, grassy turf dotted with trees. Southward opened a narrow valley, as if pointing the road to a less rigorous land. No, she could not deny its beauty. But she was far too trail weary to appreciate the grandeur of the Klappan Range. She desired nothing so much as rest and comfort, and the solemn mountains were neither restful nor soothing. They stood too grim and aloof in a lonely land.
There was so much to be done, work of the hands; a cabin to build, and a stable; hay to be cut and stacked so that their horses might live through the long winter—which already heralded his approach with sharp, stinging frosts at night, and flurries of snow along the higher ridges.
Bill staked the tent beside the spring, fashioned a rude fork out of a pronged willow, and fitted a handle to the scythe he had brought for the purpose. From dawn to dark he swung the keen blade in the heavy grass which carpeted the bottom. Behind him Hazel piled it in little mounds with the fork. She insisted on this, though it blistered her hands and brought furious pains to her back. If her man must strain every nerve she would lighten the burden with what strength she had. And with two pair of hands to the task, the piles of hay gathered thick on the meadow. When Bill judged that the supply reached twenty tons, he built a rude sled with a rack on it, and hauled in the hay with a saddle horse.
"Amen!" said Bill, when he had emptied the rack for the last time, and the hay rose in a neat stack. "That's another load off my mind. I can build a cabin and a stable in six feet of snow if I have to, but there would have been a slim chance of haying once a storm hit us. And the caballos need a grubstake for the winter worse than we do, because they can't eat meat. We wouldn't go hungry—there's moose enough to feed an army ranging in that low ground to the south."
"There's everything that one needs, almost, in the wilderness, isn't there?" Hazel observed reflectively. "But still the law of life is awfully harsh, don't you think, Bill? Isolation is a terrible thing when it is so absolutely complete. Suppose something went wrong? There's no help, and no mercy—absolutely none. You could die here by inches and the woods and mountains would look calmly on, just as they have looked on everything for thousands of years. It's like prison regulations. You must do this, and you must do that, and there's no excuse for mistakes. Nature, when you get close to her, is so inexorable."
Bill eyed her a second. Then he put his arms around her, and patted her hair tenderly.
"Is it getting on your nerves already, little person?" he asked. "Nothing's going to go wrong. I've been in wild country too often to make mistakes or get careless. And those are the two crimes for which the North—or any wilderness—inflicts rather serious penalties. Life isn't a bit harsher here than in the human ant heaps. Only everything is more direct; cause and effect are linked up close. There are no complexities. It's all done in the open, and if you don't play the game according to the few simple rules you go down and out. That's all there is to it. There's no doctor in the next block, nor a grocer to take your order over the phone, and you can't run out to a cafe and take dinner with a friend. But neither is the air swarming with disease germs, nor are there malicious gossips to blast you with their tongues, nor rent and taxes to pay every time you turn around. Nor am I at the mercy of a job. And what does the old, settled country do to you when you have neither money nor job? It treats you worse than the worst the North can do; for, lacking the price, it denies you access to the abundance that mocks you in every shop window, and bars you out of the houses that line the streets. Here, everything needful is yours for the taking. If one is ignorant, or unable to convert wood and water and game to his own uses, he must learn how, or pay the penalty of incompetence. No, little person, I don't think the law of life is nearly so harsh here as it is where the mob struggles for its daily bread. It's more open and aboveboard here; more up to the individual. But it's lonely sometimes. I guess that's what ails you."
"Oh, pouf!" she denied. "I'm not lonely, so long as I've got you. But sometimes I think of something happening to you—sickness and accidents, and all that. One can't help thinking what might happen."
"Forget it!" Bill exhorted. "That's the worst of living in this big, still country—it makes one introspective, and so confoundedly conscious of what puny atoms we human beings are, after all. But there's less chance of sickness here than any place. Anyway, we've got to take a chance on things now and then, in the course of living our lives according to our lights. We're playing for a stake—and things that are worth having are never handed to us on a silver salver. Besides, I never had worse than a stomachache in my life and you're a pretty healthy specimen yourself. Wait till I get that cabin built, with a big fireplace at one end. We'll be more comfortable, and things will look a little rosier. This thing of everlasting hurry and hard work gets on anybody's nerves."
The best of the afternoon was still unspent when the haystacking terminated, and Bill declared a holiday. He rigged a line on a limber willow wand, and with a fragment of venison for bait sought the pools of the stream which flowed out the south opening. He prophesied that in certain black eddies plump trout would be lurking, and he made his prophecy good at the first pool. Hazel elected herself gun-bearer to the expedition, but before long Bill took up that office while she snared trout after trout from the stream—having become something of an angler herself under Bill's schooling. And when they were frying the fish that evening he suddenly observed:
"Say, they were game little fellows, these, weren't they? Wasn't that better sport than taking a street car out to the park and feeding the swans?"
"What an idea!" she laughed. "Who wants to feed swans in a park?"
But when the fire had sunk to dull embers, and the stars were peeping shyly in the open flap of their tent, she whispered in his ear:
"You mustn't think I'm complaining or lonesome or anything, Billy-boy, when I make remarks like I did to-day. I love you a heap, and I'd be happy anywhere with you. And I'm really and truly at home in the wilderness. Only—only sometimes I have a funny feeling; as if I were afraid. It seems silly, but this is all so different from our little cabin. I look up at these big mountains, and they seem to be scowling—as if we were trespassers or something."
"I know." Bill drew her close to him. "But that's just mood. I've felt that same sensation up here—a foolish, indefinable foreboding. All the out-of-the-way places of the earth produce that effect, if one is at all imaginative. It's the bigness of everything, and the eternal stillness. I've caught myself listening—when I knew there was nothing to hear. Makes a fellow feel like a small boy left by himself in some big, gloomy building—awesome. Sure, I know it. It would be hard on the nerves to live here always. But we're only after a stake—then all the pleasant places of the earth are open to us; with that little, old log house up by Pine River for a refuge whenever we get tired of the world at large. Cuddle up and go to sleep. You're a dead-game sport, or you'd have hollered long ago."
And, next day, to Hazel, sitting by watching him swing the heavy, double-bitted ax on the foundation logs of their winter home, it all seemed foolish, that heaviness of heart which sometimes assailed her. She was perfectly happy. In each of them the good, red blood of youth ran full and strong, offering ample security against illness. They had plenty of food. In a few brief months Bill would wrest a sack of gold from the treasure house of the North, and they would journey home by easy stages. Why should she brood? It was sheer folly—a mere ebb of spirit.
Fortune favored them to the extent of letting the October storms remain in abeyance until Bill finished his cabin, with a cavernous fireplace of rough stone at one end. He split planks for a door out of raw timber, and graced his house with two windows—one of four small panes of glass carefully packed in their bedding all the way from Hazleton, the other a two-foot square of deerskin scraped parchment thin; opaque to the vision, it still permitted light to enter. The floor was plain earth, a condition Bill promised to remedy with hides of moose, once his buildings were completed. Rudely finished, and lacking much that would have made for comfort, still it served its purpose, and Hazel made shift contentedly.
Followed then the erection of a stable to shelter the horses. Midway of its construction a cloud bank blew out of the northeast, and a foot of snow fell. Then it cleared to brilliant days of frost. Bill finished his stable. At night he tied the horses therein. By day they were turned loose to rustle their fodder from under the crisp snow. It was necessary to husband the stock of hay, for spring might be late.
After that they went hunting. The third day Bill shot two moose in an open glade ten miles afield. It took them two more days to haul in the frozen meat on a sled.
"Looks like one side of a butcher shop," Bill remarked, viewing the dressed meat where it hung on a pole scaffolding beyond reach of the wolves.
"It certainly does," Hazel replied. "We'll never eat all that."
"Probably not," he smiled. "But there's nothing like having plenty. The moose might emigrate, you know. I think I'll add a deer to that lot for variety—if I can find one."
He managed this in the next few days, and also laid in a stock of frozen trout by the simple expedient of locating a large pool, and netting the speckled denizens thereof through a hole in the ice.
So their larder was amply supplied. And, as the cold rigidly tightened its grip, and succeeding snows deepened the white blanket till snowshoes became imperative, Bill began to string out a line of traps.
BOREAS CHANTS HIS LAY
December winged by, the days succeeding each other like glittering panels on a black ground of long, drear nights. Christmas came. They mustered up something of the holiday spirit, dining gayly off a roast of caribou. For the occasion Hazel had saved the last half dozen potatoes. With the material at her command she evolved a Christmas pudding, serving it with brandy sauce. And after satisfying appetites bred of a morning tilt with Jack Frost along Bill's trap line, they spent a pleasant hour picturing their next Christmas. There would be holly and bright lights and music—the festival spirit freed of all restraint.
The new year was born in a wild smother of flying snow, which died at dawn to let a pale, heatless sun peer tentatively over the southern mountains, his slanting beams setting everything aglitter. Frost particles vibrated in the air, coruscating diamond dust. Underfoot, on the path beaten betwixt house and stable, the snow crunched and complained as they walked, and in the open where the mad winds had piled it in hard, white windrows. But in the thick woods it lay as it had fallen, full five foot deep, a downy wrapping for the slumbering earth, over which Bill Wagstaff flitted on his snowshoes as silently as a ghost—a fur-clad ghost, however, who bore a rifle on his shoulder, and whose breath exhaled in white, steamy puffs.
Gold or no gold, the wild land was giving up its treasure to them. Already the catch of furs totaled ninety marten, a few mink, a dozen wolves—and two pelts of that rara avis, the silver fox. Around twelve hundred dollars, Bill estimated, with four months yet to trap. And the labor of tending the trap lines, of skinning and stretching the catch, served to keep them both occupied—Hazel as much as he, for she went out with him on all but the hardest trips. So that their isolation in the hushed, white world where the frost ruled with an iron hand had not so far become oppressive. They were too busy to develop that dour affliction of the spirit which loneliness and idleness breed through the long winters of the North.
A day or two after the first of the year Roaring Bill set out to go over one of the uttermost trap lines. Five minutes after closing the door he was back.
"Easy with that fire, little person," he cautioned. "She's blowing out of the northwest again. The sparks are sailing pretty high. Keep your eye on it, Hazel."
"All right, Billum," she replied. "I'll be careful."
Not more than fifty yards separated the house and stable. At the stable end stood the stack of hay, a low hummock above the surrounding drift. Except for the place where Bill daily removed the supply for his horses there was not much foothold for a spark, since a thin coat of snow overlaid the greater part of the top. But there was that chance of catastrophe. The chimney of their fireplace yawned wide to the sky, vomiting sparks and ash like a miniature volcano when the fire was roughly stirred, or an extra heavy supply of dry wood laid on. When the wind whistled out of the northwest the line of flight was fair over the stack. It behooved them to watch wind and fire. By keeping a bed of coals and laying on a stick or two at a time a gale might roar across the chimney-top without sucking forth a spark large enough to ignite the hay. Hence Bill's warning. He had spoken of it before.
Hazel washed up her breakfast dishes, and set the cabin in order according to her housewifely instincts. Then she curled up in the chair which Bill had painstakingly constructed for her especial comfort with only ax and knife for tools. She was working up a pair of moccasins after an Indian pattern, and she grew wholly absorbed in the task, drawing stitch after stitch of sinew strongly and neatly into place. The hours flicked past in unseemly haste, so completely was she engrossed. When at length the soreness of her fingers warned her that she had been at work a long time, she looked at her watch.
"Goodness me! Bill's due home any time, and I haven't a thing ready to eat," she exclaimed. "And here's my fire nearly out."
She piled on wood, and stirring the coals under it, fanned them with her husband's old felt hat, forgetful of sparks or aught but that she should be cooking against his hungry arrival. Outside, the wind blew lustily, driving the loose snow across the open in long, wavering ribbons. But she had forgotten that it was in the dangerous quarter, and she did not recall that important fact even when she sat down again to watch her moose steaks broil on the glowing coals raked apart from the leaping blaze. The flames licked into the throat of the chimney with the purr of a giant cat.
No sixth sense warned her of impending calamity. It burst upon her with startling abruptness only when she opened the door to throw out some scraps of discarded meat, for the blaze of the burning stack shot thirty feet in the air, and the smoke rolled across the meadow in a sooty manner.
Bareheaded, in a thin pair of moccasins, without coat or mittens to fend her from the lance-toothed frost. Hazel ran to the stable. She could get the horses out, perhaps, before the log walls became their crematory. But Bill, coming in from his traps, reached the stable first, and there was nothing for her to do but stand and watch with a sickening self-reproach. He untied and clubbed the reluctant horses outside. Already the stable end against the hay was shooting up tongues of flame. As the blaze lapped swiftly over the roof and ate into the walls, the horses struggled through the deep drift, lunging desperately to gain a few yards, then turned to stand with ears pricked up at the strange sight, shivering in the bitter northwest wind that assailed their bare, unprotected bodies.
Bill himself drew back from the fire, and stared at it fixedly. He kept silence until Hazel timidly put her hand on his arm.
"You watched that fire all right, didn't you?" he said then.
"Bill, Bill!" she cried. But he merely shrugged his shoulders, and kept his gaze fixed on the burning stable.
To Hazel, shivering with the cold, even close as she was to the intense heat, it seemed an incredibly short time till a glowing mound below the snow level was all that remained; a black-edged pit that belched smoke and sparks. That and five horses humped tail to the driving wind, stolidly enduring. She shuddered with something besides the cold. And then Bill spoke absently, his eyes still on the smoldering heap.
"Five feet of caked snow on top of every blade of grass," she heard him mutter. "They can't browse on trees, like deer. Aw, hell!"
He had stuck his rifle butt first in the snow. He walked over to it; Hazel followed. When he stood, with the rifle slung in the crook of his arm, she tried again to break through this silent aloofness which cut her more deeply than any harshness of speech could have done.
"Bill, I'm so sorry!" she pleaded. "It's terrible, I know. What can we do?"
"Do? Huh!" he snorted. "If I ever have to die before my time, I hope it will be with a full belly and my head in the air—and mercifully swift."
Even then she had no clear idea of his intention. She looked up at him pleadingly, but he was staring at the horses, his teeth biting nervously at his under lip. Suddenly he blinked, and she saw his eyes moisten. In the same instant he threw up the rifle. At the thin, vicious crack of it, Silk collapsed.
She understood then. With her hand pressed hard over her mouth to keep back the hysterical scream that threatened, she fled to the house. Behind her the rifle spat forth its staccato message of death. For a few seconds the mountains flung whiplike echoes back and forth in a volley. Then the sibilant voice of the wind alone broke the stillness.
Numbed with the cold, terrified at the elemental ruthlessness of it all, she threw herself on the bed, denied even the relief of tears. Dry-eyed and heavy-hearted, she waited her husband's coming, and dreading it—for the first time she had seen her Bill look on her with cold, critical anger. For an interminable time she lay listening for the click of the latch, every nerve strung tight.
He came at last, and the thump of his rifle as he stood it against the wall had no more than sounded before he was bending over her. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and putting his arm across her shoulders, turned her gently so that she faced him.
"Never mind, little person," he whispered. "It's done and over. I'm sorry I slashed at you the way I did. That's a fool man's way—if he's hurt and sore he always has to jump on somebody else."
Then by some queer complexity of her woman's nature the tears forced their way. She did not want to cry—only the weak and mushy-minded wept. She had always fought back tears unless she was shaken to the roots of her soul. But it was almost a relief to cry with Bill's arm holding her close. And it was brief. She sat up beside him presently. He held her hand tucked in between his own two palms, but he looked wistfully at the window, as if he were seeing what lay beyond.
"Poor, dumb devils!" he murmured. "I feel like a murderer. But it was pure mercy to them. They won't suffer the agony of frost, nor the slow pain of starvation. That's what it amounted to—they'd starve if they didn't freeze first. I've known men I would rather have shot. I bucked many a hard old trail with Silk and Satin. Poor, dumb devils!"
"D-don't, Bill!" she cried forlornly. "I know it's my fault. I let the fire almost go out, and then built it up big without thinking. And I know being sorry doesn't make any difference. But please—I don't want to be miserable over it. I'll never be careless again."
"All right; I won't talk about it, hon," he said. "I don't think you will ever be careless about such things again. The North won't let us get away with it. The wilderness is bigger than we are, and it's merciless if we make mistakes."
"I see that." She shuddered involuntarily. "It's a grim country. It frightens me."
"Don't let it," he said tenderly. "So long as we have our health and strength we can win out, and be stronger for the experience. Winter's a tough proposition up here, but you want to fight shy of morbid brooding over things that can't be helped. This ever-lasting frost and snow will be gone by and by. It'll be spring. And everything looks different when there's green grass and flowers, and the sun is warm. Buck up, old girl—Bill's still on the job."
"How can you prospect in the spring without horses to pack the outfit?" she asked, after a little. "How can we get out of here with all the stuff we'll have?"
"We'll manage it," he assured lightly. "We'll get out with our furs and gold, all right, and we won't go hungry on the way, even if we have no pack train. Leave it to me."
JACK FROST WITHDRAWS
All through the month of January each evening, as dusk folded its somber mantle about the meadow, the wolves gathered to feast on the dead horses, till Hazel's nerves were strained to the snapping point. Continually she was reminded of that vivid episode, of which she had been the unwitting cause. Sometimes she would open the door, and from out the dark would arise the sound of wolfish quarrels over the feast, disembodied snappings and snarlings. Or when the low-swimming moon shed a misty glimmer on the open she would peer through a thawed place on the window-pane, and see gray shapes circling about the half-picked skeletons. Sometimes, when Bill was gone, and all about the cabin was utterly still, one, bolder or hungrier than his fellows, would trot across the meadow, drawn by the scent of the meat. Two or three of these Hazel shot with her own rifle.
But when February marked another span on the calendar the wolves came no more. The bones were clean.
There was no impending misfortune or danger that she could point to or forecast with certitude. Nevertheless, struggle against it as she might, knowing it for pure psychological phenomena arising out of her harsh environment. Hazel suffered continual vague forebodings. The bald, white peaks seemed to surround her like a prison from which there could be no release. From day to day she was harassed by dismal thoughts. She would wake in the night clutching at her husband. Such days as he went out alone she passed in restless anxiety. Something would happen. What it would be she did not know, but to her it seemed that the bleak stage was set for untoward drama, and they two the puppets that must play.
She strove against this impression with cold logic; but reason availed nothing against the feeling that the North had but to stretch forth its mighty hand and crush them utterly. But all of this she concealed from Bill. She was ashamed of her fears, the groundless uneasiness. Yet it was a constant factor in her daily life, and it sapped her vitality as surely and steadily as lack of bodily nourishment could have done.
Had there been in her make-up any inherent weakness of mentality, Hazel might perhaps have brooded herself into neurasthenia. Few save those who have actually experienced complete isolation for extended periods can realize the queer, warped outlook such an existence imposes on the human mind, if that mind is a trifle more than normally sensitive to impressions, and a nature essentially social both by inclination and habit. In the first months of their marriage she had assured herself and him repeatedly that she could be perfectly happy and contented any place on earth with Bill Wagstaff.
Emotion has blinded wiser folk, and perhaps that is merely a little device of nature's, for if one could look into the future with too great a clarity of vision there would be fewer matings. In the main her declaration still held true. She loved her husband with the same intensity; possibly even more, for she had found in him none of the flaws which every woman dreads that time and association may bring to light in her chosen mate.
When Bill drew her up close in his arms, the intangible menace of the wilderness and all the dreary monotony of the days faded into the background. But they, no more than others who have tried and failed for lack of understanding, could not live their lives with their heads in an emotional cloud. For every action there must be a corresponding reaction. They who have the capacity to reach the heights must likewise, upon occasion, plumb the depths. Life, she began to realize, resolved itself into an unending succession of little, trivial things, with here and there some great event looming out above all the rest for its bestowal of happiness or pain.
Bill knew. He often talked about such things. She was beginning to understand that he had a far more comprehensive grasp of the fundamentals of existence that she had. He had explained to her that the individual unit was nothing outside of his group affiliations, and she applied that to herself in a practical way in an endeavor to analyze herself. She was a group product, and only under group conditions could her life flow along nonirritant lines. Such being the case, it followed that if Bill persisted in living out of the world they would eventually drift apart, in spirit if not in actuality. And that was an absurd summing-up.
She rejected the conclusion decisively. For was not their present situation the net result of a concrete endeavor to strike a balance between the best of what both the wilderness and the humming cities had to offer them? It seemed treason to Bill to long for other voices and other faces. Yet she could not help the feeling. She wondered if he, too, did not sometimes long for company besides her own. And the thought stirred up a perverse jealousy. They two, perfectly mated in all things, should be able to make their own little world complete—but they could not, she knew. Life was altogether too complex an affair to be solved in so primitive a fashion. She felt that continued living under such conditions would drive her mad; that if she stayed long enough under the somber shadow of the Klappan Range she would hate the North and all it contained.
That would have been both unjust and absurd, so she set herself resolutely to overcome that feeling of oppression. She was too well-balanced to drift unwittingly along this perilous road of thought. She schooled herself to endure and to fight off introspection. She had absorbed enough of her husband's sturdy philosophy of life to try and make the best of a bad job. After all, she frequently assured herself, the badness of the job was mostly a state of mind. And she had a growing conviction that Bill sensed the struggle, and that it hurt him. For that reason, if for no other, she did her best to make light of the grim environment, and to wait patiently for spring.
February and March stormed a path furiously across the calendar. Higher and higher the drifts piled about the cabin, till at length it was banked to the eaves with snow save where Bill shoveled it away to let light to the windows. Day after day they kept indoors, stoking up the fire, listening to the triumphant whoop of the winds.
"Snow, snow!" Hazel burst out one day. "Frost that cuts you like a knife. I wonder if there's ever going to be an end to it? I wish we were home again—or some place."
"So do I, little person," Bill said gently. "But spring's almost at the door. Hang on a little longer. We've made a fair stake, anyway, if we don't wash an ounce of gold."
Hazel let her gaze wander over the pelts hanging thick from ridge log and wall. Bill had fared well at his trapping. Over two thousand dollars he estimated the value of his catch.
"How are we going to get it all out?" She voiced a troublesome thought.
"Shoulder pack to the Skeena," he answered laconically. "Build a dugout there, and float downstream. Portage the rapids as they come."
"Oh, Bill!" she came and leaned her head against him contritely. "Our poor ponies! And it was all my carelessness."
"Never mind, hon," he comforted. "They blinked out without suffering. And we'll make it like a charm. Be game—it'll soon be spring."
As if in verification of his words, with the last breath of that howling storm came a sudden softening of the atmosphere. The sharp teeth of the frost became swiftly blunted, and the sun, swinging daily in a wider arc, brought the battery of his rays into effective play on the mountainsides. The drifts lessened, shrunk, became moisture sodden. For ten days or more the gradual thaw increased. Then a lusty-lunged chinook wind came booming up along the Klappan Range, and stripped it to a bare, steaming heap. Overhead whistled the first flight of the wild goose, bound for the nesting grounds. Night and day the roar of a dozen cataracts droned on all sides of the basin, as the melting snow poured down in the annual spring flood.
By April the twentieth the abdication of Jack Frost was complete. A kindlier despot ruled the land, and Bill Wagstaff began to talk of gold.
". . . that precious yellow metal sought by men In regions desolate. Pursued in patient hope or furious toil; Breeder of discord, wars, and murderous hate; The victor's spoil."
So Hazel quoted, leaning over her husband's shoulder. In the bottom of his pan, shining among a film of black sand, lay half a dozen bright specks, varying from pin-point size to the bigness of a grain of wheat.
"That's the stuff," Bill murmured. "Only it seems rather far-fetched for your poet to blame inanimate matter for the cussedness of humanity in general. I suppose, though, he thought he was striking a highly dramatic note. Anyway, it looks as if we'd struck it pretty fair. It's time, too—the June rise will hit us like a whirlwind one of these days."
"About what is the value of those little pieces?" Hazel asked.
"Oh, fifty or sixty cents," he answered. "Not much by itself. But it seems to be uniform over the bar—and I can wash a good many pans in a day's work."
"I should think so," she remarked. "It didn't take you ten minutes to do that one."
"Whitey Lewis and I took out over two hundred dollars a day on that other creek last spring—no, a year last spring, it was," he observed reminiscently. "This isn't as good, but it's not to be sneezed at, either. I think I'll make me a rocker. I've sampled this bend quite a lot, and I don't think I can do any better than fly at this while the water stays low."
"I can help, can't I?" she said eagerly.
"Sure," he smiled. "You help a lot, little person, just sitting around keeping me company."
"But I want to work," she declared. "I've sat around now till I'm getting the fidgets."
"All right; I'll give you a job," he returned good-naturedly. "Meantime, let's eat that lunch you packed up here."
In a branch of the creek which flowed down through the basin. Bill had found plentiful colors as soon as the first big run-off of water had fallen. He had followed upstream painstakingly, panning colors always, and now and then a few grains of coarse gold to encourage him in the quest. The loss of their horses precluded ranging far afield to that other glacial stream which he had worked with Whitey Lewis when he was a free lance in the North. He was close to his base of supplies, and he had made wages—with always the prospector's lure of a rich strike on the next bar.
And now, with May well advanced, he had found definite indications of good pay dirt. The creek swung in a hairpin curve, and in the neck between the two sides of the loop the gold was sifted through wash gravel and black sand, piled there by God only knew how many centuries of glacial drift and flood. But it was there. He had taken panfuls at random over the bar, and uniformly it gave up coarse gold. With a rocker he stood a fair chance of big money before the June rise.
"In the morning," said he, when lunch was over, "I'll bring along the ax and some nails and a shovel, and get busy."
That night they trudged down to the cabin in high spirits. Bill had washed out enough during the afternoon to make a respectable showing on Hazel's outspread handkerchief. And Hazel was in a gleeful mood over the fact that she had unearthed a big nugget by herself. Beginner's luck, Bill said teasingly, but that did not diminish her elation. The old, adventurous glamour, which the long winter and moods of depression had worn threadbare, began to cast its pleasant spell over her again. The fascination of the gold hunt gripped her. Not for the stuff itself, but for what it would get. She wondered if the men who dared the impassive solitudes of the North for weary, lonesome years saw in every morsel of the gold they found a picture of what that gold would buy them in kindlier lands. And some never found any, never won the stake that would justify the gamble. It was a gamble, in a sense—a pure game of chance; but a game that took strength, and nerve, a sturdy soul, to play.
Still, the gold was there, locked up in divers storing places in the lap of the earth, awaiting those virile enough to find and take. And out beyond, in the crowded places of the earth, were innumerable gateways to comfort and pleasure which could be opened with gold. It remained only to balance the one against the other. Just as she had often planned according to her opportunities when she was a wage slave in the office of Bush and Company, so now did she plan for the future on a broader scale, now that the North promised to open its treasure vault to them—an attitude which Bill Wagstaff encouraged and abetted in his own whimsical fashion. There was nothing too good for them, he sometimes observed, provided it could be got. But there was one profound difference in their respective temperaments, Hazel sometimes reflected. Bill would shrug his wide shoulders, and forget or forego the unattainable, where she would chafe and fume. She was quite positive of this.
But as the days passed there seemed no question of their complete success. Bill fabricated his rocker, a primitive, boxlike device with a blanket screen and transverse slats below. It was faster than the pan, even rude as it was, and it caught all but the finer particles of gold. Hazel helped operate the rocker, and took her turn at shoveling or filling the box with water while Bill rocked. Each day's end sent her to her bed healthily tired, but happily conscious that she had helped to accomplish something.
A queer twist of luck put the cap-sheaf on their undertaking. Hazel ran a splinter of wood into her hand, thus putting a stop to her activities with shovel and pail. Until the wound lost its soreness she was forced to sit idle. She could watch Bill ply his rocker while she fought flies on the bank. This grew tiresome, particularly since she had the sense to realize that a man who works with sweat streaming down his face and a mind wholly absorbed in the immediate task has no desire to be bothered with inconsequential chatter. So she rambled along the creek one afternoon, armed with hook and line on a pliant willow in search of sport.
The trout were hungry, and struck fiercely at the bait. She soon had plenty for supper and breakfast. Wherefore she abandoned that diversion, and took to prying tentatively in the lee of certain bowlders on the edge of the creek—prospecting on her own initiative, as it were. She had no pan, and only one hand to work with, but she knew gold when she saw it—and, after all, it was but an idle method of killing time.
She noticed behind each rock and in every shallow, sheltered place in the stream a plentiful gathering of tiny red stones. They were of a pale, ruby cast, and mostly flawed; dainty trifles, translucent and full of light when she held them to the sun. She began a search for a larger specimen. It might mount nicely into a stickpin for Bill, she thought; a memento of the Klappan Range.
And in this search she came upon a large, rusty pebble, snuggled on the downstream side of an over-hanging rock right at the water's edge. It attracted her first by its symmetrical form, a perfect oval; then, when she lifted it, by its astonishing weight. She continued her search for the pinkish-red stones, carrying the rusty pebble along. Presently she worked her way back to where Roaring Bill labored prodigiously.
"I feel ashamed to be loafing while you work so hard, Billy-boy," she greeted.
"Give me a kiss and I'll call it square," he proposed cheerfully. "Got to work like a beaver, kid. This hot weather'll put us to the bad before long. There'll be ten feet of water roaring down here one of these days."
"Look at these pretty stones I found," she said. "What are they, Bill?"
"Those?" He looked at her outstretched palm. "Garnets."
"Garnets? They must be valuable, then," she observed. "The creek's full of them."
"Valuable? I should say so," he grinned. "I sent a sample to a Chicago firm once. They replied to the effect that they would take all I could deliver, and pay thirty-six dollars a ton, f. o. b., my nearest railroad station."
"Oh!" she protested. "But they're pretty."
"Yes, if you can find one of any size. What's the other rock?" he inquired casually. "You making a collection of specimens?"
"That's just a funny stone I found," she returned. "It must be iron or something. It's terribly heavy for its size."
"Eh? Let me see it," he said.
She handed it over.
He weighed it in his palm, scrutinized it closely, turning it over and over. Then he took out his knife and scratched the rusty surface vigorously for a few minutes.
"Huh!" he grunted. "Look at your funny stone."
He held it out for her inspection. The blade of his knife had left a dull, yellow scar.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Why—it's gold!"
"It is, woman," he declaimed, with mock solemnity. "Gold—glittering gold!
"Say, where did you find this?" he asked, when Hazel stared at the nugget, dumb in the face of this unexpected stroke of fortune.
"Just around the second bend," she cried. "Oh, Bill, do you suppose there's any more there?"
"Lead me to it with my trusty pan and shovel, and we'll see," Bill smiled.
Forthwith they set out. The overhanging bowlder was a scant ten minute's walk up the creek.
Bill leaned on his shovel, and studied the ground. Then, getting down on his knees at the spot where the marks of Hazel's scratching showed plain enough, he began to paw over the gravel.
Within five minutes his fingers brought to light a second lump, double the size of her find. Close upon that he winnowed a third. Hazel leaned over him, breathless. He sifted the gravel and sand through his fingers slowly, picking out and examining all that might be the precious metal, and as he picked and clawed the rusty, brown nuggets came to light. At last he reached bottom. The bowlder thrust out below in a natural shelf. From this Bill carefully scraped the accumulation of black sand and gravel, gleaning as a result of his labor a baker's dozen of assorted chunks—one giant that must have weighed three pounds. He sat back on his haunches, and looked at his wife, speechless.
"Is that truly all gold, Bill?" she whispered incredulously.
"It certainly is—as good gold as ever went into the mint," he assured. "All laid in a nice little nest on this shelf of rock. I've heard of such things up in this country, but I never ran into one before—and I've always taken this pocket theory with a grain of salt. But there you are. That's a real, honest-to-God pocket. And a well-lined one, if you ask me. This rusty-colored outside is oxidized iron—from the black sand, I guess. Still, it might be something else. But I know what the inside is, all right, all right."
"My goodness!" she murmured. "There might be wagonloads of it in this creek."
"There might, but it isn't likely." Bill shook his head. "This is a simon-pure pocket, and it would keep a graduate mineralogist guessing to say how it got here, because it's a different proposition from the wash gold in the creek bed. I've got all that's here, I'm pretty sure. And you might prospect this creek from end to end and never find another nugget bigger than a pea. It's rich placer ground, at that—but this pocket's almost unbelievable. Must be forty pounds of gold there. And you found it. You're the original mascot, little person."
He bestowed a bearlike hug upon her.
"Now what?" she asked. "It hardly seems real to pick up several thousand dollars in half an hour or so like this. What will we do?"
"Do? Why, bless your dear soul," he laughed. "We'll just consider ourselves extra lucky, and keep right on with the game till the high water makes us quit."
Which was a contingency nearer at hand than even Bill, with a firsthand knowledge of the North's vagaries in the way of flood, quite anticipated.
Three days after the finding of the pocket the whole floor of the creek was awash. His rocker went downstream overnight. To the mouth of the canon where the branch sought junction with the parent stream they could ascend, and no farther. And when Bill saw that he rolled himself a cigarette, and, putting one long arm across his wife's shoulders, said whimsically:
"What d'you say we start home?"
THE STRESS OF THE TRAIL
Roaring Bill dumped his second pack on the summit of the Klappan, and looked away to where the valley that opened out of the basin showed its blurred hollow in the distance. But he uttered no useless regrets. With horses they could have ridden south through a rolling country, where every stretch of timber gave on a grass-grown level. Instead they were forced back over the rugged route by which they had crossed the range the summer before. Grub, bedding, furs, and gold totaled two hundred pounds. On his sturdy shoulders Bill could pack half that weight. For his wife the thing was a physical impossibility, even had he permitted her to try. Hence every mile advanced meant that he doubled the distance, relaying from one camp to the next. They cut their bedding to a blanket apiece, and that was Hazel's load—all he would allow her to carry.
"You're no pack mule, little person," he would say. "It don't hurt me. I've done this for years."
But even with abnormal strength and endurance, it was killing work to buck those ragged slopes with a heavy load. Only by terrible, unremitting effort could he advance any appreciable distance. From daybreak till noon they would climb and rest alternately. Then, after a meal and a short breathing spell, he would go back alone after the second load. They were footsore, and their bodies ached with weariness that verged on pain when they gained the pass that cut the summit of the Klappan Range.
"Well, we're over the hump," Bill remarked thankfully. "It's a downhill shoot to the Skeena. I don't think it's more than fifty or sixty miles to where we can take to the water."
They made better time on the western slope, but the journey became a matter of sheer endurance. Summer was on them in full blaze. The creeks ran full and strong. Thunderstorms blew up out of a clear sky to deluge them. Food was scanty—flour and salt and tea; with meat and fish got by the way. And the black flies and mosquitoes swarmed about them maddeningly day and night.
So they came at last to the Skeena, and Hazel's heart misgave her when she took note of its swirling reaches, the sinuous eddies—a deep, swift, treacherous stream. But Bill rested overnight, and in the morning sought and felled a sizable cedar, and began to hew. Slowly the thick trunk shaped itself to the form of a boat under the steady swing of his ax. Hazel had seen the type in use among the coast Siwashes, twenty-five feet in length, narrow-beamed, the sides cut to a half inch in thickness, the bottom left heavier to withstand scraping over rock, and to keep it on an even keel. A rude and tricky craft, but one wholly efficient in capable hands.
In a week it was finished. They loaded the sack of gold, the bundle of furs, their meager camp outfit amidships, and swung off into the stream.
The Skeena drops fifteen hundred feet in a hundred miles. Wherefore there are rapids, boiling stretches of white water in which many a good canoe has come to grief. Some of these they ran at imminent peril. Over the worst they lined the canoe from the bank. One or two short canons they portaged, dragging the heavy dugout through the brush by main strength. Once they came to a wall-sided gorge that ran away beyond any attempt at portage, and they abandoned the dugout, to build another at the lower end. But between these natural barriers they clicked off the miles in hot haste, such was the swiftness of the current. And in the second week of July they brought up at the head of Kispiox Canon. Hazleton lay a few miles below. But the Kispiox stayed them, a sluice box cut through solid stone, in which the waters raged with a deafening roar. No man ventured into that wild gorge. They abandoned the dugout. Bill slung the sack of gold and the bale of furs on his back.
"It's the last lap, Hazel," said he. "We'll leave the rest of it for the first Siwash that happens along."
So they set out bravely to trudge the remaining distance. And as the fortunes of the trail sometimes befall, they raised an Indian camp on the bank of the river at the mouth of the canon. A ten-dollar bill made them possessors of another canoe, and an hour later the roofs of Hazleton cropped up above the bank.
"Oh, Bill," Hazel called from the bow. "Look! There's the same old steamer tied to the same old bank. We've been gone a year, and yet the world hasn't changed a mite. I wonder if Hazleton has taken a Rip van Winkle sleep all this time?"
"No fear," he smiled. "I can see some new houses—quite a few, in fact. And look—by Jiminy! They're working on the grade. That railroad, remember? See all those teams? Maybe I ought to have taken up old Hackaberry on that town-lot proposition, after all."
"Fiddlesticks!" she retorted, with fine scorn of Hazleton's real-estate possibilities. "You could buy the whole town with this."
She touched the sack with her toe.
"Not quite," Bill returned placidly. "I wouldn't, anyway. We'll get a better run for our money than that. I hope old Hack didn't forget to attend to that ranch business for me."
He drove the canoe alongside a float. A few loungers viewed them with frank curiosity. Bill set out the treasure sack and the bale of furs, and tied the canoe.
"A new hotel, by Jove!" he remarked, when upon gaining the level of the town a new two-story building blazoned with a huge sign its function as a hostelry. "Getting quite metropolitan in this neck of the woods. Say, little person, do you think you can relish a square meal? Planked steak and lobster salad—huh? I wonder if they could rustle a salad in this man's town? Say, do you know I'm just beginning to find out how hungry I am for the flesh-pots. What's the matter with a little variety?—as Lin MacLean said. Aren't you, hon?"
She was; frankly so. For long, monotonous months she had been struggling against just such cravings, impossible of realization, and therefore all the more tantalizing. She had been a year in the wilderness, and the wilderness had not only lost its glamour, but had become a thing to flee from. Even the rude motley of Hazleton was a welcome change. Here at least—on a minor scale, to be sure—was that which she craved, and to which she had been accustomed—life, stir, human activity, the very antithesis of the lonely mountain fastnesses. She bestowed a glad pressure on her husband's arm as they walked up the street, Bill carrying the sack of gold perched carelessly on one shoulder.
"Say, their enterprise has gone the length of establishing a branch bank here, I see."
He called her attention to a square-fronted edifice, its new-boarded walls as yet guiltless of paint, except where a row of black letters set forth that it was the Bank of British North America.
"That's a good place to stow this bullion," he remarked. "I want to get it off my hands."
So to the bank they bent their steps. A solemn, horse-faced Englishman weighed the gold, and issued Bill a receipt, expressing a polite regret that lack of facility to determine its fineness prevented him from converting it into cash.
"That means a trip to Vancouver," Bill remarked outside. "Well, we can stand that."
From the bank they went to the hotel, registered, and were shown to a room. For the first time since the summit of the Klappan Range, where her tiny hand glass had suffered disaster, Hazel was permitted a clear view of herself in a mirror.
"I'm a perfect fright!" she mourned.
"Huh!" Bill grunted. "You're all right. Look at me."
The trail had dealt hardly with both, in the matter of their personal appearance. Tanned to an abiding brown, they were, and Hazel's one-time smooth face was spotted with fly bites and marked with certain scratches suffered in the brush as they skirted the Kispiox. Her hair had lost its sleek, glossy smoothness of arrangement. Her hands were reddened and rough. But chiefly she was concerned with the sad state of her apparel. She had come a matter of four hundred miles in the clothes on her back—and they bore unequivocal evidence of the journey.
"I'm a perfect fright," she repeated pettishly. "I don't wonder that people lapse into semi-barbarism in the backwoods. One's manners, morals, clothing, and complexion all suffer from too close contact with your beloved North, Bill."
"Thanks!" he returned shortly. "I suppose I'm a perfect fright, too. Long hair, whiskers, grimy, calloused hands, and all the rest of it. A shave and a hair cut, a bath and a new suit of clothes will remedy that. But I'll be the same personality in every essential quality that I was when I sweated over the Klappan with a hundred pounds on my back."
"I hope so," she retorted. "I don't require the shave, thank goodness, but I certainly need a bath—and clothes. I wish I had the gray suit that's probably getting all moldy and moth-eaten at the Pine River cabin. I wonder if I can get anything fit to wear here?"
"Women live here," Bill returned quietly, "and I suppose the stores supply 'em with duds. Unlimber that bank roll of yours, and do some shopping."
She sat on the edge of the bed, regarding her reflection in the mirror with extreme disfavor. Bill fingered his thick stubble of a beard for a thoughtful minute. Then he sat down beside her.
"Wha's a mollah, hon?" he wheedled. "What makes you such a crosser patch all at once?"
"Oh, I don't know," she answered dolefully. "I'm tired and hungry, and I look a fright—and—oh, just everything."
"Tut, tut!" he remonstrated good-naturedly. "That's just mood again. We're out of the woods, literally and figuratively. If you're hungry, let's go and see what we can make this hotel produce in the way of grub, before we do anything else."
"I wouldn't go into their dining-room looking like this for the world," she said decisively. "I didn't realize how dirty and shabby I was."
"All right; you go shopping, then," he proposed, "while I take these furs up to old Hack's place and turn them into money. Then we'll dress, and make this hotel feed us the best they've got. Cheer up. Maybe it was tough on you to slice a year out of your life and leave it in a country where there's nothing but woods and eternal silence—but we've got around twenty thousand dollars to show for it, Hazel. And one can't get something for nothing. There's a price mark on it somewhere, always. We've got all our lives before us, little person, and a better chance for happiness than most folks have. Don't let little things throw you into the blues. Be my good little pal—and see if you can't make one of these stores dig up a white waist and a black skirt, like you had on the first time I saw you."
He kissed her, and went quickly out. And after a long time of sober staring at her image in the glass Hazel shook herself impatiently.
"I'm a silly, selfish, incompetent little beast," she whispered. "Bill ought to thump me, instead of being kind. I can't do anything, and I don't know much, and I'm a scarecrow for looks right now. And I started out to be a real partner."
She wiped an errant tear away, and made her way to a store—a new place sprung up, like the bank and the hotel, with the growing importance of the town. The stock of ready-made clothing drove her to despair. It seemed that what women resided in Hazleton must invariably dress in Mother Hubbard gowns of cheap cotton print with other garments to match. But eventually they found for her undergarments of a sort, a waist and skirt, and a comfortable pair of shoes. Hats, as a milliner would understand the term, there were none. And in default of such she stuck to the gray felt sombrero she had worn into the Klappan and out again—which, in truth, became her very well, when tilted at the proper angle above her heavy black hair. Then she went back to the hotel, and sought a bathroom.
Returning from this she found Bill, a Bill all shaved and shorn, unloading himself of sundry packages of new attire.
"Aha, everything is lovely," he greeted enthusiastically. "Old Hack jumped at the pelts, and paid a fat price for the lot. Also the ranch deal has gone through. He's a prince, old Hack. Sent up a man and had it surveyed and classified and the deed waiting for me. And—oh, say, here's a letter for you."
"For me? Oh, yes," as she looked at the hand-writing and postmark. "I wrote to Loraine Marsh when we were going north. Good heavens, look at the date—it's been here since last September!"
"Hackaberry knew where we were," Bill explained. "Sometimes in camps like this they hold mail two or three years for men that have gone into the interior."
She put aside the letter, and dressed while Bill had his bath. Then, with the smoke and grime of a hard trail obliterated, and with decent clothes upon them, they sought the dining-room. There, while they waited to be served, Hazel read Loraine Marsh's letter, and passed it to Bill with a self-conscious little laugh.
"There's an invitation there we might accept," she said casually.
Bill read. There were certain comments upon her marriage, such as the average girl might be expected to address to her chum who has forsaken spinsterhood, a lot of chatty mention of Granville people and Granville happenings, which held no particular interest for Bill since he knew neither one nor the other, and it ended with an apparently sincere hope that Hazel and her husband would visit Granville soon as the Marshes' guests.
He returned the letter as the waitress brought their food.
"Wouldn't it be nice to take a trip home?" Hazel suggested thoughtfully. "I'd love to."
"We are going home," Bill reminded gently.
"Oh, of course," she smiled. "But I mean to Granville. I'd like to go back there with you for a while, just to—just to—"
"To show 'em," he supplied laconically.
"Oh, Bill!" she pouted.
Nevertheless, she could not deny that there was a measure of truth in his brief remark. She did want to "show 'em." Bill's vernacular expressed it exactly. She had compassed success in a manner that Granville—and especially that portion of Granville which she knew and which knew her—could appreciate and understand and envy according to its individual tendencies.
She looked across the table at her husband, and thought to herself with proud satisfaction that she had done well. Viewed from any angle whatsoever, Bill Wagstaff stood head and shoulders above all the men she had ever known. Big, physically and mentally, clean-minded and capable—indubitably she had captured a lion, and, though she might have denied stoutly the imputation, she wanted Granville to see her lion and hear him roar.
Whether they realize the fact or not, to the average individual, male or female, reflected glory is better than none at all. And when two people stand in the most intimate relation to each other, the success of one lends a measure of its luster to the other. Those who had been so readily impressed by Andrew Bush's device to singe her social wings with the flame of gossip had long since learned their mistake. She had the word of Loraine Marsh and Jack Barrow that they were genuinely sorry for having been carried away by appearances. And she could nail her colors to the mast if she came home the wife of a man like Bill Wagstaff, who could wrest a fortune from the wilderness in a briefer span of time than it took most men to make current expenses. Hazel was quite too human to refuse a march triumphal if it came her way. She had left Granville in bitterness of spirit, and some of that bitterness required balm.
"Still thinking Granville?" Bill queried, when they had finished an uncommonly silent meal.
Hazel flushed slightly. She was, and momentarily she felt that she should have been thinking of their little nest up by Pine River Pass instead. She knew that Bill was homing to the cabin. She herself regarded it with affection, but of a different degree from his. Her mind was more occupied with another, more palpitating circle of life than was possible at the cabin, much as she appreciated its green and peaceful beauty. The sack of gold lying in the bank had somehow opened up far-flung possibilities. She skipped the interval of affairs which she knew must be attended to, and betook herself and Bill to Granville, thence to the bigger, older cities, where money shouted in the voice of command, where all things were possible to those who had the price.
She had had her fill of the wilderness—for the time being, she put it. It loomed behind her—vast, bleak, a desolation of loneliness from which she must get away. She knew now, beyond peradventure, that her heart had brought her back to the man in spite of, rather than because of, his environment. And secure in the knowledge of his love for her and her love for him, she was already beginning to indulge a dream of transplanting him permanently to kindlier surroundings, where he would have wider scope for his natural ability and she less isolation.
But she was beginning to know this husband of hers too well to propose anything of the sort abruptly. Behind his tenderness and patience she had sometimes glimpsed something inflexible, unyielding as the wilderness he loved. So she merely answered:
"In a way, yes."
"Let's go outside where I can smoke a decent cigar on top of this fairly decent meal," he suggested. "Then we'll figure on the next move. I think about twenty-four hours in Hazleton will do me. There's a steamer goes down-river to-morrow."
Four days later they stood on the deck of a grimy little steamer breasting the outgoing tide that surged through the First Narrows. Wooded banks on either hand spread dusky green in the hot August sun. On their left glinted the roofs and white walls of Hollyburn, dear to the suburban heart. Presently they swung around Brockton Point, and Vancouver spread its peninsular clutter before them. Tugs and launches puffed by, about their harbor traffic. A ferry clustered black with people hurried across the inlet. But even above the harbor noises, across the intervening distance they could hear the vibrant hum of the industrial hive.
"Listen to it," said Bill. "Like surf on the beaches. And, like the surf, it's full of treacherous undercurrents, a bad thing to get into unless you can swim strong enough to keep your head above water."
"You're a thoroughgoing pessimist," she smiled.
"No," he shook his head. "I merely know that it's a hard game to buck, under normal conditions. We're of the fortunate few, that's all."
"You're not going to spoil the pleasure that's within your reach by pondering the misfortunes of those who are less lucky, are you?" she inquired curiously.
"Not much," he drawled. "Besides, that isn't my chief objection to town. I simply can't endure the noise and confusion and the manifold stinks, and the universal city attitude—which is to gouge the other fellow before he gouges you. Too much like a dog fight. No, I haven't any mission to remedy social and economic ills. I'm taking the egotistic view that it doesn't concern me, that I'm perfectly justified in enjoying myself in my own way, seeing that I'm in a position to do so. We're going to take our fun as we find it. Just the same," he finished thoughtfully, "I'd as soon be pulling into that ranch of ours on the hurricane deck of a right good horse as approaching Vancouver's water front. This isn't any place to spend money or to see anything. It's a big, noisy, over-grown village, overrun with business exploiters and real-estate sharks. It'll be a city some day. At present it's still in the shambling stage of civic youth."
In so far as Hazel had observed upon her former visit, this, if a trifle sweeping, was in the main correct. So she had no regrets when Bill confined their stay to the time necessary to turn his gold into a bank account, and allow her to buy a trunkful, more or less, of pretty clothes. Then they bore on eastward and halted at Ashcroft. Bill had refused to commit himself positively to a date for the eastern pilgrimage. He wanted to see the cabin again. For that matter she did, too—so that their sojourn there did not carry them over another winter. That loomed ahead like a vague threat. Those weary months in the Klappan Range had filled her with the subtle poison of discontent, for which she felt that new scenes and new faces would prove the only antidote.
"There's a wagon road to Fort George," he told her. "We could go in there by the B. X. steamers, but I'm afraid we couldn't buy an outfit to go on. I guess a pack outfit from the end of the stage line will be about right."
From Ashcroft an auto stage whirled them swiftly into the heart of the Cariboo country—to Quesnelle, where Bill purchased four head of horses in an afternoon, packed, saddled, and hit the trail at daylight in the morning.
It was very pleasant to loaf along a passable road mounted on a light-footed horse, and Hazel enjoyed it if for no more than the striking contrast to that terrible journey in and out of the Klappan. Here were no heartbreaking mountains to scale. The scourge of flies was well-nigh past. They took the road in easy stages, well-provisioned, sleeping in a good bed at nights, camping as the spirit moved when a likely trout stream crossed their trail, venison and grouse all about them for variety of diet and the sport of hunting.
So they fared through the Telegraph Range, crossed the Blackwater, and came to Fort George by way of a ferry over the Fraser.
"This country is getting civilized," Bill observed that evening. "They tell me the G. T. P. has steel laid to a point three hundred miles east of here. This bloomin' road'll be done in another year. They're grading all along the line. I bought that hundred and sixty acres on pure sentiment, but it looks like it may turn out a profitable business transaction. That railroad is going to flood this country with farmers, and settlement means a network of railroads and skyrocketing ascension of land values."
The vanguard of the land hungry had already penetrated to Fort George. Up and down the Nachaco Valley, and bordering upon the Fraser, were the cabins of the preemptors. The roads were dotted with the teams of the incoming. A sizable town had sprung up around the old trading post.
"They come like bees when the rush starts," Bill remarked.
Leaving Fort George behind, they bore across country toward Pine River. Here and there certain landmarks, graven deep in Hazel's recollection, uprose to claim her attention. And one evening at sunset they rode up to the little cabin, all forlorn in its clearing.
The grass waved to their stirrups, and the pigweed stood rank up to the very door.
Inside, a gray film of dust had accumulated on everything, and the rooms were oppressive with the musty odors that gather in a closed, untenanted house. But apart from that it stood as they had left it thirteen months before. No foot had crossed the threshold. The pile of wood and kindling lay beside the fireplace as Bill had placed it the morning they left.
"'Be it ever so humble,'" Bill left the line of the old song unfinished, but his tone was full of jubilation. Between them they threw wide every door and window. The cool evening wind filled the place with sweet, pine-scented air. Then Bill started a blaze roaring in the black-mouthed fireplace—to make it look natural, he said—and went out to hobble his horses for the night.
In the morning they began to unpack their household goods. Rugs and bearskins found each its accustomed place upon the floor. His books went back on the shelves. With magical swiftness the cabin resumed its old-home atmosphere. And that night Bill stretched himself on the grizzly hide before the fireplace, and kept his nose in a book until Hazel, who was in no humor to read, fretted herself into something approaching a temper.