Read CHAPTER - XIX of Flower of the North, free online book, by James Oliver Curwood, on ReadCentral.com.

To be alone, even after the painful parting with Pierre, was in one way a relief to Philip, for with the disappearance of the lonely half-breed over the mountain there had gone from him the last physical association that bound him to Jeanne and her people.  With Pierre at his side, Jeanne was still with him; but now that Pierre was gone there came a change in him ­one of those unaccountable transmutations of the mind which make the passing of yesterdays more like a short dream than a long and full reality.  He walked slowly over the plain, and, when he came to the trail beaten by the hoofs of his own teams he followed it mechanically.  In his measurement of things now, it seemed only a few hours since he had traveled over this trail on his way to Fort Churchill; it might, have been that morning, or the morning before.  The weeks of his absence had passed with marvelous swiftness, now that he looked back upon them.  They seemed short and trivial.  And yet he knew that in those weeks he had lived more of his life than he had ever lived before, or would ever live again.  For a brief spell life had been, filled with joy and hope ­a promise of happiness which a single moment in the shadow of the Sun Rock had destroyed forever.  He had seen Jeanne in another man’s arms; he had read the confirmation of his fears in Pierre’s grief-distorted face, in the strange tremble of his voice, in the words that he had spoken.  He was sorry for Pierre.  He would have been glad if that other man had been the lovable half-breed; if Jeanne, in the poetry of life and love, had given herself to the one who had saved the spark of life in her chilled little body years and years ago.  And yet in his own grief he unconsciously rejoiced that it was a man like Pierre who suffered with him.

This thought of Pierre strengthened him, and he walked faster, and breathed more deeply of the clear night air.  He had lost in the fight for Jeanne as he had lost in many other fights; but, after all, there was another and bigger fight ahead of him, which he would begin to-morrow.  Thoughts of his men, of his camps, and of this struggle through which he must pass to achieve success raised him above his depression, and stirred his blood with a growing exhilaration.  And Jeanne ­was she hopelessly lost to him?  He dared to ask himself the question half an hour after he had separated from Pierre, and his mind flew back to the portrait-room where he had told Jeanne of his love, and where for a moment he had seen in her eyes and face the sweet surrender that had given him a glimpse of his paradise.  But what did the sudden change mean?  And after that ­the scene in the starlight?

A quickening of his pulse was the answer to these questions.  Jeanne had told him there were only two men at Fort o’ God, Pierre and her father.  Then who could be this third?  A lover, whom she met clandestinely?  He shivered, and began loading his pipe as he walked.  He was certain that the master of Fort o’ God did not know of the tryst beyond the rock, and he was equally certain that the girl was unaware of Pierre’s knowledge of the meeting.  Pierre had remained hidden, like himself, and he had given Philip to understand that it was not the first time he had looked upon the meetings of Jeanne and the man they had seen from the shadow of the rock.  And yet, in spite of all evidence, he could not lose faith in Jeanne.

Suddenly he saw something ahead of him which changed for a moment the uncomfortable trend of his thoughts.  It was a pale streak, rising above the level of the trail, and stretching diagonally across the plain to the east.  With an exclamation of surprise Philip hastened his steps, and a moment later stood among the fresh workings of his men.  When he had left for Churchill this streak, which was the last stretch of road-bed between them and the surveyed line of the Hudson’s Bay Railway, had ended two miles to the south and west.  In a little over a month MacDougall had pushed it on the trail, and well across it in the direction of Gray Beaver Lake.  In that time he had accomplished a work which Philip had not thought possible to achieve that autumn.  He had figured that the heavy snows of winter would cut them off at the trail.  And MacDougall was beyond the trail, with three weeks to spare!

Something rose up in his blood, warming him with an elation which sent him walking swiftly toward the end of the road-bed.  A quarter of a mile out on the plain he came to the working end.  About him were scattered half a dozen big scoop shovels and piles of working tools.  The embers of a huge log fire still glowed where dinner had been cooked for the men.  Philip stood for a few moments, looking off into the distance.  Another mile and a half out there was the Gray Beaver, and from the Gray Beaver there lay the unbroken waterway to the point of their conjunction with the railway coming up from the south.  A sudden idea occurred to Philip.  If MacDougall had built two and a quarter miles of road-bed in five weeks they could surely complete this other mile and a half before winter stopped them.  In that event, they would have fifteen miles of road, linking seven lakes, which would give them a splendid winter trail for men, teams, and dogs to the Gray Beaver.  And from the Gray Beaver they would have smooth ice for twenty miles, to the new road.  He had not planned to begin fishing operations until spring, but he could see no reason now why they should not commence that winter, setting their nets through the ice.  At Lobstick Creek, where the new road would reach them sometime in April or May, they could freeze their fish and keep them in storage.  Five hundred tons in stock, and perhaps a thousand, would not be a bad beginning.  It would mean from forty to eighty thousand dollars, a half of which could be paid out in dividends.

He turned back, whistling softly.  There was new life in him, burning for action.  He was eager to see MacDougall, and he hoped that Brokaw would not be long in reaching Blind Indian Lake.  Before he reached the trail he was planning the accommodation stations, where men and animals could find shelter.  There would be one on the shore of the Gray Beaver, and from there he would build them at regular intervals of five miles on the ice.

He had come to the trail, and was about to turn in the direction of the camp, when he saw a shadowy figure making its way slowly across the plain which he had traversed half an hour before.  The manner in which this person was following in his footsteps, apparently with extreme caution, caused Philip to move quickly behind the embankment of the road-bed.  Two or three minutes later a man crossed into view.  Philip could not see his face distinctly, but by the tired droop of the stranger’s shoulders and his shuffling walk he guessed that what he had first taken for caution was in reality the tedious progress of a man nearing exhaustion.  He wondered how he had missed him in his own journey over the trail from the ridge mountains, for he had made twice the progress of the stranger, and must surely have passed him somewhere within the last mile or so.  The fact that the man had come from the direction of Fort o’ God, that he was exhausted, and that he had evidently concealed himself a little way back to avoid discovery, led Philip to cut out diagonally across the plain so that he could follow him and keep him in sight without being observed.  Twice in the next mile the nocturnal traveler stopped to rest, but no sooner had he reached the first scattered shacks of the camp than he quickened his steps, darting quickly among the shadows, and then stopped at last before the door of a small log cabin within a pistol-shot of Philip’s own headquarters.  The cabin was newly built, and Philip gave a low whistle of surprise as he noted its location.  He had, to a certain degree, isolated his own camp home, building it a couple of hundred yards back from the shore of the lake, where most of the other cabins were erected.  This new cabin was still a hundred yards farther back, half hidden in a growth of spruce.  He heard the click of a key in a lock and the opening and closing of a door.  A moment later a light flared dimly against a curtained window.

Philip hurried across the open to the cabin occupied by himself and MacDougall, the engineer.  He tried the door, but it was barred.  Then he knocked loudly, and continued knocking until a light appeared within.  He heard the Scotchman’s voice, close to the door.

“Who’s there?” it demanded.

“None of your business!” retorted Philip, falling into the error of a joke at the welcome sound of MacDougall’s voice.  “Open up!”

A bar slipped within.  The door opened slowly.  Philip thrust himself against it and entered.  In the pale light of the lamp he was confronted by the red face of MacDougall, and a pair of little eyes that gleamed menacingly.  And on a line with MacDougall’s face was an ugly-looking revolver.

Philip stopped with a sudden uncomfortable thrill.  MacDougall lowered his gun.

“Lord preserve us, but that’s the time you almost drew a perforation!” he exclaimed.  “It isn’t safe to cut-up in these diggings any more ­not with Sandy MacDougall!”

He held out a hand with a relieved laugh, and the two men shook in a grip that made their fingers ache.

“Is this the way you welcome all of your friends, Mac?”

MacDougall shrugged his shoulders and laid his gun on a table in the center of the room.

“Can’t say that I’ve got a friend left in camp,” he said, with a curious grimace.  “What in thunder do you mean, Phil?  I’ve tried to reason something out of it, but I can’t!”

Philip was hanging up his cap and coat on one of a number of wooden pegs driven into the long wall.  He turned quickly.

“Reason something out of what?” he said.

“Your instructions from Churchill,” replied MacDougall, picking up a big, black-bowled pipe from the table.

Philip sat down with a restful sigh, crossed his legs, loaded his pipe, and lighted it.

“Thought I made myself lucid enough, even for a Scotchman, Sandy,” he said.  “I learned at Churchill that the big fight is going to be pulled off mighty soon.  It’s about time for the fireworks.  So I told you to put the sub-camps in fighting shape, and arm every responsible man in this camp.  There’s going to be a whole lot of gun-work before you’re many days older.  Great Scott, man, don’t you understand now?  What’s the matter?”

MacDougall was staring at him as if struck dumb.

“You told me ­to arm ­the camps?” he gasped.

“Yes, I sent you full instructions two weeks ago.”

“MacDougall tapped his forehead suspiciously with a stubby forefinger.

“You’re mad ­or trying to pull off a poor brand of joke!” he exclaimed.  “If you’re dreaming, come out of it.  Look here, Phil,” he cried, a little heatedly, “I’ve been having a hell of a time since you left the camp, and I want to talk seriously.”

It was Philip who stared now.  He fairly thrust himself upon the engineer.

“Do you mean to say you didn’t get my letter telling you to put the camps in fighting shape?”

“No, I didn’t get it,” said MacDougall.  “But I got the other.”

“There was no other!”

MacDougall jumped to his feet, darted to his bunk, and came back a moment later with a letter.  He thrust it almost fiercely into Philip’s hands.  A sweat broke out upon his face as he saw its effect upon his companion.  Philip’s face was deadly pale when he looked up from the letter.

“My God! you haven’t done this?” he gasped.

“What else could I do?” demanded MacDougall.  “It’s down there in black and white, isn’t it?  It charges me to outfit six prospecting parties of ten men each, arm every man with a rifle and revolver, victual them for two months, and send them to the points named there.  That letter came ten days ago, and the last party, under Tom Billinger, has been gone a week.  You told me to send your very best men, and I have.  It has fairly stripped the camp of the men we depended upon, and there are hardly enough guns left to kill meat with.”

“I didn’t write this letter,” said Philip, looking hard at MacDougall.  “The signature is a fraud.  The letter which I sent to you, revealing my discoveries at Churchill, has been intercepted and replaced by this.  Do you know what it means?”

MacDougall was speechless.  His square jaw was set like an iron clamp, his heavy hands doubled into knots on his knees.

“It means ­fight,” continued Philip.  “To-night ­to-morrow ­at any moment now.  I can’t guess why the blow hasn’t fallen before this.”

He quickly related to MacDougall the chief facts he had gathered at Fort Churchill.  When he had finished, the young Scotchman reached over to the table, seized his revolver, and held the butt end of it out to Philip.

“Pump me full of lead ­for God’s sake, do, Phil,” he pleaded.

Philip laughed, and gripped his hand.

“Not while I need a few fighters like yourself, Sandy,” he objected.  “We’re on to the game in time.  By to-morrow morning we’ll be prepared for the war.  We haven’t an hour ­perhaps not a minute ­to lose.  How many men can you get hold of to-night whom we can depend upon to fight?”

“Ten or a dozen, no more.  The road gang that we were expecting up from the Grand Trunk Pacific came three days after you started for Churchill ­twenty-eight of ’em.  They’re a tough-looking outfit, but devilish good workers.  I believe you could hire that gang to do anything.  They won’t take a word from me.  It’s all up to Thorpe, the foreman who brought ’em up, and they won’t obey an order unless it comes through him.  Thorpe could get them to fight, but they haven’t anything to fight with, except a few knives.  I’ve got eight guns left, and I can scrape up eight men who’ll handle them for the glory of it.  Thorpe’s gang would be mighty handy in close quarters, if it came to that.”

MacDougall moved restlessly, and ran a hand through his tawny hair.

“I almost wish we hadn’t invited that bunch up here,” he added.  “They look to me like a lot of dollar thugs, but they work like horses.  Never saw such men with the shovel and pick.  And fight?  They’ve cleaned up on a half of the men in camp.  If we can get Thorpe ­”

“We’ll see him to-night,” interrupted Philip.  “Or to be correct, this morning.  It’s one o’clock.  How long will it take to round up our best men?”

“Half an hour,” said MacDougall, promptly, jumping to his feet.  “There are Roberts, Henshaw, Tom Cassidy, Lecault, the Frenchman, and the two St. Pierre brothers.  They’re all crack gun-men.  Give ’em each an automatic and they’re worth twenty ordinary men.”

A few moments later MacDougall extinguished the light, and the two men left the cabin.  Philip drew his companion’s attention to the dimly lighted window of the cabin to which he had followed the stranger a short time before.

“That’s Thorpe’s,” said the young engineer.  “I haven’t seen him since morning.  Guess he must be up.”

“We’ll sound him first,” said Philip, starting off.

At MacDougall’s knock there was a moment’s silence inside, then heavy footsteps, and the door was flung open.  Sandy entered, followed by Philip.  Thorpe stepped back.  He was of medium height, yet so athletically built that he gave the impression of being two inches taller than he actually was.  He was smooth-shaven, and his hair and eyes were black.  His whole appearance was that of a person infinitely superior to what Philip had expected to find in the gang-foreman.  His first words, and the manner in which they were spoken, added to this impression.

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

“Good morning,” replied MacDougall, nodding toward Philip.  “This is Mr. Whittemore, Thorpe.  We saw your light, and thought you wouldn’t mind a call.”

Philip and Thorpe shook hands.

“Just in time to have a cup of coffee,” invited Thorpe, pleasantly, motioning toward a steaming pot on the stove.  “I just got in from a long hike out over the new road-bed.  Been looking the ground over along the north shore of the Gray Beaver, and was so interested that I didn’t start for home until dark.  Won’t you draw up, gentlemen?  There are mighty few who can beat me at making coffee.”

MacDougall had noted a sudden change in Philip’s face, and as Thorpe hastened to lift the over-boiling pot from the stove he saw his chief make a quick movement toward a small table, and pick up an object which looked like a bit of cloth.  In an instant Philip had hidden it in the palm of his hand.  A flush leaped into his cheeks.  A strange fire burned in his eyes when Thorpe turned.

“I’m afraid we can’t accept your hospitality,” he said.  “I’m tired, and want to get to bed.  In passing, however, I couldn’t refrain from dropping in to compliment you on the remarkable work your men are doing out on the plain.  It’s splendid.”

“They’re good men,” said Thorpe, quietly.  “Pretty wild, but good workers.”

He followed them to the door.  Outside, Philip’s voice trembled when he spoke to MacDougall.

“You go for the others, and bring them to the office, Sandy,” he said.  “I said nothing to Thorpe because I have no confidence in liars, and Thorpe is a liar.  He was not out to the Gray Beaver to-day; for I saw him when he came in ­from the opposite direction.  He is a liar, and he will bear watching.  Mind that, Sandy.  Keep your eyes on this man Thorpe.  And keep your eyes on his gang.  Hustle the others over to the office as soon as you can.”

They separated, and Philip returned to the cabin which they had left a few minutes before.  He relighted the lamp, and with a sharp gasp in his breath held out before his eyes the object which he had taken from Thorpe’s table.  He knew now why Thorpe had come from over the mountains that night, why he was exhausted, and why he had lied.  He clasped his head between his hands, scarcely believing the evidence of his eyes.  A deeper breath, almost a moan, fell from his twisted lips.  For he had discovered that Thorpe, the gang-foreman, was Jeanne’s lover.  In his hand he held the dainty handkerchief, embroidered in blue, which he had seen in Jeanne’s possession earlier that evening ­crumpled and discolored, still damp with her tears!