The Sky Line of Spruce
Part 2 out of 5
in his code, whereby he could subject his young partner to the risk.
It was true that the desire to arrive on the scene at the earliest
possible moment had been a factor in his decision. One of them could
hurry on, unimpeded by the pack animals, and the other must linger to
secure their supplies; and there could really be no question, in Ezram's
mind, which should go and which should stay. He had known perfectly that
if Ben had realized the true need for haste, he would never have
submitted so tamely to Ezram's will. The old man knew Wolf Darby. The
strong dark eyes in the lean, raw-boned face reassured him as to this
knowledge. Ben would go too, if he knew the truth. Likely he would
insist on going alone.
Ezram had decided the whole thing in a flash, realizing that a lone
pedestrian would be practically as effective in dealing with the
usurpers as two horsemen, impeded by the pack animals. If they didn't
shoot to kill at first sight of him Ezram would have time in plenty to
seek refuge in the forest and do a sharpshooter's business that would
fill his old heart with joy. And there really wasn't any question as to
which of the two should go. Their partnership was of long duration;
their comradeship was deep; Ben was young, and Ezram himself was old!
Ezram made his decision entirely casually, and he would have been
surprised out of his wits if any one had expressed wonder of it. He knew
no self-pity or sentimentality, only the knowledge that he did not
desire that his young buddy should be shot full of holes in the first
moment of play. The only fear that had visited him was that Ben might
catch on and not let him go. And now he could scarcely restrain his
triumphant chuckles in Ben's hearing.
Fie made his pack--a few simple provisions wrapped in his blanket--and a
knife and camp axe swung on his belt. He took his trusted pipe--because
he knew well that he could never acquit himself creditably in a fight
without a few lungfuls of tobacco smoke first--and he also took his
rifle. "You'll be gettin' my brother's gun when you get to Snowy Gulch,"
he explained, "and I may see game on the way out. And you keep this copy
of the letter." He handed Ben the copy he had made of Hiram's will. "I'm
the worst hand for losin' things you ever seen."
"You're sure you've got the directions straight?"
"Sure.--And I guess that's all."
They said their simple good-bys, shaking hands over a pile of stores.
"I've only got one decent place to keep things safe," Ezra confided,
"and that ain't so all-fired decent, either. When I get any papers that
are extra precious, I always stick 'em down the leg of these high old
boots, between the sock and the leather. But it's too much work to take
the boot off now, so you keep the letter."
"I suppose you've got a million-dollar bank note hidden down there now,"
"No, not a cent. Just the same, if ever I get shuffled off all of a
sudden--rollin' down one of these mountains, say--I want you to look
there mighty careful. There may be a document or two of
importance--letter to my old home, and all that."
"I won't forget," Ben promised.
"See that you don't." They shook hands again, lightly and happily. "So
good-by, son, and--'_take keer of yerself_!'"
The old man turned away, and soon his withered figure vanished into the
thickets farther up the river. He was following a fairly well-worn moose
trail, and he went swiftly. Soon he was out of hearing of the sound of
the great river.
Then the little woods people--marten and ermine and rodent and such
other small forest creatures that--who can say?--might watch with
exceeding interest the travelers on the trails, could have thought that
old Ezram was already fatigued. He sat down beside a tree and drew a
soiled sheet of paper from his pocket. Searching further he found then
the stub of a pencil. Then he wrote.
Having written he unlaced his boot on the right foot, folded the paper,
and thrust it into the bootleg. Then, relacing the shoe, he arose and
journeyed blithely on.
On arriving in Snowy Gulch, Ben's first efforts were to inquire in
regard to horses. Both pack and saddle animals, he learned, were to be
hired of Sandy McClurg, the owner of the general store and leading
citizen of the village; and at once he made his way to confer with him.
"Most of my mustangs are rented out," the merchant informed him when
they met in the rear of the general store, "but if you can get along
with three, I guess I can fix you up. You can pack two of 'em, and ride
"Good enough," Ben agreed. "And after I once get in, I'd like to turn
back two of them, and maybe all three--to save the hire and the bother
of taking care of them. I suppose, after the fashion of cayuses, they'll
leg it right home."
"Just a little faster than a dog. Horses don't much care to grub their
food out of them spruce forests. They're good plugs, so of course I
don't want to rent 'em to any one who'll abuse 'em, or take 'em on too
hard trips. Where are you heading, if the question's fair?"
"Through Spruce Pass and down into the Yuga River."
"Prospecting, eh? There's been quite a movement down that way lately,
considering it never was anything but a pocket country. By starting
early you can make it through in a day. And you said your name was--"
"Darby. Ben Darby."
The merchant opened his eyes. "Not the Ben Darby that took all the
prizes at the meet at Lodge Pole--"
Ben's rugged face lit with the brilliancy of his smile. "The same
Darby," he admitted.
"Well, well! I hope you'll excuse them remarks about abusing the horses.
If I had known who you was, 'Wolf' Darby, I'd have known you knew how to
take care of cayuses. Take 'em for as long as you want, or where you
want. And when did you say you was going?"
"First thing to-morrow."
"Well, you're pretty likely to have companionship on the road, too.
There is another party that is going up that way either to-morrow or the
day after. Pretty lucky for you."
"I'm glad of it, if he isn't a tenderfoot. That must be a pretty thickly
settled region--where I'm heading."
"On the contrary, there's only three human beings in the whole
district--and there's a thousand of square miles back of it without even
one. These three are some men that went up that way prospecting some
time ago, and this other party will make four." He paused, smiling.
"Yes, I think you will enjoy this trip to-morrow, after you see who it
is. I'd enjoy it, and I'm thirty years older than you are."
Ben's thought was elsewhere, and he only half heard. "All right--I'll be
here before dawn to-morrow and get the horses. And now will you tell
me--where Steve Morris lives? I've got some business with him."
"Right up the street--clear to the end of the row." McClurg's humor had
quite engulfed him by now, and he chuckled again. "And if I was you,
I'd stop in the door just this side--and get acquainted with your fellow
"What's his name?" Ben asked.
"The party is named Neilson."
Unfortunately the name had no mental associations for Ben. It wakened no
interest or stirred no memories. He had read the letter the copy of
which he carried but once, and evidently the name of the man Ezram had
been warned against had made no lasting impression on Ben's mind.
"All right. Maybe I'll look him up."
Ben turned, then made his way up the long, straggly row of unpainted
shacks that marked the village street. A few moments later he was
standing in the Morris home, facing the one friend that Hiram Melville
had possessed on earth.
Ben stated his case simply. He was the partner of Hiram's brother, he
said, and he had been designated to take care of Fenris and such other
belongings as Hiram had left. Morris studied his face with the quiet,
far-seeing eyes of a woodsman.
"You've got means of identification?" he asked.
Ben realized with something of a shock that he had none at all. The
letter he carried was merely a copy without Hiram's signature; besides,
he had no desire to reveal its contents. For an instant he was
considerably embarrassed. But Morris smiled quietly.
"I guess I won't ask you for any," he said. "Hiram didn't leave
anything, far as I know, except his old gun and his pet. Lord knows, I'd
let anybody take that pet of his that's fool enough to say he's got any
claim to him, and you can be sure I ain't going to dispute his claim."
"Fenris, then, is,--something of a problem?"
"The worst I ever had. His old gun is a good enough weapon, but I'm
willing to trust you with it to get rid of Fenris. If you don't turn out
to be the right man, I'll dig up for the gun--and feel lucky at that. I
won't be able to furnish another Fenris, though, and I guess nobody'll
be sorry. And if I was you--I'd take him out in a nice quiet place and
He turned, with the intention of securing the gun from an inner room. He
did not even reach the door. It was as if both of them were struck
motionless, frozen in odd, fixed attitudes, by a shrill scream for help
that penetrated like a bullet the thin walls of the house.
Instinctively both of them recognized it, unmistakably, as the piercing
cry of a woman in great distress and terror. It rose surprisingly high,
hovered a ghastly instant, and then was almost drowned out and
obliterated by another sound, such a sound as left Ben only wondering
The sound was in the range between a growl and a bay, instantly
identifying itself as the utterance of an animal, rather than a human
being. And it was savage and ferocious simply beyond power of words to
tell. Ben's first thought was of some enormous, vicious dog, and yet his
wood's sense told him that the utterance was not that of a dog. Rather
it contained that incredible fierceness and savagery that marks the
killing cries of the creatures of the wild.
He heard it even as he leaped through the door in answer to the scream
for aid. His muscles gathered with that mysterious power that had always
sustained him in his moments of crisis. He took the steps in one leap,
Morris immediately behind him.
"Fenris is loose," he heard the man say. "He'll kill some one----!"
Ben could still hear the savage cries of the animal, seemingly from
just behind the adjoining house. A girl's terrified voice still called
for help. And deeply appalled by the sounds, Ben wished that the rifle,
such a weapon as had been his trust since early boyhood, was ready and
loaded in his hands.
He raced about the house; and at once the scene, in every vivid detail,
was revealed to him. Pressed back against the wall of a little woodshed
that stood behind her house a girl stood at bay,--a dark-eyed girl whose
beautiful face was drawn and stark-white with horror. She was screaming
for aid, her fascinated gaze held by a gray-black, houndlike creature
that crouched, snarling, twenty yards distant.
Evidently the creature was stealing toward her in stealthy advance more
like a stalking cat than a frenzied hound. Nor was this creature a
hound, in spite of the similarity of outline. Such fearful, lurid
surface-lights as all of them saw in its fierce eyes are not
characteristic of the soft, brown orbs of the dog, ancient friend to
man, but are ever the mark of the wild beast of the forest. The fangs
were bared, gleaming in foam, the hair stood erect on the powerful
shoulders; and instantly Ben recognized its breed. It was a magnificent
specimen of that huge, gaunt runner of the forests, the Northern wolf.
Evidently from the black shades of his fur he was partly of the Siberian
breed of wolves that beforetime have migrated down on the North American
side of Bering Sea.
A chain was attached to the animal's collar, and this in turn to a stake
that had been freshly pulled from the ground. This beast was
Fenris,--the woods creature that old Hiram Melville had raised from
There could be no doubt as to the reality of the girl's peril. The
animal was insane with the hunting madness, and he was plainly stalking
her, just as his fierce mother might have stalked a fawn, across the
young grass. Already he was almost near enough to leap, and the girl's
young, strong body could be no defense against the hundred and fifty
pounds of wire sinew and lightning muscle that constituted the wolf. The
bared fangs need flash but once for such game as this. And yet, after
the first, startled glance, Ben Darby felt himself complete master of
No man could tell him why. No fact of his life would have been harder to
explain, no impulse in all his days had had a more inscrutable origin.
The realization seemed to spring from some cool, sequestered knowledge
hidden deep in his spirit. He knew, in one breathless instant, that he
was the master--and that the girl was safe.
He seemed to know, again, that he had found his ordained sphere. He knew
this breed,--this savage, blood-mad, fierce-eyed creature that turned,
snarling, at his approach. He had something in common with the breed,
knowing their blood-lusts and their mighty moods; and dim, dreamlike
memory reminded him that he had mastered them in a long war that went
down to the roots of time. Fenris was only a fellow wilderness creature,
a pack brother of the dark forests, and he had no further cause for
"Fenris!" he ordered sharply. "Come here!" His voice was commanding and
clear above the animal's snarls.
There followed a curious, long instant of utter silence and infinite
suspense. The girl's scream died on her lips: the wolf stood tense,
wholly motionless. Morris, who had drawn his knife and had prepared to
leap with magnificent daring upon the wolf, turned with widening eyes,
instinctively aware of impending miracle. Ben's eyes met those of the
wolf, commanding and unafraid.
"Down, Fenris," Ben said again. "Down!"
Then slowly, steadily, Ben moved toward him. Watching unbelieving,
Morris saw the fierce eyes begin to lose their fire. The stiff hair on
the shoulders fell into place, tense muscle relaxed. He saw in wonder
that the animal was trembling all over.
Ben stood beside him now, his hand reaching. "Down, down," he cautioned
quietly. Suddenly the wolf crouched, cowering, at his feet.
Ben straightened to find himself under a wondering scrutiny by both
Morris and the girl. "Good Lord, Darby!" the former exclaimed. "How did
you do it--"
Now that the suspense was over, Ben himself stood smiling, quite at
ease. "Can't say just how. I just felt that I could--I've always been
able to handle animals. He's tame, anyway."
"Tame, is he? You ought to have had to care for him the last few weeks,
and you'd think tame. Not once have I dared go in reach of his rope. And
there he is, crouched at your feet! I was always dreading he'd get
away--" Morris paused, evidently remembering the girl. "Beatrice, are
The girl moved toward them. "No. He didn't touch me. But you came just
in time--" The girl's voice wavered; and Ben stepped to her side. "I'm
all right now--"
"But you'd better sit down," Ben advised quietly. "It was enough to
scare any one to death--"
"Any one--but you--" the girl replied, her voice still unsteady. But she
paused when she saw the warm color spread over Ben's rugged, brown face.
And his embarrassment was real. Naturally shy and unassuming, such
effusive praise as this always disturbed him--just as it would have
embarrassed any really masculine man alive. Women, more extravagant in
speech and loving flattery with a higher ardor, would have found it hard
to believe how really distressed he was; but Morris, an outdoor man to
the core, understood completely. Besides, Ben knew that the praise was
not deserved. Excessive bravery had played no part in the scene of a
moment before. He had been brave just as far as Morris was brave,
leaping freely in response to a call for help: the same degree of
bravery that can be counted on in most men, over the face of the earth.
Bravery does not lie alone in facing danger: there must also be the
consciousness of danger, the conquest of fear. In this case Ben had felt
no fear. He knew with a sure, true knowledge that he was master of the
wolf. He knew the wolf's response to his words before ever he spoke. And
now all the words in the language could not convey to these others
whence that knowledge had come.
He vaguely realized that this had always been some way part of his
destiny,--the imposition of his will over the beasts of the forest. He
had never tried to puzzle out why, knowing that such trial would be
unavailing. He had instinctively understood such creatures as these.
To-day he felt that he knew the wild, fierce heart beating in the lean
breast as a man might know his brother's heart. The bond between them
was hidden from his sight, something back of him, beyond him, enfolded
within a secret self that was mysterious as a dream, and it reached into
the countless years; yet it was real, an ancient relationship that was
no less intimate because it could not be named. In turn, the wolf had
seemed to know that this tall form was a born habitant of the forests,
even as himself, one that would kill him as unmercifully as he himself
would kill a fall, and whose dark eyes, swept with fire, and whose cool,
strong words must never be disobeyed.
"You never seen this wolf before?" Morris asked him, calling him from
"Then you must be old Hiram's brother himself, to control him like you
did. Lord, look at him. Crouching at your feet."
Suddenly Ben reached and took the wolf's head between his hands. Slowly
he lifted the savage face till their eyes met. The wolf growled, then,
whimpering, tried to avert its gaze. Then a rough tongue lapped at the
"There's nothing to be afraid of, now," he told the girl.
"He's right, Beatrice," Morris agreed. "He's tamed him. Even I can see
that much. And I never saw anything like it, since the day I was born."
It was true: as far as Ben was concerned, the terrible Fenris--named by
a Swedish trapper, acquaintance of Hiram Melville's, for the dreadful
wolf of Scandinavian legend--was tamed. He had found a new master; Ben
had won a servant and friend whose loyalty would never waver as long as
blood flowed in his veins and breath surged in his lungs. "Lay still,
now, Fenris," he ordered. "Don't get up till I tell you."
It seems to be true that as a rule the lower animals catch the meaning
of but few words; usually the tone of the voice and the gesture that
accompanies it interpret a spoken order in a dog's brain. On this
occasion, it was as if Fenris had read his master's thought. He lay
supine, his eyes intent on Ben's rugged face.
And now, for the first time, Ben found himself regarding Beatrice. He
could scarcely take his eyes from her face. He knew perfectly that he
was staring rudely, but he was without the power to turn his eyes. Her
dark eyes fell under his gaze.
The truth was that Ben's life had been singularly untouched by the
influence of women. Mostly his life had been spent in the unpeopled
forest, away from women of all kinds; and such creatures as had admired
him in Seattle's underworld had never got close to him. He had had many
dreams; but some way it had never been credible to him that he should
ever know womanhood as a source of comradeship and happiness. Love and
marriage had always seemed infinitely apart from his wild, adventurous
In his days in prison he had given up all dream of this happiness; but
now he could begin to dream again. Everything was changed now that he
had come home. The girl's regard for him was friendly, even somewhat
admiring, and the speculations of ripening womanhood were in her eyes.
He returned her gaze with frankest interest and admiration. His senses
had been made sharp in his wilderness life; and his respect for her grew
apace. She was not only innocent and girlish; she had those traits,
innate, that a strong man loves in women: such worth and depth of
character as he wishes bequeathed to his children.
Ben drew a long breath. It was good to be home. He had not only found
his forests, just as he had left them, but now again he was among the
forest people. This girl was of his own breed, not a stranger; her
standards were his; she was a woods girl no less than he was a woodsman.
It is good to be among one's own people, those who can follow through
and understand. She too knew the urge of unbridled vitality and spirit,
common to all the woods children; and life's vivid meaning was her
inheritance, no less than his. Her arms and lips were warm from
fast-flowing blood, her nerves were vibrant and singing like his own. A
virgin still, her eyes were tender with the warmheartedness that is such
a dominant trait of frontier peoples; but what fire, what passion might
burn in them to-morrow! They were dark, lovely eyes, rather somber now
in their earnestness, seeming shadowed by the dark shadows of the spruce
No human face had ever given him such an image of beauty as that of this
dark-eyed forest child before him. Yet she was not piquant, demure, like
the girls he had met in France; not stylish and sophisticated like those
of the great cities he had visited since his return. Her garb became
her: simple, not holding the eye in itself but calling attention to the
brunette beauty of her throat and face, the warm redness of her childish
mouth, and the brown, warm color of her arms. She had dark, waving hair,
lovely to touch, wistful red lips. Because he was the woodsman, now and
always, he marked with pleasure that there was no indication of
ill-health or physical weakness about her. Her body was lithe and
strong, with the grace of the wild creatures.
It would be good to know her, and walk beside her in the tree aisles.
All manner of delectable possibilities occurred to him. But all at once
he checked his dreams with an iron will.
There must be no thought of women in his life--for now. He still had his
way to make. A few hours more would find him plunging deeper into the
forest, perhaps never to see her again. He felt an all-pervading sense
"There's nothing I can say--to thank you," the girl was murmuring. "I
never saw anything like it; it was just as if the wolf understood every
word you said."
"Old Hiram had him pretty well trained, I suspect." The man's eyes fell
to the shaggy form at his feet. "I'm glad I happened along Miss--"
"Miss Neilson," the girl prompted him. "Beatrice Neilson. I live here."
Neilson! His mind seemed to leap and catch at the name. Just that day he
had heard it from the lips of the merchant. And this was the house next
door where dwelt his fellow traveler for the morrow.
"Then it's your father--or brother--who's going to the Yuga--"
"No," the girl answered doubtfully. "My father is already there. I'm
Then the gray eyes lighted and a smile broke about Ben's lips. Few times
in his life had he smiled in quite this vivid way.
"Then it's you," he exulted, "who is going to be my fellow traveler
Ben found, rather as he had expected, that the girl was not at all
embarrassed by the knowledge that they were to have a lonely all-day
ride together. She looked at the matter from a perfectly natural and
wholesome point of view, and she could see nothing in it amiss or
improper. The girls of the frontier rarely feel the need of chaperones.
Their womanhood comes early, and the open places and the
fresh-life-giving air they breathe give them a healthy confidence in
their ability to take care of themselves. Beatrice had a pistol, and she
could shoot it like a man. She loved the solitude of the forest, but she
also knew it was good to hear the sound of a human voice when journeying
the lonely trails.
The frontier had also taught her to judge men. Here foregathered many
types, strong-thewed frontiersmen whose reverence for women surpassed,
perhaps, that of any other class of men on earth, as well as the most
villainous renegades, brutish offspring of the wilds, but she knew them
apart. She realized from the first that this tall woodsman would have
only kindness and respect for her; and that he was to be trusted even in
those lonely forest depths beyond Spruce Pass.
Ben knew the wild beasts of the field better than he knew women, so her
actual reception of the plan was lost to him. He felt that she was not
displeased: in reality the delight and anticipation she felt were beyond
any power of hers to tell. She had been tremendously thrilled and
impressed by his dominance over the wolf. She liked his bright, steady,
friendly eyes; because she was a woods girl her heart leaped at the
sight of his upright, powerful body; but most of all she felt that he
was very near indeed to an ideal come true, a man of terrific strength
and prowess yet not without those traits that women love best in
men,--courage and character and gentleness.
"I'm surely glad I'm going to have a companion," he told her. "I won't
But just then remembrance came to him, cutting the word off short. The
letter he carried in his pocket contained certain advice in regard to
silence, and perhaps now was a good time to follow it. There was no need
to tell the people of Snowy Gulch about Ezram and the claim. He
remembered that he had been warned of the danger of claim jumpers.
For an instant his mind seemed to hover at the edge of a more elusive
memory; but he could not quite seize upon it. He only knew that it
concerned the matter in hand, and that it left him vaguely troubled.
"You were saying," the girl prompted him.
"Nothing very important--except how glad I am you are going my way. The
woods are certainly lonesome by yourself. I suppose you'll be willing to
make an early start."
"The earlier the better. I've got a long way to go."
They made their plans, and soon they parted to complete preparations for
the journey. The girl went into her house: Ben took the rifle, and
followed by the wolf, struck down the main street of the village.
It can be said for Ben that he aroused no little conjecture and interest
in the minds of the townspeople, striding through the street with the
savage woods creature following abjectly at his heels. Evidently Ben's
conquest was complete: the animal obeyed his every command as quickly
as an intelligent dog. It was noticeable, however, that even the
hardiest citizens kept an apprehensive eye on the wolf during the course
of any conversation with Ben.
He bought supplies--flour and salt and a few other essentials--simple
tools and utensils such as are carried by prospectors, blankets, shells
for his rifle, and a few, simple, hard-wearing clothes. He went to bed
dead tired, his funds materially reduced. But before dawn he was up,
wholly refreshed; and after a hasty breakfast went to pack his horses
for the trip.
Beatrice came stealing out of the shadows, more than ever suggestive of
some timid creature of the forest, and the three of them saddled and
packed the animals. As daylight broke they started out, down the
shadowed street of the little town.
"The last we'll see of civilization for a long, long time," the girl
The man thrilled deeply. "And I'm glad of it," he answered. "Nothing
ahead but the long trail!"
It was a long trail, that which they followed along Poor Man's creek in
the morning hours. The girl led, by right of having some previous
acquaintance with the trail. The three pack horses walked in file
between, heads low, tails whisking; and Ben, with Fenris at his horse's
hoofs, brought up the rear. Almost at once the spruce forest dropped
over them, the silence and the gloom that Ben had known of old.
This was not like gliding in a boat down-river. The narrow, winding
trail offered a chance for the most intimate study of the wilderness.
From the river the woodsfolk were but an occasional glimpse, the stir of
a thicket on the bank: here they were living, breathing
realities,--vivid pictures perfectly framed by the frosty green of the
From the first mile these two riders were the best of companions. They
talked gaily, their voices carrying to each other with entire ease
through the still glades. He found her spirited, warm-hearted,
responding with an eager gladness to every fresh manifestation of the
wild; and in spite of his gay laughter she read something of the dark
moodiness and intensity that were his dominant traits. But he was kind,
too. His attitude toward the Little People met with on the trail--the
little, scurrying folk--was particularly appealing: like that of a
strong man toward children. She saw that he was sympathetic,
instinctively chivalrous; and she got past his barrier of reserve as few
living beings had ever done before.
She saw at once that he was an expert horseman. Riding a half-broken
mustang over the winding, brush-grown moose trails of the North is not
like cantering a thoroughbred along a park avenue, and a certain amount
of difficulty is the rule rather than the exception; but he controlled
his animal as no man of her acquaintance had ever done. He rode a bay
mare that was not, by a long way, the most reliable piece of horseflesh
McClurg owned, yet she gave him the best she had in her, scrambling with
a burst of energy on the pitches, leaping the logs, battling the mires,
and obeying his every wish. The joy of the Northern trails depends
largely upon the service rendered by the horse between one's knees, and
Ben knew it to the full.
Before the first two hours were past Beatrice found herself thrilling
with admiration at Ben's woodcraft. Not only by experience but by
instinct and character he was wholly fitted for life in the waste
places. Just as some artists are born with the soul of music, he had
come to the earth with the Red Gods at his beck and call; the spirit of
the wild things seemed to move in his being. She didn't wholly
understand. She only knew that this man, newly come from "The States,"
riding so straight and talking so gaily behind her, had qualities native
to the forest that were lacking not only in her, but in such men as her
father and Ray Brent. Seemingly he had inherited straight from the
youngest days of the earth those traits by which aboriginal man
conquered the wild.
The first real manifestation of this truth occurred soon after they
reached the bank of Poor Man's creek. All at once he had shouted at her
and told her to stop her horse. She drew up and turned in her saddle,
"There's something stirring in the thicket beside you. Don't you hear
Beatrice had sharp ears, but she strained in vain for the sound that,
forty feet farther distant, Ben heard easily. She shook her head, firmly
believing his imagination had led him astray. But an instant later a
coyote--one of those gray skulkers whose waging cries at twilight every
woodfarer knows--sprang out of his covert and darted away.
Beatrice was amazed. The significance of the incident went further than
the fact of mere good hearing. The coyote, except when he chooses to
wail out his wrongs at the fall of night, is one of the forest shadows
for silence--yet Ben had heard him. It meant nothing less than that
strange quickening of the senses found in but few--master woodsmen--that
is the especial trait and property of the beasts themselves.
Now that they climbed toward Spruce Pass their talk died away, and more
and more they yielded themselves to the hushed mood of the forest. Their
trail was no longer clearly pronounced. It was a wilderness
thoroughfare in the true sense,--a winding path made by the feet of the
great moose journeying from valley to valley.
Wild life became ever more manifest. They saw the grouse, Franklin's
fowl so well beloved by tenderfeet because of their propensity to sit
still under fire and give an unsteady marksman a second shot. Fool hens,
the woodsman called them, and the motley and mark of their weak
mentality were a red badge near the eye. The fat birds perched on the
tree limbs over the trail, relying on their mottled plumage, blending
perfectly with the dull grays and browns of the foliage, to keep them
out of sight. But such wiles did not deceive Ben. And once, in provision
for their noon lunch, a fat cock tumbled through the branches at
Beatrice's pistol shot.
The pine squirrels seemed to be having some sort of a competitive field
meet, and the tricks they did in the trees above the trail filled the
two riders with delight. They sped up and down the trunks; they sprang
from limb to limb; they flicked their tails and turned their heads
around backward and stood on their haunches, all the time chattering in
the greatest excitement. Once a porcupine--stupid, inoffensive old Urson
who carries his fort around on his back--rattled his quills in a near-by
thicket; and once they caught a glimpse of a mule deer on the hillside.
This was rather too cold and hard a country, however, to be beloved by
deer. Mostly they dwelt farther upriver.
All manner of wild creatures, great and small, had left signs on the
trails. There were tracks of otter and mink, those two river hunters
whose skins, on ladies' shoulders, are better known than the animals
themselves. They might be only patches of fur in cities, but they were
living, breathing personages here. Particularly they were personages to
the trout. Ben knew perfectly how the silver fish had learned to dart
with such rapidity in the water. They learned it keeping out of the way
of the otter and the mink.
They saw the tracks of marten--the mink that has gone into the tree tops
to live; the doglike imprints of a coyote at which Fenris whimpered and
scratched in excitement (doubtless wishing to run him down and bite him,
as is the usual reception to the detested coyote by the more important
woods creatures) and once the fresh mud showed that an old grizzly--the
forest monarch, the ancient, savage despot of the woods of which all
foresters, near and far, speak with deep respect--had passed that way
but a few minutes before. Foresters both, the two riders had every
reason to believe that the old gray tyrant was lurking somewhere in the
thickets beside the trail, half in anger, half in curiosity watching
them ride past. And of course the tracks of moose, and of their fellows
of mighty antlers, the caribou, were in profusion.
To all these things Beatrice responded with the joy of a true nature
lover. Her heart thrilled and her eyes were bright; and every new track
was a fresh surprise and delight. But Ben was affected more deeply
still. The response he made had its origin and font in deeply hidden
centers of his spirit; mysterious realms that no introspection could
reveal or words lay bare.
He knew nothing of Beatrice's sense of constant surprise. In his own
heart he had known that all these woodspeople would be waiting for
him--just as they were--and he would have known far greater amazement to
have found some of them gone. And instead of sprightly delight he knew
only an all-pervading sense of comfort, as a man feels upon returning to
his home country, among the people whom he knows and understands.
At the very headquarters of Poor Man's Creek, where the stream had
dwindled to a silver thread between mossy banks, Beatrice and Ben made
their noon camp. They were full in the heart of the wild, by now, and
had mounted to those high levels and park lands beloved by the caribou.
They built a small fire beside the stream and drew water from the deep,
clear pools that lay between cascade and cascade.
Ben Darby slowly became aware that this was one of the happiest hours
of his life. He watched, with absorbed delight, the deft, sure motions
of the girl as she fried the grouse and sliced bread, while Ben
himself tended to the coffee. Already the two were on the friendliest
terms, and since they were to be somewhere in the same region, the
future offered the most pleasing vistas to both of them. When the
horses were rested and Ben's pipe was out, they ventured on. Following
a caribou trail, they ascended a majestic range of mountains--a trail
too steep to ride and which the pack horses accomplished only with
great difficulty--emerging onto a high plateau of open parks and small
clumps of the darkest spruce. It was, of course, the most scenic part
of the journey; and the inclination to talk died speedily from the
They rode in silence, watching. Both of them were sure that words, no
matter how beautiful and eloquent, could be only a sacrilege. The very
tone of the high ranges is that of silence vast and eternal beyond scope
of thought, and the only sounds that can fittingly shatter that mighty
breathlessness are the great, calamitous phenomena of nature,--the
thunder crashing in the sky and the avalanche on the slope. The forests
they had just left were deeply silent, but the far hush had been
alleviated by the soft noises of wild creatures stirring about their
occupations; perhaps also by the feeling that the thickets were full of
sound pitched just too high or just too low for human ears to hear; but
even this relief was absent here. The high peaks stretched before them,
one after another, until they faded into the horizon,--majestic, aloof,
utterly and grandly silent.
The snow still lay deep over the plateau, packed to the consistency of
ice, and the marmots had not yet emerged to welcome the spring with
their shrill, joyous whistling. From their high place they could see the
hills spread out below them,--fold after fold as of a great cloak,
deeply green, seemingly infinite in expanse, broken only by the blue
glint of the Agnes lakes, like two great twin sapphires hidden in the
forest. But they couldn't make out a single roof top of Snowy Gulch. The
forest had already claimed it utterly.
This was the caribou range; wherever they looked they saw the tracks of
the noble animals in the snow. Later they caught a glimpse of the
creatures themselves, a small herd of perhaps half a dozen swinging
along the snow in their indescribable pacing gait. They were in fitting
surroundings, their color inexpressibly vivid against the snow, and
Ben's heart warmed and thumped in his breast at the sight.
But the trail descended at last into the great valley of the Yuga. Mile
after mile, it seemed to them, they went down, leaving the snow, leaving
the open glades, into the dark, still glens of spruce. At last they
paused on the river bank.
Ben was somewhat amazed at the size of the stream when it emerged below
the rapids. It was, at its present high stage, fully one hundred and
fifty yards across, such a stream as would bear the traffic of commerce
in any inhabited region. They turned down the moose trail that followed
But it was not to be that this journey should hold only delight for Ben.
A half-mile down the river he suddenly made a most momentous and
He had stopped his horse to reread the copy of Hiram Melville's letter,
intending to verify his course. In the shadow of the tall, dark
spruce--darkening ever as the light grew less--his eye sped swiftly over
it. His gaze came to rest upon a familiar name.
"Look out for Jeff Neilson and his gang," the letter read. "They seen
some of my dust."
Neilson--no wonder Ben had been perplexed when Beatrice had first spoken
her name. No wonder it had sounded familiar. And the hot beads moistened
his brow when he conceived of all the dreadful possibilities of that
coincidence of names.
Yet because he was a woodsman of nature and instinct, blood and birth,
he retained the most rigid self-control. He made no perceptible start.
At first he did not glance at Beatrice. Slowly he folded the letter and
put it back into his pocket.
"I'm going all right," he announced. He urged his horse forward. His
perfect self-discipline had included his voice: it was deep, but wholly
casual and unshaken. "And how about you, Miss Neilson?"
He pronounced her name distinctly, giving her every chance to correct
him in case he had misunderstood her. But there was no hope here. "I'm
going all right, I know."
"It seems to me we must be heading into about the same country," Ben
went on. "You see, Miss Neilson, I'm going to make my first permanent
camp somewhere along this still stretch; I've had inside dope that
there's big gold possibilities around here."
"It has never been a gold country except for pockets, some of them
remarkably rich," she told him doubtfully, evidently trying not to
discourage him. "But my father has come to the conclusion that it's
really worth prospecting. He's in this same country now."
"I suppose I'll meet him--I'll likely meet him to-night when I take you
to the cabin on the river. You said his name was--"
For all that he was prepared for it, the name was a straight-out body
blow to Ben. He had still dared to hope that this girl was of no blood
kin of the claim-jumper, Jeffery Neilson. The truth was now only too
plain. By the girl's own word he was operating in Hiram Melville's
district and unquestionably had already jumped the claim. His daughter
was joining him now, probably to keep house for him; and for all that
Ben knew, already possessing guilty knowledge of her father's crime.
It was hard to hold the head erect, after that. Already he had builded
much on his friendship with this girl, only to find that she was allied
with the enemy camp. He saw in a flash how unlikely it would be that
Ezram and himself could drive the usurpers out: the claim-jumper is a
difficult problem, even when the original discoverer is living and in
possession, much more so when he is silent in his grave.
Ben had known the breed since boyhood, and he hated them as he hated
coyotes and pack-rats. They lacked the manhood to brave the unknown in
pursuit of the golden fleece; they waited until after years of grinding
labor the strike was made and then pounced down upon the claim like
vultures on the dead. Ben was glad he had not obeyed his impulse to tell
the girl of his true reason for coming to the Yuga. He knew now, with
many foes against him, he could best operate in the dark.
His thought flashed to Ezram. The recovery of the mine had been the old
man's fondest dream, the last hope of his declining years, and this
setback would go hard with him. The blow was ever so much more cruel on
Ezram's account than his own. Ben could picture his downcast face,
trying yet to smile; his sobered eyes that he would try to keep bright.
But there would be certain planning, when they met again over their camp
fire. And there were three of them allied now. Fenris the wolf had come
into his service.
He glanced back at the gray-black creature that followed at the heels of
his horse; and now, at twilight's graying, he saw that a significant and
startling change had come over him. He no longer trotted easily behind
them. He came stalking, almost as if in the hunt, his ears pointing, his
neck hairs bristling, and there were the beginnings of curious, lurid
lightnings in his eyes. There could be but one answer. He had been swept
away in the current of madness that sweeps the forest at the fall of
darkness: the age-old intoxication of the wilderness night. The hunting
hours were at hand. The creatures of claw and fang were coming into
their own. Fenris was shivering all over with those dark wood's passions
that not even the wisest naturalist can fully understand.
The air was tingling and electric, just as Ben recalled it a thousand
nights. Everywhere the hunters were leaving their lairs and starting
forth; grasses moved and brush-clumps rustled; blood was hot and savage
eyes were shot with fire. The mink, with unspeakable savagery, took the
trail of a snow-shoe rabbit beside the river-bed; a lynx with pale,
green, luminous eyes began his stalk of a tree squirrel, and various of
Fenris' fellows--pack brothers except for his own relations with
men--sang a song that was old when the mountains were new as they raced,
black in silhouette against the paling sky, along a snowy ridge.
Ben felt a quickening of his own senses, not knowing why. _His_ blood,
too, spurted inordinately fast through his veins, and his flesh seemed
to creep and tingle. There could be no surer proof of his legitimacy as
a son of the wilderness. The passions that maddened the first men, near
to the beasts they hunted in their ancient forests, returned in all
their fullness. The dusk deepened. The trail dimmed so that the eye had
to strain to follow it.
Complex and weird were the passions invoked to-night, but not even to
the gray wolf that is, beyond all other creatures, the embodiment of the
wilderness spirit, did there come such a madness, such a dark and
terrible lust, as that which cursed a certain wayfarer beyond the next
bend in the river. This was not one of the forest people, neither the
lynx, nor the hunting otter, nor even the venerable grizzly with whom no
one contests the trail. It was a human being,--a man of youthful body
and strong, deeply lined, yet savage face.
A close observer would have noticed the faintest tremor and shiver
throughout his body. His eyes were very bright, vivid even in the dying
day. He was deeply lost in his own mood, seemingly oblivious to the
whole world about him. He carried a rifle in his hands.
He was on his way to report to his chief; and just what would be
forthcoming he did not know. But if too much objection were raised and
affairs got to a crucial stage, he had nothing to fear. He had learned a
certain lesson--an avenue to triumph. It was strange that he had never
hit upon it before.
His blood was scalding hot, and he was swept by exultation. Not for an
instant had he hesitated, nor Would he ever hesitate again. There was no
one in the North of greater might than he! No one could bend his will
from now on. He had found the road to triumph.
Ray Brent had discovered a new power within himself. Perhaps even his
chief, Jeffery Neilson, must yield before his new-found strength.
As twilight darkened to the full gloom of the forest night, Ben and
Beatrice rode to a lonely cabin on the Yuga River,--one that had been
built by Hiram Melville years past and was just at the mouth of the
little creek on which, less than a half-mile distant, he had his claim.
They had seen a lighted window from afar, marking the end of Beatrice's
hard day's ride.
"Of course you won't try to go on to-night?" she asked Ben. "You'll stay
at the cabin?"
"There likely won't be room for three," he answered. "But it's a clear
night. I can make a fire and sleep out."
It was true. The stars were emerging, faint points of light through the
darkening canopy of the sky; and to the East a silver glint on the
horizon forecast the rising moon.
They halted at last; and Beatrice saw her father's form, framed in the
doorway. She hastened into his arms: waiting in the darkness Ben could
not help but hear his welcome. Many things were doubtful; but there
could be no doubt of the love that Neilson bore his daughter. The
amused, half-teasing words with which he received her did not in the
least disguise it. "The joy and the light of his life," Ben commented to
himself. The gray old claim-jumper had this to redeem him, at least.
"But why so many horses, Beatrice?" he asked. "You--brought some one
Ben was not so far distant that he failed to discern the instant change
in Neilson's tone. It had a strained, almost an apprehensive quality
such as few men had ever heard in his voice before. Plainly all visitors
in this end of the mountains were regarded with suspicion.
"He's a prospector--Mr. Darby," the girl replied. "Come here, Ben--and
be introduced." She turned toward her new-found friend; and the latter
walked near, into the light that streamed over him from the doorway.
"This is my father, Mr. Darby--Mr. Neilson. Some one told him this was a
good gold country."
Ben had already decided upon his course of action and had his answer
ready. He knew perfectly that it would only put Neilson on his guard if
he stated his true position; and besides, he wanted word of Ezram. "I
may have a wrong steer, Mr. Neilson," he said, "but a man I met down on
the river-trail, out of Snowy Gulch, advised me to come here. He said
that he had some sort of a claim up here that his brother left him, and
though it was a pocket country, he thought there'd soon be a great rush
up this way."
"I hardly know who it could have been that you met," Neilson began
doubtfully. "He didn't tell you his name--"
"Melville. I believe that was it. And if you'll tell me how to find him,
I'll try to go on to-night. I brought him some of his belongings from
"Melville, eh? I guess I know who you mean now. But no--I don't know of
any claim unless it's over east, beyond here. Maybe further down the
Ben made no reply at once; but his mind sped like lightning. Of course
Neilson was lying about the claim: he knew perfectly that at that moment
he was occupying one of Hiram Melville's cabins. He was a first-class
actor, too--his voice indicating scarcely no acquaintance with or
interest in the name.
"He hasn't come up this way?" Ben asked casually.
"He hasn't come through here that I know of. Of course I'm working at my
claim--with my partners--and he might have gone through without our
seeing him. It seems rather unlikely."
Ben was really puzzled now. If Ezram had already made his presence known
and was camping somewhere in the hills about, there was no reason
immediately evident why Neilson should deny his presence. Ben found
himself wondering whether by any chance Ezram had been delayed along the
trail, perhaps had even lost his way, and had not yet put in an
"He told me, in the few minutes that I talked to him, that his cabin was
somewhere close to this one--I thought he said up this creek."
"There is a cabin up the creek a way," Neilson admitted, "but it isn't
the one he meant. It's on my claim, and my two partners are living in
it. But when he said near to this one, he might have meant ten miles.
That's the way we Northern men speak of distance."
There was nothing more to say, nothing to do at present. He said his
farewells to the girl, refused an invitation to pass the night in the
cabin, and made his way to the green bank of the stream. Four hundred
yards from the cabin, and perhaps a like number from the cabin of Ray
and Charley--obscured from both by the thickets--he pitched his camp.
In the cabin he had left Jeffery Neilson catechized his daughter, trying
to learn all he could concerning Ben. It was true that he carried the
dead Hiram's rifle, and that the latter's pet wolf followed at his
heels, but it was wholly probable that the old man, Hiram's brother,
with whom he had conversed at the river, had designated him to get them.
He had been courteous and respectful throughout the journey to the Yuga,
Beatrice said, and he had also saved her from possible death in the
fangs of the wolf the evening previous. Neilson decided that he would
take no steps at present but merely wait and watch developments.
Meanwhile Ben had made his fire and unpacked his horses. He confined his
riding horse with a picket rope; the others he turned loose. Then he
cooked a simple meal for himself and the gaunt servant at his heels.
When the night had come down in full, and as he sat about the glowing
coals of his supper fire, he had time to devote serious thought to the
fate of Ezram. It occurred to him that perhaps the old man had
discovered, at a distance, the presence of the claim-jumpers; and was
merely waiting in the thickets for a chance to take action. If such were
the case, sooner or later they could join their fortunes again. It was
also easy to imagine that Ezram had lost his way on the journey out.
He stood at the edge of the firelight, gazing out into the darkened
forest. The wolf crouched beside him: alert, watching his face for any
command. It was wholly plain that the gaunt woods creature had accepted
him at once as his master; and that the bond between them, because of
some secret similarity of spirit, was already far closer than between
most masters and their pets.
Ben sensed another side of the forest to-night because of his inborn
love of the waste places not often seen. The thickets were menacing,
sinister to-night. The spruce crept up to the skyline with darkness and
mystery: he realized the eternal malevolence that haunts their silent
fastnesses. They would have tricks in plenty to play on such as would
lose their way on their dusky trails! Oh, they would have no mercy or
remorse for any one who was lost, _out there_, to-night! Ben felt a
heavy burden of dread!
Even now, old Ezram might be wandering, vainly, through the gloomy,
whispering woods, ever penetrating farther into their merciless
solitudes. And no homes smoked in the clearings, no camps glowed in the
immensity of the dark--out there. This was just the beginning of the
forest; clear into the shadow of the Arctic Circle, where the woodlands
gave way to the Weary wastes of barrens, there was no break, no tilled
fields or fisher's villages, only an occasional Indian encampment which
not even a wolf, running through the night, might find. His supply of
food would quickly be exhausted, fatigue would break his valiant spirit.
Ben planned an extensive search for his tracks as soon as the morning
light permitted him to see.
He missed the old man's comradeship with a deep and fervid longing. They
had come to count on each other, these past weeks. It wasn't alone
infinite gratitude that he felt for him now. The thing went too deep to
tell. Yet there was no use seeking for him to-night.
He turned to the wolf and dropped his hand upon the animal's shoulder.
Fenris started, then quivered in ecstasy. "I wish I had your nose,
to-night, old boy," Ben told him. "I'd find that old buddy of mine. I
wish I had your eyes to see in the dark, and your legs to run. Fenris,
do you know where he is?"
The wolf turned his wild eyes toward his master's face, as if he were
trying to understand.
Impelled by an urge within himself Ben suddenly knelt beside his lupine
friend. He could not understand the flood of emotion, the vague sense of
impending and dramatic events that stirred him to the quick. He only
knew, with a knowledge akin to inspiration, that in Fenris lay the
answer to his problem.
The moment was misted over with a quality of unreality. In the east rose
the moon, shining incredibly on the tree tops, showering down through
the little rifts in the withholding branches, enchanting the place as by
the weaving of a dream. The moon madness caught up Ben like a flame,
enthralling him as never before. He knew that white sphere of old. And
all at once he realized that here, at his knees, was one who knew it
too,--with a knowledge as ancient and as infinite as his own. Not for
nothing had the wolf breed lived their lives beneath it through the long
roll of the ages. Its rising and its setting had regulated the hunting
hours of the pack time without end; its beams had lighted the game
trails where the gray band had bayed after the deer; its light had
beheld, since the world was young, the rapturous mating of the old pack
leader and his female. Fenris too knew the moon-madness; but unlike Ben
he had a means of expression of the wonder and mystery and vague longing
that thrilled his wild heart. No man who has heard the pack song to the
moon could doubt this fact. It is a long, melancholy wail, poignant with
the pain of living, but it tells what man can not.
Ben knew, now, why he was a forester, a woodsman famed even among
woodsmen. Most of his fellows had been tamed by civilization; they had
lived beneath roofs instead of the canopy of heaven, and they had almost
forgotten about the moon. Ben, on the other hand, was a recurrence of an
earlier type, inheriting little from his immediate ancestors but
reverting back a thousand centuries to the Cave and the Squatting Place.
His nature was that of prehistoric man rather than that of the son of
civilization; and in this lay the explanation for all that had set him
apart from the great run of men and had made him the master woodsman
that he was. And because his spirit was of the wildwood, because he also
knew the magic of the moon, he was able to make this wildwood thing at
his feet understand and obey his will.
The world of to-day seemed to fade out for him and left only the wolf,
its fierce eyes on his own. Time swung back, and this might have been a
scene of forgotten ages,--the wolf, the human hunter, the smoldering
camp fire, the dark, jagged line of spruce against the sky. It was thus
at the edge of the ice. Wolf and man--both children of the wild--had
understood each other then; and they could understand each other now.
"Fenris, old boy," the man whispered. "Can you find him for me, Fenris?
He's out there somewhere--" the man motioned toward the dark--"and I
want him. Can you take me to him?"
The wolf trembled all over, struggling to get his meaning. This was no
creature of subordinate intelligence: the great wolf of the North. He
had, besides the cunning of the wild hunters, the intelligence that is
the trait of the whole canine breed. Nor did he depend on his sense of
hearing alone. He watched his master's face, and more than that, he was
tuned and keyed to those mysterious vibrations that carry a message from
brain to brain no less clearly and swift than words themselves,--the
secret wireless of the wild.
"He's my buddy, old boy, and I want you to find him for me," Ben went
on, more patiently. He searched his pockets, drawing out at last the
copy of the letter Ezram had given him that morning, and, because the
old man had carried it for many days, it could still convey a message to
the keen nose of the wolf. He put it to the animal's nostrils, then
pointed away into the darkness.
Fenris followed the motion with his eyes; and presently his long body
stiffened. Ben watched him, fascinated. Then the wolf sniffed at the
paper again and trotted away into the night.
In one leap Ben was on his feet, following him. The wolf turned once,
saw that his master was at his heels, and sped on. They turned up a
slight draw, toward the hillside.
It became clear at once that Fenris was depending upon his marvelous
sense of smell. His nose would lower to the ground, and sometimes he
tacked back and forth, uncertainly. At such times Ben watched him with
bated breath. But always he caught the scent again.
Once more he paused, sniffing eagerly; then turned, whining. Just as
clearly as if they had possessed a mutual language Ben understood: the
animal had caught the clear scent at last. The wolf loped off, and his
fierce bay rang through the hushed forest.
It was a long-drawn, triumphant note; and the wild creatures paused in
their mysterious, hushed occupations to listen. It was also significant
that it made certain deadly inroads in the spirit of Ray Brent, sitting
in his distant cabin. He marked the direction of the sound, and he
cursed, half in awe, under his breath. He had always hated the gray
rangers. They were the uncanny demons of the forest.
Ben followed the running wolf as fast as he could; and in his eagerness
he had no opportunity for conjecture as to what he would find at the end
of the pursuit. Yet he did not believe for an instant this was a false
trail. The wolf's deep, full-ringing bays were ever more urgent and
excited, filling the forest with their uproar. But quite suddenly the
silence closed down again, seemingly more deep and mysterious than ever.
Ben's first sensation was one of icy terror that crept to the very
marrow of his bones. He knew instantly that there was a meaning of
dreadful portent in the abrupt cessation of the cries. He halted an
instant, listening, but at first could hear no more than the throb of
his heart in his breast and the whisper of his own troubled breathing.
But presently, at a distance of one hundred yards, he distinguished the
soft whining of the wolf.
Fenris was no longer running! He had halted at the edge of a distant
thicket. The cold sweat sprang out on Ben's forehead, and he broke into
a headlong run.
There was no later remembrance of traversing that last hundred yards.
The hillside seemed to whip under his feet. He paused at last, just at
the dark margin of an impenetrable thicket. The wolf whined
disconsolately just beyond the range of his vision.
"Ezram!" he called, a curious throbbing quality in his voice. "Are you
there, Ez? It's me--Ben."
But the thickets neither rustled nor spoke. The cracked old voice he had
learned to love did not speak in relief, in that moment of unutterable
suspense. Indeed, the silence seemed to deepen about him. The spruce
trees were hushed and impassive as ever; the moon shone and the wind
breathed softly in his face. Fenris came whimpering toward him.
Together, the man and the wolf, they crept on into the thicket. They
halted at last before a curious shadow in the silvered covert. Ben knew
at once he had found his ancient comrade.
He and Ezram had had their last laugh together. He lay very still, the
moonlight ensilvering his droll, kindly face,--sleeping so deeply that
no human voice could ever waken him. An ugly rifle wound yawned darkly
at his temple.
The first effect of a great shock is usually a semi-paralysis of the
entire mental mechanism and is, as a rule, beneficent. The brain seems
to be enclosed in a great preoccupation, like a wall, and the messages
of pain and horror brought by the nerves batter against it in vain. The
senses are dulled, the perceptions blunted, and full realization does
For a long time, in which time itself stood still, Ben sat beside the
dead body of his old counselor and friend as a child might sit among
flowers. He half leaned forward, his arms limp, his hands resting in his
lap, a deep wonder and bewilderment in his eyes. Dully he watched the
moon lifting in the sky and felt the caress of the wind against his
face, glancing only from time to time at the huddled body before him.
The wolf whined softly, and sometimes Ben reached his hand to caress the
But slowly his wandering faculties returned to him. He began to
understand. Ezram was dead--that was it--gone from his life as smoke
goes in the air. Never to hear him again, or see him, or make plans with
him, or have high adventures beside him along the lonely trails. Fenris
had found him in the darkness: here he lay--the old family friend, the
man who had saved him, redeemed him and given him his chance, his old
"buddy" who had brought him home. The thing was not credible at first:
that here, dead as a stone, lay the shell of that life that had been his
own salvation. He studied intently the gray face, missed its habitual
smile and for really the first time his gaze rested upon the yawning
wound in the temple.
He gazed at it in speechless, growing horror, and something like an
incredible cold descended upon him. The entire hydraulic system of his
blood seemed to be freezing. His hands were cold, his vitals icy and
lifeless. There was, however, the beginning of heat somewhere back of
his eyes. He could feel it but dimly, but it was increasing, slowly,
like a smoldering coal that eats its way into wood and soon will burst
into a flame. Slowly he began to grow rigid, his muscles flexing. His
face underwent a tangible change. The lines deepened, the lips set in a
hard line, the eyes were like those of a reptile,--cold, passionless,
unutterably terrible. His face was pale like the paleness of death, but
it appeared more like hard, white metal than flesh. His mind began to
work clear again; he began to understand.
Ezram had been shot, murdered by the men who had jumped his claim.
Beatrice's father, who had talked to him, had probably committed the
crime: if not he, one of his understrappers at his order. He found
himself recalling what Jeffery Neilson had said. Oh, the man had been
sharp! Believing that in the depth of the forest the body would never be
discovered, he had tried to send Ben farther into the interior in search
He arose, wholly self-mastered, and with hard, strong hands made a
detailed examination of Ezram's wound. He had evidently been shot by a
rifle of large caliber, probably at close range. Ezram's own gun lay at
his feet, loaded but not cocked.
"They shot you down in cold blood, old boy, didn't they?" he found
himself asking. "You didn't have a chance!"
But the gray lips were setting with death, and could not answer. Ben
had forgotten for the instant; he must keep better hold of himself. The
time was not ripe to turn himself loose. But he did wish for one more
word with Ezram, just a few little minutes of planning. They could
doubtless work out something good together. They could decide what to
From this point his mind naturally fell to Ezram's parting advice to
him. "I've only got one decent place to keep things safe, and that ain't
so all-fired decent," the old man had told him. "I always put 'em down
my bootleg, between the sock and the leather. If I ever get shuffled
off, all of a sudden, I want you to look there careful."
Still with the same deathly pallor he crept over the dead leaves to
Ezram's feet. His hands were perfectly steady as he unlooped the laces,
one after another, and quietly pulled off the right boot. In the boot
leg, just as Ezram had promised, Ben found a scrap of white paper.
He spread it on his knee, and unfolded it with care. The moonlight was
not sufficiently vivid, however, for him to read the penciled scrawl. He
felt in his pocket for a match.
Because his mind was operating clear and sure, his thoughts flashed at
once to his enemies in their cabins along the creek. He did not want
them to know he had found the body. His first instinct was to work in
the dark, to achieve his ends by stealth and cunning! It was strange
what capacity for cunning had come upon him. Oh, he would be
crafty--sharp--sure in every motion.
It was unlikely, however, that the faint glare of a match could carry so
far. To make sure he walked behind the covert, then turned his back to
the canyon through which the creek flowed. The match cracked,
inordinately loud in the silence, and his eyes followed the script.
Ezram had been faithful to the last:
To WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
In case of my death I leave all I die possessed of including my
brother Hiram's claim near Yuga River to my pard and buddy, Ben
(Signed) EZRA MELVILLE.
The document was as formal as Ezram could make it, with a carefully
drawn seal, and for all its quaint wording, it was a will to stand in
any court. But Ezram had not been able to hold his dignity for long. He
had added a postscript:
Son, old Hiram made a will, and I guess I can make one too. I just
found out about them devils that jumped our claim. I left you back
there at the river because I didn't want you taking any dam fool
risks till I found out how things lay.
I just got one thing to ask. If them devils get me--get them. My
life ain't worth much but I want you to make them pay for the little
it is worth. Never stop till you've done it.
Ben lighted match after match until he had absorbed every word. Then he
folded the paper and placed it in his pocket; but the action did not in
the least take his eyes from the words. He could still see them, written
in fire. They were branded on his spirit.
He stood wholly motionless for a space of almost a minute, as if
listening. The heat back of his eyes was more intense now. The red coals
were about to burst into flame. All the blood of his huge body seemed to
be collecting there, searing his brain.
The moon was no longer white in the sky. It had turned a fiery red. The
stars were red too,--all of them more red than the Star of War. "I want
you to make them pay," a voice said clearly in his ears. "Never stop
till you've done it."
And now Ben was no longer pale. His face was no longer hard and set.
Rather it was dark--dark as dark earth. His eyes glowed like coals
beneath his black brows. He was not standing still and lifeless now. He
was shivering all over with the blackest hate, the most deadly fury.
"Make them pay," he said aloud again, "and never stop till you've done
A sudden snarl from the lips of the wolf drew his eyes downward. Heaven
help him; for the moment he had forgotten Fenris! But he must not forget
him again. They had work to do, the two of them.
Fenris was no longer whining disconsolately. His master's fury had
passed to him, and Ben looked and saw before him not the docile pet, but
the savage beast of the wild. The hair was erect on his shoulders, his
lips were drawn, too; he was crouched as if for battle. The eyes, sunken
in their sockets, were red and terrible to see. Yet he was still Ben's
servant. That quality could never pass from him. The eyes of two
met,--the wolf and the man.
At that instant the little tongue of flame that had been mounting in
Ben's brain burst into a dreadful conflagration. It was the explosion at
last, no less terrible because of its silence--because the sound of the
least, little wind was still discernible in the distant thickets. He
dropped to his knees before the wolf, seizing its head in a terrific
grasp. He half jerked it off its feet, till he held it so that its eyes
burned straight into his.
"Fenris, Fenris!" he breathed. "We've got to make them pay. And we must
not stop till we're done."
It was more than a command. It had the quality of a vow. And now, as
they knelt, eyes looking into eyes, it was like a pagan rite in the
Their separate identities were no longer greatly pronounced. They were
not man and beast, they were simply the wolves of the forest. The old
qualities most often associated with manhood--gentleness, forbearance,
mercy--seemed to pass away from Ben as a light passes into darkness.
Only the Wolf was left, the dominant Beast--that darker, hidden side of
himself from which no man can wholly escape and which civilization has
only smothered, as fresh fuel smothers a flame. Not for nothing had his
fellows known him as "Wolf" Darby; and now the name was true.
The Beast that dwells under every man's skin, in a greater or less
degree, was in the full ascendancy at last. The unnamable ferocity that
marks the death-leap of the wild hunters was in his face. In his eyes
was cunning,--such craft as marks the pack in its hunting. All over him
was written that unearthly rage that is alone the property and trait of
the woods creatures: the fury with which a she-wolf fights for her cubs
or a rattlesnake avenges the death of its mate. Mercy, remorse,
compassion there was none.
And the demon gods of the wilderness rejoiced. For uncounted thousands
of years the tide of battle had flowed against them; and it was long and
long since they had won such a victory as this. Mostly their men
children had forsaken their leafy bowers to live in houses. They tilled
the ground rather than hunt in the forest. The cattle that had once run
wild in the marshes now fed dully in enclosed pastures; the horses--that
mighty breed that once mated and fought and died in freedom on the high
lands--pulled lowly burdens in the cultivated fields. Even some of the
canine people too--first cousins to the wolves themselves--had sold
themselves into slavery for a gnawed bone and a chimney corner. But
to-night the wild had claimed its own again.
Here was one, at least, who had come back into his own. The forest
seemed to whisper and thrill with rapture.
As a wolf might plan a hunt in the forest, Ben planned his war against
Neilson and his subordinates. He knew perfectly that he must not attempt
open warfare. The way of the wolf is the way of cunning and stealth: the
stalk through the thicket and the ferocious attack upon the
unsuspecting; and such example must guide Ben in his operations. He
could not be too careful, too furtive.
His foes were three against one, and they were on their own ground. They
knew the trails and the lay of the country; and as always, in the
science of warfare, this was an advantage hardly to be overcome. Ben
knew that his only hope lay in the finest strategy. First he must make a
surprise attack, and second, he must utilize all natural advantages.
He was well aware that he could lie in ambush, close to the mine, and
probably send one man to a speedy death with a rifle bullet. But he did
not have one enemy; he had three. The survivors of the first shot would
immediately seek shelter--probably returning shot for shot--and that
would insert an element of uncertainty into the venture. At the distance
he would be obliged to shoot, he would possibly only succeed in wounding
one of his enemies, and he might miss him altogether. Such a plan as
this was wholly too uncertain for adoption.
There must be no sporting chances in his strategy. The way of the wolf
is to cover every opening, to prepare for every contingency that his
brute mind can foresee. He would give and receive no quarter, and the
ancient fairness and honor must be likewise forgotten. He must take no
risk with his own life until the last of the three was down. What
happened thereafter did not greatly concern him. The world could shatter
to atoms after that for all he would care. He was a son of forest
solitude; and he had but one dream left in life.
It was not his aim to give his foes the least chance to fight back, the
slightest hope of battle. He would use any advantage, descend to any
wile. This was not to be a sportsmen's war, but a grim battle to the
death, inexorable and merciless.
These things were all fully known to him before ever he left the
hillside, and like a man asleep, walked down to his camp. The fire had
burned down to coals--sullen and angry--but he heaped on fuel, and they
broke into a blaze. Then, Fenris at his side, he squatted on the ground
beside the dancing flame.
He watched it, fascinated; mostly silent but sometimes muttering and
whispering half-enunciated words. His red eyes and the black hair,
matted about his lips and shadowing the backs of his hands, gave him a
wild, fierce look; and it was as if the primal blood-lust and hatred
that seared him had literally swept him back into the forgotten
centuries,--the first, savage human hunter at the edge of the retreating
glaciers. The scene had not changed: dark spruce and the red glow of
fire; and there was atavism in his very posture. The first men had
squatted beside their camp fires this same way, their wolfine pets
beside them, as they made their battle plans.
The eager flames held Ben's fascinated gaze as a crystal ball might hold
the eyes of a seer. They seemed to have a message for him if he could
just grasp it, a course whereby he might achieve success. Oh, they could
be cruel, relentless--mercilessly eating their way into sensitive flesh.
They were no respecters of persons, these creeping, leaping tongues. Nor
must _he_ have any scruples or qualms as to how he gained his ends. He
too must be merciless, and if necessary, strike down the innocent in
order to reach the guilty.
As he watched certain knowledge reached him of life and death. The
conclusion slowly came to him that just blind killing was not enough.
For all he knew death might bring instant forgetfulness--and thus not
constitute in itself a satisfactory measure of vengeance. The _fear_ of
death was a reality and a torment: for all he knew, the thing itself
might be a change for the better. It might be that, suddenly hurled out
of this world of three dimensions, his enemies would have no knowledge
nor carry no memories of the hand that struck them down. There could be
no satisfaction in this. To murder from ambush might be a measure of
expedience, but never one of self-gratification. When Ben struck he
wanted them to know who was their enemy, and for what crime they were
The best way of all, of course, was to strike indirectly at them,
perhaps through some one they loved. Soon, perhaps, he would see the
He went to his blankets, but sleep did not come to him. The wolf stood
on guard. Beatrice Neilson had fallen into happy dreams long since, but
there was further wakefulness in Hiram Melville's newer cabin, farther
up-creek. Ray Brent and Chan Heminway still sat over their cups, the
fiery liquid running riot in their veins, but slumber did not come
easily to-night. And when Beatrice was asleep, Neilson stole down the
moonlit moose trail and joined his men.
"I've brought news," he began, when the door had closed out the stars
and the breath of the night. Chan, his small eyes glazed from strong
drink, staggered to his feet to offer his chair to his chief. Brent,
however, was in no mood for servility to-night. He had done man's work
in the early evening; and his triumph and his new-found sense of power
had not yet died in his body. Perhaps he had learned the way to all
success. There was a curious sullen defiance in the blearing gaze over
"What's your news?" Ray's voice harshened, possessing a certain quality
of grim levity. "I guess old Hiram's brother hasn't come to life again,
It was a significant thing that both Chan and Neilson looked oppressed
and uneasy at the words. Like all men of low moral status they were
secretly superstitious, and these boasting words crept unpleasantly
under their skins. It is never a good thing to taunt the dead! Ray had
spoken sheerly to frighten and shock them, thus revealing his own
fearlessness and strength; yet his voice rang louder than he had meant.
He had no desire for it to carry into the silver mystery of the night.
"The less you say about Hiram's brother the better," Neilson answered
sternly. "We've thrashed it out once to-night." He straightened as he
read the insolence, the gathering insubordination in the other's
contemptuous glance; and his voice lacked its old ring of power when he
spoke again. "Jumpin' claims is one thing and murder is another."
Ray, spurred on by the false strength of wickedness, drunk with his new
sense of power, was already feeling the first surge of deadly anger in
his veins. "I suppose if you had been doin' it, you'd let that old whelp
take back this claim, worth a quarter million if it's worth a cent. Not
if I know it. It was the only way--and the safe way too."
"Safe! What if by a thousandth chance some one would blunder on to that
body you left in the brush? What if some sergeant of mounted police
would say to his man, 'Go get Ray Brent!' Where would you be then?
You've always been a murderer at heart, Brent--but some time you'll slip
"Only a fool slips up. Don't think I didn't figure on everything. As you
say, there's not one chance in a thousand any one will ever find him. If
they do, there wouldn't be any kind of a case. Likely the old man hasn't
got a friend or relation on earth. I've searched his pockets--there's
nothing to tell who he is. We'll have our claim recorded soon, and it
would be easy to make him out the claim-jumper rather than us--"
"Wait just a minute before you say he ain't got any friends, or at least
acquaintances. That's what I came to see you about to-night." Neilson
paused, for the sake of suspense. "Beatrice came up to-night, as agreed,
and she had a prospector with her--and he knew old Hiram's brother."
A short, tense silence followed his words, and Ray stared into his cup.
It might be that just for an instant the reckless light went out of his
eyes and left them startled and glazing. Then he got to his feet. "Then
God Almighty!" he cried. "What you waiting for? Why don't you croak him
off before this night's over?"
"Wait, you fool, till you've heard everything," Neilson replied.
"There's no hurry about killing. As I told you, the less work of that
kind we do, the more chance we've got of dying in our beds. It may be
reasonable for one prospector to disappear, but some one's going to be
suspicious if two of 'em do. I think I've already handled the matter."
"I'd handle it, and quick too," Ray protested.
"You'd handle yourself up a gallows, too. He doesn't seem to be a close
friend of this old man; he just seems to have met up with him at the
river, and the old man steered him up here. He asked me where the old
man's claim was, and said he wanted to go over and see him. He was
taking Hiram's wolf and his gun up to him. I told him I hadn't heard of
the claim, that it must be farther inside, and I think I put it over. He
ain't got the least suspicion. What he'll do is hang around here a
while, I suppose, prospecting--and likely enough soon forget all about
the old devil. I just came down here to tell you he was here and to
watch your step."
"Then the first thing up," Chan Heminway suggested, "is to bury the
"Spoke up like a fool!" Ray answered. "Not till this man is dead or out
of the country. It's well hidden, and don't go prowling anywheres near
it. If he's the least bit suspicious, or even if he's on the lookout for
gold, he'd likely enough follow you. But there's one thing we can
do--and that quick."
"And what's that?"
"Start Chan off to-morrow to the office in Bradleyburg and record this
claim in our names. We've waited too long already."
"Ray, you're talking like a man now," Neilson agreed. "You and I stay
here and work away, innocent as can be, on the claim. Chan, put that
bottle away and get to bed. Take the trail down first thing to-morrow.
Then we can laugh at all the prospectors that want to come."
Soon after the break of dawn Ben put his pick and shovel on his
shoulder, and leisurely walked up the creek past Ray's cabin. Since Chan
Heminway had already departed down the long trail to Bradleyburg--a town
situated nearly forty miles from Snowy Gulch--Ray alone saw him pass;
and he eyed him with some apprehension. Daylight had brought a more
vivid consciousness of his last night's crime; and a little of his
bravado had departed from him. He moved closer to his rifle.
Yet in a moment his suspicions were allayed. Ben was evidently a
prospector, just as he claimed to be, and was venturing forth to get his
first "lay of the land." The latter continued up the draw, crossed a
ridge, halted now and then in the manner of the wild creatures to see if
he were being followed, and finally by a roundabout route returned to
the lifeless form of his only friend. The wolf still trotted in silence
The vivid morning light only revealed the crime in more dreadful detail.
The withered form lay huddled in the stained leaves; and Ben stood a
long time beside it, in deep and wondering silence, even now scarcely
able to believe the truth. How strange it was that this old comrade
could not waken and go on with him again! But in a moment he remembered
Slowly, laboriously, with little outward sign of the emotion that rent
his heart, he dug a shallow grave He knew perfectly that this was a
serious risk to his cause. Should the murderer return for any purpose,
to his dead, the grave would of course show that the body had been
discovered and would put him on his guard against Ben. Nevertheless, the
latter could not leave these early remains to the doubtful mercy of the
wilderness: the agents of air and sun, and the wild beasts.
He threw the last clod and stood looking down at the upturned earth.
"Sleep good, old Ez," he murmured in simple mass for the dead. "I'll do
what you said."
Then, at the head of the grave, he thrust the barrel of Ezram's rifle
into the ground, a monument grim as his own thoughts. The last rite was
completed; he was free to work now. From now on he could devote every
thought to the work in hand,--the payment of his debts.
By the same roundabout route he circled back to his camp, cooked his
meager lunch, and in the afternoon ventured forth again. But he was
prospecting in earnest this time, though the prospects that he sought
were those of victory to his cause, rather than of gold. He was seeking
simply a good, general idea of the nature and geography of the country
so that he might know better how to plan his attack.
His excursion took him at last to the wooded bank of the river. He stood
a long time, quite motionless, listening to the water voices that only
the wise can understand. This was really a noble stream. It flowed with
such grandeur in its silence and solitude; old and gray and austere, it
was a mighty expression of wilderness power,--resistless, immortal,
eternally secretive. The waters flowed darkly, icy cold from the melting
snow; but like a sleeping giant they would be quick to seize upon and
destroy such as would try to brave their currents, likely never to
yield them up again. Flowing forever through the uninhabited forest no
man would ever know the fate of those the river claimed.
He was above the camp when he descended to its banks, but he worked his
way down through the thickets toward Jeffery Neilson's cabin. The river
flowed quietly here, a long, still stretch that afforded safe boating.
Yet the smooth waters did not in the least alleviate Ben's haunting
sense of their sinister power and peril. The old gray she-wolf is not to
be trusted in her peaceful moments. His keen ears could distinctly hear
the roar and rumble of wild waters, just below.
The river was of great depth as well as breadth,--one of the king rivers
of the land. Ben found himself staring into its depths with a quickening
pulse. He had a momentary impression that this great stream was his
ally, a mighty agent that he could bend to his will.
He approached the long, sloping bank on which stood Neilson's cabin; and
he suddenly drew up short at the sight of a light, staunch canoe on the
open water. It was a curious fact that he noticed the craft itself
before ever he glanced at its occupant. A thrill of excitement passed
over him. He realized that this boat simplified to some degree his own
problem, in that it afforded him means of traversing this great
water-body, certainly to be a factor in the forthcoming conflict. The
boat had evidently been the property of Hiram Melville.
Then he noticed, with a strange, inexplicable leap of his heart, that
its lone occupant was Beatrice Neilson. His eye kindled at the
recognition, and the beginnings of a smile flashed to his lips. But at
once remembrance came to him, crushing his joy as the heel crushes a
tender flower. The girl was of the enemy camp, the daughter of the
leader of the triumvirate of murderers. While she herself could have had
no part in the crime, perhaps she already had guilty knowledge of it,
and at least she was of her father's hated blood.
He had builded much on his friendship with this girl; but he felt it
withering, turning black--like buds under frost--in his cold breast.
There could be no friendly words, except in guile; no easy comradeship
between them now. They were on opposite sides, hated foes to the last.
Perhaps she would be one of the innocents that must suffer with the
guilty; but he felt no remorse. Not even this lovely, tender wood child
must stand in his way.
Nevertheless, he must not put her on guard. He must simulate friendship.
He lifted his hat in answer to her gay signal.
She wore a white middy blouse, and her brown, bare forearms flashed
pleasantly in the spring sun. Her brown hair was disarranged by the wind
that found a passway down the river, and her eyes shone with the sheer,
unadorned love of living. Evidently she had just enjoyed a brisk paddle
through the still stretches of the river. With sure, steady strokes she
pushed the craft close to the little, board landing where Ben stood. She
reached up to him, and in an instant was laughing--at nothing in
particular but the fun of life--at his side.
The man glanced once at Fenris, spoke in command, then turned to the
girl. "All rested from the ride, I see," he began easily.
Her instincts keyed to the highest pitch, for an instant she thought she
discerned an unfamiliar tone, hard and hateful, in his voice. But his
eyes and his lips were smiling; and evidently she was mistaken. "I never
get tired," she responded. She glanced at the tools in his arms. "I
suppose you've found a dozen rich lodes already this morning."
"Only one." He smiled, significantly, into her eyes. Because she was a
forest girl, unused to flattery, the warm color grew in her brown
cheeks. "And how was paddling? The water looks still enough from here."
"It's not as still as it looks, but it is easy going for a half-mile
each way. If you aren't an expert boatman, however--I hardly think--I'd
"Why not? I'm fair enough with a canoe, of course--but it looks safe as
"But it isn't." She paused. "Listen with those keen ears of yours, Mr.
Darby. Don't you hear anything?"
Ben did not need particularly keen ears to hear: the far-off sound of
surging waters reached him with entire clearness. He nodded.
"That's the reason," the girl went on. "If something should happen--and
you'd get carried around the bend--a little farther than you meant to
go--you'd understand. And we wouldn't see any more of Mr. Darby around
Her dark eyes, brimming with light and laughter, were on his face, but
she failed to see him slowly stiffen to hide the sudden, wild leaping of
his heart. Could it be that he saw the far-off vision of his triumph?
His eyes glowed, and he fought off with difficulty a great preoccupation
that seemed to be settling over him.
"Tell me about it," he said at last, casually. "I was thinking of making
a boat and going down on a prospecting trip."
"I'll tell you about it, and then I think you'll change your mind. The
first cataract is the one just above where we first saw the
river--coming in; then there's this mile of quiet water. From that
point on the Yuga flows into a gorge--or rather one gorge after another;
and sometime they'll likely be almost as famous as some of the great
gorges of your country. The walls are just about straight up on each
side, and of course are absolutely impassable. I don't know how many
miles the first gorge is--but for nearly two hundred miles the river is
considered impassable for boats. Two hundred and fifty miles or so below
there is an Indian village--but they never try to go down the river from
here. A few white men, however, have tried to go down with canoe-loads
"And all drowned?" Ben asked.
"All except one party. Once two men went down when the river was
high--just as it is now. They were good canoeists, and they made it
through. No one ever expected they would come out again."
"And after you've once got into the rapids, there's no getting out--or
"Of course not. I suppose there are places where you might get on the
bank, but the gorge above is impassable."
"You couldn't follow the river down--with horses?"
"Yes, in time. Of course it would be slow going, as there are no trails,
the brush is heavy, and the country is absolutely unexplored. You see it
has never been considered a gold country--and of course the Indians
won't go except where they can go in canoes. Some of the hills must be
impassable, too. I've heard my father speak about it--how that if any
criminal--or any one like that--could take down this river in a canoe in
high water--and get through into that great, virgin, trackless country a
hundred miles below, it would be almost impossible to get him out.
Unless the officers could chase him down the same way he went--by
canoe--it would take literally weeks and months for them to get in, and
by that time he could be hidden and located and his tracks covered up."
"And with good ambushes, able to hold off and kill a dozen of them, eh?"
Ben's hands shook, and he locked them behind him. "They call that
"'Back There.' That's all I've ever heard it called--'Back There.'"
"It's as good a name as any. Of course, the reason they were able to
make it through in high water was due to the fact that most of the rocks
and ledges were submerged, and they could slide right over them."
"Of course. Many of our rivers are safer in high water. But you
seriously don't intend to take such a trip--"
He looked up to find her eyes wide and full upon his. Yet her concern
for him touched him not at all. She was his enemy: that fact could never
be forgotten or forgiven.
"I want to hear about it, anyway. I heard in town the river is higher
than it's been for years--due to the Chinook--"
"It _is_ higher than I've ever seen it. But it's reached its peak and
has started to fall, and it won't come up again, at least, till fall.
When the Yuga rises it comes up in a flood, and it falls the same way.
It's gone down quite a little since this morning; by the day after
to-morrow no one could hope to get through Devil's Gate--the first
cataract in the gorge."
"Not even with a canoe? Of course a raft would be broken to pieces."
"Not a canoe, either, in two or three days, if the river falls like it
usually does. But tell me--you aren't serious--"
"I suppose not. But it gets my imagination--just the same. I suppose a
man would average better than twenty miles an hour down through that
gorge, and would come out at _Back There_."
Their talk moved easily to other subjects; yet it seemed to Ben that
some secondary consciousness held up his end of the conversation. His
own deeper self was lost in curious and dark conjectures. Her
description of the river lingered in his thoughts, and he seemed to be
groping for a great inspiration that was hovering just beyond his
reach--as plants grope for light in far-off leafy jungles. He felt that
it would come to him in a moment: he would know the dark relation that
these facts about the river bore to his war with Neilson. It was as if
an inner mind, much more subtle and discerning than his normal
consciousness, had seen great possibilities in them, but as yet had not
divulged their significance.
"I must be going now," the girl was saying. "Father pretty near goes
crazy when I stay away too long. You can't imagine how he loves me and
worries about me--and how fearful he is of me--"
His mind seemed to leap and gather her words. It was true: she was the
joy and the pride and the hope of the old man's life. All his work, his
dreams were for her. And now he remembered a fact that she had told him
on the outward journey: that Ray Brent, the stronger of Neilson's two
subordinates, loved her too.
"To strike at them indirectly--through some one they love--" such had
been his greatest wish. To put them at a disadvantage and overcome his
own--to lead them into his own ambushes. And was it for the Wolf to care
what guiltless creatures fell before his fangs in the gaining of his
dreadful ends? Was the gratification of his hate to be turned aside
through pity for an innocent girl? Mercy and remorse were two things
that he had put from him. It was the way of the Wolf to pay no attention
to methods, only to achieve his own fierce desires. He stood lost in
dark and savage reverie.
"Good-by," the girl was saying. "I'll see you soon--"
He turned toward her, a smile at his lips. His voice held steady when he
"It'll have to be soon, if at all," he replied. "I've got to really get
to work in a few days. How about a little picnic to-morrow--a grouse
hunt, say--on the other side of the river? It's going to be a beautiful
The girl's eyes shone, and the color rose again in her tanned cheeks.
"I'd think that would be very nice," she told him.
"Then I'll meet you here--at eight."
Alone by the fire Ben had opportunity to balance one thing with another
and think out the full consequences of his plan. As far as he could
discern, it stood every test. It meant not only direct and indirect
vengeance upon Neilson and his followers; but it would also, past all
doubt, deliver them into his hands. That much was sure. When finally
they came to grips--if indeed they did not go down to a terrible death
before ever that time came--he would be prepared for them, with every
advantage of ground and fortress, able to combat them one by one and
shatter them from ambush. Best of all, they would know at whose hands,
and for what crime, they received their retribution.
One by one he checked the chances against him. First of all, he had to
face the great chance of failure and the consequent loss of his own
life. But there was even recompense in this. He would not die unavenged.
The blow that he would thereby deal to his enemies would be terrible
beyond any reckoning, but he would have no regrets.
There were two outstanding points in his favor, one of them being that
the river was rapidly falling. By the time a canoe could be built the
river would be wholly unnavigable. There were no canoes procurable in
Snowy Gulch, if indeed a lightning trip could be made there and back to
secure one, before the river fell. The conversation with the
frontiersman at the river bank brought out this fact. Lastly, a raft
could not live a moment in the rapids.
Very methodically he began to make his preparations. He untied his
horse, leaving it free to descend to Snowy Gulch. Then he packed a few
of his most essential supplies, his gun and shells, such necessary camp
equipment as robes, matches, soap and towels, cooking and table ware, an
axe and similar necessaries. In the way of food he laid out flour, rice,
salt, and sugar, plus a few pounds of tea--nothing else. The entire
outfit weighed less than two hundred pounds, easily carried in three
loads upon the back.
In the still hour of midnight, when the forest world was swept in
mystery, he carried the equipment down to the canoe that Beatrice had
left the evening before. He loaded the craft with the greatest care,
balancing it now and then with his hands at the sides, and covering up
the food supplies with robes and blankets. Then he drew from his pocket
a sheet of paper--evidently a paper sack that had once held provisions,
cut open and spread--and wrote carefully, a long time, with a pencil.
He had no envelope to enclose it, no wax to seal it. He did, however,
carry a stub of a candle--a requisite to most northern men who are
obliged to build supper fires in wet forest. Folding his letter
carefully, he sealed it with tallow. Then wrapping one of his blankets
about him, he prepared to wait for the dawn. Fenris growled and murmured
in his sleep.
Ben himself had not slept the night before; and moved and stirred by his
plan of the morrow, slumber did not come easily to him now. He too
murmured in his sleep and had weird, tragic dreams between sleep and
wakefulness. But the shadows paled at last. A ribbon of light spread
along the eastern horizon; the more familiar landmarks emerged--ghosts
at first, then in vivid outline, the wooded sky line strengthened; the
nebulous magic of the moon died in the forest. Birds wakened and sang;
the hunting creatures crept to their lairs; sleeping flowers opened.
Morning broke on a clear, warm day.
Ben devoured a heavy breakfast--all that he could force himself to
swallow--then prepared to wait for Beatrice. He knew perfectly that
explanations would be difficult if Neilson or one of his followers found
him with the loaded boat. It was not likely, however, that any of his
enemies--except, of course, Beatrice herself--would venture down that
Just before eight he saw her come,--first the glint of her white blouse
in the green of the forest, and then the flash of her brown arms. Her
voice rang clear and sweet through the hushed depths as she called a
greeting. A moment later she was beside him.
"Go back and get your heavy coat," he commanded. "I've already been out
on the water, and it'll freeze you stiff."
He was not overly pleased with himself for speaking thus. He had
resolved to put mercy from him; and he was taking a serious risk to his
own cause by the delay of sending her back for her warmer garments. She
smiled into his eyes, but she came of a breed of women that had learned
obedience to men, and she immediately turned. But Ben had builded better
than he thought. His eyes were no longer on her radiant face. They had
dropped to the pistol, in its holster, that she carried in her hands,
preparatory to strapping it about her waist. It was disconcerting that
he had forgotten about her pistol. It was one of those insignificant
trifles that before now have disrupted the mightiest plans of nations
and of men. His mind sped like lightning, and he thanked his stars that
he had seen it in time. This pistol and a small package, the contents
of which he did not know, were the only equipment she had.
"It's going to be a bright day," the girl said hesitatingly. "I don't
think I'll need the fur coat--"
"Get it, anyway," Ben advised. "The wind's keen on the river. Leave your
pistol and your package here--and go up and back at top speed. I'll be
arranging the canoe--"
She laid down the things, and in a moment the thickets had hidden her.
Swiftly Ben reached for the gun, and for a few speeding seconds his
fingers worked at its mechanism. He was busy about the canoe when the
Evidently Beatrice was in wonderful spirits. The air itself was
sparkling, the sun--beloved with an ardor too deep for words by all
northern peoples--was warm and genial in the sky; the spruce forest was
lush with dew, fragrant with hidden blossoms. It was a Spring
Day--nothing less. Both of them knew perfectly that miracle was abroad
in the forest,--flowers opening, buds breaking into blossoms, little
grass blades stealing, shy as fairies, up through the dead leaves; birds
fluttering and gossiping and carrying all manner of building materials
for their nests.
Spring is not just a time of year to the forest folk, and particularly
to those creatures whose homes are the far spruce forests of the North.
It is a magic and a mystery, a recreation and a renewed lease on life
itself. It is hope come again, the joy of living undreamed of except by
such highly strung, nerve-tingling, wild-blooded creatures as these; and
in some measure at least it is the escape from Fear. For there is no
other name than Fear for the great, white, merciless winter that had
High and low, every woods creature knows this dread, this age-old
apprehension of the deepening snow. Perhaps it had its birth in eons
past, when the great glaciers brought their curse of gold into the
temperate regions, locking land and sea under tons of ice. Never the
frost comes, and the snow deepens on the land, and the rivers and lakes
are struck silent as if by a cruel magician's magic, but that this old
fear returns, creeping like poison into the nerves, bowing down the
heart and chilling the warm wheel of the blood. For the rodents and the
digging people--even for the mighty grizzly himself--the season means
nothing but the cold and the darkness of their underground lairs. For
those that try to brave the winter, the portion is famine and cold; the
vast, far-spreading silence broken only by the sobbing song of the wolf
pack, starving and afraid on the distant ridges. Man is the conqueror,
the Mighty One who can strike the fire, but yet he too knows the creepy,
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