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The Snowshoe Trail

Edison Marshall

  Produced by Ben Collver. HTML version by Al Haines.




  Author of "The Strength of the Pines," "The Voice of the Pack," etc.

  With Frontispiece by Marshall Frantz

  A.L. Burt Company Publishers, New YorkPublished by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.

  Copyright 1921, By Little, Brown, and Company.All rights reserved

  To Agnes, of the South--this story of the North

  The Snowshoe Trail


  It was not the first time that people of the forest had paused on thehill at twilight to look down on Bradleyburg. The sight always seemedto intrigue and mystify the wild folk,--the shadowed street, the spireof the moldering church ghostly in the half-light, the long row ofunpainted shacks, and the dim, pale gleam of an occasional lightedwindow. The old bull moose, in rutting days, was wont to pause andcall, listen an instant for such answer as the twilight city might givehim, then push on through the spruce forests; and often the coyotesgathered in a ring and wailed out their cries over the rooftops. Morethan once the wolf pack had halted here for a fleeting instant; but theywere never people to linger in the vicinity of men.

  But to-night it was not one of these four-footed wild folk--this tallform--that emerged from the dark fringe of the spruce forest to gazedown at the town. But he was none the less of the forest. Its mark wasupon him; in the silence of his tread, the sinuous strength of hismotions; perhaps it lay even in a certain dimness and obscurity ofoutline, framed by the thickets as he was, that was particularlycharacteristic of the wild denizens of the woods. But even in theheavy shadows his identity was clear at once. He was simply awoodsman,--and he held his horse by the bridle rein.

  The long file of pack horses behind him halted, waiting for their masterto go on. He stood musing, held by the darkened scene below him. Hardto read, in the deepening shadows, was the expression on his bronzedface. It revealed relief, of course, simple and heartfelt joy at thesight of his destination. Men do not wander over the blazed trails ofthe North Woods and not feel relief at the journey's end. There was ahint of fatigue in his posture, the horses' heads were low; and theshacks below meant food and rest. But there was also a pensiveness, adreamy quietude in his dark eyes that revealed the greater sweep of histhoughts.

  He had looked down on Bradleyburg on many previous occasions, but thescene had never impressed him in quite this way before. Already theshadows had crept out from the dark forests that enclosed the littlecity and had enfolded it in gloom: the buildings were obscured and thestreet was lost, and there was little left to tell that here was theabode of men. A dim light, faint as the glowing eyes of the wildcreatures in the darkness, burned here and there from the window of ahouse: except for this the wilderness would have seemed unbroken.

  "It's getting you down," the man muttered. "It's closing you in andsmothering you--just as it has me."

  Perhaps, had his words carried far enough in the silence, thetownspeople in the houses below wouldn't have understood. His horses,sniffing at his knees, did not seem to hear. But the woodsman could nothave made himself any clearer. Words never come easy to those thatdwell in the silences of the North. To him it seemed that the twilightwas symbolic of the wilderness,--stealing forth with slowencroachments until all of the little town was enfolded within itself.It was a twilight city, the little cluster of frame shacks below him.It could be brave and gay enough in the daylight, a few children couldplay in its streets and women could call from door to door, but thefalling darkness revealed it as it was,--simply a fragment that thedark forests were about to claim. The day was done in Bradleyburg; asin the case of many of the gold camps of the North the wilderness wasabout to take back its own.

  It had had a glorious past, this little city lost in the northernreaches of the Selkirks. In the man's own boyhood it had been one ofthe flourishing gold camps of the North; and miners had come from allover the continent to wash the gravel of its streams. In all directionsup the hillside the tents and shacks had stretched, dance halls weregay, freighters plied along the winding road to the south. The man'smother had been one of the first women in the camp; and one of the lastto go. The mines were fabulously rich; tens of thousands in dust wereoften taken in a single day by a lone miner, fortunes were made and lostat the gambling tables, and even the terrible winters could not triumphover the gold seekers. But in a little while the mines gave out, oneterrible winter night the whole town was destroyed by fire, and now thatthe miners were drifting to other camps, few of the shacks were rebuilt.Of the six thousand that had been, scarcely threescore remained. A fewtrappers ran their lines out from the town, a few men had placer claimsin the old diggings, two or three woodsmen made precarious livings asguides for such wealthy men as came to hunt moose and caribou, andBradleyburg's course was run. The winter cold had triumphed at last,and its curse was over the city from October till June. The spruceforest, cleared away to make room for the cabins, had sprung up againand was steadily marching toward the main street of the town.

  But the man on the hilltop felt no regret. Except for a few memories ofhis young days he had no particular fondness for the little cluster ofshacks. Long ago the wilderness had claimed him for its own; his homewas the dark forest from which even now he was emerging. Bradleyburgwas simply his source of supplies and his post office, the market forhis furs. He had reached back and stroked the warm nose of his horse.

  "Another half mile, old fellow," he said gently. "Then oats--rice andmeat for me at Johnson's--and oats--honest-to-goodness oats--foryou. What you think about that, eh, Mulvaney? Then show a little speedthis last half-mile."

  The man swung on his horse, and even the cattlemen of the plains wouldhave found something to admire in the ease and grace with which his bodyslipped down into the saddle. The horse moved forward, the pack animalspushed on behind him. A few minutes later they had swung down into thestill street of the town. Tired as he was, his hands were swift andstrong as he unpacked the animals and tied them in the bar back ofJohnson's,--the little frontier inn. As always, after the supperhour, a group of the townsmen were gathered about the hotel stove; andall of them spoke to him as he entered. He stood among them an instant,warming his hands.

  They had few words at first. The lesson of silence is taught deeply andsure in the North. The hostess went to her kitchen to order the man'ssupper, the townsmen drew at their pipes.

  "Well, Bill," one of them asked at last, "how's everything with you?"

  It was not the usual how-d'ye-do of greeting. The words were spoken inactual question, as if they had special significance.

  The man straightened, turning sober eyes. "Nothing startling yet," hereplied.

  "In after supplies?"

  "Yes--and my mail."

  There was a long pause. The conversation was apparently ended. Billturned to go. A stranger spoke from the other side of the fire.

  "How's Grizzly River?" he asked. Bill turned to him with a smile.

  "Getting higher and higher. All the streams are up. You know thatbald-faced bay of Fargo's?"

  Fargo was the Bradleyburg merchant, and the stranger knew thehorse,--one of the little band that, after the frontier custom,Fargo kept to rent. "Yes, I remember him."

  "Well, I've got him this fall. You know he's a yellow cuss."

  The stranger nodded. In this little community the dumb brutes werealmost as well known as the human inhabitants. The meaning was whollyplain to him too, and the term did not apply to the horse's color.Yellow, on the frontier, means just one thing: the most damning andunforgivable thing of all. When one is yellow he gives up easily, hedares not lift his arms to fight, and th
e wilderness claims him quickly."There's a little creek with a bad mudhole just this side of the ford,"Bill went on. "All the horses got through but Baldy, and he could havemade it easy if he'd tried. But what did he do but just sit back on hishaunches in the mud, like an old man in a chair, his head up and hisfront legs in his lap, and just give up? Quite a sight--that horsesitting in the mud. I had to snag him out."

  The others smiled, but none of them with the brilliance of thestory-teller himself. The wilderness picture--with the cowardly horsesitting in the mud--was again before his eyes; and none of thehardship of the journey could cost him his joy in it. Bill Bronson wasno longer just a dim form on the twilight hilltop. The lamplight showedhim plain. In this circle of townspeople he was a man to notice twice.

  The forests had done well by him. Like the spruce themselves he hadgrown straight and tall, but his form was sturdy too. There was a lithestrength about him that suggested the larger felines; the hard trailsof the forest had left not a spare ounce of flesh on his powerfulframe. His mold, except for a vague and indistinct refinementin his long-fingered and strong hands, was simply that of awoodsman,--sturdy, muscular, untiring. His speech was not greatlydifferent from that of others: the woodspeople, spending many of thelong winter days in reading, are usually careless in speech but rarelyungrammatical. His clothes were homely and worn. He wore a bluemackinaw over a flannel shirt, dark trousers and rubber boots: garmentsthat were suited to his life.

  But it was true that men looked twice into Bill Bronson's face. Hisfeatures were rugged, now his mouth and jowls were dark with beard, yetwritten all over his sunburned face was a kindliness and gentleness thatcould not be denied. There was strength and good humor in plenty; andit was hard to reconcile these qualities with an unquestionedwistfulness and boyishness in his eyes. They were dark eyes, the eyesof a man of action who could also dream, kindly, thoughtful eyes whicheven the deep shadows of the forest had not blinded to beauty.

  As he waited for his meal he crossed the dark road to the littlefrontier post office, there to be given his two months' accumulation ofletters. He looked them over with significant anxiety. There were theusual forders from fur buyers, a few advertisements and circulars, and asmall batch of business mail. The smile died from his eyes as he readone of these communications after another. Their context was usuallythe same,--that his proposition did not look good, and no investmentwould be made in a plan as vague as his. The correspondents understoodthat he had been grubstaked before without result. They remained,however, his respectfully,--and Bill's great hand crumpled each inturn.

  Only one letter remained, written in an unknown hand from a far-offcity; and it dropped, for the moment, unnoticed into his lap. His eyeswere brooding and lifeless as he stared out the hotel window into thedarkened street. There was no use of appealing again to the businessfolk of the provincial towns; the tone of their letters was all toodecisive. The great plans he had made would come to nothing after all.His proposition simply did not hold water.

  He had been seeking a "grubstake,"--some one to finance anotherexpedition into the virgin Clearwater for half of such gains as heshould make. In a few weeks more the winter would close down; thehorses, essential to such a trip as this, had to be driven down to thegate of the Outside,--three hundred miles to the bank of a greatriver. He had time for one more dash for the rainbow's end, and no onecould stake him for it. He had some food supplies, but the horse-rentwas an unsolved problem. He could see no ray of hope as he picked up,half-heartedly, the last letter of the pile.

  But at once his interest returned. It had been mailed in a far distantcity in the United States, and the fine, clear handwriting was obviouslyfeminine. He didn't have to rub the paper between his thumb andforefinger to mark its rich, heavy quality and its beauty,--thestationery of an aristocrat. The message was singularly terse:

  My Dear Mr. Bronson:

  I am informed, by the head of your provincial game commission, thatyou can be employed to guide for hunting parties wishing to hunt in theClearwater, north of Bradleyburg. I do not wish to hunt game, but I dowish to penetrate that country in search of my fiance, Mr. HaroldLounsbury, of whom doubtless you have heard, and who disappeared in theClearwater district six years ago. I will be accompanied by Mr.Lounsbury's uncle, Kenly Lounsbury, and I wish you to secure the outfitand a man to cook at once. You will be paid the usual outfitter's ratesfor thirty days. We will arrive in Bradleyburg September twentieth bystage. Yours sincerely, Virginia Tremont.

  Bill finished the note, pocketed it carefully, and a boyish light was inhis eyes as he shook fragrant tobacco into his pipe. "The way out," hetold himself. "She won't care if I do my prospecting the same time."

  His thought swung back to a scene of many Septembers before, of a camphe had made beside a distant stream and of a wayfarer who had eaten ofhis bread and journeyed on,--never to pass that way again. There hadbeen one curious circumstance connected with the meeting, otherwise itmight not have lingered so clearly in Bill's memory. It had seemed tohim, at the time, that he had encountered the stranger on some previousoccasion. There was a haunting familiarity in his face, a fleetingmemory that he could not trace or identify. Yet nothing in thestranger's past life had offered an explanation. He was a newcomer, hesaid,--on his first trip north. Bill, on the other hand, had nevergone south. It had been but a trick of the imagination, after all. AndBill did not doubt that he was the man for whom the girl sought.

  The little lines seemed to draw and deepen about the man's eyes. "Sixyears--but six years is too long, for Clearwater," he murmured. "Meneither come out by then, or it gets 'em. I'm afraid she'll never findher lover."

  * * * * *

  He went to make arrangements with Fargo, the merchant, about supplies.At midnight he sat alone in the little lobby of the inn; all the othertownsmen had gone. The fire was nearly out; a single lamp threw adoubtful glow on the woodsman's face. His thoughts had been tirelessto-night. He couldn't have told why. Evidently some little event ofthe evening, some word that he had not consciously noticed had been theimpulse for a flood of memories. They haunted him and held him, and hecouldn't escape from them.

  His thought moved in great circles, always returning to the samestarting point,--the tragedy and mystery of his own boyhood. He knewperfectly that there was neither pleasure nor profit in dwelling uponthis subject. In the years that he had had his full manhood he hadtried to force the matter from his thoughts, and mostly he hadsucceeded. Self-mastery was his first law, the code by which he lived;and mostly the blue devils had lifted their curse from him. But theywere shrieking from the gloom at him to-night. In the late years someof the great tranquility of the forest had reposed in him and the bitterhours of brooding came ever at longer intervals. But to-night they heldhim in bondage.

  It was twenty-five years past and he had been only a child when thething had happened. He had been but seven years old,--more of a babythan a child. He smiled grimly as the thought went home to him thatchildhood, in its true sense, was one stage of life that he had missed.He had been cheated of it by a remorseless destiny; he had been a baby,and then he had been a man. There were no joyous gradations between.The sober little boy had sensed at once that the responsibilities ofmanhood had been thrust upon him, and he must make good. After all,that was the code of his life,--to take what destiny gave and stand upunder it.

  If the event had occurred anywhere but in the North, the outcome mighthave been wholly different. Life was easy and gentle in the riverbottoms of the United States. Women could make a brave fight unaided;even fatherless boys were not entirely cheated of their youth. Besides,in these desolate wastes the code of life is a personal code, primitiveemotions have full sway, and men to not change their dreams from day today. Constancy and steadfastness are the first impulses of their lives;neither Bill nor his mother had been able to forget or to forgive. Herewas an undying ignominy and hatred; besides--for the North is afar-famed keeper of secrets--the
mystery and the dreadful uncertainty,haunting like a ghost. As a little boy he had tried to comfort hismother with his high plans for revenge; and she had whispered to him,and cried over him, and pressed him hard against her; and he hadpromised, over and over again, that when manhood came to him he wouldright her wrongs and his own. He remembered his pathetic efforts tocomfort her, and it had never occurred to him that he had been in needof comforting himself. He had been a sober, wistful-eyed little boy,bearing bravely the whole tragic weight upon his own small shoulders.

  The story was very simple and short,--nothing particularly unusual inthe North. His father had come early to the gold fields of Bradleyburg,and he had been one of few that was accompanied by his wife,--a tendercreature, scarcely molded for life in the northern gold camps. Thenthere had been Rutheford, his father's partner, a man whom neither Billnor his mother liked or trusted, but to whom the elder Bronson gave fulltrust. Somewhere beyond far Grizzly River, in the Clearwater, Bronsonhad made a wonderful strike,--a fabulous mine where the gravel wassimply laden with the yellow dust; and because they had prospectedtogether in times past, Bronson gave his partner a share in it.

  They had worked for months at their mine, in secret, and then Ruthefordhad come with pack horses into Bradleyburg, ostensibly for supplies. Hehad been a guest at the Bronson cabin and had reported that all was wellwith his generous partner. And the next night he had disappeared.

  Weeks were to pass before the truth was known. Rutheford did not returnto the mine at all; he was traced clear to the shipping point, threehundred miles below Bradleyburg. And he did not go empty-handed. Thepack horses had not carried empty saddlebags. They had been simplyladen with gold. And Bronson never returned to his family inBradleyburg.

  There was only one possible explanation. The gold had representedthe season's washings--an amount that went into the hundreds ofthousands--and Rutheford had murdered his benefactor and absconded withthe entire amount. No living human being except Rutheford himself knewwhere the mine lay; there was no way for Bronson's family either toreclaim the body or to continue to work on the mine. Search parties hadsought it in vain, and the lost mine of the Bronsons became a legend, amystery that had grown constantly more dim in the passing years.

  "When I am gone," little Bill would whisper to his mother, as she kneltcrying at his feet, "I will go out and find my papa's mine. Also I willchase down Rutheford, and track him all over the world until I find him,and make him suffer for all he has done!"

  This was a northern child, and his baby eyes would gleam and hisfeatures draw, and then his mother, half-frightened, would try to quiethim in her arms. This was the North, the land of primitive emotions,take and give, receive and pay, simple justice and remorselessvengeance; and when the storm swept over the cabin and the snow deepenedat the doorway, those terrible, whispered promises seemed wholly fittingand true.

  "I'll follow him till I die, and he and his wife and his son will payfor what he has done to us."

  But the years had come and passed, and Rutheford had not been brought tojustice nor the mine found. It was true that in a past summer Bill hadtraced his father's murderer as far as the shipping point, but there alltrace of him was irremediably lost. Bill had made many excursions intothe Clearwater in search of the lost mine, all without success. He hadhad but one guide,--a hastily scrawled map that Bronson had once drawnfor his wife, to show her the approximate position of the claim. Therehad been no hope of avenging the murder, but with each recurring springBill had felt certain of clearing up the mystery, at least of findingthe mine and its wealth and the bones of his father. But the last daysof his mother, gone at last to her old home in the United States, couldbe made easier; but his own future would be assured. But now, atthirty-two, the recovery of the mine seemed as far distant as ever.Devoting his life to the pursuit of it, he had not prepared himself forany other occupation; he had only a rather unusual general education,procured from the Bradleyburg schools and his winter reading, and now hewas face to face with economic problems, too.

  He would try once more. If he did not win, the dream of his youth wouldhave to be given over. He had devoted his days to it; such a force aswas about to send Virginia Tremont into the wilderness in search of herlover had never come up in his life. He sat dreaming, the ashes cold inis pipe.

  He was called to himself by a distinct feeling of cold. The fire wasout, the chill of the early midnight hours had crept into the room. Theman rose wearily, then strode to the door for a moment's survey of thesky.

  For a breath he stood watching. His was the only lamp still glowing:only the starlight, wan and pale, lay over the town. The night windcame stealing, an icy ghost, up the dark street; and it chilled hisuncovered throat. The moon rose over the spruce forest, ringed withwhite. Already the frost was growing on the roofs.

  The ring around the moon, the nip in the air, the little wind thatcame so gently, yet with such sinister stealth, all portended onething,--that the great northern winter was lurking just beyond themountains, ready to swoop forth. Of course there would be likely timein plenty for a dash into Clearwater; yet the little breath of fallwas almost gone. Far away, rising and falling faint as a cobweb inthe air, a coyote sang to the rising moon,--a strange, sobbing song ofpain and sadness and fear that only the woodsman, to whom the Northhad sent home its lessons, could understand.