The unwonted sound awoke the long slumbering echoes of the mountain, brought down small avalanches from cliff and tree, and at [Pg 37] last brought from some cavern of the rocks to the surface of the snow a figure so wild, haggard, dishevelled, and monstrous, that it was scarcely human. It crawled upon the snow, dodging behind rocks with the timidity of a frightened animal, and at last, squatting behind a tree, awaited in ambush the approach of the party.
Two men rode ahead; one grave, preoccupied, and reticent. The other alert, active, and voluble. At last the reticent man spoke, but slowly, and as if recalling a memory rather than recording a present impression. It was in some such spot that I first saw them.
The place is familiar. If there is not a cairn of stone somewhere about this spot, I shall believe my dream false, and confess myself an old fool. Columbus helped his course and kept up his crew on a fragment of seaweed. But what are the men looking at?
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Great God! There is something moving by yonder rock! It was Dumphy! And then the younger of the leaders thus adjured—"Leave him to me—he wants my help just now more than yours. Gimme suthin' to eat! He'll know what to do," said the surgeon to one of the men. This one makes everything else possible. What have you there? One of the men was approaching, holding a slip of paper with ragged edges, as if torn from some position where it had been nailed. It was a muffled monotonous tramp of about an hour. Blunt uttered a cry. Before them was a ruin—a rude heap of stones originally symmetrical and elevated, but now thrown down and dismantled.
The snow and earth were torn up around and beneath it.
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On the snow lay some scattered papers, a portfolio of drawings of birds and flowers: a glass case of insects broken and demolished, and the scattered feathers [Pg 40] of a few stuffed birds. At a little distance lay what seemed to be a heap of ragged clothing. At the sight of it the nearest horseman uttered a shout and leaped to the ground.
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It was Mrs. Brackett, dead. She had been dead about a week. The features and clothing were scarcely recognizable; the limbs were drawn up convulsively. The young surgeon bent over her attentively. The surgeon did not reply, but rose and examined the scattered specimens.
One of them he picked up and placed first to his nose and then to his lips. After a pause he replied quietly—. They have been covered with a strong solution of arsenic to preserve them from the ravages of insects, and this starving woman has been the first to fall a victim to the collector's caution. There was a general movement of horror and indignation among the men. The surgeon smiled. It was an inauspicious moment for Dr. Devarges to have introduced himself in person. I think I have heard the name before—'Devarges,'" replied the surgeon, looking over some papers that he had picked up.
Humanity first, science afterward," he added lightly, and they rode on. And so the papers and collections preserved with such care, the evidence of many months of patient study, privation, and hardship, the records of triumph and discovery were left lying upon the snow. The wind came down the flanks of the mountain and tossed them hither and thither as if in scorn, and the sun, already fervid, heating the metallic surfaces of the box and portfolio, sank them deeper in the snow, as if to bury them from the sight for ever. The placard was still there, but the wooden hand that once pointed in the direction of the buried huts had, through some mischance of wind or weather, dropped slightly, and was ominously pointing to the snow below.
Here they [Pg 42] paused and looked at each other. The leader approached the chimney, and leaning over it called within. Then all was quiet again, until Blunt, after a moment's hesitation, walked around to the opening and descended into the hut. He had scarcely disappeared, as it seemed, before he returned, looking very white and grave, and beckoned to the surgeon. He instantly followed.
After a little, the rest of the party, one after another, went down. They stayed some time, and then came slowly to the surface bearing three dead bodies. They returned again quickly, and then brought up the dissevered members of a fourth. This done they looked at each other in silence. There was no preliminary "hallo!
The worst was known. They all passed rapidly to the opening, and disappeared within. When they returned to the surface they huddled together—a whispering but excited group. They were so much preoccupied that they did not see that their party was suddenly increased by the presence of a stranger. It was Philip Ashley! Philip Ashley—faded, travel-worn, hollow-eyed, but nervously energetic and eager. Philip, who four days before had left Grace the guest of a hospitable trapper's half-breed family in the California Valley. Philip—gloomy, discontented, hateful of the quest he had undertaken, but still fulfilling his promise to Grace and the savage dictates of his own conscience.
It was Philip Ashley, who now standing beside the hut, turned half-cynically, half-indifferently toward the party. The surgeon was first to discover him. He darted forward with a cry of recognition, "Poinsett! Ashley's face flushed crimson at the sight of the stranger. A singular expression crossed Ashley's face. It was unnoticed by the surgeon, who was whispering to Blunt. Presently he came forward. He is here, like ourselves, on an errand of mercy.
It is like him! The unmistakable air of high breeding and intelligence [Pg 44] which distinguished Philip always, and the cordial endorsement of the young surgeon, prepossessed the party instantly in his favour. With that recognition, something of his singular embarrassment dropped away. Of course, with no survivor present, we are unable to identify them all. The hut occupied by Dr. Devarges, whose body, buried in the snow, we have identified by his clothing, and the young girl Grace Conroy and her child-sister, are the only ones we are positive about. Philip remembered that Grace had changed her clothes for the suit of a younger brother who was dead.
Devarges in his papers gives the names of the occupants of the hut. We have accounted for all but her brother, and a fellow by the name of Ashley.
What can you expect from that class of people? Didn't they always pass the Fort where we were stationed? Didn't they beg what they could, and steal what they otherwise couldn't get, and then report to Washington the incompetency of the military? Weren't they always getting up rows with the Indians and then sneaking away to let us settle the bill? Don't you remember them—the men gaunt, sickly, vulgar, low-toned; the women dirty, snuffy, prematurely old and prematurely prolific? Philip tried to combat this picture with his recollection of Grace's youthful features, but somehow failed.
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Within the last half-hour his instinctive fastidiousness had increased a hundredfold. He looked at the doctor, and said "Yes. What could you expect?
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People who could be strong only in proportion to their physical strength, and losing everything with the loss of that? There have been selfishness, cruelty—God knows—perhaps murder done here! But you, Arthur, how chanced you to be here in this vicinity? Are you stationed here? You will help me make out my report.
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