THE SNOWSHOE TRAIL
Author of "The Strength of the Pines,"
"The Voice of the Pack," etc.
With Frontispiece by Marshall Frantz
A.L. Burt Company Publishers, New York
Published by arrangement
with Little, Brown and Company.
Copyright 1921, By Little, Brown, and Company.
All rights reserved
To Agnes, of the South--this story of the North
The Snowshoe Trail
It was not the first time that people of the forest had paused on the
hill at twilight
to look down on Bradleyburg. The sight always seemed
to intrigue and mystify the wild folk,--the shadowed street, the spire
of the moldering church ghostly
in the half-light, the long row of
unpainted shacks, and the dim, pale gleam of an occasional
window. The old bull moose, in rutting days, was wont to pause and
call, listen an instant
for such answer as the twilight
city might give
him, then push on through the spruce
forests; and often the coyotes
gathered in a ring and wailed out their cries over the rooftops. More
than once the wolf pack had halted here for a fleeting
instant; but they
were never people to linger
in the vicinity
But to-night it was not one of these four-footed wild folk--this tall
form--that emerged from the dark fringe
of the spruce
forest to gaze
down at the town. But he was none the less of the forest. Its mark was
upon him; in the silence of his tread, the sinuous strength of his
motions; perhaps it lay even in a certain dimness and obscurity
outline, framed by the thickets as he was, that was particularly
characteristic of the wild denizens of the woods. But even in the
heavy shadows his identity
was clear at once. He was simply a
woodsman,--and he held his horse by the bridle
The long file of pack horses behind him halted, waiting
for their master
to go on. He stood musing, held by the darkened scene below him. Hard
to read, in the deepening shadows, was the expression on his bronzed
face. It revealed relief, of course, simple and heartfelt joy at the
sight of his destination. Men do not wander
over the blazed trails of
the North Woods and not feel relief
at the journey's end. There was a
hint of fatigue
in his posture, the horses' heads were low; and the
shacks below meant food and rest. But there was also a pensiveness, a
dreamy quietude in his dark eyes that revealed the greater sweep of his
He had looked down on Bradleyburg on many previous
occasions, but the
scene had never impressed him in quite this way before. Already the
shadows had crept out from the dark forests that enclosed the little
city and had enfolded it in gloom: the buildings were obscured and the
street was lost, and there was little left to tell that here was the
abode of men. A dim light, faint as the glowing eyes of the wild
creatures in the darkness, burned here and there from the window of a
house: except for this the wilderness
would have seemed unbroken.
"It's getting you down," the man muttered. "It's closing you in and
smothering you--just as it has me."
Perhaps, had his words carried far enough in the silence, the
townspeople in the houses below wouldn't have understood. His horses,
sniffing at his knees, did not seem to hear. But the woodsman could not
have made himself any clearer. Words never come easy to those that
dwell in the silences of the North. To him it seemed that the twilight
was symbolic of the wilderness,--stealing forth with slow
encroachments until all of the little town was enfolded within itself.
It was a twilight
city, the little cluster
of frame shacks below him.
It could be brave and gay enough in the daylight, a few children could
play in its streets and women could call from door to door, but the
falling darkness revealed it as it was,--simply a fragment
dark forests were about to claim. The day was done in Bradleyburg; as
in the case of many of the gold camps of the North the wilderness
about to take back its own.
It had had a glorious
past, this little city lost in the northern
reaches of the Selkirks. In the man's own boyhood
it had been one of
the flourishing gold camps of the North; and miners had come from all
over the continent
to wash the gravel
of its streams. In all directions
up the hillside
the tents and shacks had stretched, dance halls were
gay, freighters plied along the winding road to the south. The man's
mother had been one of the first women in the camp; and one of the last
to go. The mines were fabulously rich; tens of thousands in dust were
often taken in a single day by a lone miner, fortunes were made and lost
at the gambling tables, and even the terrible winters could not triumph
over the gold seekers. But in a little while the mines gave out, one
terrible winter night the whole town was destroyed by fire, and now that
the miners were drifting to other camps, few of the shacks were rebuilt.
Of the six thousand that had been, scarcely threescore
remained. A few
trappers ran their lines out from the town, a few men had placer claims
in the old diggings, two or three woodsmen made precarious
guides for such wealthy
men as came to hunt moose and caribou, and
Bradleyburg's course was run. The winter cold had triumphed at last,
and its curse was over the city from October till June. The spruce
forest, cleared away to make room for the cabins, had sprung
and was steadily
marching toward the main street of the town.
But the man on the hilltop
felt no regret. Except for a few memories of
his young days he had no particular fondness
for the little cluster
shacks. Long ago the wilderness
had claimed him for its own; his home
was the dark forest from which even now he was emerging. Bradleyburg
was simply his source of supplies and his post office, the market for
his furs. He had reached back and stroked the warm nose of his horse.
"Another half mile, old fellow," he said gently. "Then oats--rice and
meat for me at Johnson's--and oats--honest-to-goodness oats--for
you. What you think about that, eh, Mulvaney? Then show a little speed
this last half-mile."
The man swung on his horse, and even the cattlemen of the plains would
have found something to admire in the ease and grace with which his body
slipped down into the saddle. The horse moved forward, the pack animals
pushed on behind him. A few minutes later they had swung down into the
still street of the town. Tired as he was, his hands were swift and
strong as he unpacked the animals and tied them in the bar back of
Johnson's,--the little frontier
inn. As always, after the supper
hour, a group of the townsmen were gathered about the hotel stove; and
all of them spoke to him as he entered. He stood among them an instant,
warming his hands.
They had few words at first. The lesson of silence is taught deeply and
sure in the North. The hostess
went to her kitchen to order the man's
supper, the townsmen drew at their pipes.
"Well, Bill," one of them asked at last, "how's everything with you?"
It was not the usual how-d'ye-do of greeting. The words were spoken
actual question, as if they had special significance.
The man straightened, turning sober eyes. "Nothing startling
"In after supplies?"
"Yes--and my mail."
There was a long pause. The conversation was apparently
turned to go. A stranger spoke from the other side of the fire.
"How's Grizzly River?" he asked. Bill turned to him with a smile.
"Getting higher and higher. All the streams are up. You know that
bald-faced bay of Fargo's?"
Fargo was the Bradleyburg merchant, and the stranger knew the
horse,--one of the little band that, after the frontier
Fargo kept to rent. "Yes, I remember him."
"Well, I've got him this fall. You know he's a yellow cuss."
The stranger nodded. In this little community
the dumb brutes were
almost as well known as the human inhabitants. The meaning was wholly
plain to him too, and the term did not apply to the horse's color.
Yellow, on the frontier, means just one thing: the most damning and
unforgivable thing of all. When one is yellow he gives up easily, he
dares not lift his arms to fight, and the wilderness
claims him quickly.
"There's a little creek with a bad mudhole just this side of the ford,"
Bill went on. "All the horses got through but Baldy, and he could have
made it easy if he'd tried. But what did he do but just sit back on his
haunches in the mud, like an old man in a chair, his head up and his
front legs in his lap, and just give up? Quite a sight--that horse
sitting in the mud. I had to snag him out."
The others smiled, but none of them with the brilliance
story-teller himself. The wilderness
picture--with the cowardly
sitting in the mud--was again before his eyes; and none of the
hardship of the journey could cost him his joy in it. Bill Bronson was
no longer just a dim form on the twilight
hilltop. The lamplight showed
him plain. In this circle
of townspeople he was a man to notice twice.
The forests had done well by him. Like the spruce
themselves he had
grown straight and tall, but his form was sturdy
too. There was a lithe
strength about him that suggested the larger felines; the hard trails
of the forest had left not a spare ounce of flesh on his powerful
frame. His mold, except for a vague and indistinct refinement
in his long-fingered and strong hands, was simply that of a
woodsman,--sturdy, muscular, untiring. His speech was not greatly
different from that of others: the woodspeople, spending many of the
long winter days in reading, are usually careless
in speech but rarely
ungrammatical. His clothes were homely
and worn. He wore a blue
mackinaw over a flannel
shirt, dark trousers
that were suited to his life.
But it was true that men looked twice into Bill Bronson's face. His
features were rugged, now his mouth and jowls were dark with beard, yet
written all over his sunburned face was a kindliness and gentleness
could not be denied. There was strength and good humor in plenty; and
it was hard to reconcile
these qualities with an unquestioned
wistfulness and boyishness in his eyes. They were dark eyes, the eyes
of a man of action who could also dream, kindly, thoughtful
even the deep shadows of the forest had not blinded to beauty.
As he waited for his meal he crossed the dark road to the little
frontier post office, there to be given his two months' accumulation of
letters. He looked them over with significant
anxiety. There were the
usual forders from fur buyers, a few advertisements and circulars, and a
small batch of business mail. The smile died from his eyes as he read
one of these communications after another. Their context was usually
the same,--that his proposition
did not look good, and no investment
would be made in a plan as vague as his. The correspondents understood
that he had been grubstaked before without result. They remained,
however, his respectfully,--and Bill's great hand crumpled each in
Only one letter remained, written in an unknown hand from a far-off
city; and it dropped, for the moment, unnoticed into his lap. His eyes
were brooding and lifeless
as he stared out the hotel window into the
darkened street. There was no use of appealing again to the business
folk of the provincial
towns; the tone of their letters was all too
decisive. The great plans he had made would come to nothing after all.
simply did not hold water.
He had been seeking a "grubstake,"--some one to finance
expedition into the virgin
Clearwater for half of such gains as he
should make. In a few weeks more the winter would close down; the
to such a trip as this, had to be driven
down to the
gate of the Outside,--three hundred miles to the bank of a great
river. He had time for one more dash for the rainbow's end, and no one
could stake him for it. He had some food supplies, but the horse-rent
was an unsolved problem. He could see no ray of hope as he picked up,
half-heartedly, the last letter of the pile.
But at once his interest returned. It had been mailed in a far distant
city in the United States, and the fine, clear handwriting
feminine. He didn't have to rub the paper between his thumb and
forefinger to mark its rich, heavy quality and its beauty,--the
stationery of an aristocrat. The message was singularly terse:
My Dear Mr. Bronson:
I am informed, by the head of your provincial
game commission, that
you can be employed to guide for hunting
parties wishing to hunt in the
Clearwater, north of Bradleyburg. I do not wish to hunt game, but I do
wish to penetrate
that country in search of my fiance, Mr. Harold
Lounsbury, of whom doubtless
you have heard, and who disappeared in the
Clearwater district six years ago. I will be accompanied by Mr.
Lounsbury's uncle, Kenly Lounsbury, and I wish you to secure the outfit
and a man to cook at once. You will be paid the usual outfitter's rates
for thirty days. We will arrive in Bradleyburg September twentieth by
stage. Yours sincerely, Virginia Tremont.
Bill finished the note, pocketed it carefully, and a boyish
light was in
his eyes as he shook fragranttobacco
into his pipe. "The way out," he
told himself. "She won't care if I do my prospecting the same time."
His thought swung back to a scene of many Septembers before, of a camp
he had made beside a distant stream
and of a wayfarer who had eaten of
his bread and journeyed on,--never to pass that way again. There had
been one curious circumstance connected with the meeting, otherwise
might not have lingered so clearly in Bill's memory. It had seemed to
him, at the time, that he had encountered the stranger on some previous
occasion. There was a haunting familiarity
in his face, a fleeting
memory that he could not trace or identify. Yet nothing in the
stranger's past life had offered an explanation. He was a newcomer, he
said,--on his first trip north. Bill, on the other hand, had never
gone south. It had been but a trick of the imagination, after all. And
Bill did not doubt that he was the man for whom the girl sought.
The little lines seemed to draw and deepen
about the man's eyes. "Six
years--but six years is too long, for Clearwater," he murmured. "Men
either come out by then, or it gets 'em. I'm afraid she'll never find
* * * * *
He went to make arrangements with Fargo, the merchant, about supplies.
he sat alone in the little lobby of the inn; all the other
townsmen had gone. The fire was nearly out; a single lamp threw a
doubtful glow on the woodsman's face. His thoughts had been tireless
to-night. He couldn't have told why. Evidently some little event of
the evening, some word that he had not consciously noticed had been the
impulse for a flood of memories. They haunted
him and held him, and he
couldn't escape from them.
His thought moved in great circles, always returning to the same
starting point,--the tragedy
of his own boyhood. He knew
perfectly that there was neither pleasure nor profit in dwelling
this subject. In the years that he had had his full manhood
tried to force the matter from his thoughts, and mostly
succeeded. Self-mastery was his first law, the code by which he lived;
the blue devils had lifted their curse from him. But they
were shrieking from the gloom at him to-night. In the late years some
of the great tranquility
of the forest had reposed in him and the bitter
hours of brooding came ever at longer intervals. But to-night they held
him in bondage.
It was twenty-five years past and he had been only a child when the
thing had happened. He had been but seven years old,--more of a baby