Trudeau saw his man halt on the edge of the firelight that evening, turn his jacket, and come weariedly into camp. Trudeau sat and thought that night, while the other slept heavily. Next morning there was a raging storm, and the guide was puzzled that the hunter refused to brave its dangers. It was not sure then that monsieur desired the wooden overcoat?
He told Van Dorn many stories of death in these storms, and watched for the effect.
"W'en man is lost in bliz_zaird_," said Trudeau, "ze vidow mus' wait an'
wait, an' mebbe nevaire know if he is vidow or not."
"It would be better," said the other reflectively, "to have the proof ample--ample!"
Trudeau, pondering over this, watched his charge putting names in a book opposite amounts in figures; but he did not know that here was the lost fortune of an old aunt, there the savings of a college chum. Van Dorn looked them over calmly as if it had been a bills-payable sheet to be paid in the morning. Then the strange pleasure-hunter began writing a letter to a sweetheart to whom he seemed to be able to say only that he loved her better than life, that she must try to love his memory, and to train up the baby to respect his name, that the right thing is not always easy to discern, that sometimes one has only a choice of evils, that when a man has made a mess of it which he can straighten out by stepping off the stage, he might as well do it--and that he had had his share of happiness since she had been with him anyhow, and was far ahead of the game! Trudeau could not know what a foolish, silly, tragic letter it was, this product of insane commercialism. He thought life and the woods enough, and wondered at the shaking of the man's shoulders, and was amazed to see the tears dropping through his fingers as he bowed his head upon his hands--a man with a fifty-dollar sleeping-bag!
Over at the Loree headquarters there were roaring fires, fresh venison, a skilful chef, jolly companions, and the perfection of camp-life. The storm cleared. That strong old hunter, Loree, declaring that his business was to stalk deer, marched off in the solitary quest which is the only thing that brings the haunch to the spit in the Minnesota cut-over forest. He was bristly bearded, keen of eye and vigorous, handled his gun cannily, and craftily negotiated the fallen and tangled timbers, his glance sweeping every open vista for game. There was no time to think of anything but the making of his way, and of the chase.
Troubles and triumphs retired to the outer verge of consciousness.
Primeval problems claimed his thoughts, and the primeval man rose to meet them. It was in this ancient and effective wise that he had sharpened his weapons, set his snares, and hunted down Foster Van Dorn--and left him in the money-jungle, apparently unhurt, but really smitten to the heart and staggering to his fall. It was the Loree way.
As an old hunter, he knew just where his shaft had struck, and how long the quarry could endure the hemorrhage. Had he not said that the fellow should be made to rue the Loree displeasure?
Like a flash these half-thoughts became no thoughts, as a dark blotch caught his eye, far off on the snow, beyond a little thicket.
"What is that?" he said to himself. It is a little hard to say, but the matter is worth looking into. Just the color of a deer! Just where a deer would rest! We must work up the wind a little closer, for some men are so foolish as to wear those duns and browns; but that!--that is a deer's coat. It won't do to jump him and trust a shot as he goes--those firs will hide him at the first leap. A long shot at a standing target--there! He moved! There's not a second to lose!
A long shot, truly; but that graceful rifle thinks nothing of half a mile. There are many intervening bushes and saplings; but the steel-jacketed bullet would kill on the farther side of the thickest pine, and even a soft-nosed one will cut cleanly to this mark. The colonel's practised left hand immovably supported the barrel; the colonel's keen eye through the carefully adjusted sights saw plainly the blotch of deerskin down the little glade; and the colonel's steady forefinger confidently pressed the lightly-set trigger. Spat! The colonel felt the rifleman's delicious certitude that his bullet had found its mark, threw in another shell, and stood tensely ready to try the bisecting of the smitten deer's first agonized bound--but the blur of fur just stirred a little, and slipped down out of sight.
Panting in the killer's frenzy, Loree struggled over the debris to reach his game. How oddly the deer had fallen! Heart, or brain, likely; as it went down like a log. Here was the thicket, and on the other side--yes, a patch of reddened snow, and the body of--no, not a deer, but a man, dead, it seemed, clad in a deerskin jacket, a rifle by his side and in his hand a note-book full of figures, its pages all stained and crumpled!
There was a shout in the far distance, but Loree heard it not. He knew his solitude, and never looked for aid. The white strangeness of the face of the man he had shot overcame the sense of something familiar in it; and the colonel, after a moment's scrutiny of it, addressed himself frantically to the stanching of the blood. A deep groan seemed to warrant hope; and stooping beneath the body Loree took it up and began bearing it toward the camp. He had an overwhelming consciousness of the terrible task before him; but the realization of the human life dashed out, some home blasted, some infinity of woe, and the bare chance of rescue rolled sickeningly over him, and he set his teeth and attacked the task like an incarnate will.
Logs and boughs and dead-wood held him back; countless obstacles exhausted him. He felt like crying out in agony as he realized that his age was telling against him. He felt strangely tender at this meeting with death in its simple and more merciful form. He clenched his teeth hard, felt his heart swell as if to burst, his lungs labor in agonized heavings--and when Trudeau the guide overtook him, he found him a frenzied man, covered with dark streaks and splashes of blood, unconquerably hurling upon his impossible task his last reserves of strength, with all that iron resolution with which he had beaten down resistance in his long battle with a relentless world.
"For God's sake," he panted hoarsely, "help me get him to camp! We've got a doctor there!"
"How's the colonel?" said the doctor, when he had done all he could for the colonel's victim.
"Knocked all to pieces," answered a young man. "Wants to know if we've found out who the man is."
Colonel Loree was interrogating Trudeau; surprised that he did not know the name of the wounded man.
"_Non_," answered Trudeau, "she tell me his name, and give me _carte_, but I lose heem an' forget firs' day. Remember wood', remember trail, remember face ver' well--but name; she I forget. She write lettaire an'
cry, an' all time put fig' in book. Zis is heem; mebbe _she_ tell name!"
The smutched names were strange to the colonel; but on another page there were some inexplicable references to Kosmos Chemical affairs; and on the cover were dim initials that looked like "F. V. D."
"I know something is wrong," went on Trudeau; "for I tell her it ben _tres dangereuse_ to wear deerskin zhaquette in zese wood' in shoo_ting_ sea_sone_. I turn zhaquette red out. She go toward your camp. I watch. I see her turn heem hair out. I tell you, messieurs, zat man want to go home in wooden ove'coat. She have hungaire to die."
"Here's a letter we found in his pocket," said the young man. "Look at it, Colonel."
The colonel looked, saw his daughter's name, remembered the familiar look in the white, agonized, pitiful face; and saw the whole situation as by some baleful flash-light.
"Good God! Good God!" he cried. "It's Van Dorn! Get things ready to carry him in his bed to the car--quick, Johnson! And get to the wire as soon as you can. Have Tibbals bring Gwennie--Mrs. Van Dorn--to Duluth.
Wire the hospital there! You know what's needed--look after things right, Johnson, for I think--I think--I'm going mad, old man!"
Mrs. Van Dorn ran into her father's arms in the hospital anteroom.
Through mazes of frenzied anxiety she felt an epoch open in her life with that embrace from the father who had put her out of his life for ever, as they thought.
"Dear, dear papa!" she whispered, "let me go to Foster, quick!"
"Not just now, Gwennie, little girl," said he, patting her shoulder.
"He's asleep. Did you bring the--the baby?"
"No, no! I thought--but Foster?" cried Gwendolyn. "Will he--will he--"
"He'll live, by Heaven!" cried the colonel. "I fired one fool for hinting that he wouldn't; and now they're all sure he'll pull through.
Why, he's got to live, Gwennie!"
The colonel reached for his handkerchief, much hampered by Gwendolyn's arms.
"And when he's well," said he, "I want your help--in a business way. I'm too old to fight a man like Foster. He's got me down, Gwennie--beaten me to earth. If he won't come in with me, it's all up with the Solar. He's a fine fellow, Gwen--I--like him, you know--but he don't know how hard he hits. You'll help your old dad, won't you, Gwennie?"
To this point had the appeal of concrete, piteous need brought Colonel Loree, the ferocious, whose heart had never once softened while he did so much more cruel things than the mere shooting of Van Dorn. It broke Gwendolyn's heart afresh.
"Oh, don't papa!" she cried. "I can't sta-stand it! He sha'n't use his strength against you! I'll be on your side. He's generous, papa--he wanted to name baby Loree--and, oh, I must go to him, papa! I can't wait!"
The cigars had burned out, and the coffee cups and their saucers were messy with ashes. The Hired Man nodded in his chair. Aconite was slowly formulating some comment on the Poet's story--when the Bride rose.
"You've all been awfully nice to me," said she, "and I feel almost weepy when I think of never seeing you again. So I am not going to think of it. I shall hope to meet you," said she to Aconite, "in the stories which my friends bring back from the Park--for I'm going to tell them all to come, and to ride with you, and learn about Old Jim Bridger. And you, Mr. Bill, I shall see when I pass through the corn country sometime--I feel sure of it. You will be plowing corn, and I shall wave my hand from the car window as you look up at the speeding train. I shall always see a friend in every plowman now. And you, sir, I shall watch for in the Poet's Corner of the Hall of Fame; and you in the Artist's alcove. And, Colonel, I know I shall see you sometime, for every one passes through Omaha sooner or later. Good-by, and God bless you, every one! We have made a continued story of our trip--for that, thanks to all, and now let us close the book, after writing