Delilah of the Snows
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"That," said Coulthurst, "gives you a little to go upon. We can admit that Tomlinson fancied he had a grievance against the trooper. He is not the man to say a thing of that kind without sufficient reason."
"Then Probyn leaves Sewell's camp, and never comes back. Sewell, Ingleby, and the corporal hear two shots, apparently from the same part of the range."
"I understand Ingleby does not admit that."
Esmond smiled. "One would scarcely expect Ingleby to agree with a corporal of police. Still, I may point out that he has been less than a year in the bush, and the corporal has, at least, spent most of his life on the prairie. You know the effect the life my troopers lead has in quickening the perceptions. Most of them could locate and tell you the meaning of a sound I couldn't hear at all."
Coulthurst made a sign of concurrence. "His view is certainly worth a good deal more than Ingleby's. Still, admitting that the two shots were fired from about the same place, it doesn't necessarily follow that they were fired by the same person."
"We know that, leaving out Probyn, Tomlinson and the Indian could have been the only men on that part of the range just then. When Tomlinson appeared he seemed disconcerted to find the corporal there. He also showed signs of embarrassment when questioned about the shots, and persisted that he fired no more than one. When told which way the trooper had gone he stated that he had come in just the opposite one. It is significant that he did not mention where he had been until then. Several hours later Probyn's horse came back grazed by a bullet, and a forty-four cartridge was found beside the trail. That is the size of rifle Tomlinson uses."
"It seems to me the several hours are the difficulty."
"Not necessarily. Whoever shot Trooper Probyn would naturally be afraid of his horse doing exactly what it did, and fired at it. The wounded beast would probably run as long as it was able. It is evident that it must have smashed through several thickets. Somebody fired at it, and the man who did so was the one who shot Probyn."
"You don't know he was shot. I'm not sure I should find it necessary to keep quite as tight a hand on your troopers as you do," said the major suggestively.
Esmond flushed a little. "I feel absolutely certain the lad never intended to give us the slip."
"There were two men in the vicinity about that time," said Coulthurst reflectively.
"Tomlinson was known to have a grievance against Probyn. The Indian, who apparently did not turn up at all, had never seen him. Men do not kill one another without a strong inducement, and nobody would expect to find much money on a police trooper."
"His carbine," said the major, "would be worth a little."
"The man had an excellent rifle of his own."
"Well," said Coulthurst, "it is tolerably easy to see what all this points to, but I could never quite believe Tomlinson would do the thing.There's another point that strikes me."
Esmond appeared expectant, though he had consulted Coulthurst more from a sense of duty than because he looked for any brilliant suggestion.
"It's rather an important one," said the major gravely. "You can't well have a murder without a corpse, you see."
Esmond failed to hide a little sardonic smile. "That is a trifle obvious, sir. You have no advice to offer me?"
"I have. It's good as far as it goes. Lie low, and keep your eyes open until you find Probyn."
Esmond rose. "I suppose that is the only thing, after all, though it looks very much like wasting time. I feel quite sure there will be a nicked forty-four bullet in him when I do."
He went out; but the longer he considered the major's advice the more reasonable it appeared to him. Esmond, with all his shortcomings, had a keen sense of duty, and had he consulted his own inclination would have wasted no time in seizing Tomlinson. He was, however, quite shrewd enough to recognize that he was not regarded with favour, and that, although the major did not seem to realize it, the miners were not likely to content themselves with looking on while he did anything that did not meet their views. He had reasons for believing that once Tomlinson's culpability was evident he need expect no trouble from them; but it was equally plain that unless he had definite proof it would be a risky thing to lay hands on him. Esmond was arrogant and impulsive, but he had discovered in the Northwest that it is not always advisable to run counter to popular opinion, and in this case there was a faint probability that Tomlinson's friends might be right. He therefore set himself to wait as patiently as he could until Trooper Probyn should be found; while the men, who for the most part believed Probyn to be living, waited for him to come back – which he eventually did, though by no means in the fashion they had expected.
There had been a sudden rise of temperature, and a warm wind from the Pacific had sent the white mists streaming across the mountain land. It had rained for several days, as it usually does in the northern wilderness in those circumstances, and the snow on the lower slopes had melted under the warm deluge. The river swirled by, thick with the wreckage of the forests the snow had brought down, frothing between its crumbling banks; and on a certain Saturday evening most of the men in the valley assembled by the ford where the trail crept perilously down the opposite side of the ca?on. It appeared very doubtful whether any man or beast could cross it then, but the freighter, with mails and provisions, was already overdue, and they had awaited him anxiously for a week or so. It was possible that he might arrive that evening; and, in any case, the six o'clock supper was over and there was very little else to do.
Ingleby, Leger, Hetty, and Tomlinson were there with the rest, and they sat among the roots of a great cedar where it was a little drier. The rain had stopped at last, but all the pines were dripping, and the river came swirling out of a curtain of drifting mist. The hoarse roar it made filled all the ca?on.
Hetty was vacantly watching the slow whirl of an eddy when a great trunk that plunged into it held her eye. It had been a stately hemlock well over a hundred feet in height and great of girth, and now it gyrated slowly round the pool, a splendid wreck, with far-flung limbs that thrashed the water as they rose and fell. Then the great butt tilted, and there was a crash that rang high above the turmoil of the flood as the branches that smashed and splintered struck a boulder whose wet head rose just above the foam. The forks held for a moment, and then the ponderous trunk swung again and, with its shattered limbs whirling about it, drove madly down the white rush of a rapid.
It was an impressive sight, and the sound of rending and smashing was more impressive still; but when the trunk had gone Hetty found her attention fixed upon the pool. It swirled and lapped upon the rocks with nothing on its surface now but muddy smears of foam, but she watched it with a vague sense of expectancy. It seemed to her that she and that sullen eddy alike were waiting for what should follow. Another trunk, with branches that heaved out of the turmoil and sank into it again, was coming down the river, but a dusky, half-submerged object slid on in front of it. Hetty could scarcely see it save when it was lifted by the buffeting of the flood, until it plunged into the head of the eddy. Then she rose suddenly.
"Look at it," she said. "It's like – a bundle of old clothes!"
Ingleby, who was nearest her, stood up. The light was growing dim in the ca?on, and it was a moment before he could make out what she pointed to. Hetty, however, was staring at it with a curious intensity, and there was, he noticed, apprehension in her eyes. The object drove on quietly, an insignificant dusky blur, swinging and swaying with the pulsations of the river, and Ingleby felt the girl's hand close suddenly on his arm.
"Oh," she said, with a little gasp, "it's coming straight here. I'm afraid of it, Walter."
The thing swung in towards them with the whirl of the eddy, and Ingleby had for a moment a glimpse of a white patch in the water that was horribly suggestive of a face. Then he seized Hetty's hand, and drew her with him as he turned away.
"Stay there!" he said, when a great pine rose between them and the river, and went scrambling back to the water's edge.
Two or three other men, among whom was Tomlinson, had reached it by this time, and Sewell stood on a boulder gazing at the stream, while the dusky object, drawn almost under now, swung by amidst a rush of foam. Then he stepped down, and looked steadily at the men about him.
"I fancy Trooper Probyn has come back," he said.
Ingleby was close beside him, and for a moment the two men looked into each other's eyes. In less than another minute the object they had seen would swing out with the outflow at the tail of the pool, and the long white rapid would whirl it beyond their reach into the gloom again. Night was close at hand, and, if they let him pass, Trooper Probyn would by morning have travelled far into the heart of a wilderness where it was scarcely likely that any of them would ever overtake him. The rivers of the North run fast, and that is a country wherein the strongest man must travel slowly. It seemed to Ingleby that it might be better to let him go. Then he was ashamed of the doubt that this implied, and Sewell, who knew what he was thinking, glanced for just a second in Tomlinson's direction.
"One can't hide the truth. It will come out," he said, and then raised his voice. "That's a man we have something to do for. The rapid will have him in a minute, boys."
Tomlinson was first into the water, with Ingleby almost at his side, and the rest floundering and splashing close behind. They went straight, while the thing that swung with the eddy went round, but they were in the lip of the rapid before they came up with it. Ingleby gasped as he braced himself against the flood which broke in a white swirl to his waist, while the stream-borne gravel smote his legs, and he clutched at the big miner as Trooper Probyn drove down on them.
He evaded Tomlinson, but Ingleby, stooping, seized his uniform, and tightened his hold on his companion as his feet were dragged from under him. He could almost have fancied that Trooper Probyn struggled to be free from them, and while the current frothed about him Tomlinson was dragged backwards by the strain. Ingleby went under, still clinging fiercely to the sodden tunic, and for a second or two it seemed that all of them, the dead and the living, must go down the rapid together, in which case no man could have distinguished between them when they were washed out at the tail of it. Then a man clinging to his comrade with one hand seized Tomlinson; there was a straining of hardened muscles, a wild splashing and floundering, and, while one who leaned across a boulder gasped and wondered if his arm was leaving its socket, the line swung into slack water again. Still, Ingleby had driven against a stone with a thud that drove out most of the little breath left in him.
They brought Probyn ashore between them, and Sewell, who kept his head, left them a moment and went straight up the bank, where he came upon Hetty standing with hands closed at her sides. She could see very little beyond a group of men bending over something that lay between them.
"Go back to the shanty. Make a big fire and some coffee," he said.
Hetty did not seem to understand him. "Tomlinson held on to him, but he struck a stone," she said. "I couldn't see any more, but – of course – you brought him out? Is he hurt?"
Sewell looked astonished. "Hurt!" he said. "You must know that the man is dead."
Then comprehension dawned upon him, as he remembered that he had for several anxious moments fancied that the man who seized Trooper Probyn would drive with him down the rapid.
"I scarcely think Tom is any the worse – and Ingleby appears to have got off with a bruise on his head," he said.
He saw the sudden relief in Hetty's face, for she had not remembered the need of reticence then; but she turned away from him silently, and he went back to the river, where the group made way for him. Sewell, who held only an unremunerative claim, was already an influence in the Green River country.
The light was rapidly failing, but he could still see the faces of the men, who turned to him as though uncertain what to do. Tomlinson stood still among the rest, and his voice and attitude were both unmistakably compassionate.
"I hove him into the creek. I 'most wish I hadn't now," he said. "He was young and had no sense, but there was good hard sand in him."
Sewell turned, and looked down on Trooper Probyn, who lay very still, a rigid shape in sodden uniform, with the water running from him, and his face partly turned away from them, which was just as well.
"Two of you go for Captain Esmond, boys," he said. "It will be some time before you make the outpost, and I want the rest of you. There is something we have to do in the meanwhile. The police make mistakes now and then, and it is, I think, our business as well as Captain Esmond's."
He knelt down, and presently pointed to a little hole, very small and cleanly cut, in the soaked tunic.
"I think you know what made that," he said. "One of you get down. I can't do what is necessary, alone."
Nobody seemed very anxious, which was, perhaps, not astonishing, and it was not until Sewell looked up again that Ingleby, who shivered a little, knelt down. He wondered when he saw that Sewell's fingers were very steady as he opened the tunic and saturated vest. Then the latter signed to the men to draw a little nearer, and pointed to what appeared to be a folded pad of wet cotton held in place by a strip of hide. He moved it a little so that all could see it, and then let the tunic fall again. Ingleby was, however, the only one who noticed that there was something in Sewell's hand that had not been there before.
"There is nothing to show whether Trooper Probyn was dead when he reached the water, though I think he was," he said. "He was certainly shot, and it is evident that he did not shoot himself. His uniform isn't charred, you see. Then you saw the pad. Police troopers do not make their shirts or patch their clothes with cotton flour-bags, and a man hit where Probyn was would not be very likely to bandage himself. The man who shot him tried to save his life. Why should he do that if he meant to kill him?"
There was no answer, and Sewell stood up. "We don't know what has happened, boys. Perhaps we never shall; but it seems to me one thing is certain – it wasn't murder."
There was a little murmur of concurrence, and then Sewell made a gesture.
"It's getting dark, and we're most of us very wet," he said. "One or two of you cut a few fir boughs, and we'll make a litter."
It was done, and in another few minutes a line of wet and silent men plodded behind their comrades who carried Trooper Probyn up the climbing trail.