The March of The White Guard by Gilbert Parker
"No, Captain; leave me here and push on to Manitou Mountain. You ought to make it in two days. I'm just as safe here as on the sleds, and less trouble. A blind man's no good. I'll have a good rest while you're gone, and then perhaps my eyes will come out right. My foot's nearly well now."
Jeff Hyde was snow-blind. The giant of the party had suffered most.
But Hume said in reply: "I won't leave you alone. The dogs can carry you as they've done for the last ten days."
But Jeff replied: "I'm as safe here as marching, and safer. When the dogs are not carrying me, nor any one leading me, you can get on faster; and that means everything to us, now don't it?"
Hume met the eyes of Gaspe Toujours. He read them. Then he said to Jeff: "It shall be as you wish. Late Carscallen, Cloud-in-the-Sky, and myself will push on to Manitou Mountain. You and Gaspe Toujours will remain here."
Jeff Hyde's blind eyes turned towards Gaspe Toujours, who said: "Yes. We have plenty tabac."
A tent was set up, provisions were put in it, a spirit-lamp and matches were added, and the simple menage was complete. Not quite. Jaspar Hume looked round. There was not a tree in sight. He stooped and cut away a pole that was used for strengthening the runners of the sleds, fastened it firmly in the ground, and tied to it a red woollen scarf, used for tightening his white blankets round him. Then he said: "Be sure and keep that flying."
Jeff's face was turned towards the north. The blindman's instinct was coming to him. Far off white eddying drifts were rising over long hillocks of snow. When he turned round again his face was troubled. It grew more troubled, then it brightened up again, and he said to Hume: "Captain, would you leave that book with me till you come back--that about infirmities, dangers, and necessities? I knew a river-boss who used to carry an old spelling-book round with him for luck. It seems to me as if that book of yours, Captain, would bring luck to this part of the White Guard, that bein' out at heels like has to stay behind."
Hume had borne the sufferings of his life with courage; he had led this terrible tramp with no tremor at his heart for himself; he was seeking to perform a perilous act without any inward shrinking; but Jeff's request was the greatest trial of this critical period in his life.
Jeff felt, if he could not see, the hesitation of his chief. His rough but kind instincts told him something was wrong, and he hastened to add: "Beg your pardon, Mr. Hume, it ain't no matter. I oughtn't have asked you for it. But it's just like me. I've been a chain on the leg of the White Guard this whole tramp."
The moment of hesitation had passed before Jeff had said half-a-dozen words, and Hume put the book in his hands with the words: "No, Jeff, take it. It will bring luck to the White Guard. Keep it safe until I come back."
Jeff took the book, but hearing a guttural "Ugh" behind him, he turned round defiantly. Cloud-in-the-Sky touched his arm and said: "Good! Strong-back book--good!" Jeff was satisfied.
At this point they parted, Jeff and Gaspe Toujours remaining, and Hume and his two followers going on towards Manitou Mountain. There seemed little probability that Clive Lepage would be found. In their progress eastward and northward they had covered wide areas of country, dividing and meeting again after stated hours of travel, but not a sign had been seen; neither cairn nor staff nor any mark of human presence.
Hume had noticed Jeff Hyde's face when it was turned to the eddying drifts of the north, and he understood what was in the experienced huntsman's mind. He knew that severe weather was before them, and that the greatest danger of the journey was to be encountered.
That night they saw Manitou Mountain, cold, colossal, harshly calm; and jointly with that sight there arose a shrieking, biting, fearful north wind. It blew upon them in cruel menace of conquest, in piercing inclemency. It struck a freezing terror to their hearts, and grew in violent attack until, as if repenting that it had foregone its power to save, the sun suddenly grew red and angry, and spread out a shield of blood along the bastions of the west. The wind shrank back and grew less murderous, and ere the last red arrow shot up behind the lonely western wall of white, the three knew that the worst of the storm had passed and that death had drawn back for a time. What Hume thought may be gathered from his diary; for ere he crawled in among the dogs and stretched himself out beside Bouche, he wrote these words with aching fingers:
Another day passed and at night, after a hard march, they camped five miles from Manitou Mountain. And not a sign! But Hume felt there was a faint chance of Lepage being found at this mountain. His iron frame had borne the hardships of this journey well; his strong heart better. But this night an unaccountable weakness possessed him. Mind and body were on the verge of helplessness. Bouche seemed to understand this, and when he was unhitched from the team of dogs, now dwindled to seven, he leaped upon his master's breast. It was as if some instinct of sympathy, of prescience, was passing between the man and the dog. Hume bent his head down to Bouche for an instant and rubbed his side kindly; then he said, with a tired accent: "It's all right, old dog, it's all right."
Hume did not sleep well at first, but at length oblivion came. He waked to feel Bouche tugging at his blankets. It was noon. Late Carscallen and Cloud-in-the-Sky were still sleeping--inanimate bundles among the dogs. In an hour they were on their way again, and towards sunset they had reached the foot of Manitou Mountain. Abruptly from the plain rose this mighty mound, blue and white upon a black base. A few straggling pines grew near its foot, defying latitude, as the mountain itself defied the calculations of geographers and geologists. A halt was called. Late Carscallen and Cloud-in-the-Sky looked at the chief. His eyes were scanning the mountain closely. Suddenly he motioned. A hundred feet up there was a great round hole in the solid rock, and from this hole there came a feeble cloud of smoke! The other two saw also. Cloud-in-the-Sky gave a wild whoop, and from the mountain there came, a moment after, a faint replica of the sound. It was not an echo, for there appeared at the mouth of the cave an Indian, who made feeble signs for them to come. In a little while they were at the cave. As Jaspar Hume entered, Cloud- in-the-Sky and the stalwart but emaciated Indian who had beckoned to them spoke to each other in the Chinook language, the jargon common to all Indians of the West.
Jaspar Hume saw a form reclining on a great bundle of pine branches, and he knew what Rose Lepage had prayed for was come to pass. By the flickering light of a handful of fire he saw Lepage--rather what was left of him--a shadow of energy, a heap of nerveless bones. His eyes were shut, but as Hume, with a quiver of memory and sympathy at his heart, stood for an instant, and looked at the man whom he had cherished as a friend and found an enemy, Lepage's lips moved and a weak voice said: "Who is there?"
Hume made a motion to Late Carscallen, who was heating some liquor at the fire, and then he stooped and lifted up the sick man's head, and took his hand. "You have come--to save me!" whispered the weak voice again.
"Yes; I've come to save you." This voice was strong and clear and true.
"I seem--to have--heard--your voice before--somewhere before--I seem to-- have--"
But he had fainted.
Hume poured a little liquor down the sick man's throat, and Late Carscallen chafed the delicate hand--delicate in health, it was like that of a little child now. When breath came again Hume whispered to his helper "Take Cloud-in-the-Sky and get wood; bring fresh branches. Then clear one of the sleds, and we will start back with him in the early morning."
Late Carscallen, looking at the skeleton-like figure, said: "He will never get there."
"Yes, he will get there," was Hume's reply.
"But he is dying."
"He goes with me to Fort Providence."
"Ay, to Providence he goes, but not with you," said Late Carscallen, doggedly.
Anger flashed in Hume's eye, but he said quietly "Get the wood, Carscallen."
Hume was left alone with the starving Indian, who sat beside the fire eating voraciously, and with the sufferer, who now was taking mechanically a little biscuit sopped in brandy. For a few moments thus, then his sunken eyes opened, and he looked dazedly at the man bending above him. Suddenly there came into them a look of terror. "You--you --are Jaspar Hume," his voice said in an awed whisper.
"Yes." The hands of the sub-factor chafed those of the other.
"But you said you were a friend, and come to save me."
"I have come to save you."
There was a shiver of the sufferer's body. This discovery would either make him stronger or kill him. Hume knew this, and said: "Lepage, the past is past and dead to me; let it be so to you."
There was a pause.
"How--did you know--about me?"
"I was at Fort Providence. There came letters from the Hudson's Bay Company, and from your wife, saying that you were making this journey, and were six months behind--"
"I have a letter for you from her. She is on her way to Canada. We are to take you to her."
"To take me--to her." Lepage shook his head sadly, but he pressed to his lips the letter that Hume had given him.
"To take you to her, Lepage."
"No, I shall never see her again."
"I tell you, you shall. You can live if you will. You owe that to her --to me--to God."
"To her--to you--to God. I have been true to none. I have been punished. I shall die here."
"You shall go to Fort Providence. Do that in payment of your debt to me, Lepage. I demand that." In this transgressor there was a latent spark of honour, a sense of justice that might have been developed to great causes, if some strong nature, seeing his weaknesses, had not condoned them, but had appealed to the natural chivalry of an impressionable, vain, and weak character. He struggled to meet Hume's eyes, and doing so, he gained confidence and said: "I will try to live. I will do you justice--yet."
"Your first duty is to eat and drink. We start for Fort Providence to-morrow."
The sick man stretched out his hand. "Food! Food!" he said.
In tiny portions food and drink were given to him, and his strength sensibly increased. The cave was soon aglow with the fire kindled by Late Carscallen and Cloud-in-the-Sky. There was little speaking, for the sick man soon fell asleep. Lepage's Indian told Cloud-in-the-Sky the tale of their march--how the other Indian and the dogs died; how his master became ill as they were starting towards Fort Providence from Manitou Mountain in the summer weather; how they turned back and took refuge in this cave; how month by month they had lived on what would hardly keep a rabbit alive; and how, at last, his master urged him to press on with his papers; but he would not, and stayed until this day, when the last bit of food had been eaten, and they were found.