The prophet confessed four things as beyond his understanding--the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon the rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid--but we of modern times must add a fifth, and that is the way of justice. For often a blunderer caught red-handed escapes with slight punishment, while the clever man who transgresses, yet conceals his transgression craftily, pays at the end of a devious sequence with his life. Of this fashion was the death of Regis Brugiere.
It happened that in the fall of the year two strangers came to Ste. Jeanne for the purpose of shooting grouse, and Regis Brugiere hired himself to them as guide. His duties were not many. He had simply to drive them from one hardwood belt to another. But in his leisure he often followed them about, and so fell in love with Jim.
Jim was a black-and-white setter dog. Regis Brugiere watched him as he trotted carefully through the woods, his four legs working like pistons, his head high, his soft, intelligent eyes spying for the likely cover. Then when he caught a faint whiff of the game, he would stop short, and look around, and wag his tail. Not one step would he take toward assuring his point until the man had struggled through the thicket to his side. Thus his master obtained many shots at birds flushing wild before the dog which otherwise he would not have had.
But when the bird lay well, then Jim would tread carefully forward as though on eggs, until, his nostrils filled with the warm body-scent, he stood rigid, a living statue of beauty. A moment of breathless excitement ensued. With a burst of sound the bird roared away. There followed the quick crack of the fowling-piece, a cloud of feathers in the air, a long slanting fall. Jim looked up, eager but self-controlled.
"Fetch, Jim," said the man.
At once the dog bounded away, to return after a moment in the pride of an army with banners, carrying the grouse daintily between his jaws.
Or the shot failed. Jim waited until he heard the click of the gun as its breech closed after reloading, then moved forward with well-bred restraint to sniff long and inquiringly where the bird had been.
These things Regis Brugiere saw, following the hunt through the thickets, so that he broke the tenth commandment and coveted Jim with a great love. He worshipped the dog's aloof dignity, his gentlemanly demeanour of unhasting grace in the woods, his well-bred far-away gaze as he sat on his haunches staring into the distance.
So Regis Brugiere stole Jim, the black-and-white setter, and concealed him well. To him it was a little thing to do. He did not know Jim's value, for in the north country a dog is a dog. After the strangers had gone, bewailing their loss, Regis Brugiere loaded a toboggan with supplies and traps and set out into the northwest on his annual trapping excursion. He took with him Jim, by now entirely accustomed to his new master.
The two journeyed far through the forest, over many rivers and muskegs, through many swamps and ranges of hills. Regis Brugiere drew the toboggan after him. The task should have been Jim's, but to the trapper that would have seemed like harnessing Ignace St. Cloud, the seigneur of Ste. Jeanne, to an apple-cart. So Jim ranged at large in diagonals having a good time, while the man enjoyed himself by watching the animal. In due course they came to a glade through which ran a soggy, choked, little spring-creek. Here Regis Brugiere kicked off his snow-shoes with an air of finality. Here he erected a cabin, and established himself and Jim.
Over a circumference of forty miles then he set his traps, for the beaver, the mink, the fox, the fisher, the muskrat, and the other fur-bearing animals of the north. At regular intervals he visited these traps one after the other, crunching swiftly along on his snow-shoes. Jim always accompanied him. When the snow was deep, he wallowed painfully after in the tracks made by Regis Brugiere. When it was not so deep, he looked for grouse or ptarmigan, investigated many strange things, or ran at large over the frozen surfaces of the little lakes.
At the trapping-places Jim had to stay behind. The man left with him his capote and snow-shoes, which Jim imagined himself to be guarding faithfully. Thus he was satisfied.
Then on the return journey the two had fun. Regis Brugiere liked to pick Jim up and throw him bodily into the deepest snow. Jim liked to have him do so, and would disappear with an ecstatic yelp. In a moment he would burst out of the drift and would dance about on the tips of his toes growling fiercely in mock deprecation of a repetition for which he hoped. These were the only occasions in which Jim relaxed his solemnity. At all other times his liquid brown eyes were mournful with the tempered, delicious sorrow of affection.
In the woods Jim acquired bad habits. He reverted to the original dog. Finding that Regis Brugiere paid little attention to the grouse so carefully pointed, Jim resolved to hunt on his own account. At first his conscience hurt him so that the act amounted to sin. But afterward the delighted applause of his new master reassured him. He crouched, he trailed, he flushed, he chased, he broke all the commandments of a sporting-dog's morality. In this was demoralisation, but also great profit. For Jim came to be an adept at surprising game in the snow. His point now became exactly what it used to be in the primordial dog--a pause of preparation before the spring. Jim was beautifully independent. Except in the matter of delicacies, he supported himself.
But one thing he knew not, and that was the deer. To him they were as horses or sheep. He could not understand, nor did he care greatly, why they should flee so suddenly when he appeared. So Regis Brugiere tried to teach him, but vainly. Thus it happened that often Jim had to be left at home, for to a solitary trapper the deer is a necessity. There is in him food and clothing.
At such times Regis Brugiere was accustomed to pile high the fireplace with wood in order that his friend might be comfortable during his absence. Then he would leave the dog disconsolate. On the first of these occasions Jim effected an escape, and rejoined his master at a distance with every symptom of delight. Regis Brugiere, returning disgusted, found the cabin-door sprawled wide: Jim had learned to pull it toward him with his teeth. Shortly the trapper was forced to make a latch so that the dog could not pull it ajar by the strength of his jaws and legs. Perhaps it is well here to explain that ordinarily such a cabin-door merely jams shut against the spring of a wand of hickory.
Now mark you this: If Regis Brugiere had not coveted and stolen the dog Jim, he would not have been forced to construct the latch; without the latch, he could easily have pushed open the door by leaning against it; if he could have pushed open the door, all would have been well with both himself and Jim. And in this we admire the wonder of the fifth way--the way of justice by which a man's life is bartered for a fault.
One morning in the midwinter, when it was very cold with seventy degrees of frost, Regis Brugiere resolved to hunt the deer. As usual, he filled the fireplace, spread a robe for Jim's accommodation, thrust the latch-string through the small hole bored for that purpose, and set out in the forest. When he reached the swamp edge, he removed his snow-shoes and began carefully to pick his way along the fallen tops. Mounting on a snow-covered root, he thrust his right foot down into an unsuspected crevice, stumbled, and fell forward on his face.
When the blur of pain had cleared away, and he was able to take stock of what had happened, Regis Brugiere found that he had snapped the bones of his leg short off below the knee.
The first part of his journey home to the cabin was one of profanity; the second of prayer; the third of grim silence. In the first he lost his rifle; in the second his courage; in the third his knowledge of what was about him. Like a crippled rabbit he dragged himself over the snow, a single black spot against the whiteness. The dark forest-trees gathered curiously about his wavering consciousness to look down on him in aloof compassion. And over him, invisible, palpable, hovered the dreadful north-country cold, waiting to stoop.
Regis Brugiere, by the grace of a woodsman's perseverance and the instinct of a wild creature, gained at last the clearing in which his cabin stood. Behind him wavered a long, deep-gouged furrow-trail, pitiful attest of suffering. His strength was water, but he was home. After a long time he reached the door, and rested. The incident was cruel, but it was only one of many in a cruel way of life.
The twilight was coming down with thronging mysterious voices. Among them clamoured fiercely the voice of the cold. Regis Brugiere felt its breath on his heart, and, in alarm, broke through the apathy of his condition. It was time to recall his forces, to enter where could be found provisions and warmth. Painfully he turned on his right side and prepared to reach the latch-string. His first movement brought him an agony to be endured only with teeth and eyes closed, only by summoning to the minute task of thrusting his hand upward along the rough door all the forces of his being down to the last shred of vitality. At once the indomitable spirit of the woods-runner answered the call. Regis Brugiere concentrated his will on a pinpoint. Like a sprinter his volition was fixed on a goal, beyond which lay collapse.
Inch by inch the hand kept on, blindly groping. It reached the latch-string; passed it by.
Then, like a flame before it expires, the spirit of Regis Brugiere blazed out. With strange contortions of the body and writhings of the face his form came upright, the arm still reaching. So it swayed for a moment, then fell. The man's will-power ran from him in a last supreme effort. Twice more he struggled blindly, but the efforts were feeble. At last with a sigh he gave himself to the cold, which had been waiting. And the cold was kind. Regis Brugiere fell asleep.
Five days later Jim, the black-and-white setter-dog, ceased his restless wanderings to and fro, ceased trying to leap to the oiled window beyond which lay the forest and food in abundance, ceased vain clawings below the shelf-high supplies of flour and bacon, to curl himself by the door as near as possible to the master who lay without. There he starved, dreaming in a merciful torpor of partridges in the snow. Thus was the way of justice fulfilled in the case of Regis Brugiere and the setter-dog Jim.