Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"You may be asked to remember that," said Esmond drily. "Do you mind explaining why you felled this tree?"

"I think the man who answered you already made that clear. To prevent anybody's getting over. Once you recognize that it would be difficult to do it without our permission, we'll go a little further."

"Then you are deliberately placing obstacles in the way of the police carrying out their duty? I warn you that it may turn out a serious matter."

Sewell laughed. "I'm not sure the question is a very happy one. It is rather too suggestive of Monday morning in England. Still, I suppose what we mean to do amounts to that, although we will have pleasure in permitting you to enter the valley when you wish, on one or two perfectly reasonable conditions."

"It remains to be seen whether you can keep us out." Esmond raised his voice a trifle. "Climb up on that log, Trooper Grieve, and let me know who Prospector Sewell has with him," he said. "You have authority to fire on anybody who tries to prevent you."

It seemed to Ingleby that Esmond had displayed a good deal of tact. He was aware that in an affair of the kind the right start counts for a good deal, and that if the miners permitted the trooper to survey their position it might lead to an unwished-for change in their attitude. If they did not, it would make them the aggressors, and there was the further difficulty that they would probably shrink from offering violence to a single man.

"The trooper must not be hurt, boys, but he must not get up on the log," he said, and turned to Sewell with a little gesture of deprecation.

Sewell nodded. "You're right – if we can manage it," he said.

In the meanwhile the young trooper was walking towards the barrier. Ingleby surmised that he had no great liking for his task, but beyond the fact that he was holding himself unusually straight, and looking steadfastly in front of him, he showed no sign of it. The moonlight was on his face, and it was almost expressionless.

"Stop right where you are," said one of the miners sharply. "I guess you'd better!"

The trooper did not stop, nor did he answer. If he had his misgivings as a human being, he was also a part of the great system by which his nation's work is done and its prestige maintained; and he went on with stiff, measured strides which suggested the movements of an automaton. A handful of men behind the log, and another handful standing in the moonlight on the gleaming snow, stood silently watching him, and most of them felt an almost unpleasant sense of tension.

Then he came to the branches, and stopped a moment, as though uncertain what to do. His carbine presented the difficulty, since to scramble over that tangle of branches and twigs both hands would be necessary. Then he slung it behind him, and every one could hear the sharp snap of the clip-hook through the bitter air. After that there was a crash as he plunged into a maze of dusky needles, and he was gasping when he emerged again.

He was, however, still coming on, crawling over branches, swinging himself under some of them, while two miners waited for him, intent and strung up, behind the log. When he reached it the top of the bark was almost level with his head, and, throwing an arm upon it, he essayed to draw himself up. At the same moment two pairs of sinewy hands seized his shoulders, and lifted him from his feet. Then there was a shout and a swing, and he was hurled backwards like a stone. He broke through the shadowy needles amidst a crash of snapped-off twigs, and there was a confused floundering in the darkness below. Then a head rose out of it, and the trooper stood straight in the moonlight upon the fork of a great limb, looking back towards his officer now.

"Am I to try again, sir?" he asked.

There was a burst of approving laughter from the miners, and the trooper sprang down from the branch and moved towards his comrades when Esmond made a sign, while a man who had been speaking apart with the latter suddenly stepped forward.

"It's the major," said one of the miners. "Give him a show. Come right along, sir. Nobody going to hurt you!"

Coulthurst made a little gesture with a lifted hand, and his remarks were brief.

"You'll gain nothing by making fools of yourselves, my men," he said. "The law is a good deal too strong for you. Now, try to tell me sensibly what is worrying you, and if it comes within my business I'll see what I can do."

Sewell stood up upon the log, and took off his big, shapeless hat. There was silence for a moment while the major looked at him.

"Mr. Sewell," he said gravely, "I'm sorry to see you here."

"I'm a little sorry myself, sir," said Sewell. "Still, that's not quite the point, and if you will listen for a minute or two I will try to make our views clear. They are really not unreasonable. In the first place we want Tomlinson tried here by his peers, which, although a little unusual, could, I think, be done. If Captain Esmond can prove him guilty, we will give him up, and he can get a regular court to confirm the verdict. Then we ask immunity for the men who held up the outpost, and one or two trifling modifications of the mining regulations which are probably within the discretion afforded you by your commission."

"It seems to me," said Coulthurst drily, "that you are asking a good deal. More, in fact, than you are likely to get. You insist on all that?"

"We feel compelled to do so, sir."

Coulthurst made a little sign and moved back to where Esmond stood. They conferred together, and the major spoke again.

"Captain Esmond is willing to promise that if you go home straightway no proceedings will be taken against any man for his share in this night's work. He will promise you nothing further, and I may say that in this I quite concur with him. I must warn you that what you are doing is a very serious thing."

"Then," said Sewell quietly, "there is nothing more to be said. We have strength enough effectively to prevent Captain Esmond from going any further up the valley. It would be better for everybody if he did not compel us to make use of it."

Esmond, who had been unusually patient hitherto, apparently lost his self-command.

"We will endeavour to whip the insolence out of you," he said. "By the time the thing is settled your leaders will be exceptionally sorry for themselves."

He drew back a little with the major, and they appeared to be talking earnestly for a space. It seemed to Ingleby that Esmond wished to chance an attack; but perhaps the troopers were worn-out, or the major recognized the strength of the miners' position, for at last he made a little sign, and the men moved back silently into the shadow of the pines. Then the tension slackened, and Ingleby shivered a little as he strode towards the fire.

"It's horribly cold, though I never felt it until a minute or two ago," he said. "Well, I suppose we are in for it now!"

Sewell laughed in a curious fashion. "I almost think so. Captain Esmond is not a very imposing personage in himself, but he stands for a good deal, you see. Still, it's tolerably evident that he will not trouble us any more to-night."

A few minutes later another miner climbed up on the log, and the rest lay down, rolled in their blankets, about the crackling fire.

XXVIII
SNOWED IN

Two months passed almost uneventfully after the felling of the tree, for Esmond found no means of forcing the entrance to the valley. The ca?on furnished the only road to it, and he found a band of determined men ready to dispute his passage each time he appeared before the tree. A company of sappers could scarcely have raised them a more efficient defense than the one they had made at the cost of an hour's labour with the axe, and Esmond reluctantly recognized that it was practically unassailable by the trifling force at his command. An attempt to carry it by assault could only result in his handful of men being swept away, and strategy proved as useless, for when the troopers floundered upstream at night through the crackling ice-cake in the slacker flow of the rapid they came to a furious rush of water, and with difficulty gained the bank again. An attempt to crawl up to the barrier in the darkness resulted as unsuccessfully, for a man leapt up upon the log with a blazing brand almost as they left the shelter of the pines.

The getting in was also only half the difficulty, for even if he passed the barrier the miners could muster a score of men for every one he had. It was thus apparently useless to provoke actual hostilities. The cards were evidently in Sewell's hand, and it was clear that he recognized this and had his men in perfect command. Not a shot had been fired – indeed, no miner had actually been seen with a rifle – and the only act of overt violence was the hurling of Trooper Grieve from the log. In the meanwhile Esmond had written to the Provincial authorities in Victoria, but two different troopers who set out with his letters came back again. The snowfall had been abnormal, and, though they were hard men, they admitted that to force a way through the passes was beyond their ability. As one result of this, Grace Coulthurst had abandoned all idea of going to Vancouver.

In the meanwhile work was being carried on slowly and painfully in the valley, where the men thawed the soil with great fires on the shallow claims and postponed the washing until the ice should melt again. Between whiles they mounted guard behind the log, and slept when they could. They were as far from submission as ever, but the tension had slackened long ago, and there was nothing but the breastwork to show that imperial authority was being quietly set at nought in the Green River valley. It was merely a question whose provisions would hold out longest now; but the question was a vitally important one and one night three or four of the leaders sat discussing it in Sewell's shanty.

"So far, everything has gone very much as one could expect," he said. "The trouble will naturally come in the spring when Esmond can bring more troopers in. That is, of course, unless we can make terms before then, which is, I fancy, quite probable."

"And if we can't?" asked the American who had attended to Tomlinson. "That police captain shows very little sign of backing down."

"Then we'll have to bring over the men from Westerhouse," said Ingleby. "I think they'll come, and, because it will not be difficult to block out Slavin, who is in command of the police there, if he comes along after them, the position will be much the same as before."

He looked at Sewell, who, however, did not appear to have heard him.

"What's going to stop the other people from sending a whole regiment along?" asked the American.

"The British official character," said Sewell drily. "It wouldn't look well, you see, and it would hurt somebody's dignity to admit that it was necessary, – that is, of course, so long as we play our cards cleverly. This trouble would be regarded from the official point of view as merely a little temporary friction which could be got over if handled tactfully. Indeed, I shouldn't wonder if Esmond is quietly reprimanded for causing it; but one has to remember that if you persist in making our rulers see what they don't wish to, they're apt to display an activity that's likely to prove as unpleasant to men in our position as it is unusual. They don't want to move if they can help it, but somebody has to smart for it if they're forced to."

"That's quite right," said another man. "I remember Riel, and they'd have let him down again if he'd known enough not to aggravate them by killing that man at Fort Garry. Well, I guess we've no use for that while Esmond keeps his head, and the one question is what we're going to eat. It's quite certain I can't live on cedar bark. We want grub, and we've got to get it. There are men right here who could break a trail to anywhere."

"If we try the usual one we'll only clear it for Esmond to bring troopers in," said Ingleby.

That was evident to everybody, and there was silence until Sewell spoke again.

"I've been well up the south fork of the river looking for deer," he said. "The valley's level, and I didn't strike a rapid, while with the snow on the river one could keep clear of the timber. The slight thaw we had should make a good crust for travelling, and it wouldn't be much trouble to make a few jumper-sleds for the provisions. The difficulty is that whoever went would have to cross the divide from headwater and pick up the usual trail on the other side."

"Nobody has ever been over," said another man. "I've no use for crawling up precipices with a big flour-bag on my back."

"That might be because nobody has ever tried," said Sewell. "One advantage in going that way is that Esmond wouldn't know you had either gone out or come back again. We don't want to make a road for him." Then he turned to the American. "How's Tomlinson to-night?"

"Going very slow. The frost's against him. Wound won't heal, and half-rotten pork and bread isn't quite the thing to feed a sick man. He should have been on his feet quite a while ago."

There was a brief discussion, and as the result of it twenty men, of whom Ingleby was one, were fixed upon to make the attempt. They were all of them willing, and started two days later before the stars had paled, while every man in the valley, except those on guard behind the log, assembled to see them go, though Ingleby did not know that Hetty Leger stood a little apart from them watching the shadowy figures melt into the gloom beneath the pines. It was, everybody knew, by no means certain that all of them would come back again.

They made their way up-river, dragging a few rude sledges with them, and they crossed the big divide in the face of one of the blinding snowstorms that rage on the higher ranges most of the winter. That cost them a week of tremendous labour; and then they floundered through tangled muskegs, where the stunted pines that grew in summer out of quaggy mire had been reaped and laid in rows by the Arctic winds. Their branches were strewn about them, and the men smashed a way through the horrible maze, making, with infinite pains, scarcely a league a day. Still, the muskegs were left behind, and the ground was clearer in a big br?l?e where fire had licked up undergrowth and branches and the great trunks rose gauntly, charred and tottering columns. There they made as much as four leagues in a day through ashes and dusty snow, and at last came out on the trail to the settlement, dragging with them one man whose feet were frost-bitten. Nobody had crossed the divide before; but that was probably because nobody had hitherto been driven by necessity into trying, and now, as usually happens in that country, the thing attempted had been done.

The settlement was not an especially cheerful spot, consisting as it did of three or four log-houses roofed with cedar shingles which their owners had split, a store, and a frame hotel covered in with galvanized iron, though slabs of bark had been largely used as well. They, however, rested there several days, and they needed it, while the hearts of most of them sank a trifle at the contemplation of the journey home. They had set out light, but the store was crammed with provisions, which the freighter, who had somehow brought them there, had abandoned all hope of taking farther. It was evident they must each go back with a load which a man unaccustomed to the packing necessary in that country could scarcely carry a mile, and the hardiest prospector among them shrank from crossing the divide with such a burden. The thing, however, had to be done, and on the night before their departure they were arranging their packs in the store when the man who kept it pointed to a pile of bags and cases in a corner.

"That's the police lot, and I guess they'll want the grub," he said. "I can't quite figure why none of them have come in for it, but you could strike them for transport on anything you took along."

The reason Esmond had not sent down to inquire about his stores was, of course, quite plain to the miners; but nobody in that settlement knew which way they had reached it or what had happened in the Green River valley, and Sewell laughed.

"I am not," he said, "a freight-ox or a dromedary, and the rest of us have already got a good deal more than any one could reasonably expect them to carry."

The storekeeper glanced at a stout deal box. "Well," he said, "I guess there's not much more than twelve pounds in there, and it's for the major – tea and coffee and some special fixings from Vancouver. If he don't get it, he and Miss Coulthurst will come right down to drinking water. The freighter couldn't take more than a half-case of whisky in for him last time, and I guess that's not going to last the Gold Commissioner long."

Ingleby, who was acquainted with the major's habits, surmised that this was very probable, but it appeared of much less consequence than the fact that Grace might also have to do without even the few small comforts it had hitherto been possible to bring into the Green River country. He no longer remembered the galling of the pack-straps or the tremendous struggle over the big divide, but laid his hand upon the box.

"We'll manage this one, anyway," he said. "I'll take it along with me."

Then, turning at the sound of a step, he saw that Sewell, who had followed apparently with the same purpose, was looking at him.

"Well," he said, "what do you want?"

"You can't take that case," said Sewell. "My pack's lighter."

Ingleby was a trifle astonished. "I was first," he said. "Is there any special reason why you should have it instead of me?"

Sewell laughed, though his tone was not quite his usual one.

"No," he said. "If one must be candid, I scarcely think there is."

It had never occurred to Ingleby that his comrade might have set himself to gain Miss Coulthurst's favour and in a measure succeeded. He would have thought the notion preposterous in view of Sewell's opinions, and he smiled good-humouredly.

"It really doesn't matter. I wouldn't have let you have it, anyway," he said, and drew the storekeeper aside.

They started at daybreak next morning, and before they had gone a league Ingleby found that the extra twelve pounds made his burden almost insupportable. Still, he set his lips and bore it, taking a grim pleasure in the nip of the straps that galled his shoulders as he remembered for whom he was carrying the box. They were raw, and he was worn-out when the men made camp beneath a towering fir as the coppery sun went down, but it was very much worse on the morrow when he rose with aching limbs from the frozen soil to start again. Somehow he kept his place with the others throughout that weary day and the ones that dragged by after it, though when he remembered them afterwards the blurred pictures his fancy called up were like an evil dream of fatigue and pain.

They sank ankle-deep in ashes in the br?l?e, rent their limbs and garments smashing through the muskeg, melted the snow with their camp-fires by lakes and streams whose shores even the wandering prospector's foot had scarcely trodden, and slept, or lay awake shivering, with boots in the embers and half-frozen bodies radiating like spokes from the hub of crackling fire, while the smoke, which was sharp with the sting of the resin, curled about them. Ingleby's shoulders bled daily and troubled him seriously in the frost at night, a seam of his boot had fretted a raw place across his foot, and in the bitter mornings the cold struck deep and keen. Twelve pounds more count for a good deal when the burden is already all that its bearer is fit to carry, and the effort drained the store of heat in his worn-out body and left nothing for the up-keep of its vitality. That heat is the source of energy everybody knows, but only those who have taxed every muscle in the cold of the Northwest realize the fact's full significance. The man who has tried his strength too hard in the Arctic frost may char his boots in the camp-fire, but he cannot get warm. To add to his troubles, Ingleby had no proper mittens, and when the one extemporized from a strip of flour-bag burst, the hand with which he clutched the pack-straps split at every finger joint and at that temperature a sore will rarely heal.

The others were not in much better condition, though day by day the line of weary men stumbled on in a silence that seemed the grimmer for the burst of anathemas from the one or two of them who had to be dragged up from the fire and brutally shaken into wakefulness when the hour to resume the journey came. Then they came to the tremendous barrier of the divide, a rampart of ice and snow which even in summer no man new to that country would attempt to climb.

It cost them a day to make the first thousand feet or so, and then they lost count of the rest, during which they dragged themselves upward from dwarf pine to pine or crawled along scarped slopes with the peaks still above them. They were waist-deep in snow when they crossed the ridge through the gap of a ravine down which all the winds of heaven apparently rioted, but they fought their way foot by foot, and were floundering down the farther side when Ingleby, who was staggering, grey in face, behind the rearmost of them, lost his footing and rolled down a declivity. He brought up with a crash in a juniper, and rising, half-dazed, recovered his legitimate burden and dragged himself on again. He could scarcely see the others, for his head was throbbing intolerably and his sight was dim, but it seemed to him that he was travelling a little more easily than he had done. It was, however, not until they lay beside a snapping fire that night with their packs piled behind them as a barrier to the bitter wind, that the reason for this became apparent.



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