Edison Marshall.

The Sky Line of Spruce online

. (page 6 of 21)
Online LibraryEdison MarshallThe Sky Line of Spruce → online text (page 6 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


marriage had always seemed infinitely apart from his wild, adventurous
life.

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
themselves.

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
of regret.

"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
here alone - "

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
to-morrow!"




XI

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
miss Ez - "

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
reminded him.

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
spruce.

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,
questioning.

"There's something stirring in the thicket beside you. Don't you hear
him?"

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.




XII

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
lips.

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
its bank.

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
disturbing discovery.

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 - "

"Jeffery Neilson."

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,


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryEdison MarshallThe Sky Line of Spruce → online text (page 6 of 21)