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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 4. Reconnaissance
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Barbarians - Chapter 4. Reconnaissance Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2490

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Barbarians - Chapter 4. Reconnaissance


And that was the way Carfax ended--a tiny tragedy of incompetence compared to the mountainous official fiasco at Gallipoli. Here, a few perished among the filthy salamanders in the snow; there, thousands died in the burning Turkish gorse----


But that's history; and its makers are already officially damned.

But now concerning two others of the fed-up dozen on board the mule transport--Harry Stent and Jim Brown. Destiny linked arms with them; Fate jerked a mysterious thumb over her shoulder toward Italy. Chance detailed them for special duty as soon as they landed.

It was a magnificent sight, the disembarking of the British overseas military force sent secretly into Italy.

They continued to disembark and entrain at night. Nobody knew that British troops were in Italy.

The infernal uproar along the Isonzo never ceased; the din of the guns resounded through the Trentino, but British and Canadian noses were sniffing at something beyond the Carnic Alps, along the slopes of which they continued to concentrate, Rifles, Kilties, and Gunners.

There seemed to be no particular hurry. Details from the Canadian contingent were constantly sent out to familiarize themselves with the vast waste of tunneled mountains denting the Austrian sky-line to the northward; and all day long Dominion reconnoitering parties wandered among valleys, alms, forest, and peaks in company sometimes with Italian alpinists, sometimes by themselves, prying, poking, snooping about with all the emotionless pertinacity of Teuton tourists preoccupied with _wanderlust_, _kultur_, and _ewigkeit_.

And one lovely September morning the British Military Observer with the Italian army, and his very British aid, sat on a sunny rock on the Col de la Reine and watched a Canadian northward reconnaissance--nothing much to see, except a solitary moving figure here and there on the mountains, crawling like a deerstalker across ledges and stretches of bracken--a few dots on the higher slopes, visible for a moment, then again invisible, then glimpsed against some lower snow patch, and gone again beyond the range of powerful glasses.

"The Athabasca regiment, 13th Battalion," remarked the British Military Observer; "lively and rather noisy."

"Really," observed his A. D. C.

"Sturdy, half-disciplined beggars," continued the B. M. O., watching the mountain plank through his glasses; "every variety of adventurer in their ranks--cattlemen, ranchmen, Hudson Bay trappers, North West police, lumbermen, mail carriers, bear hunters, Indians, renegade frontiersmen, soldiers of fortune--a sweet lot, Algy."


"--And half of 'em unruly Yankees--the most objectionable half, you know."

"A bad lot," remarked the Honorable Algy.

"Not at all," said the B. M. O. complacently; "I've a relative of sorts with 'em--leftenant, I believe--a Yankee brother-in-law, in point of fact."


"Married a step-sister in the States. Must look him up some day," concluded the B. M. O., adjusting his field glasses and focussing them on two dark dots moving across a distant waste of alpine roses along the edge of a chasm.

One of the dots happened to be the "relative of sorts" just mentioned; but the B. M. O. could not know that. And a moment afterward the dots became invisible against the vast mass of the mountain, and did not again reappear within the field of the English officer's limited vision. So he never knew he had seen his relative of sorts.

Up there on the alp, one of the dots, which at near view appeared to be a good-looking, bronzed young man in khaki, puttees, and mountain shoes, said to the other officer who was scrambling over the rocks beside him:

"Did you ever see a better country for sheep?"

"Bear, elk, goats--it's sure a great layout," returned the younger officer, a Canadian whose name was Stent.

"Goats," nodded Brown--"sheep and goats. This country was made for them. I fancy they _have chamois here. Did you ever see one, Harry?"

"Yes. They have a thing out here, too, called an ibex. You never saw an ibex, did you, Jim?"

Brown, who had halted, shook his head. Stent stepped forward and stood silently beside him, looking out across the vast cleft in the mountains, but not using his field glasses.

At their feet the cliffs fell away sheer into tremendous and dizzying depths; fir forests far below carpeted the abyss like wastes of velvet moss, amid which glistened a twisted silvery thread--a river. A world of mountains bounded the horizon.

"Better make a note or two," said Stent briefly.

They unslung their rifles, seated themselves in the warm sun amid a deep thicket of alpine roses, and remained silent and busy with pencil and paper for a while--two inconspicuous, brownish-grey figures, cuddled close among the greyish rocks, with nothing of military insignia about their dress or their round grey wool caps to differentiate them from sportsmen--wary stalkers of chamois or red deer--except that under their unbelted tunics automatics and cartridge belts made perceptible bunches.

Just above them a line of stunted firs edged limits of perpetual snow, and rocks and glistening fields of crag-broken white carried the eye on upward to the dazzling pinnacle of the Col de la Reine, splitting the vast, calm blue above.

Nothing except peaks disturbed the tranquil sky to the northward; not a cloud hung there. But westward mist clung to a few mountain flanks, and to the east it was snowing on distant crests.

Brown, sketching rapidly but accurately, laughed a little under his breath.

"To think," he said, "not a Boche dreams we are in the Carnic Alps. It's very funny, isn't it? Our surveyors are likely to be here in a day or two, I fancy."

Stent, working more slowly and methodically on his squared map paper, the smoke drifting fragrantly from his brier pipe, nodded in silence, glancing down now and then at the barometer and compass between them.

"Mentioning big game," he remarked presently, "I started to tell you about the ibex, Jim. I've hunted a little in the Eastern Alps."

"I didn't know it," said Brown, interested.

"Yes. A classmate of mine at the Munich Polytechnic invited me--Siurd von Glahn--a splendid fellow--educated at Oxford--just like one of us--nothing of the Boche about him at all----"

Brown laughed: "A Boche is always a Boche, Harry. The black Prussian blood----"

"No; Siurd was all white. Really. A charming, lovable fellow. Anyway, his dad had a shooting where there were chamois, reh, hirsch, and the king of all Alpine big game--ibex. And Siurd asked me."

"Did you get an ibex?" inquired Brown, sharpening his pencil and glancing out across the valley at a cloud which had suddenly formed there.

"I did."

"What manner of beast is it?"

"It has mountain sheep and goats stung to death. Take it from me, Jim, it's the last word in mountain sport. The chamois isn't in it. Pooh, I've seen chamois within a hundred yards of a mountain macadam highway. But the ibex? Not much! The man who stalks and kills an ibex has nothing more to learn about stalking. Chamois, red deer, Scotch stag make you laugh after you've done your bit in the ibex line."

"How about our sheep and goat?" inquired Brown, staring at his comrade.

"It's harder to get ibex."


"It really is, Jim."

"What does your ibex resemble?"

"It's a handsome beast, ashy grey in summer, furred a brownish yellow in winter, and with little chin whiskers and a pair of big, curved, heavily ridged horns, thick and flat and looking as though they ought to belong to something African, and twice as big."

"Some trophy, what?" commented Brown, working away at his sketches.

"Rather. The devilish thing lives along the perpetual snow line; and, for incredible stunts in jumping and climbing, it can give points to any Rocky Mountain goat. You try to get above it, spend the night there, and stalk it when it returns from nocturnal grazing in the stunted growth below. That's how."

"And you got one?"

"Yes. It took six days. We followed it for that length of time across the icy mountains, Siurd and I. I thought I'd die."

"Cold work, eh?"

Stent nodded, pocketed his sketch, fished out a packet of bread and chocolate from his pocket and, rolling over luxuriously in the sun among the alpine roses, lunched leisurely, flat on his back.

Brown presently stretched out and reclined on his elbow; and while he ate he lazily watched a kestrel circling deep in the gulf below him.

"I think," he said, half to himself, "that this is the most beautiful region on earth."

Stent lifted himself on both elbows and gazed across the chasm at the lower slopes of the alm opposite, all ablaze with dewy wild flowers. Down it, between fern and crag and bracken, flashed a brook, broken into in silvery sections amid depths of velvet green below, where evidently it tumbled headlong into that thin, shining thread which was a broad river.

"Yes," mused Stent, "Siurd von Glahn and I were comrades on many a foot tour through such mountains as these. He was a delightful fellow, my classmate Siurd----"

Brown's swift rigid grip on his arm checked him to silence; there came the clink of an iron-shod foot on the ledge; they snatched their rifles from the fern patch; two figures stepped around the shelf of rock, looming up dark against the dazzling sky.

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