The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Dick looked at his companion a little bewildered.
"Why, you must know as well as I do," he said, "somebody stepped on top of that log with snow-shoes, and it's snowed since."
"Yes, but who?" insisted Sam.
"The trapper in this district, of course."
"Sure; and let me tell you this,--that trapper is the man we're after. That's his trail."
"How do you know?"
"I'm sure. I've got a hunch."
Dick looked sceptical, then impressed. After all, you never could tell what a man might not learn out in the Silent Places, and the old woodsman had grown gray among woods secrets.
"We'll follow the trail and find his camp," pursued Sam.
"You ain't going to ambush him?" inquired Dick.
"What's the use? He's the last man we have to tend to in this district, anyway. Even if it shouldn't be Jingoss, we don't care if he sees us. We'll tell him we're travelling from York to Winnipeg. It must be pretty near on the direct line from here."
"All right," said Dick.
They set themselves to following the trail. As the only persistences of it through the last storm were to be found where the snow-shoes had left deep notches on the fallen timber, this was not an easy matter. After a time the affair was simplified by the dogs. Dick had been breaking trail, but paused a moment to tie his shoe. The team floundered ahead. After a moment it discovered the half-packed snow of the old trail a foot below the newer surface, and, finding it easier travel, held to it. Between the partial success at this, and an occasional indication on the tops of fallen trees, the woodsmen managed to keep the direction of the fore-runner's travel.
Suddenly Dick stopped short in his tracks.
"Look there!" he exclaimed.
Before them was a place where a man had camped for the night.
"He's travelling!" cried Sam.
This exploded the theory that the trail had been made by the Indian to whom the trapping rights of the district belonged. At once the two men began to spy here and there eagerly, trying to reconstruct from the meagre vestiges of occupation who the camper had been and what he had been doing.
The condition of the fire corroborated what the condition of the trail had indicated. Probably the man had passed about three days ago. The nature of the fire proclaimed him an Indian, for it was small and round, where a white man's is long and hot. He had no dogs; therefore his journey was short, for, necessarily, he was carrying what he needed on his back. Neither on the route nor here in camp were any indications that he had carried or was examining traps; so the conclusion was that this trip was not merely one of the long circles a trapper sometimes makes about the limits of his domain. What, then, was the errand of a single man, travelling light and fast in the dead of winter?
"It's the man we're after," said Sam, with conviction. "He's either taken the alarm, or he's visiting."
"Look," called the girl from beneath the wide branches of a spruce.
They went. Beneath a lower limb, whose fan had protected it from the falling snow, was the single clear print of a snow-shoe.
"Hah!" cried Sam, in delight, and fell on his knees to examine it. At the first glance he uttered another exclamation of pleasure, for, though the shoe had been of the Ojibway pattern, in certain modifications it suggested a more northerly origin. The toes had been craftily upturned, the tails shortened, the webbing more closely woven.
"It's Ojibway," induced Sam, over his shoulder, "but the man who made it has lived among the Crees. That fits Jingoss. Dick, it's the man we're after!"
It was by now almost noon. They boiled tea at the old camp site, and tightened their belts for a stern chase.
That afternoon the head wind opposed them, exasperating, tireless in its resistance, never lulling for a single instant. At the moment it seemed more than could be borne. Near one o'clock it did them a great despite, for at that hour the trail came to a broad and wide lake. There the snow had fallen, and the wind had drifted it so that the surface of the ice was white and smooth as paper. The faint trail led accurately to the bank--and was obliterated.
Nothing remained but to circle the shores to right and to left until the place of egress was discovered. This meant long work and careful work, for the lake was of considerable size. It meant that the afternoon would go, and perhaps the day following, while the man whose footsteps they were following would be drawing steadily away.
It was agreed that May-may-gwan should remain with the sledge, that Dick should circle to the right, and Sam to the left, and that all three should watch each other carefully for a signal of discovery.
But now Sam happened to glance at Mack, the wrinkle-nosed hound. The sledge had been pulled a short distance out on the ice. Mack, alternately whining and sniffing, was trying to induce his comrades to turn slanting to the left.
"What's the matter with that dog?" he inquired on a sudden.
"Smells something; what's the difference? Let's get a move on us," replied Dick, carelessly.
"Hold on," ordered Sam.
He rapidly changed the dog-harness in order to put Mack in the lead.
"Mush! Mush on!" he commanded.
Immediately the hound, his nose low, uttered a deep, bell-like note and struck on the diagonal across the lake.
"Come on," said Sam; "he's got it."
Across the white waste of the lake, against the bite of the unobstructed wind, under the shelter of the bank opposite they ran at slightly accelerated speed, then without pause into the forest on the other side.
"Look," said the older woodsman, pointing ahead to a fallen trunk. It was the trail.
"That was handy," commented Dick, and promptly forgot about it. But Sam treasured the incident for the future.
And then, just before two o'clock, the wind did them a great service. Down the long, straight lines of its flight came distinctly the creak of snow-shoes. Evidently the traveller, whoever he might be, was retracing his steps.
At once Sam overturned the sledge, thus anchoring the dogs, and Dick ran ahead to conceal himself. May-may-gwan offered a suggestion.
"The dogs may bark too soon," said she.
Instantly Sam was at work binding fast their jaws with buckskin thongs. The girl assisted him. When the task was finished he ran forward to join Dick, hidden in the bushes.
Eight months of toil focussed in the moment. The faint creaking of the shoes came ever louder down the wind. Once it paused. Dick caught his breath. Had the traveller discovered anything suspicious? He glanced behind him.
"Where's the girl?" he hissed between his teeth. "Damn her, she's warned him!"
But almost with Sam's reply the creaking began again, and after an instant of indetermination continued its course.
Then suddenly the woodsmen, with a simultaneous movement, raised their rifles, and with equal unanimity lowered them, gasping with astonishment. Dick's enemy, Ah-tek, the renegade Chippewa of Haukemah's band on the Missinaibie, stepped from the concealment of the bushes.