Day after day they made their way westward. It was tremendous, this journey over the backbone of the mountains. It gave one a different conception of men. They like ants on these mountains, David thought—insignificant, crawling ants. Here was where one might find a soul and a religion if he had never had one before. One's littleness, at times, was almost frightening. It made one think, impressed upon one that life was not much more than an accident in this vast scale of creation, and that there was great necessity for a God. In Kio's eyes, as he sometimes looked down into the valleys, there was this thing; the thought which perhaps he couldn't analyze, the great truth which he couldn't understand, but felt. It made a worshipper of him—a devout worshipper of the totem. And it occurred to David that perhaps the spirit of God was in that totem even as much as in finger-worn rosaries and the ivory crosses on women's breasts.
Early on the eleventh day they came to the confluence of the Pitman and the Stikine rivers, and a little later Kio turned back on his homeward journey, and David and Baree were alone. This aloneness fell upon them like a thing that had a pulse and was alive. They crossed the Divide and were in a great sunlit country of amazing beauty and grandeur, with wide valleys between the mountains. It was July. From up and down the valley, from the breaks between the peaks and from the little gullies cleft in shale and rock that crept up to the snow lines, came a soft and droning murmur. It was the music of running water. That music was always in the air, for the rivers, the creeks, and the tiny streams, gushing down from the snow that lay eternally up near the clouds, were never still. There were sweet perfumes as well as music in the air. The earth was bursting with green; the early flowers were turning the sunny slopes into coloured splashes of red and white and purple—splashes of violets and forget-me-nots, of wild asters and hyacinths. David looked upon it all, and his soul drank in its wonders. He made his camp, and he remained in it all that day, and the next. He was eager to go on, and yet in his eagerness he hesitated, and waited. It seemed to him that he must become acquainted with this empty world before venturing farther into it—alone; that it was necessary for him to understand it a little, and get his bearings. He could not lose himself. Jacques had assured him of that, and Kio had pantomimed it, pointing many times at the broad, shallow stream that ran ahead of him. All he had to do was to follow the river. In time, many weeks, of course, it would bring him to the white settlement on the ocean. Long before that he would strike Firepan Creek. Kio had never been so far; he had never been farther than this junction of the two streams, Towaskook had informed Jacques. So it was not fear that held David. It was the aloneness. He was taking a long mental breath. And, meanwhile, he was repairing his boots, and doctoring Baree's feet, bruised and sore by their travel over the shale of the mountain tops.
He thought that he had experienced the depths of loneliness after leaving the Missioner. But here it was a much larger thing. This night, as he sat under the stars and a great white moon, with Baree at his feet, it engulfed him; not in a depressing way, but awesomely. It was not an unpleasant loneliness, and yet he felt that it had no limit, that it was immeasurable. It was as vast as the mountains that shut him in. Somewhere, miles to the east of him now, was Kio. That was all. He knew that he would never be able to describe it, this loneliness—or aloneness; one man, and a dog, with a world to themselves. After a time, as he looked up at the stars and listened to the droning sound of the waters in the valley, it began to thrill him with a new kind of intelligence. Here was peace as vast as space itself. It was not troubled by the struggling existence of men, and women, and it seemed to him that he must remain very still under the watchfulness of those billions of sentinels in the sky, with the white moon floating under them. The second night he made himself and Baree a small fire. The third morning he shouldered his pack and went on.
Baree kept close at his master's side, and the eyes of the two were constantly on the alert. They were in a splendid game country, and David watched for the first opportunity that would give Baree and himself fresh meat. The white sand bars and gravelly shores of the stream were covered with the tracks of the wild dwellers of the valley and the adjoining ranges, and Baree sniffed hungrily whenever he came to the warm scent of the last night's spoor. He was hungry. He had been hungry all the way over the mountains. Three times that day David saw a caribou at a distance. In the afternoon he saw a grizzly on a green slope. Toward evening he ran into luck. A band of sheep had come down from a mountain to drink, and he came upon them suddenly, the wind in his favour. He killed a young ram. For a full minute after firing the shot he stood in his tracks, scarcely breathing. The report of his rifle was like an explosion. It leaped from mountain to mountain, echoing, deepening, coming back to him in murmuring intonations, and dying out at last in a sighing gasp. It was a weird and disturbing sound. He fancied that it could be heard many miles away. That night the two feasted on fresh meat.
It was their fifth day in the valley when they came to a break in the western wall of the range, and through this break flowed a stream that was very much like the Stikine, broad and shallow and ribboned with shifting bars of sand. David made up his mind that it must be the Firepan, and he could feel his pulse quicken as he started up it with Baree. He must be quite near to Tavish's cabin, if it had not been destroyed. Even if it had been burned on account of the plague that had infested it, he would surely discover the charred ruins of it. It was three o'clock when he started up the creek, and he was—inwardly—much agitated. He grew more and more positive that he was close to the end of his adventure. He would soon come upon life—human life. And then? He tried to dispel the unsteadiness of his emotions, the swiftly growing discomfort of a great anxiety. The first, of course, would be Tavish's cabin, or the ruins of it. He had taken it for granted that Tavish's location would be here, near the confluence of the two streams. A hunter or prospector would naturally choose such a position.
He travelled slowly, questing both sides of the stream, and listening. He expected at any moment to hear a sound, a new kind of sound. And he also scrutinized closely the clean, white bars of sand. There were footprints in them, of the wild things. Once his heart gave a sudden jump when he saw a bear track that looked very much like a moccasin track. It was a wonderful bear country. Their signs were everywhere along the stream, and their number and freshness made Baree restless. David travelled until dark. He had the desire to go on even then. He built a small fire instead, and cooked his supper. For a long time after that he sat in the moonlight smoking his pipe, and still listening. He tried not to think. The next day would settle his doubts. The Girl? What would he find? He went to sleep late and awoke with the summer dawn.
The stream grew narrower and the country wilder as he progressed. It was noon when Baree stopped dead in his tracks, stiff-legged, the bristles of his spine erect, a low and ominous growl in his throat. He was standing over a patch of white sand no larger than a blanket.
"What is it, boy?" asked David.
He went to him casually, and stood for a moment at the edge of the sand without looking down, lighting his pipe.
"What is it?"
The next moment his heart seemed rising up into his throat. He had been expecting what his eyes looked upon now, and he had been watching for it, but he had not anticipated such a tremendous shock. The imprint of a moccasined foot in the sand! There was no doubt of it this time. A human foot had made it—one, two, three, four, five times—in crossing that patch of sand! He stood with the pipe in his mouth, staring down, apparently without power to move or breathe. It was a small footprint. Like a boy's. He noticed, then, with slowly shifting eyes, that Baree was bristling and growling over another track. A bear track, huge, deeply impressed in the sand. The beast's great spoor crossed the outer edge of the sand, following the direction of the moccasin tracks. It was thrillingly fresh, if Baree's bristling spine and rumbling voice meant anything.
David's eyes followed the direction of the two trails. A hundred yards upstream he could see where gravel and rock were replaced entirely by sand, quite a wide, unbroken sweep of it, across which those clawed and moccasined feet must have travelled if they had followed the creek. He was not interested in the bear, and Baree was not interested in the Indian boy; so when they came to the sand one followed the moccasin tracks and the other the claw tracks. They were not at any time more than ten feet apart. And then, all at once, they came together, and David saw that the bear had crossed the sand last and that his huge paws had obliterated a part of the moccasin trail. This did not strike him as unusually significant until he came to a point where the moccasins turned sharply and circled to the right. The bear followed. A little farther—and David's heart gave a sudden thump! At first it might have been coincidence, a bit of chance. It was chance no longer. It was deliberate. The claws were on the trail of the moccasins. David halted and pocketed his pipe, on which he had not drawn a breath in several minutes. He looked at his rifle, making sure that it was ready for action. Baree was growling. His white fangs gleamed and lurid lights were in his eyes as he gazed ahead and sniffed. David shuddered. Without doubt the claws had overtaken the moccasins by this time.
It was a grizzly. He guessed so much by the size of the spoor. He followed it across a bar of gravel. Then they turned a twist in the creek and came to other sand. A cry of amazement burst from David's lips when he looked closely at the two trails again.
The moccasins were now following the grizzly!
He stared, for a few moments disbelieving his eyes. Here, too, there was no room for doubt. The feet of the Indian boy had trodden in the tracks of the bear. The evidence was conclusive; the fact astonishing. Of course, it was barely possible....
Whatever the thought might have been in David's mind, it never reached a conclusion. He did not cry out at what he saw after that. He made no sound. Perhaps he did not even breathe. But it was there—under his eyes; inexplicable, amazing, not to be easily believed. A third time the order of the mysterious footprints in the sand was changed—and the grizzly was now following the boy, obliterating almost entirely the indentures in the sand of his small, moccasined feet. He wondered whether it was possible that his eyes had gone bad on him, or that his mind had slipped out of its normal groove and was tricking him with weirdly absurd hallucinations. So what happened in almost that same breath did not startle him as it might otherwise have done. It was for a brief moment simply another assurance of his insanity; and if the mountains had suddenly turned over and balanced themselves on their peaks their gymnastics would not have frozen him into a more speechless stupidity than did the Girl who rose before him just then, not twenty paces away. She had emerged like an apparition from behind a great boulder—a little older, a little taller, a bit wilder than she had seemed to him in the picture, but with that same glorious hair sweeping about her, and that same questioning look in her eyes as she stared at him. Her hands were in that same way at her side, too, as if she were on the point of running away from him. He tried to speak. He believed, afterward, that he even made an effort to hold out his arms. But he was powerless. And so they stood there, twenty paces apart, staring as if they had met from the ends of the earth.
Something happened then to whip David's reason back into its place. He heard a crunching—heavy, slow. From around the other end of the boulder came a huge bear. A monster. Ten feet from the girl. The first cry rushed out of his throat. It was a warning, and in the same instant he raised his rifle to his shoulder. The girl was quicker than he—like an arrow, a flash, a whirlwind of burnished tresses, as she flew to the side of the great beast. She stood with her back against it, her two hands clutching its tawny hair, her slim body quivering, her eyes flashing at David. He felt weak. He lowered his rifle and advanced a few steps.
"Who ... what ..." he managed to say; and stopped. He was powerless to go on. But she seemed to understand. Her body stiffened.
"I am Marge O'Doone," she said defiantly, "and this is my bear!"
She was splendid as she stood there, an exquisite human touch in the savageness of the world about her—and yet strangely wild as she faced David, protecting with her own quivering body the great beast behind her. To David, in the first immensity of his astonishment, she had seemed to be a woman; but now she looked to him like a child, a very young girl. Perhaps it was the way her hair fell in a tangled riot of curling tresses over her shoulders and breast; the slimness of her; the shortness of her skirt; the unfaltering clearness of the great, blue eyes that were staring at him; and, above all else, the manner in which she had spoken her name. The bear might have been nothing more than a rock to him now, against which she was leaning. He did not hear Baree's low growling. He had travelled a long way to find her, and now that she stood there before him in flesh and blood he was not interested in much else. It was a rather difficult situation. He had known her so long, she had been with him so constantly, filling even his dreams, that it was difficult for him to find words in which to begin speech. When they did come they were most commonplace; his voice was quiet, with an assured and protecting note in it.
"My name is David Raine," he said. "I have come a great distance to find you."
It was a simple and unemotional statement of fact, with nothing that was alarming in it, and yet the girl shrank closer against her bear. The huge brute was standing without the movement of a muscle, his small reddish eyes fixed on David.
"I won't go back!" she said. "I'll—fight!"
Her voice was clear, direct, defiant. Her hands appeared from behind her, and her little fists were clenched. With a swift movement she tossed her hair back from about her face. Her eyes were blue, but dark as thunder clouds in their gathering fierceness. She was like a child, and yet a woman. A ferocious little person. Ready to fight. Ready to spring at him if he approached. Her eyes never left his face.
"I won't go back!" she repeated. "I won't!"
He was noticing other things about her. Her moccasins were in tatters. Her short skirt was torn. Her shining hair was in tangles. As she swept it back from her face he saw under her eyes the darkness of exhaustion; in her cheeks a wanness, which he did not know just then was caused by hunger, and by her struggle to get away from something. On the back of one of her clenched hands was a deep, red scratch. The look in his face must have given the girl some inkling of the truth. She leaned a little forward, quickly and eagerly, and demanded:
"Didn't you come from the Nest? Didn't they send you—after me?"
She pointed down the narrow valley, her lips parted as she waited for his answer, her hair rioting over her breast again as she bent toward him.
"I've come fifteen hundred miles—from that direction," said David, swinging an arm toward the backward mountains. "I've never been in this country before. I don't know where the Nest is, or what it is. And I'm not going to take you back to it unless you want to go. If some one is coming after you, and you're bound to fight. I'll help you. Will that bear bite?"
He swung off his pack and put down his gun. For a moment the girl stared at him with widening eyes. The fear went out of them slowly. Her hand unclenched, and suddenly she turned to the big grizzly and clasped her bared arms about the shaggy monster's neck.
"Tara, Tara, it isn't one of them!" she cried. "It isn't one of them—and we thought it was!"
She whirled on David with a suddenness that took his breath away. It was like the swift turning of a bird. He had never seen a movement so quick.
"Who are you?" she flung at him, as if she had not already heard his name. "Why are you here? What business have you going up there—to the Nest?"
"I don't like that bear," said David dubiously, as the grizzly made a slow movement toward him.
"Tara won't hurt you," she said. "Not unless you put your hands on me, and I scream. I've had him ever since he was a baby and he has never hurt any one yet. But—he will!" Her eyes glowed darkly again, and her voice had a strange, hard little note in it. "I've been ... training him," she added. "Tell me—why are you going to the Nest?"
It was a point-blank, determined question, with still a hint of suspicion in it; and her eyes, as she asked it, were the clearest, steadiest, bluest eyes he had ever looked into.
He was finding it hard to live up to what he had expected of himself. Many times he had thought of what he would say when he found this girl, if he ever did find her; but he had anticipated something a little more conventional, and had believed that it would be quite the easiest matter in the world to tell who he was, and why he had come, and to tell it all convincingly and understandably. He had not, in short, expected the sort of little person who stood there against her bear—a very difficult little person to approach easily and with assurance—half woman and half child, and beautifully wild. She was not disappointing. She was greatly appealing. When he surveyed her in a particularizing way, as he did swiftly, there was an exquisiteness about her that gave him pleasureable thrills. But it was all wild. Even her hair, an amazing glory of tangled curls, was wild in its disorder; she seemed palpitating with that wildness, like a fawn that had been run into a corner—no, not a fawn, but some beautiful creature that could and would fight desperately if need be. That was his impression. He was undergoing a smashing of his conceptions of this girl as he had visioned her from the picture, and a readjustment of her as she existed for him now. And he was not disappointed. He had never seen anything quite like this Marge O'Doone and her bear. O'Doone! His mind had harked back quickly, at her mention of that name, to the woman in the coach of the Transcontinental, the woman who was seeking a man by the name of Michael O'Doone. Of course the woman was her mother. Her name, too, must have been O'Doone.
Very slowly the girl detached herself from her bear, and came until she stood within three steps of David.
"Tara won't hurt you," she assured him again, "unless I scream. He would tear you to pieces, then."
If she had betrayed a sudden fear at his first appearance, it was gone now. Her eyes were like dark rock-violets and again he thought them the bluest and most fearless eyes he had ever seen. She was less a child now, standing so close to him; her slimness made her appear taller than she was. David knew that she was going to question him, and before she could speak he asked:
"Why are you afraid of some one coming after you from the Nest, as you call it?"
"Because," she replied with quiet fearlessness, "I am running away from it."
"Running away!" he gasped. "How long...."
He understood now—her ragged moccasins, her frayed skirt, her tangled hair, the look of exhaustion about her. It came upon him all at once that she was standing unsteadily, swaying slightly like the slender stem of a flower stirred by a breath of air, and that he had not noticed these things because of the steadiness and clearness of her wonderful eyes. He was at her side in an instant. He forgot the bear. His hand seized hers—the one with the deep, red scratch on it—and drew her to a flat rock a few steps away. She followed him, keeping her eyes on him in a wondering sort of way. The grizzly's reddish eyes were on David. A few yards away Baree was lying flat on his belly between two stones, his eyes on the bear. It was a strange scene and rather weirdly incongruous. David no longer sensed it. He still held the girl's hand as he seated her on the rock, and he looked into her eyes, smiling confidently. She was, after all, his little chum—the Girl who had been with him ever since that first night's vision in Thoreau's cabin, and who had helped him to win that great fight he had made; the girl who had cheered and inspired him during many months, and whom he had come fifteen hundred miles to see. He told her this. At first she possibly thought him a little mad. Her eyes betrayed that suspicion, for she uttered not a word to break in on his story; but after a little her lips parted, her breath came a little more quickly, a flush grew in her cheeks. It was a wonderful thing in her life, this story, no matter if the man was a bit mad, or even an impostor. He at least was very real in this moment, and he had told the story without excitement, and with an immeasurable degree of confidence and quiet tenderness—as though he had been simplifying the strange tale for the ears of a child, which in fact he had been endeavouring to do; for with the flush in her cheeks, her parted lips, and her softening eyes, she looked to him more like a child now than ever. His manner gave her great faith. But of course she was, deep in her trembling soul, quite incredulous that he should have done all these things for her—incredulous until he ended his story with that day's travel up the valley, and then, for the first time, showed to her—as a proof of all he had said—the picture.
She gave a little cry then. It was the first sound that had broken past her lips, and she clutched the picture in her hands and stared at it; and David, looking down, could see nothing but that shining disarray of curls, a rich and wonderful brown, in the sunlight, clustering about her shoulders and falling thickly to her waist. He thought it indescribably beautiful, in spite of the manner in which the curls and tresses had tangled themselves. They hid her face as she bent over the picture. He did not speak. He waited, knowing that in a moment or two all that he had guessed at would be clear, and that when the girl looked up she would tell him about the picture, and why she happened to be here, and not with the woman of the coach, who must have been her mother.
When at last she did look up from the picture her eyes were big and staring and filled with a mysterious questioning.
David, feeling quite sure of himself, said:
"How did it happen that you were away up here, and not with your mother that night when I met her on the train?"
"She wasn't my mother," replied the girl, looking at him still in that strange way. "My mother is dead."
After that quietly spoken fact that her mother was dead, David waited for Marge O'Doone to make some further explanation. He had so firmly convinced himself that the picture he had carried was the key to all that he wanted to know—first from Tavish, if he had lived, and now from the girl—that it took him a moment or two to understand what he saw in his companion's face. He realized then that his possession of the picture and the manner in which it had come into his keeping were matters of great perplexity to her, and that the woman whom he had met in the Transcontinental held no significance for her at all, although he had told her with rather marked emphasis that this woman—whom he had thought was her mother—had been searching for a man who bore her own name, O'Doone. The girl was plainly expecting him to say something, and he reiterated this fact—that the woman in the coach was very anxious to find a man whose name was O'Doone, and that it was quite reasonable to suppose that her name was O'Doone, especially as she had with her this picture of a girl bearing that name. It seemed to him a powerful and utterly convincing argument. It was a combination of facts difficult to get away from without certain conclusions, but this girl who was so near to him that he could almost feel her breath did not appear fully to comprehend their significance. She was looking at him with wide-open, wondering eyes, and when he had finished she said again:
"My mother is dead. And my father is dead, too. And my aunt is dead—up at the Nest. There isn't any one left but my uncle Hauck, and he is a brute. And Brokaw. He is a bigger brute. It was he who made me let him take this picture—two years ago. I have been training Tara to kill—to kill any one that touches me, when I scream."
It was wonderful to watch her eyes darken, to see her pupils grow big and luminous. She did not look at the picture clutched in her hands, but straight at him.
"He caught me there, near the creek. He frightened me. He made me let him take it. He wanted me to take off my...."
A flood of wild blood rushed into her face. In her heart was a fury.
"I wouldn't be afraid now—not of him alone," she cried. "I would scream—and fight, and Tara would tear him into pieces. Oh, Tara knows how to do it—now! I have trained him."
"He compelled you to let him take the picture," urged David gently. "And then...."
"I saw one of the pictures afterward. My aunt had it. I wanted to destroy it, because I hated it, and I hated him. But she said it was necessary for her to keep it. She was sick then. I loved her. She would put her arms around me every day. She used to kiss me, nights, when I went to bed. But we were afraid of Hauck—I don't call him 'uncle.' She was afraid of him. Once I jumped at him and scratched his face when he swore at her, and he pulled my hair. Ugh, I can feel it now! After that she used to cry, and she always put her arms around me closer than ever. She died that way, holding my head down to her, and trying to say something. But I couldn't understand. I was crying. That was six months ago. Since then I've been training Tara—to kill."
"And why have you trained Tara, little girl?"
David took her hand. It lay warm and unresisting in his, a firm, very little hand. He could feel a slight shudder pass through her.
"I heard—something," she said. "The Nest is a terrible place. Hauck is terrible. Brokaw is terrible. And Hauck sent away somewhere up there"—she pointed northward—"for Brokaw. He said—I belonged to Brokaw. What did he mean?"
She turned so that she could look straight into David's eyes. She was hard to answer. If she had been a woman....
She saw the slow, gathering tenseness in David's face as he looked for a moment away from her bewildering eyes—the hardening muscles of his jaws; and her own hand tightened as it lay in his.
"What did Hauck mean?" she persisted. "Why do I belong to Brokaw—that great, red brute?"
The hand he had been holding he took between both his palms in a gentle, comforting way. His voice was gentle, too, but the hard lines did not leave his face.
"How old are you, Marge?" he asked.
"Seventeen," she said.
"And I am—thirty-eight." He turned to smile at her. "See...." He raised a hand and took off his hat. "My hair is getting gray!"
She looked up swiftly, and then, so suddenly that it took his breath away, her fingers were running back through his thick blond hair.
"A little," she said. "But you are not old."
She dropped her hand. Her whole movement had been innocent as a child's.
"And yet I am quite old," he assured her. "Is this man Brokaw at the Nest, Marge?"
"He has been there a month. He came after Hauck sent for him, and went away again. Then he came back."
"And you are now running away from him?"
"From all of them," she said. "If it were just Brokaw I wouldn't be afraid. I would let him catch me, and scream. Tara would kill him for me. But it's Hauck, too. And the others. They are worse since Nisikoos died. That is what I called her—Nisikoos—my aunt. They are all terrible, and they all frighten me, especially since they began to build a great cage for Tara. Why should they build a cage for Tara, out of small trees? Why do they want to shut him up? None of them will tell me. Hauck says it is for another bear that Brokaw is bringing down from the Yukon. But I know they are lying. It is for Tara." Suddenly her fingers clutched tightly at his hand, and for the first time he saw under her long, shimmering lashes the darkening fire of a real terror. "Why do I belong to Brokaw?" she asked again, a little tremble in her voice. "Why did Hauck say that? Can—can a man—buy a girl?"
The nails of her slender fingers were pricking his flesh. David did not feel their hurt.
"What do you mean?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady. "Did that man—Hauck—sell you?"
He looked away from her as he asked the question. He was afraid, just then, that something was in his face which he did not want her to see. He began to understand; at least he was beginning to picture a very horrible possibility.
"I—don't—know," he heard her say, close to his shoulder. "It was night before last I heard them quarrelling, and I crept close to a door that was a little open, and looked in. Brokaw had given my uncle a bag of gold, a little sack, like the miners use, and I heard him swear at my uncle, and say: 'That's more than she is worth but I'll give in. Now she's mine!' I don't know why it frightened me so. It wasn't Brokaw. I guess it was the terrible look in that man's face—my uncle's. Tara and I ran away that night. Why do you suppose they want to put Tara in a cage? Do you think Brokaw was buying Tara to put into that cage? He said 'she,' not 'he'."
He looked at her again. Her eyes were not so fearless now.
"Was he buying Tara, or me?" she insisted.
"Why do you have that thought—that he was buying you?" David asked. "Has anything—happened?"
A second time a fury of blood leapt into her face and her lashes shadowed a pair of blazing stars.
"He—that red brute—caught me in the dark two weeks ago, and held me there—and kissed me!" She fairly panted at him, springing to her feet and standing before him. "I would have screamed, but it was in the house, and Tara couldn't have come to me. I scratched him, and fought, but he bent my head back until it hurt. He tried it again the day he gave my uncle the gold, but I struck him with a stick, and got away. Oh, I hate him! And he knows it. And my uncle cursed me for striking him! And that's why ... I'm running away."
"I understand," said David, rising and smiling at her confidently, while in his veins his blood was running like little streams of fire. "Don't you believe, now, all that I've told you about the picture? How it tried so hard to talk to me, and tell me to hurry? It got me here just about in time, didn't it? It'll be a great joke on Brokaw, little girl. And your uncle Hauck. A great joke, eh?" He laughed. He felt like laughing, even as his blood pounded through him at fever heat. "You're a little brick, Marge—you and your bear!"
It was the first time he had thought of the bear since Marge had detached herself from the big beast to come to him, and as he looked in its direction he gave a startled exclamation.
Baree and the grizzly had been measuring each other for some time. To Baree this was the most amazing experience in all his life, and flattened out between the two rocks he was at a loss to comprehend why his master did not either run or shoot. He wanted to jump out, if his master showed fight, and leap straight at that ugly monster, or he wanted to run away as fast as his legs would carry him. He was shivering in indecision, waiting a signal from David to do either one or the other. And Tara was now moving slowly toward the dog! His huge head was hung low, swinging slightly from side to side in a most terrifying way; his great jaws were agape, and the nearer he came to Baree the smaller the dog seemed to grow between the rocks. At David's sudden cry the girl had turned, and he was amazed to hear her laughter, clear and sweet as a bell. It was funny, that picture of the dog and the bear, if one was in the mood to see the humour of it!
"Tara won't hurt him," she hurried to say, seeing David's uneasiness. "He loves dogs. He wants to play with ... what is his name?"
"Baree. And mine is David."
Like a bird she had left his side and in an instant, it seemed, was astride the big grizzly, digging her fingers into Tara's thick coat—smiling back at him, her radiant hair about her like a cloud, filled with marvellous red-and-gold fires in the sun.
"Come," she said, holding out a hand to David. "I want Tara to know you are our friend. Because"—the darkness came into her eyes again—"I have been training him, and I want him to know he must not hurt you."
David went to them, little fancying the acquaintance he was about to make, until Marge slipped off her bear and put her two arms unhesitatingly about his shoulders, and drew him down with her close in front of Tara's big head and round, emotionless eyes. For a thrilling moment or two she pressed her face close to his, looking all the time straight at Tara, and talking to him steadily. David did not sense what she was saying, except that in a general way she was telling Tara that he must never hurt this man, no matter what happened. He felt the warm crush of her hair on his neck and face. It billowed on his breast for a moment. The girl's hand touched his cheek, warm and caressing. He made no movement of his own, except to rise rigidly when she unclasped her arms from about his shoulders.
"There; he won't hurt you now!" she exclaimed in triumph.
Her cheeks were flaming, but not with embarrassment. Her eyes were as clear as the violets he had crushed under his feet in the mountain valleys. He looked at her as she stood before him, so much like a child, and yet enough of a woman to make his own cheeks burn. And then he saw a sudden changing expression come into her face. There was something pathetic about it, something that made him see again what he had forgotten—her exhaustion, the evidences of her struggle. She was looking at his pack.
"We haven't had anything to eat since we ran away," she said simply. "I'm hungry."
He had heard children say "I'm hungry" in that same voice, with the same hopeful and entreating insistence in it; he had spoken those words himself a thousand times, to his mother, in just that same way, it seemed to him; and as she stood there, looking at his pack, he was filled with a very strong desire to crumple her close in his arms—not as a woman, but as a child. And this desire held him so still for a moment that she thought he was waiting for her to explain.
"I fastened our bundle on Tara's back and we lost it in the night coming up over the mountain," she said. "It was so steep that in places I had to catch hold of Tara and let him drag me up."
In another moment he was at his pack, opening it, and tossing things to right and left on the white sand, and the girl watched him, her eyes very bright with anticipation.
"Coffee, bacon, bannock, and potatoes," he said, making a quick inventory of his small stock of provisions.
"Potatoes!" cried the girl.
"Yes—dehydrated. See? It looks like rice. One pound of this equals fourteen pounds of potatoes. And you can't tell the difference when it's cooked right. Now for a fire!"
She was darting this way and that, collecting small dry sticks in the sand before he was on his feet. He could not resist standing for a moment and watching her. Her movements, even in her quick and eager quest of fuel, were the most graceful he had ever seen in a human being. And yet she was tired! She was hungry! And he believed that her feet, concealed in those rock-torn moccasins, were bruised and sore. He went down to the stream for water, and in the few moments that he was gone his mind worked swiftly. He believed that he understood, perhaps even more than the girl herself. There was something about her that was so sweetly childish—in spite of her age and her height and her amazing prettiness that was not all a child's prettiness—that he could not feel that she had realized fully the peril from which she was fleeing when he found her. He had guessed that her dread was only partly for herself and that the other part was for Tara, her bear. She had asked him in a sort of plaintive anxiety and with rather more of wonderment and perplexity in her eyes than fear, whether she belonged to Brokaw, and what it all meant, and whether a man could buy a girl. It was not a mystery to him that the "red brute" she had told him about should want her. His puzzlement was that such a thing could happen, if he had guessed right, among men. Buy her? Of course down there in the big cities such a thing had happened hundreds and thousands of times—were happening every day—but he could not easily picture it happening up here, where men lived because of their strength. There must surely be other men at the Nest than the two hated and feared by the girl—Hauck, her uncle, and Brokaw, the "red brute."
She had built a little pile of sticks and dry moss ready for the touch of a match when he returned. Tara had stretched himself out lazily in the sun and Baree was still between the two rocks, eyeing him watchfully. Before David lighted the fire he spread his one blanket out on the sand and made the Girl sit down. She was close to him, and her eyes did not leave his face for an instant. Whenever he looked up she was gazing straight at him, and when he went down to the creek for another pail of water he felt that her eyes were still on him. When he turned to come back, with fifty paces between them, she smiled at him and he waved his hand at her. He asked her a great many questions while he prepared their dinner. The Nest, he learned, was a free-trading place, and Hauck was its proprietor. He was surprised when he learned that he was not on Firepan Creek after all. The Firepan was over the range, and there were a good many Indians to the north and west of it. Miners came down frequently from the Taku River country and the edge of the Yukon, she said. At least she thought they were miners, for that is what Hauck used to tell Nisikoos, her aunt. They came after whisky. Always whisky. And the Indians came for liquor, too. It was the chief article that Hauck, her uncle, traded in. He brought it from the coast, in the winter time—many sledge loads of it; and some of those "miners" who came down from the north carried away much of it. If it was summer they would take it away on pack horses. What would they do with so much liquor, she wondered? A little of it made such a beast of Hauck, and a beast of Brokaw, and it drove the Indians wild. Hauck would no longer allow the Indians to drink it at the Nest. They had to take it away with them—into the mountains. Just now there was quite a number of the "miners" down from the north, ten or twelve of them. She had not been afraid when Nisikoos, her aunt, was alive. But now there was no other woman at the Nest, except an old Indian woman who did Hauck's cooking. Hauck wanted no one there. And she was afraid of those men. They all feared Hauck, and she knew that Hauck was afraid of Brokaw. She didn't know why, but he was. And she was afraid of them all, and hated them all. She had been quite happy when Nisikoos was alive. Nisikoos had taught her to read out of books, had taught her things ever since she could remember. She could write almost as well as Nisikoos. She said this a bit proudly. But since her aunt had gone, things were terribly changed. Especially the men. They had made her more afraid, every day.
"None of them is like you," she said with startling frankness, her eyes shining at him. "I would love to be with you!"
He turned, then, to look at Tara dozing in the sun.
They ate, facing each other, on a clean, flat stone that was like a table. There was no hesitation on the girl's part, no false pride in the concealment of her hunger. To David it was a joy to watch her eat, and to catch the changing expressions in her eyes, and the little half-smiles that took the place of words as he helped her diligently to bacon and bannock and potatoes and coffee. The bright glow went only once out of her eyes, and that was when she looked at Tara and Baree.
"Tara has been eating roots all day," she said, "But what will he eat?" and she nodded at the dog.
"He had a whistler for breakfast," David assured her. "Fat as butter. He wouldn't eat now anyway. He is too much interested in the bear." She had finished, with a little sigh of content, when he asked: "What do you mean when you say that you have trained Tara to kill? Why have you trained him?"
"I began the day after Brokaw did that—held me there in his arms, with my head bent back. Ugh! he was terrible, with his face so close to mine!" She shuddered. "Afterward I washed my face, and scrubbed it hard, but I could still feel it. I can feel it now!" Her eyes were darkening again, as the sun darkens when a thunder cloud passes under it. "I wanted to make Tara understand what he must do after that, so I stole some of Brokaw's clothes and carried them up to a little plain on the side of the mountain. I stuffed them with grass, and made a ... what do you call it? In Indian it is issena-koosewin...."
"A dummy," he said.
"Yes, that is it. Then I would go with it a little distance from Tara, and would begin to struggle with it, and scream. The third time, when Tara saw me lying under it, kicking and screaming, he gave it a blow with his paw that ripped it clean in two! And after that...."
Her eyes were glorious in their wild triumph.
"He would tear it into bits," she cried breathlessly. "It would take me a whole day to mend it again, and at last I had to steal more clothes. I took Hauck's this time. And soon they were gone, too. That is just what Tara will do to a man—when I fight and scream!"
"And a little while ago you were ready to jump at me, and fight and scream!" he reminded her, smiling across their rock table.
"Not after you spoke to me," she said, so quickly that the words seemed to spring straight from her heart. "I wasn't afraid then. I was—glad. No, I wouldn't scream—not even if you held me like Brokaw did!"
He felt the warm blood rising under his skin again. It was impossible to keep it down. And he was ashamed of it—ashamed of the thought that for an instant was in his mind. The soul of the wild, little mountain creature was in her eyes. Her lips made no concealment of its thoughts or its emotions, pure as the blue skies above them and as ungoverned by conventionality as the winds that shifted up and down the valleys. She was a new sort of being to him, a child-woman, a little wonder-nymph that had grown up with the flowers. And yet not so little after all. He had noticed that the top of her shining head came considerably above his chin.
"Then you will not be afraid to go back to the Nest—with me?" he asked.
"No," she said with a direct and amazing confidence. "But I'd rather run away with you." Then she added quickly, before he could speak: "Didn't you say you came all that way—hundreds of miles—to find me? Then why must we go back?"
He explained to her as clearly as he could, and as reason seemed to point out to him. It was impossible, he assured her, that Brokaw or Hauck or any other man could harm her now that he was here to take care of her and straighten matters out. He was as frank with her as she had been with him. Her eyes widened when he told her that he did not believe Hauck was her uncle, and that he was certain the woman whom he had met that night on the Transcontinental, and who was searching for an O'Doone, had some deep interest in her. He must discover, if possible, how the picture had got to her, and who she was, and he could do this only by going to the Nest and learning the truth straight from Hauck. Then they would go on to the coast, which would be an easy journey. He told her that Hauck and Brokaw would not dare to cause them trouble, as they were carrying on a business of which the provincial police would make short work, if they knew of it. They held the whip hand, he and Marge. Her eyes shone with increasing faith as he talked.
She had leaned a little over the narrow rock between them so that her thick curls fell in shining clusters under his eyes, and suddenly she reached out her arms through them and her two hands touched his face.
"And you will take me away? You promise?"
"My dear child, that is just what I came for," he said, feigning to be surprised at her questions. "Fifteen hundred miles for just that. Now don't you believe all that I've told you about the picture?"
"Yes," she nodded.
She had drawn back, and was looking at him so steadily and with such wondering depths in her eyes that he found himself compelled for an instant to turn his own gaze carelessly away.
"And you used to talk to it," she said, "and it seemed alive?"
"Very much alive, Marge."
"And you dreamed about me?"
He had said that, and he felt again that warm rise of blood. He felt himself in a difficult place. If she had been older, or even younger....
"Yes," he said truthfully.
He feared one other question was quite uncomfortably near. But it didn't come. The girl rose suddenly to her feet, flung back her hair, and ran to Tara, dozing in the sun. What she was saying to the beast, with her arms about his shaggy neck, David could only guess. He found himself laughing again, quietly of course, with his back to her, as he picked up their dinner things. He had not anticipated such an experience as this. It rather unsettled him. It was amusing—and had a decided thrill to it. Undoubtedly Hauck and Brokaw were rough men; from what she had told him he was convinced they were lawless men, engaged in a very wide "underground" trade in whisky. But he believed that he would not find them as bad as he had pictured them at first, even though the Nest was a horrible place for the girl. Her running away was the most natural thing in the world—for her. She was an amazingly spontaneous little creature, full of courage and a fierce determination to fight some one, but probably to-day or to-morrow she would have been forced to turn homeward, quite exhausted with her adventure, and nibbling roots along with Tara to keep herself alive. The thought of her hunger and of the dire necessity in which he had found her, drove the smile from his lips. He was finishing his pack when she left the bear and came to him.
"If we are to get over the mountain before dark we must hurry," she said. "See—it is a big mountain!"
She pointed to a barren break in the northward range, close up to the snow-covered peaks.
"And it's cold up there when night comes," she added.
"Can you make it?" David asked. "Aren't you tired? Your feet sore? We can wait here until morning...."
"I can climb it," she cried, with an excitement which he had not seen in her before. "I can climb it—and travel all night—to tell Brokaw and Hauck I don't belong to them any more, and that we're going away! Brokaw will be like a mad beast, and before we go I'll scratch his eyes out!"
"Good Lord!" gasped David under his breath.
"And if Hauck swears at me I'll scratch his out!" she declared, trembling in the glorious anticipation of her vengeance. "I'll ... I'll scratch his out, anyway, for what he did to Nisikoos!"
David stared at her. She was looking away from him, her eyes on the break between the mountains, and he noticed how tense her slender body had become and how tightly her hands were clenched.
"They won't dare to touch me or swear at me when you are there," she added, with sublime faith.
She turned in time to catch the look in his face. Swiftly the excitement faded out of her own. She touched his arm, hesitatingly.
"Wouldn't ... you want me ... to scratch out their eyes?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"It wouldn't do," he said. "We must be very careful. We mustn't let them know you ran away. We must tell them you climbed up the mountain, and got lost."
"I never get lost," she protested.
"But we must tell them that just the same," he insisted. "Will you?"
She nodded emphatically.
"And now, before we start, tell me why they haven't followed you?"
"Because I came over the mountain," she replied, pointing again toward the break. "It's all rock, and Tara left no marks. They wouldn't think we'd climb over the range. They've been looking for us in the other valley if they have hunted for us at all. We were going to climb over that range, too." She turned so that she was pointing to the south.
"There are people over there. I've heard Hauck talk about them."
"Did you ever hear him speak of a man by the name of Tavish?" he asked, watching her closely.
"Tavish?" She pursed her lips into a red "O," and little lines gathered thoughtfully between her eyes. "Tavish? No-o-o, I never have."
"He lived at one time on Firepan Creek. Had small-pox," said David.
"That is terrible," the girl shuddered. "The Indians die of it up here. Hauck says that my father and mother died of small-pox, before I could remember. It is all like a dream. I can see a woman's face sometimes, and I can remember a cabin, and snow, and lots of dogs. Are you ready to go?"
He shouldered his pack, and as he arranged the straps Marge ran to Tara. At her command the big beast rose slowly and stood before her, swinging his head from side to side, his jaws agape. David called to Baree and the dog came to him like a streak and stood against his leg, snarling fiercely.
"Tut, tut," admonished David, softly, laying a hand on Baree's head. "We're all friends, boy. Look here!"
He walked straight over to the grizzly and tried to induce Baree to follow him. Baree came half way and then sat himself on his haunches and refused to budge another inch, an expression so doleful in his face that it drew from the girl's lips a peal of laughter in which David found it impossible not to join. It was delightfully infectious; he was laughing more with her than at Baree. In the same breath his merriment was cut short by an unexpected and most amazing discovery. Tara, after all, had his usefulness. His mistress had vaulted astride of him, and was nudging him with her heels, leaning forward so that with one hand she was pulling at his left ear. The bear turned slowly, his finger-long claws clicking on the stones, and when his head was in the right direction Marge released his ear and spoke sharply, beating a tattoo with her heels at the same time.
"Neah, Tara, Neah!" she cried.
After a moment's hesitation, in which the grizzly seemed to be getting his bearings, Tara struck out straight for the break between the mountains, with his burden. The girl turned and waved a beckoning hand at David.
"Pao! you must hurry!" she called to him, laughing at the astonishment in his face.
He had started to fill his pipe, but for the next few minutes he forgot that the pipe was in his hand. His eyes did not leave the huge beast, ambling along a dozen paces ahead of him, or the slip of a girl who rode him. He had caught a glimpse of Baree, and the dog's eyes seemed to be bulging. He half believed that his own mouth was open when the girl called to him. What had happened was most startlingly unexpected, and what he stared at now was a wondrous sight! Tara travelled with the rolling, slouching gait typical of the wide-quartered grizzly, and the girl was a sinuous part of him—by all odds the most wonderful thing in the world to David at this moment. Her hair streamed down her back in a cascade of sunlit glory. She flung back her head, and he thought of a wonderful golden-bronze flower. He heard her laugh, and cry out to Tara, and when the grizzly climbed up a bit of steep slide she leaned forward and became a part of the bear's back, her curls shimmering in the thick ruff of Tara's neck. As he toiled upward in their wake, he caught a glimpse of her looking back at him from the top of the slide, her eyes shining and her lips smiling at him. She reminded him of something he had read about Leucosia, his favorite of the "Three Sirens," only in this instance it was a siren of the mountains and not of the sea that was leading him on to an early doom—if he had to keep up with that bear! His breath came more quickly. In ten minutes he was gasping for wind, and in despair he slackened his pace as the bear and his rider disappeared over the crest of the first slope. She was waving at him then, fully two hundred yards up that infernal hill, and he was sure that she was laughing. He had almost reached the top when he saw her sitting in the shade of a rock, watching him as he toiled upward. There was a mischievous seriousness in the blue of her eyes when he reached her side.
"I'm sorry, Sakewawin," she said, lowering her eyes until they were hidden under the silken sheen of her long lashes, "I couldn't make Tara go slowly. He is hungry, and he knows that he is going home."
"And I thought you had sore feet," he managed to say.
"I don't ride him going down a mountain," she explained, thrusting out her ragged little feet. "I can't hang on, and I slip over his head. You must walk ahead of Tara. That will hold him back."
He tried this experiment when they continued their ascent, and Tara followed so uncomfortably close that at times David could feel his warm breath against his hand. When they reached the second slope the girl walked beside him. For a half mile it was not a bad climb and there was soft grass underfoot. After that came the rock and shale, and the air grew steadily colder. They had started at one o'clock and it was five when they reached the first snow. It was six when they stood at the summit. Under them lay the valley of the Firepan, a broad, sun-filled sweep of scattered timber and green plain, and the girl pointed into it, north and west.
"Off there is the Nest," she said. "We could almost see it if it weren't for that big, red mountain."
She was very tired, though she had ridden Tara at least two thirds of the distance up the mountains. In her eyes was the mistiness of exhaustion, and as a chill wind swept about them she leaned against David, and he could feel that her endurance was nearly gone. As they had come up to the snow line he had made her put on the light woollen shirt he carried in his pack; and the big handkerchief, in which he had so long wrapped the picture, he had fastened scarf-like about her head, so she was not cold. But she looked pathetically childlike and out of place, standing here beside him at the very top of the world, with the valley so far down that the clumps of timber in it were like painted splashes. It was a half mile down to the first bit of timber—a small round patch of it in a narrow dip—and he pointed to it encouragingly.
"We'll camp there and have supper. I believe it is far enough down for a fire. And if it is impossible for you to ride Tara—I'm going to carry you!"
"You can't, Sakewawin" she sighed, letting her head touch his arm for a moment. "It is more difficult to carry a load down a mountain than up. I can walk."
Before he could stop her she had begun to descend. They went down quickly—three times as quickly as they had climbed the other side—and when, half an hour later, they reached the timber in the dip, he felt as if his back were broken. The girl had persistently kept ahead of him, and with a little cry of triumph she dropped down at the foot of the first balsam they came to. The pupils of her eyes were big and dark as she looked up at him, quivering with the strain of the last great effort, and yet she tried to smile at him.
"You may carry me—some time—but not down a mountain," she said, and laid her head wearily on the pillow of her arm, so that her face was concealed from him. "And now—please get supper, Sakewawin."
He spread his blanket over her before he began searching for a camp site. He noticed that Tara was already hunting for roots. Baree followed close at his master's heels. Quite near, David found a streamlet that trickled down from the snow line, and to a grassy plot on the edge of this he dragged a quantity of dry wood and built a fire. Then he made a thick couch of balsam boughs and went to his little companion. In the half hour he had been at work she had fallen asleep. Utter exhaustion was in the limpness of her slender body as he raised her gently in his arms. The handkerchief had slipped back over her shoulder and she was wonderfully sweet, and helpless, as she lay with her head on his breast. She was still asleep when he placed her on the balsams, and it was dark when he awakened her for supper. The fire was burning brightly. Tara had stretched himself out in a huge, dark bulk in the outer glow of it. Baree was close to the fire. The girl sat up, rubbed her eyes, and stared at David.
"Sakewawin," she whispered then, looking about her in a moment's bewilderment.
"Supper," he said, smiling. "I did it all while you were napping, little lady. Are you hungry?"
He had spread their meal so that she did not have to move from her balsams, and he had brought a short piece of timber to place as a rest at her back, cushioned by his shoulder pack and the blanket. After all his trouble she did not eat much. The mistiness was still in her eyes, so after he had finished he took away the timber and made of the balsams a deep pillow for her, that she might lie restfully, with her head well up, while he smoked. He did not want her to go to sleep. He wanted to talk. And he began by asking how she had so carelessly run away with only a pair of moccasins on her feet and no clothes but the thin garments she was wearing.
"They were in Tara's pack, Sakewawin," she explained, her eyes glowing like sleepy pools in the fireglow. "They were lost."
He began then to tell her about Father Roland. She listened, growing sleepier, her lashes drooping slowly until they formed dark curves on her cheeks. He was close enough to marvel at their length, and as he watched them, quivering in her efforts to keep awake and listen to him, they seemed to him like the dark petals of two beautiful flowers closing slumbrously for the night. It was a wonderful thing to see them open suddenly and find the full glory of the sleep-filled eyes on him for an instant, and then to watch them slowly close again as she fought valiantly to conquer her irresistible drowsiness, the merest dimpling of a smile on her lips. The last time she opened them he had her picture in his hands, and was looking at it, quite close to her, with the fire lighting it up. For a moment he thought the sight if it had awakened her completely.
"Throw it into the fire," she said. "Brokaw made me let him take it, and I hate it. I hate Brokaw. I hate the picture. Burn it."
"But I must keep it," he protested. "Burn it! Why it's...."
"You won't want it—after to-night."
Her eyes were closing again, heavily, for the last time.
"Why?" he asked, bending over her.
"Because, Sakewawin ... you have me ... now," came her voice, in drowsy softness; and then the long lashes lay quietly against her cheeks.
He thought of her words a long time after she had fallen asleep. Even in that last moment of her consciousness he had found her voice filled with a strange faith and a wonderful assurance as it had drifted away in a whisper. He would not want the picture any more—because he had her! That was what she had said, and he knew it was her soul that had spoken to him as she had hovered that instant between consciousness and slumber. He looked at her, sleeping under his eyes, and he felt upon him for the first time the weight of a sudden trouble, a gloomy foreboding—and yet, under it all, like a fire banked beneath dead ash, was the warm thrill of his possession. He had spread his blanket over her, and now he leaned over and drew back her thick curls. They were warm and soft in his fingers, strangely sweet to touch, and for a moment or two he fondled them while he gazed steadily into the childish loveliness of her face, dimpled still by that shadow of a smile with which she had fallen asleep. He was beginning to feel that he had accepted for himself a tremendous task, and that she, not much more than a child, had of course scarcely foreseen its possibilities. Her faith in him was a pleasurable thing. It was absolute. He realized it more as the hours dragged on and he sat alone by the fire. So great was it that she was going back fearlessly to those whom she hated and feared. She was returning not only fearlessly but with a certain defiant satisfaction. He could fancy her saying to Hauck, and the Red Brute: "I've come back. Now touch me if you dare!" What would he have to do to live up to that surety of her confidence in him? A great deal, undoubtedly. And if he won for her, as she fully expected him to win, what would he do with her? Take her to the coast—put her into a school somewhere down south? That was his first notion. For to him she looked more than ever like a child as she lay asleep on her bed of balsams.
He tried to picture Brokaw. He tried to see Hauck in his mental vision, and he thought over again all that the girl had told him about herself and these men. As he looked at her now—a little, softly breathing thing under his gray blanket—it was hard for him to believe anything so horrible as she had suggested. Perhaps her fears had been grossly exaggerated. The exchange of gold between Hauck and the Red Brute had probably been for something else. Even men engulfed in the brutality of the trade they were in would not think of such an appalling crime. And then—with a fierceness that made his blood boil—came the thought of that time when Brokaw had caught her in his arms, and had held her head back until it hurt—and had kissed her! Baree had crept between his knees, and David's fingers closed so tightly in the loose skin of his neck that the dog whined. He rose to his feet and stood gazing down at the girl. He stood there for a long time without moving or making a sound.
"A little woman," he whispered to himself at last. "Not a child."
From that moment his blood was hot with a desire to reach the Nest. He had never thought seriously of physical struggle with men except in the way of sport. His disposition had always been to regard such a thing as barbarous, and he had never taken advantage of his skill with the gloves as the average man might very probably have done. To fight was to lower one's self-respect enormously, he thought. It was not a matter of timidity, but of very strong conviction—an entrenchment that had saved him from wreaking vengeance—in the hour when another man would have killed. But there, in that room in his home, he had stood face to face with a black, revolting sin. There had been nothing left to shield, nothing to protect. Here it was different. A soul had given itself into his protection, a soul as pure as the stars shining over the mountain tops, and its little keeper lay there under his eyes sleeping in the sweet faith that it was safe with him. A little later his fingers tingled with an odd thrill as he took his automatic out of his pack, loaded it carefully, and placed it in his pocket where it could be easily reached. The act was a declaration of something ultimately definite. He stretched himself out near the fire and went to sleep with the force of this declaration brewing strangely within him.
He was awake with the summer dawn and the sun was beginning to tint up the big red mountain when they began the descent into the valley. Before they started he loaned the girl his comb and single military brush, and for fifteen minutes sat watching her while she brushed the tangles out of her hair until it fell about her in a thick, waving splendour. At the nape of her neck she tied it with a bit of string which he found for her, and after that, as they travelled downward, he observed how the rebellious tresses, shimmering and dancing about her, persisted in forming themselves into curls again. In an hour they reached the valley, and for a few moments they sat down to rest, while Tara foraged among the rocks for marmots. It was a wonderful valley into which they had come. From where they sat, it was like an immense park. Green slopes reached almost to the summits of the mountains, and to a point half way up these slopes—the last timber line—clumps of spruce and balsam trees were scattered over the green as if set there by hands of men. Some of these timber patches were no larger than the decorative clumps in a city park, and others covered acres and tens of acres; and at the foot of the slopes on either side, like decorative fringes, were thin and unbroken lines of forest. Between these two lines of forest lay the open valley of soft and undulating meadow, dotted with its purplish bosks of buffalo-, willow-, and mountain-sage, its green coppices of wild rose and thorn, and its clumps of trees. In the hollow of the valley ran a stream.
And this was her home! She was telling him about it as they sat there, and he listened to her, and watched her bird-like movements, without breaking in to ask questions which the night had shaped in his mind. She pointed out gray summits on which she had stood. Off there, just visible in the gray mist of early sunshine, was the mountain where she had found Tara five years ago—a tiny cub who must have lost his mother. Perhaps the Indians had killed her. And that long, rock-strewn slide, so steep in places that he shuddered when he thought of what she had done, was where she and Tara had climbed over the range in their flight. She chose the rocks so that Tara would leave no trail. He regarded that slide as conclusive evidence of the very definite resolution that must have inspired her. A fit of girlish temper would not have taken her up that rock slide, and in the night. He thought it time to speak of what was weighing upon his mind.
"Listen to me, Marge," he said, pointing toward the red mountain ahead of them. "Off there, you say, is the Nest. What are we going to do when we arrive there?"
The little lines gathered between her eyes again as she looked at him.
"Why—tell them," she said.
"Tell them what?"
"That you've come for me, and that we're going away, Sakewawin."
"And if they object? If Brokaw and Hauck say you cannot go?"
"We'll go anyway, Sakewawin."
"That's a pretty name you've given me," he mused, thinking of something else. "I like it."
For the first time she blushed—blushed until her face was like one of the wild roses in those prickly copses of the valley.
And then he added:
"You must not tell them too much—at first, Marge. Remember that you were lost, and I found you. You must give me time to get acquainted with Hauck and Brokaw."
She nodded, but there was a moment's anxiety in her eyes, and he saw for an instant the slightest quiver in her throat.
"You won't—let them—keep me? No matter what they say—you won't let them keep me?"
He jumped up with a laugh and tilted her chin so that he looted straight into her eyes; and her faith filled them again in a flood.
"No—you're going with me," he promised. "Come. I'm quite anxious to meet Hauck and the Red Brute!"
It seemed singular to David that they met no one in the valley that day, and the girl's explanation that practically all travel came from the north and west, and stopped at the Nest, did not fully satisfy him. He still wondered why they did not encounter one of the searching parties that must have been sent out for her—until she told him that, since Nisikoos died, she and Tara had gone quite frequently into the mountains and remained all night, so that perhaps no search had been made for her after all. Hauck had not seemed to care. More frequently than otherwise he had not missed her. Twice she had been away for two nights and two days. It was only because Brokaw had given that gold to Hauck that she had feared pursuit. If Hauck had bought her....
She spoke of that possible sale as if she might have been the merest sort of chattel. And then she startled him by saying:
"I have known of those white men from the north buying Indian girls. I have seen them sold for whisky. Ugh!" She shuddered. "Nisikoos and I overheard them one night. Hauck was selling a girl for a little sack of gold—like that. Nisikoos held me more tightly than ever, that night. I don't know why. She was terribly afraid of that man—Hauck. Why did she live with him if she was afraid of him? Do you know? I wouldn't. I'd run away."
He shook his head.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you, my child."
Her eyes turned on him suddenly.
"Why do you call me that—a child?"
"Because you're not a woman; because you're so very, very young, and I'm so very old," he laughed.
For a long time after that she was silent as they travelled steadily toward the red mountain.
They ate their dinner in the sombre shadow of it. Most of the afternoon Marge rode her bear. It was sundown when they stopped for their last meal. The Nest was still three miles farther on, and the stars were shining brilliantly before they came to the little, wooded plain in the edge of which Hauck had hidden away his place of trade. When they were some hundred yards away they came over a knoll and David saw the glow of fires. The girl stopped suddenly and her hand caught his arm. He counted four of those fires in the open. A fifth glowed faintly, as if back in timber. Sounds came to them—the slow, hollow booming of a tom-tom, and voices. They could see shadows moving. The girl's fingers were pinching David's arm.
"The Indians have come in," she whispered.
There was a thrill of uneasiness in her words. It was not fear. He could see that she was puzzled, and that she had not expected to find fires or those moving shadows. Her eyes were steady and shining as she looked at him. It seemed to him that she had grown taller, and more like a woman, as they stood there. Something in her face made him ask:
"Why have they come?"
"I don't know," she said.
She started down the knoll straight for the fires. Tara and Baree filed behind them. Beyond the glow of the camp a dark bulk took shape against the blackness of the forest. David guessed that it was the Nest. He made out a deep, low building, unlighted so far as he could see. Then they entered into the fireglow. Their appearance produced a strange and instant quiet. The beating of the tom-tom ceased. Voices died. Dark faces stared—and that was all. There were about fifty of them about the fires, David figured. And not a white man's face among them. They were all Indians. A lean, night-eyed, sinister-looking lot. He was conscious that they were scrutinizing him more than they were the girl. He could almost feel the prick of their eyes. With her head up, his companion walked between the fires and beyond them, looking neither to one side nor the other. They turned the end of the huge log building and on this side it was glowing dimly with light, and David faintly heard voices. The girl passed swiftly into a hollow of gloom, calling softly to Tara. The bear followed her, a grotesque, slowly moving hulk, and David waited. He heard the clink of a chain. A moment later she returned to him.
"There is a light in Hauck's room," she said. "His council room, he calls it—where he makes bargains. I hope they are both there, Sakewawin—both Hauck and Brokaw." She seized his hand, and held it tightly as she led him deeper into darkness. "I wonder why so many of the Indians are in? I did not know they were coming. It is the wrong time of year for—a crowd like that!"
He felt the quiver in her voice. She was quite excited, he knew. And yet not about the Indians, nor the strangeness of their presence. It was her triumph that made her tremble in the darkness, a wonderful anticipation of the greatest event that had ever happened in her life. She hoped that Hauck and Brokaw were in that room! She would confront them there, with him. That was it. She felt her bondage—her prisonment—in this savage place was ended; and she was eager to find them, and let them know that she was no longer afraid, or alone—no longer need obey or fear them. He felt the thrill of it in the hot, fierce little clasp of her hand. He saw it glowing in her eyes when they passed through the light of a window. Then they turned again, at the back of the building. They paused at a door. Not a ray of light broke the gloom here. The stars seemed to make the blackness deeper. Her fingers tightened.
"You must be careful," he said. "And—remember."
"I will," she whispered.
It was his last warning. The door opened slowly, with a creaking sound, and they entered into a long, gloomy hall, illumined by a single oil lamp that sputtered and smoked in its bracket on one of the walls. The hall gave him an idea of the immensity of the building. From the far end of it, through a partly open door, came a reek of tobacco smoke, and loud voices—a burst of coarse laughter, a sudden volley of curses that died away in a still louder roar of merriment. Some one closed the door from within. The girl was staring toward the end of the hall, and shuddering.
"That is the way it has been—growing worse and worse since Nisikoos died," she said. "In there the white men who come down from the north, drink, and gamble, and quarrel. They are always quarrelling. This room is ours—Nisikoos' and mine." She touched with her hand a door near which they were standing. Then she pointed to another. There were half a dozen doors up and down the hall. "And that is Hauck's."
He threw off his pack, placed it on the floor, with his rifle across it. When he straightened, the girl was listening at the door of Hauck's room. Beckoning to him she knocked on it lightly, and then opened it. David entered close behind her. It was a rather large room—his one impression as he crossed the threshold. In the centre of it was a table, and over the table hung an oil lamp with a tin reflector. In the light of this lamp sat two men. In his first glance he made up his mind which was Hauck and which was Brokaw. It was Brokaw, he thought, who was facing them as they entered—a man he could hate even if he had never heard of him before. Big. Loose-shouldered. A carnivorous-looking giant with a mottled, reddish face and bleary eyes that had an amazed and watery stare in them. Apparently the girl's knock had not been heard, for it was a moment before the other man swung slowly about in his chair so that he could see them. That was Hauck. David knew it. He was almost a half smaller than the other, with round, bullish shoulders, a thick neck, and eyes wherein might lurk an incredible cruelty. He popped half out of his seat when he saw the girl, and a stranger. His jaws seemed to tighten with a snap. A snap that could almost be heard. But it was Brokaw's face that held David's eyes. He was two thirds drunk. There was no doubt about it, if he was any sort of judge of that kind of imbecility. One of his thick, huge hands was gripping a bottle. Hauck had evidently been reading him something out of a ledger, a Post ledger, which he held now in one hand. David was surprised at the quiet and unemotional way in which the girl began speaking. She said that she had wandered over into the other valley and was lost when this stranger found her. He had been good to her, and was on his way to the settlement on the coast. His name was....
She got no further than that. Brokaw had taken his devouring gaze from her and was staring at David. He lurched suddenly to his feet and leaned over the table, a new sort of surprise in his heavy countenance. He stretched out a hand. His voice was a bellow.
He was speaking directly at David—calling him by name. There was as little doubt of that as of his drunkenness. There was also an unmistakable note of fellowship in his voice. McKenna! David opened his mouth to correct him when a second thought occurred to him in a mildly inspirational way. Why not McKenna? The girl was looking at him, a bit surprised, questioning him in the directness of her gaze. He nodded, and smiled at Brokaw. The giant came around the table, still holding out his big, red hand.
"Mac! God! You don't mean to say you've forgotten...."
David took the hand.
"Brokaw!" he chanced.
The other's hand was as cold as a piece of beef. But it possessed a crushing strength. Hauck was staring from one to the other, and suddenly Brokaw turned to him, still pumping David's hand.
"McKenna—that young devil of Kicking Horse, Hauck! You've heard me speak of him. McKenna...."
The girl had backed to the door. She was pale. Her eyes were shining, and she was looking straight at David when Brokaw released his hand.
"Good-night, Sakewawin!" she said.
It was very distinct, that word—Sakewawin! David had never heard it come quite so clearly from her lips. There was something of defiance and pride in her utterance of it—and intentional and decisive emphasis to it. She smiled at him as she went through the door, and in that same breath Hauck had followed her. They disappeared. When David turned he found Brokaw backed against the table, his hands gripping the edge of it, his face distorted by passion. It was a terrible face to look into—to stand before, alone in that room—a face filled with menace and murder. So sudden had been the change in it that David was stunned for a moment. In that space of perhaps a quarter of a minute neither uttered a sound. Then Brokaw leaned slowly forward, his great hands clenched, and demanded in a hissing voice:
"What did she mean when she called you that—Sakewawin? What did she mean?"
It was not now the voice of a drunken man, but the voice of a man ready to kill.
"Sakewawin! What did she mean when she called you that?"
It was Brokaw's voice again, turning the words round but repeating them. He made a step toward David, his hands clenched more tightly and his whole hulk growing tense. His eyes, blazing as if through a very thin film of water—water that seemed to cling there by some strange magic—were horrible, David thought. Sakewawin! A pretty name for himself, he had told the girl—and here it was raising the very devil with this drink-bloated colossus. He guessed quickly. It was decidedly a matter of guessing quickly and of making prompt and satisfactory explanation—or, a throttling where he stood. His mind worked like a race-horse. "Sakewawin" meant something that had enraged Brokaw. A jealous rage. A rage that had filled his aqueous eyes with a lurid glare. So David said, looking into them calmly, and with a little feigned surprise:
"Wasn't she speaking to you, Brokaw?"
It was a splendid shot. David scarcely knew why he made it, except that he was moved by a powerful impulse which just now he had not time to analyze. It was this same impulse that had kept him from revealing himself when Brokaw had mistaken him for someone else. Chance had thrown a course of action into his way and he had accepted it almost involuntarily. It had suddenly occurred to him that he would give much to be alone with this half-drunken man for a few hours—as McKenna. He might last long enough in that disguise to discover things. But not with Hauck watching him, for Hauck was four fifths sober, and there was a depth to his cruel eyes which he did not like. He watched the effect of his words on Brokaw. The tenseness left his body, his hands unclenched slowly, his heavy jaw relaxed—and David laughed softly. He felt that he was out of deep water now. This fellow, half filled with drink, was wonderfully credulous. And he was sure that his watery eyes could not see very well, though his ears had heard distinctly.
"She was looking at you, Brokaw—straight at you—when she said good-night," he added.
"You sure—sure she said it to me, Mac?"
David nodded, even as his blood ran a little cold.
A leering grin of joy spread over Brokaw's face.
"The—the little devil!" he said, gloatingly.
"What does it mean?" David asked. "Sakewawin—I had never heard it." He lied calmly, turning his head a bit out of the light.
Brokaw stared at him a moment before answering.
"When a girl says that—it means—she belongs to you," he said. "In Indian it means—possession! Dam' ... of course you're right! She said it to me. She's mine. She belongs to me. I own her. And I thought...."
He caught up the bottle and turned out half a glass of liquor, swaying unsteadily:
David shook his head.
"Not now. Let's go to your shack if you've got one. Lots to talk about—old times—Kicking Horse, you know. And this girl? I can't believe it! If it's true, you're a lucky dog."
He was not thinking of consequences—of to-morrow. To-night was all he asked for—alone with Brokaw. That mountain of flesh, stupefied with liquor, was no match for him now. To-morrow he might hold the whip hand, if Hauck did not return too soon.
"Lucky dog! Lucky dog!" He kept repeating that. It was like music in Brokaw's ears. And such a girl! An angel! He couldn't believe it! Brokaw's face was like a red fire in his exultation, his lustful joy, his great triumph. He drank the liquor he had proffered David, and drank a second time, rumbling in his thick chest like some kind of animal. Of course she was an angel! Hadn't he, and Hauck, and that woman who had died, made her grow into an angel—just for him? She belonged to him. Always had belonged to him, and he had waited a long time. If she had ever called any other man that name—Sakewawin—he would have killed him. Certain. Killed him dead. This was the first time she had ever called him that. Lucky dog? You bet he was. They'd go to his shack—and talk. He drank a third time. He rolled heavily as they entered the hall, David praying that they would not meet Hauck. He had his victim. He was sure of him. And the hall was empty. He picked up his gun and pack, and held to Brokaw's arm as they went out into the night. Brokaw staggered guidingly into a wall of darkness, talking thickly about lucky dogs. They had gone perhaps a hundred paces when he stopped suddenly, very close to something that looked to David like a section of tall fence built of small trees. It was the cage. He jumped at that conclusion before he could see it clearly in the clouded starlight. From it there came a growling rumble, a deep breath that was like air escaping from a pair of bellows, and he saw faintly a huge, motionless shape beyond the stripped and upright sapling trunks.
"Grizzly," said Brokaw, trying to keep himself on an even balance. "Big bear-fight to-morrow, Mac. My bear—her bear—a great fight! Everybody in to see it. Nothing like a bear-fight, eh? S'prise her, won't it—pretty little wench! When she sees her bear fighting mine? Betchu hundred dollars my bear kills Tara!"
"To-morrow," said David. "I'll bet to-morrow. Where's the shack?"
He was anxious to reach that, and he hoped it was a good distance away. He feared every moment that he would hear Hauck's voice or his footsteps behind them, and he knew that Hauck's presence would spoil everything. Brokaw, in his cups, was talkative—almost garrulous. Already he had explained the mystery of the cage, and the Indians. The big fight was to take place in the cage, and the Indians had come in to see it. He found himself wondering, as they went through the darkness, how it had all been kept from the girl, and why Brokaw should deliberately lower himself still more in her esteem by allowing the combat to occur. He asked him about it when they entered the shack to which Brokaw guided him, and after they had lighted a lamp. It was a small, gloomy, whisky-smelling place. Brokaw went directly to a box nailed against the wall and returned with a quart flask that resembled an army canteen, and two tin cups. He sat down at a small table, his bloated, red face in the light of the lamp, that queer animal-like rumbling in his throat, as he turned out the liquor. David had heard porcupines make something like the same sound. He pulled his hat lower over his eyes to hide the gleam of them as Brokaw told him what he and Hauck had planned. The bear in the cage belonged to him—Brokaw. A big brute. Fierce. A fighter. Hauck and he were going to bet on his bear because it would surely kill Tara. Make a big clean-up, they would. Tara was soft. Too easy living. And they needed money because those scoundrels over on the coast had failed to get in enough whisky for their trade. The girl had almost spoiled their plans by going away with Tara. And he—Mac—was a devil of a good fellow for bringing her back! They'd pull off the fight to-morrow. If the girl—that little bird-devil that belonged to him—didn't like it....
He brought the canteen down with a bang, and shoved one of the cups across to David.
"Of course, she belongs to you," said David, encouragingly, "but—confound you—I can't believe it, you old dog! I can't believe it!" He leaned over and gave Brokaw a jocular slap, forcing a laugh out of himself. "She's too pretty for you. Prettiest kid I ever saw! How did it happen? Eh? You—lucky—dog!"
He was fairly trembling as he saw the red fire of satisfaction, of gloating pleasure, deepen in Brokaw's face.
"She hasn't belonged to you very long, eh?"
"Long time, long time," replied Brokaw, pausing with his cup half way to his mouth. "Years ago."
Suddenly he lowered the cup so forcefully that half the liquor in it was spilled over the table. He thrust his huge shoulders and red face toward David, and in an instant there was a snarl on his thick lips.
"Hauck said she didn't," he growled. "What do you think of that, Mac?—said she didn't belong to me any more, an' I'd have to pay for her keep! Gawd, I did. I gave him a lot of gold!"