Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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The fact was very evident, and Ingleby nodded. "How long do you think it will be before he can walk again?" he said.

"A month, anyway, and quite likely six weeks; that is, before you could let him start out on the trail. I don't quite know what we're going to do with him in the meanwhile."

Tomlinson, who appeared to understand him, looked up with his face awry.

"You're not going to do anything," he said half-coherently. "I'll give myself up. I can't stay here and make trouble for the boys."

"You go to sleep!" said the other man severely, and made a little sign to Ingleby, who sat silent for a minute or two after Tomlinson sank back again on the twigs.

"That's just the point," he said. "The boys don't mean to let the police have him?"

"No," and Ingleby's manner suggested that the subject was not worth discussion. "They wouldn't think of it for a minute. I'd have nothing more to do with them if they did."

The American nodded. "Well," he said, "I can pull the man round, but I'm not going to answer for what will happen if the troopers get hold of him. He's tough, but he wants looking after, and there's no one at the outpost knows more than enough to pull a stone out of a cayuse's hoof."

"You can take out a bullet, anyway," said Ingleby suggestively.

"Oh yes. I'd have had quite a nice practice by this time if it had been convenient for me to stay in Connecticut. As it happened, it wasn't."

Ingleby looked at him steadily. "Tomlinson," he said, "is a friend of mine, and that, of course, implies an obligation. You, so far as I know, have had very little to do with him, and it seems only reasonable to warn you that you may get yourself into serious trouble by looking after him. The law is generally carried out in our country."

The American laughed. "I can take my chances. I'm not going back on a sick man, anyway."

They said nothing more for awhile until a man who had apparently been running came in.

"Where's Sewell?" he gasped.

"I don't know," said Ingleby. "He wasn't at home this morning. Most likely he's looking for a deer."

"Then I guess you'll have to do. Esmond has trailed Tomlinson to the bakery. He has got Hetty and Tom Leger at the outpost now."

Ingleby rose suddenly to his feet. "You're quite sure?"

"Well," said the other, "I guess I ought to be. I met them. Trooper Grieve didn't stop their talking, and they told me. Esmond tried to bluff where Tomlinson was out of them, and they're to stand in with him as accessories."

It was evident to Ingleby that since Sewell was away a heavy responsibility devolved upon him as a friend of Tomlinson and Leger. He was expected to do something, and, as usual, he did the obvious thing without counting what it would cost him.

"Where is Esmond?" he asked.

"Hitting the trail to the settlements all he's worth," said the other man.

"Then go round and let the boys know what you have told me.

They can meet outside Ransome's shanty. The dinner-hour will do. I'll be there to meet them."

The man went out, and at the time appointed Ingleby stood outside a little hut of bark and logs with a crowd of bronze-faced men about him. They were somewhat silent, but their manner was quietly resolute. It suggested that their minds were made up and that they were only waiting for a leader in whom they had confidence. Ingleby had gained their liking, but he was young, and they were not quite sure whether he would be the man or whether they must choose another. In the meanwhile they were willing to give him a hearing. It was evident that he was equal to the occasion when he stepped forward and looked at them with steady eyes.

"Boys," he said, "do any of you believe Tomlinson killed Trooper Probyn?"

There was a general murmur of dissent, and Ingleby made a little sign of concurrence. "Are you willing to let the troopers have him? You must remember that the thing looks bad against him, and he will not be tried by you."

The murmurs were articulate now, and it was very clear that not a man there had the least intention of giving up Tomlinson.

"Then it should be quite plain that you will have to keep the troopers from him. It is only a question of a day or two at the longest before they trail him. They may do it to-night. Esmond will very soon find out that he isn't pushing on in front of him for the settlements."

A big man stood forward, and glanced at the rest. "There's not a trooper in this valley going to lay hands on Tomlinson."

Again the murmurs rose portentously, and Ingleby smiled.

"Well," he said, "since the trouble can't be shuffled off, we may as well face it now. We have got to make a stand and maintain it until Esmond finds he has to humour us. He has Leger and his sister in the outpost. Do you know any reason why we shouldn't take them out?"

"I guess not," said the man who had spoken already. "Still, if there's any shooting, two or three of us are going to smell trouble as well as Tomlinson."

"There will not be any," said Ingleby. "Esmond has only two men at the outpost. Nobody wants to hurt them. The thing can be done without it. In fact, that's essential. I want three or four determined men."

They were forthcoming, but one of the rest asked a question.

"Have you figured what's going to happen when Esmond comes back?" he said.

"I have," said Ingleby. "He will have a handful of tolerably active men under his orders then, but only a handful, after all. Now, the outpost's outside the ca?on, and there's a spot where a log barricade would effectively block the trail. The troopers will have to be kept outside it until we can arrive at a compromise. Esmond will probably make it. It would be two months, anyway, before he could get more troopers in, and if there's another heavy snowfall it mightn't be done till spring."

None of those who listened could find fault with the scheme. It was evidently workable, and they had already decided that Tomlinson was not to be given up at any cost. That, as Ingleby had pointed out, would necessarily involve them in difficulties with the police. There was thus very little further discussion, and the men went back, a trifle thoughtfully, to their work until the evening.

It seemed to most of them a long while coming, and to none of them slower than it did to Hetty Leger, who sat with her brother in a very little, log-walled room at the outpost as dusk was closing down. Tom Leger, glancing at her as she sat huddled in a chair by the window, fancied that she was crying.

"Why did we come here, Tom?" she said. "Everything has gone wrong since we left Vancouver."

"The outlook certainly isn't very cheerful just now," said Leger, with a rueful smile. "Still, after all, you made a good many dollars at the bakery, and my claim is doing well. Ingleby will see that while I'm kept here the work is carried on. One can put up with a good deal of inconvenience when he's washing out gold-dust."

"Dollars!" said Hetty. "And gold-dust! Is there nothing else worth having?"

"Well," said Leger drily, "when you have no prospect of getting it, it's as well to content oneself with dollars. If I remember rightly you used to think a good deal of a shilling in England."

Hetty glanced at him sharply with hazy eyes. "What do you mean by – no prospect of getting it?"

"I don't quite know. You suggested the notion. Anyway, I scarcely think Esmond can make out very much of a case against us. He doesn't really know that Tomlinson was at the bakery."

"It isn't that that's worrying me. It's – everything," said Hetty.

"I don't think you need cry over Tomlinson. The boys will take care of him."

"I wasn't crying about Tomlinson. In fact, I'm not sure I was crying at all. Still, you see, it was all my fault."

Leger smiled whimsically. "Well," he said, "I scarcely think that should afford you any great satisfaction, though it almost seems to do so. No doubt it's part of a girl's nature to make trouble of the kind."

Hetty closed one hand. "I'm going to be angry in a minute. That's not the way to talk to any one who's feeling – what I am just now."

Leger rose and patted her shoulder. "I'd sooner see you raging than looking as you do. Shake the mood off, Hetty. It isn't in the least like you."

Hetty said nothing but turned from him and looked out of the little window. A young trooper was leaning over the rude balustrade of the veranda, and beyond him the sombre pines rolled down the darkening valley. Night had not quite fallen yet, though a half-moon that showed red and frosty was growing brighter above the white shoulder of a hill. Another trooper was apparently busy in the adjoining room, for they could hear his footsteps as he moved, but that was the only sound. Then a face rose suddenly into sight above the floor of the veranda where the trooper could not see it. It was a horrible, grey face, and Hetty shrank back, while her chair grated harshly on the floor. In another moment Tom Leger's hand closed tightly on her arm.

"Keep still!" he said. "It's a masked man. I fancy the boys have come for us."

Hetty looked again, and saw that a strip of deer-hide with holes cut in it was tied across the face. Then she became sensible that there was something suggestively familiar in the attitude of the man who, moving noiselessly, raised himself erect and stood watching the trooper, whose back was towards him.

"Oh," she gasped, "it's Walter!"

"Be quiet!" said Leger, and the grasp upon her arm grew tighter.

Another face appeared between the rails, but the first man had already swung one leg over them, and in another moment he sprang forward along the veranda. The trooper heard him and swung round, but even as he did so the newcomer flung his arms about him and they reeled together down the little stairway. Then the second trooper flung open the door, but as he ran out of it two or three men who had apparently crept into the veranda grappled with him, and Hetty could hear them tumbling up and down the adjoining room. Then there was a brief silence until somebody burst open the door of the room in which she was shut. A masked man who strode in grasped her shoulder, and she struggled vainly as he drew her towards the door.

"I won't go. It will only get you into worse trouble," she said.

The man laughed. "If I had to face it all my life, do you think I would leave you here?"

Hetty recognized the tension in his voice, and something that seemed to answer it thrilled in her; but she still protested, and the man, who flung an arm about her waist, swung her off her feet. He did not let her go until he set her down, flushed and gasping, among the pines outside.

Then she laughed. "I'm not sure you could have done that in England, Walter."

"No," said Ingleby. "Anyway, you wouldn't have let me, but we can't stop to talk now. Esmond may come back at any time, and there is a good deal to do." He turned from her suddenly. "You have got those fellows' carbines?"

"Oh yes," said another man. "We'd better bring along their cartridges and heave them in the river too. We haven't hurt either of them much, considering."

Ingleby signed to the rest, though he still held Hetty's arm. "Now," he said, "the sooner we light out of this the better it will be for everybody."

XXVII
THE BLOCKADE

The moon was high above the white peaks, and a stinging frost was in the air, when Ingleby and Leger sat a little apart from a snapping fire behind a great redwood trunk that had been felled across the trail in the constricted entrance to the ca?on. It was wide of girth, and lay supported on the stumps of several splintered branches breast-high above the soil, with the rest of its spreading limbs piled about it in tremendous ruin. On the side where the fire was some of them had been hewn away, and a handful of men lounged smoking in the hollow between them and the trunk. Another man stood upon the tree, apparently looking down the valley, with his figure cutting blackly against the blueness of the night.

Sewell leaned against a shattered branch a few feet away from Ingleby, gazing about him reflectively. He noticed that the great butt of the fir was jammed against the slope of rock that ran up overhead, too steep almost for the snow to rest upon it, and that the top of the tree was in the river some twenty yards away. The stream frothed and roared about it in a wild white rapid, though long spears of crackling ice stretched out behind the boulders, and there was a tremendous wall of rock on the farther side. It was absolutely unscalable, and from the crest of it ranks of clinging pines rolled backwards up a slope that was almost as steep.

It was evident that nobody coming from the police outpost or the commissioner's dwelling could approach the fallen tree except by the trail in front, and on that side the branches formed an entanglement an agile man would have some difficulty in scrambling through, even if nobody desired to prevent him, while two or three of the men beside the fire had rifles with them. The rest had axes. Sewell, who noticed all this, glanced towards them thoughtfully. He could not see their faces, but their silence had its significance, and there was a vague suggestion of resolution in their attitudes. Most of them were men of singularly unyielding temperament, who had grappled with hard rock and primeval forest from their youth up.

"It is a tolerably strong position, and it's the strength of it that particularly pleases me," he said. "If there were any prospect of his getting in Esmond would no doubt try it. As it is, he will probably find it advisable to stop outside and compromise."

"I'm glad you're satisfied," said Leger. "Still, it's a little unfortunate you were not here this morning. In that case we might have found some other means of getting over the difficulty, though I'm not sure that there was any."

Ingleby glanced sharply at Leger. His face was clear in the moonlight, and it was expressionless, but his tone had been suggestively dry, and for just a moment an unpleasant fancy flashed upon Ingleby. It was certainly unfortunate that Sewell, whom everybody looked to for guidance, had been away that day, and the fact might have had significance for any one who doubted him. Ingleby, however, had unshaken confidence in the man and thrust the thought from him. Sewell smiled as he turned to Leger.

"I was looking for a deer," he said. "Anyway, you had Ingleby."

"Ingleby," said Leger, "is usually where he's wanted. Some men have that habit. It's a useful one, though I'm afraid I haven't acquired it. In fact, I fancy I'm rather like Trooper Probyn. He was addicted to turning up just when it would have been better for everybody if he had stayed away."

He turned from them somewhat abruptly and strolled towards the men about the fire, while Sewell looked thoughtful as he filled his pipe.

"Leger doesn't appear to be in a particularly pleasant mood, but he's right in one respect," he said. "It would have been a good deal better if he and Hetty had been anywhere else when Esmond turned up at the bakery. Of course, they couldn't help it, but the result of it is going to be serious. It is not exactly convenient that the thing should have happened now."

Ingleby made a gesture of comprehension as he glanced towards the men about the fire. Their big axes gleamed suggestively, and the rifle of the man upon the tree twinkled coldly where the moonlight rested on the line of barrel.

"It's all of it unfortunate," he said deprecatingly. "I suppose I'm responsible – but I don't quite see what else anybody could have expected me to do. I couldn't leave Hetty in Esmond's hands. It was out of the question. The police wouldn't have much difficulty in making her out an accessory."

Sewell smiled. "That was all that occurred to you?"

"Yes," said Ingleby. "I think so. I don't seem to remember anything else. Anyway, it was sufficient."

He made a little forceful gesture which suggested even more plainly than what he said that the thought of leaving Hetty exposed to any peril was intolerable.

"And you inconsequently decided to put up a bluff of this kind on the British nation because Esmond might involve in difficulties a girl with whom you are not in love. I'm presuming you are not in love with her?"

Ingleby seemed a trifle disconcerted. "No," he said sharply. "Of course I'm not. What made you suggest it?"

Sewell laughed. "Well," he said, "for one thing, if you had been in love with her, you could scarcely have done anything that would have made the fact clearer."

There was silence for a minute or two, and Ingleby leaned upon the tree with his thoughts in confusion. He was not in love with Hetty Leger, but it was certainly a fact that her arrest had filled him with an almost unaccountable consternation. He also remembered the curious little laugh with which she had clung to him, and that it had stirred him as no trifling favour Grace Coulthurst had ever shown him had done. The commissioner's daughter had, however, certainly never leaned upon his shoulder with her arms about him, though he had on one occasion, when she was half-frozen, practically carried her into her father's dwelling. The thought of it was, in a curious fashion, almost distasteful, as well as preposterous. His regard for her was largely that of a devotee, an ?sthetic respect which would have made any display of purely human proclivities on the part of the goddess a trifle disconcerting.

There are men like Ingleby whose life is, partly from inclination and partly from force of circumstances, in some respects one of puritanical simplicity, especially in the back blocks of England's colonies; and, startled by Sewell's suggestion, he tried to reason with himself as he leaned against the tree. He remembered now how he had thrilled to the girl's touch as, half-crying and half-laughing, she had rested in his arms a few hours ago, and he could not admit the almost unpleasant explanation that this was because they were man and woman. Still, he had felt her heart beating upon his breast, and something in his nature had, it seemed to him, awakened and throbbed in response to it. It was, he felt, not sensual passion; it was not love, since it was Grace Coulthurst he loved; and his confusion grew more confounded as he vainly strove to classify it. Ingleby, as one who did the obvious thing, and was usually doing something unless he was asleep, had seldom been led into any attempt to unravel the complexities of human thought and emotion. Men of his temperament are as a rule too busy for anything of the kind. It is material facts that interest them, and their achievements are usually apparent and substantial, written in that country on hard rock and forest or on the orchards and wheatfields that smile where the wilderness has been.

"Well?" said Sewell at length.

Ingleby made a little gesture. "The thing is done. Why I did it doesn't, after all, greatly matter. We have the results of it to face just now."

"Precisely! That's why I'm pleased you chose a very convenient spot to chop the tree in. There's one of them becoming apparent already."

He pointed across the fallen log, and the man who stood upon it made a little sign. The tree was in the shadow, but beyond it lay a narrow strip of moonlit snow, upon which the dusky pines closed in again. A man moved out into the strip, walking cautiously, and carrying a carbine. He stopped abruptly, dropping the butt of it with a little thud, and, turning his head, he apparently glanced at somebody behind him.

"They've chopped a big tree right across the trail," he said.

His voice rang clearly through the nipping air, and Ingleby almost envied him as he stood unconcernedly still, a dusky, motionless object, with a blacker shadow projected in front of him on the gleaming snow. He, at least, had no responsibility, and was there to do what he was bidden, while the law would hold him guiltless. The brief and decisive attempt on the outpost had scarcely given Ingleby cause for thought, but it was different now. There was nothing exhilarating in standing still and wondering what course the police would take, while other men have felt misgivings when brought face to face with constituted authority with arms in its hand.

Sewell in the meanwhile moved quietly towards the fire.

"You will leave this thing to me, boys," he said. "Above all, keep your hands off those rifles. It's a bluff we're putting up."

By this time several other men had moved out upon the strip of snow, and one who came up from behind walked past them and stopped not far from the tree. Ingleby could see his face in the moonlight, and recognized him as Esmond. He looked up at the man who, though he had handed his rifle to a comrade, still stood upon the log regarding him quietly.

"Well," he said, "what are you doing there?"

"Seeing that nobody gets over," was the uncompromising answer.

Esmond laughed, as though he had partly expected this. "There are no doubt more of you behind there. If you have one, I would prefer to talk to your recognized leader."

Sewell sprang up upon the tree. "I think I can venture to claim my comrades' confidence," he said. "In any case, I am quite willing to accept the responsibility for anything that has been done."



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