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William MacLeod Raine.

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had decreed their yearning futile?



CHAPTER 4. FORT SALVATION

She must have fallen asleep there, for when she opened her eyes it was
day. Underneath her was a lot of bedding he had found in the cabin, and
tucked about her were the automobile rugs. For a moment her brain,
still sodden with sleep, struggled helplessly with her surroundings.
She looked at the smoky rafters without understanding, and her eyes
searched the cabin wonderingly for her maid. When she remembered, her
first thought was to look for the man. That he had gone, she saw with
instinctive terror.

But not without leaving a message. She found his penciled note,
weighted for security by a dollar, at the edge of the hearth.

"Gone on a foraging expedition. Back in an hour, Little Partner," was
all it said. The other man also had promised to be back in an hour, and
he had not come, but the strong chirography of the note, recalling the
resolute strength of this man's face, brought content to her eyes. He
had said he would come back. She rested secure in that pledge.

She went to the window and looked out over the great white wastes that
rose tier on tier to the dull sky-line. She shuddered at the arctic
desolation of the vast snow-fields. The mountains were sheeted with
silence and purity. It seemed to the untaught child-woman that she was
face to face with the Almighty.

Once during the night she had partially awakened to hear the roaring
wind as it buffeted snow-clouds across the range. It had come tearing
along the divide with the black storm in its vanguard, and she had
heard fearfully the shrieks and screams of the battle as it raged up
and down the gulches and sifted into them the deep drifts.

Half-asleep as she was, she had been afraid and had cried out with
terror at this strange wakening; and he had been beside her in an
instant.

"It's all right, partner. There's nothing to be afraid of," he had said
cheerfully, taking her little hand in his big warm one.

Her fears had slipped away at once. Nestling down into her rug, she had
smiled sleepily at him and fallen asleep with her cheek on her hand,
her other hand still in his.

While she had been asleep the snow-tides had filled the gulch, had
risen level with the top of the lower pane of the window. Nothing broke
the smoothness of its flow save the one track he had made in breaking a
way out. That he should have tried to find his way through such an
untracked desolation amazed her. He could never do it. No puny human
atom could fight successfully against the barriers nature had dropped
so sullenly to fence them. They were set off from the world by a
quarantine of God. There was something awful to her in the knowledge.
It emphasized their impotence. Yet, this man had set himself to fight
the inevitable.

With a little shudder she turned from the window to the cheerless room.
The floor was dirty; unwashed dishes were piled upon the table. Here
and there were scattered muddy boots and overalls, just as their owner,
the prospector, had left them before he had gone to the nearest town to
restock his exhausted supply of provisions. Disorder and dirt filled
the rough cabin, or so it seemed to her fastidious eye.

The inspiration of the housewife seized her. She would surprise him on
his return by opening the door to him upon a house swept and garnished.
She would show him that she could be of some use even in such a
primitive topsy-turvy world as this into which Fate had thrust her
willy-nilly.

First, she carried red live coals on a shovel from the fireplace to the
cook-stove, and piled kindling upon them till it lighted. It was a new
experience to her. She knew nothing of housework; had never lit a fire
in her life, except once when she had been one of a camping party. The
smoke choked her before she had the lids back in their places, but
despite her awkwardness, the girl went about her unaccustomed tasks
with a light heart. It was for her new-found hero that she played at
housekeeping. For his commendation she filled the tea-kettle, enveloped
herself in a cloud of dust as she wielded the stub of a broom she
discovered, and washed the greasy dishes after the water was hot. A
childish pleasure suffused her. All her life her least whims had been
ministered to; she was reveling in a first attempt at service. As she
moved to and fro with an improvised dust-rag, sunshine filled her
being. From her lips the joy notes fell in song, shaken from her throat
for sheer happiness. This surely was life, that life from which she had
so carefully been hedged all the years of her young existence.

As he came down the trail he had broken, with a pack on his back, the
man heard her birdlike carol in the clear frosty air. He emptied his
chest in a deep shout, and she was instantly at the window, waving him
a welcome with her dust-rag.

"I thought you were never coming," she cried from the open door as he
came up the path.

Her eyes were starry in their eagerness. Every sensitive feature was
alert with interest, so that the man thought he had never seen so
mobile and attractive a face.

"Did it seem long?" he asked.

"Oh, weeks and weeks! You must be frozen to an icicle. Come in and get
warm."

"I'm as warm as toast," he assured her.

He was glowing with exercise and the sting of the cold, for he had
tramped two miles through drifts from three to five feet deep, battling
with them every step of the way, and carrying with him on the return
trip a box of provisions.

"With all that snow on you and the pack on your back, it's like Santa
Claus," she cried, clapping her hands.

"Before we're through with the adventure we may think that box a sure
enough gift from Santa," he replied.

After he had put it down, he took off his overcoat on the threshold and
shook the snow from it. Then, with much feet stamping and scattering of
snow, he came in. She fluttered about him, dragging a chair up to the
fire for him, and taking his hat and gloves. It amused and pleased him
that she should be so solicitous, and he surrendered himself to her
ministrations.

His quick eye noticed the swept floor and the evanishment of disorder.
"Hello! What's this clean through a fall house-cleaning? I'm not the
only member of the firm that has been working. Dishes washed, floor
swept, bed made, kitchen fire lit. You've certainly been going some,
unless the fairies helped you. Aren't you afraid of blistering these
little hands?" he asked gaily, taking one of them in his and touching
the soft palm gently with the tip of his finger.

"I should preserve those blisters in alcohol to show that I've really
been of some use," she answered, happy in his approval.

"Sho! People are made for different uses. Some are fit only to shovel
and dig. Others are here simply to decorate the world. Hard world. Hard
work is for those who can't give society anything else, but beauty is
its own excuse for being," he told her breezily.

"Now that's the first compliment you have given me," she pouted
prettily. "I can get them in plenty back in the drawing-rooms where I
am supposed to belong. We're to be real comrades here, and compliments
are barred."

"I wasn't complimenting you," he maintained. "I was merely stating a
principle of art."

"Then you mustn't make your principles of art personal, sir. But since
you have, I'm going to refute the application of your principle and
show how useful I've been. Now, sir, do you know what provisions we
have outside of those you have just brought?"

He knew exactly, since he had investigated during the night. That they
might possibly have to endure a siege of some weeks, he was quite well
aware, and his first thought, after she had gone to sleep before the
fire, had been to make inventory of such provisions as the prospector
had left in his cabin. A knuckle of ham, part of a sack of flour, some
navy beans, and some tea siftings at the bottom of a tin can; these
constituted the contents of the larder which the miner had gone to
replenish. But though the man knew he assumed ignorance, for he saw
that she was bubbling over with the desire to show her forethought.

"Tell me," he begged of her, and after she had done so, he marveled
aloud over her wisdom in thinking of it.

"Now tell me about your trip," she commanded, setting herself tailor
fashion on the rug to listen.

"There isn't much to tell," he smiled "I should like to make an
adventure of it, but I can't. I just went and came back."

"Oh, you just went and came back, did you?" she scoffed. "That won't do
at all. I want to know all about it. Did you find the machine all
right?"

"I found it where we left it, buried in four feet of snow. You needn't
be afraid that anybody will run away with it for a day or two. The
pantry was cached pretty deep itself, but I dug it out."

Her shy glance admired the sturdy lines of his powerful frame. "I am
afraid it must have been a terrible task to get there through the
blizzard."

"Oh, the blizzard is past. You never saw a finer, more bracing morning.
It's a day for the gods," he laughed boyishly.

She could have conceived no Olympian more heroic than he, and certainly
none with so compelling a vitality. "Such a warm, kind light in them!"
she thought of the eyes others had found hard and calculating.

It was lucky that the lunch the automobilists had brought from
Avalanche was ample and as yet untouched. The hotel waiter, who had
attended to the packing of it, had fortunately been used to reckon with
outdoor Montana appetites instead of cloyed New York ones. They
unpacked the little hamper with much gaiety. Everything was frozen
solid, and the wine had cracked its bottle.

"Shipped right through on our private refrigerator-car. That
cold-storage chicken looks the finest that ever happened. What's this
rolled up in tissue-paper? Deviled eggs and ham sandwiches AND caviar,
not to speak of claret frappe. I'm certainly grateful to the gentleman
finished in ebony who helped to provision us for this siege. He'll
never know what a tip he missed by not being here to collect."

"Here's jelly, too, and cake," she said, exploring with him.

"Not to mention peaches and pears. Oh, this is luck of a special brand!
I was expecting to put up at Starvation Camp. Now we may name it Point
Plenty."

"Or Fort Salvation," she suggested shyly. "Because you brought me here
to save my life."

She was such a child, in spite of her charming grown-up airs, that he
played make-believe with a zest that surprised himself when he came to
think of it. She elected him captain of Fort Salvation, with full power
of life and death over the garrison, and he appointed her second in
command. His first general order was to put the garrison on two meals a
day.

She clapped her little hands, eyes sparkling with excitement. "Are we
really snow-bound? Must we go on half-rations?"

"It is the part of wisdom, lieutenant," he answered, smiling at her
enthusiasm. "We don't know how long this siege is going to last. If it
should set in to snow, we may be here several days before the
relief-party reaches us." But, though he spoke cheerfully, he was aware
of sinister possibilities in the situation. "Several weeks" would have
been nearer his real guess.

They ate breakfast at the shelf-table nailed in place underneath the
western window. They made a picnic of it, and her spirits skipped upon
the hilltops. For the first time she ate from tin plates, drank from a
tin cup, and used a tin spoon the worse for rust. What mattered it to
her that the teapot was grimy and the fryingpan black with soot! It was
all part of the wonderful new vista that had suddenly opened before her
gaze. She had awakened into life and already she was dimly realizing
that many and varied experiences lay waiting for her in that untrodden
path beyond her cloistered world.

A reconnaissance in the shed behind the house showed him no plethora of
firewood. But here was ax, shovel, and saw, and he asked no more. First
he shoveled out a path along the eaves of the house where she might
walk in sentry fashion to take the deep breaths of clear sharp air he
insisted upon. He made it wide enough so that her skirt would not sweep
against the snow-bank, and trod down the trench till the footing was
hard and solid. Then with ax and saw he climbed the hillside back of
the house and set himself to get as much fuel as he could. The sky was
still heavy with unshed snow, and he knew that with the coming of night
the storm would be renewed.

Came noon, mid-afternoon, the early dusk of a mountain winter, and
found him still hewing and sawing, still piling load after load in the
shed. Now and again she came out and watched him, laughing at the
figure he made as he would come plunging through the snow with his
armful of fuel.

She did not know, as he did, the vital necessity of filling the lean-to
before winter fell upon them in earnest and buried them deep with his
frozen blanket, and she was a little piqued that he should spend the
whole day away from her in such unsocial fashion.

"Let me help," she begged so often that he trod down a path, made boots
for her out of torn gunny-sacks which he tied round her legs, and let
her drag wood to the house on a pine branch which served for a sled.
She wore her gauntlets to protect her tender hands, and thereafter was
happy until, detecting signs of fatigue, he made her go into the house
and rest.

As soon as she dared she was back again, making fun of him and the
earnestness with which he worked.

"Robinson Crusoe" was one name she fastened upon him, and she was not
satisfied till she had made him call her "Friday."

Twilight fell austere and sudden upon them with an immediate fall of
temperature that found a thermometer in her blue face.

He recommended the house, but she was of a contrary mood.

"I don't want to," she announced debonairly.

In a stiff military attitude he gave raucous mandate from his throat.

"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant."

"I think I'm going to mutiny," she informed him, with chin saucily in
air.

This would not do at all. The chill wind sweeping down the canon was
searching her insufficient clothing already. He picked her up in his
arms and ran with her toward the house, setting her down in the trench
outside the door. She caught her startled breath and looked at him in
shy, dubious amazement.

"Really you" she was beginning when he cut her short.

"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant," came briskly from lips that
showed just a hint of a smile.

At once she clicked her heels together, saluted, and wheeled into the
cabin.

From the grimy window she watched his broad-shouldered vigor, waving
her hand whenever his face was turned her way. He worked like a Titan,
reveling in the joy of physical labor, but it was long past dark before
he finished and came striding to the hut.

They made a delightful evening of it, living in the land of Never Was.
For one source of her charm lay in the gay, childlike whimsicality of
her imagination. She believed in fairies and heroes with all her heart,
which with her was an organ not located in her brain. The delicious
gurgle of gaiety in her laugh was a new find to him in feminine
attractions.

There had been many who thought the career of this pirate of industry
beggared fiction, though, few had found his flinty personality a
radiaton of romance. But this convent-nurtured child had made a
discovery in men, one out of the rut of the tailor-made,
convention-bound society youths to whom her experience for the most
part had been limited. She delighted in his masterful strength, in the
confidence of his careless dominance. She liked to see that look of
power in his gray-blue eyes softened to the droll, half-tender,
expression with which he played the game of make-believe. There were no
to-morrows; to-day marked the limit of time for them. By tacit consent
they lived only in the present, shutting out deliberately from their
knowledge of each other, that past which was not common to both. Even
their names were unknown to each other, and both of them were glad that
it was so.

The long winter evening had fallen early, and they dined by
candle-light, considering merrily how much they might with safety eat
and yet leave enough for the to-morrows that lay before them. Afterward
they sat before the fire, in the shadow and shine of the flickering
logs, happy and content in each other's presence. She dreamed, and he,
watching her, dreamed, too. The wild, sweet wonder of life surged
through them, touching their squalid surroundings to the high mystery
of things unreal.

The strangeness of it was that he was a man of large and not very
creditable experience of women, yet her deep, limpid eyes, her sweet
voice, the immature piquancy of her movements that was the expression
of her, had stirred his imagination more potently than if he had been
the veriest schoolboy nursing a downy lip. He could not keep his eyes
from this slender, exquisite girl, so dainty and graceful in her mobile
piquancy. Fire and passion were in his heart and soul, restraint and
repression in his speech and manner. For the fire and passion in him
were pure and clean as the winds that sweep the hills.

But for the girl - she was so little mistress of her heart that she had
no prescience of the meaning of this sweet content that filled her. And
the voices that should have warned her were silent, busy behind the
purple hills with lies and love and laughter and tears.



CHAPTER 5. ENTER SIMON HARLEY

The prospector's house in which they had found refuge was perched on
the mountainside just at one edge of the draw. Rough as the girl had
thought it, there was a more pretentious appearance to it than might
have been expected. The cabin was of hewn logs mortared with mud, and
care had been taken to make it warm. The fireplace was a huge affair
that ate fuel voraciously. It was built of stone, which had been
gathered from the immediate hillside.

The prospect itself showed evidence of having been worked a good deal,
and it was an easy guess for the man who now stood looking into the
tunnel that it belonged to some one of the thousands of miners who
spend half their time earning a grubstake, and the other half
dissipating it upon some hole in the ground which they have duped
themselves into believing is a mine.

From the tunnel his eye traveled up the face of the white mountain to
the great snow-comb that yawned over the edge of the rock-rim far
above. It had snowed again heavily all night, and now showed symptoms
of a thaw. Not once nor twice, but a dozen times, the man's anxious
gaze had swept up to that great overhanging bank. Snowslides ran every
year in this section with heavy loss to life and property. Given a
rising temperature and some wind, the comb above would gradually settle
lower and lower, at last break off, plunge down the precipitous slope,
bringing thousands of tons of rock and snow with it, and, perhaps, bury
them in a Titanic grave of ice. There had been a good deal of timber
cut from the shoulder of the mountain during the past summer, and this
very greatly increased the danger. That there was a real peril the man
looking at it did not attempt to deny to himself. It would be enough to
deny it to her in case she should ever suspect.

He had hoped for cold weather, a freeze hard enough to crust the
surface of the snow. Upon this he might have made shift somehow to get
her to Yesler's ranch, eighteen miles away though it was, but he knew
this would not be feasible with the snow in its present condition. It
was not certain that he could make the ranch alone; encumbered with
her, success would be a sheer impossibility. On the other hand, their
provisions would not last long. The outlook was not a cheerful one,
from whichever point of view he took it; yet there was one phase of it
he could not regret. The factors which made the difficulties of the
situation made also its delights. Though they were prisoners in this
solitary untrodden canyon, the sentence was upon both of them. She
could look to none other than he for aid; and, at least, the drifts
which kept them in held others out.

Her voice at his shoulder startled him.

"Wherefore this long communion with nature, my captain?" she gaily
asked. "Behold, my lord's hot cakes are ready for the pan and his
servant to wait upon him." She gave him a demure smiling little curtsy
of mock deference.

Never had her distracting charm been more in evidence. He had not seen
her since they parted on the previous night. He had built for himself a
cot in the woodshack, and had contrived a curtain that could be drawn
in front of her bed in the living-room. Thus he could enter in the
morning, light the fires, and start breakfast without disturbing her.
She had dressed her hair, now in a different way, so that it fell in
low waves back from the forehead and was bunched at the nape of her
neck. The light swiftness of her dainty grace, the almost exaggerated
carnation of the slightly parted lips, the glad eagerness that sparked
her eyes, brought out effectively the picturesqueness of her beauty.

His grave eyes rested on her so long that a soft glow mantled her
cheeks. Perhaps her words had been too free, though she had not meant
them so. For the first time some thought of the conventions distressed
her. Ought she to hold herself more in reserve toward him? Must she
restrain her natural impulses to friendliness?

His eyes released her presently, but not before she read in them the
feelings that had softened them as they gazed into hers. They mirrored
his poignant pleasure at the delight of her sweet slenderness so close
to him, his perilous joy at the intimacy fate had thrust upon them.
Shyly her lids fell to the flushed cheeks.

"Breakfast is ready," she added self-consciously, her girlish innocence
startled like a fawn of the forest at the hunter's approach.

For whereas she had been blind now she saw in part. Some flash of
clairvoyance had laid bare a glimpse of his heart and her own to her.
Without misunderstanding the perfect respect for her which he felt, she
knew the turbid banked emotions which this dammed. Her heart seemed to
beat in her bosom like an imprisoned dove.

It was his voice, calm and resonant with strength, that brought her to
earth again.

"And I am ready for it, lieutenant. Right about face. Forward - march!"


After breakfast they went out and tramped together the little path of
hard-trodden snow in front of the house. She broached the prospect of a
rescue or the chances of escape.

"We shall soon be out of food, and, anyhow, we can't stay here all
winter," she suggested with a tremulous little laugh.

"You are naturally very tired of it already," he hazarded.

"It has been the experience of my life. I shall fence it off from all
the days that have passed and all that are to come," she made answer
vividly.

Their eyes met, but only for an instant.

"I am glad," he said quietly.

He began, then, to tell her what he must do, but at the first word of
it she broke out in protest.

"No - no - no! We shall stay together. If you go I am going, too."

"I wish you could, but it is not possible. You could never get there.
The snow is too soft and heavy for wading and not firm enough to bear
your weight."

"But you will have to wade."

"I am stronger than you, lieutenant."

"I know, but - - " She broke down and confessed her terror. "Would you
leave me here - alone - with all this snow Oh, I couldn't stay - I
couldn't."

"It's the only way," he said steadily. Every fiber in him rebelled at
leaving her here to face peril alone, but his reason overrode the
desire and rebellion that were hot within him. He must think first of
her ultimate safety, and this lay in getting her away from here at the
first chance.

Tears splashed down from the big eyes. "I didn't think you would leave
me here alone. With you I don't mind it, but - Oh, I should die if I
stayed alone."

"Only for twenty-four hours. Perhaps less. I shouldn't think of it if
it weren't necessary."

"Take me with you. I am strong. You don't know how strong I am. I
promise to keep up with you. Please!"

He shook his head. "I would take you with me if I could. You know that.
But it's a man's fight. I shall have to stand up to it hour after hour
till I reach Yesler's ranch. I shall get through, but it would not be
possible for you to make it."

"And if you don't get through?"

He refused to consider that contingency. "But I shall. You may look to
see me back with help by this time to-morrow morning."


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Online LibraryWilliam MacLeod RaineRidgway of Montana (Story of To-Day, in Which the Hero Is Also the Villain) → online text (page 3 of 15)