Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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XXXI
BROKEN IDOLS

Coulthurst sat with a big hand clenched on the table and a grim look in his face when Sewell left him, nor did he turn his head until Grace, who came softly out of the inner room, sat down close by him.

"You can't come to terms, father?" she said.

"We can't," and there was an ominous sparkle in Coulthurst's eyes. "I'm not sure that I wish to now. In fact, I've borne quite as much as I'm willing to put up with from both of them, and there's some reason, after all, in Esmond's plan. He'll give them another week, and then we'll cut our way in."

"It's not your affair," and Grace started visibly. "You are the Gold Commissioner."

Coulthurst smiled. "I am also entitled to the rank of major, and that, after all, means a good deal."

Grace mastered her apprehension, for she realized the major's point of view and indeed concurred with it.

"There is no other way than the one you are thinking of?" she asked.

"There are two," said Coulthurst drily. "We can sit still and starve, or march out and leave the valley in the possession of the miners while we try to break through the snow. Neither of them, however, commends itself to Esmond or me."

"Of course!" said Grace, with a little flush in her face, which, however, faded suddenly. "But suppose one or two of the troopers were killed while you forced the barricade?"

"Then," said Coulthurst, "our friends Ingleby and Sewell would certainly be hung."

The major's terseness was more convincing than a great deal of argument, and Grace saw what she must do. The pride of station was strong in her, so strong, in fact, that she would never have come down to Ingleby's level. It was only because he had shown that he could force his way to hers – at least, as it was likely to be regarded in that country – that she had listened to him. When the grapple became imminent that pride alone would have driven her to take part with constituted authority instead of what she considered the democratic rabble. Then there was the peril to her father and to Ingleby. He must be saved – against himself, if it should be necessary.

"There are troopers at Westerhouse across the mountains?" she asked.

"I believe there is a strong detachment and a very capable officer."

Grace sat silent a moment before she spoke again. "Father," she said, "I want you to make a bargain with Reggie Esmond for me. On two conditions I am willing to tell you how he can bring those troopers in. You are to be the Gold Commissioner and peacemaker, but nothing else. As there will be two police officers, they will not want you as major. Then there must be an indemnity for Mr. Sewell and Ingleby."

Coulthurst gazed at her in blank astonishment. "You are quite serious? You mean what you say?"

"Of course! I can tell you – on those two conditions – how to bring the Westerhouse troopers in."

Coulthurst banged his hand down on the table. "Then I think there will be an end of the trouble – and the affair could be arranged to meet your views.

But however did you find the way into the Westerhouse country?"

Grace looked at him steadily, though there was a little more colour than usual in her face. "That does not concern Reggie Esmond or you. Hadn't you better go over and see him?"

It was getting late, but Coulthurst went straightway; and as the result of it Esmond and two troopers set out with a hand-sled early next morning for a certain peak that overhung a gorge through the barrier-range that cut off the Westerhouse country. He could not pass up the valley, but that was no great matter since the peak could be seen leagues away. It was a long journey, and he had intended going no farther than the gorge with the troopers, but he was not destined to get even there.

On the second day they came on a tree lying across their path with its branches interlocked among the shattered limbs of a neighbor so that the great trunk was sharply tilted, an obstacle which is frequently to be met with in that country. As the undergrowth all round was tall and thick, Esmond and one trooper swung themselves upon the log to see if they could find an opening, and made their way along it until they came to a branch where the trunk was high above the ground. The trooper crept round it, and then, as Esmond came after him, there was a crash and a shout, and the trooper who had stayed below saw his officer vanish amidst the rattling twigs. It was several minutes before they could reach him, and then he was lying, with a grey face, and with one leg changed in its usual contour and significantly limp. He looked up with a grin of pain when the first trooper bent over him.

"Gone at the thigh-bone. I felt it snap," he said. "Simpkin will get me home on the sled, but you'll go on, Grieve, and tell Captain Slavin how we are fixed. He will come in with every man available."

"I guess I'd better see you safe back, sir," said the trooper.

Esmond stared at him fiercely, though his face was awry with pain.

"You'll go on," he said.

Then he winced, and, moving a little, fell over with his face in the snow, and, because the boughs he had fallen among were thick, it was two hours before the troopers got him out and on the sled. It was not altogether astonishing that they managed to compound the fracture during the operation. After that Grieve pushed on alone, and he was, as it happened, from the wild bush of Northern Ontario, which, though the trees and rocks are smaller, is a very similar country. In the meanwhile Simpkin headed back for the valley with the sled, and it was not his fault that three nights of bitter frost overtook him on the way. Indeed, if he had not been an exceptionally resolute man, inured to fatigue, it is very probable that Esmond would have frozen before they reached the outpost. On the morning after they got there a trooper appeared before the miners' barricade without his carbine and hailed the men on guard.

"Have you brought along the American who fixed up Jackson's foot when he smashed his toes, boys?" he asked.

The man who had nursed Tomlinson climbed up on the log. "I'm here," he said. "Is anybody wanting me?"

"I guess Captain Esmond does," said the trooper. "He fell off a log two or three days ago, and his leg-bone has come right through. The corporal can't get it back inside him. If you can see your way to do anything, we'd be much obliged to you."

"Did Captain Esmond send you?"

"No, sir," said the trooper, "he didn't. He's way too sick to worry about anything."

The American smiled at Ingleby, who stood beneath him. "It's very probable! A compound fracture of the femur is apt to prove rather serious at this temperature, especially if our friend the corporal has been trying to reduce it. We don't owe the man anything, but I guess I'd better go along."

"Of course!" said Ingleby simply, and in another minute the doctor was on his way to the outpost with the trooper.

It was evening when he came back with news of Esmond's condition, which, it appeared, was serious, and Sewell forthwith set out for the Gold Commissioner's dwelling. He did not see Grace at all, and Coulthurst granted him only a two minutes' interview.

"It is quite out of the question that I should worry Captain Esmond now," he said. "Unless you are prepared to make an unconditional surrender, which I should strongly recommend, there is nothing I can do for you."

"That," replied Sewell, "is about the last thing we should think of doing."

He came back, and related what had passed to Leger and Ingleby. The latter looked thoughtful when he heard him.

"One could almost fancy by the change in his attitude that the major had something up his sleeve," he said.

"The game thing occurred to me, though I don't see what it could be. The accident to Esmond has probably upset him. Anyway, we have our own course to consider now."

"Since Esmond's not likely to worry us for awhile, we had better send all the men we can spare down for provisions, for one thing," said Leger.

It was decided on, and still Ingleby looked grave.

"That's all right as far as it goes, but it's only a side issue, after all," he said. "This state of things can't continue indefinitely, and Tomlinson doesn't seem to be getting much better, or we could have simplified the affair by getting him out of the valley. The winter's wearing through, and if nothing is done before the thaw comes we'll be in the troopers' hands. In the meanwhile there's an unpleasant probability of the freighter or somebody else finding his way in now we've broken out a trail. Have you thought about asking the boys at Westerhouse to join us?"

"No," said Sewell, with a momentary trace of embarrassment. "There are a good many reasons why it wouldn't be convenient."

"I should like to hear one or two of them," said Leger bluntly.

Sewell managed to think of several reasons, but none of them appeared altogether satisfactory when his comrades considered them. It was, however, evident that he was determined on not sending to Westerhouse, and they had to be content, though Leger looked very grave when the conference broke up.

"One could almost have fancied that Sewell had lost his nerve, and if I could send Hetty out of the valley it would be a big weight off my mind," he said.

The same thought had occurred to Ingleby, and it troubled him again that night as he kept his watch behind the tree, for he could not altogether understand the tense anxiety he felt about Hetty. She had scarcely been out of his thoughts since the night she fainted at the bakery, which, considering that he was in love with Grace Coulthurst, appeared an almost unnatural thing. There was no doubt that he was in love with the commissioner's daughter, he assured himself. All his hopes and projects for the future were built upon the fact; but he was commencing to realize vaguely that she appealed, for the most part, to his intellect, while he felt for Hetty a curious, unreasoning tenderness which was quite apart from admiration of her or her qualities. He puzzled over it that night, sitting still while the men slept about him under the stars, and then gave it up as beyond solution when one of them relieved him.

In the meanwhile Trooper Grieve had found the gorge through the barrier-range, and was pushing on through dim fir forests and over snowy hillsides for Westerhouse. Esmond lay half-insensible in the outpost, for fever and dangerous inflammation had supervened; but nobody told the American where the lieutenant was going when he fell from the tree or anything about Trooper Grieve. There was thus no apparent change in the state of affairs until one night, when every man who could be spared was away at the settlement, a stranger worn with travel was brought in by two miners. Sewell was standing with the others about the fire behind the tree, and Ingleby saw the colour sink from his face when it was told them that the stranger was from Westerhouse.

"You have got to do something right away," said the visitor. "Slavin's coming in with every trooper he can raise. He went round the way the trooper came, and I pushed on by the trail Sewell told us of to get in ahead of him. A few of the boys are coming along behind me."

There was a murmur of astonishment and consternation, and then a somewhat impressive silence, which Leger broke.

"You mean that one of the Green River troopers reached Westerhouse?" he said.

"That's just what I do mean. Your man sent him."

Leger looked hard at Sewell, who stood back a little in the shadow now.

"It isn't quite clear how he found the way, but, after all, we needn't worry about that in the meanwhile," he said. "You are still our acknowledged leader, Mr. Sewell. Hadn't you better ask him a question or two? We want to understand the thing."

Sewell stood still for almost a minute, and the men, who were tensely impatient, wondered at it and the hardness of Leger's voice. Then he sat down on a branch where the wood-smoke drifted between them and him.

"Try to tell us as clearly as you can what happened," he said.

"Well," said the stranger, "one of the Green River troopers came in badly played out, and when he asked us where the outpost was we took him along. After what you'd told us we guessed it meant trouble for you. It was dark then, and one of us crawled round to the little back window; but a trooper came round the house, and we lit out kind of quietly for the bush. Then a trooper started out on the trail as hard as he could hit it, and 'bout half an hour later Slavin came out in front of the outpost. 'I'm going away by and by – for my health – but I've sent to Clatterton Creek for two or three more policemen, and if you start any blame circus while I'm away, I'll see the boys who made it are sorry for themselves,' he said."

"The boys took it quietly?" asked Ingleby.

"Yes," said the stranger. "That's what they did. You see, the folks in Victoria had moved on Eshelby, and the new man was doing what he could for us within reason. Anyway, we hadn't heard from you, and the boys weren't going to make trouble for nothing when Slavin was there."

Again Leger glanced at Sewell, who said nothing, and then made a little sign to the speaker. "Nobody would expect it of them," he said. "Get on."

"Well," said the stranger, "when Slavin and his troopers lit out quietly 'bout an hour after, we got our packs made and came on after them. That is, a few of us who hadn't struck any dirt that was worth the washing. We were willing to take a hand in if we were wanted, because we heard of Hall Sewell before he came to Westerhouse. If he was in a tight place, we figured we'd stand behind him. He'd often done what he could for men like us."

Sewell made no sign, but leaned back, a shadowy figure, against the tree, and there was something in his silence that set Ingleby's nerves on edge.

"We kept 'most a league behind Slavin, and we had to get a move on at that," continued the speaker. "He wasn't wasting time. Then when we'd got through the range he broke off to the north, and we figured that was the way the trooper came. We let him go, and came right on by the trail Sewell told us of."

"How many are there of you?" asked Leger.

"Eight. They're 'most as cleaned out of grub and money as I am. We'd have sent you a hundred if you'd wanted them soon after Sewell came."

Ingleby laughed harshly, a jarring, hopeless laugh, and there was a murmur from the men.

"Our hand's played out. The contract was too big for us," said one of them. "What d'you figure on doing – now – Mr. Sewell?"

Sewell rose slowly, as though it cost him an effort, and, face to face with them, stood where the firelight fell upon him. The bronze had faded from his cheeks, and his glance was vacillating.

"Nothing in the meanwhile, boys," he said. "In fact, there is nothing we can do but try to extort some trifling concession from Slavin before we surrender to-morrow."

He stopped a moment, and looked at them with steadying eyes. "If we had Westerhouse behind us I would have asked you to make a fight for it. It would at least have been an easy way out of the tangle for one of us – but it would only mean useless bloodshed as it is. I can't get you into further trouble, boys."

His voice had been growing hoarser, and there was an uncomfortable silence when he stopped. This was not what the men had expected, and everybody seemed to feel that there was something wrong. Then Ingleby looked at Leger with a little bitter smile.

"Well," he said, "we have made our protest, and, as any one else would have foreseen, have found it useless. Established order is too strong for us. I never felt of quite so little account as I do to-night."

Leger nodded sympathetically. "That," he said, "isn't, after all, of any particular consequence – and I scarcely think it was quite our fault. Why didn't Sewell send over to Westerhouse?"

"I don't know," said Ingleby. "It doesn't matter now."

"Have you asked yourself how the trooper found his way across the range?"

Ingleby turned round on him suddenly. "What do you mean by that?"

"If you can't find an answer, I think you should ask Sewell. It seems to me you are entitled to know."

Ingleby met his eyes for a moment, and then the blood rushed to his face as he rose. He said nothing, but he saw Sewell leave the fire, and, turning abruptly, he moved on behind him up the little trail to the bakery, though he made no effort to overtake him. It was very dark beneath the pines, and he felt that he must see the man he had believed in. It seemed a very long while before he reached the bakery and, going in quietly, saw Hetty regarding Sewell with a flash of scornful anger in her eyes.

"Oh," she said, "it's perfectly plain to me! The girl tricked you. I knew she would."

Then she started as she saw Ingleby in the doorway, though the flush in her cheeks grew deeper and the little vindictive glow in her eyes plainer still.

"You heard me, Walter? Well, he knows she did. Look at him," she said.

"If you will go away for about five minutes, Hetty, I shall be much obliged to you," said Ingleby quietly. "Mr. Sewell has something to say to me."

Hetty swung round and swept out of the room, and, when the door closed behind her, Sewell sat down at the table, and Ingleby stood in front of him. His face was grim, and his lips were tightly set.

"Well?" he said at length.

Sewell made a little gesture. "I can't admit that Hetty was quite correct in one respect," he said. "It was my mad impulsiveness misled me."

"I want to be quite clear," said Ingleby in a low, even voice. "You told Miss Coulthurst the way to the Westerhouse Gully?"

"I did. If I were not sure that you knew it already, I would never have admitted it to you."

A little grey patch showed in Ingleby's cheek, and the pain in his face was unmistakable, while Sewell clenched one hand on the table as he looked at him.

"Walter," he said, "what is Miss Coulthurst to you?"

"I don't know," said Ingleby, with a very bitter laugh. "I am not sure that she is anything whatever to me. I, however, asked her to marry me not so very long ago, and she led me to believe that when circumstances were more propitious she might do so."

Sewell seemed to gasp, and his hand closed more tightly on the table; but he said nothing, and Ingleby spoke again.

"I would," he said, "have believed in you, in spite of everything – but there is nothing to be gained by reproaching you. Hetty was right, as usual, and you never belonged to us, you know. There is, however, something to be done, since it seems to me that it would be better to keep out of the affair the girl who was apparently willing to look with favour on both of us. You must be out of the valley before daylight to-morrow."

Sewell stood up slowly and took a carefully folded packet from his pocket. "I will be gone in half an hour," he said. "Take care of these. They are the leaves that were under the bandage on Probyn's body, and may go a little way towards clearing Tomlinson. I will not offer to shake hands with you, Walter; but I would like you to believe that I was sincere enough when I came into the valley. If it is any consolation to you, my punishment will be heavy. My name will be a byword after what I have done, and the work I once believed in must be left to clean-handed men."

Ingleby took the packet. "I could have forgiven you for stealing Miss Coulthurst's favour from me – since I scarcely think it was ever mine – but, just now, at least, I can't forgive the rest," he said.

Sewell made no answer, and when he went out Ingleby sat down limply at the table and, with his chin in his hand, gazed at the fire. For the time even his physical strength seemed to have gone out of him. All his faith had been given one man and one woman, and now it was clear that both had betrayed him, and through him the miners who had placed their confidence in him. He did not know how long he sat there, but he started suddenly as he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder and saw Hetty standing beside him.

"I am so sorry, Walter. Is it very hard?" she said.

Ingleby took her hand and held it.

"I believe you are sorry," he said. "After all, old friends are best. I have been a colossal idiot, Hetty, and it does hurt a little to have the recognition of a fact of that kind suddenly forced on one. Still, I must go back to the boys now. There are several little points that must be decided before to-morrow."



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