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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Great Sioux Trail: A Story Of Mountain And Plain - Chapter 7. The Beaver Hunter
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The Great Sioux Trail: A Story Of Mountain And Plain - Chapter 7. The Beaver Hunter Post by :streetkid Category :Long Stories Author :Joseph A. Altsheler Date :May 2012 Read :740

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The Great Sioux Trail: A Story Of Mountain And Plain - Chapter 7. The Beaver Hunter

CHAPTER VII. THE BEAVER HUNTER


It was perhaps fortunate for the explorers and fur hunters that the great mountains of northwestern America abounded in swift, clear streams and little lakes, many of the lakes being set at a great height in tiny valleys, enclosed by forests and lofty cliffs. There was no dying of thirst, and about the water they always found the beaver. Wood, too, was sure to be plentiful and, in the fierce cold of the northwestern winters they needed much of it. If the valleys were not visited for a long period, and often the Indians themselves did not come to them in years, elk and other game, large and small, made a home there.

It was into one of these most striking nooks that the three had now come. They had been in a valley of the same type before, but this was far deeper and far bolder. There were several acres of good grass, on which the horses and mules might find forage, even under the snow, and the lake, two or three acres in extent, was sure to contain fish good for eating.

But the two men examined with the most care the rocky, western cliff, weathered and honeycombed by the storms of a thousand centuries. As they had expected, they found great cave-like openings at its base, and after much hunting they decided upon one running back about fifty feet, with a width half as great, and a roof varying from seven to twenty feet in height. The floor, fairly level, sloped rather sharply toward the doorway, which would protect them against floods from melting snows. The interior could be fitted up in a considerable degree of comfort with the material from their packs and furs they might take.

They found about fifty yards away another, though shallower, cavern which Will, with his gift for dealing with animals, could induce the horses and mules to use in bad weather. He proved his competency for the task a few hours after their arrival by leading them into it, tolling them on with wisps of fresh grass.

"That settles it so far as they are concerned," said Boyd, "and we had to think of them first. If we're snowed in here it's of the last importance to us to save our animals."

"An' we're goin' to be snowed in, I think," said the Little Giant, looking at the sombre heavens. "How high up did you say we wuz here, young William, ten miles above the level o' the sea?"

"Not ten miles, but we're certainly high, high enough for it to be winter here any time it feels like it. Now I'm going to rake and scrape as many old dead leaves as I can find into the new stone stable. The floor is pretty rough in places, and we don't want any of our beasts to break a leg there."

"All right, you set to work on it," said Boyd, "and Giant and me will labor on our own house."

Will toiled all the day on the new stable, and he enjoyed the homely work. Sometimes he filled in the deeper places in the floor with chunks of dead wood and then heaped the leaves on top. When it was finished it was all in such condition that the animals could occupy it without danger, and he also set up a thick hedge of boughs about the entrance, allowing only four or five feet for the doorway. Even if the snow should be driving hard in that direction the animals would yet be protected. Then he led them inside and barred them there for the night.

He was so much absorbed in his own task that he paid small heed to that of the men, but he was enthusiastic when he took a little rest. They had unpacked everything, and had put all the extra weapons and ammunition on shelves in the stone. They had made three wooden stools and they had smoothed a good place for cooking near the entrance, whence the smoke could pass out. They had also cut great quantities of firewood which they had stored along the sides of the cavern.

About nightfall the hunter shot an elk on the northern slope, and all three worked far into the night at the task of cleaning and cutting up the body, resolving to save every edible part for needs which might be long. All of it was stored in the cavern or on the boughs of trees, and leaving the horses to graze at their leisure on the grassy acres they lay down on their blankets in the cavern and slept the sleep of the little death, that is the sleep of exhaustion, without a dream or a waking moment.

Will did not awake until the sun of dawn was shining in the cavern, although it was at its best a somewhat obscure sun, and the dawn itself was full of chill. When he went outside he found that heavy clouds were floating above the mountains and masses of vapor hung low over the valley, almost hiding the forest, which was thickest at the northern end and the lake which cuddled against the western side.

"I look for a mighty storm, maybe a great snow," said Boyd. "All the signs are here, but it may hang about for several days before coming, and the more time is left before it hits the better for us. It was big luck for us to find so deep a valley just when we did. Now, Will, suppose you take the beasts out to pasture and by the time you get back Giant and me will have breakfast ready."

Will found the horses and mules quite comfortable in the new stable and they welcomed him with neighs and whinnies and other sounds, the best of which their vocal cords were capable. The friendship that he had established with them was wonderful. As the Little Giant truly said, he could have been a brilliant success as an animal trainer. Perhaps they divined the great sympathy and kindness he felt for them, or he had a way of showing it given to only a few mortals. Whatever it may have been, they began to rub their noses against him, the big horse, Selim, finally thrusting his head under his arm, while the mules proudly marched on either side of him as he led the way down to the pasture.

"Ain't it wonderful," said the Little Giant, who saw them from the mouth of the cavern where he and Boyd were cooking, "the way the boy has with animals? My mules like me, but I know they'd leave me any minute at a whistle from young William, an' follow him wherever he went."

"Same way with that horse of mine, Selim. He'd throw me over right away for Will. He's a good lad, with a clean soul and a pure heart, and maybe the animals, having gifts that we don't have, to make up for gifts that we have and they haven't, can look straight into 'em. Do you think, Giant, that Felton could have had a line on our mine?"

"What's your drift, Jim?"

"Could he have been out here somewhere when the Captain, Will's father, found it, and have got some hint about its discovery? Maybe he guesses that Will's got a map, and that's what he's after. He wouldn't have followed us at such terrible risks, unless he had a mighty big motive."

"That's good reasonin', Jim, an' I think thar's somethin' in your notion. Ef it's so, Felton will hang on to the chase o' us ez long ez he's livin', an' fur the present, with Sioux on one side o' us an' outlaws on the other, I'm mighty glad we're hid away here in so deep a cut in the mountings."

"So am I, Giant. I think that coffee is boiling now. Call the lad."

"Young William! Young William!" cried the Little Giant. "Don't you dare to keep breakfus' waitin' the fust mornin' we've moved into our new home."

After breakfast Will and Bent worked on the cavern, while Boyd went hunting on the slopes. They cut many poles and made a palisade at the entrance to the great hollow, leaving a doorway only about two feet wide, over which they could hang the big bearskin in case heavy wind, rain or snow came. Then they packed the whole floor of the cavern with dry leaves, making a kind of matting, over which they intended to spread furs or skins as they obtained them.

"Caves are cold when left to theirselves," said the Little Giant, "an' it's lucky thar's a good nateral place fur our fire jest beside the door. We'll have lots o' meat in here, too, 'cause Jim's a fine hunter an' the valley is full o' game. Thar must be a lot o' grizzly bears roun' in these mountings, too, Young William. Wouldn't it be funny ef we went out some day an' come back to find our new house occupied by a whole family o' fightin' grizzlies, every one o' them with iron claws, ten inches long?"

"No, it wouldn't be funny, Giant, it would be tragic."

"Ef you jest knew it, Young William, we're mighty well off. Many a trappin' outfit hez been froze in in the mountings, in quarters not half so good ez ours."

Boyd shot another elk and smaller deer, and on the next day secured more game, which they cured, concluding now that they had enough to last them indefinitely. Will and the Little Giant, meanwhile, had been working on the house, and Boyd, his hunting over, joined them. The cured skins of the animals were put over the leaf thatch of the floor as they had planned, and as they procured them they intended to hang more on the walls, for the sake of dryness and warmth.

Although the clouds threatened continuously the storm still held off. They expected every morning to wake up and find the snow drifting, but the sun always showed, although dim and obscured by vapors. Will still led the horses and mules down to the grass every morning, and, every night, led them back to the new stone stable. The valley began to wear the aspect of home, of a home by no means uncomfortable, but on the sixth night there Will was awakened by something cold and wet striking upon his face. He went to the door, looked out and saw that the snow they had been expecting so long had come at last. It was thick, driving hard, and for the first time he hung in place the great bearskin, securing it tightly with the fastenings they had arranged and then went back to sleep.

He was the first to awake the next morning, and pushing aside the bearskin, he looked out to see snow still falling and apparently a good six inches in depth already.

"Wake up, Jim, and you, too, Giant!" he called. "Here's our storm at last, and lucky it is that we're holed up so well."

Boyd joined him. The snow was so dense that they could not see across the valley, but it was not driving now, merely floating down lazily and persistently.

"That means it will come for a long time," said Boyd. "Snow clouds are like men. If they begin to pour out their energy in vast quantities they're soon exhausted, but if they work in deliberate fashion they do much more. I take it that this snow won't stop today, nor maybe tonight, nor the next day either."

"We can stand it," said Will. "We're well housed up and we're safe from invasion. If you and Tom will get breakfast I'll feed the horses and mules."

They had employed a large part of the time cutting the thick grass with their hunting knives, and it was now stored in the stable in a considerable quantity, out of the reach of the longest neck among the horses and mules. They were responsive as usual when he came among them, and nuzzled him, because they liked him and because they knew he was the provider of food, that is, he was in effect a god to them.

Will talked to the animals and gave to every one his portion of hay, watching them with pleasure as they ate it, and returned thanks in their own way. When he made his way back through the snow, breakfast was ready and, although they were sparing with the coffee and bread, every one could have all the meat he wished.

"Now, there'll be nothing for us to do but sit around the house," said Boyd, the breakfast over.

"Which means that I kin put in a lot o' my spare time readin'," said the Little Giant. "Young William, bring me my Shakespeare! What, you say I furgot to put it in my pack! Well, then bring me my copy o' the Declaration o' Independence. I always like them words in it, 'Give me lib'ty or give me death!' '_Sic semper tyrannis!_'"

"'Give me liberty or give me death' is not in the Declaration of Independence, Giant. Those words were used by Patrick Henry in an address."

"Well, they ought to hev been thar, an' ef Patrick Henry hadn't been so fresh an' used 'em first they would a-been. But you can't go back on '_sic semper tyrannis!_'"

"They couldn't possibly be in the declaration, Giant, because they're Latin."

"I reckon the signers o' the Declaration wuz good enough to write Latin an' talk it, too, ef they wanted to."

"They were used eighteen or nineteen hundred years ago by a Roman."

"I guess that's one advantage o' livin' early. You kin git the fust chance at what's best. Anyway, they did say a lot o' rousin' things in the Declaration, though I don't remember exactly what they wuz. But I see I won't hev no chance to git on with my lit'ry pursuits, so I think I'll jest do chores about the house inside."

He went to work in the best of spirits. Will had seldom seen a happier man. He fixed shelves in the stone, arranged the materials from their packs, and all the time he whistled airs, until the cavern seemed to be filled with the singing of nightingales, mocking birds and skylarks. Will and Boyd began to help him, though Will stopped at times to look out.

On every occasion he reported that the snow was still drifting down in a steady, thick, white stream, and that he could not see more than thirty or forty yards from the door. About eleven o'clock in the morning, when he pulled the bearskin aside for perhaps the sixth time, he heard a sound which at first he took to be the distant moan of the wind through a gorge. But he had not heard it on his previous visits, although the wind had been blowing all the morning, and he stood there a little while, listening. As he did not hear it again just yet, he thought his fancy had deceived him, but in a minute or so the sound came once more. It was a weird note, carrying far, but he seemed to detect a human quality in it. And yet what human being could be out there in that lone mountain valley in the wild snow storm? It seemed impossible, but when he heard it a third time the human quality seemed stronger. He beckoned to the hunter and Little Giant.

"Come here," he said, "and tell me if my imagination is playing tricks with me. It seems to me that I've heard a human voice in the storm."

The two came to the doorway and, standing beside him, listened. Once more Will discerned that note and he turned an inquiring face to them.

"There!" he exclaimed. "Did you hear it? It sounded to me like a man's voice!"

Neither Boyd nor Bent replied until the call came once more and then Boyd said:

"It's not your imagination, Will. It's a man out there in the snow, and he's shouting for help. Why he should expect anybody to come to his aid in a place like this is more'n I can understand."

"He's drawin' nearer," said the Little Giant. "I kin make out the word 'hello' said over an' over ag'in. Maybe Felton's band has wandered on a long chase into our valley, an' it's some o' them lost from the others in the storm, callin' to em."

"Like as not," said the hunter. "The snow has covered up most of the traces and trails we've left, and anyway they couldn't rush this cavern in the face of our rifles."

"It's no member of Felton's gang," said Will, with great emphasis.

"How do you know that?" asked Boyd in surprise.

"I can scarcely tell. Instinct, I suppose. It doesn't sound like the voice of an outlaw, though I don't know how I know that, either. Hark, he's coming much nearer! I've an idea the man's alone."

"In the storm," said the Little Giant, "he's likely to pass by the cavern, same ez ef it wuzn't here."

"But we mustn't let him do that," exclaimed Will. "I tell you it's a friend coming! a man we want! Besides, it's no Indian! It's a white man's voice, and we couldn't let him wander around and perish in a wilderness storm!"

The hunter and the Little Giant glanced at each other.

"A feller that kin talk with hosses an' mules, an' hev the toughest mule eat out o' his hand the fust time he ever saw him may be able to tell more about a voice in the wilderness than we kin," said the Little Giant.

"I don't believe you're wrong," said the hunter with equal conviction.

Will threw aside the bearskin and dashed out. The two men followed, their rifles under their fur coats, where they were protected from the storm. The voice could now be heard very plainly calling, and Boyd and Bent were quite sure also that it was not one of Felton's band. It truly sounded like the voice of an honest man crying aloud in the wilderness.

Will still led the way and, as he approached, he gave a long, clear shout, to which the owner of the voice replied instantly, not a hundred yards away. Then the three pressed forward and they saw the figure of a man, exaggerated and gigantic in the falling snow. Behind him stood three horses, loaded heavily but drooping and apparently almost frozen. He gave a cry of joy when the three drew near, and said:

"I called upon the Lord when all seemed lost, but I did not call in vain."

He was tall, clothed wholly in deerskin, and with a fur cap upon his head. His figure was one of great strength, but it was bent somewhat now with weariness. The Little Giant uttered an exclamation.

"By all that's wonderful, it's Steve Brady!" he said. "Steve Brady, the seeker after the lost beaver horde!"

The man extended a hand, clothed in a deerskin gauntlet.

"And it's you, Tom Bent, the Little Giant," he said. "I surely did not dream that when you and I met again it would be in such a place as this. Providence moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform, and it's a good thing for us it does, or I'd have frozen or starved to death in this valley. That quotation may not be strictly correct, but I mean well."

The Little Giant seized his hand and shook it violently. It was evident that the stranger was one whom he admired and liked.

"Ef we'd knowed it wuz you callin', Steve Brady," he said, "we'd hev come sooner. But hev you found that huge beaver colony you say is somewhar in the northwestern mountings, the biggest colony the world hez ever knowed?"

"I have not, Tom Bent. 'Search and ye shall find' says the Book, and I have searched years and years, but I have never found. If I had found, you would not see me here in this valley, a frozen man with three frozen horses, and I ask you, Tom Bent, if you have ever yet discovered a particle of the gold for which you've been looking all the years since you were a boy."

"Not a speck, Steve, not a speck of it. If I had I wouldn't be here. I'd be in old St. Looey, the grandest city in the world, stoppin' in the finest room at the Planters' House, an' tilted back in a rockin' chair pickin' my teeth with a gold tooth pick, after hevin' et a dinner that cost a hull five dollars. But you come into our house, Steve, an' warm up an' eat hot food, while Young William, here, takes your hosses to the stable, an' quite a good hoss boy is young William, too."

"House! Fire! Food! Stable! What do you mean?"

"Jest what I say. These are my friends, Thomas Boyd and William Clarke, young William. Boys, this is Stephen Brady, who has been a fur hunter all his life but who hasn't been findin' much o' late. Come on, Steve."

Will took the three horses and led them to the stable, into which he pushed them without much trouble, and where they received a fair welcome. He also threw them a quantity of the hay, and then he ran back to the house, where Boyd and Bent were rapidly fanning the coals into a blaze and were warming food. Brady's outer garments were steaming before the fire, and he was sitting on a stone outcrop, a look of solemn satisfaction on his face.

"It is truly a habitation in the wilderness," he said, "and friends the best and bravest in the world. It is more, far more, than I, a lone fur hunter, had a right to expect. Truly it is more than any humble mortal such as I had a right to hope for. But as the sun stood still over Gibeon, and as the moon stood still over the vale of Ajalon at the command of Joshua, so the wilderness and the storm opened at the command of the Lord, and disclosed to me those who would save me."

There was nothing of the unctuously pious about his tone and manner, instead it was sternly enthusiastic, full of courage and devotion. He made to Will a mental picture of one of Cromwell's Ironsides, or of the early New England Puritans, and his Biblical language and allusions heightened the impression. The lad felt instinctively that he was a strong man, great in the strength of body, mind and spirit.

"Take another slice o' the elk steak, Steve," said the hospitable Little Giant, who was broiling them over coals. "You've et only six, an' a man o' your build an' hunger ought to eat at least twelve. We've got plenty of it, you won't exhaust the supply, never fear. An' take another cup o' coffee; it will warm your insides right down to your toes. I'm mighty glad to see you, an' young William's mighty glad to see you."

"You couldn't have been as glad to see me as I was to see you," said Brady with a solemn smile. "Truly it seems that one may be saved when apparently his last hour has come, if he will only hope and persist. It may be that you will yet find your gold, Thomas Bent, that you, James Boyd and William Clarke, will find whatever you seek, though I know not what it is, nor ask to know, and that I, too, will find some day the great beaver colony of which I have dreamed, a colony ten times as large as any other ever seen even in these mountains."

Boyd and Bent exchanged glances, but said nothing. It was evident that they had the same thought and Will's quick and active mind leaped up too. In their great quest they needed at least another man, a man honest, brave and resourceful, and such a man in the emergency was beyond price. But for the present they said nothing.

"Thar's one thing I'd like fur you to explain to me, Steve," said the Little Giant, who was enjoying the hospitality he gave, "why wuz you callin' so much through the storm? Wuz it jest a faint hope, one chance in a million that trappers might be here in the valley?"

"No, Thomas, it was not a hope. A sign was vouchsafed to me. When I knew the storm was coming I started for this valley, which I visited once, years ago, and, although the snow caught me before I could reach it, I managed, owing to my former knowledge, to get down the slope without losing any of my horses. Then in the valley I saw saplings cut freshly by the axe, cut so recently in truth that I knew the wielders of the steel must still be here, and in all likelihood were white men. Strong in that faith I called aloud and you answered, but I did not dream that one whom I knew long ago, and one, moreover, whom I knew to be honest and true, was here. It is a lesson to us that hope should never be wholly lost."

All were silent for a little space, feeling deeply the truth of the man's words and manner, and then, when Brady finished his last elk steak and his last cup of coffee, Boyd said:

"I think, Mr. Brady, that you've had a terrible time and that you need sleep. You can roll in dry blankets in the corner there, and we'll arrange your packs for you. Will reports that your animals have made friends with ours, as you and we have surely made friends, and there's nothing left for you now but to take a big sleep."

"That I'll surely do," said Brady, smiling a solemn smile, "but first promise me one thing."

"What is that?"

"Don't call me Mr. Brady. It doesn't sound right coming from men of my own age. To you I'm Steve, just as I am to our friend Thomas."

"All right, Steve, but into the blankets with you. Even a fur hunter can catch pneumonia, if he's just bent on doing it."

Brady rolled himself in the blankets and soon slept. The hunter, the Little Giant and Will drew to the other side of the cavern, and before a word was spoken every one of the three was conscious of what was in the minds of the others. Will was the first to speak.

"He's the man," he said.

"We shorely need him," said the Little Giant.

"I don't think we could do better," said Boyd.

"It's luck, big luck, that we found him or he found us," continued the Little Giant. "When these solemn, prayin' men are real, they're real all over. He's as brave as a lion, he'll hang on like a grizzly bear, an' he's as honest as they ever make 'em. He's a fightin' man from start to finish. From what you say thar must be more'n a million in that mine, an' in huntin' fur it an' keepin' it after we find it, Steve Brady is wuth at least a quarter o' a million to us."

"All of that," said the hunter. "But the mine really belongs to Will, here, and it's for him to bring in a new partner."

"It belongs to us all now," said the lad, "though I'll admit I was the original owner. I think Mr. Brady will just round out our band. I'm for offering him a full partnership."

"Then you do the talkin'," said the Little Giant. "It's right that it should come from you."

When Brady awoke many hours later three very serious faces confronted him, and his acute mind saw at once that he was about to receive a communication of weight.

"It looks like a committee," he said with solemn importance. "Who is the spokesman?"

"I am," replied Will, "and what we have to say to you is really of importance, of vast importance. Mr. Bent has been looking many years for gold, but has never yet found a grain of it. Now he has given up his independent search, and is joining with Mr. Boyd and me in a far bigger hunt. You've been looking eight or ten years, you say, for the gigantic beaver colony, but have never found it. Now we want you to give up that hunt for the time, and join us, because we need you much."

"Your words have an earnest sound, young man, and I know that you and your comrades are honest, but I do not take your full meaning."

"It is this," said Will, and he produced from his secret pocket the precious map. "My father, who was a captain in the army, found a great mine of gold, but before he could work it, or even make any preparations to do so, he was called for the Civil War, in which he fell. But he left this map that tells me how to reach it somewhere in the vast northwestern mountains. To locate it and get out the treasure I need fighting men, the best fighting men the world can furnish, wilderness fighters, patient, enduring and full of knowledge. I have two such in Mr. Boyd and Mr. Bent, but we need just one more, and we have agreed that you should be the fourth, if you will favor us by entering into the partnership. It is full of danger, as you know. We have already had a fight with the Sioux, and another with a band of outlaws, led by Martin Felton."

A spark leaped up in the stern eye of Stephen Brady.

"I am a fur hunter," he said, "though there is little prospect of success for me now, owing to the Indian wars, but I have spent all my manhood years among dangers. Perhaps I should feel lonely if they were absent, and you may dismiss that idea."

"I thought so. Will you enter into full partnership with us in this great enterprise? Mr. Bent has appraised your full value as a fighting man in this crisis at a quarter of a million dollars, and we know that the mine contains at least a million. I beg you not to refuse. We need your strong arm and great heart. You will be conferring the favor upon us."

"And the vast beaver colony that I'm going to find some day?"

"It can wait. It will be there after we get out the gold."

"And you are in full agreement with this, James Boyd?"

"I am."

"And you are in full agreement with this, too, Thomas Bent?"

"I am."

"Then I accept. A quarter of a million dollars is a great sum. I scarcely thought there was so much money in the world, but one may do much with it. I am already forming certain plans in my mind. Will you let me take another and thorough look at your map, William?"

He studied it long and attentively, and then as he handed it back to the owner, he said:

"It will be a long journey, as you have said, full of dangers, but I think I am not boasting when I say we be four who know how to meet hardship and peril. I make the prediction that after unparalleled dangers we will find the mine. Yet a quarter of a million is too vast a sum for my services. I could not accept such an amount. Make it about ten thousand dollars."

Will laughed.

"You must bear in mind, Mr. Brady," he said, "that we haven't all this gold yet, and it will be a long time before we do get it. We're all to be comrades and full partners, and you must be on exactly the same terms as the others. We've probably saved your life, and we demand, therefore, that you accept. Standing squarely on our rights, we'll take no refusal."

The stern eyes of Brady gleamed.

"Since you give me no choice, I accept," he said.

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