"I found a copy of that contract in our files. The clerk I had in the office was in the conspiracy. I fired him and closed everything up there; as far as a Boston end to the business is concerned, there is none. But the damage is done. My lawyer says that there is not a chance to fight this thing in court."
"Ah, oui. I expec' that much. But Ba'teese, he think, mebbe, of another way. Eh, Golemar?" He shouted to the dog, trotting, as usual, beside the buggy. "Mebbe we have a, what-you-say, punch of luck."
Then, silent, he leaned over the reins. Houston too was quiet, striving in vain to find a way out of the difficulties that beset him. At the end of half an hour he looked up in surprise. They no longer were on the way to the mill. The road had become rougher, hillier, and Houston recognized the stream and the aspen groves which fringed the highway leading to Ba'tiste's cabin. But the buggy skirted the cabin, at last to bring into sight a snug, well-built, pretty little cottage which Houston knew, instinctively, to be the home of Medaine Robinette. At the veranda, Ba'tiste pulled on the reins and alighted.
"Come," he ordered quietly.
"She have land, and she have a part of the lake and a flume site."
Houston hung back.
"Isn't it a bad bet, Ba'tiste? Have you talked to her?"
"No—I have not seen her since the day—at the flume. She is here—Lost Wing is at the back of the cabin. We will talk to her, you and I. Mebbe, when the spring come, she will lease to you the lake and the flume site. Mebbe—"
"Very well." But Houston said it against his will. He felt, in the first place, that he would be presuming to ask it of her,—himself a stranger against whom had come the accusation of murder, hardly denied. Yet, withal, in a way, he welcomed the chance to see her and to seek to explain to her the deadly thrusts which Fred Thayer had sent against him. Then too a sudden hope came; Ba'tiste had said that Agnes Jierdon had become friendly with her; certainly she had told the truth and righted the wrongs of malicious treachery. He joined Ba'tiste with a bound. A moment more and the door had opened, to reveal Medaine, repressed excitement in her eyes, her features a trifle pale, her hand trembling slightly as she extended it to Ba'tiste. Houston she received with a bow,—forced, he thought. They went within, and Ba'tiste pulled his queer little cap from his head, to crush it in the grasp of his massive hands.
"We have come for business, Medaine," he announced, with a slight show of embarrassment. "M'sieu Houston, he have need for a flume site."
"But I don't see where I could be of any assistance. I have no right—"
"Ah! But eet is not for the moment present. Eet is for the springtime."
She seemed to hesitate then and Houston took a sudden resolve. It might as well be now as later.
"Miss Robinette," he began, coming forward, "I realize that all this needs some explanation. Especially," and he halted, "about myself."
"But is that any of my affair?" Her old pertness was gone. She seemed white and frightened, as though about to listen to something she would rather not hear. Houston answered her as best he could:
"That depends upon yourself, Miss Robinette. Naturally, you wouldn't want to have any business dealings with a man who really was all that you must believe me to be. It isn't a pleasant thing for me to talk about—I would like to forget it. But in this case, it has been brought up against my will. You were present a week ago when Thayer accused me of murder."
"Eet was a big lie!"
"Wait just a minute, Ba'tiste." Cold sweat had made its appearance on Barry Houston's forehead. "I—I—am forced to admit that a part of what he said was true. When I first met Ba'tiste here, I told him there was a shadow in my life that I did not like to talk about. He was good enough to say that he didn't want to hear it. I felt that out here, perhaps I would not be harassed by certain memories that have been rather hard for me to bear in the last couple of years. I was wrong. The thing has come up again, in worse form than ever and without giving me a chance to make a denial. But perhaps you know the whole story?"
"Your story?" Medaine Robinette looked at him queerly. "No—I never have heard it."
"Then you've heard—"
"Is it fair to believe only one side of a thing?"
"Please, Mr. Houston," and she looked at him with a certain note of pleading, "you must remember that I—well, I didn't feel that it was any of my business. I didn't know that circumstances would throw you at all in my path."
"But they have, Miss Robinette. The land on my side of the creek has been taken from me by fraud. It is absolutely vital that I use every resource to try to make my mill what it should be. It still is possible for me to obtain lumber, but to get it to the mill necessitates a flume and rights in the lake. I've lost that. We've been hoping, Ba'tiste and myself, that we would be able to induce you to lease us your portion of the lake and a flume site. Otherwise, I'm afraid there isn't much hope."
"As I said, that doesn't become my property until late spring, nearly summer, in fact."
"That is time enough. We are hoping to be able to bid for the railroad contract. I believe it calls for the first shipment of ties about June first. That would give us plenty of time. If we had your word, we could go ahead, assemble the necessary machinery, snake a certain amount of logs down through the snow this winter and be in readiness when the right moment came. Without it, however, we can hardly hope for a sufficient supply to carry us through. And so—"
"You want to know—about heem. You have Ba'teese's word——"
"Really—" she seemed to be fencing again.
Houston, with a hard pull at his breath, came directly to the question.
"It's simply this, Miss Robinette. If I am guilty of those things, you don't want to have anything to do with me, and I don't want you to. But I am here to tell you that I am not guilty, and that it all has been a horrible blunder of circumstance. It is very true in one sense—" and his voice lowered—"that about two years ago in Boston, I was arrested and tried for murder."
"So Mr. Thayer said."
"I was acquitted—but not for the reason Thayer gave. They couldn't make a case, they failed absolutely to prove a thing which, had I really been guilty, should have been a simple matter. A worthless cousin, Tom Langdon, was the man who was murdered. They said I did it with a wooden mallet which I had taken from a prize fight, and which had been used to hammer on the gong for the beginning and the end of the rounds. I had been seen to take it from the fight, and it was found the next morning beside Langdon. There was human blood on it. I had been the last person seen with Langdon. They put two and two together—and tried to convict me on circumstantial evidence. But they couldn't convince the jury; I went free, as I should have done. I was innocent!"
Houston, white now with the memories and with the necessity of retailing again in the presence of a girl who, to him, stood for all that could mean happiness, gritted his teeth for the determination to go on with the grisly thing, to hide nothing in the answers to the questions which she might ask. But Medaine Robinette, standing beside the window, the color gone from her cheeks, one hand lingering the curtains, eyes turned without, gave no evidence that she had heard. Ba'tiste, staring at her, waited a moment for her question. It did not come. He turned to Houston.
"You tell eet!" he ordered. There was something of the father about him,—the father with a wayward boy, fearful of the story that might come, yet determined to do everything within his power to aid a person he loved. Houston straightened.
"I'll try not to shield myself in any way," came at last. The words were directed to Ba'tiste, but meant for Medaine Robinette. "There are some things about it that I'd rather not tell—I wish I could leave them out. But—it all goes. My word of honor—if that counts for anything—goes with it. It's the truth, nothing else.
"I had come home from France—invalided back. The records of the Twenty-sixth will prove that. Gas. I was slated for out here—the recuperation hospital at Denver. But we managed to persuade the army authorities that I could get better treatment at home, and they gave me a disability discharge in about ten months—honorable, of course. After a while, I went back to work, still weak, but rather eager to get at it, in an effort to gather up the strands which had become tangled by the war. I was in the real-estate business then, for myself. Then, one afternoon," his breath pulled sharp, "Tom Langdon came into my office."
"He was your cousin?" Ba'tiste's voice was that of a friendly cross-examiner.
"Yes. I hadn't seen him in five years. We had never had much to do with him; we," and Houston smiled coldly with the turn that Fate had given to conditions in the Houston family, "always had looked on him as a sort of a black sheep. He had been a runaway from home; about the only letters my uncle ever had received from him had asked for money to get him out of trouble. Where he had been this time, I don't know. He asked for my father and appeared anxious to see him. I told him that father was out of town. Then he said he would stay in Boston until he came back, that he had information for him that was of the greatest importance, and that when he told father what it was, that he, Langdon, could have anything my father possessed in the way of a job and a competence for life. It sounded like blackmail—I could think of nothing else coming from Tom Langdon—and I told him so. That was unfortunate. There were several persons in my office at the time. He resented the statement and we quarreled. They heard it and later testified."
Houston halted, tongue licking at dry lips. Medaine still gave no indication that she had heard. Ba'tiste, his knit cap still crushed in his big hands, moved forward.
"Gradually, the quarrel wore off and Tom became more than friendly, still harping, however, on the fact that he had tremendous news for my father. I tried to get rid of him. It was impossible. He suggested that we go to dinner together and insisted upon it. There was nothing to do but acquiesce; especially as I now was trying to draw from him something of what had brought him there. We had wine. I was weak physically. It went to my head, and Tom seemed to take a delight in keeping my glass full. Oh," and he swerved suddenly toward the woman at the window, "I'm not trying to make any excuses for myself. I wanted if—after that first glass or two, it seemed there wasn't enough in the world. He didn't force it on me—he didn't play the part of a tempter or pour it down my throat. I took it readily enough. But I couldn't stand it. We left the cafe, he fairly intoxicated, myself greatly so. We saw the advertisement of a prize fight and went, getting seats near the ring-side. They weren't close enough for me. I bribed a fellow to let me sit at the press stand, next to the timekeeper, and worried him until he let me have the mallet that he was using to strike the gong.
"The fight was exciting—especially to me in my condition. I was standing most of the time, even leaning on the ring. Once, while in this position, one of the men, who was bleeding, was knocked down. He struck the mallet. It became covered with blood. No one seemed to notice that, except myself—every one was too excited. A moment more and the fight was over, through a knock-out. Then I stuck the mallet in my pocket, telling every one who cared to hear that I was carrying away a souvenir. Langdon and I went out together.
"We started home—for he had announced that he was going to spend the night with me. Persons about us heard him. It was not far to the house and we decided to walk. On the way, he demanded the mallet for himself and pulled it out of my pocket. I struggled with him for it, finally however, to be bested, and started away. He followed me a block or so, taunting me with his superior strength and cursing me as the son of a man whom he intended to make bow to his every wish. I ran then and, evading him, went home and to bed. About four o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by the police. They had found Tom Langdon dead, with his skull crushed, evidently by the blow of a club or a hammer. They said I did it."
A slight gasp traveled over the lips of Medaine, still by the window. Ba'tiste, his features old and lined, reached out with one big hand and patted the man on the shoulder. Then for a long time, there was silence.
"Eet is the lie, eh?"
"Ba'tiste," Houston turned appealingly to him "as I live, that's all I know. I never saw Langdon after he took that mallet from me. Some one killed him, evidently while he was wandering around, looking for me. The mallet dropped by his side. It had blood on it—and they accused me. It looked right—there was every form of circumstantial evidence against me. And," the breath pulled hard, "what was worse, everybody believed that I killed him. Even my best friends—even my father."
"Ba'teese no believe it."
"Why?" Houston turned to him in hope,—in the glimmering chance that perhaps there was something in the train of circumstances that would have prevented the actuality of guilt. But the answer, while it cheered him, was rather disconcerting.
"You look like my Pierre. Pierre, he could do no wrong. You look like heem."
It was sufficient for the old French-Canadian. But Houston knew it could carry but little weight with the girl by the window. He went on:
"Only one shred of evidence was presented in my behalf. It was by a woman who had worked for about six months for my father,—Miss Jierdon. She testified to having passed in a taxicab just at the end of our quarrel, and that, while it was true that there was evidence of a struggle, Langdon had the mallet. She was my only witness, besides the experts. But it may help here, Miss Robinette."
It was the first time he had addressed her directly and she turned, half in surprise.
"How," she asked the question as though with an effort, "how were you cleared?"
"Through expert medical testimony that the blow which killed Langdon could not have been struck with that mallet. The whole trial hinged on the experts. The jury didn't believe much of either side. They couldn't decide absolutely that I had killed Langdon. And so they acquitted me. I'm trying to tell you the truth, without any veneer to my advantage."
"Bon! Good! Eet is best."
"Miss Jierdon is the same one who is out here?"
"She testified in your behalf?"
"Yes. And Miss Robinette, if you'll only talk to her—if you'll only ask her about it, she'll tell you the story exactly as I've told it. She trusted me; she was the only bright spot in all the blackness. I may not be able to convince you—but she could, Miss Robinette. If you'll only—"
"Would you guarantee the truth of anything she should tell me?"
"Even if she told hidden things?"
"Hidden? I don't know what you mean. There's nothing to be hidden. What she tells you will be the truth, the whole truth, the absolute truth."
"I'm—I'm sorry." She turned again to the window. Houston went forward.
"Sorry? Why? There's nothing—"
"Miss Jierdon has told me," came in a strained voice, "things that perhaps you did not mean for her to tell."
"I? Why, I—"
"That she did pass as you were struggling. That she saw the blow struck—and that it was you who struck it."
"That further, you confessed to her and told her why you had killed Langdon—because he had discovered something in your own father's life that would serve as blackmail. That she loved you. And that because she loved you, she went on the stand and perjured herself to save you from a conviction of murder—when she knew in her heart that you were guilty!"
It was a blow greater, far greater than one that could have been struck in mere physical contact. Houston reeled with the effect of it; he gasped, he struggled aimlessly, futilely, for words to answer it. Vaguely, dizzily, knowing nothing except a dim, hazy desire to rid himself of the loathsomeness of it, Houston started to the door, only to be pulled back in the gigantic grip of Ba'tiste Renaud. The old Canadian was glaring now, his voice was thunderous.
"No! No! You shall not go! You hear Ba'teese, huh? You tell Medaine that is a lie! Un'stan'? That is a lie!"
"It is," Houston heard his voice as though coming from far away, "but I don't know how to answer it. I—I—can't answer it. Where is Miss Jierdon? Is she here? May I see her?"
"Miss Jierdon," Medaine Robinette answered him as though with an effort, "went back to camp last night."
"May I bring her here, to repeat that before me? There's been some sort of a horrible mistake—she didn't know what she was saying. She—"
"I'm afraid, Mr. Houston, that I would need stronger evidence—now. Oh, I want to be fair about this," she burst out suddenly. "I—I shouldn't ever have been drawn into it. It's nothing of my concern; certainly, I shouldn't be the one to be called upon to judge the innocence or guilt of some one I hardly know! I—"
"I realize that, Miss Robinette. I withdraw my request for anything you can give me." Again he started toward the door, and this time Ba'tiste did not detain him. But abruptly he halted, a sudden thought searing its way through his brain. "Just one moment more, Miss Robinette. Then I'll go. But this question means a great deal. You passed me one night on the road. Would it be impertinent to ask where you had been?"
"Certainly not. To Tabernacle. Lost Wing went with me, as usual. You may ask him."
"Your word is enough. May I inquire if on that night you saw Fred Thayer?"
"I did not."
"Thank you." Dully he reached for the knob. The woman who had appeared that night in the clearing, her head upon a man's shoulder, had been Agnes Jierdon!
He stepped to the veranda, waiting for Ba'tiste, who was making a last effort in his behalf. Then he called:
"I'd rather you'd not say anything more, Ba'tiste. Words aren't much use—without something to back them up."
And he knew that this possibility was all but gone. Tricked! For now he realized that Agnes Jierdon had stood by him at a time when her supposed confidence and trust could do no more for him than cheer him and cause him to trust her to the end that,—what?
Had it been she who had slipped the necessary papers of the contract and the lease into the mass of formalities which he had signed without even looking at the contents of more than the first page or two of the pile? They had been so many technical details, merely there for signature; he had signed dozens before. It would have been easy.
But Houston forced back the thought. He himself knew what it meant to be unjustly accused. Time was but of little moment now; his theories could wait until he had seen Agnes Jierdon, until he had talked to her and questioned her regarding the statements made to Medaine Robinette. Besides, Ba'tiste already was in the buggy, striving to cover his feelings by a stream of badinage directed toward Golemar, the wolf-dog, and waiting for Houston to take his place beside him. A moment more and they were driving away, Ba'tiste humped over the reins as usual, Houston striving to put from him the agony of the new accusation. Finally, the trapper cocked his head and spoke, rather to the horse and Golemar than to Houston.
"Eet is the one, big lie!"
"Yes, but there's not much way of proving it, Ba'tiste."
"Proof? Bah! And does Ba'teese need proof? Ba'teese no like this woman, Jierdon. She say Ba'teese burn the mill."
"I didn't know you heard that."
"She have a bad mouth. She have a bad eye. She have a bad tongue. Yes, oui! She have a bad tongue!"
"Let's wait, Ba'tiste. There may be some mistake about it. Of course, it's possible. She had worked for my father for six months at the time—she could have been placed there for a purpose. Her testimony was of the sort that the jury could take either as for me or against me; she established, as an eyewitness, that we had quarreled and that the mallet played a part in it. Naturally, though, I looked to her as my friend. I thought that her testimony helped me."
"And the taxi-driver? What did he say? Eh?"
"We never were able to find him."
"Oh, ho! Golemar! You hear?" The old trapper's voice was stinging with sarcasm. "They nev' fin' heem. But the woman she was in a taxi. Ah, oui. She could pass, just at the moment. She could put in the mind of the jury the fact that there was a quarrel, while she preten' to help M'sieu Houston. But the taxi-driver—no, they nev' fin' heem!"
"Let's wait, Ba'tiste."
On they drove in silence, talking of trivial things, each fencing away from the subject that was on their minds and from mention of the unfortunate interview with Medaine Robinette. The miles faded slowly, at last to bring the camp into view. Ten minutes later, Houston leaped from the buggy and knocked at the door of the cottage.
"I want to see Miss Jierdon," he told the cook who had opened the door. That person shook her head.
"To town, I guess. She came back here from Miss Robinette's last night and packed her things and left. She didn't say where she was going. She left a note for you."
"Let me have it!" There was anxiety in the command. The cook bustled back into the house, to return with a sealed envelope addressed to Houston. He slit it with a trembling finger.
"What she say?" Ba'tiste was leaning from the buggy. Houston took his place beside him, and as the horse was turned back toward the trapper's cabin, read aloud:
"Hate awfully to run away like this without seeing you, but it can't be helped. Have an offer of a position in St. Louis that I can't very well refuse. Will write you from there.
"Love and kisses.
Ba'tiste slapped the reins on the horse's back.
"She is like the Judas, eh?" he asked quietly, and Houston cringed with the realization that he had spoken the truth. Judas! A feminine Judas, who had come to him when his guard had been lowered, who had pretended that she believed in him, that she even loved him, that she might wreck his every plan and hope in life. A Judas, a—
"Let's don't talk about it, Ba'tiste!" Houston's voice was hoarse, weary. "It's a little too much to take, all in one day."
"Tres bien," answered the old French-Canadian, not to speak again until they had reached his cabin and, red-faced, he had turned from the stove to place the evening meal on the table. Then, his mouth full of crisply fried bacon, he waved a hand and spluttered with a sudden inspiration:
"What you do, now?"
"Queer question, isn't it?" The grim humor of it brought a smile, in spite of the lead in Houston's heart. "What is there to do?"
"What?" Ba'tiste gulped his food, rose and waved a hand with a sudden flash of emphasis. "Peuff! And there is ever'thin'. You have a mill."
"Such as it is."
"But eet is a mill. And eet can saw timber—enough to keep the wolf from the door. You have yourself. Your arm, he is near' well. And there is alway'—" he gestured profoundly—"the future. He is like a woman, the future," he added, with a little smile. "He always look good when he is in the far away."
The enthusiasm of the trapper found a faint echo in Houston's heart. "I'm not whipped yet, Ba'tiste. But I'm near it. I've had some pretty hard knocks."
"Ah, oui! But so have Ba'teese!" The shadows were falling, and the old French-Canadian walked to the window. "Oui, oui, oui! Look." And he pointed to the white cross, still faintly visible, like a luminous thing, beneath the pines. "Ev' day, Ba'teese, he see that. Ev' day, Ba'teese remember—how he work for others, how he is L' M'sieu Doctaire, how he help and help and help—but how he cannot help his own. Ev' day, Ba'teese, he live again that night in the cathedral when he call, so, 'Pierre! Pierre!' But Pierre does not answer. Ev' day, he remind how he come home, and how his heart, eet is cold, but how he hope that his Julienne, she will warm eet again—to fin' that. But does Ba'teese stop? Does Ba'teese fol' his hands? No! No!" He thundered the words and beat his heavy chest. "Some day, Ba'teese will fin' what he look for! When the cloud, he get heavy, Ba'teese, he go out there—out to his Julienne—and he kneel down and he pray that she give to heem the strength to go on—to look and look and look until he find eet—the thing he is want'! Ba'teese, he too have had his trouble. Ba'teese, he too would like to quit! But no, he shall not! And you shall not! By the cross of my Julienne, you shall not! Eet is to the end—and not before! You look like my Pierre! My Pierre had in heem the blood of Ba'teese—Ba'teese, who had broke' the way. And Pierre would not quit, and you will not quit. And—"
"I will not quit!" Barry Houston said the words slowly, in a voice heightened by feeling and by a new strength, a sudden flooding of a reserve power that he did not know he possessed. "That is my absolute promise to you, Ba'tiste. I will not quit!"
"Bon! Good! Golemar, you hear, eh? Mon ami, he come to the barrier, and he look at the trouble, but he say he will not quit. Veritas! Bon! He is my Pierre! He speak like my Pierre would speak! He will not quit!"
"No," and then Houston repeated it, a strange light shining in his eyes, his hands clenched, breath pulling deep into his lungs. "I will not quit."
"Ah, oui! Eet is now the, what-you-say, the swing-around point. To-night Ba'teese go out. Where? Ah, you shall wait an' see. Ba'teese go—Ba'teese come back. Then you shall see. Ah, oui! Then you shall see."
For an hour or so after that he boomed about the cabin, singing queer old songs in a patois, rumbling to the faithful Golemar, washing the dishes while Houston wiped them, joking, talking of everything but the troubles of the day and the plans of the night. Outside the shadows grew heavier, finally to turn to pitch darkness. The bull bats began to circle about the cabin. Ba'tiste walked to the door.
"Bon! Good!" he exclaimed. "The sky, he is full of cloud'. The star, he do not shine. Bon! Ba'teese shall go."
And with a final wave of the hand, still keeping his journey a mystery, he went forth into the night.
Long Houston waited for his return, but he did not come. The old, creaking clock on the rustic ledge ticked away the minutes and the hours until midnight, but still no crunching of gravel relieved his anxious ears, still no gigantic form of the grizzled, bearded trapper showed in the doorway. One o'clock came and went. Two—three. Houston still waited. Four—and a scratch on the door. It was Golemar, followed a moment later by a grinning, twinkling-eyed Ba'tiste.
"Bon! Good!" he exclaimed. "See, Golemar? What I say to you? He wait up for Ba'teese. Bon! Now—alert, mon ami! The pencil and the paper!"
He slumped into a chair and dived into a pocket of his red shirt, to bring forth a mass of scribbled sheets, to stare at them, striving studiously to make out the writing.
"Ba'teese, he put eet down by a match in the shelter of a lumber pile," came at last. "Eet is all, what-you-say, scramble up. But we shall see—ah, oui—we shall see. Now," he looked toward Houston, waiting anxiously with paper and pencil, "we shall put eet in the list. So. One million ties, seven by eight by eight feet, at the one dollar and the forty cents. Put that down."
"I have it. But what—"
"Wait! Five thousan' bridge timber, ten by ten by sixteen feet, at the three dollar and ninety cents."
"Ten thousand feet of the four by four, at—"
"Ba'tiste!" Houston had risen suddenly. "What have you got there?"
The trapper grinned and pulled at his gray-splotched beard.
"Oh, ho! Golemar! He wan' to know. Shall we tell heem, eh? Ah, oui—" he shook his big shoulders and spread his hands. "Eet is—the copy of the bid!"
"The copy? The bid?"
"From the Blackburn mill. There is no one aroun'. Ba'teese, he go through a window. Ba'teese, he find heem—in a file. And he bring back the copy."
"M'sieu Houston, he too will bid. But he will make it lower. And this," he tapped the scribbled scraps of paper, "is cheaper than any one else. Eet is because of the location. M'sieu Houston—he know what they bid. He will make eet cheaper."
"But what with, Ba'tiste? We haven't a mill to saw the stuff, in the first place. This ramshackle thing we're setting up now couldn't even begin to turn out the ties alone. The bid calls for ten thousand laid down at Tabernacle, the first of June. We might do that, but how on earth would we ever keep up with the rest? The boxings, the rough lumber, the two by fourteen's finished, the dropped sidings and groved roofing, and lath and ceiling and rough fencings and all the rest? What on earth will we do it with?"
"What with?" Ba'tiste waved an arm grandiloquently. "With the future!"
"It's taking the longest kind of a chance—"
"Ah, oui! But the man who is drowning, he will, what-you-say, grab at a haystack."
"True enough. Go ahead. I'll mark our figures down too, as you read."
And together they settled to the making of a bid that ran into the millions, an overture for a contract for which they had neither mill, nor timber, nor flume, nor resources to complete!
Time dragged after that. Once the bid was on its way to Chicago, there was nothing to do but wait. It was a delay which lengthened from June until July, thence into late summer and early autumn, while the hills turned brown with the colorings of the aspens, while Mount Taluchen and its surrounding mountains once more became grim and forbidding with the early fall of snow.
The time for the opening of the bids had passed, far in the distance, but there had come no word. Ba'tiste, long since taken into as much of a partnership agreement as was possible, went day after day to the post office, only to return empty-handed, while Houston watched with more intensity than ever the commercial columns of the lumber journals in the fear that the contract, after all, had gone somewhere else. But no notice appeared. Nothing but blankness as concerned the plans of the Mountain Plains and Salt Lake Railroad.
Medaine he saw but seldom,—then only to avoid her as she strove to avoid him. Houston's work was now in the hills and at the camp, doing exactly what the Blackburn mill was doing, storing up a reasonable supply of timber and sawing at what might or might not be the first consignment of ties for the fulfillment of the contract. But day after day he realized that he was all but beaten.
His arm had healed now and returned to the strength that had existed before the fracture. Far greater in strength, in fact, for Houston had taken his place in the woods side by side with the few lumberjacks whom he could afford to carry on his pay roll. There, at least, he had right of way. He had sold only stumpage, which meant that the Blackburn camp had the right to take out as much timber as it cared to, as long as it was paid for at the insignificant rate of one dollar and fifty cents a thousand feet. Thayer and the men in his employ could not keep him out of his own woods, or prevent him from cutting his own timber. But they could prevent him from getting it to the mill by an inexpensive process.
From dawn until dusk he labored, sometimes with Ba'tiste singing lustily beside him, sometimes alone. The task was a hard one; the snaking of timber through the forest to the high-line roadway, there to be loaded upon two-wheeled carts and dragged, by a slow, laborious, costly process, to the mill. For every log that he sent to the saw in this wise, he knew that Thayer was sending ten,—and at a tenth of the cost. But Houston was fighting the last fight,—a fight that could not end until absolute, utter failure stood stark before him at the end of the road.
September became October with its rains, and its last flash of brilliant coloring from the lower hills, and then whiteness. November had arrived, bringing with it the first snow and turning the whole, great, already desolate country into a desert of white.
It was cold now; the cook took on a new duty of the maintenance of hot pails of bran mash and salt water for the relief of frozen hands. Heavy gum-shoes, worn over lighter footgear and reaching with felt-padded thickness far toward the knee, encased the feet. Hands numbed, in spite of thick mittens; each week saw a new snowfall, bringing with it the consequent thaws and the hardening of the surface. The snowshoe rabbit made its appearance, tracking the shadowy, silent woods with great, outlandish marks. The coyotes howled o' nights; now and then Houston, as he worked, saw the tracks of a bear, or the bloody imprints of a mountain lion, its paws cut by the icy crust of the snow as it trailed the elk or deer. The world was a quiet thing, a white thing, a cold, unrelenting thing, to be fought only by thick garments and snowshoes. But with it all, it gave Houston and Ba'tiste a new enthusiasm. They at least could get their logs to the mill now swiftly and with comparative ease.
Short, awkward-appearing sleds creaked and sang along the icy, hard-packed road of snow, to approach the piles of logs snaked out of the timber, to be loaded high beyond all seeming regard for gravitation or consideration for the broad-backed, patient horses, to be secured at one end by heavy chains leading to a patent binder which cinched them to the sled, and started down the precipitous road toward the mill. Once in a while Houston rode the sleds, merely for the thrill of it; for the singing and crunching of the logs against the snow, the grinding of bark against bark, the quick surge as the horses struck a sharp decline and galloped down it, the driver shouting, the logs kicking up the snow behind the sled in a swirling, feathery wake.
At times he stayed at the bunk house with the lumberjacks, silent as they were silent, or talking of trivial things which were mighty to them,—the quality of the food, the depth of the snow, the fact that the little gray squirrels were more plentiful in one part of the woods than another, or that they chattered more in the morning than in the afternoon. Hours he spent in watching Old Bill, a lumberjack who, in his few moments of leisure between the supper table and bed, whittled laboriously upon a wooden chain, which with dogged persistence he had lugged with him for months. Or perhaps staring over the shoulder of Jade Hains, striving to copy the picture of a motion-picture star from a worn, dirty, months-old magazine; as excited as they over the tiny things in life, as eager to seek a bunk when eight o'clock came, as grudging to hear the clatter of alarm clocks in the black coldness before dawn and to creak forth to the watering and harnessing of the horses for the work of the day. Some way, it all seemed to be natural to Barry Houston, natural that he should accept this sort of dogged, humdrum, eventless life and strive to think of nothing more. The other existence, for him, had ended in a blackened waste; even the one person in whom he had trusted, the woman he would have been glad to marry, if that could have repaid her in any way for what he thought she had done for him, had proved traitorous. His letters, written to her at general delivery, St. Louis, had been returned, uncalled for. From the moment that he had received that light, taunting note, he had heard nothing more. She had done her work; she was gone.
December came. Christmas, and with it Ba'tiste, with flour in his hair and beard, his red shirt pulled out over his trousers, distributing the presents which Houston had bought for the few men in his employ. January wore on, bringing with it more snow. February and then—
"Eet is come! Eet is come!" Ba'tiste, waving his arms wildly, in spite of the stuffiness of his heavy mackinaw, and the broad belt which sank into layer after layer of clothing at his waist, came over the brow of the raise into camp, to seize Houston in his arms and dance him about, to lift him and literally throw him high upon his chest as one would toss a child, to roar at Golemar, then to stand back, brandishing an opened letter above his head. "Eet is come! I have open eet—I can not wait. Eet say we shall have the contract! Ah, oui! oui! oui! oui! We shall have the contract!"
Houston, suddenly awake to what the message meant, reached for the letter. It was there in black and white. The bid had been accepted. There need now be but the conference in Chicago, the posting of the forfeit money, and the deal was made.
"Eet say five thousand dollars cash, and the rest in a bond!" came enthusiastically from Ba'tiste. "Eet is simple. You have the mill, you have the timber. Ba'teese, he have the friend in Denver who will make the bond."
"But how about the machinery; we'll need a hundred-thousand-dollar plant before we're through, Ba'tiste."
"Ah!" The old French-Canadian's jaw dropped. "Ba'teese, he is like the child. He have not think of that. He have figure he can borrow ten thousand dollar in his own name. But he have not think about the machinery."
"But we must think about it, Ba'tiste. We've got to get it. With the equipment that's here, we never could hope to keep up with the contract. And if we can't do that, we lose everything. Understand me, I'm not thinking of quitting; I merely want to look over the battlefield first. Shall we take the chance?"
Big Ba'tiste shrugged his shoulders.
"Ba'teese, he always try to break the way," came at last. "Ba'teese, he have trouble—but he have nev' been beat. You ask Ba'teese—Ba'teese say go ahead. Somehow we make it."
"Then to-morrow morning we take the train to Denver, and from there I'll go on to Boston. I'll raise the money some way. I don't know how. If I don't, we're only beaten in the beginning instead of at the end. We'll simply have to trust to the future—on everything, Ba'tiste. There are so many things that can whip us, that—" Houston laughed shortly—"we might as well be gamblers all the way through. We'll never fulfill the contract, even with the machinery, unless we can get the use of the lake and a flume to the mill. We may be able to keep it up for a month or two, but that will be all. The expense will eat us up. But one chance is no greater than the other, and personally, I'm at the point where I don't care."
"Oui! Ba'teese, he have nothing. Ba'teese he only fight for the excitement. So, to-morrow we go!"
And on the next day they went, again to go over all the details of their mad, foundationless escapade with Chance, to talk it all over in the old smoking car, to weigh the balance against them from every angle, and to see failure on every side. But they had become gamblers with Fate; for one, it was his final opportunity, to take or disregard, with a faint glimmer of success at one end of the vista, with the wiping out of every hope at the other. They tried not to look at the gloomy side, but that was impossible. As the train ground its way up the circuitous grades, Houston felt that he was headed finally for the dissolution. But there was at least the consolation about it that within a short time the uncertainty of his life would be ended; the hopes either crushed forever, or realized, that—
"Ba'tiste!" They were in the snowsheds at Crestline, and Houston had pointed excitedly toward a window of the west-bound train, just pulling past them on the way down the slope. A woman was there, a woman who had turned her head sharply, but with not enough speed to prevent a sight of her by the French-Canadian who glanced quickly and gasped:
Houston leaped from his seat and ran to the vestibule of the car, but in vain. It was closed; already the other last coach of the other train was pulling past and gaining headway with the easier grade. Wondering, he returned to his seat beside his partner.
"It was she, Ba'tiste," came with conviction. "I got a good look at her before she noticed me. Then, when I pointed—she turned her head away."
"But Ba'teese, he see her."
"She's going back. What do you suppose it can mean? Can she be—"
"Ba'teese catch the nex' train to Tabernacle so soon as we have finish our business. Eet is for no good."
"I wonder—" it was a hope, but a faint one—"if she could be coming back to make amends, Ba'tiste? That—that other thing seemed so unlike the person who had been so good to me, so apart from the side of her nature that I knew—"
"She have a bad mouth," Ba'tiste repeated grimly. "She have a bad eye, she have a bad tongue. A woman with a bad tongue, she is a devil. You—you no see it, because she come to you with a smile, when every one else, he frown. You think she is the angel, yes, oui? But she come to Ba'teese different. She talk to you sof' and she try to turn you against your frien'. Yes. Oui? Ne c'est pas? Ba'teese see her with the selfish mouth. Peuff! He see her when she look to heem out from the corner of her eye—so. Ba'teese know. Ba'teese come back quick, to keep watch!"
"I guess you're right, Ba'tiste. It won't do any harm. If she's returned for a good purpose, very well. If not, we're at least prepared for her."
With that resolution they went on to Denver, there to seek out the few friends Ba'tiste possessed, to argue one of them into a loan of ten thousand dollars on the land and trustworthy qualities which formed the total of Ba'tiste's resources, to gain from the other the necessary bond to cover the contract,—a contract which Barry Houston knew only too well might never be fulfilled. But against this fear was the booming enthusiasm of Ba'tiste Renaud:
"Nev' min'. Somehow we do eet. Ah, oui! Somehow. If we make the failure, then it shall be Ba'teese who will fin' the way to pay the bond. Now, Ba'teese, he go back."
"Yes, and keep watch on that woman. She's out here for something'—I feel sure of it—something that has to do with Thayer. Before you go, however, make the rounds of the employment agencies and tell them to send you every man they can spare, up to a hundred. We'll give them work to the extent of five thousand dollars. They ought to be able to get enough timber down to keep us going for a while anyway—especially with the roads iced."
"Ah. Oui. It is the three o'clock. Bon voyage, mon Baree!"
It was the first time Ba'tiste Renaud ever had dropped the conventional "M'sieu" in addressing Houston, and Barry knew, without the telling, without the glowing light in the old man's eyes, that at least a part of the great loneliness in the trapper's heart had departed, that he had found a place there in a portion of the aching spot left void by a shrapnel-shattered son to whom a father had called that night in the ruined cathedral,—and called in vain. It caused a queer pang of exquisite pain in Houston's heart, a joy too great to be expressed by the reflexes of mere pleasure. Long after the train had left Denver, he still thought of it, he still heard the old man's words, he still sat quiet and peaceful in a new enthusiasm of hope. The world was not so blank, after all. One man, at least, believed in him fully.
Came Chicago and the technicalities of ironing out the final details of the contract. Then, dealer in millions and the possessor of nothing, Houston went onward toward Boston.
And Ba'tiste was not there to boom enthusiastically regarding the chances of the future, to enlarge upon the opportunities which might arise for the fulfillment of a thing which seemed impossible.
Coldly, dispassionately, now that it was done, that the word of the Empire Lake Mill and Lumber Company had been given to deliver the materials for the making of a great railroad, had guaranteed its resources and furnished the necessary bond for the fulfillment of a promise, Barry Houston could not help but feel that it all had been rash, to say the least. Where was the machinery to be obtained? Where the money to keep things going? True, there would be spot cash awaiting the delivery of every installment of the huge order, enough, in fact, to furnish the necessary running expenses of a mill under ordinary circumstances. But the circumstances which surrounded the workings of the Empire Lake project were far from ordinary. No easy skidways to a lake, no flume, no aerials; there was nothing to cut expenses. Unless a miracle should happen, and Houston reflected that miracles were few and far between, that timber must be brought to the mill by a system that would be disastrous as far as costs were concerned. Yet, the contract had been made!
He wandered the aisle of the sleeper, fidgeting from one end to the other, as neither magazines, nor the spinning scenery without held a counter-attraction for his gloomy thoughts. When night at last came, he entered the smoking compartment and slumped into a seat in a far corner, smoking in a detached manner, often pulling on his cigar long after lengthy minutes of reflection had allowed its ashes to cool.
About him the usual conversation raged, the settling of a nation's problems, the discussion of crime waves, Bolshevism and the whatnot that goes with an hour of smoking on a tiresome journey. From Washington and governmental affairs, it veered to the West and dry farming, thence to the cattle business; to anecdotes, and finally to ghost stories. And then, with a sudden interest, Houston forgot his own problems to listen attentively, tensely, almost fearfully. A man whom he never before had seen, and whom he probably never would see again, was talking,—about something which might be as remote to Houston as the poles. Yet it held him, it fascinated, it gripped him!
"Speaking of gruesome things," the talker had said, "reminds me. I'm a doctor—not quite full fledged, I'll admit, but with the right to put M. D. after my name. Spent a couple of years as an interne in Bellstrand Hospital in New York. Big place. Any of you ever been there?"
No one had. The young doctor went on.
"Quite a place for experiments. They've got a big room on the fifth floor where somebody is always dissecting, or carrying out some kind of investigations into this bodily thing we call a home. My work led me past there a good deal, and I'd gotten so I hardly noticed it. But one Sunday night, I guess it was along toward midnight, I saw something that brought me up short. I happened to look in and saw a man in there, murdering another one with a wooden mallet."
"Murdering him?" The statement had caused a rise from the rest of the auditors. The doctor laughed.
"Well, perhaps I used too sentimental a phrase. I should have said, acting out a murder. You can't very well murder a dead man. The fellow he was killing already was a corpse.
"Just what I'm saying. There were two or three assistants. Pretty big doctors, I learned later, all of them from Boston. They had taken a cadaver from the refrigerator and stood it in a certain position. Then the one man had struck it on the head with the mallet with all the force he could summon. Of course it knocked the corpse down—I'm telling you, it was gruesome, even to an interne! The last I saw of them, the doctors were working with their microscopes—evidently to see what effect the blow had produced."
"What was the idea?"
"Never found out. They're pretty close-mouthed about that sort of thing. You see, opposite sides in a trial are always carrying out experiments and trying their level best to keep the other fellow from knowing what's going on. I found out later that the door was supposed to have been locked. I passed through about ten minutes later and saw them working on another human body—evidently one of a number that they had been trying the tests on. About that time some one heard me and came out like a bullet. The next thing I knew, everything was closed. How long the experiments had been going on, I couldn't say. I do know, however, that they didn't leave there until about three o'clock in the morning."
"You—you don't know who the men were?" Houston, forcing himself to be casual, had asked the question. The young doctor shook his head.
"No—except that they were from Boston. At least, the doctors were. One of the nurses knew them. I suppose the other man was a district attorney—they usually are around somewhere during an experiment."
"You never learned with what murder case it was connected?"
"No—the fact is, it passed pretty much out of my mind, as far as the details were concerned. Although I'll never forget the picture."
"Pardon me for asking questions. I—I—just happen to come from Boston and was trying to recall such a case. You don't remember what time of the year it was, or how long ago?"
"Yes, I do. It was in the summer, along about two or two and a half years ago."
Houston slumped back into his corner. Ten minutes later, he found an opportunity to exchange cards with the young physician and sought his berth. To himself, he could give no reason for establishing the identity of the smoking-compartment informant. He had acted from some sort of subconscious compulsion, without reasoning, without knowing why he had catalogued the information or of what possible use it could be to him. But once in his berth, the picture continued to rise before him; of a big room in a hospital, of doctors gathered about, and of a man "killing" another with a mallet. Had it been Worthington? Worthington, the tired-eyed, determined, over-zealous district attorney, who, day after day, had struggled and fought to send him to the penitentiary for life? Had it been Worthington, striving to reproduce the murder of Tom Langdon as he evidently had reconstructed it, experimenting with his experts in the safety of a different city, for points of evidence that would clinch the case against the accused man beyond all shadow of a doubt? Instinctively Houston felt that he just had heard an unwritten, unmentioned phase of his own murder case. Yet—if that had been Worthington, if those experts had found evidence against him, if the theories of the district attorney had been verified on that gruesome night in the "dead ward" of Bellstrand Hospital—
Why had this damning evidence been allowed to sink into oblivion? Why had it not been used against him?
It was a problem which Barry Houston, in spite of wakefulness, failed to solve. Next morning, eager for a repetition of the recital, in the hope of some forgotten detail, some clue which might lead him to an absolute decision, he sought the young doctor, only to find that he had left the train at dawn. A doorway of the past had been opened to Houston, only to be closed again before he could clearly discern beyond. He went on to Boston, still struggling to reconstruct it all, striving to figure what connection it might have had, but in vain. And with his departure from the train, new thoughts, new problems, arose to take the place of memories. His purposes now were of the future, not of the past.
And naturally, he turned first to the office of his father's attorney,—the bleak place where he had conferred so many times in the black days. Old Judge Mason, accustomed to seeing Barry in time of stress, tried his best to be jovial.
"Well, boy, what is it this time?"
"Money." Houston came directly to the point. "I've come back to Boston to find out if any one will trust me."
"With or without security."
"With it—the best in the world." Then he brought forward a copy of the contract. Mason studied it at length, then, with a slow gesture, raised his glasses to a resting place on his forehead.
"I—I don't know, boy," he said at last. "It's a rather hard problem to crack. I wish there was some one in the family we could go to for the money."
"But there isn't."
"No. Your uncle Walt might have it. But I'm afraid that he wouldn't feel like lending it to you. He still believes—well, you know how fathers are about their boys. He's forgotten most of Tom's bad points by now."
"We'll drop him from the list. How about the bankers."
"We'll have to see. I'm a little afraid there. I know you'll pardon me for saying it, Barry, but they like to have a man come to them with clean hands. Not that you haven't got them," he interjected, "but—well, you know bankers. What's the money for; running expenses?"
"No. Machinery. The other mill burned down, you know—and as usual, without insurance. We have a makeshift thing set up there now—but it's nothing to what will be needed. I've got to have a good, smooth-working plant—otherwise I won't be able to live up to specifications."
"You're not," and the old lawyer smiled quizzically, "going to favor your dearly beloved friend with the order, are you?"
"The district attorney?"
"That was. Plutocrat now, and member of society, you know. He came into his father's money, just after he went out of office, and bought into the East Coast Machinery Company when it was on its last legs. His money was like new blood. They've got a good big plant. He's president," again the smile, "and I know he'd be glad to have your order."
Houston continued the sarcasm.
"I'd be overjoyed to give it to him. In fact, I think I'd refuse to buy any machinery if I couldn't get it from such a dear friend as Worthington was. It wasn't his fault that I wasn't sent to the penitentiary."
"No, that's right, boy." Old Lawyer Mason was quietly reminiscent. "He tried his best. It seemed to me in those days he was more of a persecutor than prosecutor."
"Let's forget it." Houston laughed uneasily.
"Now, to go back to the bankers—"
"There isn't much for us to do but to try them, one after another. I guess we might as well start now as any time."
Late that afternoon they were again in the office, the features of Mason wrinkled with thought, those of Barry Houston plainly discouraged. They had failed. The refusals had been courteous, fraught with many apologies for a tight market, and effusive regrets that it would be impossible to loan money on such a gilt-edged proposition as the contract seemed to hold forth, but— There had always been that one word, that stumbling-block against which they had run time after time, shielded and padded by courtesy, but present nevertheless. Nor were Houston and Mason unaware of the real fact which lay behind it all; that the bankers did not care to trust their money in the hands of a man who had been accused of murder and who had escaped the penalty of such a charge by a margin, which to Boston, at least, had seemed exceedingly slight. One after another, there in the office, Mason went over the list of his business acquaintances, seeking for some name that might mean magic to them. But no such inspiration came.
"Drop back to-morrow, boy," he said at last. "I'll think over the thing to-night, and I may be able to get a bright idea. It's going to be tough sledding—too tough, I'm afraid. If only we didn't have to buck up against that trial, and the ideas people seem to have gotten of it, we'd be all right. But—"
There it was again, that one word, that immutable obstacle which seemed to arise always. Houston reached for his hat.
"I'm going to keep on trying, anyway, Mr. Mason. I'll be back to-morrow. I'm going to get that money if I have to make a canvass of Boston, if I have to go out and sell shares at a dollar apiece and if I go broke paying dividends. I've made my promise to go through—and I'm going!"
"Good. I'll be looking for you."
But half an hour later, following a wandering, aimless journey through the crooked streets, Barry Houston suddenly straightened with an inspiration. He whirled, he dived for a cigar store and for a telephone.
"Hello!" he called, after the long wait for connections. "Mr. Mason? Don't look for me tomorrow—I believe I'll not be there."
"But you haven't given it up?"
"Given up?" Houston laughed with sudden enthusiasm. "No—I've just started. Put the date off a day or two until I can try something that's buzzing around in my head. It's a wild idea—but it may work. If it doesn't, I'll see you Thursday."
Then he turned from the telephone and toward the railroad station.
"One, to New York," he ordered hurriedly through the ticket window. "I've got time to make that seven-forty, if you rush it."
And the next morning, Barry Houston was in New York, swirling along Seventh Avenue toward Bellstrand Hospital. There he sought the executive offices and told his story. "Five minutes later he was looking at the books of the institution, searching, searching,—at last to stifle a cry of excitement and bend closer to a closely written page.
"August second," he read. "Kilbane Worthington, district attorney, Boston, Mass. Acc by Drs. Horton, Mayer and Brensteam. Investigations into effect of blows on skull. Eight cadavers."
With fingers that were almost frenzied, Houston copied the notation, closed the book, and hurried again for a taxicab. It yet was only nine o'clock. It the traffic were not too thick, if the driver were skilful—
He raced through the gate at Grand Central just as it was closing. He made the train in unison with the last drawling cry of the conductor. Then for hours, in the Pullman chair car, he fidgeted, counting the telegraph posts, checking off the stations as they flipped past the windows, through a day of eagerness, of excited, racking anticipation. It was night when he reached Boston, but Houston did not hesitate. A glance at a telephone book, another rocking ride in a taxicab, and Barry stood on the veranda of a large house, awaiting the answer to his ring at the bell. Finally it came.
"Mr. Worthington," he demanded. The butler arched his eyebrows.
"Sorry, but Mr. Worthington has left orders not to be—"
"Tell him that it is a matter of urgent business. That it is something of the utmost importance to him."
A wait. The butler returned.
"Sorry, sir. But Mr. Worthington is just ready to retire."
"You tell Mr. Worthington," answered Houston in a crisp voice, "that he either will see me or regret it. Tell him that I am very sorry, but that just now, I am forced to use his own methods—and that if he doesn't see me within five minutes, there will be something in the morning papers that will be, to say the least, extremely distasteful to him."
"The name, please?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Are you from a newspaper?"
"I'm not saying. Whether I go to one directly from here, depends entirely upon Mr. Worthington. Will you please take my message?"
"Take my message!"
Another wait. Then:
"Mr. Worthington will see you in the library, sir."
"Thanks." Houston almost bounded into the hall. A moment later, in the dimness of the heavily furnished, somewhat mysterious appearing library, Barry Houston again faced the man whom, at one time, he had hoped never again to see. Kilbane Worthington was seated at the large table, much in the manner which he had affected in court, elbows on the surface, chin cupped in his thin, nervous hands. The light was not good for recognizing faces; without realizing it, the former district attorney had placed himself at a disadvantage. Squinting, he sought to make out the features of the man who had hurried into the room, and failing, rose.
"Well," he asked somewhat brusquely, "may I inquire—"
"Certainly. My name's Houston."
"Houston—Houston—it seems to me—"
"Maybe your memory needs refreshing. Such little things as I figured in probably slipped your mind the minute you were through with them. To be explicit, my name is Barry Houston, son of the late William K. Houston. You and I met—in the courtroom. You once did me the very high honor to accuse me of murder and then tried your level best to send me to the penitentiary for life when you knew, absolutely and thoroughly, that I was an innocent man!"
The former district attorney started slightly. Then, coming still closer, he peered into the tense, angry features of Barry Houston.
"A bit melodramatic, aren't you?" he asked in a sneering tone.
"Perhaps so. But then murder is always melodramatic."
"Murder? You don't intend—"
"No. I simply referred to the past. I should have said 'reference to murder.' I hope you will pardon me if any inelegance of language should offend you."
"Sarcastic, aren't you?"
"I have a right to be. Knowing what I know—I should use more than sarcasm."
"If I'm not mistaken, you have. The butler spoke of some threat."
"Hardly a threat, Mr. Worthington." Houston was speaking coldly, incisively. "Merely what I have heard you often call in court a statement of fact. In case it wasn't repeated to you correctly, I'll bore you with it again. I said that if you didn't see me immediately, there would be something extremely distasteful to you in the morning papers."
"Well? I've seen you. Now—"
"Wait just a moment, Mr. Worthington. I thought it was only civil lawyers who indulged in technicalities. I didn't know that criminal," and he put emphasis on the word, then repeated it, "that criminal lawyers had the habit also."
"If you'll cease this insulting—"
"Oh, I think I have a right to that. To tell the truth, I've only begun to insult you. That is—if you call this sort of a thing an insult. To get at the point of the matter, Mr. Worthington, I want to be fair with you. I've come here to ask something—I'll admit that—but it is something that should benefit you in a number of ways. But we'll speak of that later. The main point is this: I am thinking very seriously of suing the city of Boston for a million dollars."
"Well? What's that to me?" Worthington sighed, with a bit of relief, Houston thought, and walked back to the table for a cigarette. "I haven't anything to do with the city. Go as far as you like. I'm out of politics; in case you don't know, I'm in business for myself and haven't the least interest in what the city does, or what any one does to it."
"Even though you should happen to be the bone of contention—and the butt of what may be a good deal of unpleasant newspaper notoriety?"
"You're talking blackmail!"
"I beg your pardon. Blackmail is something by which one extorts money. I'm here to try to give you money—or at least the promise of it—and at the same time allow you to make up for something that should, whether it does or not, weigh rather heavily on your conscience."
"If you'll come to the point."
"Exactly. Do you remember my case?"
"In a way. I had a good many of them."
"Which, I hope, you did not handle in the same way that you did mine. But to recall it all to your recollection, I was accused of having killed my own cousin, Tom Langdon, with a mallet."
"Yes—I remember now. You two had some kind of a drunken fight."
"And you, at the time, if I remember correctly, had a fight of your own. It was nearing election time."
"Correct. I remember now." Then, with a little smile, "Quite luckily, I was beaten."
"I agree with you there. But to return to the original statement. Am I right, or am I wrong, when I say that you were striving very hard, for a record that would aid you in the election?"
"Every official tries to make the best possible record. Especially at election time."
"No matter whom it injures."
"I didn't say that."
"But I did—and I repeat it. No matter whom it injures! Now, to be plain and frank and brutal with you to-night as you were with me in the courtroom, Mr. Worthington, I have pretty convincing evidence that you knew I was innocent. Further, that you knew it almost at the beginning of the trial. But that in spite of this knowledge, you continued to persecute me—notice, I don't say prosecute—to persecute me in a hope of gaining a conviction, simply that you might go before the voters and point to me in prison as a recommendation of your efficiency as a district attorney."
"Oh!" Worthington threw away his cigarette with an angry gesture, and came forward. "You fellows are all the same. You're always squealing about your innocence. I never saw a man yet who wasn't innocent in one way or another. Even when they confess, they've got some kind of an alibi for their act. They didn't know the gun was loaded, or the other fellow hit them first or—"
"In my case I have no alibis. And this isn't simply my own statement. I have sufficient witnesses."
"Then why didn't you produce them at the trial?"
"I couldn't. You had them."
"Yes. I don't mind giving you the names. One of them was Doctor Horton. Another was Doctor Mayer. A third was Doctor Brensteam, all physicians of the highest reputation. I would like, Mr. Worthington, to know why you did not make use of them in the trial instead of the expert Hamon, and that other one, Jaggerston, who, as every one knows, are professional expert witnesses, ready at all times to testify upon anything from handwriting to the velocity of a rifle bullet, providing they are sufficiently paid."
"Why? Simply because I figured they would make the best witnesses."
"It couldn't have been," and Houston's voice was more coldly caustic than ever, "that it was because they would be willing to perjure themselves, while the real doctors wouldn't?"
"Of course not! This whole thing is silly. Besides, I'm out of it entirely. I'm—"
"Mr. Worthington," and Houston's tone changed. "Your manner and your words indicate very plainly that you're not out of it—that you merely wish you were. Isn't that the truth? Don't you?"
"Well," and the man lit a fresh cigarette, "I feel that way about every murder case."
"But especially about this one. You're not naturally a persecutor. You don't naturally want to railroad men to the penitentiary. And I believe that, as a general thing, you didn't do it. You tried it in my case; election was coming on, you had just run up against two or three acquittals, and you had made up your mind that in my case you were going to run the gauntlet to get a conviction. I don't believe you wanted to send me up simply for the joy of seeing an innocent man confined in prison. You wanted a conviction—wasn't that it?"
"Every prosecutor works for that."
"Not when he knows the man is innocent, Mr. Worthington. You knew that—I have proof. I have evidence that you found it out almost at the beginning of my trial—August second, to be exact—and that you used this information to your own ends. In other words, it told you what the defense would testify; and you built up, with your professional experts, a wall to combat it. Now, isn't that the truth?"
"Why—" The former district attorney took more time than usual to knock the ashes from his cigarette, then suddenly changed the subject.
"You spoke of a suit you might bring when you came in here?"
"Yes. Against the city. I have a perfect one. I was persecuted when the official in charge of the case knew that I was not guilty. To that end I can call the three doctors I've mentioned and put them on the stand and ask them why they did not testify in the case. I also can call the officials of Bellstrand Hospital in New York where you conducted certain experiments on cadavers on the night of August second; also a doctor who saw you working in there and who watched you personally strike the blows with a mallet; further, I can produce the records of the hospital which state that you were there, give the names of the entire party, together with the number of corpses experimented upon. Is that sufficient evidence that I know what I'm talking about?"
Worthington examined his cigarette again.
"I suppose it's on the books down there. But there's nothing to state of what the experiments consisted."
"I have just told you that I have an eye-witness. Further, there are the three doctors."
"Have you seen them?"
Houston thought quickly. It was his only chance.
"I know exactly what their testimony will be."
"You've made arrangements for your suit then." Worthington's color had changed. Houston noticed that the hand which held the cigarette trembled slightly.
"No, I haven't. I'm not here to browbeat you, Mr. Worthington, or lie to you. It came to me simply as a ruse to get in to see you. But the more I think of it, the more I know that I could go through with it and possibly win it. I might get my million. I might not. I don't want money gained in that way. The taxpayers would have to foot the bill, not yourself."
"Oh, I guess I'd pay enough," Worthington had assumed an entirely different attitude now. "It would hurt me worse in business than it would if I were still in office. Whether it's true or not."
"You know in your heart that there's no doubt of that."
Worthington did not answer. Houston waited a moment, then went on.
"But personally, I don't want to file the suit. I don't want any money—that way. I don't want any bribes, or exculpations, or statements from you that you know me to be innocent. Some might believe it; others would only ask how much I paid to have that statement given out. The damage has been done and is next to irreparable. You could have cleared me easily enough by dropping the case, or making your investigations before ever an indictment was issued. You didn't, and I remain guilty in the minds of most of Boston, in spite of what the jury said. A man is not guilty until convicted—under the law. He is guilty as soon as accused, with the lay mind. So you can't help me much there; my only chance for freedom lies in finding the man who actually committed that murder. But that's something else. We won't talk about it. You owe me something. And I'm here to-night to ask you for it."
"I thought you said you didn't want any bribes."
"I don't. May I ask you what your margin of profit is at your machinery company?"
"My margin of profit? What's that? Well, I suppose it runs around twelve per cent."
"Then will you please allow me to give you twelve thousand dollars in profits? I'm in the lumber business. I have a contract that runs into the millions; surely that is good enough security to a man"—he couldn't resist the temptation—"who knows my absolute innocence. It isn't good enough for the bankers, who still believe me guilty, so I've come directly to you. I need one hundred thousand dollars' worth of lumber-mill machinery, blade saws, crosscuts, jackers, planers, kickers, chain belting, leather belting, and everything else that goes to make up a first-class plant. I can pay for it—in installments. I guarantee to give you every cent above my current running expenses until the bill is disposed of. My contract with the Mountain, Plains and Salt Lake Railroad is my bond. I don't even ask a discount, or for you to lose any of your profits. I don't even ask any public statement by you regarding my innocence. All I want is to have you do what you would do to any reputable business man who came to you with a contract running into the millions of dollars—to give me credit for that machinery. It's a fair proposition. Come in with me on it, and we'll forget the rest. Stay out—and I fight!"
For a long moment, Kilbane Worthington paced the floor, his hands clasped behind him, his rather thin head low upon his chest. Then, at last, he looked up.
"How long are you going to be in town?"
"Until this matter's settled."
"Where are you staying?"
"Very well. I'll have a machine there to pick you up at ten o'clock to-morrow morning and take you to my office. In the meanwhile—I'll think it over."
It was a grinning Barry Houston who leaped from the train at Tabernacle a week later and ran open-armed through the snow toward the waiting Ba'tiste.
"You got my telegram?" He asked it almost breathlessly.
"Ah, oui! oui, oui, oui! Sacre, and you are the wizard!"
"Hardly that." They were climbing into the bobsled. "I just had enough sense to put two and two together. On the train to Boston I got a tip about my case, something that led me to believe that the district attorney knew all the time that I was innocent. He had conducted experiments at the Bellstrand Hospital of which nothing had been said in the trial. Three famous doctors had been with him. As soon as I saw their names, I instinctively knew that if the experiments had turned out the way the district attorney had wanted them, he would have used them in the trial against me, but that their silence meant the testimony was favorable to me."
"Bon!" Ba'tiste grinned happily. "And he?"
"It just happened that he is now in the mill machinery business. I," and Houston smiled with the memory of his victory, "I convinced him that he should give me credit."
"Eet is good. In the woods, there are many men. The log, he is pile all about the mill. Three thousand tie, already they are stack up."
"And the woman—she has caused no trouble?"
"No. Peuff! I have no see her. Mebbe so, eet was a mistake."
"Maybe, Ba'tiste, but I was sure I recognized her. The Blackburn crowd hasn't given up the ghost yet?"
"Ah, no. But eet will. Still they think that we cannot fill the contract. They think that after the first shipment or so, then we will have to quit."
"They may be right, Ba'tiste. It would require nearly two thousand men to keep that mill supplied with logs, once we get into production, outside of the regular mill force, under conditions such as they are now. It would be ruinous. We've got to find some other way, Ba'tiste, of getting our product to the mill. That's all there is to it."
"Ba'teese, he have think of a way—that he have keep secret. Ba'teese, he have a, what-you-say, hump."
"Hunch, you mean?"
"Ah, oui. Eet is this. We will not bring the log to the mill. We will bring the mill to the log. We have to build the new plant, yes, oui? Then, bon, we shall build eet in the forest, where there is the lumber."
"Quite so. And then who will build a railroad switch that can negotiate the hills to the mill?"
"Ah!" Ba'tiste clapped a hand to his forehead. "Veritas? I am the prize, what-you-say, squash! Ba'teese, he never think of eet!" A moment he sat glum, only to surge with another idea. "But, now, Ba'teese have eet! He shall go to Medaine! He shall tell her to write to the district attorney of Boston—that he will tell her—"
"It was part of my agreement, Ba'tiste, that he be forced to make no statements regarding my innocence."
"It was either that, or lose the machinery. He's in business. He's afraid of notoriety. The plain, cold truth is that he tried to railroad me, and only my knowledge of that fact led him into doing a decent and honorable thing. But I sealed any chance of his moral aid when I made my bargain. It was my only chance."
Slowly Ba'tiste nodded and slapped the reins on the back of the horse.
"Ba'teese will not see Medaine," came at last, and they went on.
Again the waiting game, but a busy game however, one which kept the ice roads polished and slippery; which resulted, day by day, in a constantly growing mountain of logs about the diminutive sawmill. One in which plans were drawn, and shell-like buildings of mere slats and slab sidings erected, while heavy, stone foundations were laid in the firm, rocky soil to support the machinery, when it arrived. A game in which Houston hurried from the forests to the mill and back again, now riding the log sheds as a matter of swifter locomotion, instead of for the thrill, as he once had done. Another month went by, to bring with it the bill of lading which told that the saws, the beltings, the planers and edgers and trimmers, and the half hundred other items of machinery were at last on their way, a month of activities and—of hopes.
For to Ba'tiste Renaud and Barry Houston there yet remained one faint chance. The Blackburn crowd had taken on a gamble, one which, at the time, had seemed safe enough; the investment of thousands of dollars for a plant which they had believed firmly would be free of competition. That plant could not hope for sufficient business to keep it alive, with the railroad contract gone, and the bigger mill of Houston and Renaud in successful operation. There would come the time when they must forfeit that lease and contract through non-payment, or agree to re-lease them to the original owner. But would that time arrive soon enough? It was a grim possibility,—a gambling wager that held forth hope, and at the same time threatened them with extinction. For the same thing applied to Houston and Ba'tiste that applied to Blackburn and Thayer. If they could not make good on their contract, the other mill was ever ready to step in.
"Eet all depen'," said Ba'tiste more than once during the snowy, frost-caked days in which they watched every freight train that pulled, white-coated, over the range into Tabernacle. "Eet all depen' on the future. Mebbe so, we make eet. Mebbe so, we do not. But we gamble, eh, mon Baree?"
"With our last cent," came the answer of the other man, and in the voice was grimness and enthusiasm. It was a game of life or extinction now.
March, and a few warm days, which melted the snows only that they might crust again. Back and forth traveled the bobsled to Tabernacle, only to meet with disappointment.
"I've wired the agent at Denver three times about that stuff," came the announcement of the combined telegrapher and general supervisor of freight at the little station. "He's told me that he'd let me know as soon as it got in. But nothing's come yet."
A week more, and another week after that, in which spring taunted the hills, causing the streams to run bank-full with the melting waters of the snow, in which a lone robin made his appearance about the camp,—only to fade as quickly as he had come. For winter, tenacious, grim, hateful winter, had returned for a last fling, a final outburst of frigid viciousness that was destined to wrap the whole range country in a grip of terror.
They tried the bobsled, Ba'tiste and Houston, only to give it up. All night had the snow fallen, in a thick, curtain-like shield which blotted out even the silhouettes of the heaviest pines at the brow of the hill, which piled high upon the ridges, and with great sweeps of the wind drifted every cut of the road to almost unfathomable depths. The horses floundered and plowed about in vain efforts at locomotion, at last to plunge in the terror of a bottomless road. They whinnied and snorted, as though in appeal to the men on the sled behind,—a sled that worked on its runners no longer, but that sunk with every fresh drift to the main-boards themselves. Wadded with clothing, shouting in a mixture of French and English and his own peculiar form of slang, Ba'tiste tried in vain to force the laboring animals onward. But they only churned uselessly in the drift; their hoofs could find no footing, save the yielding masses of snow. Puffing, as though the exertion had been his own, the trapper turned and stared down at his companion.
"Eet is no use," came finally. "The horse, he can not pull. We must make the trip on the snowshoe."
They turned back for the bunk house, to emerge a few moments later,—bent, padded forms, fighting clumsily against the sweep of the storm. Ghosts they became almost immediately, snow-covered things that hardly could be discerned a few feet away, one hand of each holding tight to the stout cord which led from waist-belt to waist-belt, their only insurance against being parted from each other in the blinding swirl of winter.
Hours, stopping at short intervals to seek for some landmark—for the road long ago had become obliterated—at last to see faintly before them the little box-car station house, and to hurry toward it in a fear that neither of them dared to express to the other. Snow in the mountains is not a gentle thing, nor one that comes by fits and gusts. The blizzard does not sweep away its vengeful enthusiasm in a day or a night. It comes and it stays—departing for a time, it seems—that it may gather new strength and fury for an even fiercer attack. And the features of the agent, as he stared up from the rattling telegraph key, were not conducive to relief.
"Your stuff's on the way, if that's any news to you," came with a worried laugh. "It left Denver on Number 312 at five o'clock this morning behind Number Eight. That's no sign that it's going to get here. Eight isn't past Tollifer yet."
"Not past Tollifer?" Houston stared anxiously. "Why, it should be at the top of the range by now. It hasn't even begun to climb."
"Good reason. They're getting this over there too."
"Worse than here, if anything. Denver reported ten inches at eleven o'clock—and it's fifteen miles from the range. There was three inches when the train started. Lord knows where that freight is—I can't get any word from it."
"Gone out again!" The telegrapher hammered disgustedly on the key. "The darned line grounds on me about every five minutes. I—"
"Do you hear anything from Crestline—about conditions up there?"
"Bad. It's even drifting in the snowsheds. They've got two plows working in 'em keeping 'em open, and another down at Crystal Lake. If things let up, they're all right. If not—they'll run out of coal by to-morrow morning and be worse than useless. There's only about a hundred tons at Crestline—and it takes fuel to feed them babies. But so far—"
"They're keeping things halfway open. Wait a minute—" he bent over the key again—"it's opened up. Number Eight's left Tollifer. The freight's behind it, and three more following that. I guess they're going to try to run them through in a bunch. They'll be all right—if they can only get past Crestline. But if they don't—"
He rattled and banged at the key for a long moment, cursing softly. Only the dead "cluck" of a grounded line answered him. Houston turned to Ba'tiste.
"It looks bad."
"Oui! But eet depen'—on the storm. Eet come this way, near' ev' spring. Las' year the road tie up—and the year before. Oh," he shrugged his shoulders, "that is what one get for living in a country where the railroad eet chase eetself all over the mountain before eet get here."
"There wouldn't be any chance at the tunnel either, would there? They haven't cut through yet."
"No—and they won' finish until June. That is when they figure—"
"That's a long way off."
"Too long," agreed Ba'tiste, and turned again toward the telegrapher, once more alert over a speaking key. But before it could carry anything but a fragmentary message, life was gone again, and the operator turned to the snow-caked window, with its dreary exterior of whirling snow that seemed to come ever faster.
"Things are going to get bad in this country if this keeps up," came at last. "There ain't any too great a stock of food."
"How about hay for the cattle?"
"All right. I guess. If the ranchers can get to it. But that's the trouble about this snow. It ain't like the usual spring blizzard. It's dry as a January fall, and it's sure drifting. Keeps up for four or five days; they'll be lucky to find the haystacks."
For a long time then, the three stood looking out the window, striving—merely for the sake of passing time—to identify the almost hidden buildings of the little town, scarcely more than a hundred yards away. At last the wire opened again, and the operator went once more to his desk. Ba'tiste and Houston waited for him to give some report. But there was none. At last:
"What is it?" Houston was at his side. The operator looked up.
"Denver asking Marionville if it can put its snowplow through and try to buck the drifts from this side. No answer yet."
A long wait. Then:
"Well, that's done. Only got one Mallett engine at Marionville. Other two are in the shop. One engine couldn't—"
He stopped. He bent over the key. His face went white—tense.
"What's wrong?" The two men were close beside him now.
"Number one-eleven's kicked over the hill!"
"Yes. Snowplow. They're wiring Denver, from Crestline. The second plow's up there in the snowshed with the crew. One of 'em's dead. The other's—wait a minute, I have to piece it together."
A silence, except for the rattling of the key, broken, jagged, a clattering voice of the distance, faint in the roar and whine of the storm, yet penetrating as it carried the news of a far-away world,—a world where the three waiting men knew that all had turned to a white hell of wintry fury; where the grim, forbidding mountains were now the abiding place of the snow-ledge and the avalanche; where even steel and the highest product of invention counted for nothing against the blast of the wind and the swirl of the tempest. Then finally, as from far away, a strained voice came, the operator's:
"Ice had gotten packed on the rails already. One-eleven tried to keep on without a pick and shovel gang. Got derailed on a curve just below Crestline and went over. One-twelve's crew got the men up. The plow's smashed to nothing. Fifty-three thousand dollars' worth of junk now. Wait a minute—here's Denver."
Again one of those agonizing waits, racking to the two men whose future depended largely upon the happenings atop the range. Far on the other side, fighting slowly upward, was a freight train containing flatcar after flatcar loaded with the necessary materials of a large sawmill. True, June was yet two months away. But months are short when there is work to do, when machinery must be installed, and when contracts are waiting. Every day, every hour, every minute counted now. And as if in answer to their thoughts, the operator straightened, with a little gesture of hopelessness.
"Guess it's all off," came at last. "The general superintendent in Denver's on the wire. Says to back up everything to Tollifer, including the plows, and give up the ghost."
"Give it up?" Houston stared blankly at the telegrapher. "But that's not railroading!"
"It is when you're with a concern that's all but broke," answered the operator. "It's cheaper for this old wooden-axle outfit to quit than to go on fighting—"
"That mean six weeks eef this storm keep up two days longer!" Ba'tiste broke in excitedly. "By to-morrow morning, ever' snowshed, he will be bank-full of snow. The track, he will be four inches in ice. Six week—this country, he can not stand it! Tell him so on the telegraph! Tell him the cattle, he will starve! Peuff! No longer do I think of our machinery! Eef it is los'—we are los'. But let eet go. Say to heem nothing of that. Say to heem that there are the cattle that will starve, that in the stores there is not enough provision. That—"
"I know. I'll call Denver. But I don't know what chance there is—the road's been waiting for a chance to go into bankruptcy, anyway—since this new Carrow Point deal is about through. They haven't got any money—you know that, Ba'tiste. It's cheaper for them to shut down for six weeks than to try to keep running. That fifty thousand they lost on that snowplow just about put the crimp in 'em. It might cost a couple of hundred thousand more to keep the road open. What's the result? It's easier to quit. But I'll try 'em—"
He turned to the key and hammered doggedly. Only soggy deadness answered. He tested his plugs and tried again. In vain. An hour later, he still was there, fighting for the impossible, striving to gain an answer from vacancy, struggling to instil life into a thing deadened by ice, and drifts, and wind, and broken, sagging telegraph poles. The line was gone!
Until dusk they remained in the boxlike station, hoping against hope. But the whine and snarl of the wind were the only sounds that came to them, the steady banking of the snow against the windows the only evidence of life. The telegraph line, somewhere between Tabernacle and the country which lay over the bleak, now deadly range, was a shattered thing, with poles buried in drifts, with loose strands of wire swinging in the gusts of the blizzard, with ice coated upon the insulations, and repair—until the sun should come and the snows melt—an almost impossible task.
"It'd take a guy with a diving suit to find some of them wires, I guess," the operator hazarded, as he finally ceased his efforts and reached for his coat and hat and snowshoes. "There ain't no use staying here. You fellows are going to sleep in town to-night, ain't you?"
There was little else to do. They fought their way to the rambling boarding house, there to join the loafing group in what passed for a lobby and to watch with them the lingering death of day in a shroud of white. Night brought no cessation of the wind, no lessening of the banks of snow which now were drifting high against the first-story windows; the door was only kept in working order through constant sallies of the bent old boarding-house keeper, with his snow shovel.
Windows banged and rattled, with a muffled, eerie sound; snow sifted through the tiniest cracks, spraying upon those who sat near them. The old cannon-ball stove, crammed with coal, reached the point where dull red spots enlivened its bulging belly; yet the big room was cold with non-detectable drafts, the men shivered in spite of their heavy clothing, and the region outside the immediate radius of the heater was barn-like with frigidity. Midnight came, and the group about the stove slept in their chairs, rather than undergo the discomfort and coldness of bed.
Morning brought no relief. The storm was worse, if anything, and the boarding-house keeper faced drifts waist high at the doorway with his first shoveling expedition of the day. The telegrapher, at the frost-caked window, rubbed a spot with his hand and stared into the dimness of the flying snow, toward his station.
"Guess I'll have t' call for volunteers if I get in there to-day. We'll have to tunnel."
Ba'tiste and Houston joined him. The box car that served as a station house—always an object of the heaviest drifts—was buried! The big French-Canadian pulled at his beard.
"Peuff! Eet is like the ground hog," he announced. "Eet is underground already."
"Yeh. But I've got to get in there. The wire might be working."
"So? We will help, Baree and Ba'teese. Come—we get the shovels."
Even that was work. The town simply had ceased to be; the stores were closed, solitude was everywhere. They forced a window and climbed into the little general merchandise establishment, simply because it was easier than striving to get in through the door. Then, armed with their shovels, they began the work of tunneling to the station. Two hours later, the agent once more at his dead key, Ba'tiste turned to Houston.
"Eet is the no use here," he announced. "We must get to camp and assemble the men that are strong and willing to help. Then—"
"Then, eet will be the battle to help those who are not fortunate. There is death in this storm."
Again with their waist-belt guide lines, they started forth, to bend against the storm in a struggle that was to last for hours; to lose their trail, to find it again, through the straggling poles that in the old days had carried telephone wires, and at last to reach the squat, snowed-in buildings of camp. There, Ba'tiste assembled the workmen in the bunk house.
"There are greater things than this now," he announced. "We want the strong men—who will go back with us to Tabernacle, and who will be willing to take the risk to help the countryside. Ah, oui, eet is the danger that is ahead. How many of you will go?"
One after another they readied for their snowshoes, silent men who acted, rather than spoke. A few were left behind, to care for the camp in case of emergencies, to keep the roofs as free from snow as possible and to avoid cave-ins. The rest filed outside, one by one, awkwardly testing the bindings of their snowshoes, and awaiting the command. At the doorway, Ba'tiste, his big hands fumbling, caught the paws of Golemar, his wolf-dog, and raised the great, shaggy creature against his breast.