Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"You are sure of that?" she said.

"I think so. Ingleby invariably does the obvious thing, and she is eminently suited to him. I'm not sure he recognizes it yet; but it will certainly become evident, and then he will save himself and everybody trouble by marrying her off-hand."

Grace sat silent for almost a minute. It was perfectly clear that Sewell did not know what his comrade's aspirations were, even as Ingleby did not know how far her acquaintance with Sewell went. She was not altogether displeased that it should be so, though she felt that it would, after all, make no great change in their relations to each other had they been aware. She did not desire Sewell as a lover, though it was pleasant to feel that he valued her approbation and that she had his confidence.

"There are, of course, advantages in doing the obvious thing," she said, with a little laugh. "I suppose we are really different from Ingleby in that respect?"

Sewell looked at her reflectively. "I think you are. One could almost fancy you wanted so many things that you couldn't quite decide which was the most important and give up the rest. The difficulty is that we can't very often have them all, you see."

It seemed to Grace that there was some truth in this. "You," she said, "speak feelingly – as though it were from sympathy."

"Well," said Sewell, with a curious little smile, "perhaps I do. In fact, I'm not sure I'm not diagnosing my own case. A little while ago I had a purpose and believed in it, though the belief naturally cost me a good deal."

"The creation of a new Utopia out of the wreck of the present social fabric?" asked Grace, a trifle maliciously.

"Something of the kind, though I did not expect to do it all myself. While I was sure the thing was feasible, the fact that I was, or so I felt, taking a little share in bringing it about was sufficient for me. Now, however, I am not quite so sure on any point as I used to be, which is why I often envy Ingleby."

Grace felt a little thrill of satisfaction. He had, of course, spoken vaguely; but she wondered how far she was responsible for the change in the opinions which he had held until a little while ago. She knew that he had borne a good deal because of them, for Ingleby had told her so.

"Then there may be a little good in a few of our institutions as they stand?" she said.

"Of course!" answered Sewell, who smiled again. "Most of them are, however, capable of improvement. I am quite as sure of that as ever. The question is, whether anybody would gain much if it were effected too rudely."

Grace was not greatly interested in the point. She preferred a more personal topic, but she saw an opportunity for trying how far her influence went. It had been a trifle painful to find that Ingleby had not yielded to it when she had desired him to spend the winter in Vancouver and leave somebody else to hold Tomlinson's claim. Sewell was, she recognized, a cleverer man than he, and it would be consoling if he showed himself more amenable.

"I think not – at least, so far as anybody in the Green River country is concerned," she said.

"It seems to me that its tranquillity depends a good deal on you."

"On me?"

Grace smiled. "Of course! You know it as well as I do. Wouldn't it be better for your friends to put up with a few little grievances rather than run the risk of bringing a worse thing upon themselves?"

"Would we do that?"

"I think so. The major is a lenient commissioner; and the law would be too strong for you."

Sewell laughed. "That," he said, "would have to be proved, and I am not sure it is a good reason you are offering me."

Grace nodded. "No," she said, "perhaps it isn't. You rather like opposition, don't you? Still, I think one could leave it to your good sense, while I would especially like to see all quiet this winter in the Green River valley. That, however, could, of course, scarcely be thought a reason at all."

Sewell made no disclaimer, but he looked at her with a curious intensity.

"Events," he said slowly, "may be too strong for me, and when I am sure they are right, I cannot go counter to my opinions."

"Of course!" and the girl leaned forward a little nearer him, resting one hand on the arm of her chair. "That is more than I would ever ask of you. Still, perhaps you could – "

Sewell looked at her gravely, and laid his hand upon the one that rested on the chair.

"I will," he said quietly, "with that one reservation, do whatever appears most likely to preserve tranquillity."

Grace did not shake his grasp off, as she should have done. Indeed, a little thrill of triumph ran through her as she realized the significance of what had happened. The man who held her hand fast had borne imprisonment for his beliefs, and had also braved hostile mobs, hired bravos, and detachments of U.S. cavalry, and now she had made him captive with a smile. It was, from one point of view, a notable achievement, and it did not dawn on her that if regarded from another point what she had done might wear a different aspect. Just then a book in the other room was closed with a bang, and Grace drew her hand away as Coulthurst came in.

"Sorry to leave you alone so long, but we can get the chessmen out at last," he said.

Sewell set out the pieces, and Grace, who flashed a little smile at him, which implied that there was now a confidence between them, took up a book. As it happened, neither of them knew that Prospector Tomlinson was plodding down the trail that led south through leagues of forest and snow-blocked defiles towards the settlements just then, though the fact had its results for both of them.

A half-moon hung low above the white shoulder of a hill, and here and there a shaft of silvery light shone down upon the snowy trail which wound in and out through the gloom of the firs. Tomlinson was one of the simple-minded persons who content themselves with doing the obvious thing, and, as it was quite plain to him that he could not stay at the bakery without probability of being discovered and getting his hosts into trouble, he had, in spite of Hetty's protests, persisted in setting out for the settlements, though he was still scarcely capable of the journey and it had been pointed out that there was a likelihood of his falling in with the police troopers. The latter fact did not, however, so far as Tomlinson could see, affect the question. The one thing that was clear to him was that he could not permit Hetty and Tom Leger to involve themselves in difficulties.

He carried two rolled-up blankets and a good many pounds of provisions, as well as a Marlin rifle, for it was a very long way to the settlements, and the snow was deep in the passes. He also walked slowly and with an effort, for the strength he had exhausted had scarcely come back to him yet, while the dusty snow balled beneath his worn-out boots.

The bush was very still, for only a low murmur came up across the pines from the rapids, which were free of ice. The trees rose above him, solid spires of blackness cut sharp against the white hillside beyond them, and Tomlinson was glad of their shadow, because the corporal and one of the troopers had gone down the trail that afternoon, and, uncertain whether they had come back, he had no wish to meet them. It is scarcely likely that he would have done so, for he had an excellent sense of hearing and was making very little noise, had not a trooper stopped to do something to his newly-issued winter coat, which did not fit him comfortably. He spent some little time over it, as it was necessary to take his big mittens off, and the corporal improved the occasion by sitting down on a fallen tree to light his pipe. They were both a little outside the trail and in black shadow.

Tomlinson, in the meanwhile, came to an open space some two or three score yards across. There were black firs all about it, but the snow among them seemed deeper, and, as he could hear nothing but the murmur of the river, he made haste to cross it. It appeared advisable that nobody should see him. He had almost reached the gloom of the firs again when he heard a little, scraping sound not unlike that the rubbing of a sulphur match would make, and he stood still listening until a faint blue radiance appeared amidst the trees, and then he moved towards the nearest undergrowth with long and almost noiseless strides. In another moment he stopped abruptly, and a man in uniform, who came out from the dark gap of the trail, also stopped and appeared to gaze at him. He carried a carbine. The men were close together, and the moon, which had just cleared the dark fir-tops, shone down on both of them. The miner's face, as the policeman saw, was drawn and grim.

"Tomlinson!" he gasped and then appeared to shake his astonishment from him. "Stop right where you are!"

Tomlinson said nothing but, springing forward, hurled himself into the undergrowth, which opened with a crash and then closed behind him, while the trooper, who glanced over his shoulder as if to see where the corporal was, wasted another moment. Then he, too, sped across the little gap in the forest, floundering through loose snow; and fell into a barberry bush, which held him fast. So far, fortune had favoured Tomlinson; but as he flitted through the bush looking for a little bye-trail which he knew was near, the corporal appeared suddenly from behind a tree and threw his carbine up.

"Hold on!" he said. "I've something to say to you."

A stray gleam of moonlight that shone down just there flung a patch of brightness athwart the snow, and Tomlinson could see the white face pressed down upon the carbine-stock, but he did not pull up. Instead, he leapt into the shadow, and in another second there was a pale flash, and a sharp detonation rang among the trunks. Then he whipped behind a tree, and, seeing two men close behind him now, flung up his rifle. In his country a man who is shot at usually considers himself warranted in retaliating, and Tomlinson was accustomed to the rifle. In fact, he handled it much as an English sportsman does a gun, by the balance of it, and with an instinctive sense of direction which did not necessitate the aligning of the sights. The result of this was that as the butt came home to his shoulder the trooper dropped his carbine with a cry, and Tomlinson sprang away once more through the smoke. He might have got away altogether, but the corporal could shoot as well as he could, and a few seconds later the fugitive felt a stinging pain in one shoulder.

He staggered but recovered himself again, and running a few yards farther dropped into a thicket, and wriggled under it on his hands and knees. Then, while an unpleasant faintness crept over him, he felt for the long knife which the prospector uses for cutting up an occasional deer. It did not appear advisable to snap another cartridge into the rifle-breech just then, and the knife would prove equally serviceable if his pursuers crawled into the thicket after him. Prospector Tomlinson was, like most of the men who sojourn in that wilderness, a little primitive in his notions, and the troopers had fired on him.

One of them made a good deal of noise floundering through a belt of undergrowth just then, and only stopped when the corporal called to him.

"Where's that blame branch-trail?" he asked.

"It's right here," said the trooper. "I guess our man's lit out along it."

Time was of some consequence, and the corporal did not deem it advisable to stop and consider. A man floundering through the undergrowth would, he reasoned, be heard a long way off, while a bushman could proceed with very little noise along a beaten track. Thus, as he could hear nothing, it appeared very probable that Tomlinson had taken the latter. He and the trooper pushed on along it for awhile, but there was no sign of the prospector, and they came back moodily to where they had last seen him, and proceeded to search every thicket in the vicinity. They spent at least an hour over it, but there was still no appearance of Tomlinson, and at last the corporal sat down disgustedly upon the fallen fir.

"I feel 'most certain I plugged him once," he said. "What d'you let go your carbine for?"

The trooper held the weapon up in the moonlight and glanced at the grey smear down the barrel. Then he held up his left hand, which was stained with red.

"I'm not quite sure if the top of one of my fingers is on or not," he said. "Anyway, my mitten's full of blood."

The corporal nodded curtly. "I guess it will grow again," he said. "Well, it seems to me nobody could do anything more to-night. We'll pick his trail up soon as it's daylight." Then they shook the powdery snow from them and plodded on towards the outpost.

XXVI
THE OBVIOUS THING

The stars were paling overhead, and the snow that cut against the sky was growing white again; but it was very cold among the pines where Leger was busy about the crackling fire. A column of smoke rose slowly straight up into the nipping air, and the blaze flickered redly upon the clustering trunks, while the sound of an unfrozen rapid broke faintly through the snapping of the fire. Leger, who felt his fingers stiffening, took up his axe, and the rhythmic thudding rang sharply in the stillness of the woods when Hetty appeared in the door of the shanty, shadowy and shapeless in the coarse blanket she had thrown about her shoulders. She shivered a little as she looked around her.

"It has been a bitter night – the cold woke me when the fire got low," she said. "Tomlinson must have felt it horribly. I wonder where he's getting his breakfast? You shouldn't have let him go."

Leger laughed and leaned upon his axe. "I couldn't have stopped him, and I don't think you need worry. The cold is scarcely likely to hurt him – he's used to it. He is probably three or four leagues away down the trail by now."

"That isn't very far."

"It's tolerably good travelling in this country. Besides, nobody except Sewell and Ingleby has the faintest notion that he was here."

Hetty appeared reflective. "I wasn't quite sure about the corporal that night. He's too quiet and has eyes all over him. Still, I suppose Tomlinson has got away – of course, he must have done so. His running away would look very bad if they did get hold of him. Isn't that kettle boiling, Tom?"

Leger stooped above the fire, and then, straightening himself, suddenly stood still listening. He could hear the sound of the rapid, and nothing else for a moment or two, until a crackle of undergrowth came out of the gloom below. Then there was a tramp of footsteps coming up the trail, and Hetty turned to him sharply.

"Tom," she said, with a little gasp, "who can it be?"

Leger laid down the kettle he held in his hand. "The troopers, I'm afraid," he said.

The light was growing clearer, and they could see each other's faces. Hetty's was flushed and apprehensive, Leger's portentously quiet.

"They've come for Tomlinson," she said. "Tom, do you know why he threw Probyn in the creek?"

"I fancy I could guess. Tomlinson, however, never mentioned it."

"He wouldn't," and Hetty gasped again. "Tom, I'll never forgive you if you let the troopers know anything about him."

"I really don't think that was necessary," said Leger, with a faint, dry smile.

Hetty clenched one hand tight. "Oh," she said, "can't we run away?"

Leger turned and pointed to a shadowy figure that materialized out of the gloom among the trees below. There were others behind it, and the two stood still watching them as they came quickly up the trail. Then they stopped at a sharp word, and a man in a big fur-coat stepped forward. Hetty had no difficulty in recognizing him as Esmond.

"Are you willing to tell me where Prospector Tomlinson is? It would be the wisest thing," he said.

"I don't think that is quite the point," answered Leger quietly. "You see, I don't know."

"Then I'll ask you where he went when he left here last night?"

"You fancy he was here?"

Esmond made a little sign of impatience. "I should like to warn you that a good deal depends upon the way you answer me. You probably know that the person who hides a murderer or connives at his escape is liable to be tried as an accessory."

Leger stood silent a moment or two. It seemed rather more than probable that Esmond had only supposed it likely that Tomlinson had visited the bakery; but that did not greatly matter after all. His course was clear, and that was to allow the officer to believe as long as possible that Tomlinson was in the vicinity. Every minute gained would be worth a good deal to the fugitive.

"I scarcely think I need worry myself about that," he said. "You see, before you could charge me as an accessory you would have to prove that Tomlinson really killed Probyn. It's tolerably clear that you can't have a trial without a prisoner, and I don't mind admitting that Tomlinson isn't here."

Esmond smiled unpleasantly, and signed to one of the troopers, who went into the shanty. "He certainly isn't very far away. I have no doubt you could tell me where he would make for; but you do not seem to know that he was shot, and, we have reason to believe, badly wounded within a league of your house last night."

It was growing light now, and he saw the sudden horror in Hetty's eyes.

"If you have any control over your brother, Miss Leger, I think it would be wise for you to use it," he said. "You would not like him to get himself into trouble?"

Hetty straightened herself a little. "If he knew where Tomlinson was and told you, I'd be ashamed of him forever – but he doesn't," she said.

Esmond glanced at her sharply. She stood very straight, regarding him with a set, white face, and it was evident that she was resolute. Then he turned to Leger.

"Are you willing to expose your sister to a very serious charge?" he asked.

Again Leger stood silent, but when he glanced at her a little flash showed in Hetty's eyes.

"You daren't disgrace us both. Remember, it was all my fault," she said.

Then Leger turned to the officer. "I do not know where Tomlinson is. That is all I have to tell you."

Esmond raised his hand. "Then I arrest you both for concealing Prospector Tomlinson and contriving his escape. You will hand them over to Robertson at the outpost, Trooper Grieve, and then come on after us as fast as you can. I don't wish to submit either of you to any indignity, Leger, unless you are likely to make it necessary."

Leger's face turned crimson, but he made a little sign of comprehension. "We will make no attempt to get away."

Esmond signed to the trooper, who pointed somewhat shamefacedly to the shadowy path among the pines as he swung his carbine to the trail. Then Hetty and Leger moved on in front of him, while Esmond and the others vanished into the bush. It was almost daylight now, and the troopers spent some time tracing Tomlinson's footsteps between the trunks. They also found the thicket where he had flung himself down, but that, after all, told them very little, and both the bye-trail and the larger one were tramped too hard for his worn-out boots to leave any recognizable impression.

It was, however, evident that Tomlinson could have adopted only one of two courses. If he had escaped uninjured he would certainly head for the settlements along the beaten trail, down which a trooper had been sent already; but no wounded man could face that arduous journey, and assuming that the corporal's shot had taken effect, he would, as a matter of course, be lurking somewhere in the valley. In that case the trailing of him could only be a question of a day or two, for even if he could face the bitter frost in the open he must have food, and there would be no difficulty in tracing the footsteps of any one who brought it to him. The one question was whether Tomlinson was badly hurt, and as the corporal, who fancied so, could not be quite sure, Esmond pushed on southwards along the trail. If Tomlinson had not headed in that direction he was in the valley, and, if so, he certainly could not get away.

As a matter of fact, he was just then lying weak from loss of blood in a little, decrepit shanty on an abandoned claim. He had contrived to reach one of the miners' dwellings late the previous night, though he was never quite sure how he accomplished it, and fell in across the threshold when its astonished owner opened the door. The man, however, kept his head, and within an hour Tomlinson was carried to the claim in one of the more distant gorges, where it appeared a little less likely that Esmond would lay hands on him. Now he was huddled half-sensible, in his blanket upon a pile of cedar twigs, with Ingleby and a young American, who had just dug out a carbine-bullet which had badly smashed his shoulder-blade, sitting by his side. Ingleby did not know whether his companion was a qualified surgeon; but he had, at least, contrived to cut out the bullet and stanch the wound. He appeared a trifle anxious about his patient.

"The shock would have dropped a man raised in the cities right off, but I think we'll pull him round," he said. "Still, it's not going to be done in a day or two."



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