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HOME > Short Stories > The Timber Treasure > CHAPTER V ACROSS THE WILDERNESS
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 Harrison had crept away in the latter part of the night taking the only serviceable canoe with him, leaving Tom, as he imagined, without food or means of transport. It might have been a serious matter for the boy, worn out with hunger, but for Charlie’s opportune appearance.  
Tom was, in fact, so empty and exhausted that he turned sick and dizzy, as much with wrath as with weakness, when he realized the treacherous trick Harrison had played. But after all no great harm was done, except that Harrison was away now with a long start on his plan—whatever that was—to get possession of the walnut timber.
Charlie meanwhile had at once begun to put bacon to toast and the pot to boil, which he had previously refrained from doing so as not to waken Tom. Tom was so hungry that he could have eaten the food raw. In fact he did chew a scrap of raw pork while he waited for the rest to cook; but after he had consumed an enormous breakfast of bacon, hard bread, and tea he felt much better, and his spirits rose.
Getting into the canoe, they paddled down to the narrows. There was no sign of Harrison about the place, but Tom thought he saw tracks that had not been made by himself. He pointed out the half-buried logs to the Indian boy, and explained that they were valuable stuff.
“Worth thousands of dollars—more than ten times all your fur catch,” he said. “Those other men want to get it—want to run us off. We mustn’t let them have it.”
The wild boy nodded, and looked at Tom with a sudden spark in his black eyes.
“Sure—they try to burn us off,” he said. “I see him—that red-hair man. He light fire. I see him—too late. I think mebbe I shoot him; then I think better not. I come an’ git stuff from our camp—look for you everywhere almost.”
“Well, I thought all along that McLeod had started that fire,” said Tom. “But I’m glad you didn’t shoot him. But how we’re going to hold the fort here I don’t know. It’ll take a lot of men, money, teams, to get this timber out. Maybe I’d better send you down to Oakley to get a telegram off to my father.”
Charlie had no idea what a telegram was. He shook his head.
“I stay here. I fight um,” he said.
“You see, this land doesn’t belong to me,” Tom went on, half absently going over the argument he had mentally rehearsed so often. “I haven’t any real rights here, I suppose. But no more has Harrison. This place belongs to Uncle Phil, or maybe one of the boys. Here they are, Charlie.”
And Tom took from his pocket the photograph of the group of himself and his cousins which he had shown to McLeod.
Charlie looked at it with great interest and grinned as he recognized the central figure.
“That-um you, Tom,” he said, pointing. Then, indicating one of the others, “Who that man?”
“That’s my cousin Dave.”
“I know him,” Charlie announced, gazing hard.
“No, I guess not,” Tom replied.
“Sure!” Charlie insisted. “I see him this spring. He work in mine camp, ’way up Wawista, what you call Blackfish River.”
“You don’t mean to say you saw Cousin Dave there? When?” burst out Tom.
“Sure I see him. I stop there for grub. I talk to him. He ask me if any prospectors up where I trap. Just ’fore I come out—two, three days ’fore I see you, mebbe.”
Tom gave an almost hysterical yell of laughter.
“Good gracious! To think you had the clue to the puzzle all the while. Charlie, I’ve got to go and bring him quick. Is it far?”
“I go git him,” Charlie offered.
Tom thought for a moment. He would prefer to stay himself, but Charlie could hardly explain the situation; he feared to commit it to writing. Besides, when he came to think of it, he had no writing materials. No, he would have to go himself, and he sought directions from the Indian.
With intense deliberation, Charlie explained that he had seen Dave at a small settlement where there was a mine. Its name was something like Roswick, and it was only two, three days by canoe. It was an easy road to find, with only one long portage. He could not say whether Dave was still there, of course; but the camp must have been just opening for the spring, and it was hardly likely that he would have left so soon.
“You go up this leetle river,” Charlie explained, “mebbe half-day, mebbe day, up to big carry place by long rapid. Make long portage then. Bad trail over portage—hard to find. But then you hit Wawista River, and you go up him, and then up Fish River, and come to Roswick, mebbe two, three days. I go quicker’n you.”
“I dare say you would,” said Tom, digesting this knowledge. “But if you help me to hit the long portage I’ll go alone. You stay here, and keep Harrison from getting away with this timber.”
“Yes, I lay for him,” said the Ojibway. “Hope he come back. He git good dose buck-shot next time.”
“No, don’t kill anybody!” Tom cried; but the Indian looked at him reproachfully.
“How I keep um off if I no shoot um?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Tom admitted. “But if Dave’s where you left him I ought to be back before those other fellows turn up again.”
Tom made his preparations to start without delay. He was to take Charlie’s canoe, and he laid out a due proportion of food—pork, tea, sugar, flour—enough to last him two or three days. Charlie stirred up a large pan of flapjack and baked it—enough for one day at any rate. Long before noon they were ready to start, and Charlie accompanied him as far as the “long portage” to make sure that he should not miss the spot.
The smoke had dissipated; the sky was clearing, and the sun showed a tendency to come out. The first half-mile of the route up the little river lay between burned and charred thickets, and then the fire limit ceased. The stream was low, and several times they had to get out or make a short carry, and it was afternoon when they reached the point where Charlie said he should strike across country to the Wawista. They stopped here to make tea; then Charlie indicated the direction once more and without a word of farewell faded away into the thickets, starting back to the treasure he was to guard.
Two miles due north was the direction, and Charlie said there was an old blazed trail, “hard to find.” He would have to make two trips, once with his pack and once with the canoe. The pack was not very heavy, not more than fifty pounds, and Tom shouldered it and set off with a light heart.
The blazed trail was indeed hard to find, and Tom lost it almost immediately. He did not concern himself much, however, for he knew that if he kept due north he could not fail to hit the river eventually. But fifty pounds on the shoulders means much, over rough ground, and he did not have a regular tump-line. Hard trained as he was, he had to sit down several times and rest. He gasped, in fact, and the sweat burst out in streams; but he kept on and finally broke through a dense belt of willows and saw the Wawista, a broad, slow stream winding away toward the west.
He cached his pack in the low fork of a tree, and went back leisurely for his canoe. This was an even more awkward load to transport. Its length concealed the ground ahead; it tangled itself with the underbrush; two or three times he tripped and fell with the canoe on top of him. He lost his own back trail, and had to drive straight ahead, so that at last he came out on the river a quarter of a mile from the spot where he had left his dunnage.
He secured it, however, and sat down for a final rest before beginning the canoe voyage. It was growing late in the afternoon. The sun shone clearly and warmly now. Not a breath stirred the leaves, fresh and green from the recent rain, and the river flowed with a peaceful murmur. But a feeling of uneasiness came suddenly upon the boy, as if he was under the eyes of some enemy.
It was so strong that he stood up and peered about, rifle in hand. But nothing stirred in the forest, except two noisy whiskey-jacks that discovered him at that moment. It was an attack of nerves, he told himself; but he could not resist a strong inclination to be off immediately.
He piled his dunnage into the canoe and started down the river. A last glance over his shoulder showed the shore deserted; yet the vaguely uneasy feeling pursued him down the stream. He found himself continually glancing back without intending it. The sudden splash of a rising duck made him start violently; but he saw no larger living thing, and as he rounded every curve there was nothing behind nor ahead but the empty stretch of water between the wooded shores.
The voyage down the river was easy. The current ran smooth and strong. There were no portages, and he made good speed even without much hard paddling; yet he had not yet reached the junction with the Fish River when sunset came on. Charlie had said that he should make it that night, but he had lost time on the long portage.
Selecting an open bit of shore, he landed and drew the canoe out of the water. It was a fine, warm night and he did not think it necessary to build a shelter; he merely built fire enough to boil tea, and he ate his lunch of hard bread and cold fried bacon which he had brought with him. For some time he sat by the blaze, reluctant to lie down. Once more he felt uneasily suspicious; but at last he rolled the blanket around his body and stretched out to sleep.
Several times he dozed lightly, awaking with a nervous start. Clear starlight was overhead. The dense spruces looked inky black against the dark-blue sky, and in the light stillness the ripple of the river sounded loud.
He lay awake for some time at last, and finally got up and put fresh wood on the fire. It blazed up suddenly, and he thought he heard a startled stamp and rush through the dark thickets—probably a hare.
He was tired and wanted to sleep, but sleep would not come to him. He thought of the treasure in timber that was to be gained or lost. Harrison would stick at nothing to gain it, he felt sure. In his anxiety, Tom felt half inclined to break camp and go through the night; but he knew that he would gain nothing by wearing himself out. He got up again and went down to the river, bathed his face, and drank, looking up and down the long, dark current in the starlight. Then he came back, feeling less restless, and in time he succumbed to sleep.
When he did sleep he slept long, and awoke to find the early sun on his face. He jumped up uneasily. Everything about the camp was just as he had left it, and in the clear daylight his nocturnal alarms seemed the height of folly. Nevertheless, while the breakfast kettle was heating, he went into the woods where he had heard the sound, and discovered a certainly fresh, shapeless track. It might have been a bear track; it might have been made by a sitting rabbit; or it might have been the tread of a moccasined foot.
He could not determine nor could he trace it for any distance. Vainly he wished for Charlie’s skill as a trailer. He decided that it must have been a bear, and, angry at himself for his nervousness, he went back to the fire, drank his tea, fried pork, and then launched the canoe again.
But the uncanny sense followed him of something’s being on his trail. It seemed as if a pursuer must be just around the last bend of the river. A dozen times he looked quickly back, but the water shone empty in the sun.
Shortly before noon he arrived at the mouth of the Fish River, recognizing it at once from Charlie’s description. Roswick lay a day’s travel or two up this stream, and there he would find Dave Jackson; at least, he hoped so. He felt as if the end of the journey was almost in sight, and he headed the canoe joyfully against the current of the swifter tributary—and glanced quickly and involuntarily back.
Nothing was in sight. There could be nothing, he told himself.
“But I’m going to settle this,” he reflected, after a moment. “Either something’s after me, or there isn’t. I’ll just wait here a bit, and end this foolishness.”
Half ashamed of himself, he dragged the canoe ashore and hid it. Then he took his rifle, and ambushed himself just at the peninsula where the two rivers met, well out of sight under a thicket of willows, and waited. It would be a relief to settle this suspense at the cost of an hour’s time.
Silence settled down, except for the rush of the meeting currents. A mink ran down the shore and into a log heap, popping out again and into the water, busy about its hunting. A pair of wild ducks came swimming down the Wawista, dipping their heads deep, and halted close opposite his ambush. He could have shot the head off one of them, and he contemplated doing it, to secure a bit of fresh meat. His suspicions of pursuit were vanishing. He had been there a long time—an hour, surely. It was scarcely worth while to wait longer, he thought, when the ducks suddenly splashed into flight, and went off quacking over the tree-tops.
Tom’s heart bounded. He caught a glimpse of a canoe coming slowly down the Wawista. The next moment it was in full view.
A single man was in it, handling the paddle with the skill of a practised voyageur; and even at fifty yards Tom recognized the glint of the fox-colored hair under the cap. The paddler paused at the forks of the river, held the canoe balanced while he looked this way and that, and then, as if by some intuition, turned up the Fish River as Tom had done.
The canoe, hugging the shore, came within twenty feet of the willow clump, when Tom stood up suddenly, with the repeater at his shoulder.
“Halt!” he hailed.
McLeod cast a sudden glance at him and then dropped his paddle and reached back like lightning for the gun that stood behind him.
“None of that! Hands up, now—quick! I’ll shoot!” Tom yelled at him; and the woodsman slowly put up his hands, with a grin like a trapped weasel. The canoe drifted backward.
“Paddle in this way—slow,” Tom ordered. “Don’t make a move toward that gun.”
McLeod looked into the rifle muzzle and seemed to hesitate. Then he suddenly took the paddle and forced the canoe up close to the shore, where it hung almost motionless in the slack water.
“Now what are you up to?” Tom demanded. “You tried to burn me out. Now you’ve been trailing me since yesterday; I know it. What are you and Harrison planning to do?”
“Why, I told you I was goin’ to run you off’n that there homestead,” McLeod growled. “You ain’t got no more right there than that Injun boy of yourn. I was there first. If there’s anything in it, I’m the one that gits it.”
“I know what’s in it,” Tom returned, “and so do you. But you haven’t got the ghost of a show, McLeod. I know where Dave Jackson is now. It isn’t over twenty miles from here, and I’ll be back on Coboconk with him in three days. He’s still got the rights to the place, I guess. You’d better drop this and go back home, before you do something that gets you into trouble.”
“These here woods is free, I guess,” said the man. “And you’ll never find Dave Jackson where you’re going.”
But he looked considerably dashed by Tom’s announcement.
“We’ll see about that,” retorted Tom. “And I can’t have you following me. I’m going to stop you. I ought to take your canoe, as Harrison did to me; but you might starve. I don’t want to shoot you.”
He reflected. It is a terrible thing to deprive a man of his canoe in that wilderness, where he may very likely perish before reaching any point where he can obtain supplies. And it is not easy for even a good hunter to live on the country.
“Throw me your paddle,” Tom ordered at last. “It’ll take you some time to make another, I guess, and you’ll never catch up with me when I have that start.”
Under the threat of the rifle McLeod tossed the paddle ashore. With a long pole Tom gave the canoe a strong shove out into the current. It went drifting out into the Wawista, turning helplessly end for end, down the current till it was a hundred yards away. Then McLeod snatched up his gun and fired both barrels.
Tom heard the buck-shot rattle on the leaves around him, and impulsively he fired back, almost without aim. It was a perfectly bloodless duel, and in another minute the canoe went out of sight behind the trees of a bend in the stream.
With a sense of triumph and of infinite relief, Tom launched his canoe again, and proceeded up the river. He no longer felt uneasy; that strange instinct of danger was quiet now. He knew that McLeod could never catch up with him. The rest of the journey should be easy and safe, and he was impatient to reach the end of it.
Travel up the Fish River was not so easy, however. It was a smaller, swifter stream than the Wawista, and more broken by rapids. For an hour at a time he had to discard the paddle for a pole in going up swift water, and portages were so frequent that he thought he walked almost as much as he floated. He did not expect to reach Roswick that day, but he began to look out for signs of mining-camp work or prospecting. It was a district of rock and stunted woods, a mineral country by its look, but he detected no trace of man, and all that day he pushed on, “bucking the river,” paddling, poling, and carrying. It was almost sunset when the appearance of a formidable rapid just ahead brought him to a stop.
He had gone far enough for that day. He landed, looking about for a good camp ground; then he determined to carry the canoe and outfit up to the head of the rapid and camp there, so as to be ready for the start next morning. After a short rest he made the portage, unpacked his supplies, and lighted a fire; and the idea came to him of trying to pick up some small game for supper. He was growing very tired of fried salt pork.
Leaving the kettle on the fire, he turned into the woods from the river. Usually it was easy to find rabbits or partridges almost anywhere, but he wandered about for a full half-hour, and then, seeing a rabbit sitting up in the twilight, he missed it cleanly.
Disgusted at his clumsiness, he turned down parallel with the river, but the bad luck lasted. He found no game, and dusk was deepening. Veering out to strike the shore, he found himself a long way below the big rapid, and he began to walk rapidly up the stream.
He heard the rapid roaring ahead, and he had almost come to it when he stopped with a shock. There was a canoe lying at the shore, a battered Peterboro that he recognized well.
He sprang back into the shadow of the trees, but another glance showed him that nobody was by the boat. Rage boiled up in him at this persistent trailing. There was a paddle in the canoe; he should have remembered that McLeod was sure to have a spare paddle lashed in the canoe. But this time he would cripple him effectually. With a strong shove he sent the canoe whirling down the stream. It would take a day to overtake it on foot, unless it were smashed against a rock, and Tom stood with cocked rifle, grimly waiting for its owner to appear.
Looking up and down the shore he could see nothing of McLeod. He grew uneasy. He was about to scout up toward his camp when a canoe—his own canoe—appeared shooting down the rapid.
McLeod was in her, steering with magnificent skill through the dangerous, broken water; and he did not risk a single glance aside, even when Tom whipped up his rifle and fired desperately. The boy fired to hit; it was a matter of life and death; but it was like shooting at a flying duck. The canoe was past in a twinkling, was down in the tail of the rapid, was almost out of sight, while Tom pumped the lever of the repeater till his magazine was empty. Then McLeod swung his paddle high with a far-away, triumphant whoop.
Tom began to run wildly after him, checked himself, and hurried up to his camp. But he knew too well what he would find.
The fire had burned almost out. The kettle was gone. So were his blankets, his little ax, everything. Nothing was left except what he carried on him. He was afoot in the wilderness in earnest.
As he took in this catastrophe, Tom’s heart seemed to sink into his boots. The river roared savagely over the rapid. He looked round at the darkening wilderness, and it seemed suddenly to have turned sinister, murderous. Without canoe or food, he knew that his life hung by a hair. Plenty of men have died in such a predicament, in that tangled country, where streams are the only highways.
McLeod had intended that this should be his fate. Tom sat down weakly on a log, beside the dying fire. He was likely to leave his bones there, he thought. McLeod was racing back to Coboconk to rejoin Harrison. Between them, they would get out the timber without danger of interruption. Charlie was there, to be sure; but Charlie’s only idea of resistance was, by weapons, which would probably only make matters worse.
But by degrees Tom recovered from the shock.
“I won’t be beaten!” he vowed to himself. “It can’t be more than thirty miles to Roswick now. I can do that on foot, following up the river. I’ve got a rifle and a beltful of cartridges, and it’ll be queer if I can’t pick up enough to keep from starving.”
For a moment he thought of trying to trail McLeod in his turn, to recover one of the two canoes, but he decided that this would be hopeless. McLeod might be miles away already, and he would surely push on with the greatest possible speed.
As he sat there in silence, collecting his nerve, a shadow came out of the thickets by the shore and hopped dimly about in the twilight. It was a rabbit. The light was all but gone; Tom could not see his gun-sights, but he fired. It was almost sheer good luck, but when he went to look he found the rabbit shot through the body, considerably mangled by the bullet but eatable. It had come at the very moment to encourage his resolution, and it would make rations for one day, at any rate.
He built up the fire, dressed the game, and set it to roast on pointed sticks. But he had no salt, and he remembered that unsalted rabbit is perhaps the most flavorless food on earth. It reminded him of those first dreary days after his coming to Coboconk Lake. But the meat had nutriment in it at any rate, and he ate of it sparingly, reserving the greater portion for the next day.
Pulling a heap of dead leaves between two logs, he tried to rest, to sleep; but he was far too uneasy. Without a blanket, the night seemed cold, despite the fire. His little ax was gone, and he had no means of cutting logs large enough to make an efficient heat. He tried to huddle under the leaves, dozed intermittently with horrible dreams of danger, and at last got up in the gray dawn, feeling aching and empty.
The fire had burned entirely out while he slept. There was not even a spark left in the ashes, and to his horror he found that he had no matches. He had used the last in his pockets, and the water-tight box in reserve was gone with the stolen supplies.
This blow almost took away his remaining courage. Fortunately he had roasted the whole hare last night, and most of it was still left. It would last one day.
“After that, I’ll have to eat raw meat, like a wolf,” he thought.
But it was as easy to go on toward Roswick as in any other direction, and he was still determined not to let Harrison win. It occurred to him that the prospecting season was well advanced; he was in the mining country, and he might fall in with a party of mineral hunters at any time. If not—well, he was tough and muscular, and he could surely endure hardships for a day or two.
So he put the rest of the cooked meat carefully in his pockets, his rifle under his arm, and started briskly up the river. There was no trail, and it was rough going. The margin of the stream was grown thickly with willow and spruce and cedar, frequently marshy, sometimes rocky, always hard to get through. From time to time he had to wade a tributary creek. Worse still, the river went in huge curves, so that he felt sure he was traveling two miles for every mile he made westward.
But he was afraid to leave the guidance of the river, and he struggled along. He grew very hungry; hare meat was not filling, but he controlled his desire to eat until noon. Then, after swallowing far less than he wanted, he clambered into a tall tree on the crest of a hill and looked anxiously off into the west.
He could see a long way. It was an infinity of sweeping hill and hollow, all blue-green with the spruces in the sunshine, smoky, unlimited, with here and there a gray gleam of rock. Far away to the right he detected the glitter of a long strip of water—no doubt his river, sweeping in one of its long curves.
He stayed there for some time surveying the desolate landscape. There was nowhere any sign of fire or indication of human life. It occurred to him that he would do well to make straight across country to the water, instead of wasting muscle by following the river around its many bends. He fixed the direction well in his mind, slid down to the ground, and struck out across the woods.
For a time he found the traveling easier. The forest was light and scattered, and the ground firm. Twice he was encouraged by coming upon what seemed to be an old trail, and once he found prospect holes dug the season before.
Feeling sure that he was nearing the end of his journey, he hurried on gaily till he arrived at the edge of the water he had seen from afar off. But it was not the river. It was a little, long lake, with a creek flowing out lazily from near the point where he had struck it.
Now he bitterly repented his folly in leaving the river, his only guide. He had no idea which way it had curved since he left it. It might be close ahead; it might be a dozen miles away to the left. But the only chance of safety was to try to find it again, and he steered off diagonally into the woods to the southwest. The woods became difficult to get through. He struggled for more than two miles through dense tamarac swamps, and at last did come upon a medium-sized river.
Was it the Fish River? He could not tell. He thought it must be; yet it seemed too small, and moreover did not appear to be flowing in the right direction. The sun was sinking low, and all at once it, too, seemed to be in the wrong quarter of the sky. The woods turned dizzily around him; all directions seemed to be reversed.

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