"You were a fool," said David, trying to choke back his eagerness. "A fool!"
"I should have killed him, shouldn't I, Mac—killed him an' took her?" cried Brokaw huskily, his passion rising as he knotted his huge fists on the table. "Killed him like you killed the Breed for that long-haired she-devil over at Copper Cliff!"
"I—don't—know," said David, slowly, praying that he might not say the wrong thing now. "I don't know what claim you had on her, Brokaw. If I knew...."
He waited. Brokaw did not seem altogether like a drunken man now, and for a moment he feared that discovery had come. He leaned over the table. The watery film seemed to drop from his eyes for an instant and his teeth gleamed wolfishly. David was glad the lamp chimney was black with soot, and that the rim of his hat shadowed his face, for it seemed to him that Brokaw's vision had grown suddenly better.
"I should have killed him, an' took her," repeated Brokaw, his voice heavy with passion. "I should have had her long ago, but Hauck's woman kept her from me. She's been mine all along, ever since...." His mind seemed to lag. He drew his hulking shoulders back slowly. "But I'll have her to-morrow," he mumbled, as if he had suddenly forgotten David and was talking to himself. "To-morrow. Next day we'll start north. Hauck can't say anything now. I've paid him. She's mine—mine now—to-night! By...."
David shuddered at what he saw in the brute's revolting face. It was the dawning of a sudden, terrible idea. To-night! It blazed there in his eyes, grown watery again. Quickly David turned out more liquor, and thrust one of the cups into Brokaw's hand. The giant drank. His body sank into piggish laxness. For a moment the danger was past. David knew that time was precious. He must force his hand.
"And if Hauck troubles you," he cried, striking the table a blow with his fist, "I'll help you settle for him, Brokaw! I'll do it for old time's sake. I'll do to him what I did to the Breed. The girl's yours. She's belonged to you for a long time, eh? Tell me about it, Brokaw—tell me before Hauck comes!"
Could he never make that bloated fiend tell him what he wanted to know? Brokaw stared at him stupidly, and then all at once he started, as if some one had pricked him into consciousness, and a slow grin began to spread over his face. It was a reminiscent, horrible sort of leer, not a smile—the expression of a man who gloats over a revolting and unspeakable thing.
"She's mine—been mine ever since she was a baby," he confided, leaning again over the table. "Good friend, give her to me, Mac—good friend but a dam' fool," he chuckled. He rubbed his huge hands together and turned out more liquor. "Dam' fool!" he repeated. "Any man's a dam' fool to turn down a pretty woman, eh, Mac? An' she was pretty, he says. My girl's mother, you know. She must have been pretty. It was off there—in the bush country—years ago. The kid you brought in to-day was a baby then—alone with her mother. Ho, ho! deuced easy—deuced easy! But he was a darn' fool!"
He drank with incredible slowness, it seemed to David. It was torture to watch him, with the fear, every instant, that Hauck would come.
"What happened?" he urged.
"Bucky—my friend—in love with that woman, O'Doone's wife," resumed Brokaw. "Dead crazy, Mac. Crazier'n you were over the Breed's woman, only he didn't have the nerve. Just moped around—waiting—keeping out of O'Doone's way. Trapper, O'Doone was—or a Company runner. Forgot which. Anyway he went on a long trip, in winter, and got laid up with a broken leg long way from home. Wife and baby alone, an' Bucky sneaked up one day and found the woman sick with fever. Out of her head! Dead out, Bucky says—an' my Gawd! If she didn't think he was her husband come back! That easy, Mac—an' he lacked the nerve! Crazy in love with her, he was, an' didn't dare play the part. Told me it was conscience. Bah! it wasn't. He was afraid. Scared. A fool. Then he said the fever must have touched him. Ho, ho! it was funny. He was a scared fool. Wish I'd been there, Mac; wish I had!"
His eyes half closed, gleaming in narrow, shining slits. His chin dropped on his chest. David prodded him on.
"Bucky got her to run away with him," continued Brokaw. "Her and the kid, while she was still out of her head. Bucky even got her to write a note, he said, telling O'Doone she was sick of him an' was running away with another man. Bucky didn't give his own name, of course. An' the woman didn't know what she was doing. They started west with the kid, and all the time Bucky was afraid! He dragged the woman on a sledge, and snow covered their trail. He hid in a cabin a hundred miles from O'Doone's, an' it was there the woman come to her senses. Gawd! it must have been exciting! Bucky says she was like a mad woman, and that she ran screeching out into the night, leaving the kid with him. He followed but he couldn't find her. He waited, but she never came back. A snow storm covered her trail. Then Bucky says he went mad—the fool! He waited till spring, keeping that kid, and then he made up his mind to get it back to Papa O'Doone in some way. He sneaked back where the cabin had been, and found nothing but char there. It had been burned. Oh, the devil, but it was funny! And after all this trouble he hadn't dared to take O'Doone's place with the woman. Conscience? Bah! He was a fool. You don't get a pretty woman like that very often, eh, Mac?" Unsteadily he tilted the flask to turn himself out another drink. His voice was thickening. David rejoiced when he saw that the flask was empty.
"Dam'!" said Brokaw, shaking it.
"Go on," insisted David. "You haven't told me how you came by the girl, Brokaw?"
The watery film was growing thicker over Brokaw's eyes. He brought himself back to his story with an apparent effort.
"Came west, Bucky did—with the kid," he went on. "Struck my cabin, on the Mackenzie, a year later. Told me all about it. Then one day he sneaked away and left her with me, begging me to put her where she'd be safe. I did. Gave her to Hauck's woman, and told her Bucky's story. Later, Hauck came over here and built this place. Three years ago I come down from the Yukon, and saw the kid. Pretty? Gawd, she was! Almost a woman. And she was mine. I told 'em so. Mebby the woman would have cheated me, but I had Hauck on the hip because I saw him kill a man when he was drunk—a white man from Fort MacPherson. Helped him hide the body. And then—oh, it was funny!—I ran across Bucky! He was living in a shack a dozen miles from here, an' he didn't know Marge was the O'Doone baby. I told him a big lie—told him the kid died, an' that I'd heard the woman had killed herself, and that O'Doone was in a lunatic asylum. Mebby he did have a conscience, the fool! Guess he was a little crazy himself. Went away soon after that. Never heard of him since. An' I've been hanging round until the girl was old enough to live with a man. Ain't I done right, Mac? Don't she belong to me? An' to-morrow...."
His head rolled. He recovered himself with an effort, and leaned heavily against the table. His face was almost barren of human expression. It was the face of a monster, unlighted by reason, stripped of mind and soul. And David, glaring into it across the table, questioned him once more, even as he heard the crunch of footsteps outside, and knew that Hauck was coming—coming in all probability to unmask him in the part he had played. But Hauck was too late. He was ready to fight now, and as he held himself prepared for the struggle he asked that question.
"And this man—Bucky; what was his other name, Brokaw?"
Brokaw's thick lips moved, and then came his voice, in a husky whisper:
The next instant Hauck was at the open door. He did not cross the threshold at once, but stood there for perhaps twenty seconds—his gray, hard face looking in on them with eyes in which there was a cold and sinister glitter. Brokaw, with the fumes of liquor thick in his brain, tried to nod an invitation for him to enter; his head rolled grotesquely and his voice was a croak. David rose slowly to his feet, thrusting back his chair. From contemplating Brokaw's sagging body, Hauck's eyes were levelled at him. And then his lips parted. One would not have called it a smile. It revealed to David a deadly animosity which the man was trying to hide under the disguise of that grin, and he knew that Hauck had discovered that he was not McKenna. Swiftly David shot a glance at Brokaw. The giant's head and shoulders lay on the table, and he made a sudden daring effort to save a little more time for himself.
"I'm sorry," he said. "He's terribly drunk."
Hauck nodded his head—he kept nodding it, that cold glitter in his eyes, the steady, insinuating grin still there.
"Yes, he's drunk," he said, his voice as hard as a rock. "Better come to the house. I've got a room for you. There's only one bunk in here—McKenna."
He dragged out the name slowly, a bit tauntingly it seemed to David. And David laughed. Might as well play his last card well, he thought.
"My name isn't McKenna," he said. "It's David Raine. He made a mistake, and he's so drunk I haven't been able to explain."
Without answering, Hauck backed out of the door. It was an invitation for David to follow. Again he carried his pack and gun with him through the darkness, and Hauck uttered not a word as they returned to the Nest. The night was brighter now, and David could see Baree close at his heels, following him as silently as a shadow. The dog slunk out of sight when they came to the building. They did not enter from the rear this time. Hauck led the way to a door that opened into the big room from which had come the sound of cursing and laughter a little before. There were ten or a dozen men in that room, all white men, and, upon entering, David was moved by a sudden suspicion that they were expecting him—that Hauck had prepared them for his appearance. There was no liquor in sight. If there had been bottles and glasses on the tables, they had been cleared away—but no one had thought to wipe away certain liquid stains that David saw shimmering wetly in the glow of the three big lamps hanging from the ceiling. He looked the men over quickly as he followed the free trader. Never, he thought, had he seen a rougher or more unpleasant-looking lot. He caught more than one eye filled with the glittering menace he had seen in Hauck's. Not a man nodded at him, or spoke to him. He passed close to one raw-boned individual, so close that he brushed against him, and there was an unconcealed and threatening animosity in this man's face as he glared up at him. By the time he had passed through the room his suspicion had become a conviction. Hauck had purposely put him on parade, and there was a deep and sinister significance in the attitude of these men.
They passed through the hall into which he and Marge had entered from the opposite side of the Nest, and Hauck paused at the door of a room almost opposite to the one which the girl had said belonged to her.
"This will be your room while you are our guest," he said. The glitter in his eyes softened as he nodded at David. He tried to speak a bit affably, but David felt that his effort was rather unsuccessful. It failed to cover the hard note in his voice and the curious twitch of his upper lip—a snarl almost—as he forced a smile. "Make yourself at home," he added. "We'll have breakfast in the morning with my niece." He paused for a moment and then said, looking keenly at David: "I suppose you tried hard to make Brokaw understand he had made a mistake, and that you wasn't McKenna? Brokaw is a good fellow when he isn't drunk."
David was glad that he turned away without waiting for an answer. He did not want to talk with Hauck to-night. He wanted to turn over in his mind what he had learned from Brokaw, and to-morrow act with the cool judgment which was more or less characteristic of him. He did not believe even now that there would be anything melodramatic in the outcome of the affair. There would be an unpleasantness, of course; but when both Hauck and Brokaw were confronted with a certain situation, and with the peculiarly significant facts which he now held in his possession, he could not see how they would be able to place any very great obstacle in the way of his determination to take Marge from the Nest. He did not think of personal harm to himself, and as he entered his room, where a lamp had been lighted for him, his mind had already begun to work on a plan of action. He would compromise with them. In return for the loss of the girl they should have his promise—his oath, if necessary—not to reveal the secret of the traffic in which they were engaged, or of that still more important affair between Hauck and the white man from Fort MacPherson. He was certain that, in his drunkenness, Brokaw had spoken the truth, no matter what he might deny to-morrow. They would not hazard an investigation, though to lose the girl now, at the very threshold of his exultant realization, would be like taking the earth from under Brokaw's feet. In spite of the tenseness of the situation David found himself chuckling with satisfaction. It would be unpleasant—very—he repeated that assurance to himself; but that self-preservation would be the first law of these rascals he was equally positive, and he began thinking of other things that just now were of more thrilling import to him.
It was Tavish, then—that half-mad hermit in his mice-infested cabin—who had been at the bottom of it all! Tavish! The discovery did not amaze him profoundly. He had never been able to dissociate Tavish from the picture, unreasoning though he confessed himself to be, and now that his mildly impossible conjectures had suddenly developed into facts, he was not excited. It was another thought—or other thoughts—that stirred him more deeply, and brought a heat into his blood. His mind leaped back to that scene of years ago, when Marge O'Doone's mother had run shrieking out in the storm of night to escape Tavish. But she had not died! That was the thought that burned in David's brain now. She had lived. She had searched for her husband—Michael O'Doone; a half-mad wanderer of the forests at first, she may have been. She had searched for years. And she was still searching for him when he had met her that night on the Transcontinental! For it was she—Marge O'Doone, the mother, the wife, into whose dark, haunting eyes he had gazed from out the sunless depths of his own despair! Her mother. Alive. Seeking a Michael O'Doone—seeking—seeking....
He was filled with a great desire to go at once to the Girl and tell her this wonderful new fact that had come into her life, and he found himself suddenly at the door of his room, with his fingers on the latch. Standing there, he shrugged his shoulders, laughing softly at himself as he realized how absurdly sensational he was becoming all at once. To-morrow would be time. He filled and lighted his pipe, and in the whitish fumes of his tobacco he could picture quite easily the gray, dead face of Tavish, hanging at the end of his meat rack. Pacing restlessly back and forth across his room, he recalled the scenes of that night, and of days and nights that had followed. Brokaw had given him the key that was unlocking door after door. "Guess he was a little crazy," Brokaw had said, speaking of Tavish as he had last known him on the Firepan. Crazy! Going mad! And at last he had killed himself. Was it possible that a man of Tavish's sort could be haunted for so long by spectres of the past? It seemed unreasonable. He thought of Father Roland and of the mysterious room in the Chateau, where he worshipped at the shrine of a woman and a child who were gone.
He clenched his hands, and stopped himself. What had leapt into his mind was as startling to his inner consciousness as the unexpected flash of magnesium in a dark room. It was unthinkable—impossible; and yet, following it, he found himself face to face with question after question which he made no effort to answer. He was dazed for a moment as if by the terrific impact of a thing which had neither weight nor form. Tavish, the woman, the girl—Father Roland! Absurd. He shook himself, literally shook himself, to get rid of that wildly impossible idea. He drove his mind back to the photograph of the girl—and the woman. How had she come into possession of the picture which Brokaw had taken? What had Nisikoos tried to say to Marge O'Doone in those last moments when she was dying—whispered words which the girl had not heard because she was crying, and her heart was breaking? Did Nisikoos know that the mother was alive? Had she sent the picture to her when she realized that the end of her own time was drawing near? There was something unreasonable in this too, but it was the only solution that came to him.
He was still pacing his room when the creaking of the door stopped him. It was opening slowly and steadily and apparently with extreme caution. In another moment Marge O'Doone stood inside. He had not seen her face so white before. Her eyes were big and glowing darkly—pools of quivering fear, of wild and imploring supplication. She ran to him, and clung to him with her hands at his shoulders, her face close to his.
"Sakewawin—dear Sakewawin—we must go; we must hurry—to-night!"
She was trembling, fairly shivering against him, with one hand touching his face now, and he put his arms about her gently.
"What is it, child?" he whispered, his heart choking suddenly. "What has happened?"
"We must run away! We must hurry!"
At the touch of his arms she had relaxed against his breast. The last of her courage seemed gone. She was limp, and terrified, and was looking up at him in such a strange way that he was filled with alarm.
"I didn't tell him anything," she whispered, as if afraid he would not believe her. "I didn't tell him you weren't that man—Mac—McKenna. He heard you and Brokaw go when you passed my room. Then he went to the men. I followed—and listened. I heard him telling them about you—that you were a spy—that you belonged to the provincial police...."
A sound in the hall interrupted her. She grew suddenly tense in his arms, then slipped from them and ran noiselessly to the door. There were shuffling steps outside, a thick voice growling unintelligibly. The sounds passed. Marge O'Doone was whiter still when she faced David.
"Hauck—and Brokaw!" She stood there, with her back to the door. "We must hurry, Sakewawin. We must go—to-night!"
David looked at her. A spy? Police? Quite the first thing for Hauck to suspect, of course. That law of self-preservation again—the same law that would compel them to give up the girl to him to-morrow. He found himself smiling at his frightened little companion, backed there against the door, white as death. His calmness did not reassure her.
"He said—you were a spy," she repeated, as if he must understand what that meant. "They wanted to follow you to Brokaw's cabin—and—and kill you!"
This was coming to the bottom of her fear with a vengeance. It sent a mild sort of a shiver through him, and corroborated with rather disturbing emphasis what he had seen in the men's faces as he passed among them.
"And Hauck wouldn't let them? Was that it?" he asked.
She nodded, clutching a hand at her throat.
"He told them to do nothing until he saw Brokaw. He wanted to be certain. And then...."
His amazing and smiling composure seemed to choke back the words on her lips.
"You must return to your room, Marge," he said quickly. "Hauck has now seen Brokaw and there will be no trouble such as you fear. I can promise you that. To-morrow we will leave the Nest openly—and with Hauck's and Brokaw's permission. But should they find you here now—in my room—I am quite sure we should have immediate trouble on our hands. I've a great deal to tell you—much that will make you glad, but I half expect another visit from Hauck, and you must hurry to your room."
He opened the door slightly, and listened.
"Good-night," he whispered, putting a hand for an instant to her hair.
"Good night, Sakewawin."
She hesitated for just a moment at the doors and then, with the faintest sobbing breath, was gone. What wonderful eyes she had! How they had looked at him in that last moment! David's fingers were trembling a little as he locked his door. There was a small mirror on the table and he held it up to look at himself. He regarded his reflection with grim amusement. He was not beautiful. The scrub of blond beard on his face gave him rather an outlawish appearance. And the gray hair over his temples had grown quite conspicuous of late, quite conspicuous indeed. Heredity? Perhaps—but it was confoundedly remindful of the fact that he was thirty-eight!
He went to bed, after placing the table against the door, and his automatic under his pillow—absurd and unnecessary details of caution, he assured himself. And while Marge O'Doone sat awake close to the door of her room all night, with a little rifle that had belonged to Nisikoos across her lap, David slept soundly in the amazing confidence and philosophy of that perilous age—thirty-eight!
A series of sounds that came to him at first like the booming of distant cannon roused David from his slumber. He awoke to find broad day in his room and a knocking at his door. He began to dress, calling out that he would open it in a moment, and was careful to place the automatic in his pocket before he lifted the table without a sound to its former position in the room. When he flung open the door he was surprised to find Brokaw standing there instead of Hauck. It was not the Brokaw of last night. A few hours had produced a remarkable change in the man. One would not have thought that he had been recently drunk. He was grinning and holding out one of his huge hands as he looked into David's face.
"Morning, Raine," he greeted affably. "Hauck sent me to wake you up for the fun. You've got just time to swallow your breakfast before we put on the big scrap—the scrap I told you about last night, when I was drunk. Head-over-heels drunk, wasn't I? Took you for a friend I knew. Funny. You don't look a dam' bit like him!"
David shook hands with him. In his first astonishment Brokaw's manner appeared to him to be quite sincere, and his voice to be filled with apology. This impression was gone before he had dropped his hand, and he knew why Hauck's partner had come. It was to get a good look at him—to make sure that he was not McKenna; and it was also with the strategic purpose of removing whatever suspicions David might have by an outward show of friendship. For this last bit of work Brokaw was crudely out of place. His eyes, like a bad dog's, could not conceal what lay behind them—hatred, a deep and intense desire to grip the throat of this man who had tricked him; and his grin was forced, with a subdued sort of malevolence about it. David smiled back.
"You were drunk," he said. "I had a deuce of a time trying to make you understand that I wasn't McKenna."
That amazing lie seemed for a moment to daze Brokaw. David realized the audacity of it, and knew that Brokaw would remember too well what had happened to believe him. Its effect was what he was after, and if he had had a doubt as to the motive of the other's visit that doubt disappeared almost as quickly as he had spoken. The grin went out of Brokaw's face, his jaws tightened, the red came nearer to the surface in the bloodshot eyes. As plainly as if he were giving voice to his thought he was saying: "You lie!" But he kept back the words, and as David noted carelessly the slow clenching and unclenching of his hands, he believed that Hauck was not very far away, and that it was his warning and the fact that he was possibly listening to them, that restrained Brokaw from betraying himself completely. As it was, the grin returned slowly into his face.
"Hauck says he's sorry he couldn't have breakfast with you," he said. "Couldn't wait any longer. The Indian's going to bring your breakfast here. You'd better hurry if you want to see the fun."
With this he turned and walked heavily toward the end of the hall. David glanced across at the door of Marge's room. It was closed. Then he looked at his watch. It was almost nine o'clock! He felt like swearing as he thought of what he had missed—that breakfast with Hauck and the Girl. He would undoubtedly have had an opportunity of seeing Hauck alone for a little while—a quarter of an hour would have been enough; or he could have settled the whole matter in Marge's presence. He wondered where she was now. In her room?
Approaching footsteps caused him to draw back deeper into his own and a moment later his promised breakfast appeared, carried on a big Company keyakun, by an old Indian woman—undoubtedly the woman that Marge had told him about. She placed the huge plate on his table and withdrew without either looking at him or uttering a sound. He ate hurriedly, and finished dressing himself after that. It was a quarter after nine when he went into the hall. In passing Marge's door he knocked. There came no response from within. He turned and passed through the big room in which he had seen so many unfriendly faces the night before. It was empty now. The stillness of the place began to fill him with uneasiness, and he hurried out into the day. A low tumult of sound was in the air, unintelligible and yet thrilling. A dozen steps brought him to the end of the building and he looked toward the cage. For a space after that he stood without moving, filled with a sudden, sickening horror as he realized his helplessness in this moment. If he had not overslept, if he had talked with Hauck, he might have prevented this monstrous thing that was happening—he might have demanded that Tara be a part of their bargain. It was too late now. An excited and yet strangely quiet crowd was gathered about the cage—a crowd so tense and motionless that he knew the battle was on. A low, growling roar came to him, and again he heard that tumult of human voices, like a great gasp rising spontaneously out of half a hundred throats, and in response to the sound he gave a sudden cry of rage. Tara was already battling for his life—Tara, that great, big-souled brute who had learned to follow his little mistress like a protecting dog, and who had accepted him as a friend—Tara, grown soft and lazy and unwarlike because of his voluntary slavery, had been offered to the sacrifice which Brokaw had told him was inevitable!
And the Girl! Where was she? He was unconscious of the fact that his hand was gripping hard at the automatic in his pocket. For a space his brain burned red, seething with a physical passion, a consuming anger which, in all his life, had never been roused so terrifically within him. He rushed forward and took his place in the thin circle of watching men. He did not look at their faces. He did not know whether he stood next to white men or Indians. He did not see the blaze in their eyes, the joyous trembling of their bodies, their silent, savage exultation in the spectacle.
He was looking at the cage.
It was 20 feet square—built of small trees almost a foot in diameter, with 18-inch spaces between—and out of it came a sickening, grinding smash of jaws. The two beasts were down, a ton of flesh and bone, in what seemed to him to be a death embrace. For a moment he could not tell which was Tara and which was Brokaw's grizzly. They separated in that same breath, gained their feet, and stood facing each other. They must have been fighting for some minutes. Tara's jaws were foaming with blood and out of the throat of Brokaw's bear there rolled a rumbling, snarling roar that was like the deep-chested bellow of an angry bull. With that roar they came together again, Tara waiting stolidly and with panting sides for the rush of his enemy. It was hard for David to see what was happening in that twisting contortion of huge bodies, but as they rolled heavily to one side he saw a great red splash of blood where they had lain. It looked as if some one had poured it there out of a pail.
Suddenly a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked round. Brokaw was leering at him.
"Great scrap, eh?"
There was a look in his red face that revealed the pitiless savagery of a cat. David's clenched hand was as hard as iron and his brain was filled with a wild desire to strike. He fought to hold himself in.
"Where is—the Girl?" he demanded.
Brokaw's face revealed his hatred now, the taunting triumph of his power over this man who was a spy. He bared his yellow teeth in an exultant grin.
"Tricked her," he snarled. "Tricked her—like you tricked me! Got the Indian woman to steal her clothes, an' she's up there in her room—alone—an' naked! An' she won't have any clothes until I say so, for she's mine—body and soul...."
David's clenched hand shot out, and in his blow was not alone the cumulated force of all his years of training but also of the one great impulse he had ever had to kill. In that instant he wanted to strike a man dead—a red-visaged monster, a fiend; and his blow sent Brokaw's huge body reeling backward, his head twisted as if his neck had been broken. He had not time to see what happened after that blow. He did not see Brokaw fall. A piercing interruption—a scream that startled every drop of blood in his body—turned him toward the cage. Ten paces from him, standing at the inner edge of that circle of astounded and petrified men, was the Girl! At first he thought she was standing naked there—naked under the staring eyes of the fiends about him. Her white arms gleamed bare, her shoulders and breast were bare, her slim, satiny body was naked to the waist, about which she had drawn tightly—as if in a wild panic of haste—an old and ragged skirt! It was the Indian woman's skirt. He caught the glitter of beads on it, and for a moment he stared with the others, unable to move or cry out her name. And then a breath of wind flung back her hair and he saw her face the colour of marble. She was like a piece of glistening statuary, without a quiver of life that his eyes could see, without a movement, without a breath. Only her hair moved, stirred by the air, flooded by the sun, floating about her shoulders and down her bare back in a lucent cloud of red and gold fires—and out of this she was staring at the cage, stunned into that lifeless and unbreathing posture of horror by what she saw. David did not follow her eyes. He heard the growl and roar and clashing jaws of the fighting beasts; they were down again; one of the 6-inch trees that formed the bars of the cage snapped like a walking stick as their great bodies lurched against it; the earth shook, the very air seemed to tremble with the terrific force of the struggle—and only the Girl was looking at that struggle. Every eye was on her now, and David sprang suddenly forth from the circle of men, calling her name.
Ten paces separated them; half that distance lay between the Girl and the cage. With the swiftness of an arrow sprung from the bow she had leaped into life and crossed that space. In a tenth part of a second David would have been at her side. He was that tenth of a second too late. A gleaming shaft, she had passed between the bars and a tumult of horrified voices rose above the roar of battle as the girl sprang at the beasts with her naked hands.
Her voice came to David in a scream.
His brain reeled when he saw her down—down!—with her little fists pummelling at a great, shaggy head; and in him there was the sickening weakness of a drunken man as he squeezed through that 18-inch aperture and almost fell at her side. He did not know that he had drawn his automatic; he scarcely realized that as fast as his fingers could press the trigger he was firing shot after shot, with the muzzle of his pistol so close to the head of Tara's enemy that the reports of the weapon were deadened as if muffled under a thick blanket. It was a heavy weapon. A stream of lead burned its way into the grizzly's brain. There were eleven shots and he fired them all in that wild, blood-red frenzy; and when he stood up he had the girl close in his arms, her naked breast throbbing pantingly against him. The clasp of his hands against her warm flesh cleared his head, and while Tara was rending at the throat of his dying foe, David drew her swiftly out of the cage and flung about her the light jacket he had worn.
"Go to your room," he said. "Tara is safe. I will see that no harm comes to him now."
The cordon of men separated for them as he led her through. The crowd was so silent that they could hear Tara's low throat-growling. And then, breaking that silence in a savage cry, came Brokaw's voice.
He faced them, huge, terrible, quivering with rage. A step behind him was Hauck, and there was no longer in his face an effort to conceal his murderous intentions. Close behind Hauck there gathered quickly his white-faced whisky-mongers like a pack of wolves waiting for a lead-cry. David expected that cry to come from Brokaw. The Girl expected it, and she clung to David's shoulders, her bloodless face turned to the danger.
It was Brokaw who gave the signal to the men.
"Clear out the cage!" he bellowed. "This damned spy has killed my bear and he's got to fight me! Do you understand? Clear out the cage!"
He thrust his head and bull shoulders forward until his foul, hot breath touched their faces, and his red neck was swollen like the neck of a cobra with the passion of his jealousy and hatred.
"And in that fight—I'm going to kill you!" he hissed.
It was Hauck who put his hands on the Girl.
"Go with him," whispered David, as her arms tightened about his shoulders. "You must go with him, Marge—if I am to have a chance!"
Her face was against him. She was talking, low, swiftly, for his ears alone—with Hauck already beginning to pull her away.
"I will go to the house. When you see me at that window, fall on your face. I have a rifle—I will shoot him dead—from the window...."
Perhaps Hauck heard. David wondered as he caught the glitter in his eyes when he drew the Girl away. He heard the crash of the big gate to the cage, and Tara, ambled out and took his way slowly and limpingly toward the edge of the forest. When he saw the Girl again, he was standing in the centre of the cage, his feet in a pool of blood that smeared the ground. She was struggling with Hauck, struggling to break from him and get to the house. And now he knew that Hauck had heard, and that he would hold her there, and that her eyes would be on him while Brokaw was killing him. For he knew that Brokaw would fight to kill. It would not be a square fight. It would be murder—if the chance came Brokaw's way. The thought did not frighten him. He was growing strangely calm in these moments. He realized the advantage of being unencumbered, and he stripped off his shirt, and tightened his belt. And then Brokaw entered. The giant had stripped himself to the waist, and he stood for a moment looking at David, a monster with the lust of murder in his eyes. It was frightfully unequal—this combat. David felt it, he was blind if he did not see it, and yet he was still unafraid. A great silence fell. Cutting it like a knife came the Girl's voice:
A brutish growl rose out of Brokaw's chest. He had heard that cry, and it stung him like an asp.
"To-night, she will be with me," he taunted David and lowered his head for battle.
David no longer saw the horde of faces beyond the thick bars of the cage. His last glance, shot past the lowered head and hulking shoulders of his giant adversary, went to the Girl. He noticed that she had ceased her struggling and was looking toward him. After that his eyes never left Brokaw's face. Until now it had not seemed that Brokaw was so big and so powerful, and, sizing up his enemy in that moment before the first rush, he realized that his one hope was to keep him from using his enormous strength at close quarters. A clinch would be fatal. In Brokaw's arms he would be helpless; he was conscious of an unpleasant thrill as he thought how easy it would be for the other to break his back, or snap his neck, if he gave him the opportunity. Science! What would it avail him here, pitted against this mountain of flesh and bone that looked as though it might stand the beating of clubs without being conquered! His first blow returned his confidence, even if it had wavered slightly. Brokaw rushed. It was an easy attack to evade, and David's arm shot out and his fist landed against Brokaw's head with a sound that was like the crack of a whip. Hauck would have gone down under that blow like a log. Brokaw staggered. Even he realized that this was science—the skill of the game—and he was grinning as he advanced again. He could stand a hundred blows like that—a grim and ferocious Achilles with but one vulnerable point, the end of his jaw. David waited and watched for his opportunity as he gave ground slowly. Twice they circled about the blood-spattered arena, Brokaw following him with leisurely sureness, and yet delaying his attack as if in that steady retreat of his victim he saw torture too satisfying to put an end to at once. David measured his carelessness, the slow almost unguarded movement of his great body, his unpreparedness for a coup de main—and like a flash he launched himself forward with all the weight of his body behind his effort.
It missed the other's jaw by two inches, that catapeltic blow—striking him full in the mouth, breaking his yellow teeth and smashing his thick lips so that the blood sprang out in a spray over his hairy chest, and as his head rocked backward David followed with a swift left-hander, and a second time missed the jaw with his right—but drenched his clenched fist in blood. Out of Brokaw there came a cry that was like the low roar of a beast; a cry that was the most inhuman sound David had ever heard from a human throat, and in an instant he found himself battling not for victory, not for that opportunity he twice had missed, but for his life. Against that rushing bulk, enraged almost to madness, the ingenuity of his training alone saved him from immediate extinction. How many times he struck in the 120 seconds following his blow to Brokaw's mouth he could never have told. He was red with Brokaw's blood. His face was warm with it. His hands were as if painted, so often did they reach with right and left to Brokaw's gory visage. It was like striking at a monstrous thing without the sense of hurt, a fiend that had no brain that blows could sicken, a body that was not a body but an enormity that had strangely taken human form. Brokaw had struck him once—only once—in those two minutes, but blows were not what he feared now. He was beating himself to pieces, literally beating himself to pieces as a ship might have hammered itself against a reef, and fighting with every breath to keep himself out of the fatal clinch. His efforts were costing him more than they were costing his antagonist. Twice he had reached his jaw, twice Brokaw's head had rocked back on his shoulders—and then he was there again, closing in on him, grinning, dripping red to the soles of his feet, unconquerable. Was there no fairness out there beyond the bars of the cage? Were they all like the man he was fighting—devils? An intermission—only half a minute. Enough to give him a chance. The slow, invincible beast he was hammering almost had him as his thoughts wandered. He only half fended the sledge-like blow that came straight for his face. He ducked, swung up his guard like lightning, and was saved from death by a miracle. That blow would have crushed in his face—killed him. He knew it. Brokaw's huge fist landed against the side of his head and grazed off like a bullet that had struck the slanting surface of a rock. Yet the force of it was sufficient to send him crashing against the bars—and down.
In that moment he thanked God for Brokaw's slowness. He had a clear recollection afterward of almost having spoken the words as he lay dazed and helpless for an infinitesimal space of time. He expected Brokaw to end it there. But Brokaw stood mopping the blood from his face, as if partly blinded by it, while from beyond the cage there came a swiftly growing rumble of voices. He heard a scream. It was the scream—the agonized cry—of the Girl, that brought him to his feet while Brokaw was still wiping the hot flow from his dripping jaw. It was that cry that cleared his brain, that called out to him in its despair that he must win, that all was lost for her as well as for himself if he was vanquished—for more positively than at any other time during the fight he felt now that defeat would mean death. It had come to him definitely in the savage outcry of joy when he was down. There was to be no mercy. He had read the ominous decree. And Brokaw....
He was like a madman as he came toward him again. There was no longer the leer on his face. There was in his battered and swollen countenance but one emotion. Blood and hurt could not hide it. It blazed like fires in his half-closed eyes. It was the desire to kill. The passion which quenches itself in the taking of life, and every fibre in David's brain rose to meet it. He knew that it was no longer a matter of blows on his part—it was like the David of old facing Goliath with his bare hands. Curiously the thought of Goliath came to him in these flashing moments. Here, too, there must be trickery, something unexpected, a deadly stratagem, and his brain must work out his salvation quickly. Another two or three minutes and it would be over one way or the other. He made his decision. The tricks of his own art were inadequate, but there was still one hope—one last chance. It was the so-called "knee-break" of the bush country, a horrible thing, he had thought, when Father Roland had taught it to him. "Break your opponent's knees," the Missioner had said, "and you've got him." He had never practised it. But he knew the method, and he remembered the Little Missioner's words—"when he's straight facing you, with all your weight, like a cannon ball!" And suddenly he shot himself out like that, as Brokaw was about to rush upon him—a hundred and sixty pounds of solid flesh and bone against the joints of Brokaw's knees!
The shock dazed him. There was a sharp pain in his left shoulder, and with that shock and pain he was conscious of a terrible cry as Brokaw crashed over him. He was on his feet when Brokaw was on his knees. Whether or not they were really broken he could not tell. With all the strength in his body he sent his right again and again to the bleeding jaw of his enemy. Brokaw reached up and caught him in his huge arms, but that jaw was there, unprotected, and David battered it as he might have battered a rock with a hammer. A gasping cry rose out of the giant's throat, his head sank backward—and through a red fury, through blood that spattered up into his face, David continued to strike until the arms relaxed about him, and with a choking gurgle of blood in his throat, Brokaw dropped back limply, as if dead.
And then David looked again beyond the bars. The staring faces had drawn nearer to the cage, bewildered, stupefied, disbelieving, like the faces of stone images. For a space it was so quiet that it seemed to him they must hear his panting breath and the choking gurgle that was still in Brokaw's throat. The victor! He flung back his shoulders and held up his head, though he had great desire to stagger against one of the bars and rest. He could see the Girl and Hauck—and now the girl was standing alone, looking at him. She had seen him! She had seen him beat that giant beast, and a great pride rose in his breast and spread in a joyous light over his bloody face. Suddenly he lifted his hand and waved it at her. In a flash she was coming to him. She would have broken her way through the cordon of men, but Hauck stopped her. He had seen Hauck talking swiftly to two of the white men. And now Hauck caught the girl and held her back. David knew that he was dripping red and he was glad that she came no nearer. Hauck was telling her to go to the house, and David nodded, and with a movement of his hand made her understand that she must obey. Not until he saw her going did he pick up his shirt and step out among the men. Three or four of the whites went to Brokaw. The rest stared at him still in that amazed silence as he passed among them. He nodded and smiled at them, as though beating Brokaw had not been such a terrible task after all. He noticed there was scarcely an expression in the faces of the Indians. And then he found himself face to face with Hauck, and a step or two behind Hauck were the two white men he had talked to so hurriedly. One of them was the man David had brushed against in passing through the big room. There was a grin in his face now. There was a grin in Hauck's face, and a grin in the face of the third man, and to David's astonishment Hauck thrust out his hand.
"Shake, Raine! I'd have bet a thousand to fifty you were loser, but there wasn't a dollar going your way. A great fight!"
He turned to the other two.
"Take Raine to his room, boys. Help 'im wash up. I've got to see to Brokaw—an' this crowd."
David protested. He was all right. He needed only water and soap, both of which were in his room, but Hauck insisted that it wasn't square, and wouldn't look right, if he didn't have friends as well as Brokaw. Brokaw had forced the affair so suddenly that none of them had had time or thought to speak an encouraging or friendly word before the fight. Langdon and Henry would go with him now. He walked between the two to the Nest, and entered his room with them. Langdon, the tall man who had looked hatred at him last night, poured water into a tin basin while Henry, the smaller man, closed his door. They appeared quite companionable, especially Langdon.
"Didn't like you last night," he confessed frankly. "Thought you was one of them damned police, running your nose into our business mebby."
He stood beside David, with the pail of water in his hand, and as David bent over the basin Henry was behind him. He had drawn something from his pocket, and was edging up close. As David dipped his hands in the water he looked up into Langdon's face, and he saw there a strange and unexpected change—that deadly malignity of last night. In that moment the object in Henry's hand fell with terrific force on his head and he crumpled down over the basin. He was conscious of a single agonizing pain, like a hot iron thrust suddenly through him, and then a great and engulfing pit of darkness closed about him.
In that chaotic night in which he was drifting, David experienced neither pain nor very much of the sense of life. And yet, without seeing or feeling, he seemed to be living. All was dead within him but that last consciousness, which is almost the spirit; he might have been dreaming, and minutes, hours, or even years might have passed in that dream. For a long time he seemed to be sinking through the blackness; and then something stopped him, without jar or shock, and he was rising. He could hear nothing at first. There was a vast silence about him, a silence as deep and unbroken as the abysmal pit in which he seemed to be floating. After that he felt himself swaying and rocking, as though tossed gently on the billows of a sea. This was the first thought that took shape in his struggling brain—he was at sea; he was on a ship in the heart of a black night, and he was alone. He tried to call out, but his tongue seemed gone. It seemed a long time before day broke, and then it was strange day. Little needles of light pricked his eyes; silver strings shot like flashes of wave-like lightning through the darkness, and he began to feel, and to hear. A dozen hands seemed holding him down until he could move neither arms nor feet. He heard voices. There appeared to be many of them at first, an unintelligible rumble of voices, and then very swiftly they became two.
He opened his eyes. The first thing that he observed was a bar of sunlight against the eastern wall of his room. That bit of sunlight was like a magnet thrown there to reassemble the faculties that had drifted away from him in the dark night of his unconsciousness. It tried to tell him, first of all, that it was afternoon—quite late in the afternoon. He would have sensed that fact in another moment or two, but something came between him and the radiance flung by the westward slant of the sun. It was a face, two faces—first Hauck's and then Brokaw's! Yes, Brokaw was there! Staring down at him. A fiend still. And almost unrecognizable. He was no longer stripped, and he was no longer bloody. His countenance was swollen; his lips were raw, one eye was closed—but the other gleamed like a devil's. David tried to sit up. He managed with an effort, and balanced himself on the edge of his cot. His head was dizzy, and he felt clumsy and helpless as a stuffed bag. His hands were tied behind him, and his feet were bound. He thought Hauck looked like an exultant gargoyle as he stood there with a horrible grin on his face, and Brokaw....
It was Brokaw who bent over him, his thick fingers knotting, his open eyes fairly livid.
"I'm glad you ain't dead, Raine."
His voice was husky, muffled by the swollen thickness of his battered lips.
"Thanks," said David. The dizziness was leaving him, but there was a steady pain in his head. He tried to smile. "Thanks!" It was rather idiotic of him to say that. Brokaw's hands were moving slowly toward his throat when Hauck drew him back.
"I won't touch him—not now," he growled. "But to-night—oh, God!"
His knuckles snapped.
"You—liar! You—spy! You—sneak!" he cursed through his broken teeth. David saw where they had been—a cavity in that cruel, battered mouth. "And you think, after that...."
Again Hauck tried to draw him away. Brokaw flung off his hands angrily.
"I won't touch him—but I'll tell him, Hauck! The devil take me body and soul if I don't! I want him to know...."
"You're a fool!" cried Hauck. "Stop, or by Heaven!..."
Brokaw opened his mouth and laughed, and David saw the havoc of his blows.
"You'll do what, Hauck? Nothing—that's what you'll do! Ain't I told him you killed that napo from MacPherson? Ain't I told him enough to set us both swinging?" He bent over David until his breath struck his face. "I'm glad you didn't die, Raine," he repeated, "because I want to see you when you shuffle off. We're only waiting for the Indians to go. Old Wapi starts with his tribe at sunset. I'm sorry, but we can't get the heathen away any earlier because he says it's good luck to start a journey at sunset in the moulting moon. You'll start yours a little later—as soon as they're out of sound of a rifle shot. You can't trust Indians, eh? You made a hit with old Wapi, and it wouldn't do to let him know we're going to send you where you sent my bear. Eh—would it?"
"You mean—you're going to murder me?" said David
"If standing you up against a tree and putting a bullet through your heart is murder—yes," gloated Brokaw.
"Murder—" repeated David.
He seemed powerless to say more than that. An overwhelming dizziness was creeping over him, the pain was splitting his head, and he swayed backward. He fought to recover himself, to hold himself up, but that returning sickness reached from his brain to the pit of his stomach, and with a groan he sank face downward on the cot. Brokaw was still talking, but he could no longer understand his words. He heard Hauck's sharp voice, their retreating footsteps, the opening and closing of the door—fighting all the time to keep himself from falling off into that black and bottomless pit again. It was many minutes before he drew himself to a sitting posture on the edge of his cot, this time slowly and guardedly, so that he would not rouse the pain in his head. It was there. He could feel it burning steadily and deeply, like one of his old-time headaches.
The bar of sunlight was gone from the wall, and through the one small window in the west end of his room he saw the fading light of day outside. It was morning when he had fought Brokaw; it was now almost night. The wash-basin was where it had fallen when Henry struck him. He saw a red stain on the floor where he must have dropped. Then again he looked at the window. It was rather oddly out of place, so high up that one could not look in from the outside—a rectangular slit to let in light, and so narrow that a man could not have wormed his way through it. He had seen nothing particularly significant in its location last night, or this morning, but now its meaning struck him as forcibly as that of the pieces of babiche thong that bound his wrists and ankles. A guest might be housed in this room without suspicion and at the turn of a key be made a prisoner. There was no way of escape unless one broke down the heavy door or cut through the log walls.
Gradually he was overcoming his sensation of sickness. His head was clearing, and he began to breathe more deeply. He tried to move his cramped arms. They were without feeling, lifeless weights hung to his shoulders. With an effort he thrust out his feet. And then—through the window—there came to him a low, thrilling sound.
It was the muffled boom, boom, boom of a tom-tom.
Wapi and his Indians were going, and he heard now a weird and growing chant, a savage paean to the wild gods of the Moulting Moon. A gasp rose in his throat. It was almost a cry. His last hope was going—with Wapi and his tribe! Would they help him if they knew? If he shouted? If he shrieked for them through that open window? It was a mad thought, an impossible thought, but it set his heart throbbing for a moment. And then—suddenly—it seemed to stand still. A key rattled, turned; the door opened—and Marge O'Doone stood before him!
She was panting—sobbing, as if she had been running a long distance. She made no effort to speak, but dropped at his feet and began sawing at the caribou babiche with a knife. She had come prepared with that knife! He felt the bonds snap, and before either had spoken she was at his back, and his hands were free. They were like lead. She dropped the knife then, and her hands were at his face—dark with dry stain of blood, and over and over again she was calling him by the name she had given him—Sakewawin. And then the tribal chant of Wapi and his people grew nearer and louder as they passed into the forest, and with a choking cry the Girl drew back from David and stood facing him.
"I—must hurry," she said, swiftly. "Listen! They are going! Hauck or Brokaw will go as far as the lake with Wapi, and the one who does not go will return here. See, Sakewawin—I have brought you a knife! When he comes—you must kill him!"
The chanting voices had passed. The paean was dying away in the direction of the forest.
He did not interrupt her. With hand clutched at her breast she went on.
"I waited—until all were out there. They kept me in my room and left Marcee—the old Indian woman—to watch me. When they were all out to see Wapi off, I struck her over the head with the end of Nisikoos' rifle. Maybe she is dead. Tara is out there. I know where to find him when it is dark. I will make up a pack and within an hour we must go. If Hauck comes to your room before then, or Brokaw, kill him with the knife, Sakewawin! If you don't—they will kill you!"
Her voice broke in a gasp that was like a sob. He struggled to rise; stood swaying before her, his legs unsteady as stilts under him.
"My gun, Marge—my pistol!" he demanded, trying to reach out his arms. "If I had them now...."
"They must have taken them," she interrupted. "But I have Nisikoos' rifle, Sakewawin! Oh—I must hurry! They won't come to my room, and Marcee is perhaps dead. As soon as it is dark I will unlock your door. And if one of them comes before then, you must kill him! You must! You must!"
She backed to the door, and now she opened it, and was gone. A key clicked in the lock again, he heard her swift footsteps in the hall, and a second door opened and closed.
For a few minutes he stood without moving, a little dazed by the suddenness with which she had left him. She had not been in his room more than a minute or two. She had been terribly frightened, terribly afraid of discovery before her work was done. On the floor at his feet lay the knife. That was why she had come, that was what she had brought him! His blood began to tingle. He could feel it resuming its course through his numbed legs and arms, and he leaned over slowly, half afraid that he would lose his balance, and picked up the weapon. The chanting of Wapi and his people was only a distant murmur; through the high window came the sound of returning voices—voices of white men.
There swept through him the wild thrill of the thought that once more the fight was up to him. Marge O'Doone had done her part. She had struck down the Indian woman Hauck had placed over her as a guard—had escaped from her room, unbound him, and put a knife into his hands. The rest was his fight. How long before Brokaw or Hauck would come? Would they give him time to get the blood running through his body again? Time to gain strength to use his freedom—and the knife? He began walking slowly across the room, pumping his arms up and down. His strength returned quickly. He went to the pail of water and drank deeply with a consuming thirst. The water refreshed him, and he paced back and forth more and more swiftly, until he was breathing steadily and he could harden his muscles and knot his fists. He looked at the knife. It was a horrible necessity—the burying of that steel in a man's back, or his heart! Was there no other way, he wondered? He began searching the room. Why hadn't Marge brought him a club instead of a knife, or at least a club along with the knife? To club a man down, even when he was intent on murder, wasn't like letting out his life in a gush of blood.
His eyes rested on the table, and in a moment he had turned it over and was wrenching at one of the wooden legs. It broke off with a sharp snap, and he held in his hand a weapon possessing many advantages over the knife. The latter he thrust into his belt with the handle just back of his hip. Then he waited.
It was not for long. The western mountains had shut out the last reflections of the sun. Gloom was beginning to fill his room, and he numbered the minutes as he stood, with his ear close to the door, listening for a step, hopeful that it would be the Girl's and not Hauck's or Brokaw's. At last the step came, advancing from the end of the hall. It was a heavy step, and he drew a deep breath and gripped the club. His heart gave a sudden, mighty throb as the step stopped at his door. It was not pleasant to think of what he was about to do, and yet he realized, as he heard the key in the lock, that it was a grim and terrible necessity. He was thankful there was only one. He would not strike too hard—not in this cowardly way—from ambush. Just enough to do the business sufficiently well. It would be easy—quite. He raised his club in the thickening dusk, and held his breath.
The door opened, and Hauck entered, and stood with his back to David. Horrible! Strike a man like that—and with a club! If he could use his hands, choke him, give him at least a quarter chance. But it had to be done. It was a sickening thing. Hauck went down without a groan—so silently, so lifelessly that David thought he had killed him. He knelt beside him for a few seconds and made sure that his heart was beating before he rose to his feet. He looked out into the hall. The lamps had not been lighted—probably that was one of the old Indian woman's duties. From the big room came a sound of voices—and then, close to him, from the door across the way, there came a small trembling voice:
"Hurry, Sakewawin! Lock the door—and come!"
For another instant he dropped on his knees at Hauck's side. Yes it was there—in his pocket—a revolver! He possessed himself of the weapon with an exclamation of joy, locked the door, and ran across the hall. The Girl opened her door for him, and closed it behind him as he sprang into her room. The first object he noticed was the Indian woman. She was lying on a cot, and her black eyes were levelled at them like the eyes of a snake. She was trussed up so securely, and was gagged so thoroughly that he could not restrain a laugh as he bent over her.
"Splendid!" he cried softly. "You're a little brick, Marge—you surely are! And now—what?"
With his revolver in his hand, and the Girl trembling under his arm, he felt a ridiculous desire to shout out at the top of his voice to his enemies letting them know that he was again ready to fight. In the gloom the Girl's eyes shone like stars.
"Who—was it?" she whispered.
"Then it was Brokaw who went with Wapi. Langdon and Henry went with him. It is less than two miles to the lake, and they will be returning soon. We must hurry! Look—it is growing dark!"
She ran from his arms to the window and he followed her.
"In—fifteen minutes—we will go, Sakewawin. Tara is out there in the edge of the spruce." Her hand pinched his arm. "Did you—kill him?" she breathed.
"No. I broke off a leg from the table and stunned him."
"I'm glad," she said, and snuggled close to him shiveringly. "I'm glad, Sakewawin."
In the darkness that was gathering about them it was impossible for him not to take her in his arms. He held her close, bowing his head so that for an instant her warm face touched his own; and in those moments while they waited for the gloom to thicken he told her in a low voice what he had learned from Brokaw. She grew tense against him as he continued, and when he assured her he no longer had a doubt her mother was alive, and that she was the woman he had met on the coach, a cry rose out of her breast. She was about to speak when loud footsteps in the hall made her catch her breath, and her fingers clung more tightly at his shoulders.
"It is time," she whispered. "We must go!"
She ran from him quickly and from under the cot where the Indian lay dragged forth a pack. He could not see plainly what she was doing now. In a moment she had put a rifle in his hands.
"It belonged to Nisikoos," she said. "There are six shots in it, and here are all the cartridges I have."
He took them in his hand and counted them as he dropped them into his pocket. There were eleven in all, including the six in the chamber. "Thirty-twos," he thought, as he seized them up with his fingers. "Good for partridges—and short range at men!" He said, aloud: "If we could get my rifle, Marge...."
"They have taken it," she told him again. "But we shall not need it. Sakewawin," she added, as if his voice had revealed to her the thought in his mind; "I know of a mountain that is all rock—not so far off as the one Tara and I climbed—and if we can reach that they will not be able to trail us. If they should find us...."
She was opening the window.
"What then?" he asked.
"Nisikoos once killed a bear with that gun," she replied.
The window was open, and she was waiting. They thrust out their heads and listened, and when he had assured himself that all was clear he dropped out the pack. He lifted Marge down then and followed her. As his feet struck the ground the slight shock sent a pain through his head that wrung a low cry from him, and for a moment he leaned with his back against the wall, almost overcome again by the sickening dizziness. It was not so dark that the Girl did not see the sudden change in him. Her eyes filled with alarm.
"A little dizzy," he explained, trying to smile at her. "They gave me a pretty hard crack on the head, Marge. This air will set me right—soon."
He picked up the pack and followed her. In the edge of the spruce a hundred yards from the Nest, Tara had been lying all the afternoon, nursing his wounds.
"I could see him from my window," whispered Marge.
She went straight to him and began talking to him in a low voice. Out of the darkness behind Tara came a growl.
"Baree, by thunder!" muttered David in amazement.
"He's made up with the bear, Marge! What do you think of that?"
At the sound of his voice Baree came to him and flattened himself at his feet. David laid a hand on his head.
"Boy!" he whispered softly. "And they said you were an outlaw, and would join the wolves...."
He saw the dark bulk of Tara rising out of the gloom, and the Girl was at his side.
"We are ready, Sakewawin."
He spoke to her the thought that had been shaping itself in his mind.
"Why wouldn't it be better to join Wapi and his Indians?" he asked, remembering Brokaw's words.
"Because—they are afraid of Hauck," she replied quickly. "There is but one way, Sakewawin—to follow a narrow trail Tara and I have made, close to the foot of the range, until we come to the rock mountain. Shall we risk the bundle on Tara's back?"
"It is light. I will carry it."
"Then give me your hand, Sakewawin."
There was again in her voice the joyous thrill of freedom and of confidence; he could hear for a moment the wild throb of her heart in its exultation at their escape, and with her warm little hand she gripped his fingers firmly and guided him into a sea of darkness. The forest shut them in. Not a ray fell upon them from out of the pale sky where the stars were beginning to glimmer faintly. Behind them he could hear the heavy, padded footfall of the big grizzly, and he knew that Baree was very near. After a little the Girl said, still in a whisper:
"Does your head hurt you now, Sakewawin?"
The trail was widening. It was quite smooth for a space, but black.
She pressed his fingers.
"I believe all you have told me," she said, as if making a confession. "After you came to me in the cage—and the fight—I believed. You must have loved me a great deal to risk all that for me."
"Yes, a great deal, my child," he answered.
Why did that dizziness persist in his head, he wondered? For a moment he felt as if he were falling.
"A very great deal," he added, trying to walk steadily at her side, his own voice sounding unreal and at a great distance from him. "You see—my child—I didn't have anything to love but your picture...."
What a fool he was to try and make himself heard above the roaring in his head! His words seemed to him whispers coming across a great space. And the bundle on his shoulders was like a crushing weight bearing him down! The voice at his side was growing fainter. It was saying things which afterward he could not remember, but he knew that it was talking about the woman he had said was her mother, and that he was answering it while weights of lead were dragging at his feet. Then suddenly, he had stepped over the edge of the world and was floating in that vast, black chaos again. The voice did not leave him. He could hear it sobbing, entreating him, urging him to do something which he could not understand; and when at last he did begin to comprehend it he knew also that he was no longer walking with weights at his feet and a burden on his shoulders, but was on the ground. His head was on her breast, and she was no longer speaking to him, but was crying like a child with a heart utterly broken. The deathly sickness was gone as quickly as it had stricken him, and he struggled upward, with her arms helping him.
"You are hurt—hurt—" he heard her moaning. "If I can only get you on Tara, Sakewawin, on Tara's back—there—a step...." and he knew that was what she had been saying over and over again, urging him to help himself if he could, so that she could get him to Tara. He reached out his hand and buried it in the thick hair of the grizzly, and he tried to speak laughingly so that she would not know his fears.
"One is often dizzy—like that—after a blow," he said, "I guess—I can walk now."
"No, no, you must ride Tara," she insisted. "You are hurt—and you must ride Tara, Sakewawin. You must!"
She was lifting at his arms with all her strength, her breath hot and panting in his face, and Tara stood without moving a muscle of his giant body, as if he, too, were urging upon him in this dumb manner the necessity of obeying his mistress. Even then David would have remonstrated but he felt once more that appalling sickness creeping over him, and he raised himself slowly astride the grizzly's broad back. The Girl picked up the bundle and rifle and Tara followed her through the darkness. To David the beast's great back seemed a wonderfully safe and comfortable place, and he leaned forward with his fingers clutched deeply in the long hair of the ruff about the bear's bulking shoulders.
The Girl called back to him softly:
"You are all right, Sakewawin?"
"Yes, it is so comfortable that I feel I may fall asleep," he replied.
Out in the starlight she would have seen his drooping head, and his words would have had a different meaning for her. He was fighting with himself desperately, and in his heart was a great fear. He must be badly hurt, he thought. There came to him a distorted but vivid vision of an Indian hurt in the head, whom he and Father Roland had tried to save. Without a surgeon it had been impossible. The Indian had died, and he had had those same spells of sickness, the sickness that was creeping over him again in spite of his efforts to fight it off. He had no very clear notion of the movement of Tara's body under him, but he knew that he was holding on grimly, and that every little while the Girl called back to him, and he replied. Then came the time when he failed to answer, and for a space the rocking motion under him ceased and the Girl's voice was very near to him. Afterward motion resumed. It seemed to him that he was travelling a great distance. Altogether too far without a halt for sleep, or at least a rest. He was conscious of a desire to voice protest—and all the time his fingers were clasped in Tara'a mane in a sort of death grip.
In her breast Marge's heart was beating like a hunted thing, and over and over again she sobbed out a broken prayer as she guided Tara and his burden through the night. From the forest into the starlit open; from the open into the thick gloom of forest again—into and out of starlight and darkness, following that trail down the valley. She was no longer thinking of the rock mountain, for it would be impossible now to climb over the range into the other valley. She was heading for a cabin. An old and abandoned cabin, where they could hide. She tried to tell David about it, many days after they had begun that journey it seemed to him.
"Only a little longer, Sakewawin," she cried, with her arm about him and her lips close to his bent head. "Only a little longer! They will not think to search for us there, and you can sleep—sleep...."
Her voice drifted away from him like a low murmur in the tree tops—and his fingers still clung in that death-grip in the mane at Tara's neck.
And still many other days later they came to the cabin. It was amazing to him that the Girl should say:
"We are only five miles from the Nest, Sakewawin, but they will not hunt for us here. They will think we have gone farther—or over the mountains!"
She was putting cold water to his face, and now that there was no longer the rolling motion under him he was not quite so dizzy. She had unrolled the bundle and had spread out a blanket, and when he stretched himself out on this a sense of vast relief came over him. In his confused consciousness two or three things stood out with rather odd clearness before he closed his eyes, and the last was a vision of the Girl's face bending over him, and of her starry eyes looking down at him, and of her voice urging him gently:
"Try to sleep, Sakewawin—try to sleep...."
It was many hours later when he awoke. Hands seemed to be dragging him forcibly out of a place in which he was very comfortable, and which he did not want to leave, and a voice was accompanying the hands with an annoying insistency—a voice which was growing more and more familiar to him as his sleeping senses were roused. He opened his eyes. It was day, and Marge was on her knees at his side, tugging at his breast with her hands and staring wildly into his face.
"Wake, Sakewawin—wake, wake!" he heard her crying. "Oh, my God, you must wake! Sakewawin—Sakewawin—they have found our trail—and I can see them coming up the valley!"
Scarcely had David sensed the Girl's words of warning than he was on his feet. And now, when he saw her, he thanked God that his head was clear, and that he could fight. Even yesterday, when she had stood before the fighting bears, and he had fought Brokaw, she had not been whiter than she was now. Her face told him of their danger before he had seen it with his own eyes. It told him that their peril was appallingly near and there was no chance of escaping it. He saw for the first time that his bed on the ground had been close to the wall of an old cabin which was in a little dip in the sloping face of the mountain. Before he could take in more, or discover a visible sign of their enemies, Marge had caught his hand and was drawing him to the end of the shack. She did not speak as she pointed downward. In the edge of the valley, just beginning the ascent, were eight or ten men. He could not determine their exact number for as he looked they were already disappearing under the face of the lower dip in the mountain. They were not more than four or five hundred yards away. It would take them a matter of twenty minutes to make the ascent to the cabin.
He looked at Marge. Despairingly she pointed to the mountain behind them. For a quarter of a mile it was a sheer wall of red sandstone. Their one way of flight lay downward, practically into the faces of their enemies.
"I was going to rouse you before it was light, Sakewawin," she explained in a voice that was dead with hopelessness. "I kept awake for hours, and then I fell asleep. Baree awakened me, and now—it is too late."
"Yes, too late to run!" said David.
A flash of fire leaped into her eyes.
"We can fight!" he cried. "Good God, Marge—if only I had my own rifle now!" He thrust a hand into his pocket and drew forth the cartridges she had given him. "Thirty-twos! And only eleven of them! It's got to be a short range for us. We can't put up a running fight for they'd keep out of range of this little pea-shooter and fill me as full of holes as a sieve!"
She was tugging at his arm.
"The cabin, Sakewawin!" she exclaimed with sudden inspiration. "It has a strong bar at the door, and the clay has fallen in places from between the logs leaving openings through which you can shoot!"
He was examining Nisikoos' rifle.
"At 150 yards it should be good for a man," he said. "You get Tara and the pack inside, Marge. I'm going to try to get two or three of our friends as they come up over the knoll down there. They won't be looking for bullets this early in the game and I'll have them at a disadvantage. If I'm lucky enough to get Hauck and Brokaw...."
His eyes had selected a big rock twenty yards from the cabin from which he could overlook the slope to the first dip below them, and as Marge darted from him to get Tara into the cabin he crouched behind the boulder and waited. He figured that it was not more than 150 yards to the point where their pursuers would first appear, and he made up his mind that he would wait until they were nearer than that before he opened fire. Not one of those eleven precious cartridges must be wasted, for he could count on Hauck's revolver only at close quarters. It was no longer a time for doubt or indecision. Brokaw and Hauck were deliberately pushing the fight to a finish, and not to beat them meant death for himself and a fate for the Girl which made him grip his rifle more tightly as he waited. He looked behind him and saw Marge leading Tara into the cabin. Baree had crept up beside him and lay flat on the ground close to the rock. A moment or two later the Girl reappeared and ran across the narrow open space to David, and crouched down close to him.
"You must go into the cabin, Marge," he remonstrated. "They will probably begin shooting...."
"I'm going to stay with you, Sakewawin."
Her face was no longer white. A flush had risen into her cheeks, her eyes shone as she looked at him—and she smiled. A child! His heart rose chokingly in his throat. Her face was close to his, and she whispered:
"Last night I kissed you, Sakewawin. I thought you were dying. Before you, I have kissed Nisikoos. Never any one else."
Why did she say that, with that wonderful glow in her eyes? Couldn't be that she saw death climbing up the mountain? Was it because she wanted him to know—before that? A child!
She whispered again:
"And you—have never kissed me, Sakewawin. Why?"
Slowly he drew her to him, until her head lay against his breast, her shining eyes and parted lips turned up to him, and he kissed her on the mouth. A wild flood of colour rushed into her face and her arms crept up about his shoulders. The glory of her radiant hair covered his breast. He buried his face in it, and for a moment crushed her so close that she did not breathe. And then again he kissed her mouth, not once but a dozen times, and then held her back from him and looked into her face that was no longer the face of a child, but of a woman.
"Because...." he began, and stopped.
Baree was growling. David peered down the slope.
"They are coming!" he said. "Marge, you must creep back to the cabin!"
"I am going to stay with you, Sakewawin. See, I will flatten myself out like this—with Baree."
She snuggled herself down against the rock and again David peered from his ambush. Their pursuers were well over the crest of the dip, and he counted nine. They were advancing in a group and he saw that both Hauck and Brokaw were in the rear and that they were using staffs in their toil upward, and did not carry rifles. The remaining seven were armed, and were headed by Langdon, who was fifteen or twenty yards in advance of his companions. David made up his mind quickly to take Langdon first, and to follow up with others who carried rifles. Hauck and Brokaw, unarmed with guns, were least dangerous just at present. He would get Brokaw with his fifth shot—the sixth if he made a miss with the fifth.
A thin strip of shale marked his 100-yard dead-line, and the instant Langdon set his foot on this David fired. He was scarcely conscious of the yell of defiance that rang from his lips as Langdon whirled in his tracks and pitched down among the men behind him. He rose up boldly from behind the rock and fired again. In that huddled and astonished mass he could not miss. A shriek came up to him. He fired a third time, and he heard a joyous cry of triumph beside him as their enemies rushed for safety toward the dip from which they had just climbed. A fourth shot, and he picked out Brokaw. Twice he missed! His gun was empty when Brokaw lunged out of view. Langdon remained an inanimate blotch on the strip of shale. A few steps below him was a second body. A third man was dragging himself on hands and knees over the crest of the coulee. Three—with six shots! And he had missed Brokaw! Inwardly David groaned as he caught the Girl by the arm and hurried with her into the cabin, followed by Baree.
They were not a moment too soon. From over the edge of the coulee came a fusillade of shots from the heavy-calibre weapons of the mountain men that sent out sparks of fire from the rock.
As he thrust the remaining five cartridges into the chamber of Nisikoos' rifle, David looked about the cabin. In one of the farther corners the huge grizzly sat on his quarters as motionless as if stuffed. In the centre of the single room was an old box stove partly fallen to pieces. That was all. Marge had dropped the sapling bar across the door, and stood with her back against it. There was no window, and the closing of the door had shut out most of the light. He could see that she was breathing quickly, and the wonderful light that had come into her eyes behind the rock was still glowing at him in the half gloom. It gave him fresh confidence to see her standing like that, looking at him in that way, telling him without words that a thing had come into her life which had lifted her above fear. He went to her and took her in his arms again, and again he kissed her sweet mouth, and felt her heart beating against him, and the warm thrill of her arms clinging to him.
A splintering crash sent him reeling back into the centre of the cabin with Marge in his arms. The crash had come simultaneously with the report of a rifle, and both saw where the bullet had passed through the door six inches above David's head, carrying a splinter as large as his arm with it. He had not thought of the door. It was the cabin's vulnerable point, and he sprang out of line with it as a second bullet crashed through and buried itself in the log wall at their backs. Baree growled. A low rumble rose in Tara's throat, but he did not move.
In each of the four log walls were the open chinks which Marge had told him about, and he sprang to one of these apertures that was wide enough to let the barrel of his rifle through and looked in the direction from which the two shots had come. He was in time to catch a movement among the rocks on the side of the mountain about two hundred yards away, and a third shot tore its way through the door, glanced from the steel top of the stove, and struck like a club two feet over Tara's back. There were two men up there among the rocks, and their first shots were followed by a steady bombardment that fairly riddled the door. David could see their heads and shoulders and the gleam and faint puffs of their rifles, but he held his fire. Where were the other four, he wondered? Without doubt Hauck and Brokaw were now armed with the rifles of the men who had fallen, so he had six to deal with. Cautiously he thrust the muzzle of his rifle through the crack, and watched his chance, aiming a foot and a half above the spot where a pair of shoulders and a head would appear in a moment. His chance came, and he fired. The head and shoulders disappeared, and exultantly he swung his rifle a little to the right and sent another shot as the second man exposed himself. He, too, disappeared, and David's heart was thumping wildly in the thought that his bullets had reached their marks when both heads appeared again and a hail of lead spattered against the cabin. The men among the rocks were no longer aiming at the door, but at the spot from which he had fired, and a bullet ripped through so close that a splinter stung his face, and he felt the quick warm flow of blood down his cheek. When the Girl saw it her face went as white as death.
"I can't get them with this rifle, Marge," he groaned. "It's wild—wild as a hawk! Good God!..."
A crash of fire had come from behind the cabin, and another bullet, finding one of the gaping cracks, passed between them with a sound like the buzz of a monster bee. With a sudden cry he caught her in his arms and held her tight, as if in his embrace he would shield her.
"Is it possible—they would kill you to get me?"
He loosed his hold of her, sprang to the broken stove, and began dragging it out of the line of fire that came through the door. The Girl saw his peril and sprang to help him. He had no time to urge her back. In ten seconds he had the stove close to the wall, and almost forcibly he made her crouch down behind it.
"If you expose yourself for one second I swear to Heaven I'll stand up there against the door until I'm shot!" he threatened. "I will, so help me God!"
His brain was afire. He was no longer cool or self-possessed. He was blind with a wild rage, with a mad desire to reach in some way, with his vengeance, the human beasts who were bent on his death even if it was to be gained at the sacrifice of the Girl. He rushed to the side of the cabin from which the fresh attack had come, and glared through one of the embrasures between the logs. He was close to Tara, and he heard the low, steady thunder that came out of the grizzly's chest. His enemies were near on this side. Their fire came from the rocks not more than a hundred yards away, and all at once, in the heat of the great passion that possessed him now, he became suddenly aware that they knew the only weapon he possessed was Nisikoos' little rifle—and Hauck's revolver. Probably they knew also how limited his ammunition was. And they were exposing themselves. Why should he save his last three shots? When they were gone and he no longer answered their fire they would rush the cabin, beat in the door, and then—the revolver! With that he would tear out their hearts as they entered. He saw Hauck, fired and missed. A man stood up within seventy yards of the cabin a moment later, firing as fast as he could pump the lever of his gun, and David drove one of Nisikoos' partridge-killers straight into his chest. He fired a second time at Hauck—another miss! Then he flung the useless rifle to the floor as he sprang back to Marge.
"Got one. Five left. Now—damn 'em—let then come!"
He drew Hauck's revolver. A bullet flew through one of the cracks, and they heard the soft thud of it as it struck Tara. The growl in the grizzly's throat burst forth in a roar of thunder. The terrible sound shook the cabin, but Tara still made no movement, except now to swing his head with open, drooling jaws. In response to that cry of animal rage and pain a snarl had come from Baree. He had slunk close to Tara.
"Didn't hurt him much," said David, with the fingers of his free hand crumpling the Girl's hair. "They'll stop shooting in a minute or two, and then...."
Straight into his eyes from that farther wall a splinter hurled itself at him with a hissing sound like the plunge of hot iron into water. He had a lightning impression of seeing the bullet as it tore through the clay between two of the logs; he knew that he was struck, and yet he felt no pain. His mind was acutely alive, yet he could not speak. His words had been cut off, his tongue was powerless—it was like a shock that had paralyzed him. Even the Girl did not know for a moment or two that he was hit. The thud of his revolver on the floor filled her eyes with the first horror of understanding, and she sprang to his side as he swayed like a drunken man toward Tara. He sank down on the floor a few feet from the grizzly, and he heard the Girl moaning over him and calling him by name. The numbness left him, slowly he raised a hand to his chin, filled with a terrible fear. It was there—his jaw, hard, unsmashed, but wet with blood. He thought the bullet had struck him there.
"A knockout," were the first words, spoken slowly and thickly, but with a great gasp of relief. "A splinter hit me on the jaw.... I'm all right...."
He sat up dizzily, with the Girl's arm about him. In the three or four minutes of forgetfulness neither had noticed that the firing had ceased. Now there came a tremendous blow at the door. It shook the cabin. A second blow, a third—and the decaying saplings were crashing inward! David struggled to rise, fell back, and pointed to the revolver.
Marge sprang to it. The door crashed inward as she picked it up, and scarcely had she faced about when their enemies were rushing in, with Henry and Hauck in their lead, and Brokaw just behind them. With a last effort David fought to gain his feet. He heard a single shot from the revolver, and then, as he rose staggeringly, he saw Marge fighting in Brokaw's arms. Hauck came for him, the demon of murder in his face, and as they went down he heard scream after scream come from the Girl's lips, and in that scream the agonizing call of "Tara! Tara! Tara!" Over him he heard a sudden roar, the rush of a great body—and with that thunder of Tara's rage and vengeance there mingled a hideous, wolfish snarl from Baree. He could see nothing. Hauck's hands were at his throat.
But the screams continued, and above them came now the cries of men—cries of horror, of agony, of death; and as Hauck's fingers loosened at his neck he heard with the snarling and roaring and tumult the crushing of great jaws and the thud of bodies. Hauck was rising, his face blanched with a strange terror. He was half up when a gaunt, lithe body shot at him like a stone flung from a catapult and Baree's inch-long fangs sank into his thick throat and tore his head half from his body in one savage, snarling snap of the jaws. David raised himself and through the horror of what he saw the Girl ran to him—unharmed—and clasped her arms about him, her lips sobbing all the time—"Tara—Tara—Tara...." He turned her face to his breast, and held it there. It was ghastly. Henry was dead. Hauck was dead. And Brokaw was dead—a thousand times dead—with the grizzly tearing his huge body into pieces.
Through that pit of death David stumbled with the Girl. The fresh air struck their faces. The sun of day fell upon them. The green grass and the flowers of the mountain were under their feet. They looked down the slope, and saw, disappearing over the crest of the coulee, two men who were running for their lives.
It may have been five minutes that David held the Girl in his arms, staring down into the sunlit valley into which the last two of Hauck's men had fled, and during that time he did not speak, and he heard only her steady sobbing. He drew into his lungs deep breaths of the invigorating air, and he felt himself growing stronger as the Girl's body became heavier in his embrace, and her arms relaxed and slipped down from his shoulders. He raised her face. There were no tears in her eyes, but she was still moaning a little, and her lips were quivering like a crying child's. He bent his head and kissed them, and she caught her breath pantingly as she looked at him with eyes which were limpid pools of blue out of which her terror was slowly dying away. She whispered his name. In her look and in that whisper there was unutterable adoration. It was for him she had been afraid. She was looking at him now as one saved to her from the dead, and for a moment he strained her still closer, and as he crushed his face to hers he felt the warm, sweet caress of her lips, and the thrilling pressure of her hands, at his blood-stained cheeks. A sound from behind made him turn his head, and fifty feet away he saw the big grizzly ambling cumbrously from the cabin. They could hear him growling as he stood in the sunshine, his head swinging slowly from side to side like a huge pendulum—in his throat the last echoing of that ferocious rage and hate that had destroyed their enemies. And in the same moment Baree stood in the doorway, his lips drawn back and his fangs gleaming, as if he expected other enemies to face him.
Quickly David led Marge beyond the boulder from behind which he had opened the fight, and drew her down with him into a soft carpet of grass, thick with the blue of wild violets, with the big rock shutting out the cabin from their vision.
"Rest here, little comrade," he said, his voice low and trembling with his worship of her, his hands stroking back her wonderful hair. "I must return to the cabin. Then—we will go."
She repeated the word in the strangest, softest whisper he had ever heard, as if in it all at once she saw the sun and stars, the day and night, of her whole life. She looked from his face down into the valley, and into his face again.
"We—will go," she repeated, as he rose to his feet.
She shivered when he left her, shuddered with a terrible little cry which she tried to choke back even as she visioned the first glow of that wonderful new life that was dawning for her. David knew why. He left her without looking down into her eyes again, anxious to have these last terrible minutes over. At the open door of the cabin he hesitated, a little sick at what he knew he would see. And yet, after all, it was no worse than it should be; it was justice. He told himself this as he stepped inside.
He tried not to look too closely, but the sight, after a moment, fascinated him. If it had not been for the difference in their size he could not have told which was Hauck and which was Brokaw, for even on Hauck, Tara had vented his rage after Baree had killed him. Neither bore very much the semblance of a man just now—it seemed incredible that claw and fang could have worked such destruction, and he went suddenly back to the door to see that the Girl was not following him. Then he looked again. Henry lay at his feet across the fallen saplings of the battered door, his head twisted completely under him—or gone. It was Henry's rifle he picked up. He searched for cartridges then. It was a sickening task. He found nearly fifty of them on the three, and went out with the pack and the rifle. He put the pack over his shoulders before he returned to the rock, and paused only for a moment, when he rejoined the Girl. With her hand in his he struck down into the valley.
"A great justice has overtaken them," he said, and that was all he told her about the cabin, and she asked him no questions.
At the edge of the green meadows they stopped where a trickle of water from the mountain tops had formed a deep pool. David followed this trickle a little up the coulee it had worn in the course of ages, found a sheltered spot, and stripped himself. To the waist he was covered with the stain and grime of battle. In the open pool Marge bathed her face and arms, and then sat down to finish her toilet with David's comb and brush. When he returned to her she was a radiant glory, hidden to her waist in the gold and brown fires of her disentangled hair. It was wonderful. He stood a step off and looked at her, his heart filled with a wonderful joy, his lips silent. The thought surged upon him now in an overmastering moment of exultation that she belonged to him, not for to-day, or to-morrow, but for all time; that the mountains had given her to him; that among the flowers and the wild things that "great, good God," of whom Father Roland had spoken so often, had created her for him; and that she had been waiting for him here, pure as the wild violets under his feet. She did not see him for a space, and he watched her as she ran out her glowing tresses under the strokes of his brush.
And once—ages ago it seemed to him now—he had thought that another woman was beautiful, and that another woman's glory was her hair! He felt his heart singing. She had not been like this. No. Worlds separated those two—that woman and this God-crowned little mountain flower who had come into his heart like the breath of a new life, opening for him new visions that reached even beyond the blue skies. And he wondered that she should love him. She looked up suddenly and saw him standing there. Love? Had he in all his life dreamed of the look that was in her face now? It made his heart choke him. He held open his arms, silently, as she rose to her feet, and she came to him in all that burnished glory of her unbound hair; and he held her close in his arms, kissing her soft lips, her flushed cheeks, her blue eyes, the warm sweetness of her hair. And her lips kissed him. He looked out over the valley. His eyes were open to its beauty, but he did not see; a vision was rising before him, and his soul was breathing a prayer of gratitude to the Missioner's God, to the God of the totem-worshippers over the ranges, to the God of all things. It may be that the Girl sensed his voiceless exaltation, for up through the soft billows of her hair that lay crumpled on his breast she whispered:
"You love me a great deal, my Sakewawin?"
"More than life," he replied.
Her voice roused him. For a few moments he had forgotten the cabin, had forgotten that Brokaw and Hauck had existed, and that they were now dead. He held her back from him, looking into her face out of which all fear and horror had gone in its great happiness; a face filled with the joyous colour sent surging there by the wild beating of her heart, eyes confessing their adoration without shame, without concealment, without a droop of the long lashes behind which they might have hidden. It was wonderful, that love shining straight out of their blue, marvellous depths!
"We must go now," he said, forcing himself to break the spell. "Two have escaped, Marge. It is possible, if there are others at the Nest...."
His words brought her back to the thing they had passed through. She glanced in a startled way over the valley, then shook her head.
"There are two others," she said. "But they will not follow us, Sakewawin. If they should, we shall be over the mountain."
She braided her hair as he adjusted his pack. His heart was like a boy's. He laughed at her in joyous disapproval.
"I like to see it—unbound," he said. "It is beautiful. Glorious."
It seemed to him that all the blood in her body leaped into her face at his words.
"Then—I will leave it that way," she cried softly, her words trembling with happiness and her fingers working swiftly in the silken plaits of her braid. Unconfined, her hair shimmered about her again. And then, as they were about to set off, she ran up to him with a little cry, and without touching him with her hands raised her face to his.