Harold Bindloss.

The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound



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He went to sleep, however, wet as he was, and after an early breakfast next morning they started again, with both spritsails up in torrential rain. The water was comparatively smooth, though the doleful moaning of the firs fell from the half-seen hills, and Mr. Oliver announced that the entrance to the canal they had come down was not far away. Frank had learned that on the Pacific Slope canal generally means a natural arm of the sea.

They reached its entrance presently, sailing close-hauled, and on stretching across it the canoe plunged viciously on a short, white-topped sea. The wind was blowing straight down the deep rift in the hills, and Frank remembered with regret that Alberni stood a long way up at the head of the inlet. They came back on the other tack, making almost nothing, and the Siwash pulled the masts down before one of them spoke to Mr. Oliver.

"I suppose they can't get the canoe to windward?" suggested Mr. Barclay.

"He says we'll have to paddle," Mr. Oliver answered. "There seem to be four paddles in her and that will leave two of us to relieve the rest in turn."

Harry and Frank took the first spell with the Indians, and they had had enough of it before an hour had passed. The wind was dead ahead of them, and though they crept in close with the beach they were met by little, spiteful seas. It was necessary to fight for every fathom, thrashing her slowly ahead by sheer force of muscle. Frank's hands were soon sore and one knee raw from pressing it against the craft's bottom. He got hot and breathless, the rain was in his face, and his side began to ache, and it was a vast relief to him when Mr. Oliver finally took his place.

The mists were thinning when he sat down limply in the bottom of the craft, and great rocky hills and dusky firs crawled slowly by, except when now and then a fiercer gust swept down, whitening all the inlet, and they barely held their own by desperate paddling. Then as it dropped a little they forged ahead again. It was dreary as well as very arduous work, but there was no avoiding it, for their provisions were almost gone and there was no trail of any kind through the bush. Frank felt that even paddling into a strong head wind was better than smashing through continuous thorny brakes and floundering over great fallen logs.

One hand commenced to bleed when he next took his turn, but that was, as he realized, not a matter of much importance. They had to reach Alberni sometime next day, and his chief concern was how it could be done. Then the pain in his side set in again and became rapidly worse, and he set his lips tight as he swung gasping with each stroke of the splashing blade. They won a foot or so each time the paddles came down, and it was somewhat consoling to recognize it. He felt that if he had been called upon to do this kind of thing after sleeping wet through upon the ground when he first came out he would have immediately collapsed, but he was steadily acquiring the power to disregard bodily fatigue.

There was no change as the day slipped by.

It rained pitilessly, and the wind continually headed them as they labored on wearily with set, wet faces and straining muscles. The stroke must not slacken, for the moment it grew feebler the canoe would drive astern. They kept it up until nightfall, and then beaching the canoe lay down once more in the tent, which strained in the wind. They were aching all over when they rose next morning, and the work was still the same, but they reached Alberni, worn out, early in the evening. It was a very small place then, though it afterward sprang up into a mining town. Two or three ranch houses stood in their clearings beside a crystal river, and a few more buildings clustered at the head of the inlet half hidden in the bush. There was a store and a frame hotel among them, and Mr. Oliver, who took up quarters in the latter, told the boys that the stage would start on the following morning. The Indians were given shelter in one of the outbuildings, and the hotelkeeper insisted on locking up the dog, who growled at everybody about the place.

"I'm not scared of dogs," he explained, "but that one of yours won't let me get about my own house. Besides, I guess he'd eat some of those Chinamen before morning if you leave him loose."

They were standing near a window, and Mr. Oliver glanced at one or two blue-clad figures lounging under the dripping trees.

"You seem to have a number of them about," he remarked. "I saw another lot as I came in. What are they doing here?"

"Stopping for the night," was the answer. "They're camping in a barn of mine and going on to the gold creek at sun-up, though they may start earlier if the rain stops. Quite a few of them have come in over the trail lately."

"Then there must be a regular colony in the bush," broke in Mr. Barclay, who had strolled up.

"No," replied the hotelkeeper, "that's the curious thing. They keep on coming in by threes and fours, but Blake from the ranch higher up the river was through that way not long ago, and he said he didn't see many of them yonder. About two dozen, he figured, but more than that have come through here to my certain knowledge."

"It looks as if the gold-washing didn't pay and the rest had gone on somewhere," Mr. Barclay suggested carelessly.

The hotelkeeper looked bewildered. "Well," he said, "this is the only trail to the settlements, and they certainly haven't come back this way. It's mighty rough traveling through the bush, as you ought to know."

Mr. Barclay smiled ruefully as he glanced down at his torn clothing and badly damaged boots. "That's a sure thing. Besides, they'd have their truck to pack along, which would make it more difficult. Those fellows generally bring a lot of odds and ends with them."

"Oh, yes," assented the hotelkeeper. "Most of them have their slung baskets on poles. Anyway, I've no fault to find with them. They make no trouble."

He walked off, and when Mr. Barclay and Mr. Oliver went out, Harry gave a triumphant glance at Frank.

"Now," he said, "you see what our friend has found out without giving himself away. The question is, where do those Chinamen who don't stay with the gold-washing get to?"

Frank laughed. "I expect Barclay could give you an answer. There's another thing he could probably guess at, and that's what they've got in some of those slung baskets."

Then they moved back toward the lighted stove, for the rain drove against the frame walls and it was damp and chilly in the big bare room.

CHAPTER XV
A MIDNIGHT VISITOR

It was getting dark when the boys retired to their room, in which two beds were standing at opposite corners. Harry chose the one nearest the door, and they left the window open. The room was, as usual in such places, very scantily furnished, but it appeared very comfortable after their camps in the dripping bush, and Frank found it a luxury to get his clothes off and lie down upon a comparatively soft mattress.

A draught blew in at intervals through the window, and the door, which would not shut, swung to and fro. It was raining as hard as ever, for Frank could hear a muffled roar upon the shingled roof, and the pines outside were wailing dolefully. He soon went to sleep, however, but was awakened later by the sound of voices and a soft patter of feet below. The rain seemed to have stopped at last, though he could hear a heavy splashing from the branches of the firs close by, and he fancied that the Chinamen must be starting. There was, however, no sign of morning when he glanced toward the window, which showed only as a faintly lighter square in the surrounding obscurity. In fact, it seemed unusually dark, which struck him as curious, since there was a moon, but the hotel stood in a valley shrouded by giant trees and he supposed that the sky was thick with cloud.

He heard the voices grow fainter and the footsteps gradually recede until they were lost in the moaning of the pines, and he felt that he did not envy the Chinamen their journey. He wondered why they had not waited until sunrise before starting, and then remembered that a rancher he had met had told him that a trail led out of the settlement for some distance. He supposed it would be light before the Chinamen should reach the end of it and plunge into the forest. About a quarter of an hour had slipped away when, lying half asleep, he thought that he heard some one in the room. He could see nothing but the window, and could hear little else than the sound of the wind among the trees, but raising himself very cautiously on one elbow he distinctly heard a faint sound that suggested a stealthy movement. This seemed very curious, for he felt almost certain that if his companion had had any idea of trying to find out something about the Chinamen he would have told him, besides which, the Chinamen had gone.

While he lay still listening with tingling nerves there was a soft scraping and presently a very pale blue flame broke out, showing a shadowy figure in a loose robe bending over Harry's bed with a light in its hand. Frank did not pause to consider what the stranger's intentions might be, but reached for his boot, which was a heavy one, and flung it with all his might at the shadowy object's head. It struck the boarded wall with a startling crash, the light suddenly went out, and he sprang from his bed in the darkness with a cry of "Harry!"

"Well," said his companion drowsily, "what's the matter?"

"Where's the Chinaman?" shouted Frank, darting toward the door.

He ran out into a passage with Harry blundering half awake behind him, and noticed that there was an open window near the door which had been shut when he had last seen it. On reaching it he espied what seemed to be the roof of a low outbuilding not far below, but there was very little else to be seen except the loom of the dusky pines which were beginning to stand out against the sky. Then he heard a rush of pattering feet and a yelp on the stairway close by, and a furry body flung itself against his knee. He recognized the dog, who almost immediately darted into the room. It came out again, sprang to the window ledge, and bounded to the roof beneath. He heard a soft thud on the shingles and a bark that sounded farther off, and then for a moment or two there was silence again.

It was broken by the sound of a door flung open, and Mr. Barclay came along the passage very lightly dressed, with a lamp in his hand. Telling them to follow, he walked into the boys' room, and placed the lamp on a bureau before he sat down on the nearest bed.

"Now," he asked, "what's the cause of this commotion?"

"I don't know," said Harry. "Perhaps Frank can tell you. He seems to have been throwing his boots about."

Frank, a little nettled, narrated what he had seen. Mr. Barclay smiled.

"You say the man was standing by Harry's bed," he observed. "Did you notice if he had a big knife in his hand?"

"He'd nothing but a match," Frank answered shortly.

"Now that's curious," said Mr. Barclay. "Do you suppose he meant to set the bed on fire, or have you any idea what he was doing?"

Frank heard a slight sound and looking around saw Mr. Oliver standing in the doorway, while just then a shout came down the passage, apparently from the hotelkeeper.

"What's the trouble? Is there anything wrong?"

"We're trying to find out," Mr. Barclay replied. "It doesn't seem to be serious, anyway."

"Then I'll put a few clothes on before I come along," said the voice, and a door banged.

"He seemed to be looking down at Harry's face," said Frank, who saw that Mr. Barclay was waiting an answer.

Mr. Barclay now turned and favored Harry with a critical gaze.

"I can't understand what the fellow wanted to do that for." Then he smiled back at Frank. "These are decadent days. He wouldn't have got away with his scalp on if he'd come creeping into the room of the James boys."

Harry flushed. "I suppose you mean to hint that Frank imagined it all, sir? Well, he told you the man struck a match, and though sulphur matches don't give much light they make a considerable smell. Do you notice any particular odor in this room?" Then he stooped suddenly and picked up a half-burned match. "What do you make of this? I haven't struck one."

Mr. Barclay examined the match with an abstracted expression, and while he did so the dog pattered into the room wagging his tail in a deprecatory manner, as if to excuse himself for not overtaking the intruder. He jumped distractedly around the boys for a moment and then crouched down upon the floor with a short length of broken cord trailing from his collar. Mr. Oliver pointed to it with an amused smile.

"It seems to me the dog must have imagined something of the same kind as Frank did," he observed.

By this time the hotelkeeper arrived and gazed on with astonishment while Mr. Barclay briefly explained the cause of the commotion.

"I've never heard anything like this since I've been in the place," he declared. "The Chinamen are out on the trail now. Better see if you have lost anything."

The couple of dollars that Frank had brought with him proved to be still in his pocket, and Harry fished out the dollar which belonged to him. His cheap watch was safe beneath his pillow, and Frank declared that he had left his silver one at the ranch. This appeared to make the matter more inexplicable to the hotelkeeper.

"If the fellow had gone off with something, I could have understood it," he said in a puzzled way.

"It's most likely that Frank saw him almost immediately after he came in," said Mr. Oliver. "As he pitched his boot at him, the man was probably startled and got out without wasting any time in looking round. Then the dog broke loose and went after him."

The hotelkeeper agreed with this and shortly afterward Mr. Oliver, telling the boys not to trouble themselves any further about the matter, followed him out with Mr. Barclay. They turned into the latter's room, where Mr. Oliver sat down.

"I imagine that Frank's notion is correct," he said. "As Harry told you, he and Frank once paid a visit to the Chinese camp near our ranch where he saw the man with the high shoulder and followed him to a shack from which he disappeared. If the Chinaman who crept into the room chanced to have been about the camp when the boys were there, it's quite possible that he did wish to see Harry's face."

"That," Mr. Barclay admitted, "is my own opinion, though it seemed wiser not to impress it on the boys. I don't suppose you want them to get to making any investigations on their own account?"

"No," rejoined Mr. Oliver. "On the other hand, they've taken a certain part in the matter already. In fact, it might have been better if I'd left them behind. The trouble is that if the Chinaman recognized Harry it would probably give him some idea as to why we made this visit."

Mr. Barclay nodded his head. "Yes," he said. "It's a pity, but, after all, I'm rather glad I made this trip. It's going to prove worth while."

Nothing further was said on the subject and silence settled down again on the hotel. There was bright sunshine when the party started with the stage next morning, and after spending the night at a little colliery town they took the train south. Getting off at a small station they found the sloop safe in the cove where they had left her. Mr. Barclay, however, went on with the peltries to Victoria, which was not far away, and there managed to dispose of them, after which he hired a horse and rode back to the inlet. They set sail as soon as he arrived, and after two days of light winds duly reached the cove near the ranch.

A few months slipped by peacefully. The smugglers showed no sign of further activity, and Mr. Oliver got his oat crop in undisturbed. One way or another he kept the boys busy from morning until night, but at last when the maple leaves were beginning to turn he told them to take their rifles and go hunting, and they set off one morning after breakfast.

It was a still, clear morning, and now that the fall was drawing on there was a change in the bush. Here and there a maple leaf caught a ray of sunshine and burned like a crimson lamp, the fern was growing yellow, and the undergrowth was splashed and spattered with flecks of varying color. Even the light in the openings seemed different. It was at once softer and clearer than the glare of summer, and the shadows seemed thinner and bluer than they had been. But there was no difference in the great black firs. They lifted their fretted spires high against the sky, as they had done for centuries, and they would remain the same until the white man's ax should sweep the wilderness away.

The boys were floundering waist-deep in withered fern and tangled undergrowth when they heard a rustling and scurrying somewhere near their feet, and Harry, breaking off a rotten branch from a fallen fir, hurled it into a neighboring thicket.

"A fool hen!" he shouted. "Jump round this bush, and try to put it up."

Frank fell into the thicket in his haste, but he still heard the scurrying in front of him when he scrambled to his feet. He kicked a clump of fern, and there was no doubt that something rushed away from underneath it, after which he plunged through the brake with Harry some yards away on one side of him, but there was nothing visible. They hunted the unseen creature for what he supposed was about ten minutes with no better result. Then a plainly colored bird about the size of a pigeon rose from almost under his feet and flew to a fir branch some twenty yards away, where it perched and looked down at its pursuers unconcernedly.

"It doesn't seem scared now," said Frank in astonishment.

"It isn't," Harry answered with a laugh. "The thing feels quite safe once it's on a branch. I guess that's why it's called the fool hen, though its proper name is the willow grouse. Walk up and try a shot at it – only you must cut its head off."

Frank crept up nearer with a caution which was wholly unnecessary, for the bird did not seem to mind him in the least when he stopped close beneath it and pitched his rifle to his shoulder, but as he gazed at it over the half-moon of the rearsight it seemed to him that its neck was exceedingly small. He could not keep the forebead fixed on it, and bringing the rifle down he rested before he tried it again. Then he felt the butt thump his shoulder and the barrel jerk, and a little wisp of smoke drifted across his eyes and hung about the bushes. When it cleared, the grouse, to his astonishment, was sitting on the branch as calmly as ever.

"It likes it," said Harry. "Try again – only at its neck."

Trying again, Frank succeeded in inducing the bird to move to a neighboring branch, after which he braced himself with desperate determination for the third attempt. This time the jar upon his shoulder was followed by a soft thud, and he understood why he had been warned to shoot only at its neck when he picked up his victim. The big .44 bullet had horribly shattered it.

"Could you have shot its head off?" he asked after he had thrown it down in disgust.

"Why, yes," said Harry. "Anyway, I can generally manage it if the thing sits still. Most of the bush ranchers could do it every time."

He made this good presently when they found another bird, for it dropped at his first shot without its head. Half an hour later they saw a blue grouse perched rather high up in a cedar.

"This fellow won't sit to be fired at," Harry explained. "Better try it kneeling where you are, if you can get the foresight up enough."

Frank knelt with his right foot tucked under him and his left elbow on his knee. It steadied the rifle considerably, but he had to cramp himself a little to raise the muzzle. Holding his breath he squeezed the trigger when a part of the bird filled up the curve of the rearsight, but he was mildly astonished when Harry walked toward him with the grouse in his hand.

"I guess this one could be cooked," he said dubiously. "We'll take it along."

Frank surveyed his victim with a thrill of pride. It was larger than the willow grouse. In fact, it seemed to him a remarkably big and handsome bird in spite of the hole in it, and he thrust it into the flour bag on his back with unalloyed satisfaction.

"Is this the thing that makes the drumming in the spring?" he asked.

Harry said that it was, and they scrambled through the bush for a couple of hours without seeing anything further, until they approached a swampy hollow with a steep hillside over which the undergrowth hung unusually thick.

"There ought to be a black bear yonder; they like the wild cabbage," said Harry. "We'll try to crawl in. It's a pity there isn't a little wind ahead of us."

They spent half an hour over the operation, and Frank realized that trailing had its drawbacks when he found that it entailed burrowing among thorny thickets and crawling across quaggy places on his hands and knees. In spite of his caution sticks would snap and it seemed to his strung-up imagination that he was making a prodigious noise. At last, however, there was another sound some distance in front of him which suddenly became louder.



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