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- OF SNOW-BOUND AT EAGLE'S - 10/21 -
There was a moment of crushing silence. "Does that mean you're wanting to light the candle again?"
"Then don't lie there inventing sacrilegious conundrums, but go to sleep."
Nevertheless, in the morning his fever was slightly worse. Mrs. Hale, offering her condolence, said, "I know that you have not been resting well, for even after your friend met with that mishap in the hall, I heard your voices, and Kate says your door was open all night. You have a little fever too, Mr. Falkner."
George looked curiously at Falkner's pale face--it was burning.
The speed and fury with which Clinch's cavalcade swept on in the direction of the mysterious shot left Hale no chance for reflection. He was conscious of shouting incoherently with the others, of urging his horse irresistibly forward, of momentarily expecting to meet or overtake something, but without any further thought. The figures of Clinch and Rawlins immediately before him shut out the prospect of the narrowing trail. Once only, taking advantage of a sudden halt that threw them confusedly together, he managed to ask a question.
"Lost their track--found it again!" shouted the ostler, as Clinch, with a cry like the baying of a hound, again darted forward. Their horses were panting and trembling under them, the ascent seemed to be growing steeper, a singular darkness, which even the density of the wood did not sufficiently account for, surrounded them, but still their leader madly urged them on. To Hale's returning senses they did not seem in a condition to engage a single resolute man, who might have ambushed in the woods or beaten them in detail in the narrow gorge, but in another instant the reason of their furious haste was manifest. Spurring his horse ahead, Clinch dashed out into the open with a cheering shout--a shout that as quickly changed to a yell of imprecation. They were on the Ridge in a blinding snow-storm! The road had already vanished under their feet, and with it the fresh trail they had so closely followed! They stood helplessly on the shore of a trackless white sea, blank and spotless of any trace or sign of the fugitives.
"'Pears to me, boys," said the ostler, suddenly ranging before them, "ef you're not kalkilatin' on gittin' another party to dig ye out, ye'd better be huntin' fodder and cover instead of road agents. 'Skuse me, gentlemen, but I'm responsible for the hosses, and this ain't no time for circus-ridin'. We're a matter o' six miles from the station in a bee line."
"Back to the trail, then," said Clinch, wheeling his horse towards the road they had just quitted.
"'Skuse me, Kernel," said the ostler, laying his hand on Clinch's rein, "but that way only brings us back the road we kem--the stage road--three miles further from home. That three miles is on the divide, and by the time we get there it will be snowed up worse nor this. The shortest cut is along the Ridge. If we hump ourselves we ken cross the divide afore the road is blocked. And that, 'skuse me, gentlemen, is MY road."
There was no time for discussion. The road was already palpably thickening under their feet. Hale's arm was stiffened to his side by a wet, clinging snow-wreath. The figures of the others were almost obliterated and shapeless. It was not snowing--it was snowballing! The huge flakes, shaken like enormous feathers out of a vast blue-black cloud, commingled and fell in sprays and patches. All idea of their former pursuit was forgotten; the blind rage and enthusiasm that had possessed them was gone. They dashed after their new leader with only an instinct for shelter and succor.
They had not ridden long when fortunately, as it seemed to Hale, the character of the storm changed. The snow no longer fell in such large flakes, nor as heavily. A bitter wind succeeded; the soft snow began to stiffen and crackle under the horses' hoofs; they were no longer weighted and encumbered by the drifts upon their bodies; the smaller flakes now rustled and rasped against them like sand, or bounded from them like hail. They seemed to be moving more easily and rapidly, their spirits were rising with the stimulus of cold and motion, when suddenly their leader halted.
"It's no use, boys. It can't be done! This is no blizzard, but a regular two days' snifter! It's no longer meltin', but packin' and driftin' now. Even if we get over the divide, we're sure to be blocked up in the pass."
It was true! To their bitter disappointment they could now see that the snow had not really diminished in quantity, but that the now finely-powdered particles were rapidly filling all inequalities of the surface, packing closely against projections, and swirling in long furrows across the levels. They looked with anxiety at their self-constituted leader.
"We must make a break to get down in the woods again before it's too late," he said briefly.
But they had already drifted away from the fringe of larches and dwarf pines that marked the sides of the Ridge, and lower down merged into the dense forest that clothed the flank of the mountain they had lately climbed, and it was with the greatest difficulty that they again reached it, only to find that at that point it was too precipitous for the descent of their horses. Benumbed and speechless, they continued to toil on, opposed to the full fury of the stinging snow, and at times obliged to turn their horses to the blast to keep from being blown over the Ridge. At the end of half an hour the ostler dismounted, and, beckoning to the others, took his horse by the bridle, and began the descent. When it came to Hale's turn to dismount he could not help at first recoiling from the prospect before him. The trail--if it could be so called--was merely the track or furrow of some fallen tree dragged, by accident or design, diagonally across the sides of the mountain. At times it appeared scarcely a foot in width; at other times a mere crumbling gully, or a narrow shelf made by the projections of dead boughs and collected debris. It seemed perilous for a foot passenger, it appeared impossible for a horse. Nevertheless, he had taken a step forward when Clinch laid his hand on his arm.
"You'll bring up the rear," he said not unkindly, "ez you're a stranger here. Wait until we sing out to you."
"But if I prefer to take the same risks as you all?" said Hale stiffly.
"You kin," said Clinch grimly. "But I reckoned, as you wern't familiar with this sort o' thing, you wouldn't keer, by any foolishness o' yours, to stampede the rocks ahead of us, and break down the trail, or send down an avalanche on top of us. But just ez you like."
"I will wait, then," said Hale hastily.
The rebuke, however, did him good service. It preoccupied his mind, so that it remained unaffected by the dizzy depths, and enabled him to abandon himself mechanically to the sagacity of his horse, who was contented simply to follow the hoofprints of the preceding animal, and in a few moments they reached the broader trail without a mishap. A discussion regarding their future movements was already taking place. The impossibility of regaining the station at the Summit was admitted; the way down the mountain to the next settlement was still left to them, or the adjacent woods, if they wished for an encampment. The ostler once more assumed authority.
"'Skuse me, gentlemen, but them horses don't take no pasear down the mountain to-night. The stage-road ain't a mile off, and I kalkilate to wait here till the up stage comes. She's bound to stop on account of the snow; and I've done my dooty when I hand the horses over to the driver."
"But if she hears of the block up yer, and waits at the lower station?" said Rawlins.
"Then I've done my dooty all the same. 'Skuse me, gentlemen, but them ez hez their own horses kin do ez they like."
As this clearly pointed to Hale, he briefly assured his companions that he had no intention of deserting them. "If I cannot reach Eagle's Court, I shall at least keep as near it as possible. I suppose any messenger from my house to the Summit will learn where I am and why I am delayed?"
"Messenger from your house!" gasped Rawlins. "Are you crazy, stranger? Only a bird would get outer Eagle's now; and it would hev to be an eagle at that! Between your house and the Summit the snow must be ten feet by this time, to say nothing of the drift in the pass."
Hale felt it was the truth. At any other time he would have worried over this unexpected situation, and utter violation of all his traditions. He was past that now, and even felt a certain relief. He knew his family were safe; it was enough. That they were locked up securely, and incapable of interfering with HIM, seemed to enhance his new, half-conscious, half-shy enjoyment of an adventurous existence.
The ostler, who had been apparently lost in contemplation of the steep trail he had just descended, suddenly clapped his hand to his leg with an ejaculation of gratified astonishment.
"Waal, darn my skin ef that ain't Hennicker's 'slide' all the time! I heard it was somewhat about here."
Rawlins briefly explained to Hale that a slide was a rude incline for the transit of heavy goods that could not be carried down a trail.
"And Hennicker's," continued the man, "ain't more nor a mile away. Ye might try Hennicker's at a push, eh?"
By a common instinct the whole party looked dubiously at Hale. "Who's Hennicker?" he felt compelled to ask.
The ostler hesitated, and glanced at the others to reply. "There ARE folks," he said lazily, at last, "ez beleeves that Hennicker ain't much better nor the crowd we're hunting; but they don't say
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