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Title: The Ebbing Tide Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402691h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2014 Most recent update: Oct 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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JAKE PATERSON scanned the narrow valley with a grim smile on his rugged features. In his own words he was up against it good and hard. To all practical purposes he had come to the end of his quest. And for this he had tracked across half the American continent. And there was nobody else besides his dog to share in the danger and fight the spectre of death. He filled his pipe carefully and gazed calmly around him.
"Brasso, my boy," he said to the dog. "I guess we've got to pull the curtain down here. This is our sarcophagus and don't you forget it. We can't get up the valley because of the snow, and we can't go down the valley because of the water. A frost may save us, but there ain't going to be any frost. On the contrary it's going to rain. And as soon as it does rain, down comes that doggoned avalanche and we're either buried under it or, swept into the valley. Once in the valley we're drowned mariners. And it's all my fault, Brasso!"
The dog whimpered something that sounded like dissent. The big wolfhound seemed to scent danger. And the danger was there sure enough. They had reached the little valley the night before, dead beat, and ready to drop with physical exhaustion. There was food and tobacco and tea and whisky on the sledge drawn by Brasso, to say nothing of fuel, but a night trapped in the snow was sufficient for a man drunk with fatigue and obsessed with sleep. Even then Paterson had grasped the peril of the situation. If the sudden thaw came the valley below would be a raging sea if the snow that blocked the head of the valley like a rampart gave way; death would be swift and merciful. And Paterson had deliberately risked it.
He came to his senses to find a glorious morning with the balmy breath of spring in the air, to see the little channels of water breaking from the great buttresses of snow, to see in the valley below a whirling waste of waters. The man was absolutely trapped, and the reflection was none the less bitter because he had walked into the trap with his eyes open.
"Last night nothing seemed to matter," he reflected. "There was only one thing necessary in the world and that was sleep. Well I got it. Now I am going to have a monopoly of the same article for the balance that lies between this and eternity. This is the end of the quest."
It had been a very long and arduous quest, too. The search had taken two years, ever since Kate Paterson had disappeared, leaving no trace behind. Why she had vanished in that mysterious way, Jake had not the remotest idea. She had left not a word or sign behind her—she had disappeared out of his life as if she had never existed.
It had been a staggering blow to Jake. Like most silent men he had a spring of deep feeling in him, and he had loved the little fair-haired woman deeper than he had words to express. And, so far as he could judge the affection was as pure and holy on her side. She had made his homely hut on the side of the hills a perfect paradise for him; she seemed to have no thought for anybody else. He had been away for the best part of a month looking after his traps, and then he had turned his face homewards. The mere suggestion of home set his nerves tingling. On the whole that was the most successful season he had ever had. He had saved money, too. The time had come when he could abandon the lonely cabin on the hillside and turn his face towards the east. The life was too hard and strenuous for a fragile little woman like Kate. And it was terribly lonely for her at times. Well, there was going to be an end of all that now.
He had bent beneath the blow, and for a week he had sat with the dog's head on his knees thinking the matter over. Then he ate and slept, and when the morning came his mind was made up.
Neighbour he had none in the ordinary sense of the word. Even if he had, he would never have asked one of them a question. The suggestion was that his wife had gone east for a holiday and he was to follow her as soon as convenient. So far as the hillside was concerned that was all. To judge from Jake's face nobody would have imagined that he was sitting amongst the ruins of his own life.
There was only one logical explanation of all this, of course, but Jake refused to recognise it. By some means or other Kate had been decoyed away from him, or some sudden trouble had come upon her, and further than this Jake declined to go. He had the most childlike and implicit faith in the certainty of finding Kate again, and his whole life was devoted to the search.
He had realised everything, and had invested his money through a trusted friend in New York. It came quite as a surprise to him at the end of a year to find that he was worth sixty thousand dollars. When he found Kate again he would take her to Florida and start the fruit farm there they had always talked about. Oh, he was going to find her all right.
He stumbled on more than one clue, every one of which ended in a blind alley. But he never lost patience, he never worried or displayed temper. The last time it seemed to him that he had all the threads in his hands, he had pushed on with Brasso till the night before, when they had both dropped off half dead with fatigue. The rate of progress had been terribly slow, for the snow was soft and wet and the enervating atmosphere of spring was in the air.
And so this was the end of it. Next summer his bones and those of Brasso would be found and perhaps incontinently buried, and there would be a full stop for evermore. It was characteristic of Jake that he wasted no sympathy on himself in his awkward predicament. The pity of it was that he would see Kate no more. He looked death fully in the face knowing that at any moment the end might come. Over his head the great snow precipice curled and hung like a bow. Little flakes detached every now and then, presently there would be a bigger breakaway, and the whole valley would be filled. The valley was in a kind of shelf, and below the shelf the mountain stream, fed by the melted snow, had swollen to a great yellow seething lake. There were islands here and there in the lake crowned with trees, and if one of them could be reached!
But no swimmer ever born of woman could have breasted that seething whirlpool for five minutes. Obviously there was no escape that way. As Jake measured the distance with his eyes one great cornice of the avalanche broke away and carried a white flood to his knees. With it came a great pine chopped off above the root like a carrot. The tree rolled over till it filled the narrow gorge of the valley just above the flood of yellow water. A fighting light crept into Jake's eyes. He ran back to the sledge and took the harness in his hands. A moment later Brasso was attached to the tree; Jake pulled him encouragingly.
"Now, my lord," he said. "You just pull as you never pulled before. We've got to play this card for all we are worth, my boy. Now then—with a will."
Slowly the tree moved, slowly it turned over. The small branches snapped and cracked, then the mass plunged down into the stream. Jake made a flying leap for the trunk, the dog rose and scrambled up on the broad black bark. Above the roar of the water came the hoarse rumbling of the avalanche as it rushed down, filling the valley high as the surrounding trees.
"A mighty close shave that," Jake said between his teeth. "But I always said I should find her. Well, there's nothing left now, Brasso, besides the clothes I stand up in. But we're through."
The dark was falling when they fetched up against one of the little islands in the roaring lake. It seemed to Jake that he could make out a hut amongst the trees. It was a hut surely enough with a stove burning brightly inside.
"The luck's in again, Brasso," Jake said cheerfully. "Guess this place is only an island at certain times of year. Nobody appears to be at home. If this chap here has a boat I guess he's all right. Let's make ourselves at home, old boy, and get those wet clothes dry."
The clothes were dry at length, a meal dispatched, tobacco and pipe duly exploited. It was not till then that Jake turned to regard his surroundings. There were pictures on the walls, a photograph or two, some letters in a little heap on a writing table close by.
"Civilised sort of chap this," Jake mused. "Evidently keeps up a correspondence. Some of his friends, those photographs, I expect. Good heavens, it's—it's she!"
He grabbed one of the photographs in a shaking hand. A similar picture on an oilskin case lay close to Jake's heart. Oh, yes, he was on the track at last. He had found Kate!
Somebody addressed him by name three times before he became conscious that he was no longer alone. He came back to earth again with a start. A man tall and well proportioned stood glaring at him, demanding to know what he was doing there, snatching for the photograph in his hand. A bright red stained the newcomer's cheeks, he burst into a spasm of coughing.
"Want to know who I am?" Jake demanded. "Well, you can guess. I'm Jake Paterson. And this picture in my hand is my wife's. Where is she? Tell me. And if you don't, though I am your debtor for food and lodging, one of us will never leave this hut alive!"
The stranger's head dropped to one side. He fell into a chair and coughed again till his lips grew bloodless.
"It's Providence," he gasped. "Nothing else. Ever heard of Ned Carson?"
"Never in my natural," said Jake solemnly.
"Well, I knew Kate before you did. Knew her in town where she was born and loved her from the time she was no higher'n my knee. Always meant to marry her, I did. And when I was away in Canada that year you came along and took her. Many's the time I've had my gun levelled on you, only somehow I couldn't. And I couldn't live without her. . . That time you were away, I told her you were dead. Oh, it was a pretty lie altogether, and she believed me. I took her away, and I hoped that perhaps at the end of a year she might—But she didn't. Faithful to death, never anybody but Jake. Still I didn't give up until the doctor told me my time was come. They gave me a year to live if I moved into these parts. And the time's nearly up. Another month will see the end of me. I was a long time getting the necessary courage, but I wrote and told Kate at last. And on the table you will find a letter from her forgiving me such a letter."
"It would be," Jake said in a choked voice.
"It is. And there is her address on the letter. She thinks I know where to find you. She thinks that I am looking for you still. Don't tell her I didn't. And don't you go thanking me for anything. But for what the doctor told me I should never have told her, never. Don't you think there is any sort of death repentance about me. I wanted Kate too badly for that. Now then!"
The speaker glared defiantly, but no expression of anger came from Jake.
"I guess I understand," he said. "It was hard on you, mate. I've no more to say. Only you just give me that address and row me across to the mainland. I'll get a sledge train at Maryport and by to-morrow I'll be at Fort Joseph."
"And next day you will see Kate," the other man murmured. "Well, some men get all the luck. Better go or I might get up in the night and kill you. Like to go now?"
"Right away," Jake said curtly. He strode off presently, his face to the setting sun, the letter in his hand, and the other watched chokingly till he was out of sight and the dark was falling.
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