Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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"Where's that case of yours?" asked one of the men.

Ingleby glanced behind him, and then laid down the blackened can of tea he held and rose unsteadily.

"You haven't got it," he asked hoarsely, "none of you?"

There was a little sardonic laughter, and one of the others said, "I guess we've got 'most enough without humping another case along for anybody."

"Then I must have left it where I fell into that juniper this afternoon."

He shook his galled shoulders, which were bleeding through the shirt that was glued to them, and he winced as the movement tore it from the wound. Then he turned slowly away from the fire.

"Hold on. Where are you going?" said one of the men.

"Back for the case. If I'm fortunate, I may make camp before you start to-morrow."

He stopped for just a moment, and looked back at the fire with a fierce physical longing in his eyes, for all that was animal in him craved for food and the rest of repletion. Sewell, he saw, was lying half-asleep, with a partly consumed flapjack fallen from his hand.

"Now, see here," said somebody, "we can't wait for you. Unless we get down out of the frost into thick timber by to-morrow night, it's quite likely one or two of us will stay up here altogether. You've got a straight warning. Let the blame thing go."

Ingleby said nothing. He knew that if he dallied his flesh would master him, and he limped out of the firelight with a groan. The red flicker faded suddenly, and he was alone on a great sloping waste where a few dwarf firs and junipers were scattered, black as ink on a ground of blinking white, under the big coppery moon. There was a pain in every joint, the rag wound about one hand was stiff, and he dare not move his shoulders now, while at every step the torturing boot ate into his flesh. That was all he remembered, for he could never recall afterwards much of what he felt and did that night.

He was not back at the camp next morning, and when his comrades had waited an hour or two they moved on slowly without him. One can live in the open under a greater cold than they were called upon to face, that is, if one is provided with costly furs and sleeping bags to suit it; but there are reasons why the prospector usually has neither, and there was no more endurance left in the men. Ingleby, however, would, at least, have no difficulty in picking up their trail, and unless they made shelter that night it seemed very probable that some of them would freeze. They found it at the foot of the mountain wall in a thick belt of young firs where the jumper-sledges and two or three axes had been left, and that night they lay in comfort about the fire with a kettle of strong green tea in their midst, and the springy cedar and spruce twigs piled high about them. Two of them, however, were not there, for Sewell had gone back in search of Ingleby.

It was snowing a little, and there was no moon visible, while, though the rest of the journey down the valley would, by comparison, be easy, now they had the sledges, the men were curiously silent as they lay about the fire.

Nobody seemed disposed to sleep, and the kettle had been emptied when one of them glanced round at the rest.

"If he doesn't come in by to-morrow I'm going back," he said.

"I guess it mightn't be much use to-morrow," said a comrade. "If I could get a move on me I'd go to-night, but I'm not sure I can. What d'you say 'he' for, anyway? There's two of them."

The men were dead-weary, too dazed with fatigue almost to think. Nor was there one of them anxious to make the effort, which if successful might drag him from his rest. Thus they were willing to be led away from the point at issue, which was what might have happened to Ingleby.

"Well," said the first speaker, "Sewell's a smart man, and he means well, but I hadn't quite remembered him. When I was broke, and hadn't a dollar's worth of dust to get the truck I had to have from the freighter, Ingleby went bond for me. He don't know a good deal more than he has any use for, like the other man, but he's there when he's wanted. That's the kind he is. I'll give him another half-hour. Then I'm going back for him."

There was a drowsy murmur of concurrence. Sewell was liked in the Green River valley, and no man doubted his sincerity; but that was, after all, not quite enough, for it is, though somewhat difficult of comprehension, a fact that the dwellers in the wilderness, who see fewer of their fellowmen, have usually a clearer insight into the primitive essentials of human character than the men of the cities. They do not ask too much of it, but on certain points their demand is inexorable, and it is very seldom that a simply meretricious quality goes far with them. Ingleby was not a genius, he blundered in details, and he had few graces; but they believed in him.

The half-hour had almost passed when one of them sharply raised his head, and, though few other men would probably have heard anything, the rest shook themselves to attention. High up on the range above them there was a soft pattering in the snow, which grew louder, until they could hear two men stumbling down the steep hillside. After that there was a snapping of twigs among the firs, and Sewell strode into the red light with his hand on Ingleby's shoulder. The latter's face was grey, and he staggered until somebody seized him and dragged him down beside the fire. Then he blinked at them out of half-closed eyes.

"I got the case," he said.

"That's all right," said a man soothingly as he loosed the straps about his shoulders and lifted the case aside, but Ingleby turned upon him savagely.

"Put it there, – you! I want to see it. It's hers," he said.

His voice was strained and broken, and Sewell did not hear all he said.

"Get him some tea and flapjacks. I think he's a little off his head," he said.

XXIX
ESMOND'S HANDS ARE TIED

Grace Coulthurst had not long cleared the evening meal away, but she was already waiting Esmond's departure with an impatience which was somewhat difficult to hold in check. He had come across from the outpost while she was occupied with the task, and that in itself would have been sufficient to displease her, but there were also other causes for the strain upon her temper. Miss Coulthurst had not expected to fare luxuriously in the Green River country and had hitherto borne the necessary discomforts exceptionally well; but of late she had been actually hungry, which, in her case, was as unpleasant as it was unusual.

There was still a store of flour and salt-pork in the Gold Commissioner's house, but there was practically nothing else, and the pork was rancid, while Grace had a very rudimentary acquaintance with the art of cookery. As one result of this, she had risen unsatisfied from each untempting meal, and, brought up as she had been, the deprivation had its effect on her physical nature, though she felt the isolation which had succeeded the blockade even more. Of late the company of Ingleby or Sewell had become almost a necessity, while she had naturally not seen either of them since the miners made their protest. Coulthurst had also been a trifle difficult to get on with. He was not addicted to indulgence, but neither was he particularly abstemious, and tea brewed from leaves which had been infused once or twice already was not a beverage he appreciated or one that tended to make him more companionable.

He lay somewhat wearily in a big deck-chair beside the stove with an unlighted cigar in his hand, while Esmond sat opposite him with an unpleasant look in his face.

"There is nothing to be gained by hiding the fact that I'm a little anxious about the state of affairs, sir," he said. "The scoundrelly miners are still apparently as far from giving in as ever, and, unpleasant as it is to admit, they have the upper hand."

"It looks like it," said the major drily. "I suppose you haven't thought of making a compromise? Nobody's hurt as yet, and I fancy they would be satisfied if you met them with regard to Tomlinson. You're not bound to send a man up for trial unless it's reasonably evident that he's guilty, and I don't believe Tomlinson did the thing, myself. Couldn't you hold a kind of informal inquiry, and give the boys an opportunity for proving him innocent?"

A vindictive sparkle crept into Esmond's eyes. "And permit a rabble of that kind to teach me my duty? I'm afraid not. Even if I wasn't sure the man was guilty, which I am, the thing would be out of the question."

"You feel warranted in calling all of them – rabble?" asked Grace.

"I do. Every one of them. Their leaders, in particular, belong to that most intolerable class to be found anywhere – the half-taught proletariat, with just enough education to increase their natural unpleasantness and inspire them with a hatred of their superiors. That, however, is not quite the point."

The blood rose to the girl's face, but remembering that the major occasionally displayed some little penetration she contrived to keep silent, though this was by no means easy. Coulthurst, however, nodded.

"I scarcely think it is," he said, with a trace of dryness. "As I pointed out once before, you do not seem to remember that I occasionally had Mr. Sewell and Ingleby here."

"I'm afraid I didn't – I'm sorry, sir," said Esmond. "Of course, I should have done so. One could almost have fancied that they were here frequently."

Again Grace said nothing, though it cost her a stronger effort, and the major did not appear to notice the younger man's sardonic smile.

"Since you don't seem to care for my suggestion, have you any notions of your own?"

"I haven't, which is partly why I came to you. If I could only find a way of getting word to Victoria and a few more troopers in, it would be easy to bring them to reason. As it is, I have sense enough to realize that nobody would thank me for forcing a contest that could only end in disaster and the subsequent sending up of a battalion of Canadian militia. The miners are twenty to one, you see."

Again Coulthurst nodded. "You are right in one respect," he said. "Personally, I shouldn't care to undertake the thing with less than three or four strong companies, and I'm not sure I could get in then. Well, since a compromise appears out of the question, you can only wait events."

"That is the difficulty. I can't wait too long. We're on full rations still, but stores are getting low and certainly won't last until the thaw sets in. Of course, if affairs had been different, I could have hired enough of the fellows to break out a trail."

Perhaps the major did not intend it, but he looked at Grace, and saw comprehension of his thoughts in her eyes. They were not on full rations, or anything approaching it, at the Gold Commissioner's house, and a few of the comforts Esmond could have spared would have been worth a good deal to them. He was in some respects not an ungenerous man, but though he must, Grace fancied, have seen how meagrely they fared, such a course had evidently never suggested itself to him, and in that fact lay the sting. He rose to go, in another minute or two, but just then there was a knocking at the door, which swung open a moment later, and Grace gasped as she saw Ingleby standing on the threshold with a heavy case in his hands.

His garments were ragged, and his gauntness showed through them. His face was worn, and darkened by exposure to the frost, but his eyes were steady, and he glanced at the girl with a smile. There was a curious silence for a moment or two until he turned to the major.

"May I come in, sir?" he asked.

Coulthurst regarded him sternly. "You could scarcely expect me to welcome a man in arms against his country."

"No," said Ingleby. "Not as a friend. That would be unreasonable. Still, I have a little explanation to make, and it is a bitter night to keep the door open. With your permission!"

He swung round and closed it, after which he laid down the case, and Grace felt a thrill of appreciation as she watched him. His self-possession appealed to her.

"You have come – alone?" asked the major.

"Of course!" said Ingleby.

Esmond smiled, though there was no good-humour in his eyes, and, as if inadvertently, dropped his hand on his hip. His uniform was raised a trifle there, in a fashion which suggested that a pistol lay beneath it.

"Wasn't that a little rash?" he asked. "Can you point out any reason why I shouldn't arrest you?"

"I fancy I can," and Ingleby made a gesture of impatience. "For one thing, if you attempted to lay hands on me or reached for your pistol I should fling you out into the snow. That, of course, isn't in good taste to say in another man's house; but it may save everybody unpleasantness, and, in any case, I'm one of the proletariat from whom too much is not expected."

There was a harshness in his voice and a glow in his eyes which seemed to indicate that he was perfectly willing to make his promise good, while, though his attitude was certainly not all that conventionality demanded, it was, at least, natural in the circumstances, and Grace was not displeased by it. Esmond, perhaps because he recognized the necessity for displaying his superior training, kept his temper, and Coulthurst watched them both, with a little grim smile.

"I haven't the least intention of indulging in an exhibition of that kind, which would be quite unnecessary," said the police officer. "There is a trooper within call who has a carbine."

"I saw him, though, being a policeman on duty, he naturally did not see me. What would you gain by calling him?"

"I think he and I between us could take you to the outpost."

"You might. I haven't a weapon of any kind with me, but what then? Two of my comrades know where I am, and you would have thirty or forty armed miners inquiring for me before morning. It is, of course, quite plain that you can't afford to force an outbreak of that kind."

Esmond realized that this was true. Ingleby, it was evident, held the cards and was quite aware of it. He wisely said nothing, though his face grew hot, and there was a wicked look in his eyes. Then Ingleby turned to the major again.

"What I have to say is not in the least important, and will not keep you a minute, sir," he said. "Still, there are reasons why I would sooner Captain Esmond didn't hear it."

"I believe he was going when you came in," said Coulthurst reflectively.

The hint was plain enough, and Esmond moved towards the door, while Ingleby, who stood between him and his fur-coat, handed the coat to him. Then as the officer went out he lifted a partly-filled flour-bag in from the veranda, and, when he had closed the door, laid it with the case on the table.

"Won't you sit down?" Grace said quietly.

Ingleby looked at Coulthurst. "I scarcely think Major Coulthurst would object to anything you suggest, but I am in his hands."

"Sit down – and be hanged to you!" said the major, whose face grew suddenly red. "Do you suppose I enjoy the position you have forced me into?"

Ingleby did as he was bidden. "I came across this case at the settlement, sir, and was told it was for you. From what the storekeeper said I fancied Miss Coulthurst would be pleased to have it, and that you wouldn't mind my bringing it up with me."

"You were at the settlement?" and Coulthurst glanced at him almost incredibly. "Perhaps you know Esmond sent down two or three troopers, and they couldn't face the snow?"

"Yes, sir. You will probably understand why I preferred not to mention it in Captain Esmond's presence."

"The box is proof that you were there – but how the devil you managed it is more than I know. The troopers certainly couldn't."

"They didn't go the right way," said Ingleby drily.

"Then there is another one?" and Coulthurst flashed a sharp glance at him.

"As a very little reflection would show you that there must be, there is no use in running away from the question. Besides, I feel I'm safe in your hands, and, while circumstances continue as they are, Captain Esmond couldn't profit by any conclusions you might come to. Shall I open the case for you, sir?"

The major made a little sign, and Ingleby, crossing to the hearth, picked up the rock-drill, which served as poker, and contrived to prize up the lid with it.

It was a trifling action, but it was characteristic; and Grace noticed that he made use of the thing that was nearest without troubling anybody to find him a more suitable implement. Then he laid out the contents of the box upon the table, and the girl's face softened as she watched him. The little comforts in themselves were worth a good deal to her just then, but the fact that he had thought of her was worth far more. The major, however, appeared a trifle disappointed, and she fancied she knew what he was looking for. Ingleby seemed to know it, too, for there was a suggestion of a smile in his eyes. Leaning one elbow on the table she looked at him with her rounded chin in the palm of one hand.

"Whichever way you went you must have crossed the range," she said. "That box was heavy. How did you carry it?"

"On my back," said Ingleby. "That is the usual way. We had sold all the horses off to the freighter for a few dollars quite a while ago. Of course, as I hadn't asked your permission, it was a liberty."

Grace made a little gesture. "What did you go down to the settlement for?"

"Provisions."

"But nobody could carry many of them over the mountains."

"I think I managed forty pounds," said Ingleby incautiously. "Most of the boys had considerably more."

The clear rose colour crept into Grace's cheeks, and she did not trouble to prevent his seeing it. She knew what the simple admission meant, and that it must have cost him toil incredible to make that journey with a double burden. It was for her he had borne it.

"And the box?" she asked.

Ingleby's embarrassment was evident, and she turned to the major with a curious little laugh and a faint ring in her voice.

"Do you understand what Mr. Ingleby has done?" she said. "He has carried that box besides his own load up from the settlement – over the mountains – so that we should not suffer for anything."

Coulthurst also appeared embarrassed. In fact, his face was distinctly red. "I'm very much obliged to him," he said. "It's devilishly unfortunate you got drawn into that outpost business, Ingleby. Excuse me, Grace, it is – unfortunate. Can't you see how you have placed me? As a man who has served his nation, even though he has been kicked for it, I can't very well – "

He stopped a moment, still a trifle flushed, and then broke into a little laugh. "Well," he said, "you're too strong for me – I'll capitulate. You know the ground I ought to take as well as I do; but it's more than could reasonably be expected of any man, under the circumstances. Still, that storekeeper fellow might have put in something a little more exhilarating than tea."

Ingleby opened the flour-bag with something as nearly approaching a grin on his gaunt face as was compatible with the deferential attitude he had assumed.

"I feel a little diffident about the next proceeding, sir," he said. "In fact, it is a piece of almost intolerable presumption on the part of a man setting constituted authority at defiance, as I'm afraid I am. Still, you see, people must eat and drink, in any case."

He took two carefully wrapped bottles out of the bag, and the major's eyes twinkled, while as he spread out the rest of its contents Grace felt her heart grow very soft towards him. He had, it seemed, thought of everything that could minister to her comfort. Then she saw that he had guessed what she was thinking, and his honesty became apparent.

"The storekeeper had his wife there," he said. "I had a little talk with her."

"It is to be hoped she didn't drink whisky of that kind," said the major, with a chuckle. "You couldn't get anything better in a Montreal club."

Ingleby laughed. "I fancy some of my comrades have belonged to associations of the kind, and a good many of them have cultivated tastes," he said. "As a matter of fact, they can afford them."

"Will you be good enough to tell me how much those things cost?" asked the major.

"If you insist. In fact, there's an invoice here. Still, after the little kindnesses you have shown me I would much sooner not let you see it."

Coulthurst looked at him sharply, and then, reaching out, laid his hand upon the grocery bill. After that he rose and went into the adjoining room, and when he came back he handed Ingleby a cheque on a Vancouver bank. Grace watched the miner curiously as he did so.

"Now you have relieved your feelings, sir, I can make what use I like of what is my own," he said.

He crossed the room and flung the paper into the fire, then turned with a little smile to the major. It was a bold step, and the boldness of it appealed to the girl. She understood it as an assertion of equality, something he owed to himself, and withal it was done with deference and not aggressively. For a moment Coulthurst gazed at him in astonishment. Then he laughed, and made a little sign of comprehension.



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