Harold Bindloss.

Delilah of the Snows



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XXXII
HIS APPOINTED STATION

A faint light was creeping across the snow when Ingleby rose from his bed of cedar twigs, behind the log, and stood up shivering. It was very cold, and most of his companions were still sleeping, though there were more of them than there had been the night before. During the darkness a handful of strangers had come limping in, and one of them had told him a somewhat astonishing story about Trooper Probyn. He could grasp the significance of it, but that was all, for though the rapid was partly ice-bound now, one white sluice of water still frothed about the tree, and the sound it made seemed to keep his thoughts from crystallizing. He was, however, glad of the distraction.

A man who flung down an armful of fuel stopped and shook two or three of his comrades, who got up and stretched themselves before they set about preparing their morning meal. The pines had grown sharper in outline by the time it was finished, and the snow beneath them had changed in hue and was now a flat, lifeless white; and, though most of the men had risen, the stillness was more impressive than ever. Ingleby had grown accustomed to the roar of the river and could have heard the slightest sound through its pulsations; but there was nothing for him to hear beyond the sharp crackle of the fire and the restless movements of one or two of his companions. The rest were expectantly watching the man upon the log; but he stood motionless, with his face turned steadfastly down the valley. Ingleby, however, felt the tension less than he might have done under different circumstances. The game was up, and he had no doubt that the law he had defied would crush him for his contumacy; but that, after all, seemed of no great moment then. His faith was shattered, his hopes were gone, and it only remained for him to exculpate his comrades as far as he could and face his downfall befittingly. He took out his pipe and lighted it, but the tobacco seemed tasteless, and he let it go out again, and sat listening until the man upon the log raised a warning hand, and a faint tramp of feet came out of the silence. There was a rhythm in it, and he knew that Slavin had come in with the troopers from Westerhouse. The men also heard it, and Ingleby stood up as they glanced at him.

"I'm afraid you have gained very little by listening to Sewell or me, boys, but it might save confusion if you still leave me to do what I can for you," he said. "The police will be here in two or three minutes, and somebody must speak to them."

There was a little murmur from the men, which suggested sympathy with and confidence in him. Then one of them, who was an American, waved his hand.

"Mr. Ingleby will go right ahead, and he'll find us behind him whatever he does," he said. "It isn't his fault this thing didn't quite pan out as we had figured. He's here just where he's wanted, to see it out with us, and, anyway, it's a big, cold bluff he and the rest of us – a handful of placer miners of no account – have put up on the British Empire.

We're beat, but the man who wants anything has got to show he means to have it, and they'll listen to the others because we shut our fist."

Again there was a murmur, harsh but expressive, and the man upon the log looked down.

"They're taking front among the firs," he said. "There's a stranger, who must be Slavin, with them. I guess they'll be wanting you."

He sprang down, and Ingleby climbed up on the log. There was a suggestive jingle and clatter among the trees, where dusty shapes flitted in the shadows; but two men were moving forward across the open strip of snow where the light was clearer, and Ingleby recognized one of them as Coulthurst. The other was a stranger who wore a somewhat ragged fur-coat over his uniform. They stopped near the barricade, and Coulthurst looked at Ingleby. The latter stood erect and very still, with the smoke of the fire rising in a pale blue column behind him.

"I presume you are there to speak for your comrades?" said the major.

"Your surmise is quite correct," said Ingleby.

Coulthurst turned towards his companion. "This is Captain Slavin, in charge of the police detachment at Westerhouse. He has come in with enough of his men to make any attempt to oppose him likely to result in disaster to yourselves. Captain Esmond being quite incapable of duty, this affair is in his hands."

Ingleby raised his shapeless hat, and wondered if this had been intended as a hint that he had no longer Esmond's rancour to fear; but the police officer, who looked at him sharply, made no sign of noticing the salute.

"Well," he said, "what does Captain Slavin want?"

"In the first place, the unconditional surrender of Sewell, Leger, and yourself."

"That can be counted on, so far as Leger and I are concerned. Sewell is no longer in the valley. What comes next?"

"The dispersing of the men you have with you."

"Which implies the arrest of Tomlinson?" asked Ingleby.

"It does, naturally."

"Well," said Ingleby, "we have heard your demands, and now we would like to know what you have to offer."

"That," said Coulthurst, "is simply answered. Nothing whatever. I may, however, say that, as usual in an affair of the kind, proceedings will only be taken against the recognized leaders – yourself, Sewell, and Leger – and that Captain Slavin intends to hold an inquiry on the spot into the death of Trooper Probyn."

Slavin, at whom he glanced, made a little gesture of concurrence.

"Major Coulthurst is correct," he said. "You have, however, to understand that the inquiry is in no way a concession. I have, as it happens, some information bearing on the case which has not come into Captain Esmond's possession. That is all. Now, what are you going to do?"

Ingleby spent little time in consideration. The attitude of the two officers was just what he had expected it would be. They could make no concession; but Coulthurst had nevertheless conveyed the impression that they would by no means proceed to extremities.

"In ten minutes Leger and I will give ourselves up, and you will not find a man behind the tree," he said. "That is, on condition that you wait with your men among the firs yonder until the time is up."

Slavin made a sign of comprehension, and when he moved back with Coulthurst, Ingleby turned to the miners.

"It's all fixed now, boys," he said. "Leger and I decided last night to give ourselves up. You couldn't have prevented us, and all we wanted for Tomlinson was a straight inquiry on the spot. Now, I want you to slip away quietly, and hang your rifles up where you keep them. You have to remember that the police don't know who held up the outpost, and have nothing definite against anybody but myself and Leger."

The men went reluctantly, and when the ten minutes had expired Ingleby and Leger climbed down from the log. Two troopers accompanied them to the outpost, where, when Ingleby had spoken a few words to Slavin, they were left to their reflections for several hours. Then there was a tramp of feet outside, and a trooper led them into the adjoining room where Coulthurst and Slavin sat. The door was open, and the corporal and a cluster of miners stood just outside. A carbine lay upon the table in front of Slavin, who turned to the miners as Ingleby came in.

"I want you to understand that this is not a trial, boys," he said. "It's an inquiry into the death of Trooper Probyn, and I expect the truth from you. I have seen Prospector Tomlinson, and I'll now ask the corporal to give us his account of what happened the night Probyn disappeared."

There was a little movement among the miners, and one or two of them glanced significantly at Ingleby. Slavin, it seemed, had already gained their confidence, and they felt that if Tomlinson was sent down for trial it would be because he was guilty. Then the corporal told his story briefly, and admitted that Ingleby had differed from him concerning the locality in which one of the shots had apparently been fired. After that several of the miners narrated how they had assisted to draw Probyn from the river, and the discovery of the bullet-wound in him.

Slavin, who listened to them quietly, nodded and signed to Ingleby. "You didn't agree with the corporal that the shots were fired in the same place?"

"No, sir," said Ingleby. "One of them, I feel certain, came from quite an opposite direction. The corporal was busy at the time, or he would have recognized it."

"The men who have just spoken were correct in their account of what Sewell did when Trooper Probyn had been taken out of the water?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did Sewell remove anything from the body?"

"He did," and Ingleby took a little packet from his pocket and opened it. "These leaves. They had evidently been placed upon the wound. He said Probyn could not have placed them there himself, and they were what the Indians often used to stanch a flow of blood."

Slavin glanced at the desiccated fragments, and turned to the miners. "Have any of you heard of the Indians using a plant for that purpose?"

"I guess I have," said one. "One of them tried to fix up a partner of mine, who'd cut himself chopping, with the thing. It didn't seem to work on a white man."

Slavin nodded. "I believe there is such a plant," he said. "Now, so far as we have gone, circumstances seem to point to Probyn having been shot by a man who afterwards tried to save him. He used a plant that only the Indians seem to believe in. Come right in, Corporal. Do you recognize this carbine?"

A trace of astonishment crept into the corporal's face as he took up the weapon.

"Yes, sir," he said. "It's Probyn's. Am I quite sure? I know the number, and that dint under the barrel. He fell and struck it on a rock one day when I was with him."

"Well," said Slavin, who took out a little book, "that's all I want from you. Now, boys, this inquiry is in my hands; but I don't know of any reason I shouldn't read you a little statement that was made on oath to me by a prospector who brought this carbine into Westerhouse Gully.

"'I was working on a bench-claim back under the range when an Indian came along,' he said. 'He had a carbine with him. Offered to sell it me for tea and flour, as he was lighting out of the country. This is just what he told me. He was hired to take two troopers from Green River across the range, and was waiting for them just after sundown. He'd heard a black bear moving round – a black bear doesn't worry much about the noise he makes – and when something came smashing through a thicket he loosed off at it. It was getting kind of dark, and when he clawed into the thicket he found he'd got the trooper, who, as the trail was steep there, had left his horse. Did what he could to save him, but the man died, and the Indian got scared that the folks he pitched the tale to wouldn't believe him. That was why he dragged the trooper under a big rock by the river and put some stones and branches on him. Somehow the horse got away from him, though he fired at it. He didn't want that horse walking round making trouble. I gave him the flour and tea, and kept the trooper's carbine.'"

Slavin closed the book, and looked at the men. "Now," he said, "who would you say killed that trooper?"

"The Indian, sure!" said somebody, and there was a murmur of concurrence from the rest.

"Well," said Slavin drily, "I believe he did. Anyway, no proceedings will be taken against anybody in this valley. Tell the boys to light out, Corporal."

The miners went away contented. They understood, and appreciated, men of Slavin's kind. Then the latter turned, and looked reflectively at Leger and Ingleby.

"It's quite a good thing you had sense enough to keep the boys off their rifles," he said. "If there had been any shooting, you would have found yourselves unpleasantly fixed."

His face was quietly grave, but there was the faintest suggestion of a twinkle in Coulthurst's eyes.

"I, at least, saw no weapons among them," he said.

"Well," said Slavin, "that simplifies the thing. Still, you see, you can't go holding up police outposts and heaving troopers about with impunity. Where's the man who set you up to it?"

"I almost think it was the drift of circumstances rather than Mr. Sewell that was to blame," said Leger. "Anyway, I expect he is a considerable distance from the valley by this time. In fact, it's scarcely likely that you could overtake him, and there's nothing to show which trail he has taken."

It occurred to Ingleby that it was somewhat astonishing that such a capable officer as Slavin appeared to be had allowed so much time to pass before he asked the question. That, however, was Slavin's business.

"Well," said the latter, "if I had a little more to go upon, I might make quite a serious thing out of this. As it is, all I'm very sure about is that you and your partner conspired to prevent the troopers getting at Tomlinson; but as Tomlinson didn't kill Probyn, that doesn't count for so much, after all. Still, we have no use for you up here just now, and you have two days in which to clear out of the valley. Tomlinson will get his ticket, too, when he's able to take the trail."

"That would mean the sequestration of our claims," said Ingleby.

"Exactly. You're not compelled to go. Stay right here if you'd sooner, and take your chances of any charge I may be able to work up against you."

Ingleby looked at Leger, who made a little sign.

"I think we'd better go," he said. "Still, while I have no regret for anything I have done, I should like to thank Major Coulthurst for what is, from his point of view, a clemency we scarcely expected."

Slavin smiled somewhat drily. "You don't want to make any mistake. The major has done what he considers most advisable – just that, and nothing else. Now, before you light out take a hint from me. Canada's quite a big country, but the law of the Empire it belongs to is even a bigger thing. You have come off pretty well this time – but don't try it again."

Ingleby made Coulthurst a little grave inclination. "In spite of Captain Slavin's explanation, I feel we owe you a good deal, sir," he said. "Still, I think he's right in one respect. We attempted too big a thing. Henceforward we'll go to work, little by little, in a different way. We have taken the wrong one, but the hope that led us into it is just as strong as ever."

Coulthurst smiled a little.

"Long before it's realized you and I will be dead. If I ever come across you again under different circumstances it will be a pleasure," he said.

Ingleby turned and went out, taking Leger with him, but he left the latter among the pines and swung into the trail that led past the Gold Commissioner's dwelling. He did not know whether he wished to see Grace or not, but, as it happened, she came out on the veranda as he passed and stopped him with a little sign.

"You are going away, Walter?" she asked.

"Yes," said Ingleby. "In all probability I shall never come back."

The girl's cheeks were flushed, and there was a curious strained look in her eyes.

"You seem," she said, "quite willing to go."

Ingleby looked at her gravely. "It hurts me less than I expected it would have done. Still, even if I had been permitted, why should I wish to stay? I am poor again, and it is very likely shall always be so. There are barriers between you and me which can never be got over."

"You didn't believe that once."

"No," said Ingleby. "Still, I am wiser now, and what I may have to suffer is no more than my desert for believing that any man is warranted in trying to thrust himself above the station he was meant to occupy. That, however, isn't, after all, very much to the purpose."

"I suppose," and there was a tremor in the girl's voice, "you blame me for all that has happened?"

Ingleby's eyes were still fixed upon her with disconcerting steadiness. "It is not my part to reproach you, but I know what you did. You have wrecked the life of my best friend, and turned into a traitor a man whose work and words brought hope to thousands. Sewell will never lift his head again."

He spoke slowly, and a trifle hoarsely, but there was a hardness and resolution in his voice which struck a chill through the girl.

"What did he tell you, Walter?" she said.

"Very little. In fact, only that he had told you the way to Westerhouse; but that was quite enough. I do not know whether you told him that you loved him or not; but it is quite plain to me that you made him think so. Men of his kind do not betray those who believe in them without a reason."

"Walter," said the girl, very softly, "I wonder if – you – ever really loved me?"

Ingleby winced, but there was still no wavering in his eyes. "I do not know," he said. "You are the most beautiful woman I ever met, and I believed I did. Most likely your beauty and all that you stood for dazzled me, and I lost my head. It may have been that – I do not know – for if I had really loved you I should, perhaps, have forgiven you everything."

"And that is too much for you?"

Ingleby stood silent a moment. "If you had loved me, you would never have betrayed me. I am afraid it is."

Grace looked at him steadily, with the colour in her cheeks, and her voice was a little tremulous.

"Perhaps I wouldn't – like you, I do not know." Then she held out her hand. "Don't think too hardly of me. Good-bye, Walter."

Ingleby touched her fingers, for he dared not trust himself further, and swinging his shapeless hat off abruptly turned away, while Grace stood very still until the shadows of the pines closed about him. That was the last she ever saw of him.

It was half an hour later when he walked quietly into the bakery, and came upon Hetty getting her few belongings together.

"I have come back – to the people and the place I belong to. You will not turn me out?" he said.

Hetty's eyes shone softly. "We have been waiting for you, Walter – we knew you would come. Still, I'm not sure you can ever get quite back to where you were before."

Ingleby saw her meaning, for he remembered the locket; and it seemed that Hetty knew what he was thinking, for a little colour crept into her face.

"Well," he said, "I will be patient, and try very hard."

Then he heard footsteps, and, going out, met Leger at the door. The latter turned and came down the trail with him.

"We are taking the trail to-morrow. Are you coming with us?" he said.

"Of course!" said Ingleby, looking at him in blank astonishment.

"In that case there is something to be said – and it is difficult, but Hetty is my sister, after all. Do you know who gave her that locket?"

"I did," said Ingleby, "a long while ago, but I never fancied that she had kept it. Tom, I do not know what your sister thinks of me, but she can't think more hardly of me than I do. Still, there may be one or two other colossal idiots of my description."

"It's quite likely," said Leger drily. "That, however, isn't very much to the point, is it?"

Ingleby stood silent a moment. "Tom," he said, "as you found out, it's difficult – and I don't understand the thing myself. Perhaps Miss Coulthurst dazzled me, and I've been off my balance ever since I came into this valley, but I know now that if I ever marry anybody it will be Hetty. That's a very indifferent compliment to your sister. She will probably be a very long while forgiving me, but I may, perhaps, at last persuade her to believe in me again. Now, are you going to turn me away?"

"No," said Leger. "After that I fancy we can face together what comes."

It was early next morning when they left the valley with an escort of twenty miners to help them across the divide, and Hetty stood by Ingleby's side when they turned for a moment to look back from among the climbing pines. Then, as they turned again, Ingleby met the girl's clear eyes.

"It may be a long while, Hetty, but I think I shall get quite back, after all," he said. "It was in ever wanting to go away that I was horribly wrong."

THE END

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