Afterward, when they slowly made their way to the car, and drove home to the Bijou again, Connie was still silent. She saw David comfortably settled in the big chair on the sunny corner of the porch, with Carol beside him and Julia romping on the lawn. Then she walked up and down in front of the hotel. Finally she came back to the corner of the porch.
"David," she said impetuously, "I've got to speak to one of them myself." She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the fair-grounds.
"One of them?" echoed David.
"Yes, one of those riders. I want to see if they can make me feel anything. I want to find out if they are anything like other folks."
David looked up suddenly, and a smile came to his eyes. Connie turned quickly, and there, not two feet from her, stood "One of them," the man who had ridden King Devil. His sombrero was pushed back on his head, and his hair clung damply to his brown forehead. His lean face was cynical, sneering. He carried a whip and spurs in one hand, the other rested on the bulging hip of his khaki riding trousers.
Connie stared, fascinated, into the thin, brown, sneering face.
"How do you do?" he said mockingly. "Isn't it charming weather?"
Connie still looked directly into his eyes. Somehow she felt that back of the sneer, back of the resentment, there lay a little hurt that she should have spoken so, classed him with fine horses and cattle, him and his kind. Connie would make amends, a daughter of the parsonage might not do ungracious things like that.
"I beg your pardon," she said, sweetly, unsmilingly, "I did not mean to be rude. But the riders did fascinate me. I am spellbound. I only wished to see if the charm would hold. I have not been in the West before this." She held out her hand, slender, white, appealing.
The man looked at her curiously in turn, then he jerked off his sombrero and took her hand in his. There was the contact, soft white skin of the city, hard brown hand of the mountain plains, and human blood is swift to leap in response to an unwonted touch.
Connie drew her hand away quickly, but his eyes still held hers.
"Let me beg your pardon instead," he said. "Of course you did not mean it the way it sounded. None of my business, anyhow."
"Come on, Prince," called a man from the road, curbing his impatient horse. But "Prince" waved him away without turning.
This was a wonderful girl.
"I—I write stories," Connie explained hurriedly, to get away from that searching clasp of glances. "I wanted some literary material, and I seemed so far away from everything. I thought I needed the personal touch, you know."
"Anything I can tell you?" he offered feverishly. "I know all about range and ranch life. I can tell you anything you want to know."
"Really? And will you do it? You know writers have just got to get material. It is absolutely necessary. And I am running very short of ideas, I have been loafing."
He waited patiently. He was more than willing to tell her everything he knew, or could make up to please her, but he had not the slightest idea what she wanted. Whatever it was, he certainly intended to make the effort of his life to give her.
"I am Constance Starr," said Connie, still more abashed by the unfaltering presence of this curious creature, who, she fully realized at last, was quite human enough for any literary purpose. "And this is my brother-in-law, Mr. Duke, and my sister, Mrs. Duke."
"My name is Prince Ingram."
David shook hands with him cordially, with smiling eyes, and asked him to sit down so Connie might ask her questions in comfort. They all took chairs, and Prince waited. Connie racked her brain. Five minutes ago there had been ten thousand things she yearned to know about this strange existence. Now, unfairly, she could not think of one. It seemed to her she knew all there was to know about them. They looked into each other's eyes, men and women, as men and women do in Chicago. They touched hands, and the blood quickened, the old Chicago style. They talked plain English, they liked pretty clothes, they worshiped good horses, they lived on the boundless plains. What on earth was there to ask? Quite suddenly, Connie understood them perfectly.
But Prince realized that he was not making good. His one claim to admission in her presence was his ability to tell her what she wanted to know. He had got to tell her things,—but what things? My stars, what did she want to know? How old he was, where he was born, if he was married,—oh, by George, she didn't think he was married, did she?
"I am not married," he said abruptly. David looked around at him in surprise, and Carol's eyes opened widely. But Connie, with what must have been literary intuition, understood. She nodded at him and smiled as she asked, "Have you always lived out here?"
"No." He straightened his shoulders and drew a deep breath. Here was a starter, it would be his own fault if he could not keep talking the rest of the night. "No, I came out from Columbus when I was eighteen. Came for my health." He squared his shoulders again, and laughed a big deep laugh which made Connie marvel that there should be such big deep laughs in the world.
"My father was a doctor. He sent me out, and I got a job punching time in the mines at Cripple Creek. I met some stock men, and one of them offered me a job, and I came out and got in with them. Then I got hold of a bit of land and began gathering up stock for myself. I stayed with the Sparker outfit six years, and then my father died. I took the money and got my start, and—why, that is all." He stopped in astonishment. He had been sure his story would last several hours. He had begun at the very start, his illness at eighteen, and here he was right up to the present, and—he rubbed his knee despairingly. There must be something else. There had to be something else. What under the sun had he been doing all these fourteen years in the ranges?
"Don't you ever wish to go back?" Connie prompted kindly.
"Back to Columbus? I went twice to see my father. He had a private sanatorium. My booming voice gave his nervous patients prostrations, and father thought my clothes were not sanitary because they could not be sterilized. Are you going to stay here for good?"
It was very risky to ask, he knew, but he had to find out.
"I am visiting my sister in Denver. We just came here for the Frontier Days," said Connie primly.
"There is another Frontier Week at Sterling," he said eagerly. "A fine one, better than this. It isn't far over there. You would get more material at Sterling, I think. Can't you go on up?"
"I have been away from Chicago four weeks now," said Connie. "In exactly two weeks I must be at my desk again."
"Chicago is not a healthy town," he said, in a voice that would have done credit to his father, the medical man. "Very unhealthy. It is not literary either. Out west is the place for literature. All the great writers come west. Western stories are the big sellers. There's Ralph Connor, and Rex Beach, and Jack London and—and—"
"But I am not a great writer," Connie interrupted modestly. "I am just a common little filler-in in the ranks of a publishing house. I'm only a beginner."
"That is because you stick to Chicago," he said eloquently. "You come out here, out in the open, where things are wide and free, and you can see a thousand miles at one stretch. You come out here, and you'll be as great as any of 'em,—greater!"
The loud clamor of the dinner bell interrupted his impassioned outburst and he relapsed into stricken silence.
"Well, we must go to dinner before the supply runs out," said David, rising slowly. "Come along, Julia. We are glad to have met you, Mr. Ingram." He held out his thin, blue-veined hand. "We'll see you again."
Prince looked hopelessly at Connie's back, for her face was already turned toward the dining-room. How cold and infinitely distant that tall, straight, tailored back appeared.
"Ask him to eat with us," Connie hissed, out of one corner of her lip, in David's direction.
David hesitated, looking at her doubtfully. Connie nudged him with emphasis.
Well, what could David do? He might wash his hands of the whole irregular business, and he did. Connie was a writer, she must have material, but in his opinion Connie was too young to be literary. She should have been older, or uglier, or married. Literature is not safe for the young and charming. Connie nudged him again. Plainly if he did not do as she said, she was going to do it herself.
David turned to the brown-faced, sad-eyed son of the mountain ranges, and said:
"Come along and have dinner with us, won't you?"
Carol pursed up her lips warningly, but Prince Ingram, in his eagerness, nearly picked David up bodily in his hurry to get the little party settled before some one spoiled it all.
He wanted to handle Connie's chair for her, he knew just how it was done. But suppose he pushed her clear under the table, or jerked it entirely from under her, or did something worse than either? A girl like Connie ought to have those things done for her. Well, he would let it go this time. So he looked after Julia, and settled her so comfortably, and was so assiduously attentive to her that he quite won her heart, and before the meal was over she said he might come and live with them and be her grandpa, if he wanted.
"Grandpa," he said facetiously. "Do I look as old as that? Can't I be something better than a grandpa?"
"Well, only one papa's the style," said Julia doubtfully. "And you are too big to be a baby, and—"
"Can't I be your uncle?" Then, glancing at Connie with a sudden realization of the only possible way the uncle-ship could be accomplished, he blushed.
"Yes, an uncle is better," said Connie imperturbably. "You must remember, Julia dear, that men are very, very sensitive about their ages, and you must always give them credit for youth."
"I see," said Julia. And Prince wondered how old Connie thought he was, his hair was a little thin, not from age—always had been that way—and he was as brown as a Zulu, but it was only sunburn. He'd figure out a way of letting her know he was only thirty-two before the evening was over.
"Are you going over to the street to-night?" he asked of David, but not caring half a cent what David did.
"I am afraid I can't. I am not very good on my feet any more. I am sorry, the girls would enjoy it."
"Carol and I might go alone," suggested Connie bravely. "Every one does out here. We wouldn't mind it."
"I will not go to a street carnival and leave David," protested Carol.
"It would be rather interesting." Connie looked tentatively from the window.
Prince swallowed in anguish. She ought to go, he told them; she really needs to go. The evenings are so much fuller of literary material than day-times. And the dancing—
"I do not dance," said Connie. "My father is a minister."
"You do not dance! Why, that's funny. I don't either. That is, not exactly,— Oh, once in a while just to fill in." Then the latter part of her remark reached his inner consciousness. "A minister. By George!"
"My husband is one, too," said Carol.
Prince looked helplessly about him. Then he said faintly, "I—I am not. But my father wanted me to be a preacher. He sent me to Princeton, and I stuck it out nearly ten weeks. That is why they call me Prince, short for Princeton. I am the only real college man on the range, they say."
"The street fair must be interesting," Connie went back to the main idea.
"Yes indeed, the crowds, the side-shows—I mean the exhibits, and the lotteries, and—I am sure you never saw so much literary material crowded into two blocks in your life."
"Oh, well, I don't mind. Maybe some other night we can go." Connie was sweetly resigned.
"I should be very glad,—if you don't mind,—I haven't anything else to do,—and I can take good care of you."
"Oh, that is just lovely. And maybe you will give me some more stories. Isn't that fine, David? It is so kind of you, Mr. Ingram. I am sure I shall find lots of material."
David kicked Carol warningly beneath the table. "You must go too, Carol. You have never seen such a thing, and it will do you good. I am not the selfish brute you try to make me. You girls go along with Mr. Ingram and I will put Julia to bed and wait for you on the porch."
Well, of course, Mrs. Duke was very nice, and anyhow it was better to take them both than lose them both, and that preacher had a very set face in spite of his pallor. So Prince recovered his equanimity and devoted himself to enjoying the tumultuous evening on the street. He bought candy and canes and pennants until the girls sternly refused to carry another bit of rubbish. He bought David a crimson and gold silk handkerchief, and an Indian bracelet for Julia, and took the girls to ride on the merry-go-round, and was beside himself with joy.
Suppose his friends of the range did draw back as he passed, and gaze after him in awe and envy. Suppose the more reckless ones did snicker like fools, nudging each other, lifting their hats with exaggerated courtesy,—he should worry. He had lived on the range for fourteen years and had never had such a chance before. Now he had it, he would hang on to it if it cost him every sheep he had on the mountains. Wasn't Connie the smartest girl you ever saw, always saying funny, bright things, and—the way she stepped along like a goddess, and the way she smiled! Prince Ingram had forgotten that girls grew like that.
They returned to the hotel early and found David waiting on the porch as he had promised. He was plainly tired, and Carol said he must go to bed at once. They all rose and walked to the door, and then, very surprisingly, Connie thought she would like to sit a while on the quiet porch, from which every other one had gone to the carnival, and collect her thoughts. Carol frowned, and David smiled, but what could they do? They had said they were tired and now they must go to bed perforce. Prince looked after her, and looked at the door that had closed behind David and Carol, and rubbed his fingers thoughtfully under his collar,—and followed Connie back to the porch.
"Will it bother you if I sit here a while? I won't talk if you want to think."
"It won't bother me a bit," she assured him warmly. "It is nice of you to keep me company. And I would rather talk than think."
So he put her chair at the proper angle where the street lamp revealed her clear white features, and he sat as close beside her as he dared. She did not know it, but his elbow was really on the arm of her chair instead of his own. He almost held his breath for fear a slight move would betray him. Wasn't she a wonderful girl? She turned sidewise in the chair, her head resting against the high back, and smiled at him.
"Now talk," she said. "Let us get acquainted. See if you can make me love the mountain ranges better than Chicago."
He told her of the clean sweep of the wind around his little cottage among the pines on the side of the mountain, of the wild animals that sometimes prowled his way, of the shouting of the boys on the range in the dark night, the swaying of distant lanterns, the tinkle of sheep bells. He told her of his father, of the things that he himself had once planned to be and do. He told her of his friends: of Lily, his pal, so-called because he used a safety razor every morning of his life; of Whisker, the finest dog in Colorado; of Ruby, the ruddy brown horse that would follow him miles through the mountains and always find the master at the end of the trail. And he told her it was a lonely life. And it was. Prince Ingram had lived here fourteen years, with no more consciousness of being alone than the eagle perched solitary on the mountain crags, but quite suddenly he discovered that it was lonely, and somehow the discovery took the wonder from that free glad life, and made him long for the city's bright lights, where there were others,—not just cowboys, but regular men and women.
"Yes," assented Connie rather abruptly, "I suppose it would be nice to be in a crowd of women, laughing and dancing and singing. I suppose you do miss it."
"That was not what I meant," said Prince slowly. "I don't care for a crowd of them. Not many. One is enough." He was appalled at his own audacity, and despised himself for his cowardice, for why didn't he look this white fine girl of the city in the eyes and say:
"Yes, one,—and you are it."
If Connie truly was in pursuit of literary material, she was indefatigable in the quest. But sometimes Carol doubted if it was altogether literary material she was after. And David was very much concerned,—what would dignified Father Starr, District Superintendent, say to his youngest daughter, Connie the literary, Connie the proud, Connie the high, the fine, the perfect, delving so assiduously into the mysteries of range life as typified in big, brown, rugged Prince Ingram? To be sure, Prince had risen beyond the cowboy stage and was now a "stock man," a power on the ranges, a man of money, of influence. But David felt responsible.
Yet no one could be responsible for Connie. Father Starr himself could not. If she looked at one serenely and said, "I need to do this," the rankest foolishness assumed the proportions of dire necessity. So what could David, sick and weak, do in the face of the manifestly impossible?
Carol scolded her. And Connie laughed. David offered brotherly suggestions. And Connie laughed again. Julia said Prince was a darling big grandpa, and Connie kissed her.
The Frontier Days passed on to their uproarious conclusion. Connie saw everything, heard everything and took copious notes. She was going to start her book. She had made the acquaintance of some of the cowgirls, and she studied them with a passionate eagerness that English literature in the abstract had never aroused in her gentle breast.
Then she became argumentative. She contended that the beautiful lawn at the Bijou was productive of strength for David, rest for Carol, amusement for Julia, and literary material for her. Therefore, why not linger after the noisy crowd had gone,—just idling on the long porches, strolling under the great trees? And because Connie had a convincing way about her, it was unanimously agreed that the Bijou lawn could do everything she claimed for it, and by all means they ought to tarry a week.
It was all settled before David and Carol learned that Prince Ingram was tired of Frontier Days and had decided not to go on to Sterling, but thought he too should linger, gathering up something worth while in Fort Morgan. Carol looked at Connie reproachfully, but the little baby sister was as imperturbable as ever.
Prince himself was all right. Carol liked him. David liked him, too. And Julia was frankly enchanted with him and with his horse. But Connie and Prince,—that was the puzzle of it,—Connie, fine white, immaculate in manner, in person and in thought,—Prince, rugged and brown, born of the plains and the mountains. Carol knew of course that Prince could move into the city, buy a fine home, join good clubs, dress like common men and be thoroughly respectable. But to Carol he would always be a brown streak of perfect horsemanship. Whatever could that awful Connie be thinking of?
The days passed sweetly and restfully on the Bijou lawn, but one day, most unaccountably to Connie, Prince had an appointment with his business partner down at Brush. He would ride Ruby down and be back in time for dinner at night if it killed him. Connie was cross about that. She thought he should have asked her to drive him down in the car but since he did not she couldn't very well offer her services. What did he suppose she was hanging around that ugly little dead burg for? Take out the literary material, Fort Morgan had nothing for Connie. And since the literary material saw fit to absent itself, it was so many hours gone for nothing.
After he had gone, Connie decided to play a good trick on him. He would kill himself to get back to dinner with her, would he? Let him. He could eat it with David and Carol, and the little Julia he so adored. Connie would take a long drive in the car all by herself, and would not be home until bedtime. She would teach that refractory Material a lesson.
It was a bright cloudless day, the air cold and penetrating. Connie said it was just the day for her to collect her thought, and she could do it best of all in the car. So if they would excuse her,—and they did, of course. Just as she was getting into the car she said that if she had a very exceptionally nice time, she might not come back until after dinner. They were not to worry. She knew the car, she was sure of herself, she would come home when she got ready.
So off she went, taking a naughty satisfaction in the good trick she was playing on that poor boy killing himself to get back for dinner with her. An hour in the open banished her pettishness, and she drove rapidly along the narrow, twisting, unfamiliar road, finding a wild pleasure in her reckless speed. She loved this, she loved it, she loved it. She clapped on a little more gas to show how very dearly she did love it.
After a long time, she found herself far out in a long stretch of gray prairie where no houses broke the bare line of the plains for many miles. It had grown bitterly cold, too, and a sudden daub of gray splashed rapidly across the whole bright sky. Connie drew a rug about her and laughed at the wind that cut her face. It was glorious,—but—she glanced at the speedometer. She had come a long way. She would just run on to the next village and have some luncheon,—mercy, it was three o'clock. Well, as soon as she had something to eat, she would hurry home and perhaps if Prince showed himself properly penitent she would not go right straight to bed.
She pressed down on the accelerator and the car sped forward. Presently she looked around, sniffing the air suspiciously. The sky looked very threatening. She stopped the car and got out. The wind sweeping down from the mountains was a little too suggestive of snow flakes, and the broad stretch of the plains was brown, bare and forbidding. She was not hungry anyhow. She would go home without any luncheon. So she turned the car and started back.
Here and there at frequent intervals intersecting roads crossed the one she was following. She must keep to the main road, the heaviest track, she was sure of that. But sometimes it was hard to recognize the heaviest track. Once or twice, in the sudden darkening of the ground, she had to leap hurriedly out and examine the tracks closely. Even then she could not always tell surely.
Then came the snow, stinging bits of glass leaping gaily on the shoulders of the wind that bore them. Connie set her teeth hard. A little flurry that was all, she was in no danger, whoever heard of a snow-storm the first week in October?
But—ah, this was not the main track after all,—no, it was dwindling away. She must go back. The road was soft here, with deep treacherous ruts lying under the surface. She turned the car carefully, her eyes intent on the road before her, leaning over the wheel to watch. Yes, this was right,—she should have turned to the left. How stupid of her. Here was the track,—she must go faster, it was getting dark. But was this the track after all,—it seemed to be fading out as the other had done? She put on the gas and bumped heavily into a hidden rut. Quickly she threw the clutch into low, and—more gas— What was that? The wheel did not grip, the engine would not pull,—the matchless Harmer Six was helpless. Again and again Connie tried to extricate herself, but it was useless. She got out and took her bearings. It was early evening, but darkness was coming fast. The snow was drifting down from the mountains, and the roads were nearly obliterated.
Connie was stuck, Connie was lost, for once she was unequal to the emergency. In spite of her imperturbability, her serene confidence in herself, and in circumstances, and in the final triumph of everything she wanted and believed, Connie sat down on the step and cried, bitterly, passionately, like any other young women lost in a snow-storm on the plains. It did her good, though it was far beneath her dignity. Presently she wiped her eyes.
She must turn on the lights, every one of them, so if any travelers happened to come her way the signal would summon them to her aid. Then she must get warm, one might freeze on a night like this. She put up the curtains on the car and wrapped herself as best she could in rugs and rain coats. Even then she doubted her ability to withstand the penetrating chill.
"Well," she said grimly, "if I freeze I am going to do it with a pleasant smile on my lips, so they will be sorry when they find me." Tears of sympathy for herself came into her eyes. She hoped Prince would be quite heart-broken, and serve him right, too. But it was terrible that poor dear Carol should have this added sorrow, after all her years of trial. And it was all Connie's own fault. Would women ever have sense enough to learn that men must think of business now and then, and that even the dearest women in the world are nuisances at times?
Well, anyhow, she was paying dearly for her folly, and perhaps other women could profit by it. And all that literary material wasted. "But it is a good thing I am not leaving eleven children motherless," she concluded philosophically.
If men must think of business, and they say they must, there are times when it is sheer necessity that drives and not at all desire. Prince Ingram hated Brush that day with a mortal hatred. Only two days more of Connie, and a few thousand silly sheep were taking him away. Well, he had paid five hundred dollars for Ruby and he would find out if she was worth it. He used his spurs so sharply that the high-spirited mare snorted angrily, and plunged away at her most furious pace. It was not an unpleasant ride. His time had been so fully occupied with the most wonderful girl, that he had not had one moment to think how really wonderful she was. This was his chance and he utilized it fully.
His business partner in Brush was shocked at Prince's lack of interest in a matter of ten thousand dollars. He wondered if perhaps King Devil had not bounced him up more than people realized. But Prince was pliant, far more so than usual, accepted his partner's suggestions without dissent, and grew really enthusiastic when he said finally:
"Well, I guess that is all."
Prince shook hands with him then, seeming almost on the point of kissing him, and Ruby was whirling down the road in a chariot of dust before the bewildered partner had time to explain that his wife was expecting Prince home with them for dinner.
Prince fell from the saddle in front of the Bijou and looked expectantly at the porch. He was sentimental enough to think it must be splendid to have a girl waiting on the porch when one got home from any place. Connie was not there. Well, it was a good thing, he was grimy with dust and perspiration, and Connie was so alarmingly clean. But Carol called him before he had time to escape.
"Is it going to storm?" she asked anxiously.
Prince wheeled toward her sharply. "Is Connie out in the car?"
"Yes," said Carol, staring off down the road in a vain hope of catching sight of the naughty little runaway in the gray car.
"When did she go?" he asked.
"About eleven. She wasn't coming home until after dinner."'
"How far was she going?"
"A long way, she said. She went that direction," Carol pointed out to the right.
"Is it going to storm?" asked David, coming up.
"Yes, it is. But don't you worry, Mrs. Duke. I'll get her all right. If it turns bad, I will take her to some little village or farm-house where she can stay till morning. We'll be all right, and don't you worry."
There was something very assuring in the hearty voice, something consoling in his clear eyes and broad shoulders. Carol followed him out to his horse.
"Prince," she said, smiling up at him, "you will get her, won't you?"
"Of course I will. You aren't worrying, are you?"
"Not since you got home," said Carol. "I know you will get her. I like you, Prince."
"Do you?" He was boyishly pleased. "Does—does David?"
Carol laughed. "Yes, and so does Julia," she teased.
Prince laughed, too, shamefacedly, but he dared not ask, "Does Connie?"
He turned his horse quickly and paused to say, "You'd better get your husband inside. He will chill in spite of the rugs. It is winter, to-night. Good-by."
"He will get her," said Carol confidently, when she returned to David. "He is nice, don't you think so? Maybe he would be perfectly all right—in the city. Connie could straighten him out."
"Yes, brush off the dust, and give him an opera hat and a dinner coat and he would not be half bad."
"He is not half bad now, only—not exactly our kind."
"Women are funny," said David slowly. "I believe Connie likes his kind, just as he is, and would not have him changed for anything."
At first, Prince had no difficulty in following the wide roll of Connie's wheels, for no other cars had gone that way. But once or twice he had to drop from the saddle and examine the tracks closely to make sure of her. Then came the snow, and the tracks were blurred out. Prince was in despair.
"Three roads here," he thought rapidly. "If she took that one she will come to Marker's ranch, and be all right. If she took the middle road she will make Benton. But this one, it winds and twists, and never gets any place."
So on the road to the left, that led to no place at all, Prince carefully guided his weary horse, already beginning to stumble. He sympathized with every aching step, yet he urged her gently to her best speed. Then she slipped, struggled to regain her footing, struck a treacherous bit of ice, and fell, Prince swinging nimbly from the saddle. Plainly she was unable to carry him farther, so he helped her to her feet and turned her loose, pushing on as fast as he could on foot.
Anxiously he peered into the gathering darkness, longing for the long flash of yellow light which meant Connie and the matchless Harmer.
Suddenly he stopped. From away over the hills to his right, mingling with the call of the coyotes, came the unmistakable honk of a siren. He held his breath to listen. It came again, a long continued wail, in perfect tune with the whining of the coyotes. He turned to the right and started over the hills in the wake of the call.
Over a steep incline he plunged, and paused.
"Thank God," he cried aloud, for there he saw a little round yellow glow in the cloudy white mist,—the Harmer Six, and Connie.
He shouted as he ran, that she might not be left in suspense a moment longer than need be. And Connie with numbed fingers tugged the curtains loose and leaned out in the yellow mist to watch him as he came.
We talk of the mountain peaks of life. And poets sing of the snowy crest of life crises, where we look like angels and speak like gods, where we live on the summit of ages. This moment should have been a summit, yet when Prince ran down the hill, breathless, exultant, and nearly exhausted, Connie, her face showing peaked and white in the yellow glare, cried, "Hello, Prince, I knew you'd make it."
She held out a half-frozen hand and he took it in his.
"Car's busted," she said laconically. "Won't budge. I drained the water out of the radiator."
"All right, we'll have to hoof it," he said cheerfully.
He relieved her of the heavier wraps, and they set out silently through the snow, Prince still holding her hand.
"I am awfully glad to see you," she said once, in a polite little voice.
He smiled down upon her. "I am kind o' glad to see you, too, Connie."
After a while she said slowly, "I need wings. My feet are numb." And a moment later, "I can not walk any farther."
"It is ten miles to a house," he told her gravely. "I couldn't carry you so far. I'll take you a mile or so, and you will get rested."
"I am not tired, I am cold. And if you carry me I will be colder. You just run along and tell Carol I am all right—"
"Run along! Why, you would freeze."
"Yes, that is what I mean."
"There is a railroad track half a mile over there. Can you make that?"
Connie looked at him pitifully. "I can not even lift my feet. I am utterly stuck. I kept stepping along," she mumbled indistinctly, "and saying, one more,—just one more,—one more,—but the foot would not come up,—and I knew I was stuck."
Her voice trailed away, and she bundled against him and closed her eyes.
Prince gritted his teeth and took her in his arms. Connie was five feet seven, and very solid. And Prince himself was nearly exhausted with the day's exertion. Sometimes he staggered and fell to his knees, sometimes he hardly knew if he was dragging Connie or pushing her, or if they were both blown along by the wind. Always there was the choke in his throat, the blur in his eyes, and that almost unbearable drag in every muscle. A freight train passed—only a few rods away. He thought he could never climb that bank. "One more—one—more—one more," mumbled Connie in his ear.
He shook himself angrily. Of course he could make that bank,—if he could only rest a minute,—he was not cold,—just a minute's rest to get his breath again—a moment would be enough. God, what was he thinking of? It was not weariness, it was the chill of the night that demanded a moment's rest. He strained Connie closer in his arms and struggled up the bank.
At the top, he dropped her beside the track, and fell with her. For a moment the fatal languor possessed him.
A freight train rounded the curve and came puffing toward them. Prince, roused by springing hope, clambered to his feet, pulling the little pocket flash from his pocket. He waved it imploringly at the train, but it thundered by them.
Resolutely bestirring himself, he carried Connie to a sheltered place where the wind could not strike her, and wrapped her as best he could in his coat and sweater. Then, lowering his head against the driving wind, he plunged down the track in the face of the storm.
Less than a mile down the track, Prince came to the tiny signal house for which he had been looking. The door was locked, and so numb and clumsy were his fingers that he found it hard to force it open. Once on the inside, he felt that the struggle was nearly over. This was the end. Using the railway's private phone, he astonished the telegraph operator in Fort Morgan by cutting in on him and asking him to run across to the nearest garage with a call for a service car.
For a long moment the operator was speechless. Did you ever hear of insolence like that? He told Prince to get off that wire and keep his hands away from railway property or he would land in the pen. Then he went back to his work. But Prince cut in on him again. Finally the operator referred him to the station master and gave him the connection. But the station master refused to meddle with any such irregular business. This was against the law, and station masters are strong for law and order. But Prince was persistent. At last, in despair, they connected him with the district superintendent.
"Who in thunder are you, and what do you want?" asked the superintendent in no gentle voice.
"I want some of those sap-heads of yours in Fort Morgan to take a message to the garage, and they won't do it," yelled Prince.
"Say, what do you think this is? A philanthropic messenger service?" ejaculated the superintendent.
"I haven't got time to talk," cried Prince. "I've got to get at a garage, and quickly."
"Well, we don't run a garage."
"Shut up a minute and listen, will you? There is a woman out here on the track, half frozen. We are twenty miles from a house. Will you send that message or not? The woman can't live two hours."
"Well, why didn't you tell what was the matter? I will connect you with the operator at Fort Morgan and tell him to do whatever you say. You stay on the wire until he reports they have a car started."
So Prince was flung back to the operator at Fort Morgan, and that high-souled scion of the railway was sent out like a common delivery boy to take a message. Prince waited in an agony of suspense for the report from the garage. It was not favorable. No man in town would go out on a wild goose chase into the plains on a night like that. Awfully sorry, nothing doing.
"Take a gun and make them come," said Prince, between set teeth.
"I'm not looking for trouble. Your woman would freeze before they got there anyhow."
"Send the sheriff," begged Prince.
"He couldn't get out there a night like this in time to do you any good."
This was literally true. For a second Prince was silent.
"Anything else?" asked the operator. "Want me to run out and get you a cigar, or a bottle of perfume, or anything?"
"Then there is just one thing to do," said Prince abruptly. "I'll have to flag the first train and get her aboard."
"What! You can't do it. You don't dare do it. It is against the law to flag a train on private business."
"I know it. So I am asking you to make it the railroad's business. I am warning you in advance. Where are the fuses?"
The operator helplessly called up the superintendent once more.
"What the dickens do you want now?"
"It's that nut on the line," explained the operator. "He wants something else."
"Yes, I want to know where the fuses are so I can flag the first train that comes. Or I will just set the tool house afire; that will stop them."
"The fuses are in the lock box under the phone. Break the lock, or pick it. Let us know if you get in all right. How the dickens did you get a woman out there a night like this?"
But Prince had no time to explain. "Thanks, old man, you're pretty white," he said, and clasped the receiver on to the hook. A little later, with the precious fuses in his pocket, he was fighting his way through the snow back to Connie, lying unconscious in the white blankets which no longer chilled her.
The waiting seemed endlessly weary. Prince dared not sit down, but must needs keep staggering up and down the track, praying as he had never prayed in all his life, that God would send a train before Connie should freeze to death. Stooping over her, he chafed her hands and ankles, shaking her roughly, but never succeeding in restoring her to consciousness though doubtless he did much toward keeping the blood in feeble circulation.
Then, thank God! No heavenly star ever shone half so gloriously bright as that wide sweep of light that circled around the ragged rocks. Prince hastily fired the fuse, and a few minutes later a lumbering freight train pulled up beside him, anxious voices calling inquiry.
With rough but willing hands they pulled the girl on board, and piled heavy coats on a bench beside the fire where she might lie, and brought out some hot coffee which Prince swallowed in deep gulps. They even forced a few drops of it down Connie's throat. Prince was soon himself again, and sat silently beside Connie as she slept the heavy sleep.
A long lumbering ride it was, the cars creaking and rocking, reeling from side to side as if they too were drunk with weariness and cold.
At last Connie moved a little and lifted her lashes. She lay very still a while, looking with puzzled eyes at her strange surroundings, enjoying the huge fire, wondering at that curious rocking. Then, glancing at the big brown head beside her, where Prince sat on an overturned bucket with her hand in his, she closed her eyes again, still puzzled, but content.
Long minutes afterward she spoke.
"Are you cold, Prince?"
He tightened his clasp on her hand.
"How did you ever make it?"
"The train came along and we got on. Now we are thawing out," he explained, smiling reassurance.
"I do not remember it. I only remember that I was stuck in the snow, and that you did not leave me."
"Here comes some more coffee, lady," said the brakeman, coming up. Connie drank it gratefully and sat up.
"Where are we going?"
"To Fort Morgan."
"Want any more blankets or anything?" asked the brakeman kindly. "Are you getting warm?"
"Too warm, I will have to move a little."
Prince helped her gently farther from the roaring flames, and again pulled his bucket close to her side. He placed his hand in her lap and Connie wriggled her fingers into his.
Suddenly she leaned forward and looked into his face, noting the steady steely eyes, the square strong chin, the boyish mouth. Not a handsome face, like Jerry's, not fine and pure, like David's,—but strong and kind, a face that somehow spoke wistfully of deep needs and secret longings. Suddenly Connie felt that she was very happy, and in the same instant discovered that her eyes were wet. She smiled.
"Connie," whispered the big brown man, "are we going to get married, sometime?"
"Yes," she whispered promptly, "sometime. If you want me."
His hands closed convulsively over hers.
"Make it soon," he begged. "It is terribly lonesome."
"Two years," she suggested, wrinkling her brows. "But if it is too lonesome, we will make it one."
"You won't go away." Prince was aghast at the thought.
"I have to," she told him, caressing his hand with her fingers. "You know I believe I have a talent, and it says in the Bible if you do not use what is given you, all the other nice things you have may be taken away. So if I don't use that talent, I may lose it and you into the bargain."
Prince did not understand that, but it sounded reasonable. Whatever Connie said, of course. She had a talent, all right, a dozen,—a hundred of them. He thought she had a monopoly on talents.
"I will go back a while and study and work and get ready to use the talent. I have to finish getting ready first. Then I will come and live with you and you can help me use it. You won't mind, will you?"
"I want you to use it," he said. "I'm proud of it. I will take you wherever you wish to go, I will do whatever you want. I'll get a home in Denver, and just manage the business from the outside. I can live the way you like to live and do the things you like to have done; Connie, I know I can."
Connie reached slowly for her hand-bag. From it she took a tiny note-book and tossed it in the fire.
"Literary material," she explained, smiting at him. "I can not write what I have learned in Fort Morgan. I can only live it."
THE SUNNY SLOPE
After Connie's visit, when she had returned to Chicago to finish learning how to write her knowledge, David and Carol with little Julia settled down in the cottage among the pines, and the winter came and the mountains were huge white monuments over the last summer that had died. Later in the winter a nurse came in to take charge of the little family, and although Carol was afraid of her, she obeyed with childish confidence whenever the nurse gave directions.
"I feel fine to-day," David said to her one morning. "I think when spring comes I shall be stronger again. It is a good thing to be alive."
He glanced through the window and looked at Carol, buttoning Julia's gaiters for the fifth time that morning.
"It is a pretty nice world to most of us," said the nurse.
"We each have a world of our own, I guess. Mine is Carol and Julia now. I have no grouch at life, and I register no complaint against circumstances, but I should be glad to live in my little world a long, long time."
One morning when spring had come, when the white monuments melted and drifted away with the clouds, and when the shadowy canyons and the yellow rocky peaks stood out bare and bright, David called her to him.
"Look," he said, "the same old sunny slope. We have been climbing it four years now, a long climb, sometimes pretty rough and rugged for you."
"It was not, David,—never," she protested quickly. "It was always a clear bright path. And we've been finding things to laugh at all the way."
He pulled her into his arm beside him on the bed. "We are going to the top of the sunny slope together. Look at the mountain there. We are going up one of those sunny ridges, and sometime, after a while, we will stand at the top, right on the summit, with the sky above and the valleys below."
She nodded her head, smiling at him bravely.
"I think it is probably very near to Heaven," he said slowly, in a dreamy voice. "I think it must be. It is so intensely bright,—see how it cuts into the blue. Yes, it must be right at the gates of Heaven. We will stand right there together, won't we?"
"David," she whispered.
"This is what I want to say. After that, there will be another way for you to go, on the other side. Look at the mountains, dear. See, there are other peaks beyond, with alternating slopes of sunshine and canyons of shadow. It is much easier to stick to the sunny slopes when there are two together. It is very easy to stagger off into the shadows, when one has to travel alone. But, Carol, don't you go into the shadows. I want to think always that you are staying in the sunshine, on the slopes, where it is bright, where Julia can laugh and play, where you can sing and listen to the birds. Stick to the sunny slopes, dear, even when you are climbing alone."
Carol nodded her head in affirmation, though her face was hidden.
"I will, David. I will run right out of the shadows and find the sunny slopes."
"And do not try to live by, 'what would David like?' Be happy, dear. Follow the sunshine. I think it guides us truly, for a pure kind heart can not mistake fleeting gaiety for lasting joys like you and I have had. So wherever your journey of joy may take you, follow it and be assured that I am smiling at you in the sunshine."
Carol stayed with him after that, sitting very quietly, speaking softly, in the subdued way that had developed from her youthful buoyance, always quick to smile reassuringly and adoringly when he looked at her, always ready to look hopefully to the sunny slopes when his finger pointed.
In a low hammock beneath the maples Carol lay, pale and slender, dressed in a soft gown of creamy white, with a pink rose at her belt. Through an open window she could see her father at his desk up-stairs. Often he came to the window, waving a friendly greeting that told how glad he was to have her in the family home again. And she could see Aunt Grace in the kitchen, energetically whipping cream for the apple pie for dinner—"Carol always did love apple pie with whipped cream." Julia was digging a canal through the flower bed a dozen steps away. And close at her side sat Lark, the sweet, old, precious twin, who could not attend to the farm a single minute now that Carol was at home once more.
Carol's hands were clasped under her head, and she was staring up through the trees at the clear blue sky, flecked like a sea with bits of foam.
"Mother," cried Julia, running to the hammock and sweeping wildly at the sky with a knife she was using for a spade, "I looked right up into Heaven and I saw my daddy, and he did not cough a bit. He smiled at me and said, 'Hello, little sweetheart. Take good care of Mother.'"
Carol kissed her, softly, regardless of the streaks of earth upon her chubby face.
"Mother," puzzled Julia, "what is it to be died? I can't think it. And I lie down and I can't do it. What is it to be died?"
"Death, Julia, you mean death. I think, dear, it is life,—life that is all made straight; life where one can work and never be laid aside for illness; life where one can love, and fear no separation; life where one can do the big things he yearned to do, and be the big man he yearned to be with no hindrance of little petty things. I think that death is life, the happy life."
Julia, satisfied, returned to her canal, and Lark, with throbbing pity, patted Carol's arm.
"Do you know, Larkie, I think that death is life on the top of a sunny slope, clear up on the peak where it touches the sky. Such a big sunny slope that the canyons of shadow are miles and miles away, out of sight entirely. I believe that David is living right along on the top of a sunny slope."
Her father stepped to the window and tapped on the pane, waving down to them. "I can't keep away from this window," he called. "Whenever you twins get together I think I have to watch you just as I used to when you were mobbing the parsonage."
The twins laughed, and when he went back to his desk they turned to each other with eyes that plainly said, "Isn't he the grandest father that ever lived?"
Then Carol folded her hands behind her head again and looked dreamily up through the leafy maples, seeing the broad mesa stretching off miles away to the mountains, where the dark canyons underlined the sunny slopes.