Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
AFTER a long day's trek in a temperature just above zero Billy Bartlett was so ravenous that, once his dogs were fed, he had no thought for anything but his own supper. And the supper that Mrs Macrae, wife of the factor on Loon Lake, set before him was such a meal as Billy had not seen for months.
Home-made bread, thick moose steaks perfectly grilled, fried potatoes, peach pie, and coffee with real milk in it, not the tinned stuff which was all Billy had tasted since the previous summer. So until his raging appetite was satisfied he hardly noticed the two who were the only other occupants of the raftered dining-room. The pair had been talking in low tones. It was a voice slightly raised yet quiet and firm that attracted Billy's attention.
"I'm not giving anything more away, Mr Rimmer. I've told you that already. You have my offer. You can take it or leave it."
The speaker, Billy saw, was a youngster no older than himself, that is sixteen. A tall, rangy lad with a pair of cool grey eyes. His companion was twice his age and almost twice his bulk, a huge man with a hawk nose, high cheek bones, and eyes which shone yellow in the light of the big oil lamp; eyes that were hard as topaz and at present held an angry glow. For a second or two this man glared at the boy who faced him, but the boy's level gaze never faltered or fell. Then he got up suddenly.
"I'm leaving it," he said harshly and, swinging round, went out of the room.
"I wonder," said Billy, and though he was speaking to himself the other boy's quick ears caught his words. He got up and came across.
"Mind telling me what you meant?"
Billy gazed at him, and liked the look of him. He grinned.
"If Mart Rimmer says one thing he generally means the other."
"You know him?"
"I know a bit about him," Billy answered.
The other sat down opposite.
"I'd be mighty grateful if you'd tell me," he said.
Billy hesitated and the other went on. "It's not just curiosity. I'm new to this country, but I've a job to do here and I can't do it alone. My name is Silver, Sam Silver."
"Silver! Any relation to Sep Silver?"
"He was my uncle. You knew him?"
"I never knew him, but I've heard my dad speak of him. Dad thought the world of him."
"So did I," said Sam Silver sadly. "He was like a father to me ever since my dad died." He paused. "You're British?" he asked abruptly.
"Dad came from Devon, Mother was Canadian. I've lived up here all my life. Bartlett's my name, Billy Bartlett."
"Is your dad with you?"
"He's dead. Killed a year, ago in a snow slide. Mum died when I was a kid."
"So you're on your own," said Sam softly.
Billy nodded. "I've been working Dad's claim but it's pretty well played out. I came down for a fresh outfit and a fresh start."
Billy saw an eager light in the boy's eyes.
"You know this country. Did you ever hear of Lost River?"
"I've been there," said Billy. "That is, I've been to the mouth where it joins the Pelly."
"You know it!" Sam's steady voice quivered slightly. "And you're looking for a job. See here, Bartlett, you look like a chap who'd take chances."
"I'd take big chances to make money," Billy answered. I want to go to college and learn mining."
"Would four thousand pounds be any use to you?"
Billy frowned, then laughed.
"I'm not kidding," Sam said sharply. "There's eight thousand in the cache. I have Uncle Sep's word for it. Half is yours if you'll help me get it."
Something in his voice and manner convinced Billy that his new friend was speaking the truth.
"All right," he said. "I'm on."
Sam held up his hand.
"Wait! Maybe you won't be so keen when you know more about it. It's bad country. Five years have passed since Uncle Sep came out. He'd lost his dogs. That's why he couldn't bring his gold. On the way out he got frost-bitten and his left foot had to be taken off. As he couldn't go back himself he sent his friend Gibbie Grant to fetch the dust. Grant went up with an Indian. The Indian was picked up a hundred miles south, dying of wounds. Before he died he told how he and Grant had been attacked by wolves—werewolves he called them. Grant, he said, was killed and he'd been terribly bitten."
"Yet your uncle let you go," put in Billy.
"He didn't want me to go, and he made me promise I wouldn't go alone. But he only left eight hundred dollars, just enough to pay my way up here and leave five hundred for someone to come with me. I'm offering you the five hundred if you'll come. Then if we don't get the gold you'd have something for your trouble."
"Don't be an ass," Billy cut in sharply. "Do you think I'm going to take your money when you've offered me a partnership? What do you take me for?"
Sam gazed at him a moment.
"The sort of chap I've been looking for," he answered, and at that minute both knew that they were not only partners but pals. Billy leaned forward.
"How much have you told Rimmer?"
"Nothing except that I wanted to hire a guide to Lost River."
"Then he knows where you're going and he'll be after us. See here, Sam, you and I have got to shift at daybreak. We'll get our stores from Macrae tonight. I have dogs."
"The sooner the better," Sam agreed. "Will you buy the stuff? Here's the money."
Billy nodded, took the bills, and went into the store to find Macrae. Within an hour he had everything they wanted and had packed it ready for loading. Then he and Sam turned in.
Tired out, Billy slept soundly, and did not move till Macrae roused him at dawn. Billy stretched, jumped out, and went into the next room to wake Sam. But Sam's bunk was empty. Billy ran into the store. "Where's Silver?" he asked.
"Ought to be in his room. I left you to wake him," said Macrae.
"He's not there."
Macrae hurried out. He ran upstairs. Billy followed. Instinctively both made for Rimmer's room. It was empty.
Billy didn't waste a word; he raced down again, out into the bitter dawn, and straight for the outbuildings. One look was enough: Mart Rimmer's dogs and sledge were gone.
"What did he slip off for like that?" demanded Macrae in surprise.
Billy's face was white; his blue eyes were blazing.
"He's kidnapped Sam Silver. That's why he's gone. Help me to harness my dogs, Macrae. I've got to catch him or no one will ever see Sam alive again."
THERE had been a sprinkle of snow in the night. It lay half an inch deep over the frozen fall of the past winter, and in it the tracks of Rimmer's dogs, of the runners of his sledge, and of his own webs were plain as paint. This was good so far as it went, but Billy knew by the signs that Mart had at least two hours' start. What was more, he had six dogs, and fresh ones, while Billy had only four, and these tired with the long trip of the previous day.
Billy was too wise to hurry his dogs. The chase might be a long one and he must save them as much as possible. He must save himself too, and for that reason did not give way to the bitter anger which had seized him when he first knew what had happened.
Brought up in these frozen wilds of the far North, Billy had more self-restraint than most grown men, besides a vast store of woodcraft. He knew exactly how fast he could drive his dogs without tiring them, and he was as much at home in this silent, frozen forest as a town boy would have been in the street he lived in.
It was just this knowledge which made him realise how desperate was the task before him. Even if he could catch up with Rimmer it beat him to imagine how he could get Sam away from him. Billy knew a lot about Rimmer—more than he had told Sam. Rimmer had a most evil name in the North. He was known as a man who would do anything for money, and he was suspected of many crimes, yet had been so clever that the police had never been able to bring anything home to him.
You might ask why Billy did not apply to the police. The reason was that the nearest Mounted Police post was nearly two hundred miles away. If Sam were to be saved Billy had to do it single-handed, and how he was to manage it he had not a notion. Yet somehow he was going to do it or die trying. If Mart Rimmer had known a bit more about this stocky, quiet-faced lad who was on his track he would not have taken things as easily as he did.
All the morning Billy drove on steadily. He did not think he was gaining, but, on the other hand, he was not losing. Certainly Mart was not hurrying. He could tell that from the tracks. At midday Billy rested himself and his dogs and ate some cold food. He examined the feet of his dogs, and gave them a full hour before he pushed on.
The sky was getting heavy, the wind veering north-west. Bad weather was coming, and coming soon. A blizzard most likely, and these spring blizzards can be pretty bad. Not that Billy was frightened of a blizzard. He had been through too many for that. The trouble was that if snow came it would wipe out the tracks.
Sure enough the wind got up, and by three it was snowing. Within another hour all sign of tracks had been wiped out; Billy's heart sank as he drove on slowly, with the bitter wind howling among the jack pines and the snow dust clogging his parka and half blinding him.
What to do? that was the question. Should he camp where he was or push on? What would Mart Rimmer do? Mart was a good woodsman and would have foreseen this blizzard. He would look for shelter.
Shelter! Billy gave a sudden shout. All in a flash he remembered Soda Mike's old cabin. It wasn't more than two miles away, and Mart was sure to know of it. That was what he would make for, and that's where he would hole up until the storm was over.
"And that's where I'll find him," Billy said firmly.
His long lashed whip cracked over the heads of his team and the dogs, seeming to sense what was in his mind, quickened their pace. Billy carried on for about a mile, then turned in behind a low hill, and on its southern side found a thick stand of spruce which gave some shelter from the savage blast.
He stopped the dogs, took an axe from the sledge, and began cutting branches. These he stuck into the snow, making a semi-circular hedge six feet high and about ten long. The next thing was to lay in a good stock of dry wood and build a fire. When the fire was well started he unhitched the dogs and fed them, giving each a dried salmon. He hung his kettle over the fire, sliced bacon and put it in the frying-pan.
By the time supper was ready the snow had drifted against the back of his shelter, making a good wind break, and Billy, spreading his blankets between the fire and the hedge, was quite comfortable. He ate, he cleared up, he piled the fire with huge logs, rolled in his blankets, and, with his dogs on either side, slept soundly.
It was still dark when he woke and still snowing, but the wind had gone down. The storm was passing. He got up, made a cup of tea, and swallowed it with a dry bannock, then tied up his dogs so that they could not follow, put on his snow-shoes, and made off quickly through the woods.
You or I would have been lost in five minutes, but Billy knew his way by the slope of the land. The first grey of dawn was breaking through the snow mist when he came to the edge of an open glade and into sight of an old cabin so buried in snow it looked like an extra big drift. But out of the snow showed a chimney, and from the chimney-top drifted a curl of grey smoke.
Billy thrilled with sudden excitement. His hunch was right. Mart Rimmer was in the cabin, and with him Sam Silver, his prisoner.
Billy took a step forward, then stopped. His spirits fell with a bump. What could he do? If he went near the cabin Mart's dogs would scent him and warn their master; if he waited till Mart came out that was equally useless. He would have to be ten years older and three stone heavier to give him a fighting chance against this giant.
As he stood gazing at the hut, with the snow sifting down upon him out of the windless sky, ideas simply raced through Billy's brain. One thing was perfectly clear: if he wanted to rescue Sam Silver he had first to get Mart Rimmer out of the hut.
HOW to get Mart Rimmer out of the hut? That was the problem.
In a flash inspiration came, and, turning, Billy raced back to his camp.
In spite of the soft, deep snow he made good time, for he had used snow-shoes almost ever since he could walk. He opened a pack, took out a stick of dynamite, a length of fuse, and some caps, then, snatching up his dog-whip, hurried back along his tracks.
It was still snowing when he got back, and there was no sign of anyone outside the hut. He did not think Rimmer would be in a hurry, for he would never imagine that Billy would venture to follow him alone.
Billy picked a tree a couple of hundred paces from the shack, cut a short length of dynamite, fused and capped it and tied it to the trunk. The fuse was long enough to burn for about five minutes. He chose a second tree a hundred paces deeper in the forest, and to this attached another small charge with a fuse to burn longer than the first. He went back, lit the first fuse, hurried to the second and lit that, then set off as hard as he could, circling through the bush so as to reach the far side of the cabin.
As he paused, panting, in a thick clump of sumach the first charge went off with a bang that echoed dully through the still falling snow.
Billy was as cool-headed a youngster as you could meet, but for the moment his anxiety was so great he could hardly breathe. Everything depended on whether Rimmer came out.
He had almost given up hope when he saw the door of the cabin open and the tall figure of his enemy appear outside. Rimmer was carrying a rifle and staring in the direction from which the sound had come. He waited so long that Billy had almost given up hope; then, at last, the man seemed to make up his mind, and Billy saw him gliding away from tree to tree, taking careful cover as he went. He vanished into the thick timber, and Billy began to move in toward the cabin. He had to be very careful, for if the dogs winded him and gave tongue Rimmer would of course come flying back.
Bang came the second report, and in spite of his anxiety Billy chuckled under his breath. Rimmer would certainly think someone was shooting at him and would be badly puzzled. Billy waited no longer; he made for the cabin at top speed. The dogs set up a din, but they were tied, so Billy did not have to use his whip. He burst in at the door, and there was poor Sam lying on a bunk tied hand and foot. The look on his face when he saw Billy was payment for all Billy's risk and trouble.
Out came Billy's knife; he slashed Sam loose.
"Your snow-shoes!" he snapped. "Put them on. Hurry!"
Sam's rackets were in a corner. While he put them on Billy went to work on Rimmer's dog harness. He cut it all to pieces. That job took about fifteen seconds, and within less than half a minute from the time Billy entered the hut he and Sam were travelling hard away from it.
To Billy's intense relief, Sam was quite good on the snow. It takes a lot of practice to use the broad Indian snow-shoes, but Sam seemed to have learned the trick of it and was able to keep up with Billy. Neither of them spoke. They had no breath to spare for talking. As Billy well knew, the job was only half done. If Mart Rimmer caught them before they could harness up and get away that would be their finish. And Billy was very sure Rimmer would not give up very easily. There was not much the man would stick at to win £8000 worth of gold.
The trouble was that they were leaving tracks which even a child could follow. That they couldn't help. To make matters worse, the storm was almost over. The snowfall was getting thinner every minute, and already a glint of blue was showing overhead.
"Stop or I'll shoot!"
They were halfway back to Billy's camp and Billy was beginning to hope they were going to win out when they heard this shouted order!
Billy, who was leading, swung sharply to the left. They were on a slope, and below, was a tamarack swamp where the trees were so thick they gave almost complete shelter. As the two dashed into it there was a sharp crack, and a bullet cut the branches overhead.
"He's trying to scare us," Billy said. "Go slow, Sam. It's bad ground."
There were logs, dead branches, and swamp holes under the snow, but Billy glided in and out, avoiding all dangers.
Rimmer did not fire again. It was useless, for he could not even see the boys. But his long legs ate up the ground at terrible speed, and next moment they heard him swishing along behind them. He was much faster than they, and Billy's heart sank, for he did not see how they could possibly get away. Even if they reached the camp first they had to harness the dogs. Rimmer was bound to catch them before they could start.
Billy took a desperate risk. He turned right into the heart of the swamp. There were springs underneath, and the snow was stained with the brown swamp water that oozed up from below.
Rimmer came after. He was much too angry to be cautious.
The snow sank under Billy; he half turned, grabbed Sam's arm and swung him out of danger. Next moment there was a crash, a yell. Glancing back over his shoulder, Billy saw Rimmer flat on his face, almost buried in the slushy snow.
"This way," said Billy sharply, and whirled back on to firmer ground. A minute later he and Sam were out of the swamp and headed for their camp.
"We're all right now," Billy said.
"He'll be after us again, won't he?" Sam asked.
"Not for hours," Billy chuckled. "He's smashed one of his rackets, and by the time he has repaired that and his dog harness we'll be ten miles away."
Sam looked at Billy. "I knew you were the man for my money," he said.
IT seemed Billy was right, for when, after a hard day's travel, the two reached the crest of the Big Horn hills just before sunset and looked back there was not a sign of Rimmer. Nor, when darkness came, could they see the point of light which would mean a camp fire.
"He's given it up and gone back," Sam declared, but Billy shook his head.
"Rimmer won't give up as easily as that. Tell me, Sam, did he get anything out of you?"
"Not a word."
"But he knows we are making for Lost River, and you can be jolly certain he will follow. Our one chance is to beat him to this cache, get the gold, and clear out before he can arrive."
"Can we do it?"
"Yes, but it will mean hard going. The worst of it is that it's so late in the spring. The thaw may come any time. Then dogs are no use."
Sam looked grave. "That's bad."
"It might be worse. Listen! If we can reach Squaw Lake before the thaw we can get a canoe from the Indians there. Then we go up the Pelly and so into Lost River. Can you paddle?"
Sam nodded. "Dad taught me."
"Good! Two ought to make better time than one, and with any luck we'll beat Rimmer to the cache. But it will mean fast travelling."
"I'm game," Sam said quietly, and Billy saw he meant it.
He did mean it. During the days that followed Billy was amazed at Sam's pluck and endurance. The sun grew warm at midday, the snow softened so that it was terrible toil to travel. Dogs and boys grew thin and worn. They took little time for rest or food, but they covered the ground, and struggled into the settlement at Squaw Lake just as the last of the snow vanished under a pelting rain storm.
The ice had broken, but Moffat, the canny old Scot who was in charge of the post, told them that the Pelly was still full of floes and they would have to wait a couple of days before it was safe to travel. The delay was worrying, but they had this consolation—that Rimmer, if he was still following, would be stuck in the mud. Meantime they rested and talked to Moffat about the Lost River country, though they did not tell him what they were after. The old fellow shook his head. "Ye will not get Indians to go up there," he said.
Why not?" Billy asked.
"Yon's bad country. Folk go in there and dinna come oot. There's tales of a big wolf—a werewolf, the Indians say. If you two were my sons I wad not let ye gang up there."
"We shall be all right," said Billy, with a laugh. "We'll buy a gun from you, and if the werewolf shows up he'll get it hot."
"So Moffat's got the same story," said Billy to Sam later, when they two were alone. "There must be something in it."
"We'll do as you say, Billy, buy a gun. It'll be a bad wolf that survives a charge of buckshot."
They got the gun, they got the canoe, and there was no sign of Rimmer when they left the settlement. The weather was fine, and when they reached the Pelly there was little ice left. Sam paddled well and, though they had to buck a heavy stream, they got on well. Within three days from Squaw Lake they were at the mouth of Lost River, and both felt a thrill as they turned into it.
Lost River ran through flat country. It was a desolate sort of stream with wide stretches of swampy land on either side. The banks were covered with jack pine in which there seemed to be no life at all. In spite of the bright spring sunshine the country had a gloomy, desolate appearance.
The sun was setting on the evening of their second day's travel up the river when they entered an oval lake about a mile long. The surface was smooth as a pond and the dark water reflected the sunset in long streaks of lurid crimson. The silence was complete, and Billy, though not in the least superstitious, shivered slightly. But Sam was full of excitement.
"This is the place, Bill. We've struck it at last." He pointed as he spoke. "The cabin ought to be there on the north bank."
Billy shook off the queer feeling of depression that had come upon him. He drove in his paddle, and the dark water hissed as the light craft shot toward the spot Sam had pointed out. Sure enough, there was a landing—a rough staging of logs deep among the reeds. They reached it and scrambled ashore. Billy carried the gun and Sam a spade and axe.
A path almost overgrown by thick bushes ran up from the landing and brought them to a clearing in which stood a well-built cabin. But the clearing was thick with frost-killed weeds, and the cabin itself had a weather-worn, deserted appearance. All around the opening the jack pines stood so thick and close they seemed to be crowding in upon it. Again Billy shivered, but Sam was all excitement.
"This is the place, Bill. The gold is under the floor of the living-room."
"Then let's get it and clear out, Sam," said Billy, so sharply that Sam turned and stared.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I don't know. I hate the place. There's something wrong with it."
Sam paused a moment. He looked puzzled. Then he shrugged.
"All right, old chap. If you feel that way we'll get the gold and start away at once."
The door was still sound, and opened with a creak of ungreased hinges. The living-room was of good size but, having only one window, and that covered with cobwebs, was very dim. There was a stove, a table, some stools, and a couple of bunks were fixed against the wall. There was not much dust, but everything looked damp and mouldy, and there were cobwebs everywhere. Billy frowned as he looked round at the empty place. He still had that unpleasant feeling of something wrong. Sam got busy examining the floor.
"Here we are," he cried in sudden excitement. "The trapdoor is under the table."
Billy gave him a hand to lift the heavy table aside, then Sam levered up the trapdoor with the axe. Underneath was a hole about three feet by two and four deep. Sam struck a match and held it over the opening. He lowered it as far as his arm would reach and stared into the depths. He drew a long breath.
"There's nothing there," he said in a tone of intense dismay.
"Nothing there!" repeated Billy. Before either could speak again the silence was broken by an awesome sound, a long-drawn howl, wild and savage beyond description.
"The wolf!" gasped Billy, and, gun in hand, sprang toward the open door.
OUTSIDE in the deepening dusk all was utterly still. Not a breath of air moved, not a ripple stirred the glassy surface of the lake. Billy gazed round but could see nothing, then, followed by Sam, began to creep round the shack. His finger was on the trigger of the gun.
The door was on the south side, facing the lake, the window on the east side. Just under the window Billy stopped short and pointed to the ground. Sam bent over the great splayed marks in the soft soil.
"The wolf!" he muttered.
Billy shook his head.
"No wolf could have a pad as big as that," he answered.
"Moffat said something about a werewolf," said Sam uncomfortably.
"There's no such thing," he retorted, almost angrily. Then while Sam still stared down at the monstrous marks the howl came again, long-drawn, mournful, echoing hideously through the growing gloom. This time it was Sam who shuddered.
Ugh! Let's get out of it," he said sharply, and turned back toward the lake.
Billy caught him by the arm.
"The gold, Sam, We can't go without the gold."
"But it's gone."
"Not far. I'm sure of that. Sam, there's someone here. There's someone watching us. I'm sure of it. I can feel it in my bones. And I believe that this watcher has the gold."
Sam's eyes narrowed as he gazed at his friend.
"But even if you're right, what can we do? We can't find the man."
"We must," said Billy quietly. "We haven't come all this way for nothing. You can do as you like, but I'm not leaving without the gold."
Sam shrugged. "If that's your idea I'm sticking. But I don't mind telling you I'm scared."
Billy grinned ruefully.
"So am I—badly; but we've got to stick it. Now let's get the stuff up from the canoe, then we'll clean up and cook supper. And if that wolf comes again the gun will be ready loaded."
It was dark by the time they had all their goods up at the shack. To be on the safe side they hauled the canoe up and hid her in the brush. The stove was rusty but still serviceable, and there was a pile of cut wood outside. With a good fire burning and a lamp lighted the living-room looked less gloomy. Then they cleared up the rubbish, swept the place out, and cleaned the one small window. The next job was to cook and eat supper, and after they had washed up they sat and talked.
"I don't see what you're going to do, Bill," Sam said. "It isn't as if we had the time either. Rimmer may turn up any day."
"He can't come without our seeing him. One will have to watch, the other to find the gold."
"That's no good. If we split up the wolf may get the one that hasn't got the gun. I—" He stopped short. "Look!" he whispered harshly as he pointed to the window. Billy swung round, but shook his head.
"I can't see anything."
"But I did. A man's face. He was peering in at the window. His eyes caught the light and shone like coals."
Billy snatched up the gun and was making for the door, but Sam stopped him.
"You idiot! Think what a target you'd make, standing against the light!"
Billy checked. "Was it Rimmer?" he demanded.
"No. Nothing like him. Billy, those eyes were the eyes of a madman."
"A werewolf and a lunatic! We are certainly in good company," Billy said, in a tone of disgust! "It only remains for Rimmer to turn up, then we shall be properly in the soup."
"The wolf may get Rimmer," Sam retorted. As he spoke he was fastening a piece of sacking across the window. He finished and hurried back to his friend. "Bill," he said, and his voice was solemn, "I'm not quitting until I get to the bottom of this business."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the silence of the sleeping woods was shivered by the same unearthly cry they had heard twice already, the long-drawn howl of a timber wolf.
Before the two turned in they wedged the door and put an extra covering over the window. After what they had been through it might seem unlikely that they would get much sleep, but actually they both slept solidly until the grey light of the northern dawn came sifting in through the tattered sacking.
Daylight is wonderfully heartening, and after they had made a good breakfast the pair were ready for anything. The first thing they did was to make a thorough search of the clearing in the hope that they might find the hiding-place of the gold. But there was no sign that anyone had been digging.
"It isn't here," Sam said, "and Moffat told us that no Indians would come up into this country. If you ask me, Bill, I believe that loony chap has taken it."
"Seems likely," Billy agreed. "We'd better see if we can find his tracks."
"Be an all-day job, I expect," Sam said. "Better take some grub along."
"And shut up the cabin. We don't want that wolf inside," put in Billy.
They put up some sandwiches of baking-powder bread and cold fried bacon, then, as there was no lock, wedged the cabin door and set to hunting tracks.
There were tracks all over the place, but none very far from the shack, and finally they decided that the man they had seen must have come by water, so they got into the canoe and started paddling along the shore of the lake, exploring every spot where it looked as if a canoe could land. It was not until they got right over to the other side that they found what they were looking for. A gap in the reeds and a little sandy beach. A canoe very old and worn was pulled up, and beyond were tracks—two sets of tracks, one huge, and shapeless, the other those of a large dog or wolf.
"Got it at last," Billy said in a quick whisper. "See, Sam, those big shapeless tracks are a man's."
Sam nodded. He was as excited as Billy.
"I see. He's wearing home-made pacs. Must be the crazy chap. And the others are the tracks of the wolf. Go slow, Bill. We don't want to run into trouble."
There was no chance of hurrying, for, once off the beach, the tracks were very hard to follow. Time and again the boys lost them and had to cast round in search. They came into thick brush, and Billy, a few yards in advance of Sam, was walking with head bent, scanning the ground, when he heard a slight rustle on one side. As he raised his head something struck him on the back of the skull and down he went, flat on his face, completely out.
HOW long it was before he recovered consciousness Billy never knew. When he did at last come round he was lying where he had fallen. His head ached badly and, as so often happens after a blow on the head, he could not at first remember how he came there or what had happened. When memory did begin to come back his first thought was for Sam.
He struggled dizzily to his feet and looked round, but there was not a sign of Sam or of anybody else. His gun had disappeared, but not his knife.
"Sam!" he called hoarsely, but there was no reply; there was no sound of any sort except the rustle of the breeze in the branches overhead and the chirping of a flock of chickadees in the bushes. Bill was scared—badly scared. Why had they taken Sam and left him? Was it some freak of this crazy man? If so where had he taken Sam?
Again Billy began searching for tracks, but the ground was hard, and he was still so dizzy he could hardly see. It occurred to him that Sam might have been carried off in the canoe, so he struggled back to the lake. Sure enough, the old canoe was gone, but his own was still there. He got into the canoe, dipped cold water out of the lake and drenched his aching head, then, feeling a little better, picked up the paddle and started a fresh search.
It was no use. Try as he might, he could find no trace of a canoe having been driven in through the reeds, and after three hours' search felt so completely done that he went back to the cabin and made a pot of tea. He was so worried that he was not hungry, but he forced himself to eat something, then lay down on his bunk for a few minutes' rest. He closed his lids to keep the light out of his aching eyes, and at once went fast asleep.
He woke with a start, and saw by the slanting rays that the sun was already low. He sprang up, furious with himself that he had let these hours go by, then suddenly noticed something which had not been there when he first came in. A sheet of coarse wrapping-paper lay on the table. There was writing on it in pencil. Snatching it up, this is what he read:
"I got your partner. He ain't hurt any to speak of, but he sure will be if you don't do as I say. Come across the lake for him right away and take him and yourself clean out of this country. I give you this one chance. You won't get another.
The writing was in a queer scrawly hand and very difficult to read. The message was not signed.
Billy read it over twice and stood biting his lip, wondering what best to do. It might be a trap. Yet was it? In the first place, the person who had left it had been in the cabin while Billy was asleep and had had him at his mercy. For that matter he could have done as he liked with Billy in the morning when he had knocked him down.
Then the note itself. It was very oddly worded. The writer ordered Billy to take Sam and clear out, but did not make any conditions. Apparently he meant that, if Billy did go and get Sam, he had agreed to clear out, yet he did not say so. Billy's face turned grim.
"I've got to take the chance," he said aloud. "Trap or no trap, it's up to me to get Sam back." He waited no longer, but, folding the paper and sticking it into his pocket, went down to the lake.
The sun was still about an hour high as he slid the canoe into the dark, clear water. He picked up the paddle and sent the light craft hissing toward the opposite shore. Within a very few minutes he sighted the gap in the reeds and the little patch of white beach behind.
A clump of silver birch grew close to the shore. The close-laced branches cut off the light. Billy searched them with alert eyes, watching for the slightest movement, yet seeing none. The bow of his canoe grated on the beach and he stepped out.
"Halloa!" he called sharply, and then again, "Halloa!" There was no answer, nor any sign of life. He hesitated. The note had said, "Come right away," but perhaps he had slept too long; perhaps the crazy man had got tired of waiting, or he might have forgotten all about it. Billy didn't know what to do. It was not that he was afraid of the madman, his thought was that if he got caught it was all up with Sam.
If he had had his gun he would not have hesitated. With the gun he was a match for the old man and the wolf, but without it he had not a chance. Then it came to him that perhaps the crazy man expected him to go to the spot where he had been knocked out in the morning. He felt that he must go that far, but he vowed he would not again be taken unawares. So, instead of following the same path as before, he moved out in a wide curve and crept soundlessly through the undergrowth; Not a twig cracked under his feet as he slipped along.
Five minutes later he sighted the clump where he and Sam had been ambushed, and crawled toward it. Something lay on the ground close to the largest bush.
"Sam!" he called in a low voice, but there was no answer. He came slowly nearer, and saw that it was a body lying flat on the ground. It was Sam—Sam motionless, apparently dead. Horror-stricken, Billy rushed forward. "Sam!" he cried.
To his intense relief Sam's eyes were open, but he was tied and gagged so thoroughly that he could not move or utter a sound. Billy dropped on his knees, pulled out his knife, and cut away the gag.
"Sam, are you hurt? If you are—"
"Look out!" said Sam, in a voice so hoarse it was like a frog's croak. Billy turned. Mart Rimmer stood behind him. The man looked huge, and the cruel smile on his face told Billy how he was enjoying the situation. Billy noted too the pistol in the holster on the man's right hip.
"Looking at my gun, eh, Bartlett?" Mart said, with an ugly chuckle. "But I don't need to use guns on kids like you two, specially as one of you is tied up so nice and tight. Don't know who did it, but, whoever it was, he did a mighty nice job. Could hardly believe my eyes when I found him like this."
"You gagged me yourself, you brute," said Sam.
Mart chuckled again.
"Had to. Didn't want to have you warning Bartlett. When I saw him coming across the lake I knew I'd got the pair of you—and the gold," he added gloatingly.
"You may have got us, but you certainly haven't got the gold," Billy retorted.
"But I'm going to have it," Mart said harshly. "Make no mistake."
BILLY made no reply. It was no use. He could see Rimmer had made up his mind that the gold was on the other side of the lake and that nothing would convince him to the contrary. For a mad moment he thought of going for Rimmer. If Sam had been free and able to back him he would have tried it, but as it was he knew it was hopeless. Mart Rimmer had twice his size and strength. Rimmer seemed to read his thoughts.
"No, you wouldn't have a chance, and you know it. Now, I reckon we'll just go across the lake and I'll collect and clear out. I'm taking your canoe for the one I've got ain't much good. But maybe some time you'll be able to patch her up and get out." He chuckled again. "Reckon I can afford to be generous, for I'll be out of the country before you get started. Now you stand over there, Bartlett, while I loose Silver's legs. And don't try anything unless you want to get hurt."
He took out a knife and cut the lashings round Sam's ankles. Billy could have bolted with a fair chance of escape, but what was the use? It only meant that Sam was left in Rimmer's hands, and Billy knew too much of Rimmer to run that risk. He stood and waited quietly. Later perhaps a chance would come, and he must be ready to seize it.
"Get up," Rimmer ordered, and Sam tried to struggle up, only to fall down again.
"None of that shamming!" snarled Rimmer. "Get up on your feet."
"He's been lying tied there for hours," Billy cut in sharply. "If you'd got any sense you'd see he's too cramped to stand."
"Don't crow so loud, little cock," Rimmer answered. "He can rub his legs a bit if he likes, but he'd better remember I haven't any time to waste. You too," he finished curtly.
"Sam rubbed his stiffened muscles and at last was able to stand, but even then could hardly walk. Rimmer ordered Billy to help him.
Somehow Billy got Sam as far as the lake shore and helped him into the canoe. He did not speak to Sam for Rimmer could hear every word. Billy was hoping all the time that the crazy man would turn up with his wolf, but there was no sign of him.
"You can paddle," Rimmer told him. "And make it slippy. I'm leaving before dark."
"I hope you are," said Billy under his breath, as he dipped his paddle. The sun was still above the horizon when they reached the cabin. Rimmer's eyes widened.
"A right nice little shack," he remarked. "And now where's the gold?"
Billy faced him.
"I've told you already that we haven't got it, and I tell you now that we don't know where it is—that is, if there ever was any gold here."
Rimmer glared at him.
"So that's the lay is it? I'll give you one minute to tell me where that stuff is hidden. If you don't you'll wish you'd never been born."
"If you gave us a month it would be the same. As you seem to know something about it, I don't mind telling you we came here to look for gold. But we haven't seen so much as a speck of dust. If there ever was any someone else has been before us and taken it."
Billy's straightforward speech had some effect on Rimmer, and for the first time since they had met him Billy saw a look of doubt on his face. But it passed and his eyes hardened. The man caught him in an iron grasp and flung him on to the bunk.
"Move and it'll be the last thing you do," he threatened. He turned to Sam. "Tie him up," he ordered.
Sam had to obey. When he had finished Rimmer made him lie on the second bunk, and tied him, wrists and ankles.
"Now I'm going to search, and if I find the stuff I leave you—as you are."
"Search then!" retorted Billy, and Rimmer went to work. At once he found the hole below the table. When he saw there was nothing in it he was furious.
"So you've hid it outside!" he roared.
"That place was the first we searched. It was empty as it is now," Billy told him flatly.
Rimmer scowled at him and went outside.
"Fat lot of good he'll do there," said Sam bitterly. "But the fellow's such a liar himself he can't tell when anyone else is speaking the truth."
"No, he won't believe us," Billy agreed. "Sam, what happened this morning? Who knocked me out?"
"I never even saw. Whoever did it was hidden in the bush. I heard a whack, jumped forward, and got it myself in the same place. When I came to I was in a canoe, but I was blindfolded so couldn't see who'd got me. But it was the crazy chap because the wolf was there. I could smell the beast."
"What happened then?"
"I hardly know. The canoe went ashore, for I heard it squeezing through the reeds. Then after a bit the man paddled out again and I was taken back to the same place where you and I landed. I could tell that because of the canoe's bow crunching on the sand. The rum thing was the man never spoke to me, though I tried hard to make him. Then he carried me back into the woods and laid me down. How did you find me?"
Billy told him about the note on the sheet of wrapping-paper.
"The chap wants us to clear out," he said. "I'm more sure than ever that it was he who took the gold."
"Who took the gold?"
It was Rimmer's voice from outside the window, where he must have been listening. "Who took the gold?" he demanded again. "I'm coming round and you'd better tell me or you'll be sorry." They heard him hurrying round.
"Tell him, Bill," Sam whispered sharply. "If he runs into that wolf—"
Before he could say more the door was flung open and Rimmer was back in the room.
"Who's this fellow who took the gold?" he asked harshly.
"The same that tied Silver," Billy replied. "We don't know that he took it, but it seems likely."
"What about this note you spoke of?"
"You can see it if you like," Billy answered curtly. "It's in my pocket."
Rimmer had it out in a moment and read it carefully, scowling as he did so.
"It does look like he was the chap who took it," he admitted grudgingly. "Where does he hang out?"
"That's what we were trying to find out this morning."
"I'll find out," Rimmer boasted. "You can wait here till I come back." He swung round and went out, slamming the door.
THE boys waited in silence until they heard the canoe launched, then Billy spoke. "Any chance of getting loose?"
"Not a hope. Nice finish for us if the wolf does get Rimmer."
"Don't croak. We'll get out of this somehow. See here, I'm going to roll off the bunk, and you do the same. My knife's in my pocket, and there's a chance, if we get back to back, that you might get it out and cut me loose."
"Sounds a bit slim," said Sam. "But I'm game."
They got busy at once and both managed to roll off on to the floor, but moving with your ankles tied together and your hands fastened behind your back isn't easy. When at last they did get close together they were both sore and exhausted, and, to their bitter disappointment, Sam could not by any means reach Billy's knife.
Both were getting bad cramps, and the thought of the long, dark hours before them was dreadful. Billy spoke suddenly.
"Someone coming!" He paused a moment. "It's not Rimmer," he added.
"No light. They've gone," came a queer hoarse voice.
"We're not gone. We're here. We're tied up," said Sam sharply.
A grunt; a match was struck. The boys saw a tall, gaunt, wild-eyed man dressed entirely in furs, and behind him a timber wolf almost the size of a Great Dane. The man lit a candle which stood on the table, and Sam stared at him, wide-eyed. Suddenly Sam gave a shout.
"Gibbie—Uncle Gibbie, cut us loose."
The other stood as if frozen. He gazed at Sam with a look of fear on his parchment-like face.
"I'm Sam—Sam Silver, Uncle Gibbie. You remember me. Sep Silver's son. Cut me loose quick. Mart Rimmer is after us."
As in a dream the tall man took out a knife and cut the cords that fastened Sam, and Sam, struggling up, took the knife and released Billy. The tall man stood quite still. As for the wolf, it was as motionless as its master. Sam scrambled to his feet.
"It's Gibbie Grant, Billy. He's not dead.' What an ass I am! I might have known it." He took Grant's right hand in both his.
"We must go," he said very slowly. "Mart Rimmer tied us up and he is coming back. Can you take us to your place, Uncle Gibbie?"
There was no answer. The old man's face had gone quite vacant. Sam turned to Billy. "We'll have to get out of this. If we get him into the canoe perhaps he'll know where to go."
At this moment the wolf gave a low growl. Billy sprang to the stove and picked up the heavy iron poker.
Next moment Rimmer flung open the door. For a moment sheer amazement struck him speechless. Then he saw Gibbie.
"So he's here, is he?" He stepped forward. "Where's that gold, old man?" he demanded, and grasped Grant's shoulder.
Like a steel spring released the wolf leaped, striking Rimmer between the shoulders and flinging him on top of Grant. Both crashed to the floor together.
Rimmer screamed as the wolf's teeth met in his shoulder, and Billy, springing forward, hit the wolf on the head with the poker. The beast rolled over, stunned. Rimmer began to struggle up, but Sam flung himself on the man and slammed him down on the floor with a force that dazed him. Before he could regain his senses the boys had him tied like a mummy.
Gibbie Grant lay with his eyes on the floor. Sam bent over him.
"He's breathing. Get some water, Bill."
Billy fetched water and a cloth, and Sam soaked the cloth and began bathing Grant's head. The old man's eyes opened and he gazed up at the two boys. A puzzled expression crossed his face, then suddenly he smiled.
"Hulloa, Sam. How do you come here?"
"Came to look for you, Uncle Gibbie."
"And where's your father?"
"Dead," said Sam gently.
"Dead! He was all right the other day."
"It's longer than you think, Uncle Gibbie. You've been ill. Let me help you up, then we'll have some supper and I'll tell you all about it."
"He's got back his senses, Bill," Sam whispered joyfully in Billy's ear. "Get the stove going. Hot tea is what he wants, and a square meal."
Billy hurried to get food. Meantime the wolf revived and crept to his master's side. Sam gave the great beast food and water and it seemed little the worse. Then he dressed Rimmer's wound. As for Rimmer, he was so scared he was quite limp.
Hot tea and a proper meal did wonders for Grant. His eyes brightened, colour came back into his face, he began to talk.
It wasn't the wolf that had attacked him but the Indian. The wolf, which was half dog, half wolf, had tackled the Indian and saved Grant's life, and the Indian, badly hurt, had bolted. But Grant, too, was hurt and had been unable to travel. When he got better winter had closed down and the river was frozen. He and the wolf had taken refuge in a cave on the far side of the lake. Then one day, when cutting a tree for firewood, a branch had fallen on Grant's head, and after that all was blank. He remembered nothing until, as he said, "I woke up and saw Sam looking at me."
As for the gold, he explained that he had moved it from the cabin because he had thought the Indian might come back. It was in the cave and they would get it in the morning.
It was long past midnight before they had finished talking. Before turning in they fixed up a bed for Rimmer in the lean-to outside. They took away his pistol and knife and tied him so safely that he could not possibly get away.
Next morning dawned fine and bright, and, leaving the wolf-dog to guard Rimmer, the three paddled across the lake and Grant led them to his cave. The neatness and order of everything amazed the boys. Grant, though he had lost his memory for a time, had lost none of his woodsman's skill or craft. There were skins on the floor and the cot, and meat hung in a little larder off the main cave. A spring supplied fresh water.
Billy had been afraid that Grant might have forgotten where he had hidden the gold, but not a bit of it! He went straight to the place, lifted a stone, and there was the dust tied up in moose-skin bags.
A couple of hours later they were on their way down Lost River. They took Rimmer with them but kept him tied. Ten days later they were back at Loon Lake, where they handed him over to the police.
Grant would not leave the north, so Billy and Sam went south to Vancouver, where both became pupils at the State School of Mines. It will be a three-years course, and when they have graduated both of them intend to go north again and start real mining.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page