"No," he said in kindly, indulgent fashion. "Eet is not for Golemar to go with us. The drift, they are deep. There is no crust on the snow. Golemar, he would sink above his head. Then blooey! There would be no Golemar!"
Guide lines were affixed. Once more, huddled, clumsy figures of white, one following the other, they made the gruelling trip back to Tabernacle and the duties which they knew lay before them. For already the reports were beginning to come in, brought by storm-weakened, blizzard-battered men, of houses where the roofs had crashed beneath the weight of snow, of lost ranchmen, of bawling cattle, drifting before the storm,—to death. It was the beginning of a two-weeks' siege of a white inferno.
Little time did Barry Houston have for thought in those weeks. There were too many other things to crowd upon him; too many cold, horrible hours in blinding snow, or in the faint glare of a ruddy sun which only broke through the clouds that it might jeer at the stricken country beneath it, then fade again in the whipping gusts of wind and its attendant clouds, giving way once more to the surging sweep of white and the howl of a freshened blizzard.
Telegraph poles reared only their cross-arms above the mammoth drifts. Haystacks became buried, lost things. The trees of the forest, literally harnessed with snow, dropped their branches like tired arms too weary to longer bear their burdens. The whole world, it seemed, was one great, bleak thing of dreary white,—a desert in which there was life only that there might be death, where the battle for existence continued only as a matter of instinct.
And through—or rather over—this bleak desert went the men of the West Country, silent, frost-burned men, their lips cracked from the cut of wind, their eyes blood-red with inflammation, struggling here and there with a pack of food upon their back that they might reach some desolate home where there were women and children; or stopping to pull and tug at a snow-trapped steer and by main effort, drag him into a barren spot where the sweep of the gale had kept the ground fairly clear of snow; at times also, they halted to dig into a haystack, and through long hours scattered the welcome food about for the bawling cattle; or gathered wood, where such a thing was possible, and lighting great fires, left them, that they might melt the snows about a spot near a supply of feed, where the famished cattle could gather and await the next trip of the rescuers, bearing them sustenance.
Oftimes they stopped in vain—the beast which they sought to succor was beyond aid—and a revolver shot sounded, muffled in the thickness of the storm. Then, with knives and axes, the attack came, and struggling forms bore to a ranch house the smoking portions of a newly butchered beef; food at least for one family until the relief of sun and warmth would come. It was a never-ending agony of long hours and muscle-straining work. But the men who partook—were men.
And side by side with the others, with giant Ba'tiste, with the silent woodsmen, with the angular, wiry ranchmen, was Barry Houston. His muscles ached. His head was ablaze with the eye-strain of constant white; his body numbed with cold from the time that he left the old cannon-ball stove of the boarding house in the early morning until he returned to it at night. Long ago had he lost hope,—so far as personal aims and desires were concerned. The Crestline road was tied up; it had quit completely; Barry Houston knew that the fury of the storm in this basin country below the hills was as nothing compared to the terror of those crag tops where altitude added to the frigidity, and where from mountain peak to mountain peak the blizzard leaped with ever-increasing ferocity. Far out on the level stretches leading up to the plains of Wyoming, other men were working, struggling doggedly from telegraph pole to telegraph pole, in an effort to repair the lines so that connection might be made to Rawlins, and thence to Cheyenne and Denver,—to apprise the world that a great section of the country had been cut off from aid, that women and children were suffering from lack of food, that every day brought the news of a black splotch in the snow,—the form of a man, arms outstretched, face buried in the drift, who had fought and lost. But so far, there had been only failure. It was a struggle that made men grim and dogged; Barry Houston no less than the rest. He had ceased to think of the simpler things of life, of the ordinary problems, the usual worries or likes and dislikes. His path led once by the home of Medaine Robinette, and he clambered toward the little house with little more of feeling than of approaching that of the most unfamiliar ranchman.
Smoke was coming from the chimney. There were the marks of snowshoes. But they might mean nothing in the battle for existence. Houston scrambled up to the veranda and banged on the door. A moment more, and he faced Medaine Robinette.
"Just wanted to see if you're all right," came almost curtly.
"Need any food?"
"I have plenty."
"No. Lost Wing has found wood. We're keeping warm. Tell me—" and there was the politeness of emergency in her tones—"is there any need for women in Tabernacle? I am willing to go if—"
"Not yet. Besides, a woman couldn't get in there alone."
"I could. I'm strong enough. Besides, I've been out—I went to the Hurd Ranch yesterday. Mrs. Hurd's sick—Lost Wing brought me the word."
"Then keep on with that. There's nothing in Tabernacle—and no place for any one who isn't destitute. Stay here. Have you food enough for Hurd's?"
"Yes. That is—"
"I'll leave my pack. Take that over as you need it. There's enough for a week there. If things don't let up by that time, I'll be by again."
Then the door was closed, and Houston went his way again, back to Tabernacle and a fresh supply for his pack—hardly realizing the fact that he had talked to the woman he could not help wishing for—the woman he would have liked to have loved. The world was almost too gray, too grim, too horrible for Houston even to remember that there was an estrangement between them. Dully, his intellect numbed as his body was numbed, he went back to his tasks,—tasks that were seemingly endless.
Day after day, the struggle remained the same, the wind, the snow, the drifts, the white fleece flying on the breast of the gale even when there were no storm clouds above, blotting out the light of the sun and causing the great ball to be only a red, ugly, menacing thing in a field of dismal gray. Night after night the drifts swept, changing, deepening in spots where the ground had been clear before, smoothing over the hummocks, weaving across the country like the vagaries of shifting sands before they finally packed into hard, compressed mounds, to form bulwarks for newer drifts when the next storm came. Day after day,—and then quiet, for forty-eight hours.
It caused men to shout,—men who had cursed the sun in the blazing noonday hours of summer, but men who now extended their arms to it, who slapped one another on the back, who watched the snow with blood-red eyes for the first sign of a melting particle, and who became hysterically jubilant when they saw it. Forty-eight hours! Deeper and deeper went the imprints of milder weather upon the high-piled serrations of white, at last to cease. The sun had faded on the afternoon of the second day. The thaw stopped. The snowshoes soon carried a new crunching sound that gradually became softer, more muffled. For the clouds had come again, the wind had risen with a fiercer bite than ever in it; again the snow was falling. But the grim little army of rescuers, plodding from one ranchhouse to another, had less of worriment in their features now,—even though the situation was no less tense, no less dangerous. At least the meager stores of the small merchandise establishment in Tabernacle could be distributed with more ease; a two-inch crust of snow had formed over the main snowfall, permitting small sleds to be pulled behind struggling men; the world beneath had been frozen in, to give place to a new one above. And with that:
"It's open! It's open!" The shout came from the lips of the telegrapher, waving his arms as he ran from the tunnel that led to the stationhouse. "It's open! I've had Rawlins on the wire!"
Men crowded about him and thumped into the little box car to listen, like children, to the rattling of the telegraph key,—as though they never had heard one before. So soon does civilization feel the need of its inventions, once they are taken away; so soon does the mind become primitive, once the rest of the world has been shut away from it. Eagerly they clustered there, staring with anxious eyes toward the operator as he hammered at the key, talking in whispers lest they disturb him, waiting for his interpretation of the message, like worshippers waiting for the word of an oracle.
"I'm putting it all on the wire!" he announced at last, with feverish intensity. "I'm telling 'em just how it is over here. Maybe they can do something—from Rawlins."
"Rawlins?" Houston had edged forward. "There's not a chance. It's hundreds of miles away; they can't use horses, and they certainly can't walk. Wait—will you give me a chance at something?"
A gleam had come into his eyes. His hands twisted nervously. Voices mumbled about him; suddenly the great hands of Ba'tiste grasped him by the shoulders and literally tossed him toward the telegrapher.
"Ah, oui! If eet is the idea—then speak it."
"Go on—" the telegrapher had stopped his key for a moment—"I'll put it through, if it'll help."
"All right. Get Denver on the wire. Then take this message to every newspaper in the city:
"'Can't you help us? Please try to start campaign to force Crestline Road to open the Pass. Women and children are starving here. We have been cut off from the rest of the world for two weeks. We need food—and coal. Road will not be open for four or five weeks more under ordinary circumstances. This will mean death to many of us here, the wiping out of a great timber and agricultural country, and a blot on the history of Colorado. Help us—and we will not forget it."
"'THE CITIZENS OF THE WEST COUNTRY.'"
"Ah, oui!" Old Ba'tiste was addressing the rest of the crowd. "The newspapers, they can help, better than any one else. Eet is our chance. Bon—good! Mon Baree, he have the big, what-you-say, sentiment."
"Sounds good." The telegrapher was busily putting it on the wire. Then a wait of hours,—hours in which the operator varied his routine by sending the word of the stricken country to Cheyenne, to Colorado Springs, to Pueblo, and thence, through the news agencies, to the rest of the world.
"Might as well get everybody in on it," he mused, as he pounded the telegraph instrument; "can't tell—some of those higher-ups might be in New York and think there wasn't anything to it unless they could see it in the New York papers. I—" Then he stopped as the wire cut under his finger and clattered forth a message. He jumped. He grasped Ba'tiste in his lank arms, then turned beaming to the rest of the gaping crowd.
"It's from the papers in Denver!" he shouted. "A joint message. They've taken up the fight!"
A fight which had its echoes in the little railroad box car, the center of the deadened, shrouded West Country, the news of which must travel to Cheyenne, to Rawlins, thence far down through the northern country over illy patched telegraph wires before it reached the place for which it was intended, the box car and its men who came and went, eager for the slightest word from the far-away, yet grudging of their time, lest darkness still find them in the snows, and night come upon them struggling to reach the little town and send them into wandering, aimless journeys that might end in death. For the snows still swirled, the storms still came and went, the red ball of the sun still refused to come forth in its beaming strength. And it was during this period of uncertainty that Houston met Ba'tiste Renaud, returning from a cruising expedition far in the lake region, to find him raging, his fists clenched, his eyes blazing.
"Is eet that the world is all unjust?" he roared, as he faced Houston. "Is eet that some of us do our part, while others store up for emergency? Eh? Bah! I am the mad enough to tear them apart!"
"Who? What's gone wrong?"
"I am the mad! You have no seen the M'sieu Thayer during all the storm?"
"Nor the M'sieu Blackburn? Nor the men who work for them. Eh? You have no seen them?"
"No, not once."
"Ah! I pass to-day the Blackburn mill. They have shovel out about the sawshed. They have the saw going,—they keep at work, when there are the women and the babies who starve, when there are the cattle who are dying, when there is the country that is like a broken thing. But they work—for themself! They saw the log into the tie—they work from the piles of timber which they have about the sawmill, to store up the supply. They know that we do not get our machinery! They have think they have a chance—for the contract!"
It brought Houston to a sharp knowledge of conditions. They had given, that the rest of the country might not suffer. Their enemies had worked on, fired with the new hope that the road over the mountains would not be opened; that the machinery so necessary to the carrying out of Houston's contract would not arrive in time to be of aid. For without the ability to carry out the first necessities of that agreement, the rest must surely and certainly fail. Long before, Houston had realized the danger that the storm meant; there had been no emergency clause in the contract. Now his hands clenched, his teeth gritted.
"It almost seems that there's a premium on being crooked, Ba'tiste," came at last. "It—"
Then he ceased. A shout had come from the distance. Faintly through the sifting snow they could see figures running. Then the words came,—faint, far-away, shrill shouts forcing their way through the veil of the storm.
"They're going to open the road! They're going to open the road!"
Here, there and back again it came, men calling to men, the few women of the little settlement braving the storm that they too might add to the gladful cry. Already, according to the telegram, snow-fighting machinery and men were being assembled in Denver for the first spurt toward Tollifer, and from there through the drifts and slides of the hills toward Crestline. Ba'tiste and Houston were running now, as fast as their snowshoes would allow, oblivious for once of the cut of the wind and the icy particles of its frigid breath.
"They open the road!" boomed Ba'tiste in chorus with the rest of the little town. "Ah, oui! They open the road. The Crestline Railroad, he have a heart after all, he have a—"
"Any old time!" It was a message bearer coming from the shack of a station. "They're not going to do it—it's the M. P. & S. L."
"Through the tunnel?"
"No. Over the hill. According to the message, the papers hammered the stuffing out of the Crestline road. But you've got to admit that they haven't got either the motive power or the money. The other road saw a great chance to step in and make itself solid with this country over here. It's lending the men and the rolling stock. They're going to open another fellow's road, for the publicity and the good will that's in it."
A grin came to Houston's lips,—the first one in weeks. He banged Ba'tiste on his heavily wadded shoulder.
"That's the kind of railroad to work for!"
"Ah, oui! And when eet come through—ah, we shall help to build it."
Two pictures flashed across Houston's brain; one of a snowy sawmill with the force working day and night, when all the surrounding country cried for help, working toward its selfish ends that it might have a supply of necessary lumber in case a more humane organization should fail; another of carload after carload of necessary machinery, snow-covered, ice-bound, on a sidetrack at Tollifer, with the whole, horrible, snow-clutched fierceness of the Continental Divide between it and its goal.
"I hope so!" he exclaimed fervently. "I hope so!"
Then, swept along by hurrying forms, they went on toward the station house, there to receive the confirmation of the glad news, to shout until their throats were raw, and then, still with their duties before them, radiate once more on their missions of mercy. For the announcement of intention was no accomplishment. It was one thing for the snowplows and the gangs and tremendous engines of the M. P. & S. L. to attempt to open the road over the divide. But it was quite another thing to do it!
All that day Houston thought of it, dreamed of it, tried to visualize it,—the fight of a railroad against the snows of the hills. He wondered how the snowplows would work, how they would break through the long, black snowsheds, now crammed with the thing which they had been built to resist. He thought of the laborers; and his breath pulled sharply. Would they have enough men? It would be grueling work up there, terrific work; would there be sufficient laborers who would be willing to undergo the hardships for the money they received? Would—
In the night he awoke, again thinking of it. Every possible hand that could swing a pick or jam a crowbar against grudging ice would be needed up there. Every pair of shoulders willing to assume the burdens of a horrible existence that others might live would be welcomed. A mad desire began to come over him; a strange, impelling scheme took hold of his brain. They would need men,—men who would not be afraid, men who would be willing to slave day and night if necessary to the success of the adventure. And who should be more willing than he? His future, his life, his chance of success, where now was failure, lay at Tollifer. His hands would be more than eager! His muscles more than glad to ache with the fatigue of manual labor! Long before dawn he rose and scribbled a note in the dim light of the old kerosene lamp in the makeshift lobby, a note to Ba'tiste Renaud:
"I'm going over the range. I can't wait. They may need me. I'm writing this, because you would try to dissuade me if I told you personally. Don't be afraid for me—I'll make it somehow. I've got to go. It's easier than standing by.
Then, his snowshoes affixed, he went out into the night. The stars were shining dimly, and Houston noticed them with an air of thankfulness as he took the trail of the telephone poles and started toward the faint outline of the mountains in the distance. It would make things easier; but an hour later, as he looked for a dawn that did not come, he realized that it had been only a jest of the night. The storm clouds were thick on the sky again, the snow was dashing about him once more; half-blindly, gropingly, he sought to force his way from one pole to another,—in vain.
He measured his steps, and stopping, looked about him. He had traveled the distance from one pole to another, yet in the sweep of the darting sheet of white he could discern no landmark, nothing to guide him farther on his journey. He floundered aimlessly, striving by short sallies to recover the path from which the storm had taken him, but all to no purpose. If dawn would only come!
Again and again, hardly realizing the dangers to which he was subjecting himself, Houston sought to regain his lost sense of direction. Once faintly, in the far-away, as the storm lifted for a moment, he thought that he glimpsed a pole and hurried toward it with new hope, only to find it a stalwart trunk of a dead tree, rearing itself above the mound-like drifts. Discouraged, half-beaten, he tried again, only to wander farther than ever from the trail. Dawn found him at last, floundering hopelessly in snow-screened woods, going on toward he knew not where.
A half-hour, then he stopped. Fifty feet away, almost covered by the changing snows, a small cabin showed faintly, as though struggling to free itself from the bonds of white, and Houston turned toward it eagerly. His numbed hands banged at the door, but there came no answer. He shouted; still no sound came from within, and he turned the creaking, protesting knob.
The door yielded, and climbing over the pile of snow at the step, Houston guided his snowshoes through the narrow door, blinking in the half-light in an effort to see about him. There was a stove, but the fire was dead. At the one little window, the curtain was drawn tight and pinned at the sides to the sash. There was a bed—and the form of some one beneath the covers. Houston called again, but still there came no answer. He turned to the window, and ripping the shade from its fastenings, once more sought the bed, to bend over and to stare in dazed, bewildered fashion, as though in a dream. He was looking into the drawn, haggard features of an unconscious woman, the eyes half-open, yet unseeing, one emaciated hand grasped about something that was shielded by the covers. Houston forced himself even closer. He touched the hand. He called:
The eyelids moved slightly; it was the only evidence of life, save the labored, irregular breathing. Then the hand moved, clutchingly. Slowly, tremblingly, Houston turned back an edge of the blankets,—and stood aghast.
On her breast was a baby—dead!
There was no time for conjectures. The woman meant a human life,—in deadly need of resuscitation, and Barry leaped to his task.
Warmth was the first consideration, and he hurried to the sheet-iron stove, with its pile of wood stacked behind, noticing, as he built the fire, cans and packages of provisions upon the shelf over the small wooden table, evidence that some one other than the woman herself had looked after the details of stocking the cabin with food and of providing against emergencies. At least a portion of the wood as he shoved it into the stove crackled and spit with the wetness of snow; the box had been replenished, evidently within the last few days.
Soon water was boiling. Hot cloths went to the woman's head; quietly, reverently, Barry had taken the still, small child from the tightly clenched arm and covered it, on the little table. And with the touch of the small, lifeless form, the resentment which had smoldered in Houston's heart for months seemed to disappear. Instinctively he knew what a baby means to a mother,—and she must be its mother. He understood that the agony of loss which was hers was far greater even than the agony which her faithlessness had meant for him. Gently, almost tenderly, he went again to the bed, to chafe the cold, thin wrists, to watch anxiously the eyes, then at last to bend forward. The woman was looking at him, staring with fright in her gaze, almost terror.
"Barry—" the word was more of a mumble. "Barry—" then the eyes turned, searching for the form that no longer was beside her. "My—my—" Then, with a spasm of realization, she was silent. Houston strove dully for words.
"I'm sorry—Agnes. Don't be afraid of me. I'll get help for you."
"Don't." The voice was a monotone, minus expression, almost minus life. The face had become blank, so much parchment drawn over bone. "I've been sick—my baby—where's my baby?"
"Don't you know?"
"Yes," came at last. There was the dullness that comes when grief has reached the breaking point. "Dead. It died—yesterday morning."
Houston could say nothing in answer. The simple statement was too tragic, too full of meaning, too fraught with the agony of that long day and night of suffering, for any reply in words that would not jar, or cause even a greater pang. Quietly he turned to the stove, red-hot now, and with snow water began the making of gruel from the supplies on the shelf. Once he turned, suddenly aware that the eyes of the woman were centered in his direction. But they were not upon him; their gaze was for one thing, one alone,—that tiny, covered form on the table.
An hour passed silently, except for the trivialities of speech accompanying the proffered food. Then, at last, forcing himself to the subject, Houston asked a question:
"Where is he?"
"Who?" Sudden fright had come into the woman's eyes. A name formed on Houston's lips, only to be forced back into the more general query:
She smiled faintly.
"You've got me, haven't you, Barry?" A half-hysterical tone came now. "You know a lot—and you want the rest, so you can pay me back, don't you? Oh," and the thin fingers plucked at the bedclothes, "I expected it! I expected it! I knew sooner or later—"
"If you're talking about me, Agnes—and what I've been led to believe, we'll save that for a future time. I think I'm enough of a man not to harass a person in time of grief."
"Coals of fire, eh?" A tinge of her old expression had come back, with returning strength.
"Nothing of the kind. I simply wanted to help you—because you're a woman in trouble. You're sick. Your baby's—gone. If I can get your husband for you, I—"
But she shook her head, suddenly weak and broken, suddenly only what Barry was trying to make of her in his mind, a grieving woman, in need.
"We're—not married. You'll know it sooner or later. I—I don't know where he is. He was here three days ago and was coming back that night. But he didn't. Maybe he's gone—he'd threatened it."
"He? You mean—"
She pressed her lips tight.
"I'm not going to tell—yet. You've got to do something for me first. I'm in trouble—" she was speaking rapidly now, the words flooding over her lips between gasps, her eyes set, her hands knitting. "My baby's dead. You know that, don't you?" she asked suddenly, in apparent forgetfulness of any previous conversation. "My baby's dead. It died yesterday morning—all day long I held it in my arms and cried. Then I slept, didn't I?"
"You were unconscious."
"Maybe I'm going to die." There was childishness in the voice. "Like my baby. I baptized her before she went. Maybe I'm going to die too."
"I hope not, Agnes."
"You'd like to see me die!" The frail bonds of an illness-ridden brain were straining at their leash. "I can see it in your eyes. You'd like to see me die!"
"Why?" he could think of nothing else.
"Because—" and then she stopped. "No—you're trying to get me to tell—but I won't; I'll tell when you come back—I'll tell what I said and did when you bring me the note from the priest. You want me to tell, don't you? Don't you? That's what you came here for. You found out I was here. I—did he tell?" she asked sharply.
Barry shook his head.
"I don't know who you mean, Agnes."
"No? I think you're—"
"I was on my way over the range. I got lost in the storm and stumbled in here." He looked out. "It's let up some now. Maybe I could find my way back to town—you must have a doctor."
"I don't want a doctor! I want to go—with my baby. And I don't want him to know—understand that—" with a struggle she raised to one elbow, eyes suddenly blazing with the flashes of her disordered brain, features strained and excited. "I don't want him to know! He ran away and left me for three days. The fire went out—my baby—" hysterical laughter broke from her dry lips—"My baby died, and still he didn't come. He—"
"Agnes!" Houston grasped her hands. "Try to control yourself! Maybe he couldn't get back. The storm—"
"Yes, the storm! It's always the storm! We would have been married—but there was the storm. He couldn't marry me months ago—when I found out—and when I came back out here! He couldn't marry me then. 'Wait'; that's what he always said—'wait—' and I waited. Now—" then the voice trailed off—"it's been three days. He promised to be back. But—"
Houston sought to end the repetition.
"Perhaps I could find him and bring him here."
But it was useless. The woman drifted back to her rambling statements. Laughter and tears followed one another in quick succession; the breaking of restraint had come at last. At last she turned, and staring with glazed eyes into those of Houston, burst forth.
"You hate me, don't you?"
"Don't deny it!" Querulous imperiousness was in the voice. "You hate me—you'll go back to Boston and tell my mother about this. I know—you've got the upper hand now. You'll tell her why I came out here—you'll tell her about the baby, won't you? Yes, you'll—"
"I'll tell nothing of the sort, Agnes. I don't fight that way. You ought to know that. You've been my enemy, I'll admit. I've felt bitter, terribly so, against you. I believed that you used my trust to betray me. But I believe I know the reason now. Besides, the harm's done. It's in the past. I fight men, not women."
"Do you want help?" A thin hand stretched out. "Will you give me a promise—if I give you one?"
"About what, Agnes?"
"My baby. You—you're not going to let it stay there? You're—"
"I hardly know what to do. I thought after you were better, I'd—"
"I'm better now." She tried to rise. "I'm better—see? I've more strength. You could leave me alone. I—I want you to take my baby."
"Where she can sleep in peace—in hallowed ground. I—I want a priest for her. Tell him that I baptized her Helena."
"Yes. And the other name?"
A weird laugh came from the colorless lips.
"She hasn't one."
"Then use mine—so you'll have evidence that I'm not married. Use mine, if that's the kind of a man you are—so you can go back and tell them—back home—that I—I—" The last bond had snapped. She caught at him with clawing hands, her eyes wild, her teeth showing from behind tightly drawn lips. "Torture me—that's it—torture me! At least, I didn't do that to you! I told you that I believed in you—at least that cheered you up when you needed it—I didn't tell you that I believed you guilty. Did I? I didn't continually ask you for the name of the man you'd killed? Oh, there were other things—I know there were other things—" the lips seemed to fairly stream words, "but at least, I didn't torture you. I—I—"
Then she halted, for the briefest part of a moment, to become suddenly madly cajoling, crazily cunning:
"Listen, Barry, listen to me. You want to know things. I can tell them to you—oh, so many of them. I'll tell them too—if you'll only do this for me. It's my baby—my baby. Don't you know what that means? Won't you promise for me? Take her to a priest—please, Barry—for what you once thought I was? Won't you, Barry? Haven't I had punishment enough? Did you ever lie all day and listen to the wind shriek, waiting for somebody who didn't come—with your dead baby in your arms? Do you want to punish me more? Do you want me to die too—or do you want me to live and tell you why I did the things I did? Do you? Do you want to know who was back of everything? I didn't do it for myself, Barry. It was some one else—I'll help you, Barry, honestly I'll help you."
"About the murder?" Houston was leaning forward now, tense, hopeful. But the woman shook her head.
"No—I don't know about that. Maybe you did it—I can't say. It's about other things—the lease, and the contract. I'll help you about that—if you'll help me. Take my baby—"
"And keep your secret, Agnes? Is that it?"
"Will you?" The woman's eyes were gleaming strangely. "My mother doesn't know. She's old—you know her, Barry. She thinks I'm—what I should have been. That's why I came back out here. I—I—"
The man rose. He walked to the window and stood for a long time looking out, trying to close his ears to the ramblings of the woman on the bed, striving to find a way to keep the promise she sought. For just a moment the old hatred flooded through him, the resentment toward this being who had been an integral factor in all the troubles which had pursued him in his efforts to beat back to a new life. But as swift as they came, they faded. No longer was she an enemy; only a broken, beaten woman, her empty arms aching as her heart ached; harassed by fears of exposure to the one woman in whom she still desired to be held in honor, of the whereabouts of the man who had led her on through the byways of love into a dismal maze of chicanery. Only a woman, ill, perhaps dying. A woman crying out for the one boon that she could ask of a person she knew to distrust and despise her, seeking the thing that now was her greatest desire in the world, and willing to promise—whether truthfully or not, Barry had no way of telling—to reveal to him secrets of the past, if he would but comply. Was she honest? As he stood there looking out at the snow, it seemed to make little difference. Was she sincere? He would strive to aid a dumb brute if he found it in distress. At last he turned and walked to the bed.
"I'll promise, Agnes. If you want to help me afterward, well and good. If not—you are free to do as you please. I suppose you want her dressed before—"
"Yes." The woman had raised eagerly. "There are clothes—she's never had on—in the bottom drawer of that old bureau. Take them with you. Then look in a box in the top drawer. You'll find a crucifix. They—they might want to put it on her."
She sank back in the bed, and Barry went to his task of searching the drawers of the rickety old bureau. In a mass of tangled, old-fashioned jewelry, he found the crucifix, its chain broken and twisted, and placed it in a pocket. Then he turned to the grimmer task,—and the good-by. A half-hour later, white-featured, his arms cupped gently about a blanket-wrapped form, he stepped forth into the storm, and bending against the wind, turned toward the railroad in obedience to the hazy directions of the sobbing woman he had left behind.
The snowfall was lighter now; he could find his way more easily. A half-hour passed, and he stopped, kneeling and resting the tiny, still bundle upon his knees to relieve his aching arms. Then on again in plodding perseverance,—fulfilling a promise to a woman who had done her best to wreck his existence.
A mile farther, and the railroad telegraph poles appeared. Houston saw them with grateful eyes, though with concern. He knew to a certainty that there was no priest in Tabernacle, and what his story would be when he got there was a little more than he could hazard. To Ba'tiste, he would tell the truth; to others, there must simply be some fabrication that would hold for the moment and that would allow him to go on—while Ba'tiste—
But suddenly he ceased his plans. Black splotches against the snow, two figures suddenly had come out of the sweeping veil,—a girl and a man. Something akin to panic seized Houston. The man was Lost Wing, faithfully in the background as usual. The girl was Medaine Robinette.
For once Houston hoped that she would pass him as usual,—with averted eyes. He did not care to make explanations, to be forced to lie to her. But Fate was against him. A moment more and the storm closed in again, with one of its fitful gusts, only to clear at last and to leave them face to face. Medaine's eyes went with womanly instinct to the bundle in his arms. And even though she could see nothing but the roundness of the blankets, the tender manner in which Barry Houston held the poor, inanimate little parcel was enough.
"A baby!" There was surprise in her tone. Forgetting for the moment her aversion to the man himself, she came forward, touching the blankets, then lifting one edge ever so slightly that she might peer beneath. "Where did you find it? Whose is it?"
Houston sought vainly for words. He stammered,—a promise made to an enemy struggling for supremacy. And the words seem to come unbidden:
"Does it matter?"
"Of course not." She looked at him queerly. "I merely thought I could be of assistance."
"You can. Tell me where I can find a priest."
"Yes, I need him—the baby is dead."
"Oh." She touched the bundle ever so softly. "I didn't know." Then with a sudden thought; "But her mother. She must need—"
"Only a doctor. I will try to get Ba'tiste to come out."
"But couldn't I—"
"I'm sorry." Barry tried in vain for the words that would tell her the truth, yet tell her nothing. He felt that he was miring himself hopelessly, that his denials and his efforts at secrecy could cause only one idea to form in her brain. He wanted to tell her the truth, to ask her aid, to send her back into the woods to the assistance of the stricken woman there. But he could not frame the request. Instead, "I—I can't tell you. I've given a woman my word. She wouldn't understand—if you went there. With Ba'tiste, it is different. He is a doctor. He has a right. I—I—"
"I understand," came quietly, and in those two words Houston felt that her opinion had been formed; that to her, he was the father; the quiet form in his arms his own child! It was like a blow to him; yet it was only what he had expected from the moment that he had recognized her. And after all, he felt that it did not matter; it was only one more false accusation to be added to the total, only one more height to be added to the barrier which already existed between them. He accepted her attitude—in spite of the pain it brought—and faced her.
"You were willing to help—before you—knew. You would have been glad to help in the case of a stranger. Are you still willing—now?"
She hesitated a moment, her eyes downcast, at last to force a smile.
"Of course. But you are asking something almost impossible. The nearest priest is at Crestline."
"Crestline?" Houston instinctively turned toward the hills, a bleak, forbidding wall against the sky. "I—"
"Rather, a mile below there at the Croatian settlement on Mount Harris. I am afraid you couldn't find it."
"I can try. Will you lend me Lost Wing to run an errand? I want to get Ba'tiste—for her."
"May I talk to him privately? He understands English?"
She nodded. Then:
"I will tell Lost Wing that anything you have to say to him shall be a secret even from me. I—do not want to know it."
She spoke to the Indian in Sioux then and drew away, her eyes on the tracings of a snowshoe. Houston, pointing with his head, gave the Indian his directions.
"A woman is sick in a cabin, two miles straight west from here. Get Ba'tiste Renaud and take him there. Turn away from the stream at a tall, dead lodgepole and go to the left. You will see the cabin. I would rather that you would not go in and that you know nothing about the woman. Tell Ba'tiste that her name must stay a secret until she herself is willing that it be otherwise. Do you understand?"
"A'ri." The Indian went then toward his mistress, waiting her sanction to the mission. She looked at Barry Houston.
"Have you given him his directions?"
"Then, Lost Wing, do as he has told you."
The Sioux started on, soon to be engulfed in the swirling veil of the storm. Barry turned again to the girl.
"Just one more request: I can't carry the child up there—this way. Will you help strap her to my pack?"
Silently she assisted him in the grim task of mercy. Then:
"Do you know the Pass?"
"I can find my way."
"Do you know it?"
He shook his head. She tapped one glove against the other.
"It is impossible then. You—"
"I'll make it some way. Thank you—for helping me."
He started on. But she called him back.
"It's dangerous—too dangerous," and there was a note of pity in her voice. "It's bad enough on foot when there's no snow—if you're not familiar with it. I—"
"Tell me the way. Perhaps I could find it. It's not for myself. I made a promise to the child's mother. I'm afraid she's dying."
A new light came into the girl's eyes, a light of compassion, of utmost pity,—the pity that one can feel for some one who has transgressed, some one who faces the penalty, who feels the lash of the whip, yet does not cry out. Slowly she came toward Houston, then bent to tighten the fastenings of her snowshoes.
"I know the way," came quietly. "I have been over it—in summer and winter. I will show you."
"You! Medaine! I—I—beg pardon." The outburst had passed his lips almost before he realized it. "Miss Robinette, you don't know what you're saying. It's all a man could do to make that climb. I—"
"I know the way," she answered, without indicating that she had heard his remonstrance. "I am glad to go—for the sake of—" She nodded slightly toward the tenderly wrapped bundle on the pack. "I would not feel right otherwise."
Then she faced him.
"I am not afraid," came with a quiet assurance that spoke more than words. It told Barry Houston that this little woman of the hills was willing to help him, although she loathed him; that she was willing to undergo hardships, to quell her own dislike for the man she aided that she might give him assistance in a time of death. And he thrilled with it, in spite of the false beliefs that he knew existed in the mind of Medaine Robinette. It gave him a pride in her,—even though he knew this pride to be gained at the loss of his own prestige. And more than all, it made him glad that he had played the man back there in the little, lonely cabin, where lay a sorrow-crazed woman, grieving for a child who was gone; that he too had been big enough and strong enough to forget the past in the exigencies of the moment; that he had aided where he might have hindered; that he had soothed where a lesser nature might have stormed. He bowed his head in acknowledgment of her announcement. Then, side by side, affixing the stout cord that was to form a bond of safety between two alien souls, they started forth, a man who had been accused, but who was strong enough to rise above it, and a woman whose woman-heart had dictated that dislike, distrust, even physical fear be subjugated to the greater, nobler purpose of human charity.
Silence was their portion as they turned toward the mountains. There was little to say. Now and then as Houston, in the lead, got off the trail, Medaine jerked on the cord to draw his attention, then pointed, and Barry obeyed. Thus their pilgrimage progressed.
An hour found them in the hills, plodding steadily upward, following the smoother mounds of snow which indicated heavy, secure drifts, at times progressing easily, almost swiftly, at others veering and tacking, making the precipitous ascent by digging their shoes into the snow and literally pulling themselves up, step by step. Here, where the crags rose about them, where sheer granite walls, too steep, too barren to form a resting place even for the driven snow, rose brown and gaunt above them, where the wind seemed to shriek at them from a hundred places at once, Houston dropped slowly back to watch the effect that it all was having upon the girl, to study her strength and her ability to go on. But there was no weakening in the sturdy little step, no evidence of fatigue. As they went higher, and the wind beat against them with its hail of splintered ice particles, Houston saw her heavily gloved hands go to her face in sudden pain and remain there. The man went to her side, and grasping her by the shoulder, stopped her. Then, without explanation, he brought forth a heavy bandanna handkerchief and tied it about her features, as high as possible without shutting off the sight. Her eyes thanked him. They went on.
Higher—higher! the old cracks of Houston's lips, formed in his days of wandering, opened and began to bleed, the tiny, red drops falling on his clothing and congealing there. The flying ice cut his skin; he knew that his eyeballs were becoming red again, the blood-red where never a speck of white showed, only black pupils staring forth from a sea of carmine. Harder and swifter the wind swept about them; its force greater than the slight form of the woman could resist. Close went Houston to her; his arm encircled her—and she did not resist—she who, down there in the west country in the days that had gone, would have rebelled at the touch of his hand! But now they were in a strange land where personalities had vanished; two beings equipped with human intelligence and the power of locomotion, little more. All else in their natures had become subjugated to the greater tasks which faced them; the primitive had come to life; they were fighting against every vengeful weapon which an outraged Nature could hurl,—fighting at cross-purposes, he to fulfill a promise to a woman who might even now be dead, she to assuage the promptings of a merciful nature, even to the extent of the companionship of a man she had been led to revile.
Afternoon came, and the welcome shelter of a ledge where the snow had drifted far outward, leaving a small space of dry rock,—to them like an island to a drifting victim of shipwreck. There they stopped, to bring food from the small provision pack which had been shifted to Medaine's shoulders, to eat silently, then, without a word, to rise and go onward.
Miles and miles,—rods in fact. Aeons of space after that, in which huddled, bent figures in the grip of stormdom, climbed, veering, swinging about the easier stretches, crawling at painfully slow pace up the steeper inclines. Upward through the stinging blast of the tempest they went, toward the top of a stricken world. Late afternoon; then Medaine turned toward the bleeding man beside her.
"A mile more."
She said no more. He nodded in answer and extended a hand to aid her over a slippery stretch of ice-coated granite. Timber line came and went. The snowfall ceased, to give way to the grayness of heavy, scudding clouds and the spasmodic flurries of driving white, as the gusty wind caught up the loose fall of the drifts and whirled it on, like harassed, lost souls seeking in vain a place they could abide. And it was in one of the moments of quiet that Medaine pointed above.
Five splotches showed on the mountain side,—the roofs of as many cabins; the rest of them were buried in snow. No smoke came from the slanting chimneys; no avenues were shoveled to the doorways; the drifts were unbroken.
"Gone!" Houston voiced the monosyllable.
"Yes. Probably on to Crestline. I was afraid of it."
"It's too late to turn back now."
And in spite of the pain of bleeding, snow-burned lips, Houston smiled at her,—the smile that a man might give a sister of whom he was inordinately proud.
"Are you afraid?"
She did not answer for a moment. Then:
"Are you afraid—of yourself?"
"No. Only men with something on their conscience are afraid."
She looked at him queerly, then turned away. Houston again took the lead, rounding the stretches, then waiting for her, halting at the dangerous gulleys and guiding her safely across, but silently. He had said enough; more would require explanations. And there was a pack upon his back which contained a tiny form with tight-curled hands, with eyes that were closed,—a poor, nameless little thing he had sworn to carry to grace and to protection. At last they reached the cabins. Houston untied the bond which connected them and loosened his snowshoes, that he might plunge into the smallest drift before a door and force his way within. There was no wood; he tore the clapboards from a near-by cabin and the tar paper from the wind-swept roof. Five minutes later a fire was booming; a girl tired, bent-shouldered, her eyes drooping from a sudden desire for sleep, huddled near it. Houston walked to the pack and took food.
"You would rather eat alone?"
"I shall be in the next cabin—awake."
"Yes. I'd rather—keep watch."
"But there is nothing—"
"Illness—a snowslide—a fresh drift. I would feel easier in mind. Good night."
Then with his snowshoes and his pack of death, he went out the door, to plunge through another drift, to force his way into a cabin, and there, a plodding, dumb figure, go soddenly about the duties of comfort. And more than once in the howling, blustery night which followed, Houston shivered, shook himself into action and rose to rebuild a fire that had died while he had sat hunched in the hard, uncomfortable chair beside it, trying to fathom what the day had meant, striving to hope for the keeping of the promises that an hysterical woman had made, struggling for the strength to go on,—on with this cheery, brave little bit of humanity in the next cabin, without a word in self-extenuation, without a hint to break the lack of estimation in which she held him, without a plea in his own defense. And some way, Houston felt that such a plea now would be cheap and tawdry; they were in a world where there were bigger things than human aims and human frailties. Besides, he had locked his lips at the command of a grief-ridden woman. To open them in self-extenuation would mean that she must be brought into it; for she had been the one who had clinched the points of suspicion in the mind of Medaine Robinette. Were he now to speak of proof that she had lied—
It was impossible. The wind-swept night became wind-swept dawn, to find him still huddled there, still thinking, still grim and drawn and haggard with sleeplessness and fatigue. Then he rose at a call from without:
"Are you ready?"
He affixed the pack. Together they went on again, graceless figures in frozen clothing, she pointing the way, he aiding her with his strength, in the final battle toward the summit of the range,—and Crestline.
Hours they plodded and climbed, climbed and plodded, the blood again dripping from his lips, her features again shielded by the heavy folds of the bandanna; the moisture of their breath at times swirling about them like angry steam, at others invisible in the areas of sudden dryness, where the atmosphere lapped up even the vapors of laboring lungs before it could visualize. Snow and cloud and rising walls of granite: this was their world, and they crawling pigmies within it. Once she brushed against the pack on his back and drew away with a sudden recoil. Houston dully realized the reason. The selfish, gripping hands of Winter, holding nothing sacred, had invaded even there.
Noon. And a half-cry from both of them, a burst of energy which soon faded. For above was Crestline—even as the little Croatian settlement had been—smokeless, lifeless. They had gone from here also, hurrying humans fleeing with the last snowplow before the tempest, beings afraid to remain, once the lines of communication were broken. But there was nothing to do but go on.
Roofless houses met them, stacks of crumpled snow, where the beams had cracked beneath the weight of high piled drifts; staring, glassless windows and rooms filled with white; stoves that no longer fought the clasp of winter but huddled instead amid piles of snow; that was all. Crestline had fled; there was no life, no sound, only the angry, wailing cry of the wind through half-frozen roof spouts, the slap of clattering boards, loosened by the storm. Gloomily Houston surveyed the desolate picture, at last to turn to the girl.
"I must go on. I gave my promise."
"It means Tollifer now. The descent is more dangerous."
"Do you know it?"
"Not as well as the other. If I only had something to guide me."
And as if in answer, the storm lifted for a moment. Gradually the wind stilled, in one of those stretches of calm which seem to be only the breeding spots of more terror, more bitterness. But they gave no heed to that, nor to the red ball of the sun, faintly visible through the clouds. Far below, miles in reality, straight jets of steam rose high above black, curling smoke; faintly, distantly, whistles sounded. The snowplows!
He gripped her arm with the sight of it, nor did she resist. Thrilled, enthralled, they watched it: the whirling smoke, the shooting steam, the white spray which indicated the grinding, churning progress of the plows, propelled by the heavy engines behind. Words came from the swollen lips of Houston, but the voice was hoarse, strained, unnatural:
"They've started the fight! They've—"
"It's on the second grade, up from Tollifer. It's fairly easy there, you know, for ten or twelve miles. They're making that without difficulty—their work won't come until they strike the snowsheds at Crystal Lake. Oh—" and there was in the voice all the yearning, the anxiety that a pent-up soul could know—"I wish I were a man now! I wish I were a man—to help!"
"I hope—" and Houston said it without thought of bravado—"that I may have the strength for both of us. I'm a man—after a sort. I'm going to work with them."
He knew what she meant and shook his head.
"No—she does not need me. My presence would mean nothing to her. I can't tell you why. My place—is down there."
For an instant Medaine Robinette looked at him with frankly questioning eyes, eyes which told that a thought was beginning to form somewhere back in her brain, a question arising as to his guilt in at least one of the things which circumstances had arrayed against him. Some way Barry felt that she knew that a man willing to encounter the dangers of a snowy range would hurry again to the side of the woman for whom he had dared them, unless— But suddenly she was speaking, as though to divert her thoughts.
"We'll have about three hours—from the looks of the sky. Unless conditions change quickly, there'll not be another blow before night. It's our chance. We'd better cut this cord—the one in the lead may fall and pull the other one over. We had better make haste."
Houston stepped before her. A moment later they were edging their way down the declivity of what once had been a railroad track, at last to veer. The drifts from the mountain side had become too sharp; it was easier to accept the more precipitous and shorter journey, straight downward, the nearest cut toward those welcome spires of smoke.
Gradually the snow shook or was melted from their clothing, through sheer bodily warmth. Black dots they became,—dots which appeared late in the afternoon to the laboring crews of the snow-fighters far below; dots which appeared and disappeared, edging their way about beetling precipices, plunging forward, then stopping; pulling themselves out of the heavier drifts, where drops of ten and even twenty feet had thrown them; swinging and tacking; scrambling downward in long, almost running descents, then crawling slowly along the ice walls, while the jutting peaks about them seemed to close them in, seemed to threaten and seek to engulf them in their pitfalls, only to break from them at last and allow them once more to resume their journey.
Breaks and stops, falls and plunges into drift after drift; through the glasses the workers below could see that a man was in the lead, with something strapped to his back, which the woman in the rear adjusted now and then, when it became partially displaced by the plunging journey. Banks of snow cut them off; snowshoes sank in air pockets—holes made by protruding limbs of the short, gnarled trees of timber line,—and through these the man fought in short, spasmodic lunges, breaking the way for the woman who came behind, never stopping except to gather strength for a fresh attack, never ceasing for obstacle or for danger. Once, at the edge of an overhanging ledge, he scrambled furiously, failed and fell,—to drop in a drift far below, to crawl painfully back to the waiting dot above, and to guide her, by safer paths, on downward. Hours! The dots grew larger. The glasses no longer were needed. On they came, stumbling, reeling, at last to stagger across the frozen, wind-swept surface of a small lake and toward the bunk cars of the snow crews. The woman wavered and fell; he caught her. Then double-weighted, a pack on his back, a form in his arms, he came on, his blood-red eyes searching almost sightlessly the faces of the waiting, stolid, grease-smeared men, his thick voice drooling over bloody lips:
"Somebody take her—get her into the bunk cars. She's given out. I'm— I'm all right. Take care of her. I've got to go on—to Tollifer!"
It was night when Barry Houston limped, muscles cramped and frost-numbed, into the little undertaking shop at Tollifer and deposited his tiny burden. Medaine Robinette had remained behind in the rough care of the snow crews, while he, revived by steaming coffee and hot food, had been brought down on a smaller snowplow, running constantly, and without extra power, between Tollifer and "the front", that the lines of communication be kept open.
"Nameless," he said with an effort, when the lengthy details of certification were asked. "The mother—" and a necessary lie came to his lips—"became unconscious before she could tell me anything except that the baby had been baptized and called Helena. She wanted a priest."
"I'll look after it. There's clothing?"
"Yes. In the pack. But wait—where does the Father live?"
The man pointed the way. Houston went on—to a repetition of his story and a fulfillment of his duties. Then, from far up the mountain side, there came the churning, grinding sound of the snowplow, and he hurried toward the station house to greet it. There on a spur, in the faint glow of an electric light, a short train was side-tracked, engineless, waiting until the time should come when the road again would be open, and the way over the Pass free. One glance told him what it was: the tarpaulin-covered, snow-shielded, bulky forms of his machinery,—machinery that he now felt he could personally aid to its destination. For there was work ahead. Midnight found him in a shack buried in snow and reached only by a circuitous tunnel, a shack where men—no longer Americans, but black-smeared, red-eyed, doddering, stumbling human machines—came and went, their frost-caked Mackinaws steaming as they clustered about the red-hot stove, their faces smudged with engine grease to form a coating against the stinging blast of the ice-laden wind, their cheeks raw and bleeding, their mouths swollen orifices which parted only for mumblings; vikings of another age, the fighters of the ice gangs, of which Houston had become a part.
The floor was their bed; silently, speaking only for the purpose of curses, they gulped the food that was passed out to them, taking the steaming coffee straight down in spite of its burning clutch at tender membranes, gnawing and tearing at their meal like beasts at the kill, then, still wadded in their clothing, sinking to the floor—and to sleep. The air was rancid with the odor of wet, steaming clothing. Men crawled over one another, then dropped to the first open spot, to flounder there a moment, then roar in snoring sleep. Against the wall a bearded giant half leaned, half lay, one tooth touching the ragged lips and breaking the filmy skin, while the blood dripped, slow drop after slow drop, upon his black, tousled beard. But he did not wake.
Of them all, only Houston, tired even as they were tired, yet with something that they had forgotten, a brain, remained open-eyed. What had become of Medaine? Had she recovered? Had she too gone to Tollifer, perhaps on a later trip of the plow? The thoughts ran through his head like the repetition of some weird refrain. He sought sleep in vain. From far away came the whistles of locomotives, answering the signals of the snowplows ahead. Outside some one shouted, as though calling to him; again he remembered the bulky cars of machinery at Tollifer. It was partially, at least, his battle they were fighting out there, while he remained inactive. He rose and sought the door, fumbling aimlessly in his pockets for his gloves. Something tinkled on the floor as he brought them forth, and he bent to pick up the little crucifix with its twisted, tangled chain, forgotten at Tollifer. Dully, hazily, he stared at it with his red eyes, with the faint feeling of a duty neglected. Then:
"She only said they might want it," he mumbled. "I'm sorry—I should have remembered. I'm always failing—at something."
Then, dully anxious to do his part, to take his place in the fighting line, he replaced the tiny bit of gold in his pocket, and threading his way through the circuitous tunnel of snow, stepped forth into the night.
It was one of those brief spaces of starlight between storms, and the crews were making the most of it. The wind had ceased temporarily, allowing every possible workman to be pulled from the ordinary task of keeping the tracks clear of the "pick-ups" of the wind, blowing the snow down from the drifts of the hill, and to be concentrated upon the primary task of many,—the clearing of the packed sittings which filled the first snowshed.
Atop the oblong shed, swept clear by the wind, a light was signalling, telling the progress of the plow, and its consequent engines, within. Even from the distance, Barry could hear the surge of the terrific impact, as the rotary, pushed by the four tremendous "compounds" and Malletts which formed its additional motive power, smashed against the tight-jammed contents of the shed, snarled and tore at its enemy, then, beaten at last by the crusted ice of the rails, came grudgingly back, that the ice crews, with their axes and bars, might break the crystallization from the rails and give traction for another assault. Houston started forward, only to stop. A figure in the dim light of the cook car had caught his eye. Medaine Robinette.
She was helping with the preparation of the midnight meal for the laborers, hurrying from the steaming cauldrons to the benches and baskets, filling the big pots with coffee, arranging the tin cups in their stacks for the various crews, and doing something that Houston knew was of more value than anything else,—bringing a smile to the tired men who labored beside her. And this in spite of the fact that the black rings of fatigue were about her eyes, that the pretty, smoothly rounded features had the suggestion of drawnness, that the lips, when they ceased to move, settled into the slightest bit of a droop. Now and then she stopped by one of the tables and clung to it, as though for support,—only to perk her head with a sudden little motion of determination, to turn, and then with a laugh go on with her work. Presently he heard her singing above the clatter of kitchenware and the scuffling of the men with their heavy, hobnailed shoes. And he knew that it was a song of the lips, not of the heart, that she might lighten the burden of others in forgetfulness of self.
And as he watched her, Houston knew for all time that he loved her, that he wanted her above all things, in spite of what she had been led to believe of him, in spite of everything. His hands extended, as though to reach toward her,—the aching appeal of a lonely, harassed man, striving for a thing he could not touch. Then hope surged in his heart.
If the woman back there in the west country only would tell! If she would only keep the promise which she had given him in her half-delirium! It meant the world to Barry Houston now,—something far greater even than the success for which he had struggled; she could tell so much!
For Houston felt that Agnes Jierdon knew the details of practically every conspiracy that had been fashioned against him; the substitution of the lease and contract in the pile of technical papers which he had signed, the false story which she had told to Medaine,—suddenly Barry wondered if she really had passed the scene of his struggle with Tom Langdon, if she had seen anything at all; if her whole testimony had not been a manufactured thing, built merely for the purpose of obtaining his utmost confidence. If she only would tell! If she only would stay by her promise to a man who had kept his promise to her! If—
But a call had come from up the line. The whistles no longer were tooting; instead, they were blowing with long foghorn blasts, an eerie sound in the cold, crisp night,—a sound of foreboding, of danger. A dim figure made its appearance, running along the box cars, at last to sight Houston and come toward him.
"Which car does the engine crews sleep in?" came sharply.
Houston shook his head.
"I don't know. Has something gone wrong?"
"Plenty. Both the firemen on Number Six have went out from gas—in the snowshed. We've picked up a guy out of an ice gang that's willin' to stand th' gaff, but we need another one. Guess there ain't nothin' to do but wake up one of th' day crew. Hate t' do it, though—they're all in."
"Don't, then. I'll make a try at it."
"Know anything about firin' an engine?"
"I know enough to shovel coal—and I've got a strong pair of shoulders."
"Come on, then."
Houston followed the figure toward the snowshed on the hill. Ten minutes later he stood beside a great Mallet engine, a sleek, glistening grayhound of the mountains, taking from the superintendent the instructions that would enable him to assist, at least, in the propulsion of the motive power. At the narrow areaway between the track and the high wall of the straightaway drifts through which the plow had cut, four men were lifting a limp figure, to carry it to the cars. The superintendent growled.
"You payin' attention to me—or that guy they're cartin' off? When you get in them gas pockets, stick your nose in the hollow of your elbow and keep it there 'till you've got your breath again. There ain't no fresh air in that there shed; the minute these engines get inside and start throwin' on the juice, it fills up with smoke. That's what gets you. Hold your nose in your arm while you take your breath. Then, if you've got to shovel, keep your mouth and your lungs shut. Got me?"
"Then go to it. Hey, Andy!"
"Yeh." A voice had come from the engine cab.
"Here's a guy that'll swing a shovel. I've told him about the gas."
Barry climbed to his place on the engine. A whistle sounded, to be echoed and reechoed by the answering blasts of the snowplow train—four engines and the big auger itself—ready now for a fresh sally into the shed. Headlights, extinguished momentarily, were thrown on again, lighting up the dirty, ragged edges of the snow walls, with their black marks of engine soot; throwing into sharp relief the smudge-faced figures of the pick-and-axe crews just emerging from the black maw of the tunnel; playing upon the smooth, white outlines of the forbidding mountains yet beyond, mountains which still must be conquered ere the top of the world was reached. Ahead came the "high-ball" signal from the plow; two sharp blasts, to be repeated by the first, the second, the third and fourth of the engines. Then, throttles open, fire boxes throwing their red, spluttering glare against the black sky as firemen leaped to their task, the great mass of machinery moved forward.
Faster—faster—then the impact, like crashing into a stone wall. They were within the snowshed now, the auger boring and tearing and snarling like some savage, vengeful thing against the solid mass of frigidity which faced it. Inch by inch for eight feet it progressed; the offal of the big blades flying past in the glare of the headlights like swirling rainbows; then progress ceased, while the plow ahead, answered by the engines which backed it, shrilled the triple signal to back up, out into the air again, that the ice crews might hurry to their tasks. The engineer opened the cab window and gratefully sucked in the fresh, clean air.
"Eight feet—that's all," he mused. "Eight feet at a time." Then, noticing Houston's attention, he went on:
"It's all the big screw can make. Got a hood on the front, you know, protecting the blades. It's eight feet from the front of that hood to the first trucks. When it's scooped that out, it's the finish. The wheels hit ice, and it's either back out or get derailed. So we back. Huh! There she goes again. Keep your nose in your elbow, youngster, this time. We're goin' back pretty sudden. We'll get gas."
The screaming of the whistles faded, giving way to the lurching of steel monsters as they once more crawled within the blackness of the smoke-filled, snow-choked shed. Deeper they went and deeper, the shouts from without fading away, the hot, penetrating sulphur smoke seeping in even through the closed cab, blackening it until the electric lights were nothing more than faint pinpoints, sending the faces of the men to their arms, while the two crouched, waiting anxiously until the signal should come from ahead.
A long, long moment, while the smoke cut deeper into protesting lungs, in spite of every effort to evade it, while Old Andy on the engine seat twisted and writhed with the agony of fading breath, at last to reel from his position and stumble about in the throes of suffocation. At last, from ahead, came the welcome signal, the three long-drawn-out blasts, and the engineer waved an arm.
"Pull that rope!" he gasped toward the first fireman. "For God's sake, pull that rope! I'm about gone."
A fumbling hand reached up and missed; the light was nearly gone now, in a swirling cloud of venomous smoke. Again the old engineer stumbled, and Houston, leaping to his side, supported him.
"Find that rope—"
"I can't see! The smoke—"
Desperately Houston released the engineer and climbed upward, groping. Something touched his hand, and he jerked at it. A blast sounded—repeated twice more. In the rear the signal was answered. Out ground the train to freedom again. It was the beginning of a night of an Arctic hell.
Back and forth—back and forth—fresh air and foul air—gleaming lights, then dense blackness—so the hours passed. Sally after sally the snowplow made, only to withdraw to give way to the pick crews, and they in turn, gasping and reeling, hurried out for the attack of the plow again. Men fell grovelling, only to be dragged into the open air and resuscitated, then sent once more into the cruelty of the fight. The hours dragged by like stricken things. Then—with dawn—the plow churned with lesser impact. It surged forward. Gray light broke through at the end of the tunnel. The grip of at least one snowshed was broken; but there remained twenty more—and the Death Trail—beyond!
"That's the baby I'm afraid of!" Old Andy was talking as they went toward the cars, the relief day crew passing them on the way. "We can whip these sheds. But that there Death Trail—there's a million tons of snow above it! Once that there vibration loosens it up—we'd better not be underneath it."
Houston did not answer. The clutch of forty-eight hours of wakeful activity was upon him. The words of Old Andy were only so much of a meaningless jumble to him. Into the car he stumbled, a doddering, red-eyed thing, to drink his coffee as the rest drank it, to shamble to the stove, forgetful of the steaming, rancid air, then like some tired beast, sink to the floor in exhausted, dreamless sleep.
Hours he remained there, while the day crew carried the fight on upward, through three of the smaller snowsheds, at last to halt at the long, curved affair which shielded the jutting edge of Mount Taluchen. Then Houston stirred; some one had caught him by the shoulder and was shaking him gently. A voice was calling, and Houston stirred, dazedly obedient to its command.
"I hate to awaken you—" It was a woman; her tones compassionate, gentle. "But they're whistling for the night crew. They've still got you on the list for firing."
Houston opened his eyes and forced a smile.
"That's all right. Thanks—thanks for waking me."
Then he rose and went forth into the agonies of the night,—willing, eager, almost happy. A few words from a woman had given him strength, had wiped out fatigue and aching muscles, and cramped, lifeless limbs,—a few words from a woman he loved, Medaine Robinette.
It was a repetition of the first night,—the same churning of the plows, the same smaller machines working along the right of way to keep the rails clear of drifting snow and ice particles, the wind howling again and carrying the offal of the plows in gigantic spouts of dirty white high into the air, to lash and pulverize it, then swish it away to the icy valleys beneath, where drifts could do no harm, where there were no struggling crews and dogged, half-dead men.
A repetition of the foul-smelling wooden tunnels, the sulphur fumes, the gasping of stricken men. The same long, horrible hours, the same staggering release from labor and the welcome hardness of a sleeping spot on a wooden floor. Night after night it was the same—starlight and snow, fair weather and storm. Barry Houston had become a rough-bearded, tattered piece of human machinery like all the rest. Then, at last—
The sun! Shining faintly through the windows of the bunk car, it caused him to stir in his sleep. Dropping in a flood of ruby red, it still reflected faint streaks of color across the sky, when at last he started forth to what men had mentioned but seldom, and then with fear. For to-night was the last night, the last either in the struggle or in the lives of those who had fought their way upward to the final barricade which yet separated them from the top of the world,—the Death Trail.
Smooth and sleek it showed before Houston in the early moonlight, an icy Niagara, the snow piled high above the railroad tracks, extending upward against an almost sheer wall of granite, in stacks and drifts, banked in places to a depth of a hundred feet. Already the plows were assembled,—four heavy steel monsters, with tremendous beams lashed in place and jutting upward, that they might break the overcasts and knock down the snow roofings that otherwise might form tunnels, breaking the way above as the tremendous fan of the plow would break it below. This was to be the fight of fights, there in the moonlight. Houston could see the engines breathing lazily behind their plows, sixteen great, steel contrivances, their burdens graduated in size from the tremendous auger at the fore to the lesser, almost diminutive one, by comparison, at the rear, designed to take the last of the offal from the track. For there would be no ice here; the drippings of the snowsheds, with their accompanying stalactites and stalagmites, were absent. A quick shoot and a lucky one. Otherwise,—the men who went forward to their engines would not speak of it. But there was one who did.
She was standing beside the cook car as Houston passed, and she looked toward him with a glance that caused Barry to stop and to wait, as though she had called to him. Hesitatingly she came forward, and Houston's dulled mentality at last took cognizance that a hand was extended slightly.
"You're still working on the engine?"
"Then you'll be with them?"
"On the Death Trail? I expect to."
"They talk of it as something terrible. Why?"
Houston pointed to the forbidding wall of snow. His thick, broken lips mumbled in the longest speech he had known in days.
"It's all granite up there. The cut of the roadbed forms a base for the remainder of the snow. It's practically all resting on the tracks; above, there's nothing for the snow to cling to. When we cut out the foundation—they're afraid that the vibration will loosen the rest and start an avalanche. It all depends whether it comes before—or after we've passed through."
"And you are not afraid?" She asked it almost childishly. He shook his head.
"I—don't know. I guess every one is—a bit afraid, when they're going into trouble. I know what I'm doing, if that's what you mean."
She was silent for a long moment, looking up at the packed drifts, at the ragged outlines of the mountains against the moonlit sky, then into the valleys and the shimmering form of the round, icy lake, far below. Her lips moved, and Barry went closer.
"Nothing—only there are some things I can't understand. It doesn't seem quite natural—"
"That things could—" Then she straightened and looked at him with clear, frank eyes. "Mr. Houston," came quietly, "I've been thinking about something all day. I have felt that I haven't been quite fair—that a man who has acted as you have acted since—since I met you this last time—that he deserves more of a chance than I have given him. That—"
"I'm asking nothing of you, Miss Robinette."
"I know. I am asking something of you. I want to tell you that I have been hoping that you can some day furnish me the proof—that you spoke of once. I—that's what I wanted to tell you," she ended quickly and extended her hand. "Good-by. I'll be praying for all of you up there."
Houston answered only with a pressure of his hand. His throat had closed suddenly. His breath jerked into his lungs; his burning, wind-torn lips ached to touch the hand that had lingered for a moment in his. He looked at her with eyes that spoke what his tongue could not say, then he went on,—a shambling, dead-tired man, even on awaking from sleep, but a man whose heart was beating with a new fervor. She would be praying for all of them up there at the Trail. And all of them included him.
At the cab of the engine, he listened to the final instructions of the cursing, anxious superintendent, then went to his black work of the shovel. Higher and higher mounted the steam on the gauge; theirs was the first plow, theirs the greatest task. For if they did not go through, the others could not follow; if their attack were not swift enough, staunch enough, the slide that was sure to come sooner or later would carry with it mangled machinery and the torn forms of men into a chasm of death. One by one the final orders came,—crisp, shouted, cursing commands, answered in kind. Then the last query:
"If there's a damn man of you who's a coward, step out! Hear that? If you're afraid—come on—there's no stopping once you start!"
Engine after engine answered, in jeering, sarcastic tones, the belligerent cries of men hiding what pounded in their hearts, driving down by sheer will-power the primitive desires of self-preservation. Again was the call repeated. Again was it answered by men who snarled, men who cursed that they might not pray. And with it:
"A-w-w-w-w—right! Let 'er go!"
The whistles screamed. Up the grade, four engines to a plow, the jets of steam shrilling upward, coughing columns of smoke leaping blackly up the mountain side, the start was made, as the great, roaring mass of machinery gathered speed for the impact.
A jarring crash that all but threw the men of the first crews from their feet, and the Death Trail had been met. Then churning, snarling, roaring, the snow flying in cloud-like masses past them, the first plow bit its way deep into the tremendous mass, while sweating men, Barry Houston among them, crammed coal into the open, angry fire boxes, the sand streamed on greasy tracks,—and the cavalcade went on.
A hundred yards,—the beams knocking down the snow above and all but covering the engines which forced their way through, only to leave as high a mass behind; while the whole mountain seemed to tremble; while the peaks above sent back roar for roar, and grim, determined men pulled harder than ever at the throttles and waited,—for the breath of night again, or the crash of the avalanche.
A shout from Old Andy. A pull at the whistle, screeching forth its note of victory. From in front was it answered, then from the rear, and on and on, seemingly through an interminable distance, as moonlit night came again, as the lesser plows in the rear swept their way clear of the Death Trail and ground onward and upward. But only for a moment. Then, the blare of the whistles was drowned in a greater sound, a roar that reverberated through the hills like the bellow of a thousand thunders, the cracking and crashing of trees, the splintering of great rocks as the snows of the granite spires above the Death Trail loosed at last and crashed downward in an all-consuming rush of destruction. Trees gave way before the constantly gathering mass of white, and joined in the downfall. Great boulders, abutting rocks, slides of shale! On it went, thundering toward the valley and the gleaming lake, at last to crash there; to send the ten-foot thicknesses of ice splintering like broken glass; to pyramid, to spray the whole nether world with ice and snow and scattering rock; then to settle, a jumbled conglomerate mass of destructiveness, robbed of its prey.
And the men shouted, and screamed and beat at one another in their frenzy of happiness, in spite of the fact that the track had been torn away from behind them as though it never had existed, and that they now were cut off entirely from the rest of the world. Only one snowshed remained, with but a feeble bulwark of drifts before it. Already lights were gleaming down the back-stretch, engines were puffing upward, bearing ties and rails and ballast and abuttment materials, on toward the expected, with men ready to repair the damage as soon as it was done. There were cries also from there below, the shouts of men who were glad even as the crews of the engines and plows were glad, and the engineers and firemen leaned from their cabs to answer.
Still the whistles screamed; all through the night they screamed, as drift after drift yielded, as the eight-foot bite of the first giant auger gnawed and tore at the packed contents of the last shed atop Crestline; then roared and sang, while the hills sent back their outbursts with echoes that rolled, one into another, until at last the whole world was one terrific out-pouring of explosive sounds and shrill, shrieking blasts, as though the mountains were bellowing their anger, their remonstrance at defeat. Eight feet, then eight feet more; steadily eight feet onward. Nor did the men curse at the sulphur fumes, nor rail at the steel-blue ice. It was the final fight; on the downgrade were lesser drifts, puny in comparison to what they had gone through, simple, easily defeated obstacles to the giant machinery, which would work then with gravity instead of against it. Eight feet more—eight feet after that; they marked it off on the windows of the engine cabs with greasy fingers and counted the hours until success. Night faded. Dawn came and then,—the sun! Clear and brilliant with the promise of spring again and of melting snows. The fight was the same as over.
Sleep,—and men who laughed, even as they snored, laughed with the subconscious knowledge of success, while the bunk cars which sheltered them moved onward, up to the peak, then started down the range. Night again,—and Houston once more in the engine cab. But this time, the red glare of the fire-box did not show as often against the sky; the stops were less frequent for the ice packs; once the men even sang!
Morning of the second day,—and again the sunshine, causing dripping streams from the long, laden branches of the pines and spruce, filling the streams bank-full, here and there cutting through the blanket of white to the dun-brown earth again. Work over, Houston leaned out the door of the bunk car, drinking in the sunshine, warm for the first time in weeks, it seemed,—and warm in heart and spirit. If she would only keep her promise! If she would allow Medaine to see her! If she would tell her the truth,—about the contract, the lease, and most of all that accusation. If—
The whistles again,—and crowded forms at the doors of the cars. Tabernacle was in the distance, while men and women waded through the soggy snows to be the first to reach the train. Happiness gleamed on the features of the inhabitants of a beleagured land shut away from the world for weeks, men and women who saw no shame in the tears which streamed down their cheeks, and who sought not to hide them. Eagerly Barry searched the thronging crowd, at last to catch sight of a gigantic figure, his wolf-dog beside him. He leaped from the car even before it had ceased to move.
"Ba'tiste!" he called. "Ba'tiste!"
Great arms opened wide. A sob came from the throat of a giant.
"Mon Baree! Mon Baree!" It was all he could say for a moment. Then, "Mon Baree, he have come back to Ba'teese. Ah, Golemar! Mon Baree, he have come back, he have come back!"
"We've won, Ba'tiste! The line's open—they'll be running trains through before night. And if she keeps her promise—"
"She?" Ba'tiste stared down at him. They had drawn away from the rest of the excited, noisy throng. "She? You mean—"
"Agnes. You've been taking care of her, haven't you? I found her—she promised that she would tell the truth for me when I got back, that she would explain the lease and contract and tell Medaine that it was all a lie. She—"
But Ba'tiste Renaud shook his head.
"No, Baree. Eet is the too late. I have jus' come—from there. I have close her eyes."
Dead! Houston saw Medaine Robinette pass in the distance, and his eyes followed her until she had rounded the curve by the dead aspens,—the eyes of lost hope. For it was upon life that he had planned and dreamed; that the woman of the lonely cabin would stand by her promise made in a time of stress and right at least some of the wrongs which had been his burden. But now—
"She—she didn't tell you anything before she went?"
Ba'tiste shook his head.
"She would not speak to me. Nothing would, she tell me. At first I go alone—then yesterday, when the snow, he pack, I take Golemar. Then she is unconscious. All day and night I stay beside the bed, but she do not open her eye. Then, with the morning, she sigh, and peuff! She is gone."
"Without a word." It spelled blackness for Houston where there had been light. "I—I—suppose you've taken charge of everything."
"Oui! But I have look at nothing—if that is what you mean."
"No—I just had something here that you ought to have," Houston fumbled in his pockets. "She would want it around her neck, I feel sure, I when she is——."
But the sudden glare in Ba'tiste's eyes stopped him as he brought forth the crucifix and its tangled chain. The giant's hands raised. His big lips twisted. A lunge and he had come forward, savage, almost beast-like.
"You!" He bellowed. "Where you get that? Hear me, where you get that?"
"From her. She—"
"Then come! Come—quick with me!" He almost dragged the younger man away, hurrying him toward the sled and its broad-backed old horses. "We must go to the cabin, oui—yes! Hurry—" Houston saw that he was trembling. "Eet is the thing I look for—the thing I look for!"
"Ba'tiste! What do you mean?"
"My Julienne," came hoarsely. "Eet is my Julienne's!"
Already they were in the sled, the wolf-dog perched between them, and hurrying along the mushy road, which followed the lesser raises of snow, taking advantage of every windbreak and avoiding the greater drifts of the highway itself. Two miles they went, the horses urged to their greatest speed. Then, with a leap, Ba'tiste cleared the runners and motioned to the man behind him.
"Come with me! Golemar! You shall stay behind. You shall fall in the drift—" The old man was talking excitedly, almost childishly. "No? Then come—Eet is your own self that must be careful. Ba'teese, he cannot watch you. Come!"
At a run, he went forward, to thread his way through the pines, to flounder where the snow had not melted, to go waist-deep at times, but still to rush onward at a speed which taxed even Houston's younger strength to keep him in sight. The wolf-dog buried itself in the snow, Houston pulling it forth time after time, and lugging it at long intervals. Then at last came the little clearing,—and the cabin. Ba'tiste already was within.
Houston avoided the figure on the bed as he entered and dropped beside the older man, already dragging forth the drawers of the bureau and pawing excitedly among the trinkets there. He gasped and pulled forth a string of beads, holding them trembling to the light, and veering from his jumbled English to a stream of French. Then a watch, a ring, and a locket with a curly strand of baby hair. The giant sobbed.
"My Pierre—eet was my Pierre!"
"What's that?" Houston had raised suddenly, was staring in the direction of an old commode in the corner. At the door the wolf-dog sniffed and snarled. Ba'tiste, bending among the lost trinkets that once had been his wife's, did not hear. Houston grasped him by the shoulder and shook him excitedly.
"Ba'tiste! Ba'tiste! There's some one hiding—over there in the corner. I heard sounds—look at Golemar!"
"Hiding? No. There is no one here—no one but Ba'tiste and his memories. No one—"
"I tell you I heard some one. The commode moved. I know!"
He rose, only to suddenly veer and flatten himself against the wall. The yellow blaze of aimless revolver fire had spurted from the corner; then the plunging form of a gnarled, gangling, limping man, who rushed past Houston to the door, swerved there, and once more raised the revolver. But he did not fire.
A furry, snarling thing had leaped at him, knocking the revolver from his hand in its plunging ascent. Then a cry,—a gurgling growl. Teeth had clenched at the throat of the man; together they rolled through the door to the snow without, Golemar, his hold broken by the fall, striving again for the death clutch, the man screaming in sudden frantic fear.
"Take him off!" The voice of the thin-visaged Fred Thayer was shrill now. "Take him off—I'll tell you about it—she did it—she did it! Take him off!"
"Golemar!" Ba'tiste had appeared in the doorway. Below the dog whirled in obedience to his command and edged back, teeth still bared, eyes vigilant, waiting for the first movement of the man on the ground. Houston went forward and stood peering down at the frightened, huddled form of Thayer, wiping the blood from the fang wound in his neck.
"You'll tell about what?" came with sudden incisiveness.
The man stared, suddenly aware that he had spoken of a thing that had been mentioned by neither Ba'tiste nor Houston. His lips worked crookedly. He tried to smile, but it ended only in a misshapen snarl.
"I thought you fellows were looking for something. I—I—wanted to get the dog off."
"We were. We've found it. Ba'tiste," and Houston forced back the tigerish form of the big French-Canadian. "You walk in front of us. I'm—I'm afraid to trust you right now. And don't turn back. Do you promise?"
The big hands worked convulsively. The eyes took on a newer, fiercer glare.
"He is the man, eh? His conscience, eet speak when there is no one to ask the question. He—"
"Go on, Ba'tiste. Please." Houston's voice was that of a pleading son. Once more the big muscles knotted, the arms churned; the giant's teeth showed between furled lips in a sudden beast-like expression.
"Ba'tiste! Do you want to add murder to murder? This is out of our hands now; it's a matter of law. Now, go ahead—for me."
With an effort the Canadian obeyed, the wolf-dog trotting beside him, Houston following, one hand locked about the buckle of the thinner man's belt, the other half supporting him as he limped and reeled through the snow.
"It's my hip—" The man's mind had gone to trivial things. "I sprained it—about ten days ago. I'd been living over here with her up till the storm. Then I had to be at camp. I—"
"That was your child, then?"
Fred Thayer was silent. Barry Houston repeated the question commandingly. There could be no secrecy now; events had gone too far. For a third time the accusation came and the man beside him turned angrily.
"Whose would you think it was?"
Houston did not answer. They stumbled on through the snow-drifted woods, finally to reach the open space leading to the sleigh. Thayer drew back.
"What's the use of taking me into town?" he begged. "She's dead and gone; you can't harm her now."
"We're not inquiring about her."
"But she's the one that did it. She told me—when she first got sick. Those are her things in there. They're—"
"Have I asked you about anything?" Houston bit the words at him. Again the man was silent. They reached the sled, and Ba'tiste pointed to the seat.
"In there," he ordered. "Ba'teese will walk. Ba'teese afraid—too close." And then, in silence, the trip to town was made, at last to draw up in front of the boarding house. Houston called to a bystander.
"Is the 'phone working—to Montview?"
"Yeh. Think it is. Got it opened up yesterday."
"Then call up over there and tell the sheriff we want him. It has to do with the Renaud murder."
The loafer sprang to the street and veered across, shouting the news as he went, while Ba'tiste made hurried arrangements regarding the silent form of the lonely cabin. A few moments later, the makeshift boarding-house lobby was crowded, while Barry Houston, reverting to the bitter lessons he had learned during the days of his own cross-examinations, took his place in front of the accused man.
"In the first place, Thayer," he commanded. "You might as well know one thing. You're caught. The goods are on you. You're going up if for nothing else than an attempt to murder Ba'tiste Renaud and myself."
"I—I thought you were robbers."
"You know that's a lie. But that's a matter for the court room. There are greater things. In the first place—"
"About that other—" Still he clung to his one shred of a story, his only possibility of hope. Conscience had prompted the first outcry; now there was nothing to do but follow the lead. "I don't know anything. She told me—that's all. And she's dead now."
"Ah, oui!" Ba'tiste had edged forward. "She is dead. And because she is dead—because she have suffer and die, you would lay to her door murder! Eet is the lie! Where then is the ten thousand dollar she took—if she kill my Julienne? Eh? Where is the gun with which she shot her? Ah, you cringe! For why you do that—for why do you not look at Ba'teese when he talk about his Julienne! Eh? Is eet that you are afraid? Is eet that your teeth are on your tongue, to keep eet from the truth? Oui! You are the man—you are the man!"
"I don't know anything about it. She told me she did it—that those were Mrs. Renaud's things."
"Ah! Then you have nev' see that ring, which my Julienne, she wore on her finger. Ah, no? You have nev' see, in all the time that you come to Ba'teese house, the string of bead about her neck. Oui! Eet is the lie, you tell. You have see them—eet is the lie!"
And thus the battle progressed, the old man storming, the frowning, sullen captive in the chair replying in monosyllables, or refusing to answer at all. An hour passed, while Tabernacle crowded the little lobby and overflowed to the street. One by one Ba'tiste brought forth the trinkets and laid them before the thin-faced man. He forced them into his hands. He demanded that he explain why he had said nothing of their presence in the lonely cabin, when he had known them, every one, from having seen them time after time in the home of Renaud. The afternoon grew old. The sheriff arrived,—and still the contest went on. Then, with a sudden shifting of the head, a sudden break of reserve, Thayer leaned forward and rubbed his gnarled hands, one against the other.
"All right!" he snapped. "Have it your way. No use in trying to lay it on the woman—you could prove an alibi for her. You're right. I killed them both."
"Both?" They stared at him. Thayer nodded, still looking at the floor, his tongue licking suddenly dry lips.
"Yeh, both of 'em. One brought on the other. Mrs. Renaud and John Corbin—they called him Tom Langdon back East."
It was staggering in its unexpectedness. A gasp came from the lips of Barry Houston. He felt himself reeling,—only to suddenly straighten, as though a crushing weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He whirled excitedly and grasped the nearest onlooker.
"Go get Medaine Robinette. Hurry! Tell her that it is of the utmost importance—that I have found the proof. She'll understand."
Then, struggling to reassure himself, he turned again to the prisoner. Two hours later, in the last glint of day, the door opened, and a woman came to his side, where he was finishing the last of many closely written sheets of paper. He looked up at her, boyishly, happily. Without waiting for her permission, he grasped her hand, and then, as though eager for her to hear, he turned to the worn-faced man, now slumped dejectedly in his chair.
"You understand, Thayer, that this is your written confession?"
The man nodded.
"Given in the presence of the sheriff, of Ba'tiste Renaud, of myself, and the various citizens of Tabernacle that you see here?"
"Of your own free will, without threats or violence?"
"I guess so."
"And you are willing to sign it?"
The man hesitated. Then:
"I'd want to know what I was signing."
"Certainly. I intend to read it to you—so that all witnesses may hear it. It is then to be filed with the district attorney. You can signify its correctness or incorrectness after every paragraph. Is that agreeable?"
"I guess so."
A pause. At last:
"'My name is Fred Thayer. I am forty-four years of age. Prior to about a year ago, I was employed by the Empire Lake Mill and Lumber Company as superintendent. I had occupied this position for some fifteen or twenty years, beginning with it when it was first started by Mr. Houston of Boston.' Is that right?"
A nod from the accused. Houston went on:
"'I figured from the first that I was going to be taken in partnership with Mr. Houston, although nothing ever was said about it. I just took it for granted. However, when years passed and, nothing was done about it, I began to force matters, by letting the mill run down, knowing that Mr. Houston was getting old, and that he might be willing to sell out to me if things got bad enough. At that time, I didn't know where I was going to get the money, but hoped that Mr. Houston would let me have the mill and acreage on some sort of a payment basis. I went back to see him about it a couple of times, but he wouldn't listen to me. He said that he wanted to either close the thing out for cash or keep on running it in the hope of making something of it.' That's all right, isn't it, Thayer?"