“How long since you got back here?” he’ asked, close to the dulling ear.
“Couldn’t—keep—track—o’ days. Got—turned—round—in woods. Lost—trail—heap—long—getting—to—th’ old—camp.”
The words seemed freezing on the lips which uttered them. Herb asked no more questions. Silence was broken only by the rolling voice of the land-slide, which had not yet ceased. Occasional volleys of loose earth and stones, dislodged or shaken by the down-plunging granite, still kept falling at intervals on the buried camp.
At one unusually loud rattle, Chris’s lips moved again. In those strange gutturals which the boys had heard in the hut, he rumbled an Indian sentence, repeating it in English with scared, breaking breaths.
It was a prayer of her tribe which his mother had taught him to say at morning and eve:—
“Heap—noise! Heap—dark!” he gasped. “Can’t—find—th’ old—camp.”
“You’re near it now, old chum,” said Herb, trying to soothe him. “It’s the home-camp.”
“We will again, sure.”
* * * * *
The last stone pounded down on the heap above the old camp; and Herb gently laid flat the body of the man he had sworn to shoot, closed the malformed eyes, and turned away, that the fellows he was guiding might not see his face.
They buried Chris upon Katahdin’s breast. It was a good cemetery for woodsmen, so Herb said, granite above and forest beneath.
But, good or bad, this was the one thing to be done. An attempt to transfer the body to a distant settlement would be objectless labor; for, as far as the guide knew, the half-breed had not a friend to be interested in his fate, father and mother having died before Herb found him in the snow-heaped forest.
There were three reliable witnesses, besides the man who was known to have a grudge against him, to testify as to the cause and manner of his death when the party returned to Greenville; so no suspicious finger could point at Herb Heal, with a hint that he had carried out his old threat.
How long Chris, in lonely, crazed repentance, had sheltered in the camp on the mountain-side could only be a matter of guess. Herb inclined to think that he had been there for weeks,—months, perhaps,—judging from the withered spruce bed and the dry boughs and sticks upon the camping-ground, which had evidently been gathered and broken for fuel. His ravings made it clear that, on returning to the old haunts after years of absence, he had missed the trail he used to know, and wandered wearily in the dense woods about the foot of Katahdin before he escaped from the prison of trees, and climbed to the hut he sought.
Such wanderings, Herb declared, generally ended in “a man having wheels in his head,” being half or wholly insane, though he might keep sufficient wits to provide himself with food and warmth, as Chris had done while his strength held out. This was not long; for the half-breed’s words suggested that he felt near to the great change he roughly called “keeling over,” when he started to find his cheated partner.