"I will leef when de moon rise, at eleven," he interjected.
"You have had no sleep for two nights, and no food. You can't last it out," she said calmly.
The deliberate look on his face deepened to stubbornness.
"It is my vow to my brudder—he is in purgatore. An' I mus' do it," he rejoined, with an emphasis there was no mistaking. "You can show me dat way?"
She went to a drawer and took out a piece of paper. Then, with a point of blackened stick, as he watched her and listened, she swiftly drew his route for him.
"Yes, I get it in my head," he said. "I go dat way, but I wish—I wish it was dat queeck way. I have no fear, not'ing. I go w'en dat moon rise—I go, bien sur."
"You must sleep, then, while I get some food for you." She pointed to a couch in a corner. "I will wake you when the moon rises."
For the first time he seemed to realise her, for a moment to leave the thing which consumed him, and put his mind upon her.
"You not happy—you not like me here?" he asked simply; then added quickly, "I am not bad man like me brudder—no."
Her eyes rested on him for a moment as though realising him, while some thought was working in her mind behind.
"No, you are not a bad man," she said. "Men and women are equal on the plains. You have no fear—I have no fear."
He glanced at the rifles on the walls, then back at her. "My mudder, she was good woman. I am glad she did not lif to know what Fadette do." His eyes drank her in for a minute, then he said: "I go sleep now, t'ank you —till moontime."
In a moment his deep breathing filled the room, the only sound save for the fire within and the frost outside.
Time went on. The night deepened.
Loisette sat beside the fire, but her body was half-turned from it towards the man on the sofa. She was not agitated outwardly, but within there was that fire which burns up life and hope and all the things that come between us and great issues. It had burned up everything in her except one thought, one powerful motive. She had been deeply wronged, and justice had been about to give "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But the man lying there had come to sweep away the scaffolding of justice—he had come for that.
Perhaps he might arrive at Askatoon before the stroke of the hour, but still he would be too late, for in her pocket now was the Governor's reprieve. The man had slept soundly. His wallet was still in his breast; but the reprieve was with her.
If he left without discovering his loss, and got well on his way, and discovered it then, it would be too late. If he returned—she only saw one step before her, she would wait for that, and deal with it when it came. She was thinking of Lucy, of her own lover ruined and gone. She was calm in her madness.
At the first light of the moon she roused him. She had put food into his fur-coat pocket, and after he had drunk a bowl of hot pea-soup, while she told him his course again, she opened the door, and he passed out into the night. He started forward without a word, but came back again and caught her hand.
"Pardon," he said; "I go forget everyt'ing except dat. But I t'ink what you do for me, it is better than all my life. Bien sur, I will come again, when I get my mind to myself. Ah, but you are beautibul," he said, "an' you not happy. Well, I come again—yes, a Dieu."
He was gone into the night, with the moon silvering the sky, and the steely frost eating into the sentient life of this northern world. Inside the house, with the bearskin blind dropped at the window again, and the fire blazing high, Loisette sat with the Governor's reprieve in her hand. Looking at it, she wondered why it had been given to Ba'tiste Caron, and not to a police-officer. Ah yes, it was plain—Ba'tiste was a woodsman and plainsman, and could go far more safely than a constable, and faster. Ba'tiste had reason for going fast, and he would travel night and day—he was travelling night and day indeed. And now Ba'tiste might get there, but the reprieve would not. He would not be able to stop the hanging of Haman—the hanging of Rube Haman.
A change came over her. Her eyes blazed, her breast heaved now. She had been so quiet, so cold and still. But life seemed moving in her once again. The woman, Kate Wimper, who had helped to send two people to their graves, would now drink the dregs of shame, if she was capable of shame—would be robbed of her happiness, if so be she loved Rube Haman.
She stood up, as though to put the paper in the fire, but paused suddenly at one thought—Rube Haman was innocent of murder.
Even so, he was not innocent of Lucy's misery and death, of the death of the little one who only opened its eyes to the light for an instant, and then went into the dark again. But truly she was justified! When Haman was gone things would go on just the same—and she had been so bitter, her heart had been pierced as with a knife these past three years. Again she held out her hand to the fire, but suddenly she gave a little cry and put her hand to her head. There was Ba'tiste!
What was Ba'tiste to her? Nothing-nothing at all. She had saved his life—even if she wronged Ba'tiste, her debt would be paid. No, she would not think of Ba'tiste. Yet she did not put the paper in the fire, but in the pocket of her dress. Then she went to her room, leaving the door open. The bed was opposite the fire, and, as she lay there—she did not take off her clothes, she knew not why-she could see the flames. She closed her eyes, but could not sleep, and more than once when she opened them she thought she saw Ba'tiste sitting there as he had sat hours before. Why did Ba'tiste haunt her so? What was it he had said in his broken English as he went away?—that he would come back; that she was "beautibul."
All at once as she lay still, her head throbbing, her feet and hands icy cold, she sat up listening. "Ah-again!" she cried. She sprang from her bed, rushed to the door, and strained her eyes into the silver night. She called into the icy void, "Qui va la? Who goes?"
She leaned forwards, her hand at her ear, but no sound came in reply. Once more she called, but nothing answered. The night was all light and frost and silence.
She had only heard, in her own brain, the iteration of Ba'tiste's calling. Would he reach Askatoon in time, she wondered, as she shut the door? Why had she not gone with him and attempted the shorter way the quick way, he had called it? All at once the truth came back upon her, stirring her now. It would do no good for Ba'tiste to arrive in time. He might plead to them all and tell the truth about the reprieve, but it would not avail—Rube Haman would hang. That did not matter—even though he was innocent; but Ba'tiste's brother would be so long in purgatory. And even that would not matter; but she would hurt Ba'tiste—Ba'tiste— Ba'tiste. And Ba'tiste he would know that she—and he had called her "beautibul," that she had—
With a cry she suddenly clothed herself for travel. She put some food and drink in a leather bag and slung them over her shoulder. Then she dropped on a knee and wrote a note to her father, tears falling from her eyes. She heaped wood on the fire and moved towards the door. All at once she turned to the crucifix on the wall which had belonged to her mother, and, though she had followed her father's Protestant religion, she kissed the feet of the sacred figure.
"Oh, Christ, have mercy on me, and bring me safe to my journey's end-in time," she said breathlessly; then she went softly to the door, leaving the dog behind.
It opened, closed, and the night swallowed her. Like a ghost she sped the quick way to Askatoon. She was six hours behind Ba'tiste, and, going hard all the time, it was doubtful if she could get there before the fatal hour.
On the trail Ba'tiste had taken there were two huts where he could rest, and he had carried his blanket slung on his shoulder. The way she went gave no shelter save the trees and caves which had been used to cache buffalo meat and hides in old days. But beyond this there was danger in travelling by night, for the springs beneath the ice of the three lakes she must, cross made it weak and rotten even in the fiercest weather, and what would no doubt have been death to Ba'tiste would be peril at least to her. Why had she not gone with him?
"He had in his face what was in Lucy's," she said to herself, as she sped on. "She was fine like him, ready to break her heart for those she cared for. My, if she had seen him first instead of—"
She stopped short, for the ice gave way to her foot, and she only sprang back in time to save herself. But she trotted on, mile after mile, the dog-trot of the Indian, head bent forwards, toeing in, breathing steadily but sharply.
The morning came, noon, then a fall of snow and a keen wind, and despair in her heart; but she had passed the danger-spots, and now, if the storm did not overwhelm her, she might get to Askatoon in time. In the midst of the storm she came to one of the caves of which she had known. Here was wood for a fire, and here she ate, and in weariness unspeakable fell asleep. When she waked it was near sun-down, the storm had ceased, and, as on the night before, the sky was stained with colour and drowned in splendour.
"I will do it—I will do it, Ba'tiste!" she called, and laughed aloud into the sunset. She had battled with herself all the way, and she had conquered. Right was right, and Rube Haman must not be hung for what he did not do. Her heart hardened whenever she thought of the woman, but softened again when she thought of Ba'tiste, who had to suffer for the deed of a brother in "purgatore." Once again the night and its silence and loneliness followed her, the only living thing near the trail till long after midnight. After that, as she knew, there were houses here and there where she might have rested, but she pushed on unceasing.
At daybreak she fell in with a settler going to Askatoon with his dogs. Seeing how exhausted she was, he made her ride a few miles upon his sledge; then she sped on ahead again till she came to the borders of Askatoon.
People were already in the streets, and all were tending one way. She stopped and asked the time. It was within a quarter of an hour of the time when Haman was to pay another's penalty. She spurred herself on, and came to the jail blind with fatigue. As she neared the jail she saw her father and Mickey. In amazement her father hailed her, but she would not stop. She was admitted to the prison on explaining that she had a reprieve. Entering a room filled with excited people, she heard a cry.
It came from Ba'tiste. He had arrived but ten minutes before, and, in the Sheriff's presence had discovered his loss. He had appealed in vain.
But now, as he saw the girl, he gave a shout of joy which pierced the hearts of all.
"Ah, you haf it! Say you haf it, or it is no use—he mus' hang. Spik- spik! Ah, my brudder—it is to do him right! Ah, Loisette—bon Dieu, merci!"
For answer she placed the reprieve in the hands of the Sheriff. Then she swayed and fell fainting at the feet of Ba'tiste.
She had come at the stroke of the hour.
When she left for her home again the Sheriff kissed her.
And that was not the only time he kissed her. He did it again six months later, at the beginning of the harvest, when she and Ba'tiste Caron started off on the long trail of life together. None but Ba'tiste knew the truth about the loss of the reprieve, and to him she was "beautibul" just the same, and greatly to be desired.
"I bin waitin' for him, an' I'll git him of it takes all winter. I'll git him—plumb."
The speaker smoothed the barrel of his rifle with mittened hand, which had, however, a trigger-finger free. With black eyebrows twitching over sunken grey eyes, he looked doggedly down the frosty valley from the ledge of high rock where he sat. The face was rough and weather-beaten, with the deep tan got in the open life of a land of much sun and little cloud, and he had a beard which, untrimmed and growing wild, made him look ten years older than he was.
"I bin waitin' a durn while," the mountain-man added, and got to his feet slowly, drawing himself out to six and a half feet of burly manhood. The shoulders were, however, a little stooped, and the head was thrust forwards with an eager, watchful look—a habit become a physical characteristic.
Presently he caught sight of a hawk sailing southward along the peaks of the white icebound mountains above, on which the sun shone with such sharp insistence, making sky and mountain of a piece in deep purity and serene stillness.
"That hawk's seen him, mebbe," he said, after a moment. "I bet it went up higher when it got him in its eye. Ef it'd only speak and tell me where he is—ef he's a day, or two days, or ten days north."
Suddenly his eyes blazed and his mouth opened in superstitious amazement, for the hawk stopped almost directly overhead at a great height, and swept round in a circle many times, waveringly, uncertainly. At last it resumed its flight southward, sliding down the mountains like a winged star.
The mountaineer watched it with a dazed expression for a moment longer, then both hands clutched the rifle and half swung it to position involuntarily.
"It's seen him, and it stopped to say so. It's seen him, I tell you, an' I'll git him. Ef it's an hour, or a day, or a week, it's all the same. I'm here watchin', waitin' dead on to him, the poison skunk!"
The person to whom he had been speaking now rose from the pile of cedar boughs where he had been sitting, stretched his arms up, then shook himself into place, as does a dog after sleep. He stood for a minute looking at the mountaineer with a reflective, yet a furtively sardonic, look. He was not above five feet nine inches in height, and he was slim and neat; and though his buckskin coat and breeches were worn and even frayed in spots, he had an air of some distinction and of concentrated force. It was a face that men turned to look at twice and shook their heads in doubt afterwards—a handsome, worn, secretive face, in as perfect control as the strings of an instrument under the bow of a great artist. It was the face of a man without purpose in life beyond the moment—watchful, careful, remorselessly determined, an adventurer's asset, the dial-plate of a hidden machinery.
Now he took the handsome meerschaum pipe from his mouth, from which he had been puffing smoke slowly, and said in a cold, yet quiet voice, "How long you been waitin', Buck?"
"A month. He's overdue near that. He always comes down to winter at Fort o' Comfort, with his string of half-breeds, an' Injuns, an' the dogs."
"No chance to get him at the Fort?"
"It ain't so certain. They'd guess what I was doin' there. It's surer here. He's got to come down the trail, an' when I spot him by the Juniper clump"—he jerked an arm towards a spot almost a mile farther up the valley—"I kin scoot up the underbrush a bit and git him—plumb. I could do it from here, sure, but I don't want no mistake. Once only, jest one shot, that's all I want, Sinnet."
He bit off a small piece of tobacco from a black plug Sinnet offered him, and chewed it with nervous fierceness, his eyebrows working, as he looked at the other eagerly. Deadly as his purpose was, and grim and unvarying as his vigil had been, the loneliness had told on him, and he had grown hungry for a human face and human companionship. Why Sinnet had come he had not thought to inquire. Why Sinnet should be going north instead of south had not occurred to him. He only realised that Sinnet was not the man he was waiting for with murder in his heart; and all that mattered to him in life was the coming of his victim down the trail. He had welcomed Sinnet with a sullen eagerness, and had told him in short, detached sentences the dark story of a wrong and a waiting revenge, which brought a slight flush to Sinnet's pale face and awakened a curious light in his eyes.
"Is that your shack—that where you shake down?" Sinnet said, pointing towards a lean-to in the fir trees to the right.
"That's it. I sleep there. It's straight on to the Juniper clump, the front door is." He laughed viciously, grimly. "Outside or inside, I'm on to the Juniper clump. Walk into the parlour?" he added, and drew open a rough-made door, so covered with green cedar boughs that it seemed of a piece with the surrounding underbrush and trees. Indeed, the little but was so constructed that it could not be distinguished from the woods even a short distance away.
"Can't have a fire, I suppose?" Sinnet asked.
"Not daytimes. Smoke 'd give me away if he suspicioned me," answered the mountaineer. "I don't take no chances. Never can tell."
"Water?" asked Sinnet, as though interested in the surroundings, while all the time he was eyeing the mountaineer furtively—as it were, prying to the inner man, or measuring the strength of the outer man. He lighted a fresh pipe and seated himself on a rough bench beside the table in the middle of the room, and leaned on his elbows, watching.
The mountaineer laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh to hear. "Listen," he said. "You bin a long time out West. You bin in the mountains a good while. Listen."
There was silence. Sinnet listened intently. He heard the faint drip, drip, drip of water, and looked steadily at the back wall of the room.
"There—rock?" he said, and jerked his head towards the sound.
"You got good ears," answered the other, and drew aside a blanket which hung on the back wall of the room. A wooden trough was disclosed hanging under a ledge of rock, and water dripped into it softly, slowly.
"Almost providential, that rock," remarked Sinnet. "You've got your well at your back door. Food—but you can't go far, and keep your eye on the Bend too," he nodded towards the door, beyond which lay the frost-touched valley in the early morning light of autumn.
"Plenty of black squirrels and pigeons come here on account of the springs like this one, and I get 'em with a bow and arrow. I didn't call myself Robin Hood and Daniel Boone not for nothin' when I was knee-high to a grasshopper." He drew from a rough cupboard some cold game, and put it on the table, with some scones and a pannikin of water. Then he brought out a small jug of whiskey and placed it beside his visitor. They began to eat.
"How d'ye cook without fire?" asked Sinnet. "Fire's all right at nights. He'd never camp 'twixt here an' Juniper Bend at night. The next camp's six miles north from here. He'd only come down the valley daytimes. I studied it 'all out, and it's a dead sure thing. From daylight till dusk I'm on to him. I got the trail in my eye."
He showed his teeth like a wild dog, as his look swept the valley. There was something almost revolting in his concentrated ferocity.
Sinnet's eyes half closed as he watched the mountaineer, and the long, scraggy hands and whipcord neck seemed to interest him greatly. He looked at his own slim brown hands with a half smile, and it was almost as cruel as the laugh of the other. Yet it had, too, a knowledge and an understanding which gave it humanity.
"You're sure he did it?" Sinnet asked presently, after drinking a very small portion of liquor, and tossing some water from the pannikin after it. "You're sure Greevy killed your boy, Buck?"
"My name's Buckmaster, ain't it—Jim Buckmaster? Don't I know my own name? It's as sure as that. My boy said it was Greevy when he was dying. He told Bill Ricketts so, and Bill told me afore he went East. Bill didn't want to tell, but he said it was fair I should know, for my boy never did nobody any harm—an' Greevy's livin' on. But I'll git him. Right's right."
"Wouldn't it be better for the law to hang him, if you've got the proof, Buck? A year or so in jail, an' a long time to think over what's going round his neck on the scaffold—wouldn't that suit you, if you've got the proof?"
A rigid, savage look came into Buckmaster's face.
"I ain't lettin' no judge and jury do my business. I'm for certain sure, not for p'r'aps! An' I want to do it myself. Clint was only twenty. Like boys we was together. I was eighteen when I married, an' he come when she went—jest a year—jest a year. An' ever since then we lived together, him an' me, an' shot together, an' trapped together, an' went gold-washin' together on the Cariboo, an' eat out of the same dish, an' slept under the same blanket, and jawed together nights—ever since he was five, when old Mother Lablache had got him into pants, an' he was fit to take the trail."
The old man stopped a minute, his whipcord neck swelling, his lips twitching. He brought a fist down on the table with a bang. "The biggest little rip he was, as full of fun as a squirrel, an' never a smile-o-jest his eyes dancin', an' more sense than a judge. He laid hold o' me, that cub did—it was like his mother and himself together; an' the years flowin' in an' peterin' out, an' him gettin' older, an' always jest the same. Always on rock-bottom, always bright as a dollar, an' we livin' at Black Nose Lake, layin' up cash agin' the time we was to go South, an' set up a house along the railway, an' him to git married. I was for his gittin' married same as me, when we had enough cash. I use to think of that when he was ten, and when he was eighteen I spoke to him about it; but he wouldn't listen—jest laughed at me. You remember how Clint used to laugh sort of low and teasin' like—you remember that laugh o' Clint's, don't you?"
Sinnet's face was towards the valley and Juniper Bend, but he slowly turned his head and looked at Buckmaster strangely out of his half-shut eyes. He took the pipe from his mouth slowly.
"I can hear it now," he answered slowly. "I hear it often, Buck."
The old man gripped his arm so suddenly that Sinnet was startled,—in so far as anything could startle anyone who had lived a life of chance and danger and accident, and his face grew a shade paler; but he did not move, and Buckmaster's hand tightened convulsively.
"You liked him, an' he liked you; he first learnt poker off you, Sinnet. He thought you was a tough, but he didn't mind that no more than I did. It ain't for us to say what we're goin' to be, not always. Things in life git stronger than we are. You was a tough, but who's goin' to judge you! I ain't; for Clint took to you, Sinnet, an' he never went wrong in his thinkin'. God! he was wife an' child to me—an' he's dead—dead— dead."
The man's grief was a painful thing to see. His hands gripped the table, while his body shook with sobs, though his eyes gave forth no tears. It was an inward convulsion, which gave his face the look of unrelieved tragedy and suffering—Laocoon struggling with the serpents of sorrow and hatred which were strangling him.
"Dead an' gone," he repeated, as he swayed to and fro, and the table quivered in his grasp. Presently, however, as though arrested by a thought, he peered out of the doorway towards Juniper Bend. "That hawk seen him—it seen him. He's comin', I know it, an' I'll git him—plumb." He had the mystery and imagination of the mountain-dweller.
The rifle lay against the wall behind him, and he turned and touched it almost caressingly. "I ain't let go like this since he was killed, Sinnet. It don't do. I got to keep myself stiddy to do the trick when the minute comes. At first I usen't to sleep at nights, thinkin' of Clint, an' missin' him, an' I got shaky and no good. So I put a cinch on myself, an' got to sleepin' again—from the full dusk to dawn, for Greevy wouldn't take the trail at night. I've kept stiddy." He held out his hand as though to show that it was firm and steady, but it trembled with the emotion which had conquered him. He saw it, and shook his head angrily.
"It was seein' you, Sinnet. It burst me. I ain't seen no one to speak to in a month, an' with you sittin' there, it was like Clint an' me cuttin' and comin' again off the loaf an' the knuckle-bone of ven'son."
Sinnet ran a long finger slowly across his lips, and seemed meditating what he should say to the mountaineer. At length he spoke, looking into Buckmaster's face. "What was the story Ricketts told you? What did your boy tell Ricketts? I've heard, too, about it, and that's why I asked you if you had proofs that Greevy killed Clint. Of course, Clint should know, and if he told Ricketts, that's pretty straight; but I'd like to know if what I heard tallies with what Ricketts heard from Clint. P'r'aps it'd ease your mind a bit to tell it. I'll watch the Bend—don't you trouble about that. You can't do these two things at one time. I'll watch for Greevy; you give me Clint's story to Ricketts. I guess you know I'm feelin' for you, an' if I was in your place I'd shoot the man that killed Clint, if it took ten years. I'd have his heart's blood—all of it. Whether Greevy was in the right or in the wrong, I'd have him— plumb."
Buckmaster was moved. He gave a fierce exclamation and made a gesture of cruelty. "Clint right or wrong? There ain't no question of that. My boy wasn't the kind to be in the wrong. What did he ever do but what was right? If Clint was in the wrong I'd kill Greevy jest the same, for Greevy robbed him of all the years that was before him—only a sapling he was, an' all his growin' to do, all his branches to widen an' his roots to spread. But that don't enter in it, his bein' in the wrong. It was a quarrel, and Clint never did Greevy any harm. It was a quarrel over cards, an' Greevy was drunk, an' followed Clint out into the prairie in the night and shot him like a coyote. Clint hadn't no chance, an' he jest lay there on the ground till morning, when Ricketts and Steve Joicey found him. An' Clint told Ricketts who it was."
"Why didn't Ricketts tell it right out at once?" asked Sinnet.
"Greevy was his own cousin—it was in the family, an' he kept thinkin' of Greevy's gal, Em'ly. Her—what'll it matter to her! She'll get married, an she'll forgit. I know her, a gal that's got no deep feelin' like Clint had for me. But because of her Ricketts didn't speak for a year. Then he couldn't stand it any longer, an' he told me—seein' how I suffered, an' everybody hidin' their suspicions from me, an' me up here out o' the way, an' no account. That was the feelin' among 'em—what was the good of making things worse! They wasn't thinkin' of the boy or of Jim Buckmaster, his father. They was thinkin' of Greevy's gal—to save her trouble."
Sinnet's face was turned towards Juniper Bend, and the eyes were fixed, as it were, on a still more distant object—a dark, brooding, inscrutable look.
"Was that all Ricketts told you, Buck?" The voice was very quiet, but it had a suggestive note.
"That's all Clint told Bill before he died. That was enough."
There was a moment's pause, and then, puffing out long clouds of smoke, and in a tone of curious detachment, as though he were telling of something that he saw now in the far distance, or as a spectator of a battle from a far vantage-point might report to a blind man standing near, Sinnet said:
"P'r'aps Ricketts didn't know the whole story; p'r'aps Clint didn't know it all to tell him; p'r'aps Clint didn't remember it all. P'r'aps he didn't remember anything except that he and Greevy quarrelled, and that Greevy and he shot at each other in the prairie. He'd only be thinking of the thing that mattered most to him—that his life was over, an' that a man had put a bullet in him, an'—"
Buckmaster tried to interrupt him, but he waved a hand impatiently, and continued: "As I say, maybe he didn't remember everything; he had been drinkin' a bit himself, Clint had. He wasn't used to liquor, and couldn't stand much. Greevy was drunk, too, and gone off his head with rage. He always gets drunk when he first comes South to spend the winter with his girl Em'ly." He paused a moment, then went on a little more quickly. "Greevy was proud of her—couldn't even bear her being crossed in any way; and she has a quick temper, and if she quarrelled with anybody Greevy quarrelled too."
"I don't want to know anything about her," broke in Buckmaster roughly. "She isn't in this thing. I'm goin' to git Greevy. I bin waitin' for him, an' I'll git him."
"You're going to kill the man that killed your boy, if you can, Buck; but I'm telling my story in my own way. You told Ricketts's story; I'll tell what I've heard. And before you kill Greevy you ought to know all there is that anybody else knows—or suspicions about it."
"I know enough. Greevy done it, an' I'm here." With no apparent coherence and relevancy Sinnet continued, but his voice was not so even as before. "Em'ly was a girl that wasn't twice alike. She was changeable. First it was one, then it was another, and she didn't seem to be able to fix her mind. But that didn't prevent her leadin' men on. She wasn't changeable, though, about her father. She was to him what your boy was to you. There she was like you, ready to give everything up for her father."
"I tell y' I don't want to hear about her," said Buckmaster, getting to his feet and setting his jaws. "You needn't talk to me about her. She'll git over it. I'll never git over what Greevy done to me or to Clint—jest twenty, jest twenty! I got my work to do."
He took his gun from the wall, slung it into the hollow of his arm, and turned to look up the valley through the open doorway.
The morning was sparkling with life—the life and vigour which a touch of frost gives to the autumn world in a country where the blood tingles to the dry, sweet sting of the air. Beautiful, and spacious, and buoyant, and lonely, the valley and the mountains seemed waiting, like a new-born world, to be peopled by man. It was as though all had been made ready for him—the birds whistling and singing in the trees, the whisk of the squirrels leaping from bough to bough, the peremptory sound of the woodpecker's beak against the bole of a tree, the rustle of the leaves as a wood-hen ran past—a waiting, virgin world.
Its beauty and its wonderful dignity had no appeal to Buckmaster. His eyes and mind were fixed on a deed which would stain the virgin wild with the ancient crime that sent the first marauder on human life into the wilderness.
As Buckmaster's figure darkened the doorway Sinnet seemed to waken as from a dream, and he got swiftly to his feet.
"Wait—you wait, Buck. You've got to hear all. You haven't heard my story yet. Wait, I tell you." His voice was so sharp and insistent, so changed, that Buckmaster turned from the doorway and came back into the room.
"What's the use of my hearin'? You want me not to kill Greevy, because of that gal. What's she to me?"
"Nothing to you, Buck, but Clint was everything to her."
The mountaineer stood like one petrified.
"What's that—what's that you say? It's a damn lie!"
"It wasn't cards—the quarrel, not the real quarrel. Greevy found Clint kissing her. Greevy wanted her to marry Gatineau, the lumber-king. That was the quarrel."
A snarl was on the face of Buckmaster. "Then she'll not be sorry when I git him. It took Clint from her as well as from me." He turned to the door again. "But, wait, Buck, wait one minute and hear—" He was interrupted by a low, exultant growl, and he saw Buckmaster's rifle clutched as a hunter, stooping, clutches his gun to fire on his prey.
"Quick, the spy-glass!" he flung back at Sinnet. "It's him—but I'll make sure."
Sinnet caught the telescope from the nails where it hung, and looked out towards Juniper Bend. "It's Greevy—and his girl, and the half-breeds," he said, with a note in his voice that almost seemed agitation, and yet few had ever seen Sinnet agitated. "Em'ly must have gone up the trail in the night."
"It's my turn now," the mountaineer said hoarsely, and, stooping, slid away quickly into the undergrowth. Sinnet followed, keeping near him, neither speaking. For a half mile they hastened on, and now and then Buckmaster drew aside the bushes, and looked up the valley, to keep Greevy and his bois brulees in his eye. Just so had he and his son and Sinnet stalked the wapiti and the red deer along these mountains; but this was a man that Buckmaster was stalking now, with none of the joy of the sport which had been his since a lad; only the malice of the avenger. The lust of a mountain feud was on him; he was pursuing the price of blood.
At last Buckmaster stopped at a ledge of rock just above the trail. Greevy would pass below, within three hundred yards of his rifle. He turned to Sinnet with cold and savage eyes. "You go back," he said. "It's my business. I don't want you to see. You don't want to see, then you won't know, and you won't need to lie. You said that the man that killed Clint ought to die. He's going to die, but it's none o' your business. I want to be alone. In a minute he'll be where I kin git him —plumb. You go, Sinnet-right off. It's my business."
There was a strange, desperate look in Sinnet's face; it was as hard as stone, but his eyes had a light of battle in them.
"It's my business right enough, Buck," he said, "and you're not going to kill Greevy. That girl of his has lost her lover, your boy. It's broke her heart almost, and there's no use making her an orphan too. She can't stand it. She's had enough. You leave her father alone—you hear me, let up!" He stepped between Buckmaster and the ledge of rock from which the mountaineer was to take aim.
There was a terrible look in Buckmaster's face. He raised his single- barrelled rifle, as though he would shoot Sinnet; but, at the moment, he remembered that a shot would warn Greevy, and that he might not have time to reload. He laid his rifle against a tree swiftly.
"Git away from here," he said, with a strange rattle in his throat. "Git away quick; he'll be down past here in a minute."
Sinnet pulled himself together as he saw Buckmaster snatch at a great clasp-knife in his belt. He jumped and caught Buckmaster's wrist in a grip like a vice.
"Greevy didn't kill him, Buck," he said. But the mountaineer was gone mad, and did not grasp the meaning of the words. He twined his left arm round the neck of Sinnet, and the struggle began, he fighting to free Sinnet's hand from his wrist, to break Sinnet's neck. He did not realise what he was doing. He only knew that this man stood between him and the murderer of his boy, and all the ancient forces of barbarism were alive in him. Little by little they drew to the edge of the rock, from which there was a sheer drop of two hundred feet. Sinnet fought like a panther for safety, but no sane man's strength could withstand the demoniacal energy that bent and crushed him. Sinnet felt his strength giving. Then he said in a hoarse whisper, "Greevy didn't kill him. I killed him, and—"
At that moment he was borne to the ground with a hand on his throat, and an instant after the knife went home.
Buckmaster got to his feet and looked at his victim for an instant, dazed and wild; then he sprang for his gun. As he did so the words that Sinnet had said as they struggled rang in his ears, "Greevy didn't kill him; I killed him!"
He gave a low cry and turned back towards Sinnet, who lay in a pool of blood.
Sinnet was speaking. He went and stooped over him. "Em'ly threw me over for Clint," the voice said huskily, "and I followed to have it out with Clint. So did Greevy, but Greevy was drunk. I saw them meet. I was hid. I saw that Clint would kill Greevy, and I fired. I was off my head—I'd never cared for any woman before, and Greevy was her father. Clint was off his head too. He had called me names that day—a cardsharp, and a liar, and a thief, and a skunk, he called me, and I hated him just then. Greevy fired twice wide. He didn't know but what he killed Clint, but he didn't. I did. So I tried to stop you, Buck—"
Life was going fast, and speech failed him; but he opened his eyes again and whispered, "I didn't want to die, Buck. I am only thirty-five, and it's too soon; but it had to be. Don't look that way, Buck. You got the man that killed him—plumb. But Em'ly didn't play fair with me—made a fool of me, the only time in my life I ever cared for a woman. You leave Greevy alone, Buck, and tell Em'ly for me I wouldn't let you kill her father."
"You—Sinnet—you, you done it! Why, he'd have fought for you. You— done it—to him—to Clint!" Now that the blood-feud had been satisfied, a great change came over the mountaineer. He had done his work, and the thirst for vengeance was gone. Greevy he had hated, but this man had been with him in many a winter's hunt. His brain could hardly grasp the tragedy—it had all been too sudden.
Suddenly he stooped down. "Sinnet," he said, "ef there was a woman in it, that makes all the difference. Sinnet, of—"
But Sinnet was gone upon a long trail that led into an illimitable wilderness. With a moan the old man ran to the ledge of rock. Greevy and his girl were below.
"When there's a woman in it—!" he said, in a voice of helplessness and misery, and watched Em'ly till she disappeared from view. Then he turned, and, lifting up in his arms the man he had killed, carried him into the deeper woods.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Even bad company's better than no company at all Future of those who will not see, because to see is to suffer I like when I like, and I like a lot when I like It ain't for us to say what we're goin' to be, not always Things in life git stronger than we are We don't live in months and years, but just in minutes
By Gilbert Parker
TO-MORROW QU'APPELLE THE STAKE AND THE PLUMB-LINE
"My, nothing's the matter with the world to-day! It's so good it almost hurts."
She raised her head from the white petticoat she was ironing, and gazed out of the doorway and down the valley with a warm light in her eyes and a glowing face. The snow-tipped mountains far above and away, the fir- covered, cedar-ranged foothills, and, lower down, the wonderful maple and ash woods, with their hundred autumn tints, all merging to one soft, red tone, the roar of the stream tumbling down the ravine from the heights, the air that braced the nerves—it all seemed to be part of her, the passion of life corresponding to the passion of living in her.
After watching the scene dreamily for a moment, she turned and laid the iron she had been using upon the hot stove near. Taking up another, she touched it with a moistened finger to test the heat, and, leaning above the table again, passed it over the linen for a few moments, smiling at something that was in her mind. Presently she held the petticoat up, turned it round, then hung it in front of her, eyeing it with critical pleasure.
"To-morrow!" she said, nodding at it. "You won't be seen, I suppose, but I'll know you're nice enough for a queen—and that's enough to know."
She blushed a little, as though someone had heard her words and was looking at her, then she carefully laid the petticoat over the back of a chair. "No queen's got one whiter, if I do say it," she continued, tossing her head.
In that, at any rate, she was right, for the water of the mountain springs was pure, the air was clear, and the sun was clarifying; and little ornamented or frilled as it was, the petticoat was exquisitely soft and delicate. It would have appealed to more eyes than a woman's.
"To-morrow!" She nodded at it again and turned again to the bright world outside. With arms raised and hands resting against the timbers of the doorway, she stood dreaming. A flock of pigeons passed with a whir not far away, and skirted the woods making down the valley. She watched their flight abstractedly, yet with a subconscious sense of pleasure. Life—they were Life, eager, buoyant, belonging to this wild region, where still the heart could feel so much at home, where the great world was missed so little.
Suddenly, as she gazed, a shot rang out down the valley, and two of the pigeons came tumbling to the ground, a stray feather floating after. With a startled exclamation she took a step forward. Her brain became confused and disturbed. She had looked out on Eden, and it had been ravaged before her eyes. She had been thinking of to-morrow, and this vast prospect of beauty and serenity had been part of the pageant in which it moved. Not the valley alone had been marauded, but that "To- morrow," and all it meant to her.
Instantly the valley had become clouded over for her, its glory and its grace despoiled. She turned back to the room where the white petticoat lay upon the chair, but stopped with a little cry of alarm.
A man was standing in the centre of the room. He had entered stealthily by the back door, and had waited for her to turn round. He was haggard and travel stained, and there was a feverish light in his eyes. His fingers trembled as they adjusted his belt, which seemed too large for him. Mechanically he buckled it tighter.
"You're Jenny Long, ain't you?" he asked. "I beg pardon for sneakin' in like this, but they're after me, some ranchers and a constable—one o' the Riders of the Plains. I've been tryin' to make this house all day. You're Jenny Long, ain't you?"
She had plenty of courage, and, after the first instant of shock, she had herself in hand. She had quickly observed his condition, had marked the candour of the eye and the decision and character of the face, and doubt of him found no place in her mind. She had the keen observation of the dweller in lonely places, where every traveller has the potentialities of a foe, while the door of hospitality is opened to him after the custom of the wilds. Year in, year out, since she was a little girl and came to live here with her Uncle Sanger when her father died—her mother had gone before she could speak—travellers had halted at this door, going North or coming South, had had bite and sup, and bed, may be, and had passed on, most of them never to be seen again. More than that, too, there had been moments of peril, such as when, alone, she had faced two wood- thieves with a revolver, as they were taking her mountain-pony with them, and herself had made them "hands-up," and had marched them into a prospector's camp five miles away.
She had no doubt about the man before her. Whatever he had done, it was nothing dirty or mean—of that she was sure.
"Yes, I'm Jenny Long," she answered. "What have you done? What are they after you for?"
"Oh! to-morrow," he answered, "to-morrow I got to git to Bindon. It's life or death. I come from prospecting two hundred miles up North. I done it in two days and a half. My horse dropped dead—I'm near dead myself. I tried to borrow another horse up at Clancey's, and at Scotton's Drive, but they didn't know me, and they bounced me. So I borrowed a horse off Weigall's paddock, to make for here—to you. I didn't mean to keep that horse. Hell, I'm no horse-stealer! But I couldn't explain to them, except that I had to git to Bindon to save a man's life. If people laugh in your face, it's no use explainin'. I took a roan from Weigall's, and they got after me. 'Bout six miles up they shot at me an' hurt me."
She saw that one arm hung limp at his side and that his wrist was wound with a red bandana.
She started forward. "Are you hurt bad? Can I bind it up or wash it for you? I've got plenty of hot water here, and it's bad letting a wound get stale."
He shook his head. "I washed the hole clean in the creek below. I doubled on them. I had to go down past your place here, and then work back to be rid of them. But there's no telling when they'll drop on to the game, and come back for me. My only chance was to git to you. Even if I had a horse, I couldn't make Bindon in time. It's two days round the gorge by trail. A horse is no use now—I lost too much time since last night. I can't git to Bindon to-morrow in time, if I ride the trail."
"The river?" she asked abruptly.
"It's the only way. It cuts off fifty mile. That's why I come to you."
She frowned a little, her face became troubled, and her glance fell on his arm nervously. "What've I got to do with it?" she asked almost sharply.
"Even if this was all right,"—he touched the wounded arm—" I couldn't take the rapids in a canoe. I don't know them, an' it would be sure death. That's not the worst, for there's a man at Bindon would lose his life—p'r'aps twenty men—I dunno; but one man sure. To-morrow, it's go or stay with him. He was good—Lord, but he was good!—to my little gal years back. She'd only been married to me a year when he saved her, riskin' his own life. No one else had the pluck. My little gal, only twenty she was, an' pretty as a picture, an' me fifty miles away when the fire broke out in the hotel where she was. He'd have gone down to hell for a friend, an' he saved my little gal. I had her for five years after that. That's why I got to git to Bindon to-morrow. If I don't, I don't want to see to-morrow. I got to go down the river to-night."
She knew what he was going to ask her. She knew he was thinking what all the North knew, that she was the first person to take the Dog Nose Rapids in a canoe, down the great river scarce a stone's-throw from her door; and that she had done it in safety many times. Not in all the West and North were there a half-dozen people who could take a canoe to Bindon, and they were not here. She knew that he meant to ask her to paddle him down the swift stream with its murderous rocks, to Bindon. She glanced at the white petticoat on the chair, and her lips tightened. To-morrow- tomorrow was as much to her here as it would be to this man before her, or the man he would save at Bindon. "What do you want?" she asked, hardening her heart. "Can't you see? I want you to hide me here till tonight. There's a full moon, an' it would be as plain goin' as by day. They told me about you up North, and I said to myself, 'If I git to Jenny Long, an' tell her about my friend at Bindon, an' my little gal, she'll take me down to Bindon in time.' My little gal would have paid her own debt if she'd ever had the chance. She didn't—she's lying up on Mazy Mountain. But one woman'll do a lot for the sake of another woman. Say, you'll do it, won't you? If I don't git there by to-morrow noon, it's no good."
She would not answer. He was asking more than he knew. Why should she be sacrificed? Was it her duty to pay the "little gal's debt," to save the man at Bindon? To-morrow was to be the great day in her own life. The one man in all the world was coming to marry her to-morrow. After four years' waiting, after a bitter quarrel in which both had been to blame, he was coming from the mining town of Selby to marry her to- morrow.
"What will happen? Why will your friend lose his life if you don't get to Bindon?"
"By noon to-morrow, by twelve o'clock noon; that's the plot; that's what they've schemed. Three days ago, I heard. I got a man free from trouble North—he was no good, but I thought he ought to have another chance, and I got him free. He told me of what was to be done at Bindon. There'd been a strike in the mine, an' my friend had took it in hand with knuckle-dusters on. He isn't the kind to fell a tree with a jack-knife. Then three of the strikers that had been turned away—they was the ringleaders—they laid a plan that'd make the devil sick. They've put a machine in the mine, an' timed it, an' it'll go off when my friend comes out of the mine at noon to-morrow."
Her face was pale now, and her eyes had a look of pain and horror. Her man—him that she was to marry—was the head of a mine also at Selby, forty miles beyond Bindon, and the horrible plot came home to her with piercing significance.
"Without a second's warning," he urged, "to go like that, the man that was so good to my little gal, an' me with a chance to save him, an' others too, p'r'aps. You won't let it be. Say, I'm pinnin' my faith to you. I'm—"
Suddenly he swayed. She caught him, held him, and lowered him gently in a chair. Presently he opened his eyes. "It's want o' food, I suppose," he said. "If you've got a bit of bread and meat—I must keep up."
She went to a cupboard, but suddenly turned towards him again. Her ears had caught a sound outside in the underbush. He had heard also, and he half staggered to his feet.
"Quick-in here!" she said, and, opening a door, pushed him inside. "Lie down on my bed, and I'll bring you vittles as quick as I can," she added. Then she shut the door, turned to the ironing-board, and took up the iron, as the figure of a man darkened the doorway.
"Hello, Jinny, fixin' up for to-morrow?" the man said, stepping inside, with a rifle under his arm and some pigeons in his hand.
She nodded and gave him an impatient, scrutinising glance. His face had a fatuous kind of smile.
"Been celebrating the pigeons?" she asked drily, jerking her head towards the two birds, which she had seen drop from her Eden skies a short time before.
"I only had one swig of whiskey, honest Injun!" he answered. "I s'pose I might have waited till to-morrow, but I was dead-beat. I got a bear over by the Tenmile Reach, and I was tired. I ain't so young as I used to be, and, anyhow, what's the good! What's ahead of me? You're going to git married to-morrow after all these years we bin together, and you're going down to Selby from the mountains, where I won't see you, not once in a blue moon. Only that old trollop, Mother Massy, to look after me."
"Come down to Selby and live there. You'll be welcome by Jake and me."
He stood his gun in the corner and, swinging the pigeons in his hand, said: "Me live out of the mountains? Don't you know better than that? I couldn't breathe; and I wouldn't want to breathe. I've got my shack here, I got my fur business, and they're still fond of whiskey up North!" He chuckled to himself, as he thought of the illicit still farther up the mountain behind them. "I make enough to live on, and I've put a few dollars by, though I won't have so many after to-morrow, after I've given you a little pile, Jinny."
"P'r'aps there won't be any to-morrow, as you expect," she said slowly.
The old man started. "What, you and Jake ain't quarrelled again? You ain't broke it off at the last moment, same as before? You ain't had a letter from Jake?" He looked at the white petticoat on the chairback, and shook his head in bewilderment.
"I've had no letter," she answered. "I've had no letter from Selby for a month. It was all settled then, and there was no good writing, when he was coming to-morrow with the minister and the licence. Who do you think'd be postman from Selby here? It must have cost him ten dollars to send the last letter."
"Then what's the matter? I don't understand," the old man urged querulously. He did not want her to marry and leave him, but he wanted no more troubles; he did not relish being asked awkward questions by every mountaineer he met, as to why Jenny Long didn't marry Jake Lawson.
"There's only one way that I can be married tomorrow," she said at last, "and that's by you taking a man down the Dog Nose Rapids to Bindon to- night."
He dropped the pigeons on the floor, dumbfounded. "What in—"
He stopped short, in sheer incapacity, to go further. Jenny had not always been easy to understand, but she was wholly incomprehensible now.
She picked up the pigeons and was about to speak, but she glanced at the bedroom door, where her exhausted visitor had stretched himself on her bed, and beckoned her uncle to another room.
"There's a plate of vittles ready for you in there," she said. "I'll tell you as you eat."
He followed her into the little living-room adorned by the trophies of his earlier achievements with gun and rifle, and sat down at the table, where some food lay covered by a clean white cloth.
"No one'll ever look after me as you've done, Jinny," he said, as he lifted the cloth and saw the palatable dish ready for him. Then he remembered again about to-morrow and the Dog Nose Rapids.
"What's it all about, Jinny? What's that about my canoeing a man down to Bindon?"
"Eat, uncle," she said more softly than she had yet spoken, for his words about her care of him had brought a moisture to her eyes. "I'll be back in a minute and tell you all about it."
"Well, it's about took away my appetite," he said. "I feel a kind of sinking." He took from his pocket a bottle, poured some of its contents into a tin cup, and drank it off.
"No, I suppose you couldn't take a man down to Bindon," she said, as she saw his hand trembling on the cup. Then she turned and entered the other room again. Going to the cupboard, she hastily heaped a plate with food, and, taking a dipper of water from a pail near by, she entered her bedroom hastily and placed what she had brought on a small table, as her visitor rose slowly from the bed.
He was about to speak, but she made a protesting gesture.
"I can't tell you anything yet," she said. "Who was it come?" he asked.
"My uncle—I'm going to tell him."
"The men after me may git here any minute," he urged anxiously.
"They'd not be coming into my room," she answered, flushing slightly.
"Can't you hide me down by the river till we start?" he asked, his eyes eagerly searching her face. He was assuming that she would take him down the river: but she gave no sign.
"I've got to see if he'll take you first," she answered.
"He—your uncle, Tom Sanger? He drinks, I've heard. He'd never git to Bindon."
She did not reply directly to his words. "I'll come back and tell you. There's a place you could hide by the river where no one could ever find you," she said, and left the room.
As she stepped out, she saw the old man standing in the doorway of the other room. His face was petrified with amazement.
"Who you got in that room, Jinny? What man you got in that room? I heard a man's voice. Is it because o' him that you bin talkin' about no weddin' to-morrow? Is it one o' the others come back, puttin' you off Jake again?"
Her eyes flashed fire at his first words, and her breast heaved with anger, but suddenly she became composed again and motioned him to a chair.
"You eat, and I'll tell you all about it, Uncle Tom," she said, and, seating herself at the table also, she told him the story of the man who must go to Bindon.
When she had finished, the old man blinked at her for a minute without speaking, then he said slowly: "I heard something 'bout trouble down at Bindon yisterday from a Hudson's Bay man goin' North, but I didn't take it in. You've got a lot o' sense, Jinny, an' if you think he's tellin' the truth, why, it goes; but it's as big a mixup as a lariat in a steer's horns. You've got to hide him sure, whoever he is, for I wouldn't hand an Eskimo over, if I'd taken him in my home once; we're mountain people. A man ought to be hung for horse-stealin', but this was different. He was doing it to save a man's life, an' that man at Bindon was good to his little gal, an' she's dead."
He moved his head from side to side with the air of a sentimental philosopher. He had all the vanity of a man who had been a success in a small, shrewd, culpable way—had he not evaded the law for thirty years with his whiskey-still?
"I know how he felt," he continued. "When Betsy died—we was only four years married—I could have crawled into a knot-hole an' died there. You got to save him, Jinny, but"—he came suddenly to his feet—"he ain't safe here. They might come any minute, if they've got back on his trail. I'll take him up the gorge. You know where."
"You sit still, Uncle Tom," she rejoined. "Leave him where he is a minute. There's things must be settled first. They ain't going to look for him in my bedroom, be they?"
The old man chuckled. "I'd like to see 'em at it. You got a temper, Jinny; and you got a pistol too, eh?" He chuckled again. "As good a shot as any in the mountains. I can see you darin' 'em to come on. But what if Jake come, and he found a man in your bedroom"—he wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes—"why, Jinny—!"
He stopped short, for there was anger in her face. "I don't want to hear any more of that. I do what I want to do," she snapped out.
"Well, well, you always done what you wanted; but we got to git him up the hills, till it's sure they're out o' the mountains and gone back. It'll be days, mebbe."
"Uncle Tom, you've took too much to drink," she answered. "You don't remember he's got to be at Bindon by to-morrow noon. He's got to save his friend by then."
"Pshaw! Who's going to take him down the river to-night? You're goin' to be married to-morrow. If you like, you can give him the canoe. It'll never come back, nor him neither!"
"You've been down with me," she responded suggestively. "And you went down once by yourself."
He shook his head. "I ain't been so well this summer. My sight ain't what it was. I can't stand the racket as I once could. 'Pears to me I'm gettin' old. No, I couldn't take them rapids, Jinny, not for one frozen minute."
She looked at him with trouble in her eyes, and her face lost some of its colour. She was fighting back the inevitable, even as its shadow fell upon her. "You wouldn't want a man to die, if you could save him, Uncle Tom—blown up, sent to Kingdom Come without any warning at all; and perhaps he's got them that love him—and the world so beautiful."
"Well, it ain't nice dyin' in the summer, when it's all sun, and there's plenty everywhere; but there's no one to go down the river with him. What's his name?"
Her struggle was over. She had urged him, but in very truth she was urging herself all the time, bringing herself to the axe of sacrifice.
"His name's Dingley. I'm going down the river with him—down to Bindon."
The old man's mouth opened in blank amazement. His eyes blinked helplessly.
"What you talkin' about, Jinny! Jake's comin' up with the minister, an' you're goin' to be married at noon to-morrow."
"I'm takin' him"—she jerked her head towards the room where Dingley was —"down Dog Nose Rapids to-night. He's risked his life for his friend, thinkin' of her that's dead an' gone, and a man's life is a man's life. If it was Jake's life in danger, what'd I think of a woman that could save him, and didn't?"
"Onct you broke off with Jake Lawson—the day before you was to be married; an' it's took years to make up an' agree again to be spliced. If Jake comes here to-morrow, and you ain't here, what do you think he'll do? The neighbours are comin' for fifty miles round, two is comin' up a hundred miles, an' you can't—Jinny, you can't do it. I bin sick of answerin' questions all these years 'bout you and Jake, an' I ain't goin' through it again. I've told more lies than there's straws in a tick."
She flamed out. "Then take him down the river yourself—a man to do a man's work. Are you afeard to take the risk?"
He held out his hands slowly and looked at them. They shook a little. "Yes, Jinny," he said sadly, "I'm afeard. I ain't what I was. I made a mistake, Jinny. I've took too much whiskey. I'm older than I ought to be. I oughtn't never to have had a whiskey-still, an' I wouldn't have drunk so much. I got money—money for you, Jinny, for you an' Jake, but I've lost what I'll never git back. I'm afeard to go down the river with him. I'd go smash in the Dog Nose Rapids. I got no nerve. I can't hunt the grizzly any more, nor the puma, Jinny. I got to keep to common shootin', now and henceforth, amen! No, I'd go smash in Dog Nose Rapids."
She caught his hands impulsively. "Don't you fret, Uncle Tom. You've bin a good uncle to me, and you've bin a good friend, and you ain't the first that's found whiskey too much for him. You ain't got an enemy in the mountains. Why, I've got two or three—"
"Shucks! Women—only women whose beaux left 'em to follow after you. That's nothing, an' they'll be your friends fast enough after you're married tomorrow."
"I ain't going to be married to-morrow. I'm going down to Bindon to-night. If Jake's mad, then it's all over, and there'll be more trouble among the women up here."
By this time they had entered the other room. The old man saw the white petticoat on the chair. "No woman in the mountains ever had a petticoat like that, Jinny. It'd make a dress, it's that pretty an' neat. Golly, I'd like to see it on you, with the blue skirt over, and just hitched up a little."
"Oh, shut up—shut up!" she said in sudden anger, and caught up the petticoat as though she would put it away; but presently she laid it down again and smoothed it with quick, nervous fingers. "Can't you talk sense and leave my clothes alone? If Jake comes, and I'm not here, and he wants to make a fuss, and spoil everything, and won't wait, you give him this petticoat. You put it in his arms. I bet you'll have the laugh on him. He's got a temper."
"So've you, Jinny, dear, so've you," said the old man, laughing. "You're goin' to have your own way, same as ever—same as ever."
A moon of exquisite whiteness silvering the world, making shadows on the water as though it were sunlight and the daytime, giving a spectral look to the endless array of poplar trees on the banks, glittering on the foam of the rapids. The spangling stars made the arch of the sky like some gorgeous chancel in a cathedral as vast as life and time. Like the day which was ended, in which the mountain-girl had found a taste of Eden, it seemed too sacred for mortal strife. Now and again there came the note of a night-bird, the croak of a frog from the shore; but the serene stillness and beauty of the primeval North was over all.
For two hours after sunset it had all been silent and brooding, and then two figures appeared on the bank of the great river. A canoe was softly and hastily pushed out from its hidden shelter under the overhanging bank, and was noiselessly paddled out to midstream, dropping down the current meanwhile.
It was Jenny Long and the man who must get to Bindon. They had waited till nine o'clock, when the moon was high and full, to venture forth. Then Dingley had dropped from her bedroom window, had joined her under the trees, and they had sped away, while the man's hunters, who had come suddenly, and before Jenny could get him away into the woods, were carousing inside. These had tracked their man back to Tom Sanger's house, and at first they were incredulous that Jenny and her uncle had not seen him. They had prepared to search the house, and one had laid his finger on the latch of her bedroom door; but she had flared out with such anger that, mindful of the supper she had already begun to prepare for them, they had desisted, and the whiskey-jug which the old man brought out distracted their attention.
One of their number, known as the Man from Clancey's, had, however, been outside when Dingley had dropped from the window, and had seen him from a distance. He had not given the alarm, but had followed, to make the capture by himself. But Jenny had heard the stir of life behind them, and had made a sharp detour, so that they had reached the shore and were out in mid-stream before their tracker got to the river. Then he called to them to return, but Jenny only bent a little lower and paddled on, guiding the canoe towards the safe channel through the first small rapids leading to the great Dog Nose Rapids.
A rifle-shot rang out, and a bullet "pinged" over the water and splintered the side of the canoe where Dingley sat. He looked calmly back, and saw the rifle raised again, but did not stir, in spite of Jenny's warning to lie down.
"He'll not fire on you so long as he can draw a bead on me," he said quietly.
Again a shot rang out, and the bullet sang past his head.
"If he hits me, you go straight on to Bindon," he continued. "Never mind about me. Go to the Snowdrop Mine. Get there by twelve o'clock, and warn them. Don't stop a second for me—"
Suddenly three shots rang out in succession—Tom Sanger's house had emptied itself on the bank of the river—and Dingley gave a sharp exclamation.
"They've hit me, but it's the same arm as before," he growled. "They got no right to fire at me. It's not the law. Don't stop," he added quickly, as he saw her half turn round.
Now there were loud voices on the shore. Old Tom Sanger was threatening to shoot the first man that fired again, and he would have kept his word.
"Who you firin' at?" he shouted. "That's my niece, Jinny Long, an' you let that boat alone. This ain't the land o' lynch law. Dingley ain't escaped from gaol. You got no right to fire at him."
"No one ever went down Dog Nose Rapids at night," said the Man from Clancey's, whose shot had got Dingley's arm. "There ain't a chance of them doing it. No one's ever done it."
The two were in the roaring rapids now, and the canoe was jumping through the foam like a racehorse. The keen eyes on the bank watched the canoe till it was lost in the half-gloom below the first rapids, and then they went slowly back to Tom Sanger's house.
"So there'll be no wedding to-morrow," said the Man from Clancey's.
"Funerals, more likely," drawled another.
"Jinny Long's in that canoe, an' she ginerally does what she wants to," said Tom Sanger sagely.
"Well, we done our best, and now I hope they'll get to Bindon," said another.
Sanger passed the jug to him freely. Then they sat down and talked of the people who had been drowned in Dog Nose Rapids and of the last wedding in the mountains.
It was as the Man from Clancey's had said, no one had ever gone down Dog Nose Rapids in the nighttime, and probably no one but Jenny Long would have ventured it. Dingley had had no idea what a perilous task had been set his rescuer. It was only when the angry roar of the great rapids floated up-stream to them, increasing in volume till they could see the terror of tumbling waters just below, and the canoe shot forward like a snake through the swift, smooth current which would sweep them into the vast caldron, that he realised the terrible hazard of the enterprise.
The moon was directly overhead when they drew upon the race of rocks and fighting water and foam. On either side only the shadowed shore, forsaken by the races which had hunted and roamed and ravaged here—not a light, nor any sign of life, or the friendliness of human presence to make their isolation less complete, their danger, as it were, shared by fellow-mortals. Bright as the moon was, it was not bright enough for perfect pilotage. Never in the history of white men had these rapids been ridden at nighttime. As they sped down the flume of the deep, irresistible current, and were launched into the trouble of rocks and water, Jenny realised how great their peril was, and how different the track of the waters looked at nighttime from daytime. Outlines seemed merged, rocks did not look the same, whirlpools had a different vortex, islands of stone had a new configuration. As they sped on, lurching, jumping, piercing a broken wall of wave and spray like a torpedo, shooting an almost sheer fall, she came to rely on a sense of intuition rather than memory, for night had transformed the waters.
Not a sound escaped either. The man kept his eyes fixed on the woman; the woman scanned the dreadful pathway with eyes deep-set and burning, resolute, vigilant, and yet defiant too, as though she had been trapped into this track of danger, and was fighting without great hope, but with the temerity and nonchalance of despair. Her arms were bare to the shoulder almost, and her face was again and again drenched; but second succeeded second, minute followed minute in a struggle which might well turn a man's hair grey, and now, at last-how many hours was it since they had been cast into this den of roaring waters!—at last, suddenly, over a large fall, and here smooth waters again, smooth and untroubled, and strong and deep. Then, and only then, did a word escape either; but the man had passed through torture and unavailing regret, for he realised that he had had no right to bring this girl into such a fight. It was not her friend who was in danger at Bindon. Her life had been risked without due warrant. "I didn't know, or I wouldn't have asked it," he said in a low voice. "Lord, but you are a wonder—to take that hurdle for no one that belonged to you, and to do it as you've done it. This country will rise to you." He looked back on the raging rapids far behind, and he shuddered. "It was a close call, and no mistake. We must have been within a foot of down-you-go fifty times. But it's all right now, if we can last it out and git there." Again he glanced back, then turned to the girl. "It makes me pretty sick to look at it," he continued. "I bin through a lot, but that's as sharp practice as I want."
"Come here and let me bind up your arm," she answered. "They hit you— the sneaks! Are you bleeding much?"
He came near her carefully, as she got the big canoe out of the current into quieter water. She whipped the scarf from about her neck, and with his knife ripped up the seam of his sleeve. Her face was alive with the joy of conflict and elated with triumph. Her eyes were shining. She bathed the wound—the bullet had passed clean through the fleshy part of the arm—and then carefully tied the scarf round it over her handkerchief.
"I guess it's as good as a man could do it," she said at last.
"As good as any doctor," he rejoined.
"I wasn't talking of your arm," she said.
"'Course not. Excuse me. You was talkin' of them rapids, and I've got to say there ain't a man that could have done it and come through like you. I guess the man that marries you'll get more than his share of luck."
"I want none of that," she said sharply, and picked up her paddle again, her eyes flashing anger.
He took a pistol from his pocket and offered it to her. "I didn't mean any harm by what I said. Take this if you think I won't know how to behave myself," he urged.
She flung up her head a little. "I knew what I was doing before I started," she said. "Put it away. How far is it, and can we do it in time?"
"If you can hold out, we can do it; but it means going all night and all morning; and it ain't dawn yet, by a long shot."
Dawn came at last, and the mist of early morning, and the imperious and dispelling sun; and with mouthfuls of food as they drifted on, the two fixed their eyes on the horizon beyond which lay Bindon. And now it seemed to the girl as though this race to save a life or many lives was the one thing in existence. To-morrow was to-day, and the white petticoat was lying in the little house in the mountains, and her wedding was an interminable distance off, so had this adventure drawn her into its risks and toils and haggard exhaustion.
Eight, nine, ten, eleven o'clock came, and then they saw signs of settlement. Houses appeared here and there upon the banks, and now and then a horseman watched them from the shore, but they could not pause. Bindon—Bindon—Bindon—the Snowdrop Mine at Bindon, and a death-dealing machine timed to do its deadly work, were before the eyes of the two voyageurs.
Half-past eleven, and the town of Bindon was just beyond them. A quarter to twelve, and they had run their canoe into the bank beyond which were the smokestacks and chimneys of the mine. Bindon was peacefully pursuing its way, though here and there were little groups of strikers who had not resumed work.
Dingley and the girl scrambled up the bank. Trembling with fatigue, they hastened on. The man drew ahead of her, for she had paddled for fifteen hours, practically without ceasing, and the ground seemed to rise up at her. But she would not let him stop.
He hurried on, reached the mine, and entered, shouting the name of his friend. It was seven minutes to twelve.
A moment later, a half-dozen men came rushing from that portion of the mine where Dingley had been told the machine was placed, and at their head was Lawson, the man he had come to save.
The girl hastened on to meet them, but she grew faint and leaned against a tree, scarce conscious. She was roused by voices.
"No, it wasn't me, it wasn't me that done it; it was a girl. Here she is—Jenny Long! You got to thank her, Jake."
Jake! Jake! The girl awakened to full understanding now. Jake—what Jake? She looked, then stumbled forward with a cry.
"Jake—it was my Jake!" she faltered. The mine-boss caught her in his arms. "You, Jenny! It's you that's saved me!"
Suddenly there was a rumble as of thunder, and a cloud of dust and stone rose from the Snowdrop Mine. The mine-boss tightened his arm round the girl's waist. "That's what I missed, through him and you, Jenny," he said.
"What was you doing here, and not at Selby, Jake?" she asked.
"They sent for me-to stop the trouble here."
"But what about our wedding to-day?" she asked with a frown.
"A man went from here with a letter to you three days ago," he said, "asking you to come down here and be married. I suppose he got drunk, or had an accident, and didn't reach you. It had to be. I was needed here—couldn't tell what would happen."
"It has happened out all right," said Dingley, "and this'll be the end of it. You got them miners solid now. The strikers'll eat humble pie after to-day."
"We'll be married to-day, just the same," the mine-boss said, as he gave some brandy to the girl.
But the girl shook her head. She was thinking of a white petticoat in a little house in the mountains. "I'm not going to be married to-day," she said decisively.
"Well, to-morrow," said the mine-boss.
But the girl shook her head again. "To-day is tomorrow," she answered. "You can wait, Jake. I'm going back home to be married."
"But I'm white; I'm not an Indian. My father was a white man. I've been brought up as a white girl. I've had a white girl's schooling."
Her eyes flashed as she sprang to her feet and walked up and down the room for a moment, then stood still, facing her mother,—a dark-faced, pock-marked woman, with heavy, somnolent eyes, and waited for her to speak. The reply came slowly and sullenly—
"I am a Blackfoot woman. I lived on the Muskwat River among the braves for thirty years. I have killed buffalo. I have seen battles. Men, too, I have killed when they came to steal our horses and crept in on our lodges in the night-the Crees! I am a Blackfoot. You are the daughter of a Blackfoot woman. No medicine can cure that. Sit down. You have no sense. You are not white. They will not have you. Sit down."
The girl's handsome face flushed; she threw up her hands in an agony of protest. A dreadful anger was in her panting breast, but she could not speak. She seemed to choke with excess of feeling. For an instant she stood still, trembling with agitation, then she sat down suddenly on a great couch covered with soft deerskins and buffalo robes. There was deep in her the habit of obedience to this sombre but striking woman. She had been ruled firmly, almost oppressively, and she had not yet revolted. Seated on the couch, she gazed out of the window at the flying snow, her brain too much on fire for thought, passion beating like a pulse in all her lithe and graceful young body, which had known the storms of life and time for only twenty years.
The wind shrieked and the snow swept past in clouds of blinding drift, completely hiding from sight the town below them, whose civilisation had built itself many habitations and was making roads and streets on the green-brown plain, where herds of buffalo had stamped and streamed and thundered not long ago. The town was a mile and a half away, and these two were alone in a great circle of storm, one of them battling against a tempest which might yet overtake her, against which she had set her face ever since she could remember, though it had only come to violence since her father died two years before—a careless, strong, wilful white man, who had lived the Indian life for many years, but had been swallowed at last by the great wave of civilisation streaming westward and northward, wiping out the game and the Indian, and overwhelming the rough, fighting, hunting, pioneer life. Joel Renton had made money, by good luck chiefly, having held land here and there which he had got for nothing, and had then almost forgotten about it, and, when reminded of it, still held on to it with that defiant stubbornness which often possesses improvident and careless natures. He had never had any real business instinct, and to swagger a little over the land he held and to treat offers of purchase with contempt was the loud assertion of a capacity he did not possess. So it was that stubborn vanity, beneath which was his angry protest against the prejudice felt by the new people of the West for the white pioneer who married an Indian, and lived the Indian life,—so it was that this gave him competence and a comfortable home after the old trader had been driven out by the railway and the shopkeeper. With the first land he sold he sent his daughter away to school in a town farther east and south, where she had been brought in touch with a life that at once cramped and attracted her; where, too, she had felt the first chill of racial ostracism, and had proudly fought it to the end, her weapons being talent, industry, and a hot, defiant ambition.
There had been three years of bitter, almost half-sullen, struggle, lightened by one sweet friendship with a girl whose face she had since drawn in a hundred different poses on stray pieces of paper, on the walls of the big, well-lighted attic to which she retreated for hours every day, when she was not abroad on the prairies, riding the Indian pony that her uncle the Piegan Chief, Ice Breaker, had given her years before. Three years of struggle, and then her father had died, and the refuge for her vexed, defiant heart was gone. While he lived she could affirm the rights of a white man's daughter, the rights of the daughter of a pioneer who had helped to make the West; and her pride in him had given a glow to her cheek and a spring to her step which drew every eye. In the chief street of Portage la Drome men would stop their trafficking and women nudge each other when she passed, and wherever she went she stirred interest, excited admiration, or aroused prejudice—but the prejudice did not matter so long as her father, Joel Renton, lived. Whatever his faults, and they were many—sometimes he drank too much, and swore a great deal, and bullied and stormed—she blinked at them all, for he was of the conquering race, a white man who had slept in white sheets and eaten off white tablecloths, and used a knife and fork, since he was born; and the women of his people had had soft petticoats and fine stockings, and silk gowns for festal days, and feathered hats of velvet, and shoes of polished leather, always and always, back through many generations. She had held her head high, for she was of his women, of the women of his people, with all their rights and all their claims. She had held it high till that stormy day—just such a day as this, with the surf of snow breaking against the house—when they carried him in out of the wild turmoil and snow, laying him on the couch where she now sat, and her head fell on his lifeless breast, and she cried out to him in vain to come back to her.
Before the world her head was still held high, but in the attic-room, and out on the prairies far away, where only the coyote or the prairie- hen saw, her head drooped, and her eyes grew heavy with pain and sombre protest. Once in an agony of loneliness, and cruelly hurt by a conspicuous slight put upon her at the Portage by the wife of the Reeve of the town, who had daughters twain of pure white blood got from behind the bar of a saloon in Winnipeg, she had thrown open her window at night with the frost below zero, and stood in her thin nightdress, craving the death which she hoped the cold would give her soon. It had not availed, however, and once again she had ridden out in a blizzard to die, but had come upon a man lost in the snow, and her own misery had passed from her, and her heart, full of the blood of plainsmen, had done for another what it would not do for itself. The Indian in her had, with strange, sure instinct, found its way to Portage la Drome, the man with both hands and one foot frozen, on her pony, she walking at his side, only conscious that she had saved one, not two, lives that day.
Here was another such day, here again was the storm in her heart which had driven her into the plains that other time, and here again was that tempest of white death outside.
"You have no sense. You are not white. They will not have you. Sit down—"
The words had fallen on her ears with a cold, deadly smother. There came a chill upon her which stilled the wild pulses in her, which suddenly robbed the eyes of their brightness and gave a drawn look to the face.
"You are not white. They will not have you, Pauline." The Indian mother repeated the words after a moment, her eyes grown still more gloomy; for in her, too, there was a dark tide of passion moving. In all the outlived years this girl had ever turned to the white father rather than to her, and she had been left more and more alone. Her man had been kind to her, and she had been a faithful wife, but she had resented the natural instinct of her half-breed child, almost white herself and with the feelings and ways of the whites, to turn always to her father, as though to a superior guide, to a higher influence and authority. Was not she herself the descendant of Blackfoot and Piegan chiefs through generations of rulers and warriors? Was there not Piegan and Blackfoot blood in the girl's veins? Must only the white man's blood be reckoned when they made up their daily account and balanced the books of their lives, credit and debtor,—misunderstanding and kind act, neglect and tenderness, reproof and praise, gentleness and impulse, anger and caress,—to be set down in the everlasting record? Why must the Indian always give way—Indian habits, Indian desires, the Indian way of doing things, the Indian point of view, Indian food, Indian medicine? Was it all bad, and only that which belonged to white life good?
"Look at your face in the glass, Pauline," she added at last. "You are good-looking, but it isn't the good looks of the whites. The lodge of a chieftainess is the place for you. There you would have praise and honour; among the whites you are only a half-breed. What is the good? Let us go back to the life out there beyond the Muskwat River—up beyond. There is hunting still, a little, and the world is quiet, and nothing troubles. Only the wild dog barks at night, or the wolf sniffs at the door and all day there is singing. Somewhere out beyond the Muskwat the feasts go on, and the old men build the great fires, and tell tales, and call the wind out of the north, and make the thunder speak; and the young men ride to the hunt or go out to battle, and build lodges for the daughters of the tribe; and each man has his woman, and each woman has in her breast the honour of the tribe, and the little ones fill the lodge with laughter. Like a pocket of deerskin is every house, warm and small and full of good things. Hai-yai, what is this life to that! There you will be head and chief of all, for there is money enough for a thousand horses; and your father was a white man, and these are the days when the white man rules. Like clouds before the sun are the races of men, and one race rises and another falls. Here you are not first, but last; and the child of the white father and mother, though they be as the dirt that flies from a horse's heels, it is before you. Your mother is a Blackfoot."