pp. 46–50.



SOON after crossing the outlet of Trembling Leaves, Delos Conklin found where two horses had been tied to trees. Here the fur thief’s tracks also displayed the fact that he had made more than one trip to the cabin of Pretty Shells, bringing away the furs she had caught and dressed. From the loading place it was easy trailing for Conklin, and would remain so as long as no storm came to cover the forest with snow.

His first thought was to return for his own saddle horse, but as the way ahead included a climb over a pass whose summit was ten or eleven thousand feet above the sea, and probably five thousand feet higher than the cabin’s level, he went on afoot. The difficulties of the packer confirmed the good judgment.

The ground was frozen. Many of the rocks were sheeted with ice. A windfall had laid a wide strip of down timber across the way to the gap over the mountain chain. The thief’s two animals had slipped and lunged as they ascended, and after a time, about 2,000 feet higher up, the tracks led into a gulch and came back out at the same place, showing the packer had lost his way. And, moreover, the indication was plain that the fellow had made his raid either in the night or had made a late-day getaway, and had been traveling by guess.

The horses, too, had been far from sure-footed. They had fallen occasionally. Where they had scrambled to their feet Conklin found scrapes and tiny globules which showed that the animals had scratched their legs. From their strides, wherever a little level or easy going allowed it, they had been urged to hurry along.

“He’s afraid!” Conklin read the signs, and being loaded with less than thirty pounds himself, he skipped along, scrambling and swinging on his way with the exultant confidence of those who feel sure of themselves.

As the day waned Conklin entered the pass to the east of the major mountain peak of the Singing Birds. He had been over the middle pass miles to the westward, where the way was open at the summit of the timber-line height. He found the eastern pass a deep, gloomy cañon, the bottom filled with débris of broken stone and drifts of snow which had turned to ice. The way was so rough and difficult that only a good horseman could have taken animals through.

Somehow, the thief made the way, though he had been obliged to stop, perhaps to wait for daylight. He had built a fire out of deadwood of dwarfed evergreens which had been brought down into the gulch in slides. The pack of furs had been dropped to the ground near the fireplace. Perhaps the thief had eaten a stick of jerked venison, or a smoked trout, but Conklin could not see that the man had eaten, and the horses certainly had not.

Somewhere along the way Conklin passed the summit, the highest point in the pass, but he could not tell when this happened. He was on the other side, after a time, and the north slope of the Singing Birds pitched down a long way to the upper timber fine. Ahead of him stretched the Disappearing River basin, spotted here and there with snow which had not melted in the storms, and with dark areas of woods which had found root over lower ridges and along the flanks of other lesser ranges. Far to the northward was another barrier range like the Singing Birds, so distant that its green was like dark crystal, its bare tops like pearl shell, and as far as he could see the fur thief pursuer could not see one sign of human occupation, although here and there were low areas of bare valley in which he would doubtless find cow outfits, nesters in the stream bottoms and perhaps the hidden cabins of fugitives from detectives, sheriffs, marshals and other representatives of justice.

The trail of the horses went down the Alpine conditions toward the timber line at a diagonal slope. The route was toward the northeast, and as he looked ahead, Conklin saw that the course was to pick up the back of a buttress ridge, covered with green timber and leading into the heart of the Disappearing Valley. As he reached the upper edge of the woods sunset was at hand, so he picked a place to camp while it was still light enough to see.

The thief had been badly fooled. If it was the fellow who called himself Tom Redding, he had been twice deceived. Conklin, in claiming the trapping territory for his own had insured the peace of the woman, Pretty Shells, until the January thaw, at least. Then the rascal had come over to rob the trapper whose success in catching rich furs had been well assured on account of the countless animal tracks on the south slope where no one had sought pelts in years. And now when he had come to steal, the fellow had found not only a rare collection of prime furs, handled as only Indian women know how to do, but the reassuring fact that he apparently had only to cope with a hermit girl.

He found in Pretty Shells’s cabin no sign of any man and every indication of feminine occupancy. On the walls had hung pretty ornaments, bead-work belts and festooned feathers. On the cold floor were thick bear- and autumnal deerskins. The dry skins had been baled neatly and hung from the rafters along the tops of the walls. Beaded short skirts, beautiful buckskin moccasins, waists which had been embroidered and dyed in fanciful designs, gauntlet gloves— There were the countless evidences of constant toil and delight in what is lovely, and amid the colors suggestive of a primitive taste had been, also, the books which might have shown the evidence of a mind which still clung to the chain of intellectual ascent with the rise of civilization. Conklin recalled these things. He knew their meanings. He saw plainly that the thief had not anticipated any masculine presence in the desolation he had traversed.

“They always fool themselves, they deceive their own souls!” Conklin laughed to himself. “He must have expected the very storm gods to cover his trail with snow.”

One thing especially indicated that Tom Redding had been the invader, for the pack horse tracks led into the blazed trail which had come down from the mountain crest and crossed the timber belt to the lower edge in the effort to seize the fur-pocket for his own. And when in the morning Conklin went on along the buttress of the ridge he found he was following a real pathway.

Years before, some one had blazed a line along the hog-back. At intervals marten traps were set in cubbies high on the sides of trees to be above the deep snow levels ordinarily prevailing here. Traps were still in the cubbies, ready set for furs, with fresh bait which had been thrown in for lures. The thief was now back in his own country, for the horseman had paused along down to tend these traps.

Going swiftly, Conklin covered ground by the mile. The north slope was rougher, steeper, cut into enormous gorges and broken by the leap down of vast precipices. Whoever he was, Tom Redding had been a good way-finder. His trap-line led over an easy grade through a land where his route was perhaps the only one which would have been feasible to follow in laying down traps for fur.

Within four hours of his start Conklin came to a line cabin in a bench thicket of lodge-pole pines. Here beside a brook had been built a log house with a tight roof of split puncheons, shingles three or four feet long. The camp had been well placed on a low mound. Two or three trees had been felled that they might not be broken down by weight of snow and crash through the roof. The ax-work on the sticks had been good and clean-cut. Within was the disorder and dirt which marks the abiding place or the passing by of a wilderness vagabond, a bunk heaped with messy blankets and a dirty old quilt, dirty dishes on the table where squirrels had toothed the stiff grease of bacon and venison tallow, chunks of partly devoured blue-heavy hot-bread, and a discarded tin pail which had been burst along the seams by ice because the passer-by had forgotten to empty it some time earlier in the season.

Roughly whittled and badly shaped stretching-boards indicated, by their stains and numbers that the trapper had in spite of his carelessness caught a good many skins. The various sizes showed he had caught mink, marten, pekan and foxes. Several hoops indicated plainly that he had also taken a number of beaver which would mean heavy fines if the State authorities should happen to catch him at this illicit practise.

Conklin cooked himself a dinner, brewed a cup of coffee and was on his way again in a good deal less than an hour. He had already gained ten or twelve hours on the thief who had schemed well to deprive a fellow trapper of the best of a whole year’s work.

Here and there along the trail Conklin found where the fellow had stopped his horses and climbed to some bare knob beside the trap-line, or taken advantage of a chance in some bare height to look back along his trail to see whether there was any pursuer. When Conklin realized the skulker’s habit of always watching for pursuit he was startled.

The moment he divined the situation he wondered at his own thoughtlessness. He must be cautious. He could take no chances with the man he was pursuing. Had he been closer to the fellow he might easily have run into a fatal ambush. There was a difference between pursuing even a savage pack of stock-killing wolves and going after a man armed with a heavy, far-reaching rifle and no doubt long familiar with the strategems of sheriff posses and clandestine man-hunting ruses.

The trail grew fresher. Conklin was going twice as fast as the loaded horses. He was light of foot. He had for nearly three months been skipping over the Wolf Den knolls, limbering Ins body from the limited exercises of ordinary cowboy riding and efforts. He had grown supple in climbing and scrambling about, had become a quicker and stronger man. Now he was at the best he had ever been. He exulted in his agility. There was no denying the barbarous excitement to be had in a man hunt through a mountainous forest to recover booty and exact punishment.

The trail ran down to a lower timber line. A bare valley ten or twelve miles in diameter and nearly circular made him pause to take stock. The little desert had been crossed by the thief riding one horse and leading another. To make a circuit around meant fifteen or twenty miles of rough going. To go across meant revealing himself to any one on the far side who happened to have a pair of good binoculars. Conklin hesitated in the edge of the scattering juniper cedar growth, doubtful what to do.

All along this stranger’s line the birds had been shy, watchful, quick to take flight. At the trap cabins none approached without keen, nervous suspicion. Conklin recalled the anxiety of all the south-side feathered tribes, and realized that this fur seeker had shot all he could to use them for trap bait. The cubbies were fluffed with the jays, grouse and other fliers. And so the mountains some one had called the Singing Birds had become the land of frightened living things, even over south where the flocks went to enjoy the sunshine of the warmer slope.

Conklin had nearly two hours of daylight ahead. At ten miles he would hardly be seen, even with ordinary glasses. He took the chance of discovery, and headed straight over the open. He strode along, looking far ahead. It was just possible the thief had not left the pocket-desert. When sunset came, Conklin was within four miles of the north rim, and he recognized the course of the fugitive as leading into a low pass a bit west of north. The horse tracks headed straight for this gap in a range of rounded tops.

With starlight, the pursuer quickened his footsteps. He did not need to pick up the hoofprints of the horses. Neither did he have to worry about being seen by the man ahead. He knew for certain the thief had gone to the woods beyond, in the mountain gap—and Conklin would, if he kept on, find the camp somewhere through that wilderness ahead. The trap-line cabins would be about eighteen to twenty-two miles apart in this kind of country. Therefore the next cabin was within five miles at the most, and probably this side of the summit ahead.

Conklin began the new ascent at a moderate rate. He did not feel fatigue. He had come nearly thirty miles, yet in the excitement of approaching crisis he did not think of his mileage. He was still light of foot. He was alert. He was watchful in the starlit night, for anywhere ahead he might discover either the trap-line cabin or its gleaming light. And he listened sharply at intervals for the scuffling of horses grazing through the junipers and striking their hooves against the worn stones.

The sides of the pass grew steeper. The perpendicular tree-trunks stood at a sharper angle on the slopes. This was a pretty gap through a low and attractive mountain range. It was great ranch country. And there were cattle about. The quick ears of the trailer heard a heifer mooing almost under her breath not far off to the westward.

Conklin had not expected a ranch. He came to a barbed wire fence in the narrows, a few posts set across the bottom. No cow could go along either side because it was so steep. At the gate the trapper hesitated. After all, the trap-line cabin was beyond the summit of this mountain ridge. Instead of a mere camp it was probably a real ranch. And that kind of outfit was sure to have dogs.

“I’ll have to locate it!” he told himself, and lifting the chain fastening, he went through the gateway. He turned to close the swing. Then the second step he took a bear trap clanged under his foot, the jaws closing on the thick leather of his laced hunting boots five inches or so above his ankle. The blow was terrific, yet numbed his leg rather than tortured it.

There was a muffled ringing from the released springs, but Conklin did not utter a sound. He stood still, knowing now how wolves feel when caught in full career by exactly similar engines of relentless seizure. Never in his life had Conklin contemplated or dreamed of being in such a predicament, but he was not quite unprepared for it. He did not jump. He hardly flinched. He could not tell on the instant whether his leg was broken or not. But he knew that if the successful man-trapper found him there, he could expect no more mercy than a wolf caught under similiar circumstances. Surprized and shocked, the victim of human cunning which had anticipated the possibility of swift pursuit, Conklin nevertheless almost instantly recovered his equilibrium.

He dropped on his free knee and ran his hand along the underside of the jawed machine. He found the trap was an old-timer. It had two springs on each jaw.

Taking off his leather belt, he wound it twice around one of the right-hand side springs and a little at a time drew the strap until he had sprung the inner of the V-spring ends together. Then he took his inevitable cord and tied the spring in place. He drew the other three springs open in the same way and so took their strain from the pillars of the two jaws. He pulled them apart and lifted his foot out.

He leaned his back against the gate post for a few minutes while he shook his foot, rejoicing to find that he had no broken bone with which to contend. The ache of the bruise was throbbing and painful but far from overwhelming.

Never had Delos Conklin felt such anger as now surged through him. He was not inflamed so much as he was cooled and awakened. He had in a dim way foreseen difficulty, perhaps a gun fight, but his anticipation had not included bear traps set in the trail. Conklin reset the trap where it had been buried, wrapped in a piece of burlap bagging, in the pathway through the gap at the end of the gate, right where any one coming through would be sure to step upon the pan. He covered the trap over with sand, brushing out the prints of his feet through the opening.

By the glow of the starlight he could see the man tracks around the trap, as if they had been made to “look natural.” He made some natural tracks, too, glad that his own boots were about the size of the trap-setter’s.

Then, prodding the ground ahead of him, he avoided the cattle paths and went on through the narrow pass, climbed out at the side where the gorge flattened out. From a clump of junipers he looked down on just such a ranch outfit as he might have anticipated.

A small corral, a dug-out log cabin against the side hill, a natural water-hole with a trickle from a good spring running down the little valley, and nothing else. Above the fireplace chimney was a rosy glow against the blue smoke. Two horses were in the corral.

Conklin surveyed the starlit scene with caution. He had still-hunted to the den of his barbarous quarry. He wondered how many were in the pack. He looked anxiously for dogs. He listened for the sound of their whimpering or other sounds of uneasiness. Except for the scuffling of the horses, eating fodder thrown in for them, he heard no least sound.

Then he saw a cougar creeping down the bare slope only fifty or sixty feet distant. Crouching, watchful, careful, the big cat circled nearer. The other skulker stood fascinated and delighted by that visitor. He held his finger in his mouth for a minute, and then reached it a little higher than his head. The drift of the air, as told by the cooling on the north side of his finger, showed that the cougar was approaching against the wind into the ranch ground. It went down to the corral, hesitated as it crouched and then bounded lightly over the high fence and the next instant there was an agonized shriek from one of the animals within.