A FUR-POCKET CLAIM-JUMPER
ORDINARILY the track of a man in deep wilderness is a matter of rejoicing for a woodsman coming upon it. Neighbors in loneliness are glad to drift together for a talk or to swap something. After long solitude in the back country human beings need the companionship of one another.
But Delos Conklin at the first glance read the intentions of the man in the fresh hacks of his trap-line ax on the trees. The stranger had come rough shod through the fur country which Pretty Shells owned under the usage of the trappers who can not in honor or safety trespass on one another’s prior rights. His suspicions already awakened by the killing of a mountain sheep on the high Singing Birds, Conklin now instantly went looking for proof that this man knew he was invading another’s territory.
Leaving his horse, Conklin started northward on the fresh blaze line. Within half an hour the newcomer was betrayed as a fur country bully. He had followed for more than a mile along the back of a ridge. There were the old blaze marks of Running Voice, the new and narrow slashes made by Pretty Shells with fresh gum in the wounds, and here were the hacking blows of the intruder all along the same ridge deer runway which served as a way through this marten-inhabited woods. Moreover the cubbies which Pretty Shells had reconstructed and made ready for bait and traps when the furs should be prime had been kicked down, the old chips scattered about and fresh boughs covering them trampled—warning to the woman, if the newcomer knew she was a woman—that he was going to take this region to be his own. He had carried his hacked line clear down to the edge of the timber line, thereby serving notice that he claimed all the south side of the Singing Bird timber belt.
Conklin, having made sure of what was taking place, immediately hastened on his way to the main cabin occupied by Pretty Shells. As her friend he angrily resented the attempt to run her out of the fur pocket which was hers by every right of the wilderness code. She had been here for years with her husband, learning the runways of the wild life and cutting traps-lines to the crossings of the pelage-wearers, building trap-cubbies at these places. Though she had been absent three years, she had been for weeks reclaiming the country, occupying the line cabins, and working over the old trap-pens and contrivances. Even if the scoundrel had meant no trespass, his destruction of the cubbies was a crime against the code of the fur country. The building of cubbies of his own was further proof of his criminal intent.
One new pen consisted of two large square pine-wood chips cut from a fallen tree which was partly punk. The tree stub made the back of the pen, and over the top had been thrown a small armful of green spruce boughs, some of which the builder had broken off himself, and some of which he had taken from the neatly cut boughs that Pretty Shells had used to cover the top of one of her reconstructed cubbies which he had destroyed.
A practised woodsman, a pretty able wildcrafter, had built the bait cabin, but his job had been carelessly done. His ax work had not been very accurate. His carelessness would be obvious to any observer. A hole at the back was large enough for a marten or white weasel to go through to the bait within without encountering the trigger-pan of the steel jaws.
The invasion unmistakably meant serious trouble for Pretty Shells. The intruder had been even more menacing than if he had shaken his fist in the woman’s face, ordering her to leave. He had come intending to stay. As he might even now be approaching Pretty Shells’ main cabin, Conklin made haste to go on.
From what he had already seen of the Singing Bird mountain timber Conklin knew it was a wonderful fur pocket, two thousand square miles in a belt along the face of the southern slope. From the top of the divide it was scores of miles to any mapped highway. The outlying Bell Brand was the nearest ranch outfit. And it was plain to Conklin that no one had trapped at least the south side of the range since Running Voice had been bushwhacked, three years previous. No wonder the green timber was alive with foxes, members of the weasel tribe, bears and the big wolves.
Wide game runways made it not too difficult for him to lead the horse down the south side of the several ponds to the shore of the cabin pond, the most beautiful of all the Boiling Sand chain. He found horse tracks at an inlet and found three of Pretty Shells’ animals in a beaver meadow. These animals thus covered by their tracks his own invasion of the territory, and when he arrived near the cabin he tied his horse with habitual caution in a clump of second growth.
Of course he hailed from the lake shore when he was within a hundred yards of the fine stone structure. No answer returned to him. When he went nearer he could discern no smoke coming from the fireplace chimney. The mistress of the place was away, probably merely about her ordinary affairs. Having made sure of this, he pulled the latch-string to lift the bar of the rived and hewn plank door to enter.
The interior was fragrant with the mingled odors of mountain balsam and cedar. The table, the hard clay floor with its skin rugs, the walls with their dangling belts and bags of beads, the peeled yellow pole rafters, the halves of the split-log drain-off roof, the sunshine coming through the small south side windows, and the shelves with their table and kitchen-wares were all indicative of the excellent touch of a neat and orderly woman with a fine sense of beauty who had plenty of time to try the varied effects of pretty color contrasts and the arrangements of her simple but effective belongings.
In one corner was a wide bunk, the springs made of a network of rawhide ropes covered with a foot-deep compact layer of evergreen boughs from which came the most of the fragrance. On this was a large horse-hide which had been worked soft. The covering was of great Indian woven goat’s-hair blankets with the conventional figures of many animals and glyphic shapes each with their meaning in the colors used. But sheets indicated the habit of most civilized homes.
It was the kind of a house in which one instinctively takes off his hat. Conklin stood with his crumpled in his hand as he looked around at the charming good taste of everything. His eyes rested a long time on the books which the Carlisle girl had brought with her. Open on the table was a volume devoted to lichens and mosses. And a piece of broken wood covered with a tiny forest of fibers, with red and yellow flags, revealed to him that Pretty Shells had been trying to find the name of this bit of wilderness that had grown on some fallen tree. She had left it for another time.
Conklin was embarrassed. He thoroughly minded his own business. He had expected to give this cabin a wide berth rather than have his passing that way misunderstood. He reached for his little note-book and pencil to leave word of warning, or rather information, but if that overeager and un- scrupulous trail-maker should come this way he would surely find the message if it was left in any conspicuous place.
“She’s probably out around somewhere,” he thought to himself, “I’d really better talk to her. But perhaps she won’t come in till late day. I’m in a hurry to get to the ranch—”
So he told himself. But he knew he was in a hurry to do no such thing. He wanted to see the widow. Her smile had illuminated the whole Bell Brand outfit. In all the region none was quite like her, quite the same in repute, in interest, in wonder and in charm. When she had taken her departure to this way back place it was as though the chandelier of a great room had been extinguished leaving only the invisible reflector lights around the walls to cast a pale glow. It had been a relief to leave the loneliness of the ranch buildings to look for wolves in their dens after she had taken her departure.
Men who dwell much alone are keenly appreciative of the feminine presence. In Conklin’s feelings there was sincere regard for the grave and handsome woman. He had, indeed, given the poor devils of underdeveloped humans straight talk on the way they were to treat Pretty Shells and without raising his fist or drawing his gun he had explained unmistakably to the riders who were at fault the immeasurable benefit to themselves in treating her—in treating every woman and man—right, not cheating, bullying, insulting any one.
“That’s so— You bet it is!” Park Cable, one of the cowboys, had acknowledged when he saw the point. “We get the idea, exactly!”
So it happened that the widow found her relations with the hard-bitted Bell Brand crew on an entirely satisfactory basis and she had few slips or breaks with which to contend. She had been welcome always, and presently she had outgrown the habit of carrying a knife ready in its sheath, hidden in her garments.
It was noon and Conklin was hungry. There was lots of grub in the tins, nettings, on shelves and hanging from the beams. He went to the fireplace, and found it swept clean and the stones cold. At the same time whittled kindlings and armfuls of wood were ready for the owner’s return or the needs of a passer-by, should either arrive in a rain or a cold wind or dead tired.
The visitor fidgeted for an hour, looking around, waiting and arguing with himself. He finally built a fire, brought a pail of water and slabbed off a streak of venison which was in a big cooler over the bubbling spring which supplied the cabin. He cooked a delicious meal, including Dutch oven hot bread, and a cup of coffee with condensed cream from an open can—which indicated the early return of Pretty Shells.
He went out to look around, after he had cleaned the frying-pan and washed the dishes, but when he had smoked he again entered the cabin to read some of the paragraphs in the books. He found the print blurred in his eyes. He had been riding so long in the deserts that his lenses had flattened, dimming his close-up vision. As he knew the phenomenon he rubbed his eyes and looked for coarser print.
The afternoon was well gone before he realized the rapidity of the time’s passing. He was startled to discover the sun was low enough for the west end trees to cast their shadow half the length of the lake. He was rigid with attention when he heard footsteps crunching in the gravel at the top of the beach and he caught a glimpse of a lank, shaggy man coming with long strides toward the front of the cabin, rifle in hand and outflaring holster on his hip.
The glimpse was enough. That fellow was bad. A rider of the cattle country in the far back wilderness edge may be caught unawares, but give him two seconds and his balance is recovered. The bearing, the rush and the appearance of the scoundrel were unmistakable.
The door was closed. The warmth of the fire had beguiled Conklin into basking before it. He stood around to the left as he faced the door which would swing open in the direction which would put a right-hand man badly at a disadvantage on the question of a draw—but this newcomer’s gun was on his left hip with a fast-draw Cheyenne holster, a detail Conklin had noticed with interest, for it meant a left-handed man.
A heavy shoulder crashed against the plank door, which did not give.
“Open that door, you!” a high, ridiculously inadequate voice squealed angrily. “Open it, you squaw! Open it or I’ll come through with the ax!”
The latch-string which lifted the long heavy bar had somehow fallen in, locking the entrance as Conklin recognized now. He was surprized, for he had not noticed that. However, he grinned as he darted noiselessly to the door and threw it wide.
He stepped out with his own .45-caliber revolver poked against the lower end of the invader’s breastbone.
“Well?” Conklin demanded. “What did you say? Call me an Indian—a squaw? Who do you think you are, anyhow?”
The bony face of the fellow opened so wide as to display his remaining assortment of yellow and blackened teeth. His face was lean, weathered and misshapen, covered with reddish-gray whiskers, his nose exceedingly long and twisted, his eyes like cold moons in their milky purple glow.
He backed away, swallowing violently and his face splotching with white and red, surprize, fear, rage mingled in his expression, and his hands like some dirty poison fish of the tropic seas opening wide as he raised them in reluctant surrender, dropping his heavy rifle as he backed away.
“Who you talking to, calling me a squaw?” Conklin demanded.
“This—this your outfit?” the man blinked, looking around, gasping for breath. “This yourn?”
“Of course it is, you fur-pocket-jumper! Why the Hades are you blazing your trail down this side the Singing Bird range?”
“Why— Why this’ns my line country— You ain’t no—”
“None of that!” Conklin declared. “The old Running Voice trap-lines and cabins go with this main cabin. There they lie— They cover all this side the mountains with old and new blazes. You’ve been showing your snoot this side the divide, and you’ve come once too often. You came down off the Middle Pass east of the high peaks this morning. You crossed the connecting inlet above this Falling Leaves lake and cut along the outlying ridge through the marten country. Then you came in on the wagon tracks I brought my supplies on from Bell Brand ranch. And when you got here you called me a squaw. Did you think you could call a man that and get away with it? By Gad, you get down on your knees and pray— Calling me a squaw— Heh!”
“I—I didn’t mean nothing—”
“You lie! You threw a bluff and I called you. Get down and beg my pardon, you fox-headed, shedding, claim-jumping hillbilly!”
The fellow dropped on his knees.
“I didn’t mean no harm—”
“You lie— What did you mean?”
“Why I— I heard something— Somebody was here trapping—and I didn’t want nobody scaring my wolves—”
“Yeh—” The fellow scrambled to his feet again. “You know yerself ’taint legal comin’ into another fellow’s trappin’—”
“What you doing here, then!”
“I be’n in these mountains a long time, off’n’on— They’re mine.”
“You never ran a line this side the main divide, now did you?”
“I intended to this fall—”
“And when you heard I’d taken over Running Voice’s outfit from his widow, you come hell-whooping sneaking over to blaze it ahead of me; that it?”
The man nodded. He was too badly shaken by surprize to argue.
“How about it— Peace or war?”
The fellow’s face twitched and his jaw worked. His eyes turned and searched the far side of the pond and up the slope of the Singing Bird, which, grown to tall green forest trees, extended to the timber line and the deep V-slot of the middle pass.
“I ain’t lookin’ fer tr’uble, Mister—Mister—”
“Conklin’s my name— Yours?”
“Why—mine’s—mine’s Redding, Tom Redding.”
He turned his cunning face to take sidelong glances at Conklin. He was lying. He was blinking in his anxiety, though. He was showing signs of a greater fear than even in the first start backward when he found himself jabbed by a man’s revolver instead of facing a frightened young woman.
“Turn your back and drop your belt,” Conklin ordered coldly.
“Now say, old man—I—” Redding’s eyes opened wide.
The scoundrel was really pleading, now. Death had worried him as he found it imminent. But he was terror-stricken as he was ordered to give himself up, completely.
“What’s aching you?” Conklin asked, suddenly.
“Why—why—” the man wiped his sweating forehead on a red and bony wrist.
“Reckon you’re on the prod—scouting?” Conklin suggested.
The man nodded, beginning to unbuckle the revolver and rifle cartridge belt.
“I don’t expect that’s any of my business,” Conklin said. “I don’t care a whoop where you ride, if you keep out of this side the main ridge of the Singing Birds. How about it?”
“I’ll pull my freight sure pop!” the man exclaimed, catching his breath in anxious, unbelieving hope.
“All right—I’m not hunting rewards on humans. Any wolves this side the summit are mine, though. When they cross to yon side, they’re yours. How’s that?”
“Yes, sir— All right.”
“Then it’s settled. Your move!”
Redding stooped to pick up his rifle. He had on his back a small summer elk-hair hide pack out of which stuck the handle of a short trap-line ax. As he seized the rifle he glanced around to find that the revolver still covered him. He straightened and headed toward the lake outlet, striding in the sand, his laced boots the soles of which were patched with rawhide leaving a plain trail. He jumped from rock to rock across the shallows at the foot of the pond and two or three times looked back with quick glances like a fugitive animal.
Sunset had fallen. Gloom of twilight was already in the woods. The trapper was unquestionably a fugitive from justice. To his lawlessness was added the furtive habit of treachery, if Conklin was any judge of men. At the same time he had the feeling that the matter of the trapping privilege south of the Singing Bird divide was settled. At least, it was for the present.
He watched the colors of the sunset in the sky, and as they reflected among the shadows of the trees and their deep shades that were lifelike on the glossy, unwrinkled surface of the lake. He was still staring, nearly oblivious, when the stars cast their gleams out of the western horizon to replace the sun’s last faintest rays.
The air was stinging with the high altitude and early autumn. He was tired, sweaty with the intense strain of his encounter and the long day’s tracking through the forest leading his loaded horse. He hesitated to remain in the stone cabin. Any moment, he thought, Pretty Shells would return. He was sure he would have some difficulty in explaining his presence there. She might even think he was lying about it.
He went out to where he had left his outfit, brought in his big cowboy tarpaulin, and its woolen blankets. He carried these to the cabin, entered and started another fire. He found animal-oil lamps, wicks twisted from loose cotton and sucking the oil to feed the flames as they burned. He lighted two of these and started a good fire; then prepared a meal to assuage his hearty appetite.
The absence of the cabin owner puzzled him. He laughed at his own stupidity as after a time he went around to the scalp-bark shed. When he lighted a match he confirmed his inspiration.
Pretty Shells’ saddle and pack-saddle, blankets and bridle, halter, tether rope and lariat were all gone. That accounted for the fact that not all her animals were in the beaver meadow pasture. She had gone riding, probably back to the Bell Brand ranch after more supplies which she must bring in before the fall of winter snows. She would probably stay away several days. He was sorry he had not seen her at the ranch, but as he rolled up in his blanket on a bearskin before the open fireplace, he was very thankful indeed that he had been at the cabin when the fellow who lied when he called himself Tom Redding had come, expecting to find her alone in this lonesome land.