"The tracks led me up the rough path towards the cabin, but midway I came to a fallen tree. It must have been down a week or more, but no attempt had been made to clear the trail or to cut through, so, pushing up over the matted boughs, I leaped from the bole to avoid the litter beyond. At the same instant I saw under me, wedged in the broken branches, the body of my bear. He was a huge grizzly, and must have made an easy and ugly target as he lumbered across the barricade. I found one bullet had taken him nearly between the eyes, while another had lodged in the shoulder. And it was plain the shots were aimed from the window, with the rifle probably resting on the sill.
"As I went on up the path, the loud baying of a dog came from the cabin, then a woman's face, young and small and very white, appeared at the window. Seeing me, she turned quickly and threw open the door. The next instant her hand fell to the neck of a fine Gordon setter and, tugging at his collar, she drew back and stood surveying me from head to foot. 'It's all right, madam,' I said, stopping before her. 'Don't try to hold him. The bear won't trouble you any more. You made a mighty fine shot.'
"'Oh,' she said, and let the dog go, 'I am so glad you have come.' And she sank into a chair, shaking and sobbing."
"You mean," exclaimed Miss Armitage breathlessly, "it was she who killed the bear?"
Tisdale nodded gently. "I wish I could make you understand the situation. She was not a sportswoman. She was city bred and had been carefully reared—accustomed to have things done for her. I saw this at a glance. Only her extremity and the fear that the dog would be hurt nerved her to shoot."
"Oh, I see, I see," said Miss Armitage. "Fate had brought her, left her in that solitary place—alone."
"Fate?" Tisdale questioned. "Well, perhaps, but not maliciously; not in jest. On second thought I would not lay it to Fate at all. You see, she had come voluntarily, willingly, though blindly enough. She was one of the few women who are capable of a great love."
Tisdale waited, but the woman beside him had no more to say. "I saw I must give her time to gather her self-control," he went on, "so I turned my attention to the setter, who was alternately springing on me and excitedly wagging his tail. I like a good dog, and I soon had him familiarly snuffing my pockets; then he stretched himself playfully, with an inquiring, almost human yawn; but suddenly remembering the bear, he stood pointing, head up, forepaw lifted, and made a rush, baying furiously.
"'It's all right, madam,' I repeated and stepped into the room. 'You made a fine shot, and that bearskin is going to make a great rug for your floor.'
"She lifted her face, downing a last sob, and gave me a brave little smile. 'It isn't altogether the bear,' she explained. 'It's partly because I haven't seen any one for so long, and partly because, for a moment, I thought you were my husband. I've been worried about him. He has been gone over three weeks, and he never stayed longer than five days before. But it was a relief to have you come.'
"It sounds differently when I repeat it. You lose the sweet shyness of her face, the appeal in her eyes not yet dry, and that soft minor chord in her voice that reminds me now of a wood-thrush.
"'I understand,' I hurried to say, 'the solitude has grown intolerable. I know what that means, I have lived so long in the eternal stillness sometimes that the first patter of a rain on the leaves came like the tramp of an army, and the snapping of a twig rang sharp as a pistol shot.'
"'You do understand,' she said. 'You have been through it. And, of course, you see my husband had to leave me. The trail up the canyon is the merest thread. It would have been impossible for me, and I should have only hindered him, now, when every day counts.'
"'You mean,' I said, 'he has left his placer to prospect for the main lode above?' And she answered yes. That every gravel bar made a better showing; the last trip had taken him above the tree line, and this time he expected to prospect along the glacier at the source of the stream. Sometimes erosions laid veins open, and any hour 'he might stumble on riches.' She smiled again, though her lip trembled, then said it was his limited outfit that troubled her most. He had taken only a light blanket and a small allowance of bacon and bread.
"'But,' I reassured her, 'there is almost a certainty he has found game at this season of the year.'
"She looked at the rifle she had set by the window against the wall. 'I haven't been able to persuade him to take the gun,' she explained, 'for a long time. He doesn't hunt any more.' She stopped, watching me, and locked her slim hands. Then, 'He is greatly changed,' she went on. 'The last time he came home, he hardly noticed me. He spent the whole evening sitting with his eyes fixed on the floor—without a word. And the next morning, before I was awake, he was gone.'
"At last her real fear was clear to me. There is a terrible fascination about those Alaska gold streams. Each gravel bar has just showing enough to lead a man on and on. He hugs the belief from hour to hour he is on the brink of a great find, until he has eyes for nothing but the colors in the sand. He forgets hunger, weariness, everything, and finally, if rescue fails him, he sinks in complete collapse. More than once I had come on such a wreck, straying demented, babbling, all but famished in the hills. And I was sorry for that little woman. I understood the pitch she must have reached to speak so freely to a passing stranger. But it was hard to find just the right thing to say, and while I stood choosing words, she hurried to explain that two days before she had taken the dog and tramped up-stream as far as she had dared, hoping to meet her husband, and that she had intended to go even farther that day, but had been prevented, as I saw, by the bear, who had prowled about the cabin the greater part of the night. The setter's continual barking and growling had failed to drive him away.
"'If you had gone this morning,' I said, 'I should have missed you; then I shouldn't have known about your husband. I am on my way up this canyon, and I shall look for him. And, when I find him, I shall do my best to bring him in touch with the outside world again.'"
Tisdale paused. The abrupt slope that over-topped the portable cabin began to take shape in the darkness. It had the appearance of a sail looming through fog. Then the shadows scattered, and the belated moon, lifting over the dunes beyond the Columbia, silvered the mouth of the gorge. It was as though that other distant canyon, of which he was thinking, opened before him into unknown solitudes.
Miss Armitage leaned forward, watching his face, waiting for the issue of the story.
"And you found him?" she asked at last.
"Yes. In the end." Tisdale's glance returned and, meeting hers, the grim lines in his face relaxed. "But there was a long and rough tramp first. She urged me to take the setter, and I saw the advantage in having a good dog with me on such a search; any cleft, or thicket, or sprinkle of boulders, might easily conceal a man's body from one passing only a few feet off—but, much as he favored me, he was not to be coaxed far from his mistress; so I suggested she should go, too.
"'Oh,' she said, catching at the chance, 'do you think Jerry can make up for the delay, if I do? I will travel my best, I promise you.' And she led the way, picking up the faint trail and setting a pace that I knew must soon tire her, while the dog brushed by us, bounding ahead and rushing back and expressing his satisfaction in all sorts of manoeuvers.
"In a little while, above the timber—the tree line is low on those Alaska mountainsides—we came to a broad, grassy bog set deep between two spurs, and she was forced to give me the lead. Then the canyon walls grew steeper, lifting into rugged knobs. Sometimes I lost the prospector's trail in a rock-choked torrent and picked it up again, where it hung like a thin ribbon on a heather-grown slope; but it never wound or doubled if there was foothold ahead. It led up stairs of graywacke, along the brink of slaty cliffs that dropped sheer, hundreds of feet to the stream below. Still she kept on pluckily, and whenever I turned to help her, I found her there at my elbow, ready. Now and then in breadths of level, where it was possible to walk abreast, we talked a little, but most of the distance was covered in silence. I felt more and more sorry for her. She was so eager, patient, watchful, forever scanning the pitches on either side. And if the setter made a sudden break, scenting a bare perhaps, or starting a ptarmigan, she always stopped, waiting with a light in her face; and when he jogged back to her heels, the expectation settled into patience again.
"Finally we came to a rill where I urged her to rest; and when I had spread my blanket on a boulder, she took the seat, leaning comfortably against a higher rock, and watched me while I opened the tin box in which Sandy had stored my lunch. She told me my cook made a good sandwich and knew how to fry a bird Southern fashion. Then she spoke of the Virginia town where she had lived before her marriage. The trip west had been her wedding journey, and her husband, who was an architect, had intended to open an office in a new town on Puget Sound, but at Seattle he caught the Alaska fever.
"'The future looked very certain and brilliant then,' she said, with her smile, 'but as long as I have my husband, nothing else counts. I could live out my life, be happy here in this wilderness, anywhere, with him. If I could only have him back—as he used to be.'"
Tisdale's voice softened, vibrating gently, so that the pathos of it all must have impressed the coldest listener. The woman beside him trembled and lifted her hand to her throat.
"I can't remember all she told me," he went on, "but her husband had left her in Seattle when he started north, and the next season, when he failed to return for her, she had sailed to Seward in search of him. She had tried to influence him to give up the placer, when she saw the change in him; at least to go down to one of the coast towns and take up the work for which he had prepared, but he had delayed, with promises, until he was beyond listening to her.
"'Of course he may stumble on riches any hour, as he believes,' she said finally, 'but not all the comforts or luxuries in the world are worth the price.' She did not break down, as she had in the cabin, but somehow I could hear the tears falling in her voice. I can yet, and see them big and shining deep in her eyes.
"But she was off again, making up the delay, before I could fasten my pack, and when I overtook her in a level stretch and halted a moment to frolic with the dog, her face brightened. Then she spoke of a little trick she had taught him,—to go and meet his master and fetch his hat to her. Sometimes she had hidden it in shrubs, or among rocks, but invariably he had brought it home.
"At last we made a turn and saw the front of the glacier that closed the top of the gorge. The stream gushed from a cavern at the foot, and above the noise of water sounded the grinding and roaring of subterranean forces at work. Once in a while a stone was hurled through. But that is impossible to explain. You must have been on intimate terms with a glacier to grasp the magnitude. Still, try to imagine the ice arching that cave like a bridge and lifting back, rimmed in moraine, far and away to the great white dome. And it was all wrapped in a fine Alpine splendor, so that she stopped beside me in a sort of hushed wonder to look. But I could hear her breath, laboring hard and quick, and she rocked uncertainly on her feet. I laid my hand on her arm to steady her. It was time we turned back. For half an hour I had been gathering courage to tell her so. While I hesitated, allowing her a few minutes to take in the glory, the setter ran nosing ahead, up over the wreckage along the edge of the glacier, and on across the bridge. I waited until he disappeared in a small pocket, then began: 'You know, madam, what all this color means. These twilights linger, and it will be easier traveling down-grade, but we must hurry, to have you home before dark.'
"She turned to answer but stopped, looking beyond me to the bridge. Then I saw the setter had caught her attention. He was coming back. His black body moved in strong relief against the ice-field, and I noticed he had something in his mouth. It seemed about the size and color of a grouse,—a ptarmigan, no doubt. Then it flashed over me the thing was a hat. At the same moment I felt her tremble, and I had just time to see that her face had gone white, when she sank against me, a dead weight. I carried her a few yards to a bank of heather and laid her down, and while I was filling my folding cup at the stream, the dog bounded over the rocks and dropped the thing on her breast. It was a hat, a gray felt with a good brim, such as a prospector, or indeed any man who lives in the open, favors; but the setter's actions,—he alternately rushed towards the glacier and back to his mistress, with short yelps,—warned me to be careful, and I tucked the hat out of sight, between two stones. The dog had it out instantly, bent on giving it to her, but I snatched it from him and threw it into the torrent, where it struck upright, floating lightly on the brim, and lodged in a shallow. He followed and came bounding back with it, while I was raising the cup to her lips, and I had barely a chance to crowd it into my blanket roll when she opened her eyes. 'He had Louis' hat,' she said and drifted into unconsciousness again.
"I took my flask from my pocket and, blaming myself for bringing her that hard trip, mixed a draught. It revived her, and in a moment she started up. 'Where is the hat?' she asked, looking about her. 'Jerry had it on the ice-bridge.'
"At the sound of her voice, the dog, who had been trying to get at the hat, commenced his manoeuvers to attract her across the gorge, bounding ahead, calling her with his short, excited barks, and making all the signs of a hunting dog impatient to lead to the quarry. She tried to get to her feet, but I put my hand on her shoulder. 'Wait, madam,' I said. 'You must rest a little longer before you try to start back. You were so tired you fainted. And your eyes must have played you a trick.'
"'You mean,' she began and stopped.
"I am not much of a dissembler, and I found it hard to meet her look, but I answered with all the assurance I could muster. 'I mean, madam, you are mistaken about that hat.'
"She waited a moment, watching the setter, then her glance moved back incredulously to me. 'Then what excites Jerry?' she asked.
"'Why,' I hurried to answer, 'just another bunch, of ptarmigan, probably. But while you are resting here, I will go over into that pocket to satisfy him.'
"The setter, content with my company, ran ahead, and I followed him across the ice-bridge. The pocket was thickly strewn with broken rock, but at the upper end there was a clear space grown with heather. And it was there, as I feared, between a bluff and a solitary thumb-shaped boulder that the dog had found his master."
Tisdale paused, looking off again with clouding brows to the stormy heights. Eastward the moon in a clear sky threw a soft illumination on the desert. The cry of the cougar had ceased. The electrical display was less brilliant; it seemed farther off. Miss Armitage moved a little and waited, watching his face.
"But of course," she ventured at last, "you mixed another draught from your emergency flask. The stimulant saved his life."
"No." Tisdale's glance came slowly back. "He was beyond any help. A square of canvas was set obliquely on the glacier side, and that and the blanket which covered him proved the place was his camp; but the only traces of food were a few cracker or bread crumbs in a trap made of twigs, and a marmot skin and a bunch of ptarmigan feathers to show the primitive contrivance had worked. There was no wood in the neighborhood, but the ashes of a small fire showed he must have carried fuel from the belt of spruce half-way down the gorge. If he had made such a trip and not gone on to the cabin, it clearly proved his mental condition. Still in the end there had been a glimmer of light, for he had torn a leaf from his notebook and written first his wife's name and then a line, out of which I was only able to pick the words 'give' and 'help' and 'States.' Evidently he had tried to put the paper into his poke, which had dropped, untied, from his hand with the pencil he had used. The sack was nearly full; it had fallen upright in a fold of the blanket, so only a little of the gold, which was very coarse and rough and bright, had spilled. I made all this inventory almost at a glance, and saw directly he had left his pan and shovel in the gravels of a stream that cascaded over the wall and through the pocket to join the creek below the glacier. Then it came over me that I must keep the truth from her until she was safely back at the cabin, and I put the poke in my pocket and hurried to do what I could.
"The setter hampered me and was frantic when I turned away, alternately following me a few yards, whining and begging, and rushing back to his master. Finally he stopped on the farther side of the ice-bridge and set up a prolonged cry. His mistress had come to meet me and she waited at the crossing, supporting herself with her hands on a great boulder, shoulders forward, breath hushed, watching me with her soul in her eyes. At last I reached her. 'Madam,' I began, but the words caught in my throat. I turned and looked up at the splendor on the mountain. The air drew sharp across the ice, but a sudden heat swept me; I was wet with perspiration from head to foot. 'Madam,' and I forced myself to meet her eyes, 'it is just as I expected; the dog found—nothing.'
"She straightened herself slowly, still watching me, then suddenly threw her arms against the rock and dropped her face. 'Come,' I said, 'we must start back. Come, I want to hurry through to my camp for a horse.'
"This promise was all she needed to call up her supreme self-control, and she lifted her face with a smile that cut me worse than any tears. 'I'm not ungrateful,' she said, 'but—I felt so sure, from the first, you would find him.'
"'And you felt right,' I hurried to answer. 'Trust me to bring him through.'
"I whistled the setter, and she called repeatedly, but he refused to follow. When we started down the trail, he watched us from his post at the farther end of the ice-bridge, whining and baying, and the moment she stopped at the first turn to look back, he streaked off once more for that pocket. 'Never mind,' I said, and helped her over a rough place, 'Jerry knows he is a good traveler. He will be home before you.' But it was plain to me he would not, and try as I might to hurry her out of range of his cry, it belled again soon, and the cliffs caught it over and over and passed it on to us far down the gorge."
There was one of those speaking silences in which the great heart of the man found expression, and the woman beside him, following his gaze, sifted the cloudy Pass. She seemed in that moment to see that other canyon, stretching down from the glacier, and those two skirting the edge of cliffs, treading broken stairs, pursued by the cry of the setter into the gathering gloom of the Arctic night.
"It grew very cold in that gorge," he went on, "and I blamed myself for taking her that trip more and more. She never complained, never stopped, except to look back and listen for the dog, but shadows deepened under her eyes; the patient lines seemed chiseled where they had been only lightly drawn, and when she caught me watching her and coaxed up her poor little smile, I could have picked her up in my arms and carried her the rest of the way. But we reached the tree-line before she came to her limit. It was at the turn in a cliff, and I stopped, looking down across the tops of a belt of spruce, to locate the cabin. 'There it is,' I said. 'You see that little brown patch down there in the blur of green. That is your house. You are almost home.'
"She moved a step to see better and stumbled, and she only saved herself by catching my arm in both hands. Then her whole body fell to shaking. I felt unnerved a little, for that matter. It was a dangerous place. I had been recklessly foolish to delay her there. But when I had found a safe seat for her around the cliff, the shivering kept up, chill after chill, and I mixed a draught for her, as I had at the glacier.
"'This will warm your blood,' I said, holding the cup for her. 'Come, madam, we must fight the cold off for another hour; that should see you home. After I have made a good fire, I am going to show you what a fine little supper I can prepare. Bear steaks at this season are prime.'
"I laughed to encourage her, and because the chills were still obstinate, I hurried to unstrap my blanket to wrap around her. And I only remembered the hat when it dropped at her feet. She did not cry out but sat like a marble woman, with her eyes fixed on it. Then, after a while, she bent and lifted it and began to shape it gently with her numb little fingers. She was beyond tears, and the white stillness of her face made me more helpless than any sobbing. I could think of nothing to say to comfort her and turned away, looking off in the direction of the cabin. It seemed suddenly a long distance off.
"Finally she spoke, slowly at first, convincing herself. 'Jerry did bring it across the ice-bridge. He found Louis and stayed to watch, as I thought. Sir, now tell me the truth.'
"I turned back to her, and it came bluntly enough. Then I explained it was not an accident or anything terrible; that the end had come easily, probably the previous night, of heart failure. 'But I couldn't nerve myself to tell you up there,' I said, 'with all those miles of hard travel before you; and I am going back to-morrow, as I promised, to bring him through.'
"She had nothing to say but rose and held out her hand. In a little while I began to lead her down through the belt of spruce. I moved very slowly, choosing steps, for she paid no attention to her footing. Her hand rested limply in mine, and she stumbled, like one whose light has gone out in a dark place."
Tisdale's story was finished, but Miss Armitage waited, listening. It was as though in the silence she heard his unexpressed thoughts.
"But her life was wrecked," she said at last. "She never could forget. Think of it! The terror of those weeks; the long-drawn suspense. She should not have stayed in Alaska. She should have gone home at the beginning. She was not able to help her husband. Her influence was lost."
"True," Tisdale answered slowly. "Long before that day I found her, she must have known it was a losing fight. But the glory of the battle is not always to the victor. And she blamed herself that she had not gone north with her husband at the start. You see she loved him, and love with that kind of woman means self-sacrifice; she counted it a privilege to have been there, to have faced the worst with him, done what she could."
Miss Armitage straightened, lifting her head with that movement of a flower shaken on its stem. "Every woman owes it to herself to keep her self-respect," she said. "She owes it to her family—the past and future generations of her race—to make the most of her life."
"And she made the most of hers," responded Tisdale quickly. "That was her crowning year." He hesitated, then said quietly, with his upward look from under slightly frowning brows: "And it was just that reason, the debt to her race, that buoyed her all the way through. It controlled her there at the glacier and gave her strength to turn back, when the setter refused to come. Afterwards, in mid-winter, when news of the birth of her son came down from Seward, I understood."
An emotion like a transparent shadow crossed his listener's face. "That changes everything," she said. "But of course you returned the next day with a horse to do as you promised, and afterwards helped her out to civilization."
"I saw Louis Barbour buried, yes." Tisdale's glance traveled off again to the distant Pass. "We chose a low mound, sheltered by a solitary spruce, between the cabin and the creek, and I inscribed his name and the date on the trunk of the tree. But my time belonged to the Government. I had a party in the field, and the Alaska season is short. It fell to David Weatherbee to see her down to Seward."
"To David Weatherbee?" Miss Armitage started. Protest fluctuated with the surprise in her voice. "But I see, I see!" and she settled back in her seat. "You sent him word. He had known her previously."
"No. When I left him early in the spring, he intended to prospect down the headwaters of the Susitna, you remember, and I was carrying my surveys back from the lower valley. We were working toward each other, and I expected to meet him any day. In fact, I had mail for him at my camp that had come by way of Seward, so I hardly was surprised the next morning, when I made the last turn below the glacier with my horse to see old Weatherbee coming over the ice-bridge.
"He had made a discovery at the source of that little tributary, where the erosion of the glacier had opened a rich vein, and on following the stream through graywackes and slate to the first gravelled fissure, he had found the storage plant for his placer gold. He was on his way out to have the claim recorded and get supplies and mail when he heard the baying setter and, rounding the mouth of the pocket, saw the camp and the dead prospector. Afterwards, when he had talked with the woman waiting down the canyon, he asked to see her husband's poke and compared the gold with the sample he had panned. It was the same, coarse and rough, with little scraps of quartz clinging to the bigger flakes sometimes, and he insisted the strike was Barbour's. He tried to persuade her to make the entry, but she refused, and finally they compromised with a partnership."
"So they were partners." Miss Armitage paused, then went on with a touch of frostiness: "And they traveled those miles of wilderness alone, for days together, out to the coast."
"Yes." Tisdale's glance, coming back, challenged hers. "Sometimes the wilderness enforces a social code of her own. Miss Armitage,"—his voice vibrated softly,—"I wish you had known David Weatherbee. But imagine Sir Galahad, that whitest knight of the whole Round Table, Sir Galahad on that Alaska trail, to-day. And Weatherbee was doubly anxious to reach Seward. There was a letter from his wife in that packet of mail I gave him. She had written she was taking the opportunity to travel as far as Seward with some friends, who were making the summer tour of the coast. But he was ready to cut the trip into short and easy stages to see Mrs. Barbour through. 'It's all right,' he said at the start. 'Leave it to me. I am going to take this lady to my wife.'"
"And—at Seward?" questioned Miss Armitage, breaking the pause.
"At Seward his wife failed him. But he rented a snug cottage of some people going out to the States and had the good fortune to find a motherly woman, who knew something about nursing, to stay with Mrs. Barbour. It was Christmas when her father arrived from Virginia to help her home, and it was spring before she was able to make the sea voyage as far as Seattle."
"Expenses, in those new, frontier towns, are so impossible; I hope her father was able"—she halted, then added hurriedly, flushing under Tisdale's searching eyes, "but, of course, in any case, he reimbursed Mr. Weatherbee."
"He did, you may be sure, if there was any need. But you have forgotten that poke of Barbour's. There was dust enough to have carried her through even an Alaska winter; but an old Nevada miner, on the strength of that showing, paid her twenty thousand dollars outright for her interest in the claim."
Miss Armitage drew a deep breath. "And David Weatherbee, too? He sold his share—did he not—and stayed on at Seward?"
"Yes, he wasted the best weeks of the season in Seward, waiting for his wife. But she never came. She wrote she had changed her mind. He showed me that letter one night at the close of the season when he stopped at my camp on his way back to the Tanana. It was short but long enough to remind him there were accounts pressing; one particularly that she called a 'debt of honor.' She hadn't specified, but I guessed directly she had been accepting loans from her friends, and I saw it was that that had worried him. To raise the necessary money, he had been obliged to realize on the new placer. His partner had been waiting to go in to the claim with him, and Weatherbee's sudden offer to sell made the mining man suspicious. He refused to buy at any price. Then David found an old prospector whom he had once befriended and made a deal with him. It was five hundred dollars down, and two thousand out of the first year's clean-up. And he sent all of the ready money to her and started in to make a new stake below Discovery. But the inevitable stampede had followed on the Nevada man's heels, and the strike turned out small.
"It was one of those rich pockets we find sometimes along a glacier that make fortunes for the first men, while the rank and file pan out defeat and disappointment. There was the quartz body above, stringers and veins of it reaching through the graywackes and slate, but to handle it Weatherbee must set up a stamp-mill; and only a line of pack-mules from the Andes, and another line of steamships could transport the ore to the nearest smelter, on Puget Sound. So—he took up the long trek northward again, to the Tanana. Think of it! The irony of it!"
Tisdale rose and turned on the step to look down at her. The light from the lantern intensified the furrows between his brooding eyes. "And think what it meant to Weatherbee to have seen, as he had, day after day, hour after hour, the heart of another man's wife laid bare, while to his own he himself was simply a source of revenue."
Miss Armitage too rose and stood meeting his look. Her lip trembled a little, but the blue lights flamed in her eyes. "You believe that," she said, and her voice dropped into an unexpected note. "You believe he threw away that rich discovery for the few hundreds of dollars he sent his wife; but I know—she was told—differently. She thought he was glad to—escape— at so small a price. He wrote he was glad she had reconsidered that trip; Alaska was no place for her."
"Madam," Tisdale remonstrated softly, "you couldn't judge David Weatherbee literally by his letters. If you had ever felt his personality, you would have caught the undercurrent, deep and strong, sweeping between the lines. It wasn't himself that counted; it was what was best for her. You couldn't estimate him by other men; he stood, like your white mountain, alone above the crowd. And he set a pedestal higher than himself and raised his wife there to worship and glorify. A word from her at any time would have turned the balance and brought him home; her presence, her sympathy, even that last season at the Aurora mine, would have brought him through. I wish you had seen his face that day I met him below the glacier and had told him about the woman waiting down the gorge. 'My God, Tisdale,' he said, 'suppose it had been my wife.'"
Miss Armitage stood another moment, locking her hands one over the other in a tightening grip. Her lip trembled again, but the words failed. She turned and walked uncertainly the few steps to the end of the porch.
"You believe she might have influenced him, but I do not. Oh, I see, I see, how you have measured him by your own great heart. But"—she turned towards him and went on slowly, her voice fluctuating in little, steadying pauses—"even if you were right, you might be generous; you might try to imagine her side. Suppose she had not guessed his—need—of her; been able to read, as you did, between the lines. Sometimes a woman waits to be told. A proud woman does." She came back the few steps. "Beatriz Weatherbee isn't the kind of woman you think she is. She has faults, of course, but she has tried to make the best of her life. If she made a mistake—or thought she had—no one else knew it. She braved it through. She's been high-strung, too."
Tisdale put up his hand. "Don't say any more; don't try to excuse her to me. It's of no use. Good night." But a few feet from the porch he stopped to add, less grimly: "I should have said good morning. You see how that pyramid stands out against that pale streak of horizon. There is only time for a nap before sunrise. Day is breaking."
She was silent, but something in the intensity of her gaze, the unspoken appeal that had also a hint of dread, the stillness of her small face, white in the uncertain light when so lately he had seen it sparkle and glow, brought him back.
"I've tired you out," he said. "I shouldn't have told you that story. But this outlook to-night reminded me of that other canyon, and I thought it might help to bridge over the time. There's nothing can tide one through an unpleasant situation like hearing about some one who fared worse. And I hadn't meant to go so far into details. I'm sorry," and he held out his hand, "but it was your interest, sympathy, something about you, that drew me on."
She did not answer directly. She seemed to need the moment to find her voice and bring it under control. Then, "Any one must have been interested," she said, and drew away her hand. "You have the story-teller's gift. And I want to thank you for making it all so clear to me; it was a revelation."
THE DUNES OF THE COLUMBIA
Behind them, as Tisdale drove down, the heights they had crossed were still shrouded in thunder-caps, but before them the end of the Wenatchee range lifted clear-cut, in a mighty promontory, from the face of the desert. Already the morning sun gave a promise of heat, and as the bays rounded a knoll, Miss Armitage raised her hands to shade her eyes.
"What color!" she exclaimed. "How barbarous! How ages old! But don't say this is the Columbia, Mr. Tisdale. I know it is the Nile. Those are the ruins of Thebes. In a moment we shall see the rest of the pyramids and the Sphinx."
Tisdale brought the horses around a sand-pit in the road which began to parallel the river, rolling wide and swift and intensely blue, where the rapids ceased, then he glanced at the other shore, where fantastic columns and broken walls of granite rose like a ruined city through a red glory.
"It is worth coming from New York to see, but you have traveled abroad. Do you know, that disappoints me. A true American should see America first."
"Then I confess." The girl laughed softly. "I haven't been nearer the Nile than a lantern-slide lecture and the moving-picture show. But my father knew Egypt when he was a boy; maybe I've inherited some memories, too."
Her enthusiasm was irresistible. Looking into her glowing face, the mirth-provoking lines broke and re-formed at the corners of his own mouth and eyes.
"But," he explained after a moment, "this desert of the Columbia is not old; it's tremendously new; so new that Nature hasn't had time to take the scaffolding away. You know—do you not—this was all once a great inland sea? Countless glacial streams brought wash down from the mountains, filling the shallows with the finest alluvial earth. Then, in some big upheaval, one or perhaps several of these volcanic peaks poured down a strata of lava and ash. As the ice tongues receded, the streams gradually dried; only the larger ones, fed far back in the range, are left to-day."
"How interesting!" Her glance swept upward and backward along the heights and returned to the levels. "And naturally, as the bed of the sea was laid bare, these last streams found the lowest depression, the channel of the Columbia."
Her quickness, her evident desire to grasp the great scheme of things, which other women received with poorly veiled indifference, often hurried to evade, warmed his scientist soul. "Yes," he answered, "Nature remembered, while she was busy, to construct the main flume. She might as well have said, when it was finished: 'Here are some garden tracts I reclaimed for you. Now get to work; show what you can do.'"
"And are you going to?" Her voice caught a little; she watched his face covertly yet expectantly, her breath arrested, with parted lips.
"Perhaps. I am on my way to find a certain garden spot that belonged to David Weatherbee. He knew more about reclamation than I, for he grew up among your California orchards, but I have the plans he drew; I ought to be able to see his project through."
"You mean you may buy the land, Mr. Tisdale, if—things—are as you expect?"
"Yes, provided I have Mrs. Weatherbee's price."
"What do you consider the tract is worth?"
"I couldn't make a fair estimate before I have been over the ground. Seattle promoters are listing Wenatchee fruit lands now, but the Weatherbee tract is off the main valley. Still, the railroad passes within a few miles, and the property must have made some advance since he bought the quarter section. That was over nine years ago. He was a student at Stanford then and spent a summer vacation up here in the Cascades with a party of engineers who were running surveys for the Great Northern. One day he was riding along a high ridge at the top of one of those arid gulfs, when he came to a bubbling spring. It was so cool and pleasant up there above the desert heat that he set up a little camp of his own in the shade of some pine trees that rimmed the pool, and the rest of the season he rode to and from his work. Then he began to see the possibilities of that alluvial pocket under irrigation, and before he went back to college he secured the quarter section. That was his final year, and he expected to return the next summer and open the project. But his whole future was changed by that unfortunate marriage. His wife was not the kind of woman to follow him into the desert and share inevitable discomfort and hardship until his scheme should mature. He began to plan a little Eden for her at the core, and to secure more capital he went to Alaska. He hoped to make a rich strike and come back in a year or two with plenty of money to hurry the project through. You know how near he came to it once, and why he failed. And that was not the only time. But every year he stayed in the north, his scheme took a stronger hold on him. He used to spend long Arctic nights elaborating, making over his plans. He thought and brooded on them so much that finally, when the end came, up there in the Chugach snows, he set up an orchard of spruce twigs—"
"I know, I know," interrupted Miss Armitage. "Please don't tell it over again. I—can't—bear it." And she sank against the back of the seat, shuddering, and covered her eyes with her hands.
Tisdale looked at her, puzzled. "Again?" he repeated. "But I see you must have heard the story through Mr. Feversham. I told it at the clubhouse the night he was in Seattle."
"It's impossible to explain; you never could understand." She sat erect, but Tisdale felt her body tremble, and she went on swiftly, with little breaks and catches: "You don't know the hold your story has on me. I've dreamed it all over at night; I've wakened cold and wet with perspiration from head to foot, as though I—too—were struggling through those frozen solitudes. I've been afraid to sleep sometimes, the dread of facing—it— is so strong."
Watching her, a sudden tenderness rose through the wonder in Tisdale's face.
"So you dreamed you were fighting it through with me; that's strange. But I see the story was too hard for you; Feversham shouldn't have told it." He paused and his brows clouded. "I wish I could make Weatherbee's wife dream it," he broke out. "It might teach her what he endured. I have gone over the ground with her in imagination, mile after mile, that long trek from Nome. I have seen her done for, whimpering in a corner, like the weakest husky in the team, there at the Aurora mine, and at her limit again up in Rainy Pass. And once lately, the night of the club supper, while I was lying awake in my room, looking off through the window to the harbor lights and the stars, I heard her crying deeply from the heart. She did not seem like herself then, but a different woman I was mighty sorry for."
Miss Armitage turned and met his look, questioning, hardly comprehending. "That sounds occult," she said.
"Does it? Well, perhaps it is. But a man who has lived in the big spaces has his senses sharpened. He sees farther; feels more."
There was a silent moment. The colts, topping a low dune, felt the pressure of the fills on the down-grade, and the nigh horse broke, turning the front wheel into a tangle of sage. "Mr. Tisdale," she cried a little tremulously, "do you think this is a catboat, tacking into a squall? Please, please let me drive."
Her effort was supreme. It relieved the tension, and when the change was made, she drew to the edge of the seat, holding her head high like that intrepid flower to which he had compared her.
"You mean," she said evenly, "the terrible silence of your big spaces keys up the subjective mind. That, of course, was the trouble with Mrs. Barbour's husband. He allowed it to dominate him. But a man like you"—and she gave him her swift, direct look, and the shadow of a smile touched her mouth—"well-balanced, strong, would have kept the danger down. I should never be afraid—for you. But," she hurried on, "I can understand too how in the great solitudes some men are drawn together. You have shown me. I did not know before I heard your story how much a man can endure for a friend—and sacrifice."
Tisdale looked off over the desert. "Friendship up there does mean something," he answered quietly. "Mere companionship in the Alaska wilderness is a test. I don't know whether it's the darkness of those interminable winters, or the monotony that plays on a man's nerves, but I have seen the closest partners get beyond speaking to each other. It's a life to bring out the good and the bad in a man; a life to make men hate; and it can forge two men together. But David Weatherbee never had an enemy. He never failed a man. In a crisis he was great. If things had been reversed"—he set his lips, his face hardened—"if Weatherbee had been in my place, there at Nome, with a letter of mine in his hands, he wouldn't have thrown away those four days."
"Yes, he would. Consider. He must have taken time to prepare for that terrible journey. How else could he have carried it through?" She leaned forward a little, compelling his glance, trying to reason down the tragedy in his face.
"How can you blame yourself?" she finished brokenly. "You must not. I will not—let you."
"Thank you for saying that." Tisdale's rugged features worked. He laid his hand for an instant over hers. "If any one in the world can set me right with myself, it is you."
After that they both were silent. They began to round the bold promontory at the end of the Wenatchee range; the Badger loomed on the rim of the desert, then Old Baldy seemed to swing his sheer front like an opened portal to let the blue flood of the Columbia through. The interest crept back to her face. Between them and those guardian peaks a steel bridge, fine as a spider web, was etched on the river, then a first orchard broke the areas of sage, the rows of young trees radiating from a small, new dwelling, like a geometrical pattern. Finally she said: "I would like to know a little more about Mrs. Barbour. Did you ever see her again, Mr. Tisdale? Or the child?"
"Oh, yes. I made it a point the next winter, when I was in Washington, to run down into Virginia and look them up. And I have always kept in touch with them. She sends me new pictures of the boy every year. He keeps her busy. He was a rugged little chap at the start, did his best to grow, and bright!"—Tisdale paused, shaking his head, while the humorous lines deepened—"But he had to be vigorous to carry the name she gave him. Did I tell you it was Weatherbee Tisdale? Think of shouldering the names of two full-sized men on that atom. But she picked a nice diminutive out of it— 'Bee.'
"It was a great christening party," he went on reminiscently. "She arranged it when she passed through Seattle and had several hours to wait for her train. The ceremony was at Trinity, that stone church on the first hill, and the Bishop of Alaska, who was waiting too, officiated. I was in town at the time, getting my outfit together for another season in the north, but Weatherbee had to assume his responsibilities by proxy."
"Do you mean David Weatherbee was the child's godfather?"
"One of them, yes." Tisdale paused, and his brows clouded. "I wish the boy had been his own. That would have been his salvation. If David Weatherbee had had a son, he would be here with us now, to-day."
Miss Armitage was silent. She looked off up the unfolding watercourse, and the great weariness Tisdale had noticed that hour before dawn settled again on her face.
He laid his hand on the reins. "You are tired out," he said. "Come, give the lines to me. You've deceived me with all that fine show of spirits, but I've been selfish, or I must have seen. The truth is, I've been humoring this hand."
"You mean," she said quickly, "this vixen did hurt you yesterday more than you would admit?"
"Oh, no, but the friction of the reins can make even a scratch uncomfortable after a while, and my glove is getting tight. A little peroxide, when we reach a pharmacy, will fix it all right."
But Miss Armitage watched him doubtfully. She assured him she was not tired and that she loved to drive. Had she not told him so at the start? Then, as they left the promontory, her glance followed the road ahead. The bridge was no longer fine as a spider web; it was a railroad crossing of steel, and the long eaves of the Great Northern depot lifted near, flanked by the business blocks of a town. "Wenatchee!" she exclaimed; and wavering, asked: "Isn't this Wenatchee?"
"Yes, Miss Armitage, I am afraid that it is. You are back to civilization. A few minutes more and, if you will give me their address, you will be safe with your friends."
"I did not say I had any friends in Wenatchee, Mr. Tisdale. I am going on to Hesperides Vale. But please leave me at any quiet hotel. I can't thank you enough for all your kindness and patience," she went on hurriedly. "For making this trip possible. All I can hope to do is share the expense." And she found the inside pocket of her coat and drew out a small silver purse.
Tisdale, driving slowly, divided his attention between his team and the buildings on either side. "There is a public garage," he said, "and a rival establishment opposite. You will have no trouble to finish your trip by automobile, as you planned. It will be pleasant making the run up the valley this evening, when it is cool."
Miss Armitage opened her purse. "The rates must be considerably higher on a rough mountain road than on the Seattle boulevard, and, of course, one couldn't expect to hire Nip and Tuck at ordinary rates."
Tisdale drew in, hesitating, before a hotel, then relaxed the reins. "The building seems modern, but we may find a quiet little inn up some side street with more shade."
"I presume you will drive on up the valley," she said, after a moment, "and start back to Kittitas to-morrow. Or will it be necessary to rest the team a day?"
"I shall drive on to that tract of Weatherbee's this afternoon; but I expect to take the westbound train to-night, somewhere up the valley."
"I see," she said quickly and tried to cover her dismay, "you intend to ship the team back to Kittitas by way of Seattle. I'm afraid"—her voice broke a little, the color flushed pinkly to her forehead, her ears, and her glance fell to the purse in her lap—"but please tell me the charges."
"Madam," and the ready humor crinkled the corners of his mouth, "when I ship these horses back to Lighter, he is going to pay the freight."
She drew a quick breath of relief, but her purse remained open, and she waited, regarding Tisdale with an expectant, disconcerting side-glance of her half-veiled eyes. "And the day rates for the use of the team?" she asked.
For a moment he was busy turning the horses. They had reached a second hotel, but it proved less inviting than the first, and the side streets they had crossed afforded no quiet inn, or indeed any dwelling in the shade. "After all," he said, "a room and bath on the north side, with windows looking up the Columbia, should make you fairly comfortable through the heat of the day." But the girl waited, and when his eyes fell to that open purse, his own color burned through the tan. There was no help for it; she must know the truth. He squared his shoulders, turning a little toward her. "There are no expenses to share, Miss Armitage. I— happened to own this team, and since we were traveling the same way, I was glad to offer you this vacant seat."
"Do you mean you bought these horses—outright—at Kittitas?"
"Yes, the opportunity was too good to miss." He tried to brave the astonishment in her eyes, but his glance moved directly to the colts. "And, you see, if I should buy that tract of Weatherbee's, I am going to need a team."
"Doubtless," answered Miss Armitage slowly. "Still, for breaking wild land or even cultivating, one would choose a steadier, heavier team. But they are beauties, Mr. Tisdale, and I know a man in Seattle who is going to be disappointed. I congratulate you on being able to secure them." She closed the purse at last and reluctantly put it away, and she added, with the merriment dimpling her lips: "Fate certainly was with me yesterday."
They had reached the hotel, and as he drew up to the curb, a man came from the lobby to hold the bays. Several traveling salesmen stood smoking and talking outside the entrance, while a little apart a land promoter and his possible capitalist consulted a blue print; but there was a general pause as Tisdale sprang out, and the curious scrutiny of wayfarers in a small town was focussed on the arrivals.
"It looks all right," he said quietly, helping her down, "but if you find anything wrong, or should happen to want me, I shall be at that other hotel until two o'clock. Good-by!"
He saw the surprise in her face change to swift appreciation. Then "Good-by," she answered and walked towards the door. But there she stopped. Tisdale, looking back as he gave her suitcase to a boy, saw her lips part, though she did not speak. Then her eyelids drooped, the color played softly in her face, and she turned to go in. There had been no invitation in her attitude, yet he had felt a certain appeal. It flashed over him she did not want to motor up the valley; she wished to drive on with him. Too proud, too fine to say so, she was letting her opportunity go. He hurried across the pavement.
"Miss Armitage," he said, and instantly she turned; the sparkles leaped in her eyes; she came towards him a few steps and stopped expectantly. "If I start up the valley at two"—and he looked at his watch—"that will be a rest of nearly three hours. It means the heat of the day, but if it seems better than motoring over a country road with a public chauffeur, I would be glad to have you drive for me."
A WOMAN'S HEART-STRINGS
"Now I know the meaning of Wenatchee. It's something racy, Mr. Tisdale, and a little wicked, yet with unexpected depths, and just the coolest, limpid hazel-green."
Tisdale's pulses quickened; his blood responded to her exhilaration. "Yes, only"—and he waited to catch the glance she lifted from the stream—"your green is blue, and you forgot to count the sparkles in."
As he spoke, the bays paced off the bridge. They sprang, gathering themselves lightly for a sharp ascent and for an interval held the driver's close attention. The town and the Columbia were behind, and the road, which followed the contour of the slopes rising abruptly from the Wenatchee, began a series of sudden turns; it cut shelf-wise high across the face of a ridge; spurs constantly closed after them; there seemed no way back or through, then, like an opening gate, a bluff detached from the wall ahead, and they entered another breadth of valley. In the wide levels that bordered the river, young orchards began to supplant the sage. Looking down from the thoroughfare, the even rows and squares seemed wrought on the tawny background like the designs of a great carpet. Sometimes, paralleling the road, the new High Line canal followed an upper cut; it trestled a ravine or, stopped by a rocky cliff, bored through. Where a finished spillway irrigated a mountainside, all the steep incline between the runnels showed lines on lines of diminutive trees, pluckily taking root-hold.
A little after that, near an old mission, they dropped to a lower bench and passed an apple orchard in full bearing. Everywhere boughs laden with a gold or crimson harvest were supported by a network of scaffolding. It was marvelous that fruit could so crowd and cling to a slender stem and yet round and color to such perfection. Miss Armitage slowed the horses down and looked up the shady avenues. Presently a driveway divided the tract, leading to a dwelling so small it had the appearance of a toy house; but on the gatepost above the rural delivery box the name of the owner shone ostentatiously. It was "Henderson Bailey, Hesperides Vale."
"Do you see?" she asked. "This is that station master's orchard, where the Rome Beauty grew."
But the team was troublesome again. The road made a turn, rounding the orchard, and began the descent to a bridge. On the right a great water-wheel, supplied with huge, scoop-shaped buckets, was lifting water from the river to distribute it over a reclaimed section. The bays pranced toward it suspiciously. "Now, now, Tuck," she admonished, "be a soldier." The colt sidled gingerly. "Whoa, Nip, whoa!" and, rearing lightly, they took the approach with a rush.
As they quieted and trotted evenly off the bridge, a large and brilliant signboard set in an area of sage-brush challenged the eye. Miss Armitage fluted a laugh.
"Buy one of these Choice Lots,"
she read, with charming, slightly mocking exaggeration.
"To-morrow will see this Property the Heart of a City.
"Buy before the Prices Soar.
"Talk with Henderson Bailey.
"This surely is Hesperides Vale," she added.
The amusement went out of Tisdale's face. "Yes, madam, and your journey's end. Probably the next post-box will announce the name of your friends."
She did not answer directly. She looked beyond the heads of the team to the top of the valley, where two brown slopes parted like drawn curtains and opened a blue vista of canyon closed by a lofty snow-peak. The sun had more than fulfilled its morning promise of heat, but a soft breeze began to pull from that white summit down the watercourse.
"I did not tell you I had friends in Hesperides Vale," she said at last. Her eyes continued to search the far blue canyon, but her color heightened at his quick glance of surprise, and she went on with a kind of breathlessness.
"I—I have a confession to make. I—But hasn't it occurred to you, Mr. Tisdale, that I might be interested in this land you are on your way to see?"
His glance changed. It settled into his clear, calculating look of appraisal. Under it her color flamed; she, turned her face farther away. "No," he answered slowly, "No, that had not occurred to me."
"I should have told you at the beginning, but I thought, at first, you knew. Afterward—but I am going to explain now," and she turned resolutely, smiling a little to brave that look. "Mr. Morganstein had promised, when he planned the trip to Portland, that he would run over from Ellensburg to look the property up. He believed it might be feasible to plat it into five-acre tracts to put on the market. Of course we knew nothing of the difficulties of the road; we had heard it was an old stage route, and we expected to motor through and return the same day. So, when the accident happened to the car in Snoqualmie Pass, and the others were taking the Milwaukee train home, I decided, on the impulse of the moment, to finish this side trip to Wenatchee and return to Seattle by the Great Northern. I admit seeing you on the eastbound influenced me. We—Mrs. Feversham—guessed you were on your way to see this land, and when the porter was uncertain of the stage from Ellensburg, but that you were leaving the trail below Kittitas, I thought you had found a newer, quicker way. So—I followed you."
Tisdale's brows relaxed. He laughed a little softly, trying to ease her evident distress. "I am glad you did, Miss Armitage. I am mighty glad you did. But I see," he went on slowly, his face clouding again, "I see Mrs. Weatherbee had been talking to you about that tract. It's strange I hadn't thought of that possibility. I'll wager she even tried to sell the land off a map, in Seattle. I wonder, though, when this Weatherbee trip was arranged to look the property over, that she didn't come, too. But no doubt that seemed too eager."
The blue lights flashed in her eyes; her lip trembled. "Be fair," she said. "You can afford to be—generous."
"I am going to be generous, Miss Armitage, to you." The ready humor touched his mouth again, the corners of his eyes. "I am going to take you over the ground with me; show you Weatherbee's project, his drawn plans. But afterwards, if you outbid me—"
"You need not be afraid of that," she interrupted quickly. "I—you must know"—she paused, her lashes drooped—"I—am not very rich," she finessed.
Tisdale laughed outright. "Neither am I. Neither am I." Then, his glance studying the road, he said: "I think we take that branch. But wait!" He drew his map from his pocket and pored over it a moment. "Yes, we turn there. After that there is just one track."
For an instant Miss Armitage seemed to waver. She sent a backward look to the river, and the glance, returning, swept Tisdale; then she straightened in her seat and swung the bays into the branch. It cut the valley diagonally, away from the Wenatchee, past a last orchard, into wild lands that stretched in level benches under the mountain wall. One tawny, sage-mottled slope began to detach from the rest; it took the shape of a reclining brazen beast, partly leopard, partly wolf, and a line of pine trees that had taken root in a moist strata along the backbone had the effect of a bristling mane.
"That is Weatherbee's landmark," said Tisdale. "He called it Cerberus. It is all sketched in true as life on his plans. The gap there under the brute's paw is the entrance to his vale."
As they approached, the mountain seemed to move; it took the appearance of an animal, ready to spring. Miss Armitage, watching, shivered. The dreadful expectation she had shown the previous night when the cry of the cougar came down the wind, rose in her face. It was as though she had come upon that beast, more terrifying than she had feared, lying in wait for her. Then the moment passed. She raised her head, her hands tightened on the reins, and she drove resolutely into the shadows of the awful front. "Now," she said, not quite steadily, "now I know how monstrously alive a mountain can seem."
Tisdale looked at her. "You never could live in Alaska," he said. "You feel too much this personality of inanimate things. That was David Weatherbee's trouble. You know how in the end he thought those Alaska peaks were moving. They got to 'crowding' him."
The girl turned a little and met his look. Her eyes, wide with dread, entreated him. "Yes, I know," she said, and her voice was almost a whisper. "I was thinking of him. But please don't say any more. I can't— bear it—here."
So she was thinking of Weatherbee. Her emotion sprang from her sympathy for him. A gentleness that was almost tenderness crept over Tisdale's face. How fine she was, how sensitively made, and how measureless her capacity for loving, if she could feel like this for a man of whom she had only heard.
Miss Armitage, squaring her shoulders and sitting very erect once more, her lips closed in a straight red line drove firmly on. A stream ran musically along the road side,—a stream so small it was marvelous it had a voice. As they rounded the mountain, the gap widened into the mouth of the vale, which lifted back to an upper bench, over-topped by a lofty plateau. Then she swung the team around and stopped. The way was cut off by a barbed wire fence.
The enclosure was apparently a corral for a flock of Angora goats. There was no gate for the passage of teams; the road ended there, and a rough sign nailed to a hingeless wicket warned the wayfarer to "Keep Out." On a rocky knob near this entrance a gaunt, hard-featured woman sat knitting. She measured the trespassers with a furtive, smouldering glance and clicked her needles with unnecessary force.
Tisdale's eyes made a swift inventory of the poor shelter, half cabin, partly shed, that evidently housed both the woman and her flock, then searched the barren field for some sort of hitching post. But the few bushes along the stream were small, kept low, doubtless, by the browsing goats, and his glance rested on a fringe of poplars beyond the upper fence.
"There's no way around," he said at last, and the amusement broke softly in his face. "We will have to go through."
"The wicket will take the team singly," she answered, "but we must unhitch and leave the buggy here."
"And first, if you think you can hold the colts that long, I must tackle this thistle."
"I can manage," she said, and the sparkles danced in her eyes, "unless you are vanquished."
The woman rose and stood glowering while he sprang down and drew the wooden pin to open the wicket. Then, "You keep off my land," she ordered sharply. "I will, madam," he answered quietly, "as soon as I am satisfied it is yours."
"I've lived on this claim 'most five years," she screamed. "I'm homesteading, and when I've used the water seven years, I get the rights." She sprang backward with a cattish movement and caught up a gun that had been concealed in some bushes. "Now you go," she said.
But Tisdale stayed. He stood weighing her with his steady, appraising eyes, while he drew the township plat from his pocket.
"This is the quarter section I have come to look up. It starts here, you see,"—and having unfolded the map, he turned to hold it under her glance—"at the mouth of this gap, and lifts back through the pocket, taking in the slopes to this bench and on up over this ridge to include these springs."
The woman, curbing herself to look at the plat, allowed the rifle to settle in the curve of her arm. "I piped the water down," she said. "This stream was a dry gully. I fenced and put up a house."
"The tract was commuted and bought outright from the Government over seven years ago." Tisdale's voice quickened; he set his lips dominantly and folded the map. "I have copies of the field notes with me and the owner's landscape plans. And I am a surveyor, madam. It won't take me long to find out whether there is a mistake. But, before I go over the ground, I must get my horses through to a hitching-place. I will have to lower that upper fence, but if you will keep your goats together, I promise to put it back as soon as the team is through."
"You let that fence alone." Tisdale had started to cross the field, and she followed, railing, though the gun still rested in the hollow of her arm. "If one of those goats breaks away, the whole herd'll go wild. I can't round 'em in without my dog. He's off trailing one of the ewes. She strayed yesterday, and he'll chase the mountain through if he has to. It's no use to whistle; he won't come back without her. You let that fence be. You wouldn't dare to touch it," she finished impotently, "if I had a man."
"Haven't you?" Tisdale swung around, and his voice dropped to its soft undernote. "That's mighty hard. Who laid all that water-pipe? Who built your house?"
"I did," she answered grimly. "The man who hauled my load of lumber stopped long enough to help set the posts, but I did the rest."
"You did?" Tisdale shook his head incredulously. "My! My! Made all the necessary improvements, single-handed, to hold your homestead and at the same time managed these goats."
The woman's glance moved to the shack and out over the barren fields, and a shade of uncertainty crept into her passionate eyes. "The improvements don't make much of a show yet; I've had to be off so much in the mountains, foraging with the herd. But I was able to hire a boy half a day with the shearing this spring, and from now on they're going to pay. There are twenty-eight in the bunch, counting the kids, and I started with one old billy and two ewes."
"My! My! what a record!" Tisdale paused to look back at Miss Armitage, who had turned the bays, allowing them to pace down a length of road and back.
"But," he added, walking on, "what led you to choose goats instead of sheep?"
"I didn't do the choosing"; she moved abreast of Hollis, "it was a fool man."
"So," he answered softly, with a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, "there is a man, after all."
"There was," she corrected grimly. "The easiest fellow to be talked over under the sun; the kind always chasing off after a new scheme. First it was a mineral claim; then he banked the future on timber, and when he got tired waiting for stumpage to soar, he put up a dinky sawmill to cut his own trees. He was doing well, for him, getting out ties for a new railroad—it was down in Oregon—when he saw the chance to trade for a proved-up homestead. But it was the limit when he started out to buy a bunch of sheep and came back with that old Angora billy and two ewes."
"I see." They were near the fence, and Tisdale swerved a little to reach a stout poplar that formed the corner post. He saw that the wire ends met there and felt in his pocket for his knife. "I see. And then he left the responsibility to his wife."
"The wedding hadn't come off," she said sharply. "It was fixed for the seventeenth of June, and that was only May. And I told him I couldn't risk it—not in the face of those goats."
"And he?" pressed Hollis gently. This thistle, isolated, denied human intercourse, was more easily handled than he had hoped.
"He said it suited him all right. He had been wanting to go to Alaska. Nothing but that wedding had kept him back."
Tisdale stopped and opened his knife. "And he went?" he asked.
"Yes." The woman's face worked a little, and she stood looking at him with hard, tragic eyes. "He sold the homestead for what he could get to raise the money to take him to Dawson. He was gone in less than twenty-four hours and before daylight, that night he left, I heard those goats ma-a-ing under my window. He had staked them there in the front yard and tucked a note, with his compliments, in the door. He wrote he didn't know of anything else he could leave that would make me remember him better."
Tisdale shook his head. "I wish I had been there." He slipped the knife in between the ends of the wires and the bole, clawing, prying, twisting. "And you kept them?" he added.
"Yes, I don't know why, unless it was because I knew it was the last thing he expected. But I hated them worse than snakes. I couldn't stand it having them around, and I hired a boy to herd them out on his father's farm. Then I went on helping Dad, selling general merchandise and sorting mail. But the post-office was moved that year five miles to the new railroad station, and they put in a new man. Of course that meant a line of goods, too, and competition. Trade fell off, then sickness came. It lasted two years, and when Dad was gone, there wasn't much left of the store but debt." She paused a moment, looking up to the serene sky above the high plateau. A sudden moisture softened her burning eyes, and her free hand crept to her throat. "Dad was a mighty fine man," she said. "He had a great business head. It wasn't his fault he didn't leave me well fixed."
Tisdale laid the loosened wire down on the ground and started to work on another. "But there was the man in Alaska," he said. "Of course you let him know."
"No, sir." Her eyes flashed back to Tisdale's face. "You wouldn't have caught me writing to Johnny Banks, then. I'm not that kind. The most I could do was to see what I could make of the goats. I commenced herding them myself, but I hadn't the face to do it down there in Oregon, where everybody knew me, and I gradually worked north with them until I ended here."
Tisdale had dropped his knife. He stooped to pick it up. "That's where you made your mistake," he said.
The woman drew a step nearer, watching his face; tense, breathless. Clearly he had turned her thoughts from the fence, and he slipped the knife in farther and continued to pry and twist the wire loose. "How do you know it was a mistake?" she asked at last.
Tisdale laid the second wire down. "Well, wasn't it? To punish yourself like this, to cheat yourself out of the best years of your life, when you knew how much Banks thought of you. But you seem to have overlooked his side. Do you think, when he knows how you crucified yourself, it's going to make him any happier? He carried a great spirit bottled in that small, wiry frame, but he got to seeing himself through your eyes. He was ashamed of his failures—he had always been a little sensitive about his size—and it wasn't the usual enthusiasm that started him to Alaska; he was stung into going. It was like him to play his poor joke gamily, at the last, and pretend he didn't care. A word from you would have held him—you must have known that—and a letter from you afterwards, when you needed him, would have brought him back. Or you might have joined him up there and made a home for him all these years, but you chose to bury yourself here in the desert of the Columbia, starving your soul, wasting your best on these goats." He paused with the last loosened wire in his hands and stood looking at her with condemning eyes. "What made you?" he added, and his voice vibrated softly. "What made you?"
The woman's features worked; tears filled her eyes.
They must have been the first in many months, for they came with the gush that follows a probe. "You know him," she said brokenly. "You've seen him lately, up there in Alaska."
"I think so, yes. The Johnny Banks I knew in the north told me something about a girl he left down in Oregon. But she was a remarkably pretty girl, with merry black eyes and a nice color in her cheeks. Seems to me she used to wear a pink gown sometimes, and a pink rose in her black hair, and made a picture that the fellows busy along the new railroad came miles on Sundays to see."
A bleak smile touched the woman's mouth. "Dad always liked to see me wear nice clothes. He said it advertised the store." Then her glance fell to her coarse, wretched skirt, and the contrast struck poignantly.
Tisdale moved the wires back, clearing a space for the bays to pass. "There was one young engineer," he went on, as though she had not spoken; "a big, handsome fellow, who came oftener than the rest. Banks thought it was natural she should favor him. The little man believes yet that when he was out of the way she married that engineer."
The woman was beyond speech. Tisdale had penetrated the last barrier of her fortitude. The bitterness, pent so long, fostered in solitude, filled the vent and surged through. Her shoulders shook, she stumbled a few steps to the poplar and, throwing up her arm against the bole, buried her face, sobbing, in her sleeve.
Tisdale looked back across the field. Miss Armitage was holding the team in readiness at the wicket. "I am going now," he said. "You will have to watch your goats until I get the horses through. But if you will write that letter, madam, while I'm at work, I'll be glad to mail it for you."
The woman looked up. A sudden hope transfigured her face. "I wish I dared to. But he wouldn't know me now; I've changed so. Besides, I don't know his address."
"That's so." Tisdale met her glance thoughtfully. "But leave it to me. I think I can get into touch with him when I am back in Seattle."
Miss Armitage watched him as he came swiftly across the field. "Oh," she cried, when he reached the waiting team, "how did you accomplish it? Are you a magician?"
Hollis shook his head. "I only tried to play a little on her heart-strings, to gain time, and struck an unexpected chord. But it's all right. It's going to do her good."
The afternoon sun shone hot in that pocket; the arid slopes reflected the glare; heat waves lifted; the snow-peak was shut out, and when a puff of wind found the gap it was a breath from the desert. Miss Armitage, who had trailed pluckily after Tisdale through the sage-brush and up the steep face of the bench, rested on the level, while he hurried on to find the easiest route to the high plateau and the spring. He had left her seated on a flat rock in the shade of a sentinel pine tree, looking over the vale to Cerberus and the distant bit of the Wenatchee showing beyond the mouth, but as he came back along the ridge, he saw she had turned her shoulder on the crouching mountain. At his far "Hello!" she waved her hand to him and rose to start across the bench to meet him. He was descending a broken stairway below two granite pillars that topped a semi-circular bluff and, springing from a knob to avoid a dry runnel, he shaped his way diagonally to abridge the distance. He moved with incredible swiftness, swinging by his hands to drop from a ledge, sliding where he must, and the ease and expediency with which he accomplished it all brought the admiration sparkling to her eyes.
"I am sorry," he said, as he drew near, "but there isn't any easy way. It's too bad to have traveled so far and miss the spring, for the whole project hinges on it; but the climb is impossible for you in this heat."
"Then you found the spring?" she asked quickly. "It was all the plans promised?"
"Yes." He began to walk on across the bench, suiting his steps to hers. "And Weatherbee had put in a small dam there to create his first reservoir. I found his old camp, too; a foundation of logs, open now to the sky, with a few tatters left of the canvas that had roofed it over." There was a silent moment, then he added, with the emotion still playing gently in his voice: "I wish I could show you that place; the pool is crystal clear and cool, rimmed in pines, like a basin of opals."
When they reached the flat rock in the shade of the pine tree, he took the reclamation plan from his inner pocket and seated himself beside her. "This is Weatherbee's drawing," he said. "See how carefully he worked in the detail. This is the spring and that upper reservoir, and this lower one is a natural dry basin up there under that bluff, a little to the left of those granite chimneys; you can see its rocky rim. All it needs is this short flume sketched in here to bring the water down, and a sluice-gate to feed the main canal that follows this bench we are on. Spillways would irrigate a peach orchard along this slope below us and seep out through this level around us to supply home gardens and lawn. Just imagine it!" He paused, while her glance followed his brief comparisons, moving from the plan to the surface of the bench and down over the slope to the vale. "Imagine this tract at the end of four years; a billowing sea of green; with peach trees in bearing on this mountainside; apples, the finest Jonathans, Rome Beauties if you will, beginning to make a showing down there. Water running, seeping everywhere; strawberries carpeting the ground between the boles; alfalfa, cool and moist, filling in; and even Cerberus off there losing his sinister shape in vineyards."
"Then it is feasible," she exclaimed softly, and the sparkles broke subdued in her eyes. "And the price, Mr. Tisdale; what would you consider a fair price for the property as it stands now, unimproved?" Tisdale rose. He paused to fold the drawing and put it away, while his glance moved slowly down over the vale to the goat-keeper's cabin and her browsing flock. "You must see, Miss Armitage," he said then, "that idea of Mr. Morganstein's to plat this land into five-acre tracts for the market couldn't materialize. It is out of range of the Wenatchee valley projects; it is inaccessible to the railroad for the small farmer. Only the man with capital to work it on a large scale could make it pay. And the property is Mrs. Weatherbee's last asset; she is in urgent need of ready money. You should be able to make easy terms with her, but I warn you, if it comes to bidding, I am prepared to offer seven thousand dollars."
He turned, frowning a little, to look down at her and, catching those covert sparkles of her side-glance, smiled.
"You may have it," she said.
"Wait. Think it over," he answered. "I am going down to the gap now to find the surveyor's monument and trace the section line back to the top of the plateau. Rest here, where it's cooler, and I will come down this way for you when I am through. Think the project over and take my word for the spring; it's well worth the investment."
Doubtless Miss Armitage followed his suggestion, for she sat thoughtfully, almost absently, watching him down the slope. At the foot of the vale, the goat-woman joined him, and it was clear he again used his magic art, for presently he had her chaining for him and holding an improvised flag, while he estimated the section line. But finally, when they left the bed of the pocket and began to cross-cut up the opposite mountainside, the girl rose and looked in the direction of the spring. It was cooler; a breeze was drawing down from the upper ridge; a few thin clouds like torn gauze veiled the sky overhead; the blue lost intensity. She began to walk across the bench towards the granite chimneys. In a little while she found the dry reservoir, walled, where the plateau lifted, in the semi-circular bluff; then she stopped at the foot of an arid gully that rose between this basin and a small shoulder which supported the first needle. This was the stairway she had seen Tisdale descend, and presently she commenced to climb it slowly, grasping bunches of the tenacious sage or jutting points of rock to ease her weight.
The stairs ended in a sharp incline covered with debris from the decomposing pillars; splinters of granite shifted under her tread; she felt the edges cutting through her shoes. Fragments began to rattle down; one larger rock crashed over the bluff into the dry basin. Then, at last, she was on the level, fighting for breath. She turned, trembling, and braced herself against the broken chimney to look back. She shrank closer to the needle and shook her head. It was as though she said: "I never could go back alone."
But when her glance moved to the opposite mountainside, Tisdale was no longer in sight. And that shoulder was very narrow; it presented a sheer front to the vale, like the base of a monument, so that between the chimney and the drop to the gully there was little room in which to stand. She began to choose a course, picking her foothold cautiously, zigzagging as she had seen Hollis do on the slope above. Midway another knob jutted, supporting a second pillar and a single pine tree, but as she came under the chimney she was forced to hurry. Loose chippings of granite started at every step. They formed little torrents, undermining, rushing, threatening to sweep her down; and she reached the ledge in a panic. Then she felt the stable security of the pine against her body and for a moment let herself go, sinking to the foot of the tree and covering her eyes with her hands.
Up there a stiff wind was blowing, and presently she saw the snow-peak she had missed in the vale. The ridge lifted less abruptly from this second spur, and in a little while she rose and pushed on, lagging sometimes, stumbling, to the level of the plateau. The Wenatchee range, of which it was a part, stretched bleak and forbidding, enclosing all those minor arid gulfs down to the final, long, scarred headland set against the Columbia desert. She was like a woman stranded, the last survivor, on an inhospitable coast. Turning to look across the valley of the Wenatchee, she saw the blue and glaciered crests of the Chelan mountains, and behind her, over the neck of a loftier height, loomed other white domes. And there yesterday's thunder-caps, bigger and blacker, with fringed edges, drove along the sky line. One purplish mass was streaming like a sieve. For an interval the sun was obscured, and her glance came back to the vale below where Cerberus reclined, watchful, his tawny head lifted slightly between two advanced paws. Suddenly the lower clouds grew brilliant, and shafts of light breaking through changed the mountain before her to a beast of brass.
She turned and began to pick her way through grease brush and insistent sage towards a grove of pines. In a little while she saw water shining through the trees. She hesitated—it was as though she had come to the threshold of a sanctuary—then went on under the boughs to the opal pool.
She remained in the grove a long time. When she reappeared, the desert eastward was curtained in a gray film. Torn breadths of it, driven by some local current of air, formed tented clouds along the promontory. It was as though yesterday's army was marshalled against other hosts that held the Chelan heights. A twilight indistinctness settled over the valley between. Rain, a downpour, was near. She hurried on to the brow of the plateau, but she dared not attempt to go down around those crumbling chimneys alone. And Tisdale had said he would come back this side of the vale. Any moment he might appear. She turned to go back to the shelter of the pines. It was then a first electrical flash, like a drawn sword, challenged the opposite ridge. Instantly a searchlight from the encamped legions played over the lower plain. She turned again, wavering, and began to run on over the first dip of the slope and along to the first pillar. There she stopped, leaning on the rock, trembling, yet trying to force down her fear. It was useless; she could not venture over that stream of shifting granite. She started back, then stopped, wavering again. After a moment she lifted her voice in a clear, long call: "Mr. Tis—da—le!"