Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
The Spoil of the Puma
Just at the point where the Peace River first hugs the vast outpost hills of the Rockies, before it hurries timorously on, through an unexplored region, to Fort St. John, there stood a hut. It faced the west, and was built half-way up Clear Mountain. In winter it had snows above it and below it; in summer it had snow above it and a very fair stretch of trees and grass, while the river flowed on the same, winter and summer. It was a lonely country. Travelling north, you would have come to the Turnagain River; west, to the Frying Pan Mountains; south, to a goodly land. But from the hut you had no outlook towards the south; your eye came plump against a hard lofty hill, like a wall between heaven and earth. It is strange, too, that, when you are in the far north, you do not look towards the south until the north turns an iron hand upon you and refuses the hospitality of food and fire; your eyes are drawn towards the Pole by that charm--deadly and beautiful--for which men have given up three points of the compass, with their pleasures and ease, to seek a grave solitude, broken only by the beat of a musk-ox's hoofs, the long breath of the caribou, or the wild cry of the puma.
Sir Duke Lawless had felt this charm, and had sworn that one day he would again leave his home in Devon and his house in Pont Street, and, finding Pierre, Shon M'Gann, and others of his old comrades, together they would travel into those austere yet pleasant wilds. He kept his word, found Shon M'Gann, and on an autumn day of a year not so long ago lounged in this hut on Clear Mountain. They had had three months of travel and sport, and were filled, but not sated, with the joy of the hunter. They were very comfortable, for their host, Pourcette, the French Canadian, had fire and meat in plenty, and, if silent, was attentive to their comfort--a little, black-bearded, grey-headed man, with heavy brows over small vigilant eyes, deft with his fingers, and an excellent sportsman, as could be told from the skins heaped in all the corners of the large hut.
The skins were not those of mere foxes or martens or deer, but of mountain lions and grizzlies. There were besides many soft, tiger-like skins, which Sir Duke did not recognise. He kept looking at them, and at last went over and examined one.
"What's this, Monsieur Pourcette?" he said, feeling it as it lay on the top of the pile.
The little man pushed the log on the fireplace with his moccasined foot before he replied: "Of a puma, m'sieu'."
Sir Duke smoothed it with his hand. "I didn't know there were pumas here."
"Faith, Sir Duke--"
Sir Duke Lawless turned on Shon quickly. "You're forgetting again, Shon. There's no 'Sir Dukes' between us. What you were to me years ago on the wally-by-track and the buffalo-trail, you are now, and I'm the same also: M'Gann and Lawless, and no other."
"Well, then, Lawless, it's true enough as he says it, for I've seen more than wan skin brought in, though I niver clapped eye on the beast alive. There's few men go huntin' them av their own free will, not more than they do grizzlies; but, bedad, this French gintleman has either the luck o' the world, or the gift o' that man ye tould me of, that slew the wild boars in anciency. Look at that, now: there's thirty or forty puma- skins, and I'd take my oath there isn't another man in the country that's shot half that in his lifetime."
Pourcette's eyes were on the skins, not on the men, and he did not appear to listen. He sat leaning forward, with a strange look on his face. Presently he got up, came over, and stroked the skins softly. A queer chuckling noise came from his throat.
"It was good sport?" asked Lawless, feeling a new interest in him.
"The grandest sport--but it is not so easy," answered the old man. "The grizzly comes on you bold and strong; you know your danger right away, and have it out. So. But the puma comes--God, how the puma comes!" He broke off, his eyes burning bright under his bushy brows and his body arranging itself into an attitude of expectation and alertness.
"You have travelled far. The sun goes down. You build a fire and cook your meat, and then good tea and the tabac. It is ver' fine. You hear the loon crying on the water, or the last whistle of the heron up the pass. The lights in the sky come out and shine through a thin mist-- there is nothing like that mist, it is so fine and soft. Allons. You are sleepy. You bless the good God. You stretch pine branches, wrap in your blanket, and lie down to sleep. If it is winter and you have a friend, you lie close. It is all quiet. As you sleep, something comes. It slides along the ground on its belly, like a snake. It is a pity if you have not ears that feel--the whole body as ears. For there is a swift lunge, a snarl--ah, you should hear it! the thing has you by the throat, and there is an end!"
The old man had acted all the scenes: a sidelong glance, a little gesture, a movement of the body, a quick, harsh breath--without emphatic excitement, yet with a reality and force that fascinated his two listeners. When he paused, Shon let go a long breath, and Lawless looked with keen inquiry at their entertainer. This almost unnatural, yet quiet, intensity had behind it something besides the mere spirit of the sportsman. Such exhibitions of feeling generally have an unusual personal interest to give them point and meaning.
"Yes, that's wonderful, Pourcette," he said; "but that's when the puma has things its own way. How is it when these come off?" He stroked the soft furs under his hand.
The man laughed, yet without a sound--the inward, stealthy laugh, as from a knowledge wicked in its very suggestiveness. His eyes ran from Lawless to Shon, and back again. He put his hand on his mouth, as though for silence, stole noiselessly over to the wall, took down his gun quietly, and turned round. Then he spoke softly:
"To kill the puma, you must watch--always watch. You will see his yellow eyes sometimes in a tree: you must be ready before he springs. You will hear his breath at night as you pretend to sleep, and you wait till you see his foot steal out of the shadow--then you have him. From a mountain wall you watch in the morning, and, when you see him, you follow, and follow, and do not rest till you have found him. You must never miss fire, for he has great strength and a mad tooth. But when you have got him, he is worth all. You cannot eat the grizzly--he is too thick and coarse; but the puma--well, you had him from the pot to-night. Was he not good?"
Lawless's brows ran up in surprise. Shon spoke quickly:
"Heaven above!" he burst out. "Was it puma we had betune the teeth? And what's puma but an almighty cat? Sure, though, it wint as tinder as pullets, for all that--but I wish you hadn't tould us."
The old man stood leaning on his gun, his chin on his hands, as they covered the muzzle, his eyes fixed on something in his memory, the vision of incidents he had lived or seen.
Lawless went over to the fire and relit his pipe. Shon followed him. They both watched Pourcette. "D'ye think he's mad?" asked Shon in a whisper. Lawless shook his head: "Mad? No. But there's more in this puma-hunting than appears. How long has he lived here, did he say?"
"Four years; and, durin' that time, yours and mine are the only white faces he has seen, except one."
"Except one. Well, whose was the one? That might be interesting. Maybe there's a story in that."
"Faith, Lawless, there's a story worth the hearin', I'm thinkin', to every white man in this country. For the three years I was in the mounted police, I could count a story for all the days o' the calendar --and not all o' them would make you happy to hear."
Pourcette turned round to them. He seemed to be listening to Shon's words. Going to the wall, he hung up the rifle; then he came to the fire and stood holding out his hands to the blaze. He did not look in the least mad, but like a man who was dominated by some one thought, more or less weird. Short and slight, and a little bent, but more from habit --the habit of listening and watching--than from age, his face had a stern kind of earnestness and loneliness, and nothing at all of insanity.
Presently Lawless went to a corner and from his kit drew forth a flask. The old man saw, and immediately brought out a wooden cup. There were two on the shelf, and Shon pointed to the other. Pourcette took no notice. Shon went over to get it, but Pourcette laid a hand on his arm: "Not that."
"For ornamint!" said Shon, laughing, and then his eyes were arrested by a suit of buckskin and a cap of beaver, hanging on the wall. He turned them over, and then suddenly drew back his hand, for he saw in the back of the jacket a knife-slit. There was blood also on the buckskin.
"Holy Mary!" he said, and retreated. Lawless had not noticed; he was pouring out the liquor. He had handed the cup first to Pourcette, who raised it towards a gun hung above the fireplace, and said something under his breath.
"A dramatic little fellow," thought Lawless; "the spirit of his forefathers--a good deal of heart, a little of the poseur."
Then hearing Shon's exclamation, he turned.
"It's an ugly sight," said Shon, pointing to the jacket. They both looked at Pourcette, expecting him to speak. The old man reached to the coat, and, turning it so that the cut and the blood were hid, ran his hand down it caressingly. "Ah, poor Jo! poor Jo Gordineer!" he said; then he came over once more to the fire, sat down, and held out his hands to the fire, shaking his head.
"For God's sake, Lawless, give me a drink!" said Shon. Their eyes met, and there was the same look in the faces of both. When Shon had drunk, he said: "So, that's what's come to our old friend, Jo: dead--killed or murdered--"
"Don't speak so loud," said Lawless. "Let us get the story from him first."
Years before, when Shon M'Gann and Pierre and Lawless had sojourned in the Pipi Valley, Jo Gordineer had been with them, as stupid and true a man as ever drew in his buckle in a hungry land, or let it out to munch corn and oil. When Lawless returned to find Shon and others of his companions, he had asked for Gordineer. But not Shon nor anyone else could tell aught of him; he had wandered north to outlying goldfields, and then had disappeared completely. But there, as it would seem, his coat and cap hung, and his rifle, dust-covered, kept guard over the fire.
Shon went over to the coat, did as Pourcette had done, and said: "Is it gone y'are, Jo, wid your slow tongue and your big heart? Wan by wan the lads are off."
Pourcette, without any warning, began speaking, but in a very quiet tone at first, as if unconscious of the others:
"Poor Jo Gordineer! Yes, he is gone. He was my friend--so tall, and such a hunter! We were at the Ding Dong goldfields together. When luck went bad, I said to him: 'Come, we will go where there is plenty of wild meat, and a summer more beautiful than in the south.' I did not want to part from him, for once, when some miner stole my claim, and I fought, he stood by me. But in some things he was a little child. That was from his big heart. Well, he would go, he said; and we came away."
He suddenly became silent; and shook his head, and spoke under his breath.
"Yes," said Lawless quietly, "you went away. What then?"
He looked up quickly, as though just aware of their presence, and continued:
"Well, the other followed, as I said, and--"
"No, Pourcette," interposed Lawless, "you didn't say. Who was the other that followed?"
The old man looked at him gravely, and a little severely, and continued:
"As I said, Gawdor followed--he and an Indian. Gawdor thought we were going for gold, because I had said I knew a place in the north where there was gold in a river--I know the place, but that is no matter. We did not go for gold just then. Gawdor hated Jo Gordineer. There was a half-breed girl. She was fine to look at. She would have gone to Gordineer if he had beckoned, any time; but he waited--he was very slow, except with his finger on a gun; he waited too long.
"Gawdor was mad for the girl. He knew why her feet came slow to the door when he knocked. He would have quarrelled with Jo, if he had dared; Gordineer was too quick a shot. He would have killed him from behind; but it was known in the camp that he was no friend of Gordineer, and it was not safe."
Again Pourcette was silent. Lawless put on his knee a new pipe, filled with tobacco. The little man took it, lighted it, and smoked on in silence for a time undisturbed. Shon broke the silence, by a whisper to Lawless:
"Jo was a quiet man, as patient as a priest; but when his blood came up, there was trouble in the land. Do you remimber whin--"
Lawless interrupted him and motioned towards Pourcette. The old man, after a few puffs, held the pipe on his knee, disregarding it. Lawless silently offered him some more whisky, but he shook his head. Presently, he again took up the thread:
"Bien, we travelled slow up through the smoky river country, and beyond into a wild land. We had bully sport as we went. Sometimes I heard shots far away behind us; but Gordineer said it was my guess, for we saw nobody. But I had a feeling. Never mind. At last we come to the Peace River. It was in the early autumn like this, when the land is full of comfort. What is there like it? Nothing. The mountains have colours like a girl's eyes; the smell of the trees is sweet like a child's breath, and the grass feels for the foot and lifts it with a little soft spring. We said we could live here for ever. We built this house high up, as you see, first, because it is good to live high--it puts life in the blood; and, as Gordineer said, it is noble to look far over the world, every time your house-door is open, or the parchment is down from the window. We killed wapiti and caribou without number, and cached them for our food. We caught fish in the river, and made tea out of the brown berry--it is very good. We had flour, a little, which we had brought with us, and I went to Fort St. John and got more. Since then, down in the valley, I have wheat every summer; for the Chinook winds blow across the mountains and soften the bitter cold.
"Well, for that journey to Fort St. John. When I got back I found Gawdor with Gordineer. He said he had come north to hunt. His Indian had left, and he had lost his way. Gordineer believed him. He never lied himself. I said nothing, but watched. After a time he asked where the gold-field was. I told him, and he started away--it was about fifty miles to the north. He went, and on his way back he come here. He say he could not find the place, and was going south. I know he lied. At this time I saw that Gordineer was changed. He was slow in the head, and so, when he began thinking up here, it made him lonely. It is always in a fine land like this, where game is plenty, and the heart dances for joy in your throat, and you sit by the fire--that you think of some woman who would be glad to draw in and tie the strings of the tent-curtain, or fasten the latch of the door upon you two alone."
Perhaps some memory stirred within the old man, other than that of his dead comrade, for he sighed, muffled his mouth in his beard, and then smiled in a distant way at the fire. The pure truth of what he said came home to Shon M'Gann and Sir Duke Lawless; for both, in days gone by, had sat at camp-fires in silent plains, and thought upon women from whom they believed they were parted for ever, yet who were only kept from them for a time, to give them happier days. They were thinking of these two women now. They scarcely knew how long they sat there thinking. Time passes swiftly when thoughts are cheerful, or are only tinged with the soft melancholy of a brief separation. Memory is man's greatest friend and worst enemy.
At last the old man continued: "I saw the thing grew on him. He was not sulky, but he stare much in the fire at night. In the daytime he was differen'. A hunter thinks only of his sport. Gawdor watched him. Gordineer's hand was steady; his nerve was all right. I have seen him stand still till a grizzly come within twice the length of his gun. Then he would twist his mouth, and fire into the mortal spot. Once we were out in the Wide Wing pass. We had never had such a day. Gordineer make grand shots, better than my own; and men have said I can shoot like the devil--ha! ha!" He chuckled to himself noiselessly, and said in a whisper "Twenty grizzlies, and fifty pumas!"
Then he rubbed his hands softly on his knees, and spoke aloud again: "Ici, I was proud of him. We were standing together on a ledge of rock. Gawdor was not far away. Gawdor was a poor hunter, and I knew he was wild at Gordineer's great luck.... A splendid bull-wapiti come out on a rock across the gully. It was a long shot. I did not think Gordineer could make it; I was not sure that I could--the wind was blowing and the range was long. But he draw up his gun like lightning, and fire all at once. The bull dropped clean over the cliff, and tumbled dead upon the rocks below. It was fine. But, then, Gordineer slung his gun under his arm, and say: 'That is enough. I am going to the hut.'
"He went away. That night he did not talk. The next morning, when I say, 'We will be off again to the pass,' he shake his head. He would not go. He would shoot no more, he said. I understood: it was the girl. He was wide awake at last. Gawdor understanded also. He know that Gordineer would go to the south--to her.
"I was sorry; but it was no use. Gawdor went with me to the pass. When we come back, Jo was gone. On a bit of birch-bark he had put where he was going, and the way he would take. He said he would come back to me --ah, the brave comrade! Gawdor say nothing, but his looks were black. I had a feeling. I sat up all night, smoking. I was not afraid, but I know Gawdor had found the valley of gold, and he might put a knife in me, because to know of such a thing alone is fine. Just at dawn, he got up and go out. He did not come back.
"I waited, and at last went to the pass. In the afternoon, just as I was rounding the corner of a cliff, there was a shot--then another. The first went by my head; the second caught me along the ribs, but not to great hurt. Still, I fell from the shock, and lost some blood. It was Gawdor; he thought he had killed me.
"When I come to myself I bound up the little furrow in the flesh, and start away. I know that Gawdor would follow Gordineer. I follow him, knowing the way he must take. I have never forget the next night. I had to travel hard, and I track him by his fires and other things. When sunset come, I do not stop. I was in a valley, and I push on. There was a little moon. At last I saw a light ahead-a camp-fire, I know. I was weak, and could have dropped; but a dread was on me.
"I come to the fire. I saw a man lying near it. Just as I saw him, he was trying to rise. But, as he did so, something sprang out of the shadow upon him, at his throat. I saw him raise his hand, and strike it with a knife. The thing let go, and then I fire--but only scratched, I think. It was a puma. It sprang away again, into the darkness. I ran to the man, and raised him. It was my friend. He looked up at me and shake his head. He was torn at the throat.... But there was something else--a wound in the back. He was stooping over the fire when he was stabbed, and he fell. He saw that it was Gawdor. He had been left for dead, as I was. Nom de Dieu! just when I come and could have save him, the puma come also. It is the best men who have such luck. I have seen it often. I used to wonder they did not curse God."
He crossed himself and mumbled something. Lawless rose, and walked up and down the room once or twice, pulling at his beard and frowning. His eyes were wet. Shon kept blowing into his closed hand and blinking at the fire. Pourcette got up and took down the gun from the chimney. He brushed off the dust with his coat-sleeve, and fondled it, shaking his head at it a little. As he began to speak again, Lawless sat down.
"Now I know why they do not curse. Something curses for them. Jo give me a word for her, and say 'Well, it is all right; but I wish I had killed the puma.' There was nothing more. . . . I followed Gawdor for days. I know that he would go and get someone, and go back to the gold. I thought at last I had missed him; but no. I had made up my mind what to do when I found him. One night, just as the moon was showing over the hills, I come upon him. I was quiet as a puma. I have a stout cord in my pocket, and another about my body. Just as he was stooping over the fire, as Gordineer did, I sprang upon him, clasping him about the neck, and bringing him to the ground. He could not get me off. I am small, but I have a grip. Then, too, I had one hand at his throat. It was no use to struggle. The cord and a knife were in my teeth. It was a great trick, but his breath was well gone, and I fastened his hands. It was no use to struggle. I tied his feet and legs. Then I carried him to a tree and bound him tight. I unfastened his hands again and tied them round the tree. Then I built a great fire not far away. He begged at first and cried. But I was hard. He got wild, and at last when I leave him he cursed! It was like nothing I ever heard. He was a devil. . . I come back after I have carry the message to the poor girl--it is a sad thing to see the first great grief of the young! Gawdor was not there. The pumas and others had been with him.
"There was more to do. I wanted to kill that puma which set its teeth in the throat of my friend. I hunted the woods where it had happened, beating everywhere, thinking that, perhaps, it was dead. There was not much blood on the leaves, so I guessed that it had not died. I hunted from that spot, and killed many--many. I saw that they began to move north. At last I got back here. From here I have hunted and killed them slow; but never that one with a wound in the shoulder from Jo's knife. Still, I can wait. There is nothing like patience for the hunter and for the man who would have blood for blood."
He paused, and Lawless spoke. "And when you have killed that puma, Pourcette--if you ever do-what then?"
Pourcette fondled the gun, then rose and hung it up again before he replied.
"Then I will go to Fort St. John, to the girl--she is there with her father--and sell all the skins to the factor, and give her the money." He waved his hand round the room. "There are many skins here, but I have more cached not far away. Once a year I go to the Fort for flour and bullets. A dog-team and a bois-brule bring them, and then I am alone as before. When all that is done I will come back."
"And then, Pourcette?" said Shon.
"Then I will hang that one skin over the chimney where his gun is--and go out and kill more pumas. What else can one do? When I stop killing I shall be killed. A million pumas and their skins are not worth the life of my friend."
Lawless looked round the room, at the wooden cup, the gun, the bloodstained clothes on the wall, and the skins. He got up, came over, and touched Pourcette on the shoulder.
"Little man," he said, "give it up, and come with me. Come to Fort St. John, sell the skins, give the money to the girl, and then let us travel to the Barren Grounds together, and from there to the south country again. You will go mad up here. You have killed enough--Gawdor and many pumas. If Jo could speak, he would say, Give it up. I knew Jo. He was my good friend before he was yours--mine and M'Gann's here--and we searched for him to travel with us. He would have done so, I think, for we had sport and trouble of one kind and another together. And he would have asked you to come also. Well, do so, little man. We haven't told you our names. I am Sir Duke Lawless, and this is Shon M'Gann."
Pourcette nodded: "I do not know how it come to me, but I was sure from the first you are his friends. He speak often of you and of two others --where are they?"
Lawless replied, and, at the name of Pretty Pierre, Shon hid his forehead in his hand, in a troubled way. "And you will come with us," said Lawless, "away from this loneliness?"
"It is not lonely," was the reply. "To hear the thrum of the pigeon, the whistle of the hawk, the chatter of the black squirrel, and the long cry of the eagle, is not lonely. Then, there is the river and the pines--all music; and for what the eye sees, God has been good; and to kill pumas is my joy. . . . So, I cannot go. These hills are mine. Few strangers come, and none stop but me. Still, to-morrow or any day, I will show you the way to the valley where the gold is. Perhaps riches is there, perhaps not, you shall find."
Lawless saw that it was no use to press the matter. The old man had but one idea, and nothing could ever change it. Solitude fixes our hearts immovably on things--call it madness, what you will. In busy life we have no real or lasting dreams, no ideals. We have to go to the primeval hills and the wild plains for them. When we leave the hills and the plains, we lose them again. Shon was, however, for the valley of gold. He was a poor man, and it would be a joyful thing for him if one day he could empty ample gold into his wife's lap. Lawless was not greedy, but he and good gold were not at variance.
"See," said Shon, "the valley's the thing. We can hunt as we go, and if there's gold for the scrapin', why, there y'are--fill up and come again. If not, divil the harm done. So here's thumbs up to go, say I. But I wish, Lawless, I wish that I'd niver known how Jo wint off, an' I wish we were all t'gither agin, as down in the Pipi Valley."
"There's nothing stands in this world, Shon, but the faith of comrades and the truth of good women. The rest hangs by a hair. I'll go to the valley with you. It's many a day since I washed my luck in a gold-pan."
"I will take you there," said Pourcette, suddenly rising, and, with shy abrupt motions grasping their hands and immediately letting them go again. "I will take you to-morrow." Then he spread skins upon the floor, put wood upon the fire, and the three were soon asleep.
The next morning, just as the sun came laboriously over the white peak of a mountain, and looked down into the great gulch beneath the hut, the three started. For many hours they crept along the side of the mountain, then came slowly down upon pine-crested hills, and over to where a small plain stretched out. It was Pourcette's little farm. Its position was such that it caught the sun always, and was protected from the north and east winds. Tall shafts of Indian corn with their yellow tassels were still standing, and the stubble of the field where the sickle had been showed in the distance like a carpet of gold. It seemed strange to Lawless that this old man beside him should be thus peaceful in his habits, the most primitive and arcadian of farmers, and yet one whose trade was blood--whose one purpose in life was destruction and vengeance.
They pushed on. Towards the end of the day they came upon a little herd of caribou, and had excellent sport. Lawless noticed that Pourcette seemed scarcely to take any aim at all, so swift and decisive was his handling of the gun. They skinned the deer and cached them, and took up the journey again. For four days they travelled and hunted alternately. Pourcette had shot two mountain lions, but they had seen no pumas.
On the morning of the fifth day they came upon the valley where the gold was. There was no doubt about it. A beautiful little stream ran through it, and its bed was sprinkled with gold--a goodly sight to a poor man like Shon, interesting enough to Lawless. For days, while Lawless and Pourcette hunted, Shon laboured like a galley-slave, making the little specks into piles, and now and again crowning a pile with a nugget. The fever of the hunter had passed from him, and another fever was on him. The others urged him to come away. The winter would soon be hard on them; he must go, and he and Lawless would return in the spring.
Prevailing on him at last, they started back to Clear Mountain. The first day Shon was abstracted. He carried the gold he had gathered in a bag wound about his body. It was heavy, and he could not travel fast. One morning, Pourcette, who had been off in the hills, came to say that he had sighted a little herd of wapiti. Shon had fallen and sprained his arm the evening before (gold is heavy to carry), and he did not go with the others. He stayed and dreamed of his good fortune, and of his home. In the late afternoon he lay down in the sun beside the camp-fire and fell asleep from much thinking. Lawless and Pourcette had little success. The herd had gone before they arrived. They beat the hills, and turned back to camp at last, without fret, like good sportsmen. At a point they separated, to come down upon the camp at different angles, in the hope of still getting a shot. The camp lay exposed upon a platform of the mountain.
Lawless came out upon a ledge of rock opposite the camp, a gulch lying between. He looked across. He was in the shadow, the other wall of the gulch was in the sun. The air was incomparably clear and fresh, with an autumnal freshness. Everything stood out distinct and sharply outlined, nothing flat or blurred. He saw the camp, and the fire, with the smoke quivering up in a diffusing blue column, Shon lying beside it. He leaned upon his rifle musingly. The shadows of the pines were blue and cold, but the tops of them were burnished with the cordial sun, and a glacier- field, somehow, took on a rose and violet light, reflected, maybe, from the soft-complexioned sky. He drew in a long breath of delight, and widened his line of vision.
Suddenly, something he saw made him lurch backward. At an angle in almost equal distance from him and Shon, upon a small peninsula of rock, a strange thing was happening. Old Pourcette was kneeling, engaged with his moccasin. Behind him was the sun, against which he was abruptly defined, looking larger than usual. Clear space and air soft with colour were about him. Across this space, on a little sloping plateau near him, there crept an animal. It seemed to Lawless that he could see the lithe stealthiness of its muscles and the ripple of its skin. But that was imagination, because he was too far away. He cried out, and swung his gun shoulderwards in desperation. But, at the moment, Pourcette turned sharply round, saw his danger, caught his gun, and fired as the puma sprang. There had been no chance for aim, and the beast was only wounded. It dropped upon the man. He let the gun fall; it rolled and fell over the cliff. Then came a scene, wicked in its peril to Pourcette, for whom no aid could come, though two men stood watching the great fight--Shon M'Gann, awake now, and Lawless--with their guns silent in their hands. They dare not fire, for fear of injuring the man, and they could not reach him in time to be of help.
There against the weird solitary sky the man and the puma fought. When the animal dropped on him, Pourcette caught it by the throat with both hands, and held back its fangs; but its claws were furrowing the flesh of his breast and legs. His long arms were of immense strength, and though the pain of his torn flesh was great he struggled grandly with the beast, and bore it away, from his body. As he did so he slightly changed the position of one hand. It came upon a welt-a scar. When he felt that, new courage and strength seemed given him. He gave a low growl like an animal, and then, letting go one hand, caught at the knife in his belt. As he did so the puma sprang away from him, and crouched upon the rock, making ready for another leap. Lawless and Shon could see its tail curving and beating. But now, to their astonishment, the man was the aggressor. He was filled with a fury which knows nothing of fear. The welt his fingers had felt burned them.
He came slowly upon the puma. Lawless could see the hard glitter of his knife. The puma's teeth sawed together, its claws picked at the rocks, its body curved for a spring. The man sprang first, and ran the knife in; but not into a mortal corner. Once more they locked. The man's fingers were again at the puma's throat, and they swayed together, the claws of the beast making surface havoc. But now as they stood up, to the eyes of the fearful watchers inextricably mixed, the man lunged again with his knife, and this time straight into the heart of the murderer. The puma loosened, quivered, fell back dead. The man rose to his feet with a cry, and his hands stretched above his head, as it were in a kind of ecstasy. Shon forgot his gold and ran; Lawless hurried also.
When the two men got to the spot they found Pourcette binding up his wounds. He came to his feet, heedless of his hurts, and grasped their hands. "Come, come, my friends, and see," he cried.
He pulled forward the loose skin on the puma's breast and showed them the scar of a knife-wound above the one his own knife had made.
"I've got the other murderer," he said; "Gordineer's knife went in here. Sacre, but it is good!"
Pourcette's flesh needed little medicine; he did not feel his pain and stiffness. When they reached Clear Mountain, bringing with them the skin which was to hang above the fireplace, Pourcette prepared to go to Fort St. John, as he had said he would, to sell all the skins and give the proceeds to the girl.
"When that's done," said Lawless, "you will have no reason for staying here. If you will come with us after, we will go to the Fort with you. We three will then come back in the spring to the valley of gold for sport and riches."
He spoke lightly, yet seriously too. The old man shook his head. "I have thought," he said. "I cannot go to the south. I am a hunter now, nothing more. I have been long alone; I do not wish for change. I shall remain at Clear Mountain when these skins have gone to Fort St. John, and if you come to me in the spring or at any time, my door will open to you, and I will share all with you. Gordineer was a good man. You are good men. I'll remember you, but I can't go with you--no.
"Some day you would leave me to go to the women who wait for you, and then I should be alone again. I will not change--vraiment!"
On the morning they left, he took Jo Gordineer's cup from the shelf, and from a hidden place brought out a flask half filled with liquor. He poured out a little in the cup gravely, and handed it to Lawless, but Lawless gave it back to him.
"You must drink from it," he said, "not me."
He held out the cup of his own flask. When each of the three had a share, the old man raised his long arm solemnly, and said in a tone so gentle that the others hardly recognised his voice: "To a lost comrade!" They drank in silence.
"A little gentleman!" said Lawless, under his breath. When they were ready to start, Lawless said to him at the last: "What will you do here, comrade, as the days go on?"
"There are pumas in the mountains," he replied. They parted from him upon the ledge where the great fight had occurred, and travelled into the east. Turning many times, they saw him still standing there. At a point where they must lose sight of him, they looked for the last time. He was alone with his solitary hills, leaning on his rifle. They fired two shots into the air. They saw him raise his rifle, and two faint reports came in reply. He became again immovable: as much a part of those hills as the shining glacier; never to leave them.
In silence the two rounded the cliff, and saw him no more.