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THE WATCHER IN THE PASS.
Thenceforward, as the forest folded them deeper, John found a wonderful solace in Bateese's company, although the two seldom exchanged a word unless alone together, and after a day or two Barboux took a whim to carry off the little boatman on his expeditions and leave Muskingon in charge of the camp. He pretended that John, as he mended of his wound, needed a stalwart fellow for sentry; but the real reason was malice. For some reason he hated Muskingon; and knowing Muskingon's delight in every form of the chase, carefully thwarted it. On the other hand, it was fun to drag off Bateese, who loved to sit by his boat and hated the killing of animals.
"If I give him my parole," suggested John, "he will have no excuse, and Muskingon can go in your place."
But to this Bateese would not listen. So the wounded were left, on hunting days, in Muskingon's charge; and with him, too, John contrived to make friends. The young Indian had a marvellous gift of silence, and would sit brooding for hours. Perhaps he nursed his hatred of Barboux; perhaps he distrusted the journey--for he and Menehwehna, Ojibways both, were hundreds of miles from their own country, which lay at the back of Lake Huron. Now and again, however, he would unbend and teach John a few words of the Ojibway language; or would allow him, as a fellow-sportsman, to sit by the water's edge and study the Indian tricks of fishing.
There was one in particular which fairly amazed John. He had crawled after Muskingon on his belly--though not understanding the need of this caution--to the edge of a rock overhanging a deep pool. The Indian peered over, unloosed his waist-belt, and drew off his scarlet breeches as if for a bathe. But no, he did not intend this-- at least, not just yet. He wound the breeches about his right arm and dipped it cautiously, bending over the ledge until his whole body from the waist overhung the water, and it was a wonder how his thighs kept their grip. Then, in a moment, up flew his heels and over he soused. John, peering down as the swirl cleared, saw only a red-brown back heaving below; and as the seconds dragged by, and the back appeared to heave more and more faintly, was plucking off his own clothes to dive and rescue Muskingon from the rocks, when a pair of hands shot up, holding aloft an enormous, bleeding cat-fish, and hitched him deftly on the gaff which John hurried to lower. But the fish had scarcely a kick left in him, Muskingon having smashed his head against the crevices of the rock.
Indeed Barboux had this excuse for leaving Muskingon in camp by the river--that there was always a string of fish ready before nightfall when he and Menehwehna returned. John, stupefied through the daylight hours, always seemed to awake with the lighting of the camp-fire. This at any rate was the one scene he afterwards saw most clearly, in health and in the delirium of fever--the fire; the ring of faces; beyond the faces a sapling strung with fish like short broad-swords reflecting the flames' glint; a stouter sapling laid across two forked boughs, and from it a dead deer suspended, with white filmed eyes, and the firelight warm on its dun flank; behind, the black deep of the forest, sounded, if at all, by the cry of a lonely wolf. These sights he recalled, with the scent of green fir burning and the smart of it on his lashes.
But by day he went with senses lulled, having forgotten all desire of escape or return. These five companions were all his world. Was he a prisoner? Was Barboux his enemy? The words had no meaning. They were all in the same boat, and "France" and "England" had become idle names. If he considered Barboux's gun, it was as a provider of game, or a protector against any possible foe from the woods. But the woods kept their sinister silence.
Once, indeed, at the head of a portage, they came upon a still reach of water with a strip of clearing on its farther bank--bois brule Bateese called it; but the fire, due to lightning no doubt, must have happened many years before, for spruces of fair growth rose behind the alders on the swampy shore, and tall wickup plants and tussocks of the blueberry choked the interspaces. A cool breeze blew down the waterway, as through a funnel, from the uplands ahead, and the falls below sang deafeningly in the voyageurs' ears as they launched their boat.
Suddenly Menehwehna touched Barboux by the elbow. His ear had caught the crackling of a twig amid the uproar. John, glancing up as the sergeant lifted his piece, spied the antlers of a bull-moose spreading above an alder-clump across the stream. The tall brute had come down through the bois brule to drink, or to browse on the young spruce-buds, which there grew tenderer than in the thick forest; and for a moment moose and men gazed full at each other in equal astonishment.
Barboux would have fired at once had not Menehwehna checked him with a few rapid words. With a snort of disgust the moose turned slowly, presenting his flank, and crashed away through the undergrowth as the shot rang after him. Bateese and Muskingon had the canoe launched in a second, and the whole party clambered in and paddled across. But before they reached the bank the beast's hoofs could be heard drumming away on the ridge beyond the swamp and the branches snapping as he parted them.
Barboux cursed his luck. The two Indians maintained that the moose had been hit. At length Muskingon, who had crossed the swamp, found a splash of blood among the mosses, and again another on the leaves of a wickup plant a rod or two farther on the trail. The sergeant, hurrying to inspect these traces, plunged into liquid mud up to his knees, and was dragged out in the worst of tempers by John, who had chosen to follow without leave. Bateese and McQuarters remained with the canoe.
Each in his own fashion, then, the trackers crossed the swamp, and soon were hunting among a network of moose-trails, which criss-crossed one another through the burnt wood. John, aware of his incompetence, contented himself with watching the Indians as they picked up a new trail, followed it for a while, then patiently harked back to the last spot of blood and worked off on a new line. Barboux had theories of his own, which they received with a galling silence. It galled him at length to fury, and he was lashing them with curses which made John wonder at their forbearance, when a call from the river silenced him.
It came from Bateese. Bateese, who cared nothing for sport, had paddled up-stream to inspect the next reach of the river, and there, at the first ford, had found the moose lying dead and warm, with the ripple running over his flank and his gigantic horns high out of the water like a snag.
From oaths Barboux now turned incontinently to boasting. This was his first moose, but he--he, Joachim Barboux, was a sportsman from his birth. He still contended, but complacently and without rancour, that had the Indians taken up the trail he had advised from the first it would have led them straight to the ford. They heard him and went on skinning the moose, standing knee deep in the bloody water, for the body was too heavy to be dragged ashore without infinite labour. Menehwehna found and handed him the bullet, which had glanced across and under the shoulder-blade, and flattened itself against one of the ribs on the other side. Barboux pocketed it in high good humour; and when their work was done--an ugly work, from which Bateese kept his eyes averted--a steak or two cut out, with the tongue, and the carcass left behind to rot in the stream--he praised them for brave fellows. They listened as indifferently as they had listened to his revilings.
This shot which slew the moose was the last fired on the upward journey. They had followed the stream up to the hill ridges, where rapid succeeded rapid; and two days of all but incessant portage brought them out above the forest, close beneath the naked ridges where but a few pines straggled.
Bateese pointed out a path by following which, as he promised, they would find a river to carry them down into the St. Lawrence. He unfolded a scheme. There were trees beside that farther stream-- elm-trees, for example--blown down and needing only to be stripped; his own eyes had seen them. Portage up and over the ridge would be back-breaking work. Let the canoe, therefore, be abandoned--hidden somewhere by the headwaters--and let the Indians hurry ahead and rig up a light craft to carry the party downstream. They had axes to strip the bark and thongs to close it at bow and stern. What more was needed? As for the loss of his canoe, he understood the sergeant's to be State business, requiring dispatch; and if so, M. the Intendant at Montreal would recompense him. Nay, he himself might be travelling back this way before long, and then how handy to pick up a canoe on this side of the hills!
The sergeant bravo-ed and clapped the little man on his back, drawing tears of pain. The canoe was hauled up and stowed in a damp corner of the undergrowth under a mat of pine-branches, well screened from the sun's rays, and the travellers began to trudge on foot, in two divisions. The Indians led, with John and Barboux, the latter being minded to survey the country with them from the top of the ridge and afterwards allow them to push on alone. He took John to keep him company after their departure, and because the two prisoners could not well be left in charge of Bateese, who besides had his hands full with the baggage. So Bateese and McQuarters toiled behind, the little man grunting and shifting his load from time to time with a glance to assure himself that McQuarters was holding out; now and then slackening the pace, but still, as he plodded, measuring the slopes ahead with his eye, comparing progress with the sun's march, and timing himself to reach the ridge at nightfall. Barboux had proposed to camp there, on the summit. The Indians were to push forward through the darkness.
Meanwhile John stepped ahead with Barboux and the Indians. His spirits rose as he climbed above the forest; the shadow which had lain on them slipped away and melted in the clear air. Here and there he stumbled, his knees reminding him suddenly of his weakness; but health was coming back to him, and he drank in long pure draughts of it. It was good, after all, to be alive and young. A sudden throbbing in the air brought him to a halt; it came from a tiny humming-bird poising itself over a bush-tufted rock on his right. As it sang on, careless of his presence, John watched the music bubbling and trembling within its flame-coloured throat. He, too, felt ready to sing for no other reason than pure delight. He understood the ancient gods and their laughter; he smiled down with them upon the fret of the world and mortal fate. Father Jove, optimus maximus, was a grand fellow, a good Catholic in spite of misconception, and certainly immortal; god and gentleman both, large, lusty, superlative, tolerant, debonair. As for misconception, from this height Father Jove could overlook centuries of it at ease--the Middle Ages, for instance. Everyone had been more or less cracked in the Middle Ages--cracked as fiddles. Likely enough Jove had made the Middle Ages, to amuse himself. . . .
As the climb lulled his brain, John played with these idle fancies. Barboux, being out of condition and scant of breath, conversed very little. The Indians kept silence as usual.
The sun was dropping behind the cleft of the pass as they reached it, and the rocky walls opened in the haze of its yellow beams. So once more John came to the gate of a new world.
Menehwehna led, Barboux followed, with John close behind, and Muskingon bringing up the rear. They were treading the actual pass, and Menehwehna, rounding an angle of the cliff, had been lost to sight for a moment, when John heard a low guttural cry--whether of surprise or warning he could not tell.
He ran forward at Barboux's heels. A dozen paces ahead of the Indian, reclining against the rock-face on a heap of scree, in the very issue of the pass, with leagues of sunlight beyond him and the basin of the plain at his feet, sat a man.
He did not move; and at first this puzzled them, for he lay dark against the sun, and its rays shone in their eyes.
But Menehwehna stepped close up to him and pointed. Then they saw, and understood.
The man was dead; dead and scalped--a horrible sight.
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