"Now, don't cry, dear! You're simply upset and nervous. Let me help you up, Kate. Is it your ankle?"
"Oh, it pains dreadfully—but the shock of seeing you meet that strange man out here and knowing that you will not trust me—"
"Why, forevermore! I do trust you, Kate. But you have been so different—you don't trust me, is the trouble. I'm not doing anything awful, only you won't see anything but the wrong side of everything I do. I'd tell you about the man, only—" Marion glanced guiltily across at the place where Jack had disappeared, "—it's his secret, and I can't."
Kate wept in that subdued, heartbroken way which is so demoralizing to the person who has caused the tears. Like a hurt child she rubbed her ankle and huddled there in the snow.
"We never used to have secrets," she mourned dismally. "This place has changed you so—oh, I am simply too miserable to care for anything any more. Go on, Marion—I'll get home somehow. I shouldn't have followed, but I was so hurt at your coldness and your lack of confidence! And I was sure you were deceiving me. I simply could not endure the suspense another day. You—you don't know what I have suffered! Go on—you'll get cold standing here. I'll come—after awhile. But I'd as soon be dead as go on in this way. Please go on!"
Kate may have been a bit hysterical; at any rate, she really believed herself utterly indifferent to her sprained ankle and the chance of freezing. She closed her eyes again and waved Marion away, and Marion immediately held her closer and patted her shoulder and kissed her remorsefully.
"Now, don't cry, dear—you'll have me crying in a minute. Be a good sport and see if you can't walk a little. I'll help you. And once you're back by the fire, and have your ankle all comfy, and a cup of hot chocolate, you'll feel heaps better. Hang tight to me, dear, and I'll help you up."
It was a long walk for a freshly sprained ankle, and the whiteness of Kate's face stamped deeper into Marion's conscience the guilty sense of being to blame for it all. She had started in by teasing Kate over little things, just because Kate was so inquisitive and so lacking in any sense of humor. She could see now that she had antagonized Kate where she should have humored her little whims. It wouldn't have done any harm, Marion reflected penitently, to have confided more in Kate. She used to tell her everything, and Kate had always been so loyal and sympathetic.
Penitence of that sort may go to dangerous lengths of confession if it is not stopped in time. Nothing checked Marion's excited conscience. The ankle which she bared and bathed was so swollen and purple that any lurking suspicion of the reality of the hurt vanished, and Marion cried over it with sheer pity for the torture of that long walk. Kate's subdued sadness did the rest.
So with Kate, lying on the couch near the fire and with two steaming cups of chocolate between them on an up-ended box that sturdily did its duty as a table, Marion let go of her loyalty to one that she might make amends to another. She told Kate everything she knew about Jack Corey, down to the exact number of times she had bought cigarettes and purloined magazines and papers for him. Wherefore the next hour drew them closer to their old intimacy than they had been since first they came into the mountains; so close an intimacy that they called each other dearie while they argued the ethics of Jack's case and the wisdom—or foolishness—of Marion's championship of the scapegoat.
"You really should have confided in me long ago—at the very first inkling you had of his identity," Kate reiterated, sipping her chocolate as daintily as ever she had sipped at a reception. "I can scarcely forgive that, dearie. You were taking a tremendous risk of being maligned and misunderstood. You might have found yourself terribly involved. You are so impulsive, Marion. You should have come straight to me."
"Well, but I was afraid—"
"Afraid of Kate? Why, dearie!"
That is the way they talked, until they heard the professor scraping the snow off his feet on the edge of the flat doorstep. Kate lay back then on her piled pillows, placed a finger across her closed lips and pulled her scanty hair braid down over her left shoulder. She shut her eyes and held them so until the professor came in, when she opened them languidly.
Marion carried away the chocolate cups, her heart light. She would not have believed that a reconciliation with Kate and the unburdening of her secret could work such a change in her feelings. She wished fervently that she had told Kate at first. Now they could have Jack down at the cabin sometimes, when the men were both away. They would cook nice little dinners for him, and she could lend him all the reading matter he wanted. She would not have to sneak it away from the cabin. It was a great relief. Marion was very happy that evening.
Jack was not so happy. He was climbing slowly back to his comfortless camp, wondering whether it was worth while to keep up the struggle for sake of his freedom. Jail could not be worse than this, he kept telling himself. At least there would be other human beings—he would not be alone day after day. He would be warm and no worse off for food than here. Only for his mother and the shame it would bring her, he would gladly make the exchange. He was past caring, past the horror of being humiliated before his fellows.
It was hard work climbing to the cave, but that was not the reason why he had not wanted Marion to make the trip. He did not want Marion to know that the cave was half full of snow that had blown in with the wind, and that he was compelled to dig every stick of firewood out from under a snowdrift. Only for that pile of wood, he would have moved his camp to the other side of the peak that was more sheltered, even though it was hidden from the mountain side and the lower valleys he had learned to know so well.
But the labor of moving his camp weighed heavily against the comfort he would gain. He did not believe that he would actually freeze here, now that he had the bearskin; stiff and unwieldy though it was, when he spread it with the fur next to his blankets it was warm—especially since he had bent the edges under his bed all around and let the hide set that way.
Marion would have been astonished had she known how many hours out of every twenty-four Jack spent under the strong-odored hide. Jack himself was astonished, whenever he came out of his general apathy long enough to wonder how he endured this brutish existence. But he had to save wood, and he had to save food, and he had to kill time somehow. So he crawled into his blankets long before dark, short as the days were, and he stayed there long after daylight. That is why he smoked so many cigarettes, and craved so much reading.
Lying there under the shelter of a rock shelf that jutted out from the cave wall, he would watch the whirling snow sift down through the opening in the cave's roof and pack deeper the drift upon that side. Twice he had moved his pile of supplies, and once he had moved his wood; and after that he did not much care whether they were buried or not.
Lying there with only his face and one hand out from under the covers so that he might smoke, Jack had time to do a great deal of thinking, though he tried not to think, since thinking seemed so profitless. He would watch the snow and listen to the wind whistling in the roof, and try to let them fill his mind. Sometimes he wondered how any one save an idiot could ever have contemplated passing a winter apart from his kind, in a cave on a mountain-top. Holed up with the bears, he reminded himself bitterly. And yet he had planned it eagerly with Marion and had looked forward to it as an adventure—a lark with a few picturesque hardships thrown in to give snap to the thing. Well, he had the hardships, all right enough, and the snap, but he could not see anything picturesque or adventurous about it.
He could have given it up, of course. His two legs would have carried him down to the valley in a matter of three hours or so, even with the snow hampering his progress. He could, for instance, leave his cave in the afternoon of any day, and reach Marston in plenty of time for either of the two evening trains. He could take the "up" train, whose headlight tempted him every evening when he went out to watch for it wistfully, and land in Salt Lake the next night; or he could take the "down" train a little later, and be in San Francisco the next morning. Then, it would be strange if he could not find a boat ready to leave port for some far-off, safe place. He could do that any day. He had money enough in his pocket to carry him out of the country if he were willing to forego the luxuries that come dear in travel—and he thought he could, with all this practice!
He played with the idea. He pictured himself taking the down train, and the next day shipping out of San Francisco on a sailing vessel bound for Japan or Panama or Seattle—it did not greatly matter which. He would have to make sure first that the boat was not equipped with wireless, so he supposed he must choose a small sailing vessel, or perhaps a tramp steamer. At other times he pictured himself landing in Salt Lake and hiking out from there to find work on some ranch. Who would ever identify him there as Jack Corey?
He dreamed those things over his cigarettes, smoked parsimoniously through a cheap holder until the stub was no longer than one of Marion's fingernails that Jack loved to look at because they were always so daintily manicured. He dreamed, but he could not bring himself to the point of making one of his dreams come true. He could not, because of Marion. She had helped him to plan this retreat, she had helped him carry some of the lighter supplies up to the cave, she had stood by him like the game little pal she was. He could dream, but he could not show himself ungrateful to Marion by leaving the place. Truth to tell, when he could be with her he did not want to leave. But the times when he could be with her were so dishearteningly few that they could not hold his courage steady. She upbraided him for going so far down the mountain to meet her—what would she have said if she knew that once, when the moon was full, he had gone down to the very walls of the cabin where she slept, and had stood there like a lonesome ghost, just for the comfort her nearness gave him? Jack did not tell her that!
Jack did not tell her anything at all of his misery. He felt that it would not be "square" to worry Marion, who was doing so much for him and doing it with such whole-souled gladness, to serve a fellow being in distress. Jack did not flatter himself that she would not have done exactly as much for any other likable fellow. It was an adventure that helped to fill her empty days. He understood that perfectly, and as far as was humanly possible he let her think the adventure a pleasant one for him. He could not always control his tongue and his tones, but he made it a point to leave her as soon as he saw her beginning to doubt his contentment and well-being.
He would not even let Marion see that thoughts of his mother gnawed at him like a physical pain. He tried to hold to his old, childish resentment against her because she never spoke of his dad and did not show any affection for his dad's boy. Once she had sighed and said, "I never will forgive you, Jack, for not being a girl!" and Jack had never forgotten that, though he did forget the little laugh and the playful push she had given him afterwards. Such remarks had been always in the back of his mind, hardening him against his mother. Now they turned against Jack accusingly. Why couldn't he have been a girl? She would have gotten some comfort out of him then, instead of being always afraid that he would do something awful. She would have had him with her more, and they would have become really acquainted instead of being half strangers.
He would stare at the rock walls of the cave and remember little things he had forgotten in his roistering quest of fun. He remembered a certain wistfulness in her eyes when she was caught unawares with her gaze upon him. He remembered that never had she seemed to grudge him money—and as for clothes, he bought what he liked and never thought of the cost, and she paid the bills and never seemed to think them too large, though Jack was ashamed now at the recollection of some of them.
Why, only the week before his world had come to an end, he had said at dinner one evening that he wished he had a racing car of a certain expensive type, and his mother had done no more than lecture him mildly on the tendency of youth toward recklessness, and wonder afterwards how in the world the garage was going to be made larger without altogether destroying its symmetry and throwing it out of proportion to the rest of the place. It would make the yard look very cramped, she complained, and she should be compelled to have her row of poinsettias moved. And she very much doubted whether Jack would exercise any judgment at all about speed. Boys were so wild and rough, nowadays!
Well, poor mother! She had not been compelled to enlarge the garage; but Jack's throat ached when he thought of that conversation. What kind of a mother would she have been, he wondered, if he had petted her a little now and then? He had an odd longing to give her a real bear-hug and rumple up her marcelled pompadour and kiss her—and see if she wouldn't turn out to be a human-being kind of a mother, after all. He looked back and saw what a selfish, unfeeling young cub he had always been; how he had always taken, and had given nothing in return save a grudging obedience when he must, and a petty kind of deception when he might.
"Bless her heart, she'd have got me that racer and never batted an eye over the price of it," he groaned, and turned over with his face hidden even from his bleak cave. "I was always kicking over little things that don't amount to a whoop—and she was always handing out everything I asked for and never getting a square deal in her life." Then, to mark more definitely the change that was taking place in Jack's soul, he added a question that a year before would have been utterly impossible. "How do I know that dad ever gave her a square deal, either? I never saw dad since I was a kid. She's proud as the deuce—there must be some reason—"
Once full-formed in his mind, the conviction that he had been a poor sort of a son to a mother whose life had held much bitterness grew and flourished. He had called her cold and selfish; but after all, her life was spent mostly in doing things for the betterment of others—as she interpreted the word. Showy, yes; but Jack told himself now that she certainly got away with it better than any woman he knew. And when it came to being cold and selfish, it struck Jack forcibly that he had been pretty much that way himself; that he had been just as fully occupied in playing with life as his mother had been in messing around trying to reform life. When he came to think of it, he could see that a woman of Mrs. Singleton Corey's type might find it rather difficult to manifest tenderness toward a husky young son who stood off from her the way Jack had done. Judgment is, after all, a point of view, and Jack's viewpoint was undergoing a radical change.
That very change added much to his misery, because it robbed him of the comfort of pitying himself. He could do nothing now but pity his mother. As he saw it now, the crime of lying to her about that Sunday's frolic loomed blacker than the passive part he had played in the tragedy of the night. He had lied to her and thought it a joke. He had taken a car worth more than five thousand dollars—more than his young hide was worth, he told himself now—and he had driven it recklessly in the pursuit of fun that nauseated him now just to remember. Summing up that last display of ingratitude toward the mother who made his selfish life soft and easy, Jack decided that he had given her a pretty raw deal all his life, and the rawest of all on the tenth of last May.
All the while he was coaxing his fire to burn in the little rock fireplace he had built near his bed; all the while, he was whittling off a slice of frozen bear meat and broiling it over the fire for his supper, Jack was steeped in self-condemnation and in pity of his mother. More than was usual she haunted him that night. Even when he crept shivering under the bearskin and blankets, and huddled there for warmth, her face was as clear before him as Marion's. Tears swelled his eyelids and slid down his cheeks. And when he brushed away those tears others came—since boyhood these were the first tears he had ever shed because of a poignant longing for his mother.
HANK BROWN PROVES THAT HE CAN READ TRACKS
To begin with, Kate knew Mrs. Singleton Corey, just as well as a passably popular elocutionist may expect to know one of the recognized leaders of society and club life. Kate had recited at open meetings of the clubs over which Mrs. Singleton Corey had presided with that smiling composure which was so invulnerable to those without the favored circle. Kate had once talked with Mrs. Singleton Corey for at least five minutes, but she was not at all certain that she would be remembered the next time they met. She would like very much to be remembered, because an elocutionist's success depends so much upon the recognition which society gives to her personality and her talents.
Now, here was Jack Corey hiding in her very dooryard, one might say; and his mother absolutely distracted over him. How could she make any claim to human sympathy for a mother's sorrow if she withheld the message that would bring relief? She was astonished that Marion had been so thoughtless as never once to think of the terrible distress of Mrs. Singleton Corey. Of course, she had promised—but surely that did not exclude the boy's mother from the solace of knowing where he was! That would be outrageous! Very carefully she sounded Marion upon the subject, and found her unreasonable.
"Why, Jack would murder me if I told his mother! I should say I wouldn't tell her! Why, it was because his mother was going to be so mean about it and turn against him, that Jack ran away! He'd go back, if it wasn't for her—he said so. He'd rather go to jail than face her. Why, if I thought for a minute that you'd take that stand, I never would have told you, Kate! Don't you dare—" Then Marion dropped a saucer that she was wiping, and when her consternation over the mishap had subsided she awoke to the fact that Kate had dropped the subject also and had gone to read her limp little Sonnets from the Portuguese, that Marion never could see any sense in.
Marion must have had a remarkably trustful nature, else she would have been suspicious. Kate was not paying any attention to what she read. She was mentally rounding periods and coining new phrases of sympathy that should not humiliate but draw close to the writer the soul of Mrs. Singleton Corey when she read them. She was planning the letter she fully intended to write. Later that evening, when Marion was curled up in bed with a book that held her oblivious to unobtrusive deeds, such as letter-writing, Kate put the phrases and the carefully constructed sentences upon a sheet of her thickest, creamiest stationery. She did not feel in the slightest degree disloyal to Marion or to Jack. Hot-headed, selfish children, what did they know about the deeper problems of life? Of course his mother must be told. And of course, Kate was the person who could best write so difficult a letter. So she wrote it, and explained just how she came to know about Jack. But the professor was a conscientious man. He believed that the authorities should be notified at once. Jack Corey was a fugitive from the law, and to conceal the knowledge of his whereabouts would be nothing short of compounding a felony. It was thoughtful to write his mother, of course. But duty demanded that the chief of police in Los Angeles should be notified also, and as speedily as possible. By George, the case warranted telegraphing the news!
Now, it was one thing to write sympathetically to a social leader that her wayward son has been found, but it is quite another thing to turn the wayward son over to the police. Kate had not considered the moral uprightness of the professor when she showed him the letter, but she managed the difficulty very nicely. She pleaded a little, and flattered a little, and cried a good deal, and finally persuaded the professor's conscience to compound a felony to the extent of writing Fred instead of wiring the chief of police. Fred could notify the authorities if he chose—and Kate was wise enough to pretend that she was satisfied to leave the matter in Fred's hands.
She thought it best, however, to add a postscript to her letter, saying that she feared for Jack's safety, as the authorities had begun to be very inquisitive and hard to put off; but that she would do all in her power to protect the poor boy. She did not feel that it would be wise to write Fred, because the professor would think she was working against him and would be angry. Besides, she knew that it would be of no use to write Fred. He would do as he pleased anyway; he always did.
In the face of a keen wind the professor started down the mountain to leave the letters at Marston with the agent, who was very obliging and would see that they were put on the "down" train that evening.
Marion did not see any sense in his going away that day, and she told Kate so very bluntly. With the professor gone she could not meet Jack and have those broiled bear steaks, because some one had to stay with Kate. When Kate suggested that she have Jack come to the cabin with his bear steaks, she discovered that she could not do that either. She was afraid to tell Jack that Kate knew. Of course, it was all right—Kate had promised faithfully never to tell; but Jack was awfully queer, lately, and the least little thing offended him. He would refuse to see that it was the best to take Kate into the secret, because it gave Marion more freedom to do things for his comfort. He would consider that she had been tattling secrets just because she could not hold her tongue, and she resented in advance his attitude. Guiltily conscious of having betrayed him, she still believed that she had done him a real service in the betrayal.
It was a complicated and uncomfortable state of mind to be in, and Kate's state of mind was not much more complacent. She also had broken a promise and betrayed a trust, and she also believed she had done it for the good of the betrayed. To their discomforting sense of guilt was added Marion's disappointment at not meeting Jack, and Kate's sprained ankle, which was as swollen and painful as a sprained ankle usually is. They began by arguing, they continued by reminding each other of past slights and injuries, they ended by speaking plain truths that were unpalatable chiefly because they were true. When the professor tramped home at sundown he walked into an atmosphere of icy silence. Kate and Marion were not on speaking terms, if you please.
The next day was cold and windy, but Marion hurried the housework in a way that made Kate sniff disgustedly, and started out to signal Jack and bring him down to their last meeting place. Flash after flash she sent that way, until the sun went altogether behind the clouds and she could signal no more. Not a glimmer of an answering twinkle could she win from the peak. The most she did was to stimulate old Mike to the point of mumbling wild harangues to the uneasy pines, the gist of which was that folks better look out how they went spyin' around after him, an' makin' signs back and forth with glasses. They better look out, because he had good eyes, if Murphy didn't have, and they couldn't run over him and tromp on him.
He was still gesticulating like a bear fighting yellow-jackets when Marion walked past him, going up the trail. She looked at him and smiled as she went by, partly because he looked funny, waving his arms over his head like that, and partly by way of greeting. She never talked to Mike, because she could not understand anything he said. She did not consider him at all bright, so she did not pay much attention to him at any time; certainly not now, when her mind was divided between her emotions concerning Jack and her fresh quarrel with Kate.
Mike struck his axe into a log and followed her, keeping in the brush just outside the trail. His lips moved ceaselessly under his ragged, sandy mustache. Because Marion had smiled when she looked at him, he called her, among other things, a she-devil. He thought she had laughed at him because she was nearly ready to have him hanged. Marion did not look back. She was quite certain today that Kate would not follow her, and the professor was fagged from yesterday's tramp through the snow. She hurried, fully expecting that Jack had gone down early to the meeting place and was waiting for her there.
Mike had no trouble in keeping close to her, for the wind blew strongly against her face and the pines creaked and mourned overhead, and had he called to her she would scarcely have heard him. She left the road at the top of the hill and went across to the gully where Kate had sprained her ankle. Today Marion did not trouble to choose bare ground, so she went swiftly. At the top of the gully where Jack had met her before, she stopped, her eyes inquiring of every thicket near her. She was panting from the stiff climb, and her cheeks tingled with the cold. But presently she "who-whoed" cautiously, and a figure stepped out from behind a cedar and came toward her.
"Oh, there you—oh!" she cried, and stopped short. It was not Jack Corey at all, but Hank Brown, grinning at her while he shifted his rifle from the right hand to the left.
"Guess you thought I was somebody else," he drawled, coming up to her and putting out his hand. "Pretty cold, ain't it? Yuh travelin' or just goin' somewheres?" He grinned again over the ancient witticism.
"Oh, I—I was just out for a walk," Marion laughed uneasily. "Where are you going, Mr. Brown?"
"Me, I'm travelin' fer my health. Guess you aim t' git walkin' enough, comin' away over here, this kind of a day."
"Why, I hike all over these mountains. It gets lonesome. I just walk and walk everywhere."
Grinning, Hank glanced down at her feet. "Yes, I've seen lots of tracks up around this way, and up towards Taylor Kock. But I never thought they were made by feet as little as what yours are."
"Why, forevermore! I suppose I ought to thank you for that. I make pretty healthy looking tracks, let me tell you. And I don't claim all the tracks, because so many hunters come up here."
Hank looked at her from under his slant eyebrows. "Guess they's some that ain't crazy about huntin' too," he observed shrewdly. "Feller that had the lookout last summer, guess he hangs out somewhere around here, don't he? Must, or you wouldn't be calling him. Got a claim, maybe."
"Why do you think so? I go all over these hills, and I—"
"I was kinder wonderin'," said Hank. "I guess you must know 'im purty well. I just happened to notice how clost them two sets of tracks are, over by that big tree. Like as if somebody with kinda little feet had stood around talking to a feller for quite a spell. I kinda make a study of tracks, you see—'cause I hunt a good deal. Ever study tracks?"
"Why, no—" Marion's smile became set and superficial. "I do wish you'd teach me, Mr. Brown."
"Well, come on over here and I'll show yuh somethin'." He reached over and laid his hand on her arm, and after an involuntarily shrinking, Marion thought it wisest to let it pass. Very likely he did not mean anything at all beyond eagerness to show her the tracks. Why in the world had they forgotten to be careful, she wondered. But it was hard to remember that this wilderness was not really so untrodden as it looked when she and Jack found themselves alone in some remote spot. She went fearfully, with uneasy laughter, where Hank led. They stopped beside the tree where she and Jack had talked the other day. Hank pointed down at the telltale snow.
"It's dead easy to read tracks," he drawled, "when they's fresh and plain as what these are. They's four cigarette butts, even, to show how long the feller stood here talkin' to the girl. And behind the tree it's all tromped up, where he waited fer her to come, most likely. You kin see where his tracks comes right out from behind the tree to the place where they stood talkin'. An' behind the tree there ain't no cigarette butts a-tall—an' that's when a feller most generally smokes—when he's passin' the time waitin' fer somebody. An' here's a string—like as if it had been pulled offn a package an' throwed away. An' over there on that bush is the paper the string was tied aroun'—wind blowed it over there, I guess." He waded through the snow to where the paper had lodged, and picked it up. "It's even got a pos'mark onto it," he announced, "and part of the address. It must a'been quite a sizable package, 'cause it took foteen cents to send it from Los Angeles to Miss Marion—"
"Why, what do you know about that!" cried Marion abruptly, bringing her hands together animatedly. "All that's left of my opera fudge that one of the girls sent me!" She took the paper and glanced at it ruefully. "I remember now—that was the time Fred was sure he'd get a—" she stopped herself and looked at him archly—"a jack-rabbit. And I said I'd come out and help him carry it home. But he didn't have any luck at all—why, of course, I remember! Meeting the professor with the mail, and bringing the candy along to eat if we got hungry—and we did too. And Fred hid behind the tree and scared me—why, Mr. Brown, I think you're perfectly wonderful, to figure that all out just from the tracks! I should think you'd be a detective. I'm sure there isn't a detective in the country that could beat you—really, they are stupid alongside of such work as this. But I hope the tracks won't tell you what Fred said about not getting the—er—the rabbit he shot at!" She laughed up into his face. "You might tell," she accused him playfully, "and get us all into trouble. I'm awfully afraid of you, Mr. Brown. I am really."
Hank Brown could read tracks fairly well, but he could not read women at all. His puzzled gaze went from Marion's laughing face to the tracks in the snow; from there to the paper in his hand; to the tree, and back again to her face.
"The man's tracks went back towards Taylor Rock," he drawled out half apologetically. "That's what made me kinda think maybe—"
"Oh, you know that, too! You know how he said he was going up there and see if he couldn't run across a bear before sundown, and for me to go straight home. And I'll bet," she added breathlessly, "you can tell me exactly where it was that Kate waited for me across the gulley, and which ankle it was that she sprained so I had to almost carry her back to the house, and—why, I wouldn't be one bit surprised if you could tell me what I put on it!"
"No," Hank confessed feebly, "I guess I couldn't just figure all that out, not offhand like."
"But you knew about Fred forgetting his cigarettes, and about my bringing him some so he wouldn't be grouchy all the way home," Marion reminded him demurely. "I—I do think you are the cleverest boy!"
That finished Hank. Never within his recollection had a young woman so much as hinted that she thought him wonderful or clever. Besides, Hank was well past thirty, and it tickles a man of that age to be called a boy.
He began to leer at her with amorous eyes when he spoke, and he began to find frequent occasions for taking hold of her arm. He managed to make himself odious in the extreme, so that in sheer self-defense Marion made haste to bring his thoughts back to Jack.
"Did you say that lookout man has a claim up here somewhere?" She started back to the road, Hank keeping close to her heels.
"I dunno—I just said maybe he had. He's up here, I know that—an' you know it, too." He took her arm to help her up the hill, and Marion felt as though a toad was touching her; yet she dared not show too plainly her repulsion for fear of stirring his anger. She had a feeling that Hank's anger would be worse than his boorish gallantry. "I figure he's on the dodge. Ain't no other reason why he ain't never been to town sence I packed him up to the lookout station las' spring. 'F he had a claim he'd be goin' to town sometime, anyway. He'd go in to record his claim, an' he ain't never done that. I'll bet," he added, walking close alongside, "you could tell more'n you let on. Couldn't you, ay?"
"I could, if I knew anything to tell." Marion tried to free her arm without actually jerking it, and failed.
"But you don't, ay? Say, you're pretty cute. What'll yuh give me if I tell yuh what I do think?"
The fool was actually trying to slip his arm around her without being too abrupt about it; as if he were taming some creature of the wild which he wished not to frighten. Marion was drawing herself together, balancing herself to land a blow on his jaw and then run. She believed she could outrun him, now that they were in the trail. But at that moment she caught sight of a figure slinking behind a stump, and she exclaimed with relief at the sight.
"Why, there's Mike over there—I was wishing—I wanted to ask him—oh, Mike! Mike!" She pulled herself free of Hank's relaxing fingers and darted from the trail, straight up the park-like slope of the giant pines. "Mike! Wait a minute, Mike. I was looking for you!"
It was an unfortunate sentence, that last one. Mike stopped long enough to make sure that she was coming, long enough to hear what she said. Then he ducked and ran, lumbering away toward a heavy outcropping of rock that edged the slope like a halibut's fin. Marion ran after him, glancing now and then over her shoulder, thankful because Hank had stayed in the trail and she could keep the great tree trunks between them.
At the rock wall, so swift was Marion's pursuit, Mike turned at bay, both hands lifted over his head in a threatening gesture. "Don't yuh chase me up," he gobbled frenziedly. "Yuh better look out now! Don't yuh think yuh can take me and hang me for a spy—you're a spy yourself—You look out, now!" Then he saw that Marion kept on coming, and he turned and ran like a scared animal.
Though she could not understand what he said, nevertheless Marion stopped in sheer astonishment. The next moment Mike had disappeared between two boulders and was gone. Marion followed his tracks to the rocks; then, fearful of Hank, she turned and ran down the slope that seemed to slant into Toll-Gate Basin. Hank could track her, of course, but she meant to keep well ahead of him. So she ran until she must climb the next slope. Once she saw Mike running ahead of her through the trees. She wondered what ailed him, but she was too concerned over her own affairs to give him much thought. Hank called to her; he seemed to be coming after her, and she supposed he would overtake her in time, but she kept on through brush and over fallen logs half buried in the snow that held her weight if she was careful. And when she was almost ready to despair of reaching the open before Hank, she saw through the trees the little pasture with its log fence. Mike was going across to his cabin, still running awkwardly.
Marion ploughed through the drifts in the edge of the timber and slowed thankfully to a walk when she reached the corner of the fence. Across the flat the cabin stood backed against the wall of heavy forest. Hank would not dare come any farther—or if he did he would be careful not to offend. She walked on more slowly, pulling herself back to composure before she went in to face the critical, censuring eyes of Kate.
TROUBLE ROCKS THE PAN, LOOKING FOR GRAINS OF GOLD
Up on the peaks Jack was touching the heights and the depths of his own nature, while the mountains stood back and waited, it seemed to him, for the final answer. He had lived with them too long and too intimately to disregard them now, uninfluenced by their varying moods. He watched them in sunlight when they were all shining white and violet and soft purple, with great shadows spread over their slopes where the forests stood deepest; and they heartened him, gave him a wordless promise that better times were to come. He saw them swathed with clouds, and felt the chill of their cold aloofness; the world was a gloomy place then, and friendship was all false and love a mockery. He saw them at night—then was he an outcast from everything that made life worth while; then was he almost ready to give up.
When he had waited until the sun was low, and Marion did not come or send him a signal from the little knoll behind the cabin, he told himself that he was just a whim of hers; that he merely furnished her with a little amusement, gave her a pleasant imitation of adventure; that if something more exciting came into her dull life there in the Basin, she would never bother with him again. He told himself cynically that she would merely be proving her good sense if she stopped meeting him or sending those brief little messages; but Lord, how they did put heart into a fellow!—those little dots of brightness, with now and then a wider, longer splash of radiance, which she told him meant "forevermore"; or, if it were very long and curved, as when she waved the glass over her head, it meant a laugh, and "here's hoping."
But when she did not come, or even run up the hill and send him the one-two-three signal which meant she could not meet him that day, he faced the long night feeling that the world held not one friend upon whom he could depend. The next day he went out, but he was so absolutely hopeless that he persuaded himself she would not come and that he did not want her to come. He did not want to meet any human being that he could think of—except his mother, and his punishment was that he should never see her again. He had to walk for exercise, and he might get a shot at a grouse. He was not going to meet Marion at all. Let her stay at home, if she wanted to—he could stand it if she could.
He tramped down the mountain toward the Basin. It was a dreary journey at best, and today his perverse mood would not let him brighten it with the hope of seeing Marion. She had fooled him the day before, after she had promised to come, and he had carried that chunk of bear meat all the way down from the cave, so now he was going to fool her. If she came he would just let her stand around in the cold, and see how funny it was to wait for some one who did not show up.
Near their last meeting place, on the brink of the deep gulley that divided the Crystal Lake road from the first slope of Grizzly Peak, he stopped, half tempted to turn back. She was keen-eyed, and he did not want her to see him first. She should not have the chance, he reflected, to think he was crazy about meeting her every day. If she wanted to make it once a week, she wouldn't find him whining about it. He moved warily on down to the place, his eyes searching every open spot for a glimpse of her.
He got his glimpse just as she and Hank were climbing the side of the gulley to the road. It was a glimpse that shocked him out of his youthful self-pity and stood him face to face with a very real hurt. They were climbing in plain sight, and so close to him that he could hear Hank's drawling voice telling Marion that she was a cute one, all right; he'd have to hand it to her for being a whole lot cuter than he had sized her up to be. Uncouth praise it was, bald, insincere, boorish. Jack heard Marion laugh, just as though she enjoyed Hank's conversation and company—and all his anger at yesterday's apparent slight seemed childish beside this hot, man's rage that filled him.
Any man walking beside Marion would have made him wild with jealousy; but Hank Brown! Hank Brown, holding her by the arm, walking with her more familiarly than Jack had ever ventured to do, for all their close friendship! Calling her cute—why cute, in particular? Did Hank, by any chance, refer to Marion's little strategies in getting things for Jack? The bare possibility sickened him.
He stood and watched until they reached the trail and passed out of sight among the trees, their voices growing fainter as the distance and the wind blurred the sounds. Had they looked back while they were climbing out of the gulley, they must have seen him, for he stood out in the open, making no attempt at concealment, not even thinking of the risk. When they had gone, he stood staring at the place and then turned and tramped apathetically back to his cave.
What was Marion doing with Hank Brown, the one man in all this country who held a definite grudge against Jack? What had she done, that Hank should consider her so cute? Was the girl playing double? Loyalty was a part of Jack's nature—a fault, he had come to call it nowadays, since he firmly believed it was loyalty toward his father that had cost him his mother's love; since it was loyalty to his friends, too, that had sent him out of Los Angeles in the gray of the morning; since it was loyalty to Marion that had held him here hiding miserably like an animal. Loyalty to Marion made it hard now to believe his own eyes when they testified against her.
There must be some way of explaining it, he kept telling himself hopelessly. Marion—why, the girl simply couldn't pretend all the time. She would forget herself some time, no matter how clever she was at deception. She couldn't keep up a make-believe interest in his welfare, the way she had done; if she could do that—well, like Hank Brown, he would have to hand it to her for being a lot cleverer than he had given her credit for being. "If she's been faking the whole thing, she ought to go on the stage," he muttered tritely. "She'd make Sarah Bernhardt look like a small-time extra. Yes, sir, all of that. And I don't quite get it that way." Then he swore. "Hank Brown! That hick—after having her choice of town boys, her taking up with that Keystone yap! No, sir, that don't get by with me." But when he had gone a little farther he stopped and looked blackly down toward the Basin. A swift, hateful vision of the two figures walking close together up that slope struck him like a slap in the face.
"All but had his arm around her," he growled. "And she let him get by with it! And laughed at his hick talk. Huh! Hank Brown! I admire her taste, I must say!"
Up near the peak the wind howled through the pines, bringing with it the bite of cold. His shoulders drawn together with the chill that struck through even his heavy sweater and coat, he went on, following the tracks he had made coming down. They were almost obliterated with the snow, that went slithering over the drifts like a creeping cloud, except when a heavier gust lifted it high in air and flung it out in a blinding swirl. Battling with that wind sent the warmth through his body again, but his hands and feet were numb when he skirted the highest, deepest, solidest drift of them all and crept into the desolate fissure that was the opening to his lair.
Inside it was more dismal than out on the peak, if that could be. The wind whistled through the openings in the roof, the snow swirled down and lay uneasily where it fell. His camp-fire was cheerless, sifted over with white. His bed under the ledge looked cold and comfortless, with the raw, frozen hide of the bear on top, a dingy blank fringe of fur showing at the edges.
Jack stood just inside, his shoulders again hunched forward, his chilled fingers doubled together in his pockets, and looked around him. He always did that when he came back, and he always felt nearly the same heartsick shrinking away from its cold dreariness. The sun never shone in there, for one thing. The nearest it ever came was to gild the north rim of the opening during the middle of the day.
Today its chill desolation struck deeper than ever, but he went stolidly forward and started a little fire with a splinter or two of pitch that he had carried up from a log down below. Hank had taught him the value of pitch pine, and Jack remembered it now with a wry twist of the lips. He supposed he ought to be grateful to Hank for that much, but he was not.
He melted snow in a smoky tin bucket and made a little coffee in another bucket quite as black. All his food was frozen, of course, but he stirred up a little batter with self-rising buckwheat flour and what was left of the snow water, whittled off a few slices of bacon, fried that and afterwards cooked the batter in the grease, watching lest the thick cake burn before it had cooked in the center. He laid the slices of bacon upon half of the cake, folded the other half over upon them, squatted on his heels beside the fire and ate the ungainly sandwich and drank the hot black coffee sweetened and with a few of the coarser grains floating on top. While he ate he stared unseeingly into the fire, that sputtered and hissed when an extra sifting of snow came down upon it. The cave was dusky by now, so that the leaping flames made strange shadows on the uneven rock walls. The whistle of the wind had risen to a shriek.
Jack roused himself when the fire began to die; he stood up and looked around him, and down at his ungainly clothes and heavy, high-cut shoes laced over thick gray socks whose tops were turned down in a roll over his baggy, dirt-stained trousers. He laughed without any sound of mirth, thinking that this was the Jack Corey who had quarreled over the exact shade of tie that properly belonged to a certain shade of shirt; whose personal taste in sport clothes had been aped and imitated by half the fellows he knew. What would they think if they could look upon him now? He wondered if Stit Duffy would wag his head and say "So-me cave, bo, so-me cave!"
Then his mind snapped back to Hank Brown with his hand clasping Marion's arm in that leisurely climb to the trail. His black mood returned, pressing the dead weight of hopelessness upon him. He might as well settle the whole thing with a bullet, he told himself again. After all, what would it matter? Who would care? Last night he had thought instantly of Marion and his mother, and he had felt that two women would grieve for him. Tonight he thought of Marion and cast the thought away with a curse and a sneer. As for his mother—would his mother care so very much? Had he given her any reason for caring, beyond the natural maternal instinct which is in all motherhood? He did not know. If he could be sure that his mother would grieve for him—but he did not know. Perhaps she had grieved over him in the past until she had worn out all emotions where he was concerned. He wondered, and he wished that he knew.
IGNORANCE TAXES THE TRAIL OF DANGER
Mike, looking frequently over his shoulder, sought the sanctuary of his own cabin, slammed the door shut and pulled the heavy table as a barricade against it until he could find the hammer and some nails. His hands shook so that he struck his thumb twice, but he did not seem to notice the pain at all. When the door was nailed shut he pulled a side off a box and nailed the two boards over the window. Then he grabbed his rifle out of a corner and defied the spies to do their worst, and hang him if they dared.
A long time he waited, mumbling there in the middle of the room, the rifle pointed toward the door. Shadows flowed into the valley and filled it so that only the tops of the tallest pines were lighted by the sun. The lonesome gloom deepened and the pines swung their limber tops and talked with the sound of moving waters along a sandy shore.
An owl flapped heavily into a tall pine near by, settled his feet comfortably upon a smooth place in the limb, craned his neck and blinked into the wind, fluffed his feathers and in a deep baritone voice he called aloud upon his errant mate.
"Who! Who! Who-who!"
Mike jumped and swung his rifle toward the sound! "Oh, yuh needn't think yuh can fool me, makin' si'nals like an owl," he cried in his indistinct gobble. "I know what you're up to. Yuh can't fool me!"
Far across the basin the mate, in a lighter, more spirited tone, called reassuring reply:
"Who! Who! Who-who!" admonished the owl by the cabin, and flapped away to the other.
Mike's sandy hair lifted on the back of his neck. His face turned pasty gray in the deep gloom of the cabin. Spies they were, and they were laying their trap for him. The one who had called like an owl was Hank Brown. The one who had answered across the flat was the girl, maybe—or perhaps it was that other spy up on top of the mountain; Mike was not sure, but the menace to himself remained as great, whichever spy answered Hank Brown. Hank Brown had trailed him to the cabin, and was telling the others about it. Mike was so certain of it that he actually believed he had seen Hank's form dimly revealed beside a pine tree.
He waited, the gun in his hands. He did not think of supper. He did not realize that he was cold, or hungry, or that as the evening wore on his tortured muscles cried out for rest. The sight of Hank Brown talking intimately with Marion—allied with the spies, as Mike's warped reason interpreted the meeting—had given him the feeling that he was hedged about with deadly foes. The sudden eagerness which Marion had shown when she saw him, and the way she had run after him, to him meant nothing less than an attempt to capture him then and there. They would come to the cabin when he was asleep—he was sure of it. So he did not intend to sleep at all. He would watch for them with the gun. He guessed they didn't know he had a gun, because he never used it unless he went hunting. And since the county was filled up with spies on the government he was too cute to let them catch him hunting out of season.
He waited and he waited. After a long while he backed to the bed and sat down, but he kept the gun pointed toward the door and the window. A skunk came prowling through the trampled snow before the cabin, hunting food where Mike had thrown out slops from the cooking. It rattled a tin can against a half-buried rock, and Mike was on his feet, shaking with cold and excitement.
"Oh, I c'n hear yuh, all right!" he shouted fiercely, not because he was brave, but because he was scared and could not await calmly the next move. "Don't yuh come around here, er I'll shoot!"
In a minute he thought he heard stealthy footsteps nearing the door, and without taking any particular aim he lifted the hammer of the gun and pulled the trigger, in a panicky instinct to fight. The odor that assailed his nostrils reassured him suffocatingly. It was not the spies after all.
He put down the gun then, convinced that if the spies had been hanging around, they would know now that he was ready for them, and would not dare tackle him that night. He felt vaingloriously equal to them all. Let them come! He'd show 'em a thing or two.
Groping in the dark to the old cookstove, Mike raked together the handful of pitch-pine shavings which he had whittled that morning for his dinner fire. He reached up to the shelf where the matches were kept, lighted the shavings, laid them carefully in the firebox and fed the little blaze with dry splinters. He placed wood upon the crackling pile, rattled the stove-lids into place and crouched shivering beside the stove, trying to absorb some warmth into his chilled old bones. He opened the oven door, hitched himself closer and thrust his numbed feet into the oven. He sat there mumbling threats and puny warnings, and so coaxed a little warmth into his courage as well as his body.
So he passed the rest of that night, huddled close to the stove, hearing the murmur of his enemies in the uneasy swashing together of the pine branches overhead, reading a signal into every cry of the animals that prowled through the woods. The harsh squall of a mountain lion, somewhere down the creek, set him shivering. He did not believe it was a mountain lion, but the call of those who watched his cabin. So daylight found him mumbling beside the stove, his old rifle across his knees with the muzzle pointing toward the nailed door.
He wished that Murphy would come; and in the next moment he was cursing Murphy for being half in league with the plotters, and hoping Murphy never showed his face again in the cabin; making threats, too, of what he would do if Murphy came around sneering about the spies.
With daylight came a degree of sanity, and Mike built up the fire again and cooked his breakfast. Habit reasserted itself and he went off to his work, muttering his rambling thoughts as he shambled along the path he and Murphy had beaten in the snow. But he carried his rifle, which he had never done before, and he stood it close beside him while he worked. Also he kept an eye on the trail and on Toll-Gate cabin. He would have been as hard to catch unaware that day as a weasel.
Once or twice he saw the professor pottering around near the cabin, gathering pieces of bark off fallen trees to help out their scanty supply of dry wood. The pines still mourned and swayed to the wind, which hung in the storm quarter, and the clouds marched soddenly in the opposite direction or hung almost motionless for a space. The professor did not come within hailing distance, and seemed wholly occupied with gathering what bark he could carry home before the storm, but Mike was not reassured, nor was he thrown off his guard.
He waited until noon, expecting to see the girl come out for more plotting. When she did not, he went back and cooked a hot dinner, thinking that the way to get the best of spies on the government is to watch them closer than they watch you, and to be ready to follow them when they go off in the woods to plot. So he ate as much as he could swallow, and filled his pockets with bacon and bread. He meant to keep on their trail this time, and see just what they were up to.
Marion, however, did not venture out of the cabin. She was very much afraid that Hank Brown was suspicious of Jack and was trying to locate Jack's camp. She was also afraid of Hank on her own account, and she did not want to see him ever again. She was certain that he had tried hard to overtake her when she went running after Mike, and that she had escaped him only by being as swift-footed as he, and by having the start of him.
Then Kate could not walk at all, and with the professor busy outside, common decency kept Marion in the house. She would like to have sent Jack a heliograph message, but she did not dare with the professor prowling around hunting dry limbs and bark. She had no confidence in the professor's potential kindness toward a fellow in Jack's predicament—the professor was too good to be trusted. He would tell the police.
Normally she would have told Kate about Hank Brown, would have asked Kate's advice, for Kate was practical when she forgot herself long enough to be perfectly natural. But she and Kate were speaking only when it was absolutely necessary to speak, and discussion was therefore out of the question. She felt penned up, miserable. What if Hank Brown found out about Jack and set the sheriff on his trail? He would, she believed, if he knew—for he hated Jack because of that fight. Jack had told her about it, keeping the cause fogged in generalities.
All that night the wind howled up the mountainside and ranted through the forest so that Marion could not sleep. Twice she heard a tree go splitting down through the outstretched arms of its close neighbors, to fall with a crash that quivered the cabin. She was glad that Jack's camp was in a cave. She would have been terribly worried if he had to stay out where a tree might fall upon him. She pictured the horror of being abroad in the forest with the dark and that raging wind. She hoped that the morning would bring calm, because she wanted to see Jack again and take him some magazines, and tell him about Hank.
In the morning it was snowing and raining by turns, with gusty blasts of wind. Marion looked out, even opened the door and stood upon the step; but the storm dismayed her so that she gave up the thought of going, until a chance sentence overheard while she was making the professor's bed in the little lean-to changed her plan of waiting into one of swift action. She heard Douglas say to Kate that, if Fred did decide to inform the chief of police, they should be hearing something very soon now. With the trial probably started, they would certainly waste no time. They would wire up to the sheriff here.
"Oh, I wish you hadn't told Fred," Kate began to expostulate, when Marion burst in upon them furiously.
"You told, did you?" she accused Kate tempestuously. "Doug, of all people! You knew the little runt couldn't keep his hands off—you knew he'd be so darned righteous he'd make all the trouble he could for other people, because he hasn't got nerve enough to do anything wrong himself. You couldn't keep it to yourself, for all your promises and your crocodile tears! I ought to have known better than trust you with anything. But I'll tell you one thing more, you two nasty nice creatures that are worse than scrawling snakes—I'll tell you this: It won't do you one particle of good to set the police after Jack. So go ahead and tell, and be just as treacherous and mean as you like. You won't have the pleasure of sending him to jail—because they'll never catch him. My heavens, how I despise and loathe you two!"
While she spat venom at them she was stamping her feet into her overshoes, buttoning her sweater, snatching up this thing and that thing she wanted, drawing a woolly Tarn O'Shanter cap down over her ears, hooking a cheap fur neckpiece that she had to tug and twist because it fitted so tightly over her sweater collar. She took her six-shooter—she was still deadly afraid of Hank Brown—and she got her muff that matched the neck fur. Her eyes blazed whenever she looked at them.
"Marion, listen to reason! You can't go out in this storm!" Kate began to whimper.
"Will you please shut up?" Marion whirled on her, primitive, fighting rage contorting her face. "I can go anywhere I like. I only wish I could go where I'd never see you again." She went out and pulled the door violently shut. Stood a minute to brace herself for what she had to do, and went into the storm as a swimmer breasts the breakers.
After her went Mike, scuttling away from his cabin with his rifle swinging from his right hand, his left fumbling the buttons on his coat.
At the fence corner Marion hesitated, standing with her back to the wind, the snow driving past her with that faint hiss of clashing particles which is the voice of a sleeting blizzard. She could take the old, abandoned road which led up over the ridge topped by Taylor Rock, and she would find the walking easier, perhaps. But the road followed the line of least resistance through the hills, and that line was by no means straight. Jack would probably be in the cave, out of the storm; she had no hope of meeting him over on the slope on such a day. Still, he might start down the mountain, and at any rate it would be the shortest way up there. She turned down along the fence, following the trail as she had done before, with Mike coming after her as though he was stalking game: warily, swiftly, his face set and eager, his eyes shining with the hunting lust.
Up the hill she went, bracing herself against the wind where it swept through open spaces, shivering with the cold of it, fearful of the great roaring overhead where the pinetops swayed drunkenly with clashing branches: Dead limbs broke and came crashing down, bringing showers of snow and bark and broken twigs and stripped needles from the resisting branches in their path. She was afraid, so she went as fast as she could, consoling her fear with the shrewd thought that the storm would serve to hold back the sheriff and give Jack time to get away somewhere. No one would dream of his traveling on such a day as this, she kept telling herself over and over. It was getting worse instead of better; the snow was coming thicker and the sleet was lessening. It was going to be quite a climb to the cave; the wind must be simply terrible up there, but she could see now that Jack would never expect her out in such weather, and so he would stay close to the camp fire.
At the top of the hill the wind swooped upon her and flung clouds of snow into her face so that she was half blinded. She turned her back upon it, blinked rapidly until her vision cleared again, and stood there panting, tempted to turn back. No one would be crazy enough to venture out today. They would wait until the storm cleared.
She looked back down the trail she had followed. Wherever the wind had a clean sweep her tracks were filling already with snow. If she did not wait, and if Jack got away now, they couldn't track him at all. She really owed him that much of a chance to beat them. She put up her muff, shielded her face from the sting of frozen snowflakes, and went on, buffeted down the steep slope where Kate had sprained her ankle, and thinking that she must be careful where she set her feet, because it would be frightful if she had such an accident herself.
She did not expect to meet Jack on the farther edge of the gulch, but she stood a minute beside the great pine, looking at the trampled snow and thinking of Hank Brown's leering insinuations. Whatever had started the fellow to suspecting such things? Uneasily she followed Hank's cunning reasoning: Because Jack had never once gone in to Quincy, except to settle with the Forest Service for his summer's work; because Jack had not filed upon any claim in the mountains, yet stayed there apart from his kind; because he avoided people—such little things they were that made up the sum of Hank's suspicions! Well, she was to blame for this present emergency, at any rate. If she had not told Kate something she had no right to tell, she would not have quite so much to worry about.
She turned and began to climb again, making her way through the thicket that fringed the long ridge beyond; like a great, swollen tongue reaching out toward the valley was this ridge, and she followed it in spite of the tangled masses of young trees and bushes which she must fight through to reach the more open timber. At least the danger of falling trees and branches was not so great here, and the wind was not quite so keen.
Behind her Mike followed doggedly, trailing her like a hound. Days spent in watching, nights spent crouched and waiting had brought him to the high pitch of desperation, that would stop at nothing which seemed to his crazed brain necessary to save his life and his freedom. Even the disdainful Murphy would have known the man was insane; but Murphy was sitting warm and snug beside a small table with a glass ready to his right hand, and Murphy was not worrying about Mike's sanity, but about the next card that would fall before him. Murphy thought how lucky he was to be in Quincy during this storm, instead of cooped up in the little cabin with Mike, who would sit all day and mumble, and never say anything worth listening to. So Mike kept to the hunt—like a gentle-natured dog gone mad and dangerous and taking the man-trail unhindered and unsuspected.
GOLD OF REPENTANCE, SUNLIGHT OF LOVE AND A MAN GONE MAD
Marion was up at the foot of the last grilling climb, the steep acclivity where manzanita shrubs locked arms and laughed at the climber. Fearful of a sprained ankle like Kate's, she had watched carefully where she set down her feet and had not considered that it would be wise to choose just as carefully the route she should follow to gain the top; so long as she was climbing in that general direction she felt no uneasiness, because Taylor Rock topped it all, and she was bound to come out somewhere close to the point at which she was aiming.
But the wall of manzanita stopped her before she had penetrated a rod into it. One solid mass blanketed with snow it looked to be when she stepped carefully upon a rock and surveyed the slope. She had borne too far to the right, away from the staggering rush of wind. She hated to turn now and face the storm while she made her way around to the line of timber, but she had no choice. So she retreated from the manzanita and fought her way around it—finding it farther than she had dreamed; finding, too, that the storm was a desperate thing, if one had to face it for long in the open.
She made the timber, and stood leaning against the sheltered side of a dark-trunked spruce whose branches were thick and wide-spread enough to shield her. The physical labor of fighting her way thus far, and the high altitude to which she had attained, made her pant like a runner just after the race. She held her muff to her face again for the sense of warmth and well-being its soft fur gave to her cheeks. Certainly, no one else would be fool enough to come out on such a day, she thought. And what a surprise to Jack, seeing her come puffing into his cave! She had not been there since the snow fell, just before Thanksgiving. Now it was nearly Christmas—a month of solitary grandeur Jack had endured.
She glanced up at the tossing boughs above her; felt the great tree trunk quiver when a fresh blast swept the top; looked out at the misty whiteness of the storm, clouded with swaying pine branches. What a world it was! But she was not afraid of it; somehow she felt its big, rough friendliness even now. It did not occur to her that the mountains could work her ill, though she reminded herself that standing still was not the best way to keep warm on such a day.
She started up again, ignorantly keeping among the trees, that a mountaineer would have shunned. But straightway she stopped and looked around her puzzled. Surely she had not come down this way when she skirted the manzanita. She remembered coming in among the trees from the right. She turned and went that way, saw her filling footprints in the snow, and plodded back. There were tracks coming down the hill, and she had not made them. They must surely be Jack's.
With the new wisdom of having tramped nearly every day through snow, she studied these new tracks and her own where she had come to the spruce tree. These other tracks, she decided, had been made lately—she must have missed by minutes seeing him pass before her. Perhaps she could overtake him. So she faced the wind and ran gasping down the slope, following the tracks. She nearly caught Mike unaware, but she did not know it. She hurried unsuspectingly past the tree where he was hiding, his rifle held ready to fire if she looked his way. He was hesitating, mumbling there with his finger on the trigger when she went out of sight around a bush, still following where the tracks led. Mike stepped out from behind the tree and came bowlegging after her, walking with that peculiar, flat-footed gait of the mountain trained man.
Luck was with her. Jack had gone down a gully rim, thinking to cross it farther on, ran into rocks and a precipitous bank, and was coming back upon his trail. He met Marion face to face. She gave a cry that had in it both tears and laughter, and stood looking at him big-eyed over her muff.
"Well, forevermore! I thought I never would catch you! I was going to the cave—" Something in Jack's scrutinizing, unfriendly eyes stopped her.
"Sorry, but I'm not at home," he said. There was more than a sulky mood in his tone. Marion was long since accustomed to the boyish gruffness with which Jack strove to hide heartaches. This was different. It froze her superficial cheerfulness to a panicky conviction that Jack had in some manner discovered her betrayal of him; or else he had taken alarm at Hank's prowling.
"What's the matter, Jack? Did you find out about—anybody knowing you're here? Are you beating it, now?"
"I don't know what you mean." Jack still eyed her with that disconcerting, measuring look that seemed to accuse without making clear just what the specific accusation might be. "How do you mean—beating it?"
"I mean—oh, Jack, I did an awful thing, and I came up to tell you. And Hank Brown knows something, I'm sure, and that worries me, too. I came out to see if I could meet you, the other day, while Doug stayed with Kate. And I ran right onto Hank Brown, and he began asking about you right away, Jack, and hinting things and talking about tracks. He showed me where you had waited behind the tree, and where we stood and talked, and he guessed about my bringing cigarettes, even. He's the foxiest thing—he just worked it all out and kept grinning so mean—but I fooled him, though. I made him think it was Fred that had been out hunting, and that I met him, and the package had candy in it. I had to kid him away from the subject of you—and then the big rube got so fresh—I had the awfullest time you ever saw, Jack, getting away from the fool.
"But the point I'm getting at is that he suspects something. He said you hadn't been near Quincy, and there must be some reason. He said you didn't have any mine located, because you hadn't filed any claim, or anything. But that isn't the worst—"
"I don't care what Hank thinks." Jack pulled the collar of his coat closer to his ears, because of the seeking wind and snow. "Get under the cedar, while I tell you. I was going without seeing you, because I saw you and Hank together and I didn't like the looks of it. I was sore as a goat, Marion, and that's the truth. But it's like this: I'm going back home. I can't stand it any longer—I don't mean the way I've been living, though that ain't any soft graft either. But it's mother, I'm thinking of. I never gave her a square deal, Marion.
"I—you know how I have felt about her, but that's all wrong. She's been all right—she's a brick. I'm the one that's given the raw deal. I've been a selfish, overbearing, good-for-nothing ass ever since I could walk, and if she wasn't a saint she'd have kicked me out long ago. Why, I sneaked off and left a lie on her dresser, and never gave her a chance to get the thing straight, or anything. I tell you, Marion, if I was in her place, and had a measly cub of a son like I've been, I'd drown him in a tub, or something. Honest to John, I wouldn't have a brat like that on the place! How she's managed to put up with me all these years is more than I can figure; it gets my goat to look back at the kinda mark I've been—strutting around, spending money I never earned, and never thanking her—feeling abused, by thunder, because she didn't—oh, it's hell! I can't talk about it. I'm going back and see her, and tell her where I stand. She'll kick me out if she's got any sense, but that'll be all right. I'll see her, and then I'm going to the chief of police and straighten out that bandit stuff. I'm going to tell just how the play came up—just a josh, it was. I'll tell 'em—it'll be bad enough, at that, but maybe it'll do some good—make other kids think twice before they get to acting smart-alecky.
"So you run along home, Marion, and maybe some day—if they don't send me up for life, or anything like that—maybe I'll have the nerve to tell yuh—" A dark flush showed on his cheek-bones, that were gaunt from worry and hard living. He moved uneasily, tugging at the collar of his sweater.
"You've got your nerve now, Jack Corey, if you want to know what I think," Marion retorted indignantly. "Why, you're going up against an awfully critical time! And do you think for a minute, you big silly kid, that I'll let you go alone? I—I never did—ah—respect you as much as I do right now. I—well, I'm going right along with you. I'm going to see that chief of police myself, and I'm going to see your mother. And if they don't give you a square deal, I'm going to tell them a few things! I—"
"You can't go. Don't be a fool, sweetheart. You mustn't let on that you've thrown in with me at all, and helped me, and all that. I appreciate it—but my friendship ain't going to be any help to—"
"Jack Corey, I could shake you! The very idea of you talking that way makes me wild! I am going. You can't stop me from riding on the train, can you? And you can't stop me from seeing the chief—"
"I'd look nice, letting your name get mixed up with mine! Sweetheart, have some sense!" Jack may not have known what name he had twice called her, but Marion's eyes lighted with blue flames.
"Some things are better than sense—sweetheart," she said, with a shy boldness that startled her. The last word was spoken into the snow-matted fur of her muff, but Jack heard it.
"You—oh, God! Marion, do you—care?" He reached out and caught her by the shoulders. "You mustn't. I'm not fit for a girl like you. Maybe some day—"
"Some day doesn't mean anything at all. This part of today is what counts. I'm going with you. I—I feel as if I'd die if I didn't. If they send you to jail, I'll make them send me too—if I have to rob a Chinaman!" She laughed confusedly, hiding her face. "It's awful, but I simply couldn't live without—without—"
"Me? Say, that's the way I've been feeling about you, ever since Lord knows how long. But I didn't suppose you'd ever—"
"Say, my feet are simply freezing!" Marion interrupted him. "We'll have to start on. It would be terrible if we missed the train, Jack."
"You oughtn't to go. Honestly, I mean it. Unless we get married, it would—"
"Why, of course we'll get married! Have I got to simply propose to you? We'll have to change at Sacramento anyway—or we can change there just as well as not—and we'll get married while we're waiting for the train south. I hope you didn't think for a minute that I'd—"
"It isn't fair to you." Jack moved out from under the sheltering cedar and led the way up the gully's rim, looking mechanically for an easy crossing. "I'm a selfish enough brute without letting you—"
Marion plucked at his sleeve and stopped him.
"Jack Corey, you tell me one thing. Don't you—want me to—marry you? Don't you care—?"
"Listen here, honey, I'll get sore in a minute if you go talking that way!" He took her in his arms, all snow as she was, and kissed her with boyish energy. "You know well enough that I'm crazy about you. Of course I want you! But look at the fix I'm in: with just about a hundred dollars to my name—"
"I've got money in my muff to buy a license, if you'll pay the preacher, Jack. We'll go fifty-fifty on the cost—"
"And a darned good chance of being sent up for that deal the boys pulled off—"
"Oh, well, I can wait till you get out again. Say, I just love you with that little lump between your eyebrows when you scowl! Go on, Jack; I'm cold. My gracious, what a storm! It's getting worse, don't you think? When does that train go down, Jack? We'll have to be at the station before dark, or we might get lost and miss the train, and then we would be in a fix! I wish to goodness I'd thought to put on my blue velvet suit—but then, how was I going to know that I'd need it to get married in?"
Jack stopped on the very edge of the bank, and held back the snow-laden branches for her to pass. "You're the limit for having your own way," he grinned. "I can see who's going to be boss of the camp, all right. Come on—the sooner we get down into lower country, the less chance we'll have of freezing. We'll cross here, and get down in that thick timber below. The wind won't catch us quite so hard, and if a tree don't fall on us we'll work our way down to the trail. Give me a kiss. This is a toll gate, and you've got to pay—"
Standing so, with one arm flung straight out against the thick boughs of a young spruce, he made a fair target for Mike back there among the trees. Mike was clean over the edge now of sanity. The two spies had come together—two against one, and searching for him to kill him, as he firmly believed. When they had stood under the cedar he thought that they were hiding there, waiting for him to walk into the trap they had set. He would have shot them, but the branches were too thick. When they moved out along the gulch, Mike ran crouching after, his rifle cocked and ready for aim. You would have thought that the man was stalking a deer. When Jack stopped and turned, with his arm flung back against the spruce, he seemed to be looking straight at Mike.
Mike aimed carefully, for he was shaking with terror and the cold of those heights. The sharp pow-w of his rifle crashed through the whispery roar of the pines, and the hills flung back muffled echoes. Marion screamed, saw Jack sag down beside the spruce, clutched at him wildly, hampered by her muff. Saw him go sliding down over the bank, into the gulch, screamed again and went sliding after him.
Afterwards she remembered a vague impression she had had, of hearing some one go crashing away down the gully, breaking the bushes that impeded his flight.
THE MISERERE OF MOTHERHOOD
The up-train came shrieking out of the last tunnel in Feather River Canyon, churned around a curve, struck a hollow roar from the trestle that bridges the mouth of Toll-Gate creek, shrieked again when it saw, down the white trail of its headlight, the whirling snow that swept down the canyon, and churned up the stiff grade that would carry it around through the Pocket at the head of the canyon and to the little yellow station just beyond. A fight it would have to top the summit of the Sierras and slip down into the desert beyond, but it climbed the grade with a vicious kind of energy, twisted around the point of the hill where the Crystal Lake trail crossed and climbed higher, and with a last scream at the station lights it slewed past the curve, clicked over a switch or two and stood panting there in the storm, waiting to see whether it might go on and get the ordeal over with at once, or whether it must wait until the down train passed.
A thin, yellow slip ordered it to wait, since it was ten minutes behind time. The down train was just then screaming into Spring Garden and would come straight on. So the up train stood there puffing like the giant thing it was, while the funny little train from Quincy fussed back upon a different siding and tried its best to puff as loud as its big, important neighbor while it waited, too, for the down train.
Two men and a woman plowed through the wind and the snow and mounted wearily the steps of the little coach which comprised the branch line's passenger service. The two men took it all as a matter of course—the bare little coach with plush seats and an air of transient discomfort. They were used to it, and they did not mind.
The woman, however, halted inside the door and glanced around her with incredulous disdain. She seemed upon the point of refusing to ride in so crude a conveyance; seemed about to complain to the conductor and to demand something better. She went forward under protest and drew her gloved fingers across the plush back of a seat, looked at her fingers and said, "Hmh!" as though her worst fears were confirmed. She looked at one of the men and spoke as she would speak to a servant.
"Is there no other coach on this train?"
"No, ma'am!" the man said, accenting the first word as though he wished to prevent argument. "It's this or walk."
"Hmh!" said the lady, and spread a discarded newspaper upon the seat, and sat down. "Thank you," she added perfunctorily, and looked out of the window at what she could see of the storm.
The down train thundered in, just then, and with a squealing of brakes stopped so that its chair car blotted her dismal view of the close hillside. Between the two trains the snow sifted continuously, coming out of the gray wall above, falling into the black shadows beneath. Two or three bundled passengers with snow packed in the wrinkles of their clothing went down the aisle of the chair-car, looking for seats.
It was all very depressing, wearisome in the extreme. The lady settled herself deeper into her furs and sighed.
She continued to sigh at intervals during the remainder of the trip. The last and the heaviest sigh of all she heaved when she settled down to sleep in a hotel bedroom and thought miserably of a certain lovable, if somewhat headstrong, young man who was out somewhere in these terrible mountains in the storm, hiding away from the world and perhaps suffering cold and hunger.
Thoughts of that kind are not the best medicine for sleeplessness, and it was long after midnight before Mrs. Singleton Corey drifted insensibly from heartsick reflections into the inconsequent imaginings of dreams. She did not dream about Jack, which was some comfort; instead, she dreamed that she was presiding over a meeting of her favorite club.
She awoke to the chill of an unheated room during a winter storm. The quiet lulled her at first into the belief that it was yet very early, but sounds of clashing dishes in a pan somewhere in a room beneath her seemed to indicate breakfast. She would have telephoned down for her breakfast to be served in her room, but there was no telephone or call bell in sight. She therefore dressed shiveringly and groped through narrow hallways until she found the stairs. The mournful whoo-ooing of the wind outside gripped at her heartstrings. Jack was out somewhere in this, hiding in a cave. She shivered again.
In the dining room, where two belated breakfasters hurried through their meal, Mrs. Singleton Corey tried to pull herself together; tried to shut out sentiment from her mind, that she might the better meet and handle practical emergencies. It would not do, of course, to announce her motive in coming here. She would have to find this Miss Humphrey first of all. She unfolded her napkin, laid it across her lap and waited.
"They can't do much till this storm lets up," a man at the next table observed to his companion. "Uh course, I s'pose they'll make some kinda bluff at trying—but believe me, these hills is no snap in a snowstorm, and don't I know it! I got caught out, once,—and I like to of stayed out. No, sir—"
"How's the trains, Barney?" the other called to a man who had just come in from the office.
"Trains! Ain't any trains, and there won't be. There's four slides between here and Keddie—Lord knows how many there is from there on down. Wires are all down, so they can't get any word. Nothing moving the other, way, either. It's the rain coming first, that softened things up, and then the weight of the snow pulled things loose. Take your time about your breakfast," he grinned. "You'll have quite a board bill before you get away from here."
"Anybody starting out to hunt that girl?" the first speaker asked him. "Can't do much till the storm lets up, can they?"
"Well, if they wait till the storm lets up," Barney retorted drily, "they might just as well wait till spring. What kinda folks do you think we are, around here? Forest Service started a bunch out already. Bill Dunevant, he's getting another party made up."
"It's a fright," the second man declared, "I don't know a darn thing about these mountains, but if somebody'll stake me to a horse, I'll go and do what I can."
"When was it they brought word?"
"Fellow got down to the station about an hour ago and phoned in, is the way I heard it," Barney said. "He had to wait till the office opened up."
Mrs. Singleton Corey laid her unused napkin on the table beside her unused knife and fork, and rose from her chair. She had a feeling that this matter concerned her, and that she did not want to hear those crude men pulling her trouble into their talk. With composed obliviousness to her surroundings she walked out into the office, quite ignoring the astonishment of the waitress who held Mrs. Singleton Corey's butter and two biscuits in her hands by the table. She waited, just within the office, until the man Barney sensed her impatience and returned from the dining room.
"I should like to go to a place called Toll-Gate cabin," she told him calmly. "Can you arrange for a conveyance of some kind? I see that an automobile is out of the question, probably, with so much snow on the ground. I should like to start as soon as possible."
The man looked at her with a startled expression. "Why, I don't know. No, ma'am, I'm afraid a rig couldn't make it in this storm. It's halfway up the mountain—do you happen to know the young lady that was lost up there, yesterday?"
"Has a young lady been lost up there?" The eyes of Mrs. Singleton Corey dwelt upon him compellingly.
"Yes, ma'am, since yesterday forenoon. We just got word of it a while ago. They're sending out searching parties now. She was staying at Toll-Gate—"
"Is Toll-Gate a town?"
"No, ma'am. Toll-Gate is just the name of a creek. There's a cabin there, and they call it Toll-Gate cabin. The girl stayed there."
"Ah. Can you have some sort of conveyance—"
"Only conveyance I could promise is a saddle horse, and that won't be very pleasant, either. Besides, it's dangerous to go into the woods, a day like this. I don't believe you better try it till the weather clears. It ain't anything a lady had ought to tackle—unless maybe it was a matter of life and death." He looked at her dubiously.
Mrs. Singleton Corey pressed her lips together. Any recalcitrant club member, or her son, could have told him then that surrender was the only recourse left to him.
"Please tell your searching party that I shall go with them. Have a saddle horse brought for me, if you can find nothing better. I shall be ready in half an hour. Tell one of the maids to bring me coffee, a soft-boiled egg and buttered toast to my room." She turned and went up the stairs unhurriedly, as goes one who knows that commands will be obeyed. She did not look back, or betray the slightest uneasiness, and Barney, watching her slack-jawed until she had reached the top, pulled on a cap and went off to do her bidding.
Mrs. Singleton Corey was not the woman to let small things impede her calm progress toward a certain goal. She proved that beyond all doubt when she ordered a saddle horse, for she had last ridden upon the back of a horse when she was about fourteen years old. She had a vague notion that all horses nowadays were trained from their colthood to buck—whatever that was. Rodeo posters and such printed matter upon the subject as her eye could not escape had taught her that much, but she refused to be dismayed. Moreover, she was aware that it would probably be necessary for her to ride astride, as all women seemed to ride nowadays: yet she did not falter.
From her beautifully fitted traveling bag she produced a pair of ivory-handled manicure scissors, lifted her three-hundred-dollar fur-lined coat from a hook behind the door and proceeded deliberately to ruin both scissors and coat by slitting the back of the coat up nearly to the waist-line, so that she could wear it comfortably on horseback. Her black broadcloth skirt was in imminent danger of the same surgical revision when a shocked young waitress with the breakfast tray in her hands uttered shrill protest.
"Oh, don't go and ruin your skirt that way! They've got you a four-horse team and sleigh, Mrs. Corey. Mercy, ain't it awful about that poor girl being lost? Excuse me—are you her mother, Mrs. Corey?"
Mrs. Singleton Corey, sitting now upon the bed, lifted her aloof glance from the mutilated coat. "Set the things on the chair, there, since there is no table. I do not know the girl at all." And she added, since it seemed necessary to make oneself very plain to these people: "I think that will be all, thank you." She even went a step farther and gave the girl a tip, which settled all further overtures toward conversation.
The girl went off and cried, and called Mrs. Singleton Corey a stuck-up old hen who would freeze—and serve her right. She even hoped that Mrs. Singleton Corey would get stuck in a snowdrift and have to walk every step of the way to Toll-Gate. Leaving her breakfast when it was all on the table, just as if it would hurt her to eat in the same room with people, and then acting like that to a person! She wished she had let the old catamaran spoil her skirt; and so on.
Mrs. Singleton Corey never troubled herself over the impression she made upon the servant class. She regretted the publicity that seemed to have been given her arrival and her further journey into the hills. It annoyed her to have the girl calling her Mrs. Corey so easily; it seemed to imply an intimate acquaintance with her errand which was disquieting in the extreme. Was it possible that the Humphrey woman had been talking to outsiders? Or had the police really gotten upon the trail of Jack?
She hurried into her warmest things, drank the coffee because it would stimulate her for the terrible journey ahead of her, and went down to find the four-horse team waiting outside, tails whipping between shivering hind legs, hips drawn down as for a lunge forward, heads tossing impatiently. The red-faced driver was bundled to his eyes and did not say a word while he tucked the robes snugly down around her feet.
The snow was driving up the street in a steady wind, but Mrs. Singleton Corey faced it undauntedly. She saw the white-veiled plaza upon one side, the row of little stores huddled behind bare trees upon the other side. It seemed a neat little town, a curiously placid little town to be so buffeted by the storm. Behind it the mountain loomed, a dark blur in the gray-white world. Beautiful, yes; but Mrs. Singleton Corey was not looking for beauty that day. She was a mother, and she was looking for her boy.
Two men, with two long-handled shovels, ran out from a little store halfway down the street and, still running, threw themselves into the back of the sleigh.
"Better go back and get another shovel," the driver advised them, pulling up. "I forgot mine. Anything they want me to haul up? Where's them blankets? And say, Hank, you better go into the drugstore and get a bottle of the best liquor they've got. Brandy."
"I've got a bottle of rye," the man standing behind Mrs. Singleton Corey volunteered. "Stop at the Forest Service, will you? They've got the blankets there. We can get another shovel from them."
The driver spoke to his leaders, and they went on, trotting briskly into the wind. Blurred outlines of cottages showed upon either hand. Before one of these they stopped, and a young man came out with a roll of canvas-covered bedding balanced upon his bent shoulders. Hank climbed down, went in and got a shovel.
"Ain't heard anything more?" questioned the driver, in the tone one involuntarily gives to tragedy.
The young man dumped his burden into the back of the sleigh and shook his head. "Our men are going to stay up there till they find her," he said. "There's a sack of grub I wish you'd take along."
He glanced at Mrs. Singleton Corey, whose dark eyes were staring at him through her veil, and ran back into the house. Running so, with his back turned, his body had a swing like Jack's, and her throat ached with a sudden impulse toward weeping.
He was back in a minute with a knobby sack of something very heavy, that rattled dully when he threw it in. "All right," he called. "Hope yuh make it, all right."
"Sure, we'll make it! May have to shovel some—"
Again they started, and there were no more stops. They swung down a straight bit of road where the wind swept bitterly and the hills had drawn back farther into the blur. They drew near to one that slowly disclosed snow-matted pine trees upon a hillside; skirted this and ploughed along its foot for half a mile or so and then turned out again into a broad, level valley. Now the mountains were more than ever blurred and indistinct, receding into the distance.
"Do we not go into the mountains?" Mrs. Singleton Corey laid aside her aloofness to ask, when the valley seemed to stretch endlessly before them.
"Sure. We'll strike 'em pretty soon now. Looks a long ways, on account of the storm. You any relation to the girl that's lost?"
"I do not know her at all." But trouble was slowly thawing the humanity in Mrs. Singleton Corey, and she softened the rebuff a little. "It must be a terrible thing to be lost in these mountains."
"Far as I'm concerned," spoke up Hank from behind them, 'they're either two of 'em lost, or there ain't anybody lost. I've got it figured that either she's at the camp of that feller that's stayin' up there somewheres around Taylor Rock, or else the feller's lost too. I'll bet they're together, wherever they be."