Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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There was evidently no more to be got out of him, and Leger and Ingleby went up the trail together towards the bakery. Tomlinson, however, stayed behind, and slipped a little crumpled bow of ribbon into his pocket.

XVIII
INGLEBY GOES AWAY

It was a week after the sequestration of the claim, and Ingleby leaned against a cedar with the firelight on his face, which was unusually resolute, and a bundle of clothing and blankets at his feet. Hetty sat on one of the hearth-logs in the shadow watching him quietly, and Leger stood in the doorway of the shanty with something very like anger in his eyes. He had for the last ten minutes enlarged upon every reason he could think of why Ingleby should remain with them, and the latter was still apparently as firmly decided as ever on going away.

"There's not a grain of sense in your point of view," said Leger. "It's sentiment run to seed, and sentiment of the most maudlin kind, at that. Of course, I know all this is useless – nothing would move you – but it's some small relief to let you know what I think of you. I suppose you will admit that what you're going to do isn't quite in keeping with the theories you once professed to believe in."

Hetty, who had a spice of temper, laughed. "Walter never believed in them – he only thought he did. He's like the rest of you. You keep your ideas to talk about and worry people with."

Ingleby made a little deprecatory gesture. "I've no doubt I deserve it, Hetty, but you ought to see that I can't stay here. I should, in fact, have gone away before, but I felt almost sure we would find the gold sooner or later."

"Who is responsible for throwing the claim away?" broke in Leger.

"Both of us, I fancy. Anyway, that's not quite the question."

Leger made a last effort. "Now," he said, "you know very well that your chance of finding gold on the new claim is good, and we can very easily afford to grub-stake you until you strike it. In this country it's quite a common arrangement. Apart from that – since you seem to be so abnormally sensitive – there's enough for you and me to do chopping wood for the oven in the evenings to square the account altogether. I have, of course, pointed that out already; but if you will make an effort, I think you will remember that there was a time when you insisted on lending me what was, in the circumstances, a considerable sum of money."

"I can remember most clearly that only the fear of seeing you arrested for manslaughter induced a certain young lady to agree to it."

Hetty looked up sharply. "I'm not going to answer that – I'm too vexed," she said. "It isn't the least use trying to persuade him, Tom."

"No," said Leger, with a little gesture of resignation, "I'm afraid it isn't. You are going to work for Tomlinson, Walter?"

"Yes," said Ingleby. "That is, now and then – a day or two to keep me going while I find out what is in the claim. He wants more water, and is putting up a flume.

I had a five-dollar bill from him yesterday."

He stopped a moment, and the firelight showed there was a trace of deeper colour than usual in his face as he held out a little strip of paper to Hetty.

"Will you put that to my credit, and let me have two loaves now?" he said.

Leger said something viciously that was not very distinct, while Hetty sat still a moment glancing at the paper without touching it, and then gravely held out her hand.

"You will get them in the store," she said.

Ingleby disappeared into the shadows, and the two who were left said nothing whatever, but Hetty moved a trifle so that Leger could not see her face. Then Ingleby came back with the bread, and quietly slung his traps about him before he held out his hand.

"I don't want to go, Hetty, but it can't be helped," he said. "Of course, I'll come back often in the evenings."

Hetty did not move out of the shadow, and though Ingleby did not seem to notice it there was a curious hardness in her voice.

"Well," she said quietly, "I suppose you know best."

Ingleby turned away, and shook himself in a fashion that suggested relief as he swung down the trail. He had left a good deal behind him, and it was a hard thing he had done, much harder, in fact, than he had ever anticipated; but he could not live on the bounty of a girl. For all that, he shrank from the loneliness of the life before him, and his fancy would dwell upon the evenings he had spent with Hetty and Leger beside the crackling fire. Hetty was by no means clever – at least, in some respects; but he did not expect her to be so, and where she was there was also cheerfulness and tranquillity. Now the bush in front of him seemed very black and lonely.

He had scarcely disappeared when Hetty, rising slowly, crumpled a strip of paper in her hand and flung it into the fire. As it happened, it fell upon the side of one of the logs a little distance from the hottest blaze, and Leger made a little instinctive movement, and then sat still again.

"I suppose you realize what that is?" he said.

"Yes," said Hetty, whose face showed flushed in the flickering light, "it is a five-dollar bill."

Leger looked at her sharply, and then laughed. "Well," he said, "I suppose you can afford it – and, after all, I'm not sure it isn't the best thing you could do with it."

Hetty said nothing but went into the shanty, and it was next morning before Leger, who looked very thoughtful as he sat beside the fire, saw any more of her. He had already realized that the possession of a pretty sister is a responsibility.

For a week or two afterwards Ingleby alternately assisted Tomlinson in the building of a flume and worked on his claim, but it was, perhaps, fortunate that he had now shaken off the fierce impatience which had driven him to overtax his strength when hope was strong in him. Indeed, of late a curious lassitude had crept upon him, though he still toiled on; and it was only the fact that provisions were a consideration which induced him to accompany Sewell and Tomlinson on an expedition to look for a black-tail deer.

Tomlinson brought a tent with him, and Ingleby and Sewell were sitting outside it one evening when Trooper Probyn and the corporal came up leading a laden horse. Horses were very little use for riding in that country, but there were trails they could with some difficulty be led along, and the few strips of natural prairie afforded them a precarious sustenance. There was also no other means of transport except the miner's back. The corporal bade Probyn pull the beast up beside the tent and loosed the pack-lariat.

"You can get up when we've hove the traps off, and see if the Indian's there," he said. "If he is, bring him along. I guess we'll make nothing by pushing on to-night."

Trooper Probyn, swinging himself into the saddle, scrambled up the hillside, which was comparatively clear of undergrowth just there, while the corporal sat down beside the fire.

"We've had supper. You don't mind our camping here?" he asked.

Sewell, who lay, pipe in hand, upon a bundle of withered fern, raised his head.

"There's room in the tent. It's a fair-sized one," he said. "You're going on into the ranges?"

The corporal looked at him meditatively. "Right through to the Westerhouse Gully, if we can get there. It appears a blame rough country; but Captain Esmond has a notion that a trail could be made this way, and from Westerhouse one could make the Yukon. It's part of his business to see what can be done to open up communication."

Sewell turned and glanced towards the snow which stretched in a great white rampart across the valley. Beneath it a tremendous wall of rock dropped to the pines below, which crawled round the crests and up the gullies of a desolation of jumbled crags. Dark forest streaked by filmy mist filled the devious hollows at their feet.

"You are right about the country. I should imagine it to be a particularly rough one," he said.

"Well," said the corporal, "it seems quite certain the Indians used to go through after the deer and salmon; and it's believed that one or two white men have made Westerhouse that way, too."

He stopped a moment, and glanced at Sewell. "You were away somewhere quite a while, weren't you?"

Sewell laughed, and Ingleby, who watched them both, wondered whether the corporal knew that he was one of the few white men who had traversed the defiles of the divide.

"I was," he said. "Still, you see, it really isn't any other person's business where I go to."

The corporal nodded with dry good-humour. "I guess it wasn't Westerhouse, anyway," he said. "I'm not sure we'll get there, though an Indian came along to the outpost who figured he could take us."

Ingleby glanced at Sewell with a little smile. The corporal's belief in the capabilities of the police was admirable, and more or less warranted, for the wardens of the Northwest are hard-riding men; but he was, after all, from the prairie, and horses are very little used in the Green River country. Ingleby, however, fancied he was not quite certain that communication had not been already effected with the Westerhouse Gully. Sewell, who apparently understood Ingleby's glance, said nothing.

"There are only two of you here?" asked the corporal.

"No," said Ingleby. "Tomlinson is with us. He went out this afternoon to look for a deer, and should be back any minute now."

The corporal looked thoughtful. "I'm not quite sure we'd have camped here if I'd known that," he said. "Still, if you can keep your man in hand, I guess I can answer for the trooper."

Ingleby fancied they could promise this, and for a while nothing more was said. Darkness crept up the valley, though there was still a saffron light on the towering snow, and the peaks that lay in shadow cut with a cold, blue whiteness against a wondrous green transparency. Then the dew began to settle, calling up the drowsy odours of the pines, and an impressive stillness pervaded the mountain solitude. It grew colder rapidly, and Ingleby, who rose and flung fresh branches on the fire, stood looking towards the west, a spare black figure, with outline clean-cut as a cameo against the flickering light, when the sharp ringing of a rifle came suddenly down the valley. It rang from rock to rock, as the hillsides flung it back, and died away among the dimness of the pines.

"Tomlinson!" said Sewell. "I fancy he has got that deer. There's scarcely wood enough to keep the fire in until morning, Walter. If you don't want to light another for breakfast, hadn't you better cut some more?"

Ingleby, who took up an axe, moved back into the bush, and the silence was broken by a rhythmic thudding that vibrated among the shadowy trunks, which was unfortunate, because it tended to confuse the corporal's hearing. He was an opinionated man, and a good deal depended upon his being able to correctly locate a sound just then. He would, however, probably have done so, had his attention not been fixed upon the tobacco he was shredding. A minute or two had passed when the crash of a rifle came down the valley again, and he laughed.

"I guess your man didn't get that deer right off," he said.

Sewell smiled, and waited until Ingleby came back with an armful of wood.

"Our friend suggests that Tomlinson has been throwing cartridges away," he said.

"Well," said Ingleby, "it's a thing he very seldom does, and I feel almost sure the last shot came from a different direction, and was farther off. Probably Trooper Probyn fired at something in the bush."

It was an unfortunate suggestion, for the corporal, who had spent a good many years on the lonely levels of the prairie, was, with some reason, proud of his fine sense of hearing, and it by no means pleased him that a young man new to the wilderness should presume to throw the least doubt upon his ability to locate a rifle shot. This naturally confirmed him in his belief in the correctness of his opinion.

"It was Tomlinson who fired twice," he said. "I guess Probyn knows better than to blaze away Government ammunition without permission."

Ingleby said nothing. The point was, or so it appeared to him, of no importance; and the three, drawing in closer to the fire, sat smoking in silence while the pale stars came out above the pines. At last there was a tramp of feet, and Tomlinson strode out of the shadows carrying a deer with its forelegs drawn over his shoulders. He threw it down, and stood flushed and gasping, with the firelight on his face. Ingleby fancied he did not see the corporal, who could, however, see him.

"I suppose you didn't meet Trooper Probyn?" asked Sewell.

Tomlinson started a little, and there was for a moment a curious look in his face, which did not escape the corporal's attention.

"No," he said shortly. "I don't know that I want to. What is he doing here?"

"He went out to meet an Indian who's to show us a trail across the divide," said the corporal. "Rode out 'most an hour ago. He'd keep the range side."

"Then, as I came down the south fork of the creek, I wouldn't have met him, anyway," said Tomlinson promptly. He stood still a moment, and then turned to Ingleby. "Hang that deer up, Walter. I'll have supper, if it's ready."

Sewell set food and a can of green tea before him, and he ate in silence until Ingleby glanced at him.

"Did you get that deer a little while ago?" he said.

"No. It was two hours since, anyway."

"Still, we heard you shooting."

Tomlinson, who was an excellent shot, and somewhat proud of the fact, laughed in a slightly embarrassed fashion.

"Well," he said, "I guess you may have done so, but I didn't get the deer. It was in the fern, and the light was going. I just got the one shot, and it was too dark to follow up the trail."

"One shot?" said Ingleby, with a little smile. "The corporal heard two, both close together, and there certainly was another."

"Then it was another man who fired it," said Tomlinson shortly. "I guess I don't often waste cartridges."

The corporal, who was usually a trifle persistent, took up Tomlinson's rifle and pushed back the slide of the magazine.

"A forty-four Marlin! It was full when you went out?" he said.

"Yes, sir. Two cartridges gone. You'll find one bullet in yonder deer."

The corporal, for no particular reason, jerked a cartridge into the chamber, and then snapped it out. "You use nicked bullets?"

Tomlinson did not, as everybody noticed, appear exactly pleased. In fact, it was not difficult to fancy that he was a trifle embarrassed. It is a little easier to bring down a deer with a bullet that will split up into a torn strip of metal when it meets a bone than with one that has a solid nose and makes a clean, punctured wound.

"Well," he said, "I don't know any reason why I shouldn't, and now and then I get the hack-saw and cut one or two across. When I go shooting it's a deer I want."

Nothing more was said on that point, though Ingleby fancied that the corporal was a little incredulous still. He rose, and looked up the trail as though listening.

"I can't quite figure what is keeping Probyn," he said. "The Indian was to meet him at sundown, where the North Creek fork twists round the rocks, and he should have been back by now."

They sat silent a minute or two, but no sound came out of the silence of the pines. There was not even the murmur of water. The wilderness was very still.

Then Tomlinson laughed. "Perhaps he's not coming back."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well," said the miner, "I've heard Esmond has been worrying the boys lately. They don't seem quite fond of him, anyway. It kind of seemed to me Probyn might have lit out without you."

Now it is not often that a trooper takes the risk of discharging himself from the ranks of the Northwest Police, but the thing has been done. It was, however, unfortunate that Tomlinson made the suggestion. The corporal's face grew a trifle grim as he looked at him.

"I've no use for that kind of talk," he said. "There's not a man up here I'm not 'most as sure of as I am of myself."

"Then he's probably up there with the Indian," said Ingleby. "It would be a little risky leading a horse down the big gully in the dark."

Another hour passed, and as there was still no appearance of Trooper Probyn, the corporal decided that Ingleby was right, and, rolling themselves in their blankets, they lay down inside the tent. They were fast asleep when a beat of hoofs came out of the silence of the night as a jaded horse floundered along the hillside, and the corporal wakened only when there was a trampling of undergrowth outside the tent. He shook the blankets from him and stood up.

"Is that you, Probyn? Tether the beast and come in," he said.

There was no answer, and the corporal, stooping suddenly, touched Tomlinson's shoulder.

"I guess you had better get up. You're awake, Ingleby?" he asked.

Ingleby, who had been roused by the sound, noticed that he had not asked Tomlinson this; but they were both on their feet in another moment and went out of the tent. The fire had almost burned out, but a few red brands still gave a faint light, and the spires of the pines seemed a little blacker and sharper than they had been when the men went to sleep. It was very cold, for dawn was coming, and they shivered a little as they looked about them. There was nothing to excite apprehension, only a jaded horse that stood just within the uncertain light with loose bridle and lowered head, but Ingleby felt a curious uneasiness come upon him. The sight was unpleasantly suggestive.

"Probyn!" the corporal called again.

There was no answer, and, though he scarcely knew why, Ingleby felt that he did not expect one. Then the horse, moving very lamely, walked up to the corporal, whom it apparently recognized, and he laid a hand upon the bridle.

"Throw on a piece or two of wood and stir the fire," he said.

Ingleby did it, and nothing more was said until a blaze sprang up. Then the corporal ran his hand along the horse's coat. There was a smear of blood on it when he glanced at it.

"Been travelling quite fast before he dried," he said. "Through some thick bush, too; here's a scar where a branch ripped the hide. Looks to me as though he'd been scared and bolted, though I don't quite see what has lamed him."

The rest watched him with a curious intentness while he lifted one of the beast's hoofs. It was plain to all of them that there was something wrong, but nobody cared to give his misgivings vent. Then as the firelight blazed up a little more Ingleby touched the corporal.

"You are looking in the wrong place," he said.

The corporal raised his head, and saw a deep, red scar. Stooping, he drew a brand from the fire, and the men looked at one another uneasily when he held it up.

"Yes," he said grimly. "That was made by a bullet. I figure the beast was going away from the man who fired it."

Again there was silence for almost a minute. The pines were growing a trifle blacker and clearer in outline, and it was very cold. Ingleby shivered again, for a curious creepy feeling troubled him. The corporal stood very still, a tense black figure, apparently gazing fixedly at Tomlinson. It was the latter who spoke first.

"I fired once – at the deer," he said.

"Well," said the corporal, with a curious certainty that jarred on Ingleby's nerves, "Probyn's back yonder, and it will be daylight in an hour. We'd better look for him."

Then he turned towards the jaded horse. "It's kind of unfortunate that beasts can't talk."

Nobody said anything further, and they plodded silently into the gloom that still shrouded all the hillside. It was dusk when they came back again, but they had found no sign of Trooper Probyn, or anything that might account for his disappearance, except an empty 44-cartridge lying not far from his trail.

XIX
TROOPER PROBYN COMES BACK

It was late next night when the corporal reached the police outpost, and on the following morning Esmond and Major Coulthurst sat at a little table in the latter's dwelling. The corporal, who had told his story concisely, had just gone out, and Coulthurst, who rolled an unlighted cigar between his fingers, was grave in face. Esmond glanced at him inquiringly.

"It is, in one respect, not exactly your business; but you and I are between us responsible for the tranquillity of the Green River country, and I should be glad of your opinion, sir," he said. "I don't want to make a mistake just now. There is no doubt that most of the men are in an uncertain temper, and they do not seem pleased with me."

Coulthurst smiled, a trifle drily. "I presume you don't want me to go into that?"

"No. The fact is, after all, of no great importance. The point is – what do you make of the corporal's story?"

The major appeared to be taxing his brain for a moment or two. "Not being a detective, I can make nothing at all. I suppose he is trustworthy?"

"As reliable a man as there is in the force. Let me try to set out what we know. Tomlinson thrashed Probyn and pitched him into the creek. Neither of them would explain the cause of the trouble, which is a trifle significant; but Tomlinson was heard to say that if the trooper played the same game again he would kill him. He is apparently not an impulsive man, and the corporal seems to think it was a warning and not mere bluster."



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