A ghost trail, a dark trail, a trail endlessly winding. A dark cavern under enormous trees, down which blew a cold wind that skimmed the pools with ice. A corduroy road made from logs laid side by side, longs slippery with mud and slush, with rotting vegetation from the swamps.
Here and there a log had sunk deep, leaving a cleft into which a suddenly plunged foot could mean a broken leg, and on either side the swamp . . . well, some said it was bottomless. Horses had sunk there, never to be seen again--and men, also.
My father's house lay several days behind me, back of a shoulder on the Quebec shore above the Gulf of St. Lawrence. For days I had been walking southward. An owl glided past with great, slow wings and out in the swamp some unseen creature moved, seemed to pause, listen.
Was that a step behind me?
Astride a gap between logs, I paused, half turned to look.
Nothing. I must have been mistaken. Yet, I had heard something.
My shoulders ached from the burden of my tools. Straining my eyes in the darkness, I looked for a place to stop, any place in which to rest, if ever so briefly. And then I saw a wide stump from which a tree had been sawed, a full six feet in diameter. The tree cut from it lay in the swamp close by, half sunk.
With my left hand I swung my tools to the stump, keeping the rifle in my right, ready for use. This was a wild place. There were few travelers, and fewer still were honest men. Young I might be, but not trusting.
For the first time I was leaving my home, going south from Canada into the United States. Westward, it was said, they were building, and we are builders, we Talons.
What was that? I half rose from my seat on the stump, then settled back, holding my rifle in both hands.
It was cold, and growing colder.
Behind me, on the Gaspe', I had left only my father's cottage and the good will of at least some of my neighbors. My father was gone. My mother had died when I was yet a young boy, and I had no sweetheart.
Of course, there had been a girl. We had roamed the fields together as children, danced together, even talked of marriage. That was before a man far wealthier than I had come to see her father. To be wealthier than I was not difficult, for I had only the cottage inherited from my father, a few acres adjoining, a small fishing boat, and my trade. And she was ambitious.
The other man was a merchant with many acres, a three-masted schooner trading along the coast, and a store. He was a landed, moneyed man, and, as I have said, she was ambitious.
She had come to our meeting place one last time. At once she was difficult. There was no fooling about on this day, for she was very serious. "Jean!" She pronounced it zhan, as was correct, but with an inflection that was her own. "My father wants me to marry Henry Barboure."
It took a moment for me to understand. Henry Barboure was nearly forty, twice as old as I, and a respected, successful man, although I'd heard it said he was very close-fisted and a hard man to deal with.
"You are not going to?" I protested.
"I must, unless . . . unless . . ."
"Jean, do you know where the treasure is? I mean all that gold the old man left? He was your great-grandfather, wasn't he? The pirate?"
It was further back than that," I said. "And anyway, he left no gold. Not that I know of."
She came closer to me. "I know it is a family secret. I know it's always been a secret, a mystery, but Jean . . . if we had all that gold . . . well, Father would never think of asking me to marry Henry. He always told me you'd know where it was, and you could get it, some of it, whenever you liked."
So that was it. The gold. Of course, I knew the stories. They had been legend in the Gaspe' since the first old man's time. He had been one of the first to settle on what was then a lonely, almost uninhabited coast. He had built a strong stone castle--burned by the British during one of their raids on the coast many years after, and attacked many times before that.
The story was that he had hidden a great treasure, that he could dip into it whenever he wished, and that he had bought property, a good deal of it. It was true that he had sailed to Quebec City or Montreal whenever he desired--even down to Boston or New York to buy whatever he wished. But I knew nothing of any treasure, nothing at all. If he had left any behind it was so well hidden that no one knew where it could be.
My father had shrugged off the stories. "Nonsense!" he would say. "Think nothing of treasure or stories of treasure. You will have in this world just what you earn . . . and save. Remember that. Do not waste your life in a vain search for treasure that may not exist."
"There is no treasure," I said to her. "It is all a silly story."
"But he had money!" she protested. "He was fabulously rich!"
"And he spent it," I said. "If you want me it shall be as I am, a man with a good craft who can make a good living."
She was scornful. "A good living! Do you think that is all I want? Henry can give me everything! A beautiful home, travel, money to spend, beautiful clothes . . ."
"Take him then," I had told her. "Take him and be damned!"
She left me then, and the next time we met on the street she walked by me as if I didn't exist.
All that was long ago, and a mill does not turn upon water that is past.
"A splash of water . . . a stir from the swamp."
The muzzle of my rifle shifted to cover the spot. It was an eerie place this, and I should be on my way.
Suddenly my throat choked with fear. From the dark, oily waters of the swamp, a white hand lifted . . . lifted . . . faint, ghostlike. It seemed to beckon. I was on my feet, thumb on the hammer, ready to fire.
Then, slowly, the hand became an arm. It dropped over a log, and then a head lifted from the water. A strained white face . . . gasping, pleading, reaching out.
I sprang forward and caught at the hand.
It was cold . . . cold. But it was the hand of no ghost. It was flesh and bone. I hauled upon the arm, and a body emerged from the swamp and fell across the half-submerged log. Gently then, I turned him over.
"Help," the voice was faint, "help me I . . ."
There was a stab wound in his chest, a deep wound from which blood and water bubbled. The man was dying. Even had I anything with which to treat him, his life still could not be saved.
"He killed me. He stabbed me. He knew who I was, he . . ." the voice faded.
"Easy now!" I warned.
He turned his eyes on me and seemed conscious of me for the first time. "Got me in the back.. He's powerful . . . drove it right to the hilt three times before I got turned around. I don't believe I . . . I even scratched . . . him.
"A bad man . . . who'll stop at nothing . . . nothing at all." He caught my hand. "I'm Captain Rob . . . Robert Foulsham."
I should have known from his accent.
"Who killed you?" I asked. Then, realizing how my words must sound, I said, "Who attacked you?"
"Torville . . . Baron Richard Torville. A desperate man."
"What's he like? Is he tall? Is he--?"
It was no use, for the man had died.
I got slowly to my feet and stood looking down at him. What could I do? I had no means to sink him in the swamp, and there was no way to bury him. Yet to leave him where he lay seemed a shameful thing.
If he had relatives, they . . .
Relatives! I knelt beside the man's body and went carefully through his pockets. There were some water-soaked papers, yet there were others in a sort of water-proof packet. In his pockets I also found several gold pieces, and in a belt about his waist, several more.
There was a pistol, useless until dried out and recharged. A small pistol it was, admirably made.
These few things I gathered together. When I reached a city I would mail them, for among the things there must be an address.
I had straightened from my final task when I heard a faint splash, a stir of something, a movement. My rife came waist high, held easily in my hands.
Sounds came nearer, a step and a swish, a hit and a miss.
Who else could be on this road on such a night? Suddenly a figure loomed in the darkness.
"Come along," I said. "If you're friendly, come easy with your hands in sight. If you want to be friendly we can talk. And if you're not friendly, I can split you right up the middle."
"Avast there! Avast, lad. I'm coming in peaceful, wishing no harm to any man or beast . . . least of all, to me."
He was six or seven inches taller than my five feet ten inches, with shoulders like a yardarm, and he had a peg-leg. He also had a black beard and wore a gold ring in one ear.
Armed, too. I could see he carried both a rifle and a dirk.
"You travel late," I said.
He glanced down at the body. "Did you kill him?"
"I did not. Did you?" For certainly he looked the murderer, if ever a man did.
"Not I." He peered at the body. "Well, well. A fine handsome young chap to die so easily. Oh, I've killed a few in my time, but not that one." He grinned at me. "Anyway, I've just come up. You stand over the body, and the man is freshly dead. The law will ask questions, so you'd better think of some answers."
"There is no law here," I said. "This is the forest. Yet it is no way for a man to die."
He gestured down the way. "I am told there's an inn nearby. Are you for it?"
We started on then, leaving the body where it lay for lack of a better thing to do.
He peered at me. "You've a load there. Is it tools you carry?"
"Tools of my trade. I am a shipwright."
"In the forest?" He stared at me. "You are to build ships in the forest?"
What my destination was, and why, was none of his business, so I simply said, "South of here are many seaports where they build vessels to trade with the Indies, or ships for whaling."
We slopped along in the darkness, wary of our footsteps, only occasionally glimpsing a star overhead through the lacework of branches. Despite the pegleg, he swung along as easily as me, and I fancy myself a man who can walk.
Suddenly, through the dark columns of the huge old trees, we saw a light. With the chance of good food and drink before us, we lengthened our strides and in a few minutes faced a clearing under giant trees and a ramshackle bridge over an arm of the swamp.
At the door the latchstring was out. We lifted it and stepped inside.
A fine fire blazed upon the hearth of a huge fireplace at the opposite end of the room. There were some benches, a long table, and a half-dozen men standing about. At the fire, a middle-aged woman stirred something in a pot that set my stomach to high expectation.
A mostly baldheaded man with a fringe of sandy hair, whom I took to be the owner, looked around at us. He wore a long buckskin waistcoat and heavy boots.
"Welcome, lads! Welcome! Come up to the table! It's a raw night for the out of doors. Have a nip of something. I've rum . . . even a bit of ale that I've brewed myself. Tasty, mighty tasty."
He turned to the woman at the fire. "Bett, get some food on the table. These will be hungry men."
There was a tall man with his back to the wall, a handsome man indeed, with a pipe in one hand and a glass in the other. He looked at me with a quick, appraising glance, then his eyes rested thoughtfully on me. My coat was open, and he could see the pistol there.
I set my tools in the corner, and after a moment of hesitation, my rifle beside them.