Harold Bindloss.

Alton of Somasco online

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unrecorded mineral land which pertains to the Crown, it appeared
advisable that they should have the opportunity of staking off two more
claims, and his provisions were almost exhausted.

Thus it came about that one evening he tramped somewhat dejectedly back
towards his camp through a strip of thinner forest high up on the hill.
There was a sting of frost in the air and a little snow beneath his
feet, while his belt was girded about him tightly and his fingers
stiffened on the rifle-barrel. Alton had eaten nothing since early
morning, and very little then, while the fashion in which he stumbled
through the thickets and amidst the fern conveyed a hint of exhaustion.
It was, however, fortunate that a twig snapped noisily beneath him,
because the deer are difficult to see in their sylvan home, and the
sound was answered by a crackle that roused him to eager attention.

Alton, knowing there was a big fir behind him, stood very still,
glancing about him without a movement of his head, until he made out
what might have been a forked twig rising above the thicket. He did
not, however, think it was, and gazing more intently fancied he saw a
patch of something that was not the fern. He knew that at the first
movement it would be gone, and there was no time for any fine alignment
of the sights of the rifle, so leaning slightly forward he drew his
right foot back, and with eyes fixed steadily on the little patch
amidst the fern, trusted to them and the balance as he flung the long
barrel up. Few men can use the rifle as the Canadian bush rancher can,
and there was a flash from the muzzle as the heelplate touched his
shoulder. Alton had not glanced along the barrel, but the curious thud
which he heard in place of the explosion told him that the heavy bullet
was smashing through bone and muscle. Then thin smoke drifted into his
eyes, and there was a crackling amidst the thicket.

When he floundered forward the deer had gone, but something was
smashing through the undergrowth up the face of the hill, and the weary
man prepared for a grim effort as he saw the red trail it left behind.
He fell headlong in a thicket where the splashes were warm upon the
withered leaves, staggered up again, and presently reeled against a
cedar on the crest of a depression. There was nothing visible, but he
could hear a confused rattle and snapping of twigs, and shook himself
as he remembered the speed with which even a badly-wounded deer can
make downhill. He had his choice of a long and possibly fruitless
chase or another supperless night that would be followed by a very
scanty breakfast on the morrow. Alton did not care to anticipate what
might happen after that, because he had discovered on previous
occasions that green tea will not unassisted sustain vigorous animation
very long.

In place of it he went downhill, falling into bushes, floundering to
the shoulders through withered fern, and now and then stumbling over
rotting trees, but the splashes grew closer, and he fancied the sound
before him a little nearer. It was significant that there was any
sound at all, because a deer usually clears every obstacle in its
almost silent flight, and the gasping man took heart again. The
quarry's strength was evidently failing as its life drained away, but
darkness was also close at hand, and Alton knew that he could not hold
out very long. Already there was a horrible pain in his left side and
his sight was growing dim.

He went on, stumbling, gasping, falling now and then, for any man not
accustomed to the bush in that country would find it sufficiently
difficult to walk through, until once more a grey patch of something
showed up in a thicket. Again the rifle flashed, a dim shape reeled
out of the bushes, and, while the man savagely smashed through those it
had quitted, plunged into another thicket. Alton, who did not see it
come out again, also went in headlong, tripped, and fell upon something
with life in it that struggled spasmodically beneath him. There was no
room to use his rifle, for he and the deer were rolling amidst the fern
together, and while he felt for its throat the long knife came out.
Twice it sank harmlessly amidst the snow and leaves, and then there was
a gurgle, and the man rose stiffly to his feet, with dripping hands and
something smoking on the sleeve of his jacket. He glanced at it
without disgust, and then down at the limp shape, which now lay very
still, almost compassionately.

"Well," he said simply, "it was you or me, and the wolves would have
had you, anyway."

He was busy amidst the bushes for some time, and the light had gone
when he stood up with the deer upon his shoulders and the rifle beneath
it. It would have pleased him better to carry the latter, but the
bushman brings home a deer with its fore-legs drawn over his shoulders
and grasped in front of him. Alton jerked it into the most convenient
position, and then stopped a moment, panting, and glanced about him.
His burden was not especially heavy, but he was weary and his camp was
far away, while, though a half-moon was now growing into brilliancy
above the firs, it was dark below.

"I figure I'd not have to worry quite so much about my supper at
Carnaby," he said, and laughed a little as he floundered stiffly up the
hill.

It was at least an hour later, and he was limping on, encouraging
himself with the expectation of resting in warm repletion beside the
snapping fire, when he entered a denser growth of timber. Alton had
like most of his kind been taught by necessity to hold the weaknesses
of his body in subjection, but he was a man with the instincts of his
fellows, and the thought of the steaming kettle, smell of roasting
meat, glare of flickering light, and snug blankets appealed to him, and
just then he would not have bartered the blackened can of smoke-tasted
tea for all the plate and glass of Carnaby. His step grew a little
steadier, and the sound of the river louder, until he stopped suddenly
near a prostrate fir. There was a gap in the dusky vault above him
through which the moon shone down and called up a sparkle from the thin
scattering of snow. Beyond it the dark trunks stretched back, a
stupendous colonnade, into the shadow again. There was nothing unusual
in all this, but the man had seen something that made him check his
breathing and set his lips. He knew he might be mistaken, but the
glint he had caught for a moment suggested the barrel of a rifle.

He stood, as he realized instinctively, in the shadow with a great
trunk behind him, and remained so, motionless, with his blood tingling,
because the bushman knows the difficulty of catching the outline of
anything that is still. Then there was a soft snapping, and the glint
became visible, in another place, again, while Alton saw that he was
not mistaken. He was also aware that the free prospector does not
usually wait the approach of a stranger in silence with the rifle, and
it flashed upon him that as the other man had moved there would in
place of a shadowy trunk now be a patch of snow behind him. Alton
regretted he had waited so long, and dropping the deer sprang
backwards, feeling for the sling of his rifle.

He was, however, a second too late, for there was a thin red flash
amidst the undergrowth, and he reeled with a stinging pain somewhere
about his knee. It yielded and grew almost useless under him, and
while his rifle fell with a rattle he lurched into a thicket of
withered fern. For a moment he lay still, his face awry with pain, and
groaned as he strove to draw his leg up beneath him. It felt numbed
and powerless, and, desisting, he strove to collect his scattered wits,
realizing that he had never needed them more than he did just then.

The rifle had fallen outside the thicket where the forest was more open
and there was a sprinkling of snow, and Alton knew that an attempt to
recover it would probably be fatal. He was equally convinced that the
man who had shot him would not have come out on such an errand without
his magazine full, or leave his task unfinished. There was in the
meanwhile no sign of him beyond the smoke that hung about the bushes,
and Alton turning over groaned again more loudly as he felt for his
long-bladed knife. It was not done without a purpose, but he had
little difficulty in simulating a moan of pain, and when he heard a
swish of leaves, lay flat, and dragged himself very softly farther into
the fern.

The wet fronds brushed his face, and here and there his fingers sank
into a patch of snow, but he found its chilly touch curiously pleasant,
and once clawed up a handful and thrust it into his mouth. A numbness
was creeping over him, his head felt curiously heavy, but he was
scheming for his life with the instinctive cunning of a wounded beast
rather than reason. There was now a sound behind him, but it was
dulled by the roar of the river, which he realized would drown the
faint rustle he made, and, when the fern grew scantier, dragged himself
across an opening and crawled in amidst the raspberry briars on the
other side.

The thorns scarred his face and ripped his hands, but he moved amidst
them to clear space for his arms, and then lay still with the big knife
beneath him. A shaft of moonlight shone down a few yards away, and he
had no desire to betray his hiding-place by the glint of steel. It was
also possible that he might have crawled away beyond the reach of
discovery into the shadows, but that was not his intention, for, though
he could never decide afterwards whether he acted from instinct or
reasoned his course out, he was bent on waiting for, and not escaping
from, his pursuer. Nor did he know how long he waited, but it seemed a
very long while before he saw a shadowy object move round and
afterwards into the opposite side of the thicket.

Then the man's face became visible as he moved across the shaft of
moonlight. It was set and grey, the mouth was awry, and there was fear
in the staring eyes. It also seemed to Alton curiously familiar, but
his brain was scarcely capable of receiving many diverse impressions
just then, and he only realized that it was reluctantly and because his
safety demanded it, the man was looking for him. Alton felt a little
relief at that. He was growing colder, and there was a bewildering
dimness in his eyes, but he stiffened the muscles of his arms and
tightened his grasp on the knife, wondering if his strength would last
until he had his hands upon his enemy.

The man swayed forward as he crossed the strip of moonlight with a
little spring, then came on again with both hands on the rifle,
waist-deep in the fern, glancing down momentarily at the trail his
victim had made, and then about him again. Alton's face was drawn up
into a very grim smile as he lay amidst the raspberries watching him,
for it was evident that the assassin fancied he had crawled straight
on. The latter stopped once for several seconds, and Alton heard his
heart thumping while the sound of the river seemed to grow bewildering.
He stiffened his fingers upon the knife-haft savagely, for the horrible
faintness he could not shake off was growing upon him.

Then with a little jerk of his shoulders the man who caught sight of
the opening moved again, faster than he had done, and the watcher
surmised that fear and savagery struggled for the mastery within him.
The latter apparently rose uppermost, for he came straight on through
the thicket, sprang across the clear space, and would have plunged into
the bush beyond it but that Alton, reaching out caught him by the
ankle. Then he lurched forward with a hoarse cry, went down, and
rolled over with Alton's hand at his throat, and the blade of the knife
driven through the inner side of the sleeve of his jacket.

That was the commencement of a very grim struggle. The stranger was
wiry and vigorous, but the terrible hard fingers clung to his throat,
and a leg was wound about him, while as he panted and smote he felt
something was ripping his clothing. Instinctively he jammed the hand
that held it down, rolled over on his antagonist, and then shook
himself almost free again half-choked, as something that stung it sank
into his shoulder. Next moment he smote fiercely at a dim white face,
knowing that a bone had turned the blade, but that the result would
have been different had it entered a few inches lower.

His fist came down smashing, but the terrible fingers were clinging
still, and the man's face was purple when they rolled together out of
the briars and into the widening strip of radiance where the moon shone
down. Alton's hand was free now, and with arm bent between his enemy
and the ground he thrust upwards with the last of his strength. There
was a crash, the man writhed backwards, the rancher's fingers slipped
from their grasp, and a figure that rose partly upright reeled into the
fern, while Alton felt the barrel of a rifle under him. He rolled on
his side, and clawed for it, almost sightless, with one hand, and
laughed harshly as he raised himself a trifle. There was a flash and a
concussion, the trigger-guard sank into his nerveless finger, and a
smashing amidst the undergrowth was followed by footsteps that were
presently lost in the roar of the river.

Alton drew one knee under him, and listened until the sound grew
altogether bewildering and the dim trunks reeled about him. Then he
lurched over and lay where he fell, sensible only that it was bitterly
cold. It was still night when he awakened from sleep or stupor, but
the moon shone down and he saw that there was white frost on the fern.
His hands were also stiffened, and there was a horrible ache in every
limb, while he groaned as the cold struck through him. Twice he
essayed to raise himself and fell back again, but at last by an effort
crawled towards a tree and leaned his back against it while he
stretched out one numbed and useless limb into the silver light. The
long boots were curiously smeared, the overalls above them stiffened
and crusted, while following the movement he made there was a swift
spreading of the stain.

Alton shivered and set his lips as he groped for his handkerchief, then
groaning the while dragged at it until it was knotted above his knee.
After that he laid his finger on the overalls and saw that the stain
spread past it more slowly. Then he felt for the matches in one
pocket, and finding them, turned over cautiously and dragged himself
towards a fallen fir. He knew where to find the resin, and tore at the
smaller branches fiercely, flung them together, and striking a match,
watched the flame that spread from splinter to splinter and crawled
amidst the twigs. At last it sprang aloft in a great crackling blaze,
and Alton swayed unevenly and fell over on his side again. After that
he remembered nothing until he saw that the sun was in the sky, and
dragged himself to the thicket for an armful of frosted fern. When he
had piled it on the fire a gauzy blue column that rose straight between
the firs replaced the flame, and the man who watched it vacantly for a
while dragged himself back groaning for another armful of the fern.

He afterwards fancied that he spent most of the day crawling between
the fire and the thicket, but was never very sure of anything he did
just then. Nor did he feel hungry, though now and then he clawed up
and sucked a handful of snow, but he remembered that he was lying in
the smoke when the bush grew dimmer and the red blaze more brilliant as
darkness crept down. Presently he fancied that something broke through
the monotone of the river, and after listening to it vacantly groped
for the rifle. He clutched it, and raising himself a trifle with
difficulty, blinked at the darkness that hemmed in the fire until
footsteps came out of it. They were not furtive, but apparently those
of somebody coming straight towards the light in haste. Alton smiled
curiously, and wriggled until he was out of the strongest light, and
found support for the barrel of the rifle. Then a cry came out of the
shadows, "Is it you, Harry?"

Alton did not answer, for his voice seemed to fail him, and he blinked
at the man who bent over him.

"You have been a long while, Charley, and I came very near putting a
bullet into you just now," he said.

"Well," said Seaforth, "I did my best, and Tom's coming along behind
me. What are you doing here anyway?"

Alton glanced at him bewilderedly. "I don't quite know, but I got the
deer. It's somewhere around here," said he.

Seaforth's face grew suddenly grave as he stopped and shook his
comrade, then let his hand drop as he saw a red trickle spreading
across the crusted overalls.

"Good Lord! Are you hurt, Harry, and what's all this?" he said.

Alton glanced up at him with dimming eyes. "The thing's broken out
again. I think it's blood," he said, and while his arm slipped from
under him, slowly rolled over with his feet in the smoking fern.




CHAPTER XX

THE NICKED BULLET

The grey daylight was creeping into the little tent and Alton sleeping
at last when Seaforth rose to his feet. His eyes were heavy with the
long night's watch which had followed a twelve hours' march, and he
shivered as he went out. The morning was bitterly cold, and a fire
burned redly outside the tent, but there was no sign of Okanagan, who
had joined him during the night, nor had any preparations for breakfast
been made.

"Tom," he twice called softly, but only the moaning of the branches
overhead answered him, and with a little gesture of impatience he
strode into the bush.

Seaforth had no definite purpose, but he was glad to stretch his
stiffened limbs, and instinctively turned towards the spot where he had
found his comrade. As he approached it he stopped, and watched the dim
moving object that caught his eyes with some bewilderment. Tom of
Okanagan was kneeling beside a thicket with a stick in his hand, and
apparently holding it carefully in line with a fir. After moving once
or twice he drove it into the soil, and crawled on hands and knees into
the fern so that Seaforth could only see his boots, and surmise by the
rustling that he was groping amidst the withered fronds. Once he
caught a muffled expletive, after which the rustling ceased awhile, but
it commenced again, and Seaforth wondered the more when Okanagan
crawled out of the opposite side of the thicket, and set up a second
stick in line with the other. He had not the faintest notion of what
his companion could be doing.

"Are you finding anything down there, Tom?" he said. Okanagan rose up
with a little grim laugh. "Thorns," he said. "There's a condemned big
one in my thumb."

Seaforth stared at him with a vague suspicion that the hardships of the
forced march they had made had left their mark upon his comrade, though
he had never noticed any signs of mental weakness in the big axeman
before.

"Aren't there plenty to be picked up in this country without looking
for them?" he said.

Okanagan glanced at him with a little twinkle which was not altogether
mirthful in his eyes. "Oh, yes. More than I've any use for. You were
trying to figure on what I was after? The thing's quite as easy as
trailing a deer."

"I was," said Seaforth dryly, and Okanagan approaching him dropped a
big hand upon his shoulder.

"Come right along, and I'll show you," said he.

Seaforth followed him, until he stopped by the fir he had worked his
alignment from, where he picked up a spent cartridge and pointed to a
mark in the snow.

"Nothing particular about that, anyway, a forty-four Winchester," he
said. "The fellow had long boots on with one heel down, and he stood
right here waiting for Harry. Harry was coming along yonder with the
deer, forty yards I make it, and he jumped when the fellow started
shooting."

"You think he did?" said Seaforth, slightly bewildered, and Okanagan
laughed.

"No, sir, I'm sure," he said. "I could show you where his heels went
in if it would do you any good. Harry was coming along quick as he
could, thinking about his supper, and the other fellow was crouching
here, clawing his rifle and waiting until he came into the moonlight."

The blood surged into Seaforth's forehead, and he clenched one hand.
"The condemned villain! It was devilish," he said.

Okanagan nodded gravely, and his rugged face was stern.

"Oh, yes, but, slinging names at him's not much use," he said. "Well,
I feel it in me that we're going to see more of that man by and by, and
that's just why I'm working up the whole thing from the beginning. Now
I'll show you some more of it."

They floundered through one or two thickets until Okanagan stopped
again, and pointed to the red smear upon the fern and withered
pine-needles. "That's where Harry lay and waited for him," he said.
"He was bleeding pretty bad, but he knew the other fellow meant to
finish him."

"Waited for him when he was almost helpless and the man meant to murder
him?" said Seaforth, with cold rage and horror in his face.

Okanagan laughed a little almost silent laugh that had a very grim
undertone in it. "Yes, sir. That's just what he did. Don't you know
Harry yet?" he said. "Still, he didn't figure that all the killing
would be done by the other man. See here, this is where he gripped
him, and tried to get the knife in. They fell over together there.
Harry was played out and bleeding hard, or that man would never have
got away when he once had his hands on him."

Seaforth stared at the rent-down undergrowth, and had no great
difficulty in reconstructing the scene. Smashed fern and scattered
leaves as well as the red smears on the snow bore plain testimony to
the fierceness of that struggle, and he pictured his comrade grappling
with his adversary while his strength flowed from him with that
horrible red trickle. The light that came down between towering trunks
showed that his face was grey and stern, and Okanagan, who looked at
him, nodded as it were approvingly.

"I've seen enough," said the former. "If I can find that man he will
not get away from me."

"Well," said Okanagan simply, "we're short of the bullet now, and I'll
know better what to do with Harry when we find it. It's low down in
one of those cedars yonder."

"It will be deep in at that range," said Seaforth.

"No," said Okanagan quietly. "I don't think it will. It's pretty
plain from the hole it made that it wasn't a common bullet, and I'm
kind of anxious to know if all of it came out again."

Seaforth shivered a little as he assisted in the search, and his lips
were set when Okanagan, digging something out of the cedar-bark with
his knife, laid it in his palm. It was a little piece of blackened
lead that was ragged in place of round, as though the soft metal had
been rent open and bent backwards. Then the two men looked at each
other, and the hot fury that for a moment flushed Seaforth to the
temples, passed and left him with a curious vindictive coldness and a
faint shrinking from the touch of the murderous lead. Okanagan's eyes
were very steady, but there was a little glow down at the back of them.

"Nicked across with a hack saw or a file - and it's not all here," he
said. "It strikes me the sooner we find the rest of it the better this
weather."

Seaforth drew in his breath. A strip of lead torn off that bullet was
rankling in his comrade's flesh, and during the night bitter frost had
laid its grip upon the forest. Wounds, he knew, do not heal, but
fester under such conditions.

"You can do it, Tom!" he said, and his voice was hoarse.

"I'll try - when he wakes," said Okanagan. "You'll find some flat
stones by the river. I want one with an open grit that you could grind
a knife down with."

It was long before Alton awakened, and then it became evident that he
was not wholly sensible. Loss of blood, over-fatigue, exposure and
hunger had left their mark on him, and while he rambled disjointedly a
bitter wind sprang up. It raged down the valley, bringing with it the
cold of the Pole, and while the pines raised their wild voices, the
water congealed in the kettle, and in spite of the great fire built
outside it the tent grew icy. At noon Tom of Okanagan glanced at his
patient and shook his head, while Seaforth felt his misgivings
confirmed as he saw his face.

"I guess we've got to wait for to-morrow. There'll be snow to-night,"
he said.

It was a long day to Seaforth. Alton moved restlessly in his sleep, or
talked and laughed meaninglessly during most of it, while when his eyes
closed Tom, who sat in a corner, laid the stone upon his lap and ground



Online LibraryHarold BindlossAlton of Somasco → online text (page 16 of 29)