The Greater Power/Chapter 2


CHAPTER II
THE TRAIL

A half-moon rose above the black tops of the pines, and a faint light, which the snow flung back, filtered down between the motionless branches upon the narrow trail that wound sinuously in and out among fallen trunks and thickets draped with withered fern, for the Siwash Indians passed that way when the salmon came up the rivers, and the path an Indian makes is never straight. Over and over again, an Indian will go around an obstacle through which the Bush-rancher would hew a passage. This is essentially characteristic of both, for the primitive peoples patiently fit their lives to their environment, while the white man grapples with unfavourable conditions, and resolutely endeavours to alter them.

Until daylight Nasmyth made a tolerable pace. He had been troubled with a curious lassitude and an unpleasant dizziness, but walking is considerably easier than rolling ponderous logs, and he knew that it was advisable for him to push on as fast as possible. At length, the dawn broke high up in a dingy grey sky, and he stopped to build a fire. It did not take long to boil a can of strong green tea, and to prepare a piece of doughy bread, with a little salt pork, for his breakfast. Then he wrapped one of his blankets around him and took out his pipe. He did not remember how long he sat there, but it was clear daylight when he noticed that the fire was burning out, and, somewhat to his annoyance, he felt curiously reluctant to get up again.

Though it cost him an effort, he rose, and stood a minute or two shivering in the bitter wind, which now set the dark firs sighing. He could see the trees roll upwards before him in sombre ranks until their topmost sprays cut in a thin filigree very high up against the sky, and he knew that he must now leave the easy trail and cross the big divide. When he set out he was a little annoyed to find that the pack-straps hurt his shoulders, and that one of his boots galled his foot. Knee-boots are not adapted for walking long distances, but the only other ones that Nasmyth possessed were so dilapidated that he had left them behind.

He went up for several hours through withered fern and matted undergrowth, and over horrible tangles of fallen tree-trunks, some of which were raised high above the snow on giant splintered branches. The term "virgin forest" probably conveys very little to the average Englishman, since the woods with which he is acquainted are, for the most part, cleaned and dressed by foresters; but Nature rules untrammelled in the pine-bush of the Pacific slope, and her waste material lies piled in tremendous ruin until it rots away. There are forests in that country, through which a man accustomed to them can scarcely make a league in a day. Still, Nasmyth crossed the divide, struggling against a bitter wind, and then went down the other side, floundering over fallen branches, and smashing through thickets of undergrowth and brakes of willows. He wanted to find the river, and, more especially, the tree that bridged it, as soon as possible. It was, however, noon when he reached the river, and it frothed and roared a hundred feet below him in a smooth walled cañon, which had apparently kept the frost out, for there were only strips of crackling ice in the eddies.

It was clearly out of the question for him to get down to the river, even if he had wished to make the descent, and without stopping to make another fire, he plodded along the bank until the afternoon was almost spent. There were a good many fallen trees, as he discovered to his cost, since each one had to be painfully clambered over, but none of them spanned the chasm. Then, as his foot was becoming very sore, he decided to camp where a big cedar lay across a little ravine that rent the bank. It promised to afford him a partial shelter. He had no axe, but he tore off an armful or two of the thinner branches, with the twigs attached to them, to form a bed, and then, crawling down to the river, filled his smoke-blackened can and came back wearily to make a fire. Man needs very little in those solitudes, but there are two things he must have, and those are food to keep the strength in him, and warmth, though there are times when he finds it singularly difficult to make the effort to obtain them. The most unpleasant hour of the long day of persistent toil is often the one when worn-out muscle and jaded intelligence must be forced to the task of providing the evening meal and shelter for the night.

Nasmyth ate his supper, so far as it went, voraciously, but with a prudent check upon his appetite, for he had set out with only four days' provisions, and he could not find the tree. When he had eaten, he took out his pipe, and crouched a while beside the fire, shivering, in spite of the blankets wrapped about him. The heat dies out of the man who has marched for twenty hours, as those who have done it know. In the meanwhile, darkness crept up from the east, and the pines faded into sombre masses that loomed dimly against a leaden sky. A mournful wailing came out of the gloom, and the smoke whirled about the shivering man in the nipping wind, while the sound of the river's turmoil and the crash of stream-driven ice drifted up out of the cañon. Nasmyth listened drowsily, while his thoughts wandered back to the loggers' shanty. He could see the men with bronzed faces sitting smoking about the snapping stove, two or three of them dancing, while Jacques coaxed music full of fire from his battered fiddle.

Then his thoughts went farther back to the chambers that he had once occupied in London, and he saw himself and Frobisher, who shared them with him, sitting at a little table daintily furnished with choice glass and silver covers. There were big candles upon it—Frobisher, who was a fastidious man, had insisted upon them. After that, the artistically furnished room faded out of his memory, and he recalled a larger one in which he had now and then dined. He could picture the wine, and lights, and costly dresses, the smiling faces of those who had at that time expected a great deal from him, and he saw the girl who usually sat at his side. She had a delicate beauty and a dainty mind, and he had sometimes fancied they might be drawn closer when he had made his mark, which in those days appeared a very probable thing. He wondered vaguely what she was doing then, or if she ever thought of him. After all, as she had not answered the one letter which he wrote, it scarcely seemed likely that she remembered him. Those who fail, he reflected, are soon forgotten.

Then, as he was falling forward into the fire, he roused himself, and smiled wryly. He was once more an outcast, shivering, half-asleep in the wilderness, worn out, ragged, and aching, with a foot that was now distinctly painful. It is, however, fortunate for such men as he, and others among the heavily burdened, that the exhaustion of the body has its deadening effect upon the mind. Rolling the blankets round him, he lay down on the cedar branches and went to sleep.

He did not hear the timber wolves howling in the blackness of the night, though several that got wind of him flitted across the ravine after the fire burned low, and, when at length he awakened, it was with the fall of a wet flake upon his face, and he saw the dim dawn breaking through a haze of sliding snow. It seemed a little warmer, and, as a matter of fact, it was so, for the cold snaps seldom last very long near the coast; but the raw damp struck through him as he raked the embers of the fire together. Again he felt singularly reluctant to start when he had finished breakfast, and he found that he could hardly place one foot upon the ground; but haste was imperative now, so he set off limping, with the pack-straps galling his shoulders cruelly. He also felt a little dizzy, but he pushed on all that day beside the river through a haze of snow without coming upon the tree. The dusk was creeping up across the forest when at length the river emerged from the cañon, and he ventured out upon the ice in a slacker pool. The ice heaved and crackled under him with the pulsations of the stream, but he got across, and roused himself with difficulty for the effort to make another fire. He was an hour gathering fuel, and then, after a sparing supper, he lay down in his wet clothing.

The snow that eddied about him whitened his spongy blankets, but he got a little sleep, and, awakening, found the fire out. He tried to light it and failed. His fingers seemed useless. He was cramped and chilled all through, and there was in one hip-joint the gnawing pain that those who sleep on wet ground are acquainted with. Sometimes it goes away when one gets warmed up, but just as often it does not. Nasmyth, who found it a difficult matter to straighten himself, ate a little damp bread, and then, strapping his pack upon his shoulders, stumbled on into the forest. He afterwards fancied it did not snow very much that day, but he was not sure of anything except that he fell over many rotten branches, and entangled himself frequently in labyrinths of matted willows. Night came and he went to sleep without a fire. He contrived to push on next day, walking during most of it half asleep. Indeed, now and then he would stagger along for minutes after consciousness of what he was doing had deserted him, for there are men in that Bush, at least, who know what it is to stop with suddenly opened eyes on the verge of a collapse, and find that they have wandered from the path—only in Nasmyth's case there was no path at all.

He was never sure whether it was that day or the next when, floundering through an undergrowth of willows, he came upon a break in the forest that was covered with sawn-off stumps. As he made for it, he fell into a split-rail fence, some of which he knocked down until he could climb over it. There was a faint smell of burning fir-wood in the air, and it was evident to him that there was a house somewhere in the vicinity. The snow was not deep in the clearing, and he plodded through it, staggering now and then, until he came to a little slope, and fell down it headlong. This time he did not seem able to get up again, and it was fortunate that, when he flung the split fence down, the crash made by the falling rails rang far through the silence of the woods.

While Nasmyth lay in the slushy snow, a girl came out from among the firs across the clearing, and walked down the little trail that led to a well. She was tall, and there was something in her face and the way she held herself which suggested that she was not a native of the Bush, though everything she wore had been made by her own fingers—that is, except the little fur cap, whose glossy brown enhanced the lustre of her hair. This was of a slightly lighter tint, and had gleams of ruddy gold in it. Her eyes were large and brown, and there was a reposeful quietness in the face, which suggested strength. It was significant that her hands were a trifle hard, as well as shapely, and that her wrists were red.

She came to the top of the slope near the foot of which Nasmyth, who had now raised himself on one elbow, lay, and though this might well have startled her, she stood quietly still, looking down on him. Nasmyth raised himself a trifle further, and blinked at her stupidly, and she noticed that his face was drawn and grey.

"I heard the rails fall," she said. "What are you doing there?"

It did not appear strange to Nasmyth that she should speak in well-modulated English, for there are probably as many insular English as Canadians in parts of that country. Besides, he was scarcely in a condition to notice a point of that kind just then.

"I think I upset the fence," he answered. "You see, I couldn't get over. Then I must have fallen down."

It naturally struck the girl as significant that he did not seem sure of what had happened, but the explanation that would have suggested itself to anyone fresh from England did not occur to her. There was not a saloon or hotel within eight or nine miles of the spot.

"Can you get up?" she asked.

"I'll try," said Nasmyth; but the attempt he made was not a complete success, for, although he staggered to his feet, he reeled when he stood upon them, and probably would have fallen had she not run down the slope and taken hold of him.

"You can rest on me," she said, laying a firm and capable hand upon his shoulder.

With her assistance, Nasmyth staggered up the slope, and there were afterwards times when he remembered the next few minutes with somewhat mixed feelings. Just then, however, he was only glad to have someone to lean upon, and her mere human presence was a relief, since Nature had come very near to crushing the life out of him.

"This is your ranch?" he inquired, looking at her with half-closed eyes, when at length she moved away from him, a pace or two, and, gasping a little, stood still, beneath a colonnade of towering firs.

"It is," she said simply; and a moment or two later he saw a little house of logs half hidden among the trees.

They reached it in another minute, and, staggering in, he sank into the nearest chair. A stove snapped and crackled in the middle of the little log-walled room, which in spite of its uncovered, split-boarded floor, seemed to possess a daintiness very unusual in the Bush. He did not, however, know what particular objects in it conveyed that impression, for the whole room seemed to be swinging up and down; but he was definitely conscious of a comforting smell of coffee and pork, which came from the stove. He sat still, shivering, and blinking at the girl, while the water trickled from his tattered clothing. He fancied from the patter on the shingle roof, that it was raining outside.

"I wonder if you would let me camp in the barn to-night," he said.

The girl's eyes had grown compassionate as she watched him, for there was a suggestive greyness in his face. It was evident to her that he was utterly worn-out.

"Go in there," she said, pointing to a door. "You will find some dry clothes. Put them on."

Nasmyth staggered into a very small room, which had a rude wooden bunk in it, and with considerable difficulty sloughed off his wet things and put on somebody else's clothing. Then he came back and sank into a deer-hide lounge at the table. The girl set a cup of coffee, as well as some pork and potatoes, before him. He drank the coffee, but finding, somewhat to his astonishment, that he could scarcely eat, he lay back in his chair and looked at the girl deprecatingly with half-closed eyes.

"Sorry I can't do the supper justice. I think I'm ill," he said.

Then his head fell back against the deer-hide lounge, and, while the girl watched him with a natural consternation, he sank into sleep or unconsciousness. She was not sure which it was, but he certainly looked very ill, and, being a capable young woman, she remembered that within the next hour, the weekly mail-carrier would strike a trail which passed within a mile of the ranch. Rising, she touched Nasmyth's shoulder.

"Stay there, and don't try to get up until I come back," she commanded in a kindly tone.

Nasmyth, as she had half-expected, said nothing, and, slipping into another room—there were three in the house—she returned, wearing a jacket of coarse fur, and went quietly out into the rain. It was dark now, but she had, as it happened, not long to wait for the mail-carrier.

"I want you to call at Gordon's ranch, Dave," she told the man. "Tell him he is to come along as soon as he can. There's a stranger here who seems very ill."

The mail-carrier would have asked questions, but she cut him short.

"How long will it be before you can tell Gordon?" she asked.

"Well," answered the man reflectively, "I'm heading right back for the settlement, but it's a league to Gordon's, anyway. He could be here in two hours, if he starts right off, and, considering what the trail's like, that's blamed fast travelling."

He disappeared into the darkness, and the girl went back to the ranch. It was, perhaps, significant that she should feel sure that the man she had sent for would obey the summons, but she grew anxious while the two hours slipped by. At last, a man opened the door and walked in, with the water dripping from the long outer garment he flung off. He was a young man, with a bronzed face and keen grey eyes, and he had swung the axe, as one could see by his lithe carriage and the hardness of his hands, but there was something professional in his manner as he stooped down, regarding Nasmyth closely while he gripped the stranger's wrist. Then he turned to the girl.

"He's very sick," Gordon said. "Guess you have no objections to my putting him in your father's bunk. First, we'll warm the blankets."

The girl rose to help him, and—for she was strong—they stripped off most of Nasmyth's garments and lifted him into the bunk in the next room. Then Gordon sent her for the blankets, and, when he had wrapped them round Nasmyth, he sat down and looked at her.

"Pneumonia," he said. "Anyway, in the meanwhile, I'll figure on it as that, though there's what one might call a general physical collapse as well. Where did he come from?"

"I don't know," said the girl.

"Your father won't be back for a week?"

"It's scarcely likely."

The man appeared to reflect for a moment or two. Then he made a little expressive gesture.

"Well," he said, "it's up to us to do what we can. First thing's a poultice. I'll show you how to fix it; but while we're here, I guess we might as well run through his things."

"Is that needful?" and the girl glanced at Nasmyth compassionately.

"Well," said the man with an air of reflection, "it might be. This thing's quick. Leaves you or wipes you out right away. There's very little strength in him."

He turned out the pockets of Nasmyth's clothes, which were, however, empty of anything that might disclose his identity.

"Not a scrap of paper, not a dollar; but I guess that wasn't always the case with him—you can see it by his face," he said. Then he laughed. "He's probably like a good many more of us—not very anxious to let folks know where he came from."

The girl, though he did not notice it, winced at this; but next moment he touched her shoulder.

"Get some water on," he said. "After we've made the poultice, I'll take charge of him. We may get Mrs. Custer round in the morning."

The girl merely smiled and went out with him. She was aware that it was in some respects an unusual thing which she was doing, but that did not greatly trouble her. They are not very conventional people in that country.