THE BLINDER TRAIL
There was no escape that way. From the northern and eastern
edges of the forest sheer cliffs fell away into bluish depths where forests
looked like lawns and the low uplands of the Alsatian border resembled
hillocks made by tunnelling moles. And yet it was from somewhere not far
away that a man once had been, carried safely into Alsace on a sudden snowslide.
That man now lay among the trees on the crag's edge looking down into the
terrific chasm below. He and the girl who crouched in the thicket of alpine
roses behind him seemed a part of the light-flecked forest--so inconspicuous
were they among dead leaves and trees in their ragged and weather-faded
They were lean from physical effort and from limited nourishment.
The skin on their faces and hands, once sanguine and deeply burnt by Alpine
wind and sun and snow glare, now had become almost colourless, so subtly
the alchemy of the open operates on those whose only bed is last year's
leaves and whose only shelter is the sky. Even the girl's yellow hair had
lost its sunny brilliancy, so that now it seemed merely a misty part of
the lovely, subdued harmony of the woods.
The man, still searching the depths below with straining,
patient gaze, said across his shoulder:
"It was here somewhere--near here, Yellow-hair, that I
went over, and found what I found.... But it's not difficult to guess what
you and I should find if we try to go over now."
"Death?" she motioned with serene lips.
He had turned to look at her, and he read her lips.
"And yet," he said, "we must manage to get down there,
somehow or other, alive."
She nodded. Both knew that, once down there, they could
not expect to come out alive. That was tacitly understood. All that could
be hoped was that they might reach those bluish depths alive, live long
enough to learn what they had come to learn, release the pigeon with its
message, then meet destiny in whatever guise it confronted them.
For Fate was not far off. Fate already watched them--herself
unseen. She had caught sight of them amid the dusk of the ancient trees--was
following them, stealthily, murderously, through the dim aisles of this
haunted forest of Les Errues.
These two were the hunted ones, and their hunters were
in the forest--nearer now than ever because the woodland was narrowing
toward the east.
Also, for the first time since they had entered the Forbidden
Forest, scarcely noticeable paths appeared flattening the carpet of dead
leaves--not trails made by game--but ways trodden at long intervals by
man--trails unused perhaps for months--then rendered vaguely visible once
more by the unseen, unheard feet of lightly treading foes.
Here for the first time they had come upon the startling
spoor of man--of men and enemies--men who were hunting them to slay them,
and who now, in these eastern woods, no longer cared for the concealment
that might lull to a sense of false security the human quarry that they
And yet the Hun-pack hunting them though the forbidden
forest of Les Errues had, in their new indifference to their quarry's alarm,
and in the ferocity of their growing boldness, offered the two fugitives
a new hope and a new reason for courage:--the grim courage of those who
are about to die, and who know it, and still carry on.
For this is what the Huns had done--not daring to use
signals visible to the Swiss patrols on nearer mountain flanks.
Nailed to a tree beside the scarcely visible trail of
flattened leaves--a trail more imagined and feared than actually visible--was
a sheet of white paper. And on it was written in the tongue of the Hun,--and
in that same barbarous script also--a message, the free translation of
which was as follows:
The three Americans recently sent into Les Errues by the
Military Intelligence Department of the United States Army now fighting
in France are still at large somewhere in this forest. Two of them are
operating together, the well-known escaped prisoner, Kay McKay, and the
woman secret-agent, Evelyn Erith. The third American, Alexander Gray, has
been wounded in the left hand by one of our riflemen, but managed to escape,
and is now believed to be attempting to find and join the agents McKay
This must be prevented. All German agents now operating
in Les Errues are formally instructed to track down and destroy without
traces these three spies whenever and wherever encountered according to
plan. It is expressly forbidden to attempt to take any one or all of these
spies alive. No prisoners! No traces! Germans, do your duty! The
Fatherland is in peril!
McKay wriggled cautiously backward from the chasm's granite
edge and crawled into the thicket of alpine roses where Evelyn Erith lay.
"No way out, Kay?" she asked under her breath.
"No way THAT way, Yellow-hair."
"I don't--know," he said slowly.
"You mean that we ought to turn back."
"Yes, we ought to. The forest is narrowing very dangerously
for us. It runs to a point five miles farther east, overlooking impassable
gulfs.... We should be in a cul-de-sac, Yellow-hair."
He mused for a few moments, cool, clear-eyed, apparently
quite undisturbed by their present peril and intent only on the mission
which had brought them here, and how to execute it before their unseen
trackers executed them.
"To turn now, and attempt to go back along this precipice,
is to face every probability of meeting the men we have so far managed
to avoid," he said aloud in his pleasant voice, but as though presenting
the facts to himself alone.
"Of course we shall account for some of the Huns; but
that does not help us to win through.... Even an exchange of shots would
no doubt be disastrous to our plans. We MUST keep away from them.... Otherwise
we could never hope to creep into the valley alive,... Tell me, Yellow-hair,
have you thought of anything new?"
The girl shook her head.
"No, Kay.... Except that chance of running across this
new man of whom we never had heard before the stupid Boche advertised his
presence in Les Errues."
"Alexander Gray," nodded McKay, taking from his pocket
the paper which the Huns had nailed to the great pine, and unfolding it
The girl rested her chin on his shoulder to reread it--an
apparent familiarity which he did not misunderstand. The dog that believes
in you does it--from perplexity sometimes, sometimes from loneliness. Or,
even when afraid--not fearing with the baser emotion of the poltroon, but
afraid with that brave fear which is a wisdom too, and which feeds and
brightens the steady flame of courage.
"Alexander Gray," repeated McKay. "I never supposed that
we would send another man in here--at least not until something had been
heard concerning our success or failure.... I had understood that such
a policy was not advisable. You know yourself, Yellow-hair, that the fewer
people we have here the better the chance. And it was so decided before
we left New York.... And--I wonder what occurred to alter our policy."
"Perhaps the Boches have spread reports of our capture
by Swiss authorities," she said simply.
"That might be. Yes, and the Hun newspapers might even
have printed it. I can see their scare-heads: 'Gross Violation of Neutral
"'Switzerland invaded by the Yankees! Their treacherous
and impudent spies caught in the Alps!'--that sort of thing. Yes, it might
be that... and yet--"
"You think the Boche would not call attention to such
an attempt even to trap others of our agents for the mere pleasure of murdering
"That's what I think, Eve."
He called her "Eve" only when circumstances had become
gravely threatening. At other times it was usually "Yellow-hair!"
"Then you believe that this man, Gray, has been sent into
Les Errues to aid us to carry on independently the operation in which we
have so far failed?"
"I begin to think so." The girl's golden eyes became lost
"And yet," she ventured after a few moments' thought,
"he must have come into Les Errues learning that we also had entered it;
and apparently he has made no effort to find us."
"We can't know that, Eve."
"He must be a woodsman," she argued, "and also he must
suppose that we are more or less familiar with American woodcraft, and
fairly well versed in its signs. Yet--he has left no sign that we could
understand where a Hun could not."
"Because we have discovered no sign we can not be certain
that this man Gray has made none for us to read," said McKay.
"No.... And yet he has left nothing that we have discovered--no
blaze; no moss or leaf, no stone or cairn--not a broken twig, not a peeled
stick, and no trail!"
"How do we know that the traces of a trail marked by flattened
leaves might not be his trail? Once, on that little sheet of sand left
by rain in the torrent's wake, you found the imprint of a hobnailed shoe
such as the Hun hunters wear," she reminded him. "And there we first saw
the flattened trail of last year's leaves--if indeed it be truly a trail."
"But, Eve dear, never have we discovered in any dead and
flattened leaf the imprint of hobnails,--let alone the imprint of a human
"Suppose, whoever made that path, had pulled over his
shoes a heavy woolen sock." He nodded.
"I feel, somehow, that the Hun flattened out those leaves,"
she went on. "I am sure that had an American made the trail he would also
have contrived to let us know--given us some indication of his identity."
The girl's low voice suddenly failed and her hand clutched
They lay among the alpine roses like two stones, never
stirring, the dappled sunlight falling over them as harmoniously and with
no more and no less accent than it spotted tree-trunk and rock and moss
And, as they lay there, motionless, her head resting on
his thigh, a man came out of the dimmer woods into the white sunshine that
flooded the verge of the granite chasm.
The man was very much weather-beaten; his tweeds were
torn; he carried a rifle in his right hand. And his left was bound in bloody
rags. But what instantly arrested McKay's attention was the pack strapped
to his back and supported by a "tump-line."
Never before had McKay seen such a pack carried in such
a manner excepting only in American forests.
The man stood facing the sun. His visage was burnt brick
colour, a hue which seemed to accentuate the intense blue of his eyes and
make his light-coloured hair seem almost white.
He appeared to be a man of thirty, superbly built, with
a light, springy step, despite his ragged and weary appearance.
McKay's eyes were fastened desperately upon him, upon
the strap of the Indian basket which crossed his sun-scorched forehead,
upon his crystal-blue eyes of a hunter, upon his wounded left hand, upon
the sinewy red fist that grasped a rifle, the make of which McKay should
have known, and did know. For it was a Winchester 45-70--no chance for
mistaking that typical American weapon. And McKay fell a-trembling in every
Presently the man cautiously turned, scanned his back
trail with that slow-stirrng wariness of a woodsman who never moves abruptly
or without good reason; then he went back a little way, making no sound
on the forest floor.
AND MCKAY SAW THAT HE WORE KNEE MOCCASINS.
At the same time Evelyn Erith drew her little length noiselessly
along his, and he felt her mouth warm against his ear:
"Gray?" He nodded.
"I think so, too. His left hand is injured. He wears American
moccasins. But in God's name be careful, Kay. It may be a trap."
He nodded almost imperceptibly, keeping his eyes on the
figure which now stood within the shade of the trees in an attitude which
might suggest listening, or perhaps merely a posture of alert repose.
Evelyn's mouth still rested against his ear and her light
breath fell warmly on him. Then presently her lips moved again:
"Kay! He LOOKS safe."
McKay turned his head with infinite caution and she inclined
hers to his lips:
"I think it is Gray. But we've got to be certain, Eve."
"He does look right," whispered McKay. "No Boche cradles
a rifle in the hollow of his left arm so naturally. It is HABIT, because
he does it in spite of a crippled left hand."
She nodded again.
"Also," whispered McKay, "everything else about him is
convincing--the pack, tump-line, moccasins, Winchester: and his manner
of moving.... I know deer-stalkers in Scotland and in the Alps. I know
the hunters of ibex and chamois, of roe-deer and red stag, of auerhahn
and eagle. This man is DIFFERENT. He moves and behaves like our own
woodsmen--like one of our own hunters."
She asked with dumb lips touching his ear: "Shall we chance
"No. It must be a certainty."
"Yes. We must not offer him a chance."
"Not a ghost of a chance to do us harm," nodded McKay.
"Listen attentively, Eve; when he moves on, rise when I do; take the pigeon
and the little sack because I want both hands free. Do you understand,
"Because I shall have to kill him if the faintest hint
of suspicion arises in my mind. It's got to be that way, Eve."
"Yes, I know."
"Not for our own safety, but for what our safety involves,"
She inclined her head in acquiescence.
Very slowly and with infinite caution McKay drew from
their holsters beneath his armpits two automatic pistols.
"Help me, Eve," he whispered.
So she aided him where he lay beside her to slip the pack
straps over his shoulders. Then she drew toward her the little osier cage
in which their only remaining carrier-pigeon rested secured by elastic
bands, grasped the smaller sack with the other hand, and waited.
They had waited an hour and more; and the figure of the
stranger had moved only once--shifted merely to adjust itself against a
supporting tree-trunk and slip the tump-line.
But now the man was stirring again, cautiously resuming
Ready, now, to proceed in whichever direction he might
believe lay his destination, the strange man took the rifle into the hollow
of his left arm once more, remained absolutely motionless for five full
minutes, then, stirring stealthily, his moccasins making no sound, he moved
into the forest in a half-crouching attitude.
And after him went McKay with Evelyn Erith at his elbow,
his sinister pistols poised, his eyes fixed on the figure which passed
like a shadow through the dim forest light ahead.
Toward mid-afternoon their opportunity approached; for
here was the first water they had encountered--and the afternoon had become
burning hot--and their own throats were cracking with that fierce thirst
of high places where, even in the summer air, there is that thirst-provoking
hint of ice and snow.
For a moment, however, McKay feared that the man meant
to go on, leaving the thin, icy rivulet untasted among its rocks and mosses;
for he crossed the course of the little stream at right angles, leaping
lithely from one rock to the next and travelling upstream on the farther
Then suddenly he stopped stock-still and looked back along
his trail--nearly blind save for a few patches of flattened dead leaves
which his moccasined tread had patted smooth in the shadier stretches where
moisture lingered undried by the searching rays of the sun.
For a few moments the unknown man searched his own back-trail,
standing as motionless as the trunk of a lichened beech-tree. Then, very
slowly, he knelt on the dead leaves, let go his pack, and, keeping his
rifle in his right hand, stretched out his sinewy length above the pool
on the edge of which he had halted.
Twice, before drinking, he lifted his head to sweep the
woods around him, his parched lips still dry. Then, with the abruptness--not
of man but of some wild thing--he plunged his sweating face into the pool.
And McKay covered him where he lay, and spoke in a voice
which stiffened the drinking man to a statue prone on its face:
"I've got you right! Don't lift your head! You'll understand
me if you're American!"
The man lay as though dead. McKay came nearer; Evelyn
Erith was at his elbow.
"Take his rifle, Eve."
The girl walked over and coolly picked up the Winchester.
"Now cover him!" continued McKay. "Find a good rest for
your gun and keep him covered, Eve."
She laid the rifle level across a low branch, drew the
stock snug and laid her cheek to it and her steady finger on the trigger.
"When I say'squeeze,' let him have it! Do you understand,
Then, with one pistol poised for a drop shot, McKay stepped
forward and jerked open the man's pack. And the man neither stirred nor
spoke. For a few minutes McKay remained busy with the pack, turning out
packets of concentrated rations of American manufacture, bits of personal
apparel, a meagre company outfit, spare ammunition--the dozen-odd essentials
to be always found in an American hunter's pack.
Then McKay spoke again:
"Eve, keep him covered. Shoot when I say shoot."
"Right," she replied calmly. And to the recumbent and
unstirring figure McKay gave a brief order:
"Get up! Hands up!"
The man rose as though made of steel springs and lifted
Water still ran from his chin and lips and sweating cheeks.
But McKay, resting the muzzle of his pistol against the man's abdomen,
looked into a face that twitched with laughter.
"You think it's funny?" he snarled, but the blessed relief
that surged through him made his voice a trifle unsteady.
"Yes," said the man, "it hits me that way."
"Something else may hit you," growled McKay, ready to
embrace him with sheer joy.
"Not unless you're a Boche," retorted the man coolly.
"But I guess you're Kay McKay--"
"Don't get so damned familiar with names!"
"That's right, too. I'll just call you Seventy-Six, and
this young lady Seventy-Seven.... And I'm Two Hundred and Thirty."
"It isn't expected--"
"It is in this case," snapped McKay, wondering at himself
for such ultra precaution.
"Oh, if you insist then, I'm Gray.... Alec Gray of the
States United Army Intelligence Serv___"
"All right.... Gad!... It's all right, Gray!"
He took the man's lifted right hand, jerked it down and
crushed it in a convulsive grasp: "It's good to see you.... We're in a
hole--deadlocked--no way out but back!" he laughed nervously. "Have you
any dope for us?"
Gray's blue eyes travelled smilingly toward Evelyn and
rested on the muzzle of the Winchester. And McKay laughed almost tremulously:
"All clear, Yellow-hair! This IS Gray--God be thanked!"
The girl, pale and quiet and smiling, lowered the rifle
and came forward offering her hand.
"It's pleasant to see YOU," she said quite steadily. "We
were afraid of a Boche trick."
"So I notice," said Gray, intensely amused.
Then the weather-tanned faces of all three sobered.
"This is no place to talk things over," said Gray shortly.
"Do you know a better place?"
"Yes. If you'll follow me."
He went to his pack, put it swiftly in order, hoisted
it, resumed the tump-line, and looked around at Evelyn for his rifle.
But she had already slung it across her own shoulders
and she pointed at his wounded hand and its blood-black bandage and motioned
The sun hung on the shoulder of a snow-capped alp when
at last these three had had their brief understanding concerning one another's
identity, credentials, and future policy.
Gray's lair, in a bushy hollow between two immense jutting
cakes of granite, lay on the very brink of the chasm. And there they sat,
cross-legged in the warmth of the declining sun in gravest conference concerning
"Recklow insisted that I come," repeated Gray. "I was
in the 208th Pioneers--in a sawmilll near La Roche Rouge--Vosges--when
I got my orders."
"And Recklow thinks we're caught and killed?"
"So does everybody in the Intelligence. The Mulhausen
paper had it that the Swiss caught you violating the frontier, which meant
to Recklow that the Boche had done you in."
"I see," nodded McKay.
"So he picked me."
"And you say you guided in Maine?"
"Yes, when I was younger. After I was on my own I kept
store at South Carry, Maine, and ran the guides there."
"I noticed all the ear-marks," nodded McKay.
Gray smiled: "I guess they're there all right if a man
knows 'em when he sees 'em."
"Were you badly shot up?"
"Not so bad. They shoot a pea-rifle, single shot all over
silver and swallowtail stock--"
"I know," smiled McKay.
"Well, you know them. It drills nasty with a soft bullet,
cleaner with a chilled one. My left hand's a wreck but I sha'n't lose it."
"I had better dress it before night," said Evelyn.
"I dressed it at noon. I won't disturb it again to-day,"
said Gray, thanking her with his eloquent blue eyes.
McKay said: "So you found the place where I once slid
"It's plain enough, windfall and general wreckage mark
"You say it's a dozen miles west of here?"
"That's odd," said McKay thoughtfully. "I had believed
I recognised this ravine. But these deep gulfs all look more or less alike.
And I saw it only once and then under hair-raising circumstances."
Gray smiled, but Evelyn did not. McKay said:
"So that's where they winged you, was it?"
"Yes. I was about to negotiate the slide--you remember
the V-shaped slate cleft?"
"Well, I was just starting into that when the rifle cracked
and I jumped for a tree with a broken wing and a bad scare."
"You saw the man?"
"I did later. He came over to look for dead game, and
I ached to let him go; but it was too risky with Les Errues swarming alive
with Boches, and me with the stomach-sickness of a shot-up man. Figure
it out, McKay, for yourself."
"Of course, you did the wise thing and the right one."
"I think so. I travelled until I fainted." He turned and
glanced around. "Strangely enough I saw black right here!--fell into this
hole by accident, and have made it my home since then."
"It was a Godsend," said the girl.
"It was, Miss Erith," said Gray, resting his eloquent
eyes on her.
"And you say," continued McKay, "that the Boche are sitting
up day and night over that slide?"
"Day and night. The swine seem to know it's the only way
out. I go every day, every night. Always the way is blocked; always I discover
one or more of their riflemen there in ambush while the rest of the pack
are ranging Les Errues."
"And yet," said McKay, "we've got to go that way, sooner
There was a silence: then Gray nodded.
"Yes," he said, "but it is a question of waiting."
"There is a moon to-night," observed Evelyn Erith.
McKay lifted his head and looked at her gravely: Gray's
blue eyes flashed his admiration of a young girl who quietly proposed to
face an unknown precipice at night by moonlight under the rifles of ambushed
"After all," said McKay slowly, "is there ANY other way?"
In the silence which ensued Evelyn Erith, who had been
lying between them on her stomach, her chin propped up on both hands, suddenly
raised herself on one arm to a sitting posture.
Instantly Gray shrank back, white as a sheet, lifting
his mutilated hand in its stiffened and bloody rags; and the girl gasped
out her agonised apology:
"Oh--CAN you forgive me! It was unspeakable of me!"
"It--it's all right," said Gray, the colour coming back
to his face; but the girl in her excitement of self-reproach and contrition
begged to be allowed to dress the mutilated hand which her own careless
movement had almost crushed.
"Oh, Kay-I set my hand on his wounded fingers and rested
my full weight! Oughtn't he to let us dress it again at once?"
But Gray's pluck was adamant, and he forced a laugh, dismissing
the matter with another glance at Evelyn out of clear blue eyes that said
a little more than that no harm had been done--said, in one frank and deep-flashing
look, more than the girl perhaps cared to understand.
The sun slipped behind the rocky flank of a great alp;
a burst of rosy glory spread fan-wise to the zenith.
Against it, tall and straight and powerful, Gray rose
and walking slowly to the cliff's edge, looked down into the valley mist
now rolling like a vast sea of cloud below them.
And, as he stood there, Evelyn's hand grasped McKay's
"If he touches his rifle, shoot! Quick, Kay!"
McKay's right hand fell into his side-pocket--where one
of his automatics lay. He levelled it as he grasped it, hidden within the
side-pocket of his coat.
"HIS HAND IS NOT WOUNDED," breathed the girl. "If he touches
his rifle he is a Hun!"
McKay's head nodded almost imperceptibly. Gray's back
was still turned, but one hand was extended, carelessly reaching for the
rifle that stood leaning against the cake of granite.
"Don't touch it!" said McKay in a low but distinct voice:
and the words galvanised the extended arm and it shot out, grasping the
rifle, as the man himself dropped out of sight behind the rock.
A terrible stillness fell upon the place; there was not
a sound, not a movement.
Suddenly the girl pointed at a shadow that moved between
the rocks--and the crash of McKay's pistol deafened them.
Then, against the dazzling glory of the west a dark shape
staggered up, clutching a wavering rifle, reeling there against the rosy
glare an instant; and the girl turned her sick eyes aside as McKay's pistol
Like a shadow cast by hell the black form swayed, quivered,
sank away outward into the blinding light that shone across the world.
Presently a tinkling sound came up from the fog-shrouded
depths--the falling rifle striking ledge after ledge until the receding
sound grew fainter and more distant, and finally was heard no more.
But that was the only sound they heard; for the man himself
lay still on the chasm's brink, propped from the depths by a tuft of alpine
roses in full bloom, his blue eyes wide open, a blue hole just between
them, and his bandaged hand freed from its camouflage, lying palm upward
and quite uninjured on the grass!