Chapter IX. The Outer Trail
 

A profound silence lay over Big Draw mining camp as Frontier Samson and Tom Reynolds slipped quietly away among the hills. The sun had not yet lifted itself above the horizon, but the speediness of its coming was heralded in the eastern sky, and the tallest mountain peaks had already caught the first shafts of its virgin glory. The valleys were still robed in semi-darkness, and the two wayfarers seemed like mere spectres as they sped forward.

"My, this is great!" Reynolds exclaimed as he at length stopped to readjust his pack. "I believe I should live to be a hundred or over if I could breathe air like this all the time. It's a fine tonic."

"It sure is," Samson agreed, as he laid aside his rifle and pulled out his pipe. "Not much like the smell of yer city streets, whar ye swaller hundreds of disease germs every second."

"Have you ever lived there?" Reynolds asked, curious to learn something of the old man's history.

"Long enough to know what they're like. I've poked me nose into a good many cities, an' they're all the same, to my way of thinkin'. It's a wonder to me why so many people live in sich places, crowded, together like sheep, when thar's all this, an' millions of places like it, whar ye kin breathe the air as the Lord made it, an' not fouled by the work of human bein's."

"You are very fond of this wild life, I see," Reynolds replied. "Have you lived here many years?"

The prospector threw aside his burnt match, gave his pack an extra hitch, picked up his rifle and moved forward.

"Guess we'd better git on," he said. "Thar's a little brook we want to reach in time fer dinner. Ye don't find much water in these valleys."

Reynolds moved along by his companion's side, wondering why he did not answer his question. It was not until they were eating their dinner by the side of the brook did Samson vouchsafe any information.

"Ye asked me if I've been long in this country," he began. "My reply may seem strange to you, but it's true. Judgin' by years, I've been here a long time, but, accordin' to life, only a little while. I uster reckon things by years, but I don't do that any longer."

"No?" Reynolds looked quizzically at his companion.

"I don't count time by years, young man, an' the sooner ye larn to do the same the better it'll be fer ye. In the cities ye find clocks an' watches everywhere, an' they all remind people that time is passin'. Ye kin hardly walk along a street hut ye'll see funeral processions, an' the doctors are busy with the sick. Big hospitals are crowded with patients, an' accidents happen every minute of the day. These all tell that life is brief an' unsartin. The feelin' gits in the blood an' on the nerves that death is right near, an' as people think, so they are. Age an' health are accordin' to the mind, an' don't ye ever fergit that."

Samson paused and looked around.

"See them big mountains," and he pointed away to the left. "A man kin never feel old with them on every side. They don't remind ye of the passin' of time an' of dyin'. They're jist the same as they were thousands of years ago. An' so it's purty much like that with other things up here. I never feel old when I look around me on the wonderful sights; I feel young. An' why shouldn't I? Thar's so much to do, an' so many things to see an' larn that I haven't time to think of dyin'. Life after all, as I said, ain't to be judged by years, but by love of livin'."

Samson seemed to be on his pet theme, and he continued his talk as he and Reynolds again resumed their journey. Several times the latter endeavored to find out something about the old man's past history, but all in vain. The prospector gave him not the slightest information concerning himself, but discoursed volubly about the difference between the ways of the city and the wilderness.

"Money ain't everything," he declared, "even though some seem to think it is. It has its uses, I acknowledge, but it was never meant to starve the soul, though that is jist what it too often does. I know of men who sacrificed everything to the pilin' up of money, even love, without which life ain't worth a straw."

"Have you been able to find love here in the north?" Reynolds asked.

"Thar are different kinds of love, young man," was the somewhat slow and thoughtful reply. "The brand you mean, if I understand ye aright, I've never experienced in this country, an' in fact, I never expect to find it agin on this side of the grave. It's the pure love of a true man fer a good woman, I mean. I believe you have it, an' yer to be congratulated. It's the most wonderful thing in life. Even the love of children, though it is great, kin never equal it. It's in a class all by itself."

"But suppose the love isn't mutual, what then?" Reynolds asked.

"That'd be a pity, an' no mistake. Are ye referrin' to yer own case?"

"I certainly am. I am positive that the only woman in the world I want cares nothing for me. She does not even know my name, while I--oh, well, you know how I feel toward her."

"Jist keep up courage an' plod along, that's my advice. If she's meant fer you, ye'll win her all right. I'm a great believer in the idea that our own'll come to us some day, an' often in ways we least expect. But, hello! what's that?"

The trail on which they were now walking wound along the side of a deep valley, through which flowed a small stream. Samson was looking across toward the opposite bank, and as Reynolds turned his eyes in that direction he saw an Indian on horseback as motionless as the trees around him. He was facing the two travellers, and apparently he had been watching them for some time.

"Where do you suppose he has come from, and what does he want?" Reynolds asked.

His companion's only reply was to bring his rifle to his shoulder and fire two shots in rapid succession across the valley toward the horseman, neither of which took effect. The Indian quickly unslung his rifle, fired one shot in return, and immediately vanished into the forest.

"Is that the best you can do?" Reynolds asked. "You should have let me have a crack at him."

"Me aim's unsartin to-day," was the reply. "I don't allus miss like that."

"But why did you shoot, anyway? The Indian was doing us no harm."

"He was skulkin' around, though, an' I jist gave him a hint to move along."

"So you didn't intend to shoot him?"

"Oh, no. It was merely a hint, as I told ye."

"A queer hint, I should say," and Reynolds laughed. "Manners of the wilderness, I suppose?"

"Sure. We don't stand on ceremony up here. We're a bluff bunch, an' if we don't like a feller's company we tell him so without beatin' around the bush."

"And did the Indian understand your meaning?"

"Y'bet he did. He took my shots as sayin', 'Good day. How are the missus an' the kids? Mebbe they need ye.' His shot in reply jist said, 'Thank ye; mebbe they do.' That was all."

Reynolds laughed at this quaint explanation, although he felt certain that Samson was not telling him the truth. He said nothing about it, however, and the prospector did not refer to it again. But Reynolds had the feeling that his companion and the Indian understood each other, and that the shots they had fired were signals, the meaning of which was known only to themselves. Who was this Frontier Samson? he mused. Was he in some manner in league with the Indians? Why had he taken such an interest in him, a complete stranger, and a chechahco at that? Why should he wish to reveal to him the secret of his gold discovery? He could not for a moment think that Samson had any evil purpose in mind, but as he thought it all over during the remainder of the afternoon, he felt that there was something very peculiar and mysterious about it all.

This feeling was intensified that first night on the trail. They camped by a little stream, where the trees stood thick, and larger than on the uplands. They had shot a couple of grouse on their way, and these Samson prepared for supper.

"I'll jist cook both of 'em," he remarked, "an' what we don't eat to-night will be fine warmed up to-morrow."

"I should like to get a moose," Reynolds declared. "I haven't shot one since I came north."

"Don't do it, young man, unless ye kin git nuthin' else," Samson advised. "A moose is a purty big animal, an' we could tote only a little piece of its carcass. The rest we'd have to leave to spile. I've allus made a practice of shootin' something that I kin clean up in a few meals. Some critters, who call 'emselves men, shoot everything in sight, an' leave it to spile. That is wasteful slaughter, an' not true sport."

Reynolds was glad to roll himself up in his blanket that night, for he was tired after his day's tramp, with a heavy pack on his back. Samson did likewise, and soon silence reigned in the deep forest, broken only by the ripple of the brook a short distance away. It was a calm night, mild, and with not a breath of wind astir.

Some time during the night Reynolds awoke with a start. He sat up and looked around. It was light enough for him to see that his companion was gone, and he believed that it was his footsteps that had aroused him. After waiting for some time and nothing happened, he once again stretched himself out upon the ground. But he could not sleep. What was the meaning of Samson's departure? he wondered. Had it anything to do with the Indian they had seen that day across the ravine? The more he thought of it, the more mystified he became. How long he thus lay there with every sense alert, he did not know, though it seemed a long time before the prospector at last returned. Reynolds pretended that he was asleep, but his suspicions were now firmly confirmed when the old man bent over him for a few seconds as if to make sure that he was not awake.

Reynolds did not refer to the incident the next day, and Samson made no mention of it. The latter was in excellent spirits, and talked freely as they moved on their way. That night they halted, and made ready their camp by the side of a small lake. It was a peaceful and beautiful spot. Not a ripple ruffled the surface of the water, and the trees along the shore were mirrored in the clear depths. Reynolds was delighted, and he expressed his admiration to his companion.

"Isn't this great!" he exclaimed. "I have never seen anything to equal it! It is a matchless gem, with a perfect setting."

"Yes, it sartinly is wonderful," the prospector drawled. "An' I'm glad ye like it. Guess thar should be ducks over yonder," and he motioned to the upper end of the lake. "A good fat feller'd be nice fer dinner to-morrow."

Picking up his rifle, he disappeared among the trees, and in another minute his light tread was unheard. Reynolds stood for some time viewing the scene before him. He longed for his paints and brushes that he might catch the impressions ere they faded. Unfortunately he had left them behind, so he had to satisfy himself with feasting his soul instead.

At length he turned and walked back to their camping ground. He had just reached the place when a magnificent moose trotted majestically by but a short distance away. Forgotten was Samson's admonition about the shooting of big game, so seizing his rifle, he slipped quickly and quietly after the big animal. The latter had already passed out of sight, but expecting to catch a glimpse of it at any instant, Reynolds hastened forward. This led him down into a valley, and there he saw the moose in a small open clearing to the left. Before he was near enough to shoot, the animal once more vanished among the trees. The fever of the chase was now upon him, and unheeding his bearings, he pressed rapidly on, expecting every minute to come in sight of the lordly creature. But he was doomed to disappointment, and most reluctantly he was compelled to relinquish the pursuit.

Reynolds had no definite idea how far he had travelled, nor the direction he had taken. So intent had he been upon following the moose, that he had lost all trace of his bearings, and he knew not the way back to the camp. This was a most disquieting situation, and he chided himself for his stupidity. Night was also upon him, and this added to his perplexity.

"What a mess I have made of it!" he growled. "In this labyrinth of valleys, hills, trees, and wild meadows, how in the name of common sense am I to find that speck of camping ground? It must lie over there," and he looked away to his right. "The sun was before me when I started, and by keeping due east I should come somewhere near the place."

For over an hour he plowed his way through the forest, up hill and down, each moment expecting to see the lake for which he was searching. His efforts, however, were all in vain, so wearied almost to the point of exhaustion, and with clothes torn, hands and face bleeding, he was forced to give up for the night.

Sinking upon the ground, he tried to calm the agitated state of his mind. From the first he had realised his serious predicament, and how difficult it would be to extricate himself from that vast wilderness.

"I can't go any farther to-night," he declared, "so I might as well make the best of a bad affair. I have my rifle, and that's some comfort. I needn't starve, anyway, even though I am lost."

He felt for his cartridge belt, and immediately he gave a great start of dismay. It was not there! Then he remembered that he had taken it off when pitching camp that night by the shore of the lake. With trembling hands he next examined the magazine of his rifle, and found that but three cartridges were left, as he had fired two shots in the hope of attracting Frontier Samson's attention. This was a serious situation, and he realised that upon those three remaining cartridges his life depended.