"Garth!" she said suddenly. "Let's make a break for it! Anything would be better than this!"
He shook his head. "No go, dearest," he said. "I've been over that, over and over it, every night for a week!"
"Couldn't we start down the lake in the canoe?" she said. "And make our way from some point below? We could cover our tracks that way, and gain much time. You have a rough map and a compass."
"They would discover in the morning that the canoe was gone," he said.
"They might not miss it for a day or two."
"They have the smoke of our fire to go by, too."
"They're careless. We might get a good start."
"Dearest, even if we had many days' start, they know we must make for the Settlement. How easy it would be to head us off!"
"But it might succeed," was all she could say.
"It's seventy-five miles," he said sadly. "You're not strong yet. How could you walk it, without food to support you on the way?"
"You have your gun," she said faintly.
"There's no hunting on the open prairie for a man on foot!"
Natalie dropped her head back on his shoulder; and said no more.
Garth's face grew grimmer and grimmer in the firelight. "Do not lose heart, dear," he said at last, in a gentle voice that was strangely at variance with his eyes. "Matters will take a turn to-morrow; I promise you that."
"What are you going to do?" she asked anxiously.
"I'm thinking it out," he said, evasively. "I'll tell you when it's pieced together."
She was too weary to question him further.
In the darkness of his own room, he faced the thing. There was to be no sleep for him this night. The alternative had been there from the first; but hitherto he had averted his eyes from it, hoping against hope. Now it could be put off no longer. It was Natalie's life against theirs; and throughout the hours of the night, he steeled his heart to launch five souls to eternity—two of them the souls of women. Rina he knew would be transformed into a tigress by the death of Mabyn; so even Rina, whom Natalie loved, must go too. He found himself dwelling with horror on the harmony of her beauty, the deep fire of her eyes, the soft play of colour in her cheeks—which he was to mar!
Supposing he succeeded, the dreadful consequences were painfully clear to him; the hideous noise it would make in the world when they got out; the ugly look it would have, with no one to bear out his story but Natalie, and her lawful husband among the dead! Grylls's lying letter had shown him how easy it would be to paint that side of the story in the colours of justice. For himself, Garth cared nothing; but the thought of Natalie, the sport of a world of malicious tongues, maddened him. But there was no help for it; it had to be done.
His plan was simple in the extreme. He intended to cross the lake in the canoe; land well beyond Mabyn's camp; and fire the grass to the windward of the shack. No rain had fallen in weeks; the grass was as dry as tinder; and the old bleached shack itself almost as inflammable as gunpowder. He had, moreover, a small quantity of oil among the things seized from Mabyn. The night itself seemed to speak for the deed; it was as dark as Erebus; and there was a blustering, raw wind from the north, presaging snow.
After starting the fire, he meant to climb the rising ground behind; and when they ran to beat out the flames, he would pick them off one by one. His gun would shoot as fast as he could think; he might get all five then. And if any regained the hut, they would soon be driven out again. Whichever way they ran, Garth could run as fast on the higher ground; and none of them was such a shot as he. Grylls first; then Mabyn; then the breeds. He meant to wait until dawn, so that if any escaped the radius of the fire, he could get them by daylight.
But no executioner may have imagination; in the darkness of his room the attitudes of the slain were pictured to Garth as clearly as if they already lay before him: Grylls's gross body huddled in the grass; Mabyn hideous in death; and Rina cold and still in her wistful beauty. Cries of terror and agony rang in his ears; and he saw himself afterward burying the bodies—partly eaten by the flames. Small icy drops broke out on his forehead. Though he was doing it for her, when it was done, Natalie could not but shrink from such a bloody wretch. It would part them forever. But it must be done!
When his watch showed half-past four—the dawn was later now—he arose to start. He called Natalie to bar the door after him. He told her he was going merely to look about and that she must not worry if he was not back until daylight. Natalie was scarcely awake. He yearned mightily to take her soft, sleepy form in his arms for once before they were imbrued; but he dared not, knowing she would instantly interpret the act as a possible farewell.
When she closed the door behind him, he felt as one lost to hope.
As he grasped the canoe, preparatory to pushing it off, he suddenly became aware through his sharpened senses—he could not have said how—that some one was very near him. He noiselessly dropped to one knee; and unslinging his gun, waited. The wind was making confusing noises and he could not be sure. The suspense became too great to be borne in silence.
"Who's there?" he said sharply.
There came a strange, new, and yet familiar voice out of the darkness: "Garth, is that you?"
His heart began to beat wildly. "Who are you?" he whispered.
"Charley!" returned the voice with the boyish break in it.
They sprang to their feet simultaneously, not ten paces apart in the grass.
"I've brought you grub!" sang the boy. "How's Natalie?"
In an instant they were in each other's arms. A swift reaction passed over Garth; his knees weakened under him; he clung to the boy's shoulders; and lowered his head.
"Oh, thank God! thank God!" he murmured.
THE BROKEN DOOR
Garth beat recklessly on the cabin door crying:
"Natalie! Natalie! Good news!"
She was not long in opening.
"See what I've brought you back!" he shouted.
They slammed the door shut; and together pulled Charley in by the light of the fire.
"Charley! Charley!" cried Natalie, quite beside herself with delight; and flinging her free arm around his neck, she pressed her lips full on his.
The honest full-moon face of the boy turned as red as a peony; but his arms closed around her too, with a right good will; and it was Natalie in the end, who was obliged gently to disengage herself.
They all talked at once; they laughed and wept in concert. As soon as they finished shaking hands all around, they began again. Whenever Garth was at a loss to express his feelings, he whacked Charley between the shoulders, until the boy coughed. In the end, speech failing them completely, they whooped and capered about the shack like wild things.
"I say!" said Garth suddenly. "We're giving ourselves away nicely! The news has reached Mabyn and Grylls by this time."
They quieted down.
"Tell us your adventures, Charley dear," said Natalie.
"I'd better bring my stuff in first," said he.
"Where is it?"
The boy unslung a bundle from his back. "Thought you might be hungry, so I brought enough for a couple of squares," he said; "sugar, and tea, and bacon, and flour. And say, I thought something fancy would go down good; so there's a tin of sardines and a box of biscuits."
"Oh! you darling!" said Natalie.
Charley was much embarrassed. "The rest of the stuff's cached two miles down the shore," he went on hastily. "I'll trot along and bring it in."
"Take the canoe," said Garth; "and they can't hold you up."
"What will I do with the horses?" asked Charley.
This was a problem. "How many?" Garth asked.
"How will we keep them out of Grylls's hands?"
"Why wait at all?" asked Natalie. "Let us all get in the canoe, and start for home. It will take me just five minutes to get ready!"
But Garth shook his head. "You can't ride above a walk yet," he said. "It would mean a running fight all the way. The odds are still too great against us in the open!"
"The fellows from the Settlement promised to come look for us in a week if we weren't home," said Charley.
"Good!" said Garth. "Then we'll wait for them!"
"And the horses?" said the boy anxiously. "They're not much to brag about; but I'm in debt a hundred bones for them."
Garth clapped him on the back again. "Don't you worry about that, old boy!" he cried. "The debt is mine! Tell you what we'll do!" he added, "We'll bring them up here, and swim them off to the island. There's forage enough over there for a day or two, and they will be right under our eyes!"
They set off immediately in the canoe; and it was all accomplished as planned. Charley brought the precious grub back by water, out of Grylls's possible reach; while Garth drove the horses in over the trail at a smart pace. Nothing happened en route; it was probably all done before their adversaries had time to plan an attack. They swam the horses to the island, and were both back in the shack, before it was light enough to aim a gun.
Breakfast followed; and such a breakfast! They both helped the one-armed cook. There was bannock light and snowy; bacon fried crisp—"breakfast" bacon, very different in the North from plain "bacon"; and fried sardines—delectable morsels! and coffee, and jam. All the delicious things Garth and Natalie had dreamed of paled beside this homely reality. Each of the three was delighted, moreover, to see the others eat; Charley in especial, at the sight of the good he had brought, could scarcely stop grinning to chew. Afterward he had to be told all that had happened; and he in return related his adventures.
"Tell you what! I was sore when Garth sent me back!" Charley began. "'What's the use!' I thought. 'I can't do any work, not knowing what's come of them.' In the end I just didn't go back. I had all kinds of crazy ideas about following you along the trail; but at last I thought maybe I could be some real use by hanging round the Settlement, and keeping an eye on Nick Grylls. And I did.
"Say, he really was knocked out all right, all right. They carried him in from the lake; and the sisters nursed him in the Convent. Construction of the brain he had, or something like that. Seems he got up when he first come to on the shore, walked ten miles, and then collapsed right near Grier's Point. But they kept that low. Hooliam gave out a great story, how a big storm came up on the lake, and how Nick fell overboard, et cetera, et cetera; Garth wasn't mentioned in it at all!
"Long before Nick was able to be around, he sent down for Mary Co-que-wasa and Xavier; and then I knew there was more mischief brewing. Say, those two are the toughest of the whole tough bunch. They say Xavier is Mary's son. All this time I was getting mighty worried myself, why you didn't come back, and I was going to look for you anyway. However, as soon as he was up, Grylls got a big outfit together, and started over the portage with the two breeds. He gave out that he was going up to Ostachegan Creek—but I knew! I got a couple of cayuses on credit, and a little grub; and followed him inside three hours.
"He beat me by a day to the Crossing, and went right through. Over there I heard about you from the fellows; and say, I was scared for fair, when I counted up the grub I knew you had, and then thought how long you'd been away! I hustled and got another horse and all the grub they would trust me for. I tried my darnedest to get some of the fellows to come with me. They laughed at me! They said I'd been reading too many dime novels—I never read any! You see, every one knows Nick Grylls so well, and nothing like this ever happened before. Jim Plaskett, the policeman, would have believed me; but he was away. I left a letter for him. I lost a couple of good days at the Crossing over this. The most the fellows would say was, if I didn't bring you back in a week, the bunch would ride up here.
"I was so excited with it all, I lost myself like a bloody fool for two days on the prairie; and I just ran on the lake, by accident, yesterday afternoon. Say, I almost gave the whole snap away, for I came over the hill right above Mabyn's shack. Maybe I didn't duck in a hurry! There was the whole bunch below me! Across the corner of the lake, I could see this house too. I know it must be yours because it was just built; and it had a sort of tenderfoot look to it. Say! I wasn't glad to see smoke coming out of the chimney! Oh, no!
"Well, that's about all. I took a long sweep around the prairie, and came down at the place where we got the horses. I thought they would have you watched, so I figured I'd better wait for night, before trying to open up communications. When she got good and dark, I crawled around the shore of the lake. But when I got here, I didn't know how in thunder to let you know it was me, without bringing down the bunch on us. So I decided to lay low till morning, and show myself to you, the first chance I got. Then Garth came out and it was all right!"
"Just in the nick of time!" said Garth grimly.
"What were you going to do?" asked Natalie quickly.
But he never told her.
* * * * *
They settled down with what patience they could muster, to wait for their relief. Two days passed without any hostile demonstration from the camp on the hill; but that their enemies kept themselves well informed, they had the best reason to know; for it snowed on the second day, and on the following morning there were moccasin tracks around the house, and the rounded marks of two knees under the loophole in Natalie's room. Garth had taken the precaution to hang a piece of canvas over the hole; nevertheless, the discovery made them decidedly uncomfortable. Garth nailed a board over the hole; and they searched the walls anew for any tell-tale crack that might betray them.
It grew warm again; and the snow melted off the ground. Frequent observations of the other camp taught them nothing. This apparent inactivity puzzled Garth, since the others must know that the game of starving them out was blocked with the arrival of Charley. They waited in momentary expectation of attack, or a proposal; but none came.
Garth's only serious anxiety now was for the three horses. They must by this time have cropped the limited herbage of the island; and in another day, when they began to suffer with hunger, they would undoubtedly swim off; and all his trouble to save them would be lost. He was greatly tempted by the recollection of a wide, low meadow on the edge of the lake below, where the blue-joint grass grew as high as a man's thigh, curing naturally in the sun. With an hour's labour, he reflected, he could cut enough to last them for a day.
There was a risk, of course, in depriving the cabin of its principal defender for even so long; but he would not be at any time more than half an hour's journey from them; and Charley ought surely to be able to hold the fort for that time. In case of an attack it might even be an advantage for him, Garth, to be on the outside of the cabin, where he could flank the attackers with his gun.
In the end he went; setting off two hours before dawn, according to his custom. On issuing from the shack, he found with some anxiety that the sky had become heavily overcast, and an east wind had sprung up. This would prevent his hearing as well as he wished; however, he considered that if Grylls intended a night attack, he would scarcely wait until so near morning: and he kept on.
He sat in the stern of the canoe pushing hard against the opposing wind. The raised bow danced over the water, slapping the little waves, and sending out musical cascades of drops on either side. The wind had the same cool, damp smell of the east winds at home; and he was reminded of a score of nights when he had nothing heavier on his mind than the approaching end of a vacation. After two days' imprisonment in the shack, the tussle with the wind was highly exhilarating; and it was very good to measure the strength of his arms. He sang under his breath as he worked. Black as it was, he could guide himself by the dimly-sensed outline of the tree masses; and when they receded he knew he had arrived opposite the meadow.
It took him longer than he had counted on to gather what he could carry; for he was hampered by the intense darkness. He collected the hay into small armfuls, which in turn he tied into great bundles; and wedged them into the canoe. Embarking again, he raced back before the wind at double the speed he had made against it.
On the way, a single, dull sound, coming muffled through the night, brought his heart into his throat. He paused; but no other sound followed, except the song of the water, and the sweep of the wind through the branches on shore. He redoubled his strokes, filled with a vague anxiety; and pausing only to cast out his bundles on the shore of the island, hastened back to the camp. He heard no other untoward sounds; but crossing from the island, he saw that the fire in the other camp had died down. This had never happened any night before; and it added to his uneasiness. The increased chill of the air now heralded the approach of dawn; but it was not yet any lighter.
As he landed, the familiar outline of his own house, just as he had left it, allayed his fears. Everything about the camp was still. Cautiously drawing up the canoe, he advanced with confidence to give the prearranged knock on the door. His knuckles beat upon the air. The door was wide open.
Then Garth's heart shrivelled in his breast; and his throat was constricted as by sudden deadly fumes. He staggered in. There was a stale odour of gunpowder in the room.
"Natalie! Charley!" he called, in a choked whisper.
The stillness mocked him.
He ran into Natalie's room, still faintly illumined by the embers of the hearth. A glance told him it was empty; but he felt with his hands in all the dim corners, agonizingly whispering her name. There was no evidence here that any struggle had taken place.
Running out to the outer room toward Charley's bed, he fell over a body lying on the floor. A touch told him it was the boy. He disregarded it, until he had made sure Natalie was not there. Then dragging the body into the inner room, he built up the fire. He saw the boy was not dead; he could find no wound on him. He worked desperately to bring him to.
Charley stirred at last, and opened his eyes.
"What happened?" besought the distracted Garth.
The boy only looked at him stupidly.
"For God's sake collect your wits, and tell me!" he cried.
Charley, suddenly clutching Garth's arm, raised himself on his elbow. "Garth!" he cried wildly. "Natalie! Where is she?"
"God knows!" groaned Garth.
Terrible recollection returned to the boy's eyes. He sat up dizzy and nauseated. "I remember now!" he stuttered.
"Quick! Quick!" implored Garth.
"It was a little while after you went," Charley continued, getting it out with difficulty. "Natalie came and shook me. She said she heard a sound outside.... We waited and listened—a quarter of an hour it seemed.... We heard nothing.... Then suddenly with one big crack, the door flew open. They drove a log against it.... I couldn't tell how many came in—maybe three.... I shoved Natalie behind me in the farthest corner. I had the Winchester ready in my hands.... They dropped to the floor when they came in; and scattered. I couldn't tell where they were—I don't know how long it was.... Suddenly I heard something close to—somebody breathing. I fired. In the flash I saw them all, Xavier, Mary, and right over me, Nick Grylls, swinging the butt of his gun—then my head split in pieces ... and you came!"
"Oh, my God!" cried Garth.
He picked up his rifle, and ran like a madman from the cabin.
Garth had no conscious design in running; his muscles merely reacted in obedience to the grinding tumult in his brain. His eardrums rang with the fancied sound of Natalie's cries; and his eyeballs were seared with the picture of her shrinking in the brutal hands of Grylls. As he crashed through the wood, the little branches whipped his face unmercifully; and the spiny shoots of the jackpines tore his clothes. He ran full tilt into unyielding obstacles; and was flung aside, unconscious of the shock.
He instinctively sought the other camp. He found it deserted; the tent gone; the door of the empty cabin swinging idly in the wind. He came to a stop then; and his arms dropped to his sides: without knowledge of the direction they had taken; and without the craft to follow their tracks in the grass, in his helplessness he hovered on the brink of sheer madness. He was sharply called back to himself by the sound of a faint groan from the edge of the cut-bank. A tinge of gray had by this time been woven into the unrelieved blackness. Running toward the sound, he found a human form prone in the grass; and he saw it was a woman lying on her face. Grasping her shoulders, he rolled her over. It was Rina.
A tiny hope sprang in his breast. Here at last was a clue.
"Get up!" he said roughly.
She made no answer. From her limpness, and her cold, moist hands, Garth apprehended that she was physically sick. Partly raising her, he poured part of the contents of his flask down her throat. She choked, and turned her head away.
"Let me be!" she murmured. "Let me die!"
The wildness in Garth's veins subsided. Here he had something tangible to work upon; and his conscious brain resumed operations; prompting him at first like a small, strange voice at an immense distance.
"Tell me what happened!" he said hoarsely. "If they have wronged you, too, help me to find them, and we'll pay them off together!"
"No! I want die!" whispered Rina in a voice as dull and hopeless as the sound of all-day rain in the grass. "I say I kill myself. He laugh. He see me tak' bad medicine. He don' care. I fall down. He leave me. I t'ink I die then. I ver' glad. But I tak' too much; and it only mak' my stomach sick. Bam-by I try to go to lake and jomp in—but my head go off!"
In spite of her unwillingness, Garth forced more of the stimulant down her throat. Presently she was able to sit up. She bowed her back, and buried her face in her crossed arms.
"Ride with me after them!" urged Garth. "They have less than an hour's start! We will overtake them at their first camp. Rouse yourself!"
But Rina only shook her head; and continued to murmur: "He want me die! He glad I die!"
Garth's desperate need brought craft to his aid. "Very well," he said coolly. "I shoot him on sight! Mabyn goes first!"
Rina, touched home, raised an agitated face. "No! No!" she said tremblingly. "Grylls, him took her—not 'Erbe't!"
"No matter!" he said, feigning to leave her. "Mabyn dies like a dog—unless you come with me."
Rina struggled to her knees, and clutched at him. "Wait a minute!" she stammered.
"Come with me, and I promise you his life, if I can save it," he urged. "I will give it to you!"
She attempted to rise; and he lifted her. She stood swaying dizzily, clinging to his arm for support.
"I come," she said faintly at last. "Tak' me to the water, then go get your horses. When you come back I ride with you."
She stopped in the cabin, and got an herb she knew of to restore her. Garth then carried her down the hill, and laying her at the brink of the water, where she could drink and bathe her face, he hastened back to his own shack.
It was now light enough to see a way through the wood. A spectral mist hung suspended a few feet over the lake; beneath it the water was like a steel cuirass, reflecting bordering foliage as black as jet. Charley had gone for the horses as a matter of course and was even now landing them. The boy's whilom rosy cheeks were as white as the mist; and his face was twisted with pain. His jaw was set doggedly; and he worked ahead without question or comment.
No orders were required; they laboured instinctively. Saddles were carried out, and flung on the dripping beasts; and while Charley girthed them, Garth rolled the blankets, and made three bundles of grub, as heavy as he dared ask each horse to carry, in addition to his rider. Natalie's little rifle he gave to Charley; the second Winchester had been won back in the raid, and the twenty-two was the only other weapon they possessed. In twenty minutes they were ready. Securing the door of the hut against the entrance of animals, they hastened to pick up Rina.
They found her waiting, outwardly collected; her old walled, sullen self—but in the early light her skin showed a deathly, yellowish gray. Refusing any assistance, she climbed into the empty saddle without comment; and mutely pointed the way over the hills to the west. Garth lingered to affix a note to the door of the shack for those they expected to follow.
As he caught up to them again, he overlooked his little party with the eye of a commander. It was not a hopeful view: three wretched, half-fed beasts he had, complaining at the very start under their loads; and for his aids an injured boy and a sick girl; with one first-class weapon and a toy among the three of them. This was all he had with which to meet and overcome Grylls's strong and well-provided party. The odds were so preposterous, he put the thought out of his head with a shrug. At the last there is a moment when the hard-pressed commander must wall up his brain; and let the tide of his blood carry him. The daylight revealed Garth's face gaunt and sunken; his lips a grim stroke of red; and his eyes contracted to two icy points.
As they climbed the hill Rina said: "They got fourteen horse. Nick Grylls bring nine, three yours, and two cayuse 'Erbe't's."
At the top she halted them, while she walked her horse back and forth, searching the grass. Garth's eyes meanwhile swept the wide, brown, undulating sea, seeking in the hollows and the coppices for any sign of motion. But the plain was as empty of life as the gray sky.
Rina rejoined him. "They break up so we can't see them so good," she said in her indifferent way. "Seven horse go by the edge of the coulee, southwest. Five horse go west. Two horse go northwest. Bam-by I t'ink they come together."
"What horse was she on?" Garth demanded.
"Nick Grylls's big roan," she answered. "They mak' a bag for her to sit in. She sit one side; Mary Co-que-wasa sit the other."
"Find the roan's tracks," ordered Garth.
Rina shook her head. "I never follow that horse," she said.
"Find the heaviest tracks then!"
She obediently wheeled her horse; and searched the turf again; riding around them in wide fanlike sweeps, while Garth waited with a deadly patience. At last she struck off to the northwest, calling to them, and Garth and Charley spurred after.
"'Erbe't, Mary and her, go this way," she said briefly, as they came up. "Nick Grylls take six horse west, and Xavier take four by coulee."
"If we can overtake her before the others come up!" muttered Garth.
Rina, looking at their horses, shrugged significantly.
For half an hour they loped over the prairie without speech. A chill, damp wind stung their faces. The immense and empty plain with its cold shadows wore an ominous look under the lowering sky; a look that clutched at the breast.
"I t'ink it snow bam-by," Rina had said.
It would need only snow to complete their difficulties. Garth ground his teeth; and urged his horse afresh up every little rise, eagerly searching the expanse ahead from the top. A glance at last at the stretched nostrils and wet flanks of their mounts told him plainly such a pace would be slowest in the end. Hardest of all to bear was the necessity of going slowly.
"What do you know of their plans?" he demanded of Rina.
She shook her head. "They not tell me moch," she said. "They t'ink I too friendly for you!"
Little by little as they rode, the story was drawn painfully out. "Soon as Charley come to you, they get ready right away," said Rina. "They catch all horses, and keep them up coulee, and pack everyt'ing. Mary Co-que-wasa, her go down and watch your house all the time, for good chance to tak' her. When you go out she mak' little fire under the bank for signal; and Nick Grylls and 'Erbe't and Xavier, them all go down. They not tak' me."
Garth cursed himself to think how he had played directly into their hands.
"I wait, and bam-by they bring her back," continued Rina in her toneless voice. "She ver' quiet. She mak' no cry. By the fire I see her face. It is the face of a dead woman."
A groan was forced between Garth's clenched teeth. "Did they hurt her?" he demanded, waiting for the answer like a condemned man waits for the final stroke.
But Rina shook her head. "Nick Grylls, him tak' off his hat, polite," she said. "'Erbe't not say anyt'ing to her."
He breathed again. "Did they refuse to take you along?" he asked.
The stolid brown face was twisted with pain again. She lowered her head, and clung to the horn of her saddle. "No," she said very low. "They 'fraid to leave me be'ind. But they don' want me. And I want to die when I see 'Erbe't with her. They all glad when t'ink I to die!"
Garth forbore to question her further.
His impatience could scarcely brook the necessary pause to let the horses feed at noon. It was a camp of wretchedness; none of the three riders thought of eating. All the while the horses cropped, Garth strode ceaselessly up and down, biting his lips; while the white-faced boy, who had not spoken all morning, sat holding his bursting head between his hands; and Rina, crouching apart, gazed over the prairie with unseeing eyes.
Garth had it ever in mind to save the horses, but his impatience was incontrollable; he made them start too soon; and throughout the afternoon he urged them more than he knew. The animals failed visibly, hour by hour. It was more than three hours before they came upon the site of the noon camp of those ahead, showing that they were steadily losing in the chase.
To be obliged to stop again two hours short of darkness was a crushing disappointment to Garth; but the horses could go no farther. He could never have told how he curbed his impatience throughout that age-long night. He did not sleep: but an excess of suffering is in the end its own merciful opiate; and he was not always fully conscious.
With the morning a fresh blow awaited them. Daylight revealed Garth's mount lying dead of exhaustion fifty yards from camp. In a wide circle on the neighbouring heights, the coyotes were squatting on their haunches, waiting for the sure feast. It was colder than the day before; and the clouds hung thicker and lower. The three of them approached the dead animal, and looked down upon it stolidly.
Garth set his teeth, and laughed his harsh note. "I will walk," he said shortly. "I can keep going while you are spelling the horses."
Charley, for the first time, questioned a decision of his leader. "We can't spare an hour!" he said with a dull decisiveness, in which there was nothing boyish. "You have got to keep on ahead. Besides, you can't follow the tracks as well as I can, you would lose yourself. I will walk."
Of the two desperate expedients it was clearly the better; and Garth instantly acquiesced. Possessed by a master idea, he was incapable of feeling any great compunctions at the idea of the injured boy setting forth on the prairie alone—that would come later. At present he stood equally ready to sacrifice Charley, or himself, or all three of them together, if it would save Natalie.
The boy doggedly busied himself making a bundle of his blankets, and food enough to last him three days. The rest of his pack was added to the complaining backs of the other two horses.
Garth did not neglect to consider what he could do to ensure the boy's safety. "Better return to the shack," he urged. "You can do it in two marches. There's plenty of grub there."
But Charley flatly refused.
"Very well," said Garth. "I'll leave a note for you every time we stop, telling you what time we passed. If you don't overtake us to-night or to-morrow, I'll leave more grub for you. If we don't catch them in a day or so," he added with a look at the remaining horses, "we'll all be in the same boat again."
It was a grim, brusque leave-taking. The boy averted his head as they left him, to hide the look of despair in his eyes. He knew what the lowering, wintry clouds portended on the prairie; and in his heart it was a final farewell that he bade them. But he kept his chin up, and strode manfully after.
Garth did not suspect what was passing in his mind; the city man had never seen a snowstorm on the prairie. Topping every rise, he looked back, and waved his hat at the plodding figure, slightly bent under the weight of his pack.
"He's tough! He'll come through all right!" he said to Rina more than once—perhaps because he needed secretly to reassure himself.
Rina, preoccupied with her own heavy thoughts, did not seem to care either way.
About ten o'clock they descended into a considerable coulee whose stony bed still contained some standing pools. Here, by the water, Grylls's party had encamped for the night; and the ashes of their fire were still warm. From the extent of the trampling in the mud, it was clear the whole party had made a rendezvous here; and beyond the coulee, even Garth had no difficulty in following the trail of the fourteen horses over the turf. He rode ahead now; consulting his compass, he saw that the way always led due northwest.
Some time later his eye was attracted by a splash of white in the grass. Throwing himself off his horse, he pounced upon it. It was a plain little square of linen; and in the border was printed in small neat characters "N. Bland." The find nearly unmanned him; he fancied the scrap of linen was still damp with her tears; and the old madness of desperation surged over him again. He forced his weary horse into a gallop. Rina indifferently followed.
Pretty soon the snow began to fall in large, wet flakes, drifting down as idly and erratically as the opening notes of one who dreams at the piano—large flakes falling direct to the ground and lingering there like measured notes; and little white coveys suddenly eddying hither and thither, like aimless runs up and down the keyboard.
Rina lifted her brown face to the darkening sky. "We better go back to the coulee," she called after Garth.
He frowned. "Nonsense!" he cried irritably. "A flurry of snow can't hurt anybody! It'll turn into rain directly!"
She shrugged, and said no more.
The mute symphony of the snow was played imperceptibly accelerando. The flakes became smaller, and thicker, and dryer; and each gust of wind was a hint steadier and stronger than the last. Their radius of view was little by little restricted: the distant hills faded out of sight, and the white dome closed over and around them, until at last they seemed to be traversing a little island of firm ground, with edges crumbling into a misty void. Presently the ground, too, was overlaid with white; earth and sky commingled indistinguishably; and all that held them to earth was the quadruple line of black hoof-marks extending a little way behind. The horses sulked and hung their heads.
They came to another and a shallower coulee, which seemed to take a northeasterly direction across the prairie; whereas all the watercourses they had crossed hitherto tended to the southeast. Garth, on the watch for any such evidences, suspected they had crossed a height of land. On the other side of this coulee he found he could no longer trace the passage of the preceding cavalcade under the thickening snow. He impatiently called on Rina; but she merely shrugged, refusing to look.
"No can follow in the snow!" she said contemptuously.
At every hint of stoppage, Garth's blood surged dangerously upward. He pressed his knuckles against his temples, and strove to think. The two horses, instinctively drawing close together, turned their tails to the driving flakes. Rina sat hunched in her saddle, as indifferent as a squat, clay image.
"I will ride on," he said thickly.
She gave no sign.
He consulted his compass. "We have ridden due northwest all the way," he said. "Where are they heading for?"
"Death River, I guess," she answered, pointing. "The crossing is northwest."
"How far?" he demanded.
"Two days' journey, maybe seventy-five miles."
"You wait for the boy in the shelter of the poplar bluff across the coulee," he said. "When the snow stops, follow on as well as you can."
"Charley not come any more," said Rina in a tone of quiet fatalism. "When snow hide our track, he walk round and round. Bam-by he fall down, and not get up. He die. He know that."
Garth, ready to push into the storm, reined up again. Her sureness chilled his impatient hurry; and the oft-told tragedies of prairie snowstorms recurred to him.
"Die in the snow!" he repeated dully, hanging in agonizing indecision between the two images; Natalie ahead, and the solitary boy plodding behind. On the one hand he thought: "The storm has held them up, somewhere just ahead! It is my only chance of overtaking them!" and then he turned his horse's head north. But the other thought would not down. "The kid knew it meant death to walk; and he chose it!" Garth finally led the way back over the coulee.
Rina had no difficulty making herself comfortable among the young poplar trees. She improvised a shelter out of a blanket stretched over two inclined saplings; and in front of it she built a fire. Garth meanwhile changed to the fresher horse, and started back over their own dimming trail.
"You never find him now," Rina said hopelessly, as he left her.
Garth merely set his jaw.
His watch told him it was past eleven. He calculated they had covered five miles between the two coulees, and that it would be about twenty-five miles all told back to their own camping-place. Supposing the boy to have averaged three miles an hour, he would now be some twelve miles away, and if he kept walking, Garth, at his present pace, should come upon him in an hour and a half's riding.
The marks of their previous passage were soon completely obliterated; and thereafter Garth rode compass in hand. With the wind behind, his horse showed a better stomach for travelling; and he made the first coulee in something under an hour. Here a little search revealed the half-burned logs of Grylls's fire under the snow; and this put him directly in the path again. He stood up the logs, to make a better mark against his return.
He began to keep a sharp lookout for the boy, frequently shouting his name. His voice, muffled by the thickly falling flakes, had an odd, deadened ring in his own ears; and he doubted if he could be heard very far. When he considered the vast width of the prairie, and the extreme improbability of two figures, shaping opposite courses, meeting point-blank in the middle of it, he was ready to despair of finding the boy. It maddened him to think how close they might pass, without either being aware.
Later, he adopted another expedient. Every fifteen minutes he turned his horse at right angles to his course, and galloping far to the right and left searched the snow for human tracks; then, picking up his trail where he left it, he would push a little farther ahead. In this way he could sweep a path about a mile wide on the prairie.
But the hours passed, and the snow deepened, and there was neither sight nor sound of the boy. Garth was not sparing of his bitter self-reproaches then, for having abandoned him. It seemed to poor Garth in his hopelessness, as if his whole course through the country had been marked by a series of hideous blunders.
Less than three hours of daylight now remained to him, and he was all of ten miles from his own base. He dared not push farther away, for, little as he regarded himself, he could take no risks while Natalie's fate still hung in the balance. But before giving up, he determined to make one last sortie back and forth across the prairie. Far to the right, just as hope was expiring, he saw, crossing the white expanse, a crooked, double row of slight depressions, like little moulds, slowly filling with powdery snow.
Flinging himself off his horse, with a beating heart, he hastily scooped out the snow. A man's footprint was clearly revealed. With a shout, he mounted again and jerked his horse's head around. The weary animal balked flatly at facing the storm, but Garth, beside himself, lashed him until he plunged into it. The tracks momentarily grew plainer. While they had strayed far to the left of his own course, he wondered to see that they still held the right direction in the main.
He redoubled his shouting. At last a muffled, indistinguishable sound answered him from ahead; and presently out of the wild whirl of flakes, a spectral figure was slowly resolved—as poignant a symbol of humanity as the last man on earth.
"Charley! Charley!" shouted Garth.
The figure turned uncertainly. Under the snow-laden lashes the eyes were vague.
Garth slipped out of the saddle; and, throwing his arm about the boy's shoulders, caught him to his breast. "Thank God! I was in time!" he cried in a great voice.
"It's really you!" the boy murmured. "I thought I was hearing things."
Garth clapped him between the shoulders. "Buck up, my hearty!" he cried. "It's all right now!"
"Have you got Natalie?" the boy said quickly.
Garth sadly shook his head.
"You shouldn't have come back then," he said dully. "I didn't expect it!"
Garth hugged him anew. "Dear lad!" he cried with a break in his voice. "I couldn't let you die in the snow!"
The kindness brought fuller consciousness back to the boy's eyes. He clung to Garth then; and lowered his head; and whimpered a little. After all he was only seventeen.
Garth hoisted him to the saddle; and headed into the storm again. The horse balked continually, sorely trying his patience. Their progress was very slow. Garth sought to keep Charley up with cheerful speech.
"Bully for you to keep going!" he cried.
"It was because—Natalie might need me," the boy's voice trailed.
"And right on the course!" Garth sang. "How did you keep it?"
"When the snow hid your tracks—I remembered—to keep the wind on my right cheek," he murmured.
That was the last Garth could get out of him. He was presently alarmed to find the boy growing increasingly numb and drowsy; even he knew what this portended in the North. He pulled him out of the saddle; and made him walk; supporting him with one arm, while with the other he led the horse. The animal took advantage of his partial helplessness, to plant his legs and pull back anew. If there was ever an excuse for anger against a dumb beast, surely hard-pressed Garth had it then. The horse was crazed with exhaustion, and terror of the storm; and tugs and kicks were of no avail. Garth could not bring in both boy and horse by main strength; and in the end, with hearty curses, he was obliged to abandon the beast to his fate.
Garth, pulling his hat over his eyes, and drawing the boy's arm across his shoulders, doggedly pushed into the storm. He thus half supported, half dragged his companion, who was, nevertheless, compelled to use his own legs. Charley never spoke except now and then to beg drowsily to be let alone. In Garth's flask was about a gill of precious stimulant, and, when the boy's legs failed him, he doled it out in sips.
They had at least nine miles to cover—and only two hours of daylight left. Try as he would to banish it, the sense of nine miles' distance would roll itself interminably out before Garth's mind's eye. Nine miles into two hours—the sum had no answer. Afterward night and storm on the empty prairie—what was the use? But when he reached this point, he would grit his teeth and take a fresh hold of the boy. If he had any other defined thought besides this painful round, it was to thank God that he was strong; he needed every ounce of it now.
Instead of attempting to pick up his own trail—surely obscured by now in the snow—he shaped his course northwest, trusting to strike the coulee at its nearest point, and travel down until he hit the mark he had set up. It was a little longer so; but the result justified it, for there was some shelter in the coulee; and working down the bottom, they could not miss the mark.
It was half-past four by Garth's watch when they laboriously climbed up the other side; and set their course by compass again for Rina's camp. It grew colder hourly; and the snowflakes became as hard and sharp as grains of coarse powder. Charley was kept going automatically by frequent small doses of the spirit from the flask. Garth dared not spare any of it for himself. It soon began to grow dark; and long before Garth could hope they had nearly covered the distance between the two coulees, it became totally dark; and he could no longer read the face of his compass. Fortunately the wind held steady from the north; he struggled ahead, keeping it on his right cheek as Charley had done before him.
Garth's head became confused; he was no longer sensible of the passage of time. Only his will kept his legs at their work. Drowsiness crept over him; and with it a growing sense of the uselessness of struggling further. He fought it for a while, but with subsiding energy. His knees began to weaken under him; he sank down. With a desperate effort, he struggled up again; and won another painful hundred yards. He was falling again—and this time he did not care—when suddenly the ground fell away from under his feet, he pitched forward, and he and the boy rolled down a steep declivity together.
Garth instantly knew they had reached the second coulee; and the thought cleared his fogged senses like the draught from his flask which he could not spare himself. He poured the last drops between Charley's numb lips; and turned to the right over the stony bed of the watercourse. He remembered Charley had strayed far to the left of his true course when guiding himself by the wind; and he had also observed in himself a tendency to swerve to that side, when working by compass. So he was sure they were somewhere above the poplar bluff—how far he dared not guess.
He was right. Utterly worn out by a seeming interminable struggle through the drifts in the bottom of the coulee, at last a misty, pinkish aura blushed in the snowy night. It was Rina's fire—warmth and shelter! and before it a little animal was roasting on a spit. Garth's senses slipped away in rapture at the smell it sent forth.
THE SOLITARY PURSUER
Sometime during the course of the night the snow ceased to fall; and morning broke clear and cold. Garth had turned in, intending to rise at four; but Nature exacted her due, and it was seven before he awoke. The sky was a bowl of palest, fleckless azure; the sun shone gloriously on the field of snow; and the air stung the nostrils like the heady fumes of wine. But he was in no temper to take any delight in morning beauties; he ached in every bone and muscle as if he had been beaten with a club; and at the sight of the mounting sun, he bitterly reproached himself—and Rina, for the lost hours.
As for Charley, a glance at the boy showed that he was quite incapable of further travelling for the present. He suffered as much from the blow on the head as from the exposure in the snow. His mind was hopelessly confused and wandering. In any case they had but a single horse left; and only the one course of action was open to Garth. He instructed Rina to remain where she was and care for the boy, while he pushed ahead.
Even Rina betrayed some surprise. "What you do?" she said. "Three men to shoot, and Mary to watch her. You got no chance!"
"I'll find a way!" he said desperately. "This Death River, tell me about it!"
Rina pointed northwest. "Big river, moch water," she said. "Come from mountains. Ver' moch high falls; mak' lak thunder! Above falls, ver' rough rapids, no can cross. Below falls, deep black hole; breeds say bad spirits go there. Only one place to cross, half-mile below falls."
Garth caught the horse, who had fed himself as best he could by pawing the snow off the grass, and packed his blankets and a supply of food, including what was left of the little carcass Rina roasted. He learned it was a lynx; but the flesh was sweet, and he was too thankful for fresh meat to quarrel with the nature of it. He left Rina and Charley with a better will, knowing she could doubtless get others, as she had snared the first.
There was about ten inches of snow on the flat, with deep encumbering drifts in the hollows; and his advance was very slow. The ill-nourished horse wearied immediately; and any pace beyond a walk was out of the question. Had Garth only possessed snow-shoes he could have made much better time on foot. The vast expanse was as empty as a clean sheet of paper; nevertheless, he saw the prairie was not without its busy population, as evidenced by the number of tracks of little furry paws that had crossed his course already since the snow finished falling.
At noon, having made about eleven miles (he figured), he came to the brink of a coulee wider and deeper than any they had crossed hitherto; and which contained a stream in the bottom, running blackly around snow-capped stones. As he refreshed himself, and allowed his horse to drink, he reflected that Grylls would have reached this stream the day before about the time the snow commenced; and that it was likely the outfit had camped on its bank until the storm passed. He determined to search up and down before pushing ahead.
Sure enough, no more than two hundred yards down-stream he began to come upon the tracks of horses and saw the bare patches they had pawed to reach the grass; and a little farther he ran plump upon the fresh remains of the camp; two bare spots where tents had been pitched, the ashes of a fire, and innumerable tracks of men and horses—the whole startlingly conspicuous in the sweep of unbroken snow.
Garth's heart swelled with rage and mortification to think what a little distance had separated them during the night; and how by rising only three hours earlier, he might perhaps have caught them. But presently cooler counsels came to his aid; and when he considered the well-beaten track that led over the hill beyond, he was thankful for so much luck. He knew that at least until more snow should fall, they could never shake him off again; and he rode after with a renewed courage. His horse, too, freed of the entangling drifts, and sensing the other horses ahead, seemed to overcome his weakness for a while; and loped over the beaten trail with a good will.
Beyond this coulee the character of the country began to change. Crossing a height, Garth saw a range of gleaming mountains off to the west at no great distance; his course was heading him obliquely into the foothills. The prairie gradually broke up; the mounds became hills; and the hollows deepened into valleys. With every mile, almost, the hills became higher and more conical; outcroppings of rock began to appear; and the little streams ran in gorges now, instead of coulees.
In the rougher country the horse's access of courage soon failed. His wind was gone, he sobbed for breath; and Garth was presently reduced to the necessity of leading him up every incline. On a wide flat between two ranges, he mounted after a long walk, and urged him into a run over this easy piece. The slack-twisted animal was not equal to the effort; halfway across, his heart broke; and he collapsed in a heap, ploughing up the snow, and flinging his rider over his head. When Garth returned to him, he was stone dead. In the midst of his chagrin the man could spare a glance of pity for the shaggy, misshapen beast. One of the vulgar equine tribe, at his best neither beautiful nor courageous, he had nevertheless given his life to the journey.
Beside the stony watercourse that traversed this little plain, he made a cache of saddle, bridle and what food he could not carry on his back. Over the spot he piled a cairn of stones to mark it, and protect the little store from marauding animals. In addition to blankets, rifle and ammunition, he carried with him food sufficient for about five days. In an hour he was on his way again.
During the rest of the day, and the following day, the character of the country changed only in degree. The trail never carried him directly into the mountains, but skirted among the foothills, which raised strange, abrupt, detached cones on either hand—steep, naked, unreasonable shapes of earth, like nightmare forms. Each day Garth plodded to the limit of his strength, reckless of what lay before him, regarding only the beaten trail which led the way. From various signs it was clear those ahead ever gained on him; but he kept himself up with the thought that they must sooner or later make an extended stop to recuperate their horses. Each night he made his tea with snow-water; and, rolling up in his blankets beside the fire, slept under the stars; and at dawn he was astir again. Hard work was his beneficent sedative.
On the second night as he lay down he heard, or fancied he heard in the stillness, the breath of a far-off, heavy sound. He ascribed it to the roar of the great falls Rina had told him of; and the thought lent new vigour to his limbs next morning. He had another reason to hurry his steps; for each day had waxed a little warmer; and to-day the snow melted fast, threatening at last to obliterate the track he followed.
In the afternoon the going became harder, for the mountains reached down long spurs athwart his path, over which he had to toil. Like the conical hills they were bare of all timber; only the valleys and gulches were wooded. On the first of these ascents, burdened as he was, over-exertion and insufficient sleep began to tell on Garth; and he became conscious, for the first, of a terrible weariness in his back. He crushed it down; he could not fail; he had to keep on. But the next ascent was harder still; and the shape of fear grew in his breast.
The third long climb was nearly his finish. He would not allow himself to pause on the way up, though his heart knocked sickeningly against his ribs, while flames danced in front of his eyes, and there was a roaring in his ears. Gaining the summit at last, he flung himself down, afraid for the moment to look at the obstacles beyond. As he slowly recovered, a real booming disassociated itself from the noises in his head; and he eagerly raised his head. His eyes swept over a far and wide expanse of snow, a dish-like plateau among the hills. His heart leaped; for through the centre of the plateau ran a black fissure, like a crack in the dish; and off to the left a fleecy cloud rose lazily from the gorge, blushing pinkly in the light of the setting sun. This must mark the falls; the Death River lay at his feet.
The excitement of this discovery was immediately superseded by a far greater. In a direct line with him, on the plain beyond the gorge, he presently distinguished a few scattering, black objects like insects on the snow—but insects of the shape of horses. From the gorge itself, perfectly distinct in the crystalline air, rose a thin, blue column of smoke!
The haggard furrows in Garth's face smoothed out; his weary eyes shot forth a quiet glint; and he slowly and grimly smiled. He arose; and instinctively unslinging his gun, examined the mechanism. A goodly warmth diffused itself throughout his veins; and he felt strong again. The end of his journey was in sight.
Darkness had fallen before he reached the lip of the canyon. With bated breath he crawled to the edge and looked over—there was a chance they had escaped him again—but in the bottom of the pit, on the other side of the river, a fire was flickering redly in the darkness; and there was a hint of figures sitting around it. His heart beat strongly at the reassuring sight.
The tracks in the snow led him to the top of the path, which descended into the gorge. This path was steep, narrow, tortuous and slippery; and he knew not what conditions awaited him at the bottom. Prudence counselled him to wait for daylight to reconnoitre; but it was not possible to contain his impatience the night through, with Natalie so near, and he not knowing if she was safe. He started down instantly, feeling his way foot by foot; and ever careful to dislodge no stone that might betray him. Within the gorge the boom of the falls was largely deadened by a bend in the walls above; and lighter sounds became audible: the lapping of the river on the stones; and, as he came nearer, someone breaking sticks for the fire below.
Between him and the fire rolled the river with a deep, swift current. There was no more than a scant fifty yards between wall and wall of the gorge at the bottom. Coming still closer, he saw by the light of the fire that their camp was pitched on a triangle of flat ground, formed where a steep watercourse had made a perpendicular fissure in the opposite wall of the gorge. On one side of the fire was pitched a small "outside" tent—the same tent Garth had watched so long when it stood outside Mabyn's shack—and on the other side stood a tepee. A small raft, half drawn out of the water, explained their means of crossing the river.
The descending path finally landed Garth on a precipitous incline of broken rock at the water's edge; and there, across the stream, so close he could have tossed a pebble into their midst, sat those he had tracked so far, all unsuspicious of his nearness. They were having their evening meal. Natalie was among them, facing him, the firelight strong on her. Her face was set and sad—but still unhumbled; and from this and the obsequious poise of Grylls's head, when he turned to her, Garth knew she was so far safe from him. His heart breathed a still hymn of thankfulness.
Grylls sat on the other side of the fire, with his back against a rock. He still wore the bewrinkled suit of store clothes which had become so hateful in Garth's sight; and the broad-brimmed hat was set at a rakish angle. He was in a jovial humour, judging from the thick unction of his speech; doubtless, though he seldom looked at her, in his own way he was seeking to charm his cold and silent prisoner.
Mabyn's back was turned to Garth; his attitude was furtive; and apparently he spoke little. Garth did not trouble about him; for he knew instinctively that so long as the stronger man was by, Natalie stood in no danger from Mabyn. Mary Co-que-wasa, serving the food, hovered behind the fire, which threw a strange, exaggerated shadow of her hag-like form on the cliff. Nearer Garth, at a little distance from the others, Xavier sat on the ground, busy with his cup and plate.
Garth watched Natalie with a swelling heart. How brave she was! how noble and befitting the air with which she faced her terrible situation! The proud sadness of her face was infinitely more affecting than any extreme of distress could have been. Garth bled inwardly, to think of the torments of mind she must have endured. He yearned mightily to let her know he was near. He crouched at the edge of the water, willing a message of cheer to her; and heartened himself with the assurance that she could not but feel it.
She ate little; and, presently arising, disappeared within the tent. Grylls drew out the inevitable cigars, and, carelessly tossing one to Mabyn, lit his own. Mary went about collecting the dishes. Xavier carried his plate to the river side to wash it. Garth handled his rifle with fingers itching for the trigger. There were the four of them, all unconscious, delivered into his hands, it seemed.
But he spared them for a while. It was not that he shrank from shedding blood now; taking their lives troubled him no more than killing so much vermin. But, close as they were, he could not be sure of nailing them all; a dive outside the firelight, and they were safe. And Natalie was in their hands; and he had no way of crossing the river. He must rescue her first.
Mary went into the tent, which she apparently shared with Natalie; and presently reappeared with a dishtowel. Lifting a pail of hot water from the fire, she prepared to wash the dishes. The fire was dying down, and gathering an armful of brush, she heaped it on to make a light.
Too late Garth appreciated the significance of this act. He turned to escape up the path again; and in his hurry dislodged a heavy stone, which rolled into the water with a splash. He faced about with his rifle ready. Only Xavier, at the water's edge, heard the sound, and looked up. At the same instant the fire sprang into a blaze, filling the canyon with light; and plainly revealing Garth and his shadow behind him on the rock. The breed sprang to his feet with a cry of warning. It was the last sound, save one, that he ever made. The sharp, light bark of Garth's rifle reverberated in the gorge; the breed spun around with a throaty, quenched cry, toppled over backward into deep water, and was swept away.
Before Garth could aim again, Mary Co-que-wasa seized her pail of water, and flung it hissing on the fire. Absolute darkness filled the canyon.
IN DEATH CANYON
Garth crouched at the water's edge, striving to pierce the murk with his eyes; but the blackness was like a wall. By and by the outlying embers of the fire began to glow faintly; but there was another splash, and every spark was quenched. Bending his head, he strained his ears. For a long time there was no sound from across the river; then little by little, and softly, he heard them set to work like mice behind a wainscot. There was a singular, measured falling of stones, which at first he could not interpret; then it suddenly occurred to him they were building a barricade across their little terrace; and he took heart; for the act was opposed to any design of immediate flight. But then, he thought, Mary, behind the wall, could easily hold the crossing by daylight, while the two men escaped with Natalie. Somehow, he must get across first.
He searched noiselessly among the stones above the water line for driftwood; and succeeded in picking up a stick here and a branch there. Four of the stouter pieces he tied in a square with the rope that bound his pack; and upon this frame he piled a crib of sticks, of sufficient buoyancy to float his clothes, his pack and his gun. He stripped to the skin and waded cautiously into the water. It was of an icy coldness that bit like a great burn, and forced the breath out of his lungs like a squeezed bellows. But he set his jaws and struck out, towing his little raft with the end of the rope between his teeth.
He headed straight across, leaving it to the current to carry him safely below the camp. Ordinarily, fifty strokes would have carried him over, but the terrible cold congealed the very sap of his body; and the clumsy little raft offered as much resistance as a log. He could not tell how far he was carried down. Reaching the other side at last, he could scarcely crawl out on the stones. He was too stiff to attempt to draw on his clothes; the best he could do was to roll in his blankets, and writhe to restore the circulation.
His limbs were rigid; his feet and hands wholly numb—but the will rules even bodily exhaustion. He would not tolerate the thought of weakness; he would get warm; and his reluctant blood was forced at last to resume its course through his veins. Warmth returned with excruciating pain. He conceded his worn body a little rest—for he knew they could not get their horses before morning—but in an hour, dressed, and with his pack and his gun on his back, he was crawling back toward Grylls's camp.
This shore of the river, like the other, was formed of fragments and masses of rock, which had fallen from the cliffs above. He made his way with infinite caution, giving heed to every foothold, and feeling before him with his hands. Fortunately there was little snow to obstruct him; for what had descended into the gorge was lodged in the crevices of the stones. He crawled over heaps of rubble, digging his toes in, to keep from sliding into the water; and there were great hundred-ton boulders, over which he dragged himself on his stomach. Above the canyon there were no stars visible; and below, it was wrapped in darkness, thick, velvety, palpable as lamp-black.
After measuring the inches of a long and painful journey over the stones, he sensed at last that he was drawing near the camp again. He redoubled his caution, hugging close to the wall of rock. Presently it fell away to the right; and before him he distinguished a faint whitish blur that he knew for the tepee. He stretched himself out to listen. Under all was the deadened boom of the falls; below him an indefinable murmur arose from the smooth river, and an occasional eddy slapped the stones; in front he was vaguely conscious of the three persons moving to and fro, and he heard the dull chink of each stone, as it ground its edges on the pile. They had relaxed their caution somewhat; once or twice a stone, rolling out of place, plumped into the water. They were at work at the other end of their barricade from Garth.
He considered what he should do. His brain was working very clearly—dragging his exhausted body along after, as it were; for excitement and over-exertion had produced a curious feeling of detachment from it. As he waited there, the work on the barricade ceased; and a whispered consultation was held. If he could only hear! Afterward two figures approached the tepee and entered. Instantly Garth let himself down over the rocks behind, and snaking his body through the bit of herbage on the flat, applied his ear to the bottom of the canvas.
He heard Mabyn's voice ask querulously: "What was it you said to her?"
"Told her to sit on top of the wall, and watch," Grylls carelessly answered. "They can't cross the river until morning, but we're not taking any chances, just the same. She's to watch, too, that the lady doesn't try to sneak the raft across to her friends."
"You're going to clear out in the morning?" Mabyn asked anxiously.
"Not on your life!" the other coolly returned. "We got shelter and good water here, the horses are safe above; and we command the only crossing of the river. We'll sit right here until their grub runs out. They can't have brought much!"
"The police may hear," Mabyn murmured.
"Let 'em come and welcome," said Grylls. "They know me! As for you, I guess a man can take a journey with his lawful wife, can't he?"
There was a pause. A match was struck. Garth guessed that Grylls was resuming his interrupted smoke.
"Seems to me we hold pretty much all the trumps," he went on complacently. "My idea is, Pevensey's all alone over there. That was a pretty smart rap on the nut, the boy got. But even if there's two of them, what can they do? We've got cover, and they've got to show themselves; it's a funny thing if we can't pot them easy. We got a right to; they killed our man first."
"Hadn't I better ride on with her to the Slavi Indians?" Mabyn suggested in a tone that he laboured to make sound off-hand.
Grylls chuckled fatly. "What! And deprive me of the pleasure of her company!" he said mockingly. "I guess not!"
Mabyn was silent. Garth dimly apprehended what a torment of impotent fear and rage the creature must be enduring. He had delivered himself hand and foot into Grylls's power; and Grylls no longer even kept up a pretense of hiding his own designs on Natalie.
"Better turn in," Grylls said indifferently. "No need for you to watch to-night. I'll have a snooze myself, and go out and relieve Mary before dawn."
Garth had heard enough; they were all placed for him; and his way was clear. He softly drew himself around the further side of the tepee, pausing long between every move, to listen. Both their lives depended on his making no sound now; every faculty he possessed was bent on it; he took half an hour to make thirty feet. He circled the inside edge of the little triangle of flat ground, keeping in the shadow of the piled rocks. Crossing the little stream that issued over the flat was hardest; but he managed it; patiently studying each move in advance. Finally he approached the tent. Beyond, he fancied he could distinguish the vague outline of the wall running across; and upon it a huddled figure, a mere hint of substance against the pit of darkness behind.
He felt his way around the tent. He found the canvas of the back wall was made in one piece. With shaking fingers, he drew his knife out of its sheath; and inserting the point in the centre of the stuff, softly drew it back and forth, a stroke at a time. His heart was beating like a steam drill; he swallowed his sobbing breath. Every instant he expected to hear Natalie scream from within.
He severed the last thread at last; and put up his knife. He parted the flaps; and listened for sounds from within in an agony of indecision. He could not tell if she slept or was awake; he dared not so much as whisper her name; and if he touched her and she slept, how could she help but awake with a cry!
But she was not asleep; and she had all her wits about her. Close to his ear, a voice soft as a zephyr in the grass whispered his name. A trembling breath of relief escaped his lips; and instantly an arm was wreathed about his neck; and a soft cheek pressed against his rough one. He caught her to him; her slim frame quivered through and through. It was his own Natalie; the feel of her! the fragrance of her! Life holds but one such moment.
"I knew you'd come! I knew you'd come!" she breathed in his ear.
Her terrible agitation was the means of calming his own. He had to be cool for both. He pressed her close to him, stroking her hair.
"Brave, brave Natalie!" he whispered. "Not a sound, till we are clear!"
He gave her a moment to recover herself, letting his encircling arms speak the comfort and cheer he could not utter. Little by little the piteous trembling subsided and the rigid form relaxed.
"Ready, now?" he whispered.
She eagerly nodded.
"I lead the way," he breathed in her ear; "and you keep close at my heels. Take it easy. It must be hands and knees, and an inch at a time."
Natalie pressed his hand to her lips.
He crawled through the hole, and waited for her outside. She made no sound. He touched her reassuringly; and realized with a pang how she was handicapped, with one arm in a sling. They crept back around the foot of the piled rocks, dragging themselves with tense muscles, a foot at a time and waiting long between. By the touch of her hand on his foot he knew she followed close. Looking over his shoulder, he sensed the huddled figure still motionless on the wall.
He could not have told what gave the alarm. They had reached the rivulet, when suddenly Mary leaped off the wall with a cry that brought the two men tumbling out of the tepee.
Garth, springing to his feet, seized Natalie's hand, and pulled her after him.
"Come on!" he whispered cheerily. "We're safe now!"
They scrambled up over the stones of the watercourse, careless of the noise they made.
"What is it?" they heard Grylls shout below.
A sentence in Cree explained.
"Watch the raft!" he shouted. "I'll bring her back!"
They heard him run heavily toward them. Hastily unslinging his gun, Garth sent a shot at random through the darkness. They heard the bullet spring off a stone. The steps ceased.
"By God! he's up there!" cried Grylls thickly. "Come back, Mabyn! We'll get 'em easy in the morning!"
There was no further sound of pursuit.
As they climbed, Garth searched from side to side, as well as he could in the darkness, for a suitable spot to make a stand. High above the level of the river, a huge cube of rock resting squarely in the bottom of the ravine, and forcing the stream to travel around it, offered what he wanted. One side of the boulder lay against a steep rocky wall; and in the angle was a secure niche for Natalie.
Her courage failed a little when she saw he meant to stop. "Not here! Not here!" she protested nervously. "We must put miles between us before morning!"
"The way home lies back across the river," Garth said gently.
"Then why did you come up here?" she said a little wildly. "They'll never let us back!"
His heart ached for her, at the thought of what she must still go through. "Courage! for one more day, my Natalie!" he urged, drawing her to him. "We can't start without horses and food, and those I have to win for you!"
"You make me ashamed!" she whispered.
He heard no more whimpering.
Garth, appreciating the vital necessity of sleep, if he was to keep his wits about him next day, lay down in his blankets while Natalie kept watch. With the first tinge of gray overhead, she woke him, as he had bidden her.
"If we only had a good breakfast to begin on!" were his waking words; "and there's nothing but raw flour and water."
Natalie, in answer to this prayer, produced a flat package from her dress which proved to contain bread and meat. "I always kept something, in case I should be able to get away," she explained.
They ate, sitting quietly side by side in the darkness—they could even laugh a little together now—and they arose vastly refreshed.
Garth climbed the big rock to wait for daylight to reveal the strength and the weakness of the position he had chosen. The top of the rock formed a flat plane slightly inclined toward their rear; and, lying at full length upon it, he could shoot over the edge without exposing more than the top of his head. He lifted up a heavy stone or two; and stood them along the edge for further protection. Then he waited—waited for hours it seemed to him; looking and looking down the ravine until his eyes were fit to start out of his head; and he could see nothing; but lo! when he looked again the light was there!
On the whole he was satisfied. His rock commanded the entire ravine below; it was as steep as a pair of stairs. There was not a stick of herbage below; only a trough of heaped and broken rock masses. On either hand they were shut in by straight lead-coloured walls of rock; and at the bottom of the ravine, the forbidding, mist-gray wall of the main gorge cut off the view. In front and on the left they were amply protected; their right flank was the weak spot. Above them on this side, part of the wall of the ravine had given way some ages past; and a bit of the plain had sunk down. The hollow thus formed contained a grove of gaunt trees and underbrush. If their assailants, under cover of the rocks on the way, ever climbed to it, Garth and Natalie would be badly off indeed.
It was a grim figure that the first rays of light revealed sitting on the big rock. Garth had lost his hat long ago; and he was both unshaven and unshorn. He crouched, hugging his knees, with his rifle across his thighs; and his sheepskin coat hung over his shoulders ready to fling off, when he needed to act. The flannel shirt beneath was in rags; and his moccasins, mere apologies for foot-coverings. But to Natalie, regarding the cool, bright shine of his eyes, as he smiled down on her, he was wholly beautiful. She was scarcely better off; her pale face was enframed in a sad wreck of a limp, stained felt hat; but she could smile too; and Garth had never found her lovelier in her bravery.
The suspense was well-nigh intolerable—and so they fell to chaffing.
"If mother could only see us now!" said Garth with a grin.
"I feel like a white cat coming out of a coal-bin," said Natalie. "'What's the use!' she says, looking round at herself. 'The job is too big to tackle. If I was only a black cat it wouldn't show!'"
"You could walk right on as Liz, the girl bandit of the Rockies," said Garth.
"Don't you talk!" she retorted. "You look as if Liz had missed her cue, and you'd been through the sawmill!"
And then Garth saw a black sleeve sticking out from behind a rock in the ravine below; and he got down to business. A little sigh of relief escaped him at the sight of his enemies at last. He fired. The shot went wide.
Natalie sank back in her corner, deathly pale; and with a hand over her lips, to keep from crying out. Her part was harder than his.
He called down to her reassuringly. "All right! Only a try-out!"
Further down, a second figure showed briefly, scrambling up the right-hand side of the trough. Garth fired—a fraction of a second too late. He could scarcely credit such nimble agility in a figure so gross. It was Grylls. Thus two of them were accounted for. Searching for the third, he saw the black crown of a hat projecting above a stone on the other side of the ravine. This was an easy shot; he aimed and fired with a savage satisfaction. The hat disappeared; but again he knew, somehow, that his bullet had not found its mark.
At the same moment Grylls won a rock a yard higher up. He was not coming up the bottom of the ravine, but aiming obliquely up the side for the trees high above. Garth, grimly covering his shelter, saw him bob his head around; a bare, cropped, tousled head, like a hiding schoolboy's. Quick as he was with the trigger, Grylls was quicker. The bullet flattened itself harmlessly beyond.
As he shot there was a scramble across the ravine; and he saw the other figure had mounted. The hat, Mabyn's hat, again showed; and he took another shot at it. This time the bullet knocked it spinning off the rifle barrel which upheld it; and in a flash Garth understood how neatly they were fooling him. Each in turn drew his fire, while the other made an advance. He resolved to shoot no more.
Meanwhile the first one he had glimpsed, which must be Mary, had not moved from the middle of the ravine. Some of the stones were moved, and he guessed she had made a permanent shelter there. There was a shot from below, and the bullet spattered itself on the heavy base of rock. Holding his hand, Garth awaited a second shot. He saw a tiny white puff at last, and marked the aperture whence it issued. The bullet hurtled whiningly overhead. Steadying his gun on the edge of the rock, he took careful aim—but the other spoke first. It was a marvellous shot—or a chance one. The bullet splintered the edge of the stone protecting Garth's head, and sang off. A jagged sliver of stone ploughed across the back of his extended hand. He exclaimed as in casual surprise, and his gun exploded harmlessly in the air. He looked at his hand stupidly as at an alien member; then suddenly he understood; and whipping out his handkerchief, bound up the wound, knotting the linen with teeth and fingers.
Up to this moment Garth had been playing a dispassionate game; but he returned to his loophole conscious of a great surge of cold rage against those below. He yearned to get even; but he could wait for it. Mabyn exposed his hat tantalizingly; Grylls shot out a foot, or bobbed up his head—but Garth saved his bullets. He would not even try to pierce the sharpshooters' defenses again. An occasional shot came from there; but never such another as the last.
Finally Grylls changed his tactics. From behind his rock he taunted Garth vilely. The walls of the ravine reverberated horridly with the sound of the sudden human voice.
But Garth still bided his time; merely adding the insult of the words to Natalie's ears, to the score of his rage.
Natalie in the meantime, thankful to have something to do, had been piling stones as heavy as she could lift, on the rock behind him. She had torn the sling from her arm; and was using the weaker member to steady the other.
Garth, fearful that Grylls might succeed in flanking them at last, ordered her to climb up behind him; and without turning his head, told her how to make a little parapet along the top of the rock on the exposed side.
Garth finally got his chance. A little stone rolled down from Mabyn's hiding-place; and he instantly trained his gun on the spot. Mabyn, miscalculating, or losing his head, suddenly scurried for the next rock. Garth had marked it. Mabyn gained it, but before he could pull his legs after him the rifle spoke. There was a scream of pain; and Mabyn's body, sliding from behind the rock, rolled and dropped heavily from stone to stone. A leg caught in a fissure and stayed him; he hung head downward, writhing in hideous, theatrical postures of agony, and screaming like a woman. Garth, thinking of Natalie, longed to send a shot to still the noise; but his hand was held by his promise to Rina.
It was all over in a minute after that. Grylls, careless of the other's fate, scrambled up from stone to stone. Garth peppered his course with bullets; but the rocks were scattered so thickly, Grylls needed to expose himself for scarcely a second at a time. He gained the trees at last.
An instant of terrible suspense succeeded. Garth made Natalie lie close under the little wall she had been building. He crouched over her, himself fully exposed, searching the hillside with strained eyes. Suddenly he saw the bloated face not thirty yards away. Grylls had partly stepped from behind a tree and was deliberately taking aim. Garth sprang to his knees. The two guns spoke at once. Grylls pitched headfirst down the steep slope into view; and rolled down the bare rocks into the tiny stream.
"I've got him!" shouted Garth triumphantly.
Even as he spoke he toppled over sideways. Natalie clutched at him wildly; but his coat was pulled out of her grasp. He slid off the rock and dropped on the stones behind. In an instant she was at his side. He was already struggling to rise—his teeth pressed into his lip until the blood oozed between.
"Only my left shoulder," he muttered. "I can still shoot. There's Mary, yet. Help me up."
Somehow, with her aid, he managed to pull himself back on the rock, one arm dangling useless. Through his loophole, he saw Mary toiling openly up the ravine. He showed himself. At the sight of him the old woman paused and held out her hands as if inviting him to shoot. She had left her gun. When he made no offer to fire, she quietly continued her climb. Garth watched her grimly.
Reaching Grylls's body, she unwound a woollen scarf from about her waist; and passing it under his shoulders, partly hoisted his great bulk on her back with an incredible effort; and started down again. Grylls was quite dead; his heels thudded limply from stone to stone.
Long before she reached the bottom, Garth lost interest in her progress. He had fainted.
Natalie, working to restore him, distracted, hopeless, crazed, suddenly heard a distant shout; and looking up distinguished a little cavalcade winding down the face of the great gorge. There was a red coat among them.
"Garth! We're saved! We're saved!" she cried to his unhearing ears.
EPILOGUE: SPOKEN BY CHARLEY
In the city of Winnipeg on a brilliant day toward the end of winter, a broad-shouldered, ruddy youth, with dancing blue eyes and a capacious smile, came running down a side street, and catching a certain fence-post at full speed, swung himself inside the gate with the dexterity of old practice; sprang up the steps and banged on the door.
It was opened questioningly by a little mouse of a woman, with great brown eyes, and gray strands mixing in her bright, brown hair.
The boy flung his arms around her like a bear. "Mother!" he cried breathlessly.
"Charley! My boy!" she gasped.
He picked her up bodily; and, kicking the door shut, carried her into the cheerful sitting room, where geraniums bloomed on the sunny window-sill, and a fire danced in the grate.
"I'm bigger than you are now!" he chuckled joyously. He put her in her chair; and waltzed about the room, touching the well-remembered objects. "By Jolly! the very same pictures, the good old sofa!" he sang. "Oh, it's good to be home!"
The mother held out her arms. "My boy! My boy!" was all she could say.
Dropping to his knees, he embraced her again. "You dear old lady," he cried. "What a trouble I always was! It's your turn to have a good time now!"
"It's enough to have you back," she murmured.
He gyrated about the room again. "Say, I feel as giddy as a puppy after a bath! Imagine trolley-cars and baby-carriages and show windows and silver knives and forks after two years in the North. Say, I've clean forgot how to eat stylish!"
"How long are you going to stay?" she murmured.
He came to a stand beside her. "I'm not going back," he said in a deeper tone. "It's a bully country and I had a whale of a time—but I belong here! I'm going to take care of you now, and bring up the kids. I'm a man now,"—his face changed comically—"Don't laugh!" he begged. "I used to say that all the time; but it's different now; you'll see! I've had experience!"
She held out her arms to him again. "Tell me, my son," she whispered.
He dropped to the floor beside her; and laid his head against her knee. There, in front of the fire, while the sun went down, and the early winter twilight gathered, he told her the story.
"When Garth rode away leaving me and Rina in the poplar bluff," he said—reaching that part in due course—"I didn't know much what was happening. But say, that Rina, she's an out-o'-sight nurse! She brought me around in great shape; and the second day afterward I was as peart as you please. That same day the fellows from the Crossing turned up; Jim Plaskett, the policeman, and three others. It was Jim made them come, soon as he heard the story. Jim's a peacherino! One of these lean, quiet chaps you can depend on; decent, too, clean-mouthed—Oh! Jim's looked up to, I can tell you!
"They wanted me to rest a while yet, till they came back. But they had plenty of spare horses, and Rina and I wouldn't stand for being left behind. We rode like sixty all next day, and camped only fifteen miles from Death River. We found the bones of Garth's horse on the way—picked clean; and the note he left every place he camped. You ought to have heard Jim Plaskett crack up Garth's pluck—and Jim knows!
"We reached the canyon about half-past six in the morning. I'd heard of that place from the Indians. Say, it was a fearsome spot! a kind of crooked, gaping split in the prairie like the pictures in Dante's Inferno. The walls were as bare and hard and cold as black ice; and way down in the bottom there was a horrible jelly-like water swirling around without making any noise. Seems if you couldn't breathe good when you got into the place! Minded me of the receiving vault in the cemetery.
"There was a risky little path going down, and we kept right on. Across the river, there was a break in the wall where a creek came down a steep, wild-looking ravine. At the bottom of it we could see a tepee and a tent; but no people. Some said they saw a body in the ravine, but you couldn't rightly make out."
Charley paused and shuddered. "Say, it was horrible!" he whispered. "Glad I don't have dreams! When we got down near the water suddenly we saw old Mary Co-que-wasa come climbing over a heap of stones that was piled on the flat; and she was bent almost double, half lifting, half dragging a man by a rope under his arms. It was Nick Grylls. He looked dead.
"We shouted at her; and she looked up just once. I saw her face plain. It wasn't surprised or glad or anything—just stupid like a breed. She never stopped walking. She stepped right off the flat rock into the deep water with the man on her back; and they went out of sight; and some bubbles came up."
He stopped, staring into the fire. His mother caught him to her breast. "Oh, my son! what sights were these!" she murmured.
"Mary was a deep one!" Charley said slowly. "You couldn't tell about her! I never heard her open her mouth!
"We hustled down to the edge of the water," he resumed presently. "Jim Plaskett threw off his coat; and went in after them. But it was no use; the current carried them down; and it was too cold to stay in more than a minute or two. We never saw them again.
"Jim landed on the other side; and brought us back the raft that was there; and we all crossed. There was nobody in the tents—blankets in a heap, as if they'd sprung out of bed suddenly. We started to climb the ravine. It was a body lying there on the rocks; it was Mabyn. Rina was halfway to it, before any of us saw. He wasn't dead; but had a bullet through both legs.
"Say that place was full of horrors! It stunk of gunpowder; and there was little thin layers of smoke hanging quiet between the walls. I was near out of my head, thinking what had become of them. We shouted all the time; and by and by we got a faint kind of an answer back. By Jolly! I went up those rocks like a cat! I found them behind a whopping big rock. Garth was stretched out all bloody and she was trying to get his coat off; and she couldn't. She looked up at me with a face like chalk; and when she saw who it was, she just gave a little cry like a baby, and keeled over. Oh, it was pitiful! I carried her down to the river. I wouldn't let anybody else touch her.
"Well, to make a long story short, we decided to raft it down the river to Fort Ochre, instead of trying to win overland to the Crossing. Garth had a ball through his shoulder and a gashed hand; and Mabyn was pretty low. It was longer that way, but we could carry them comfortable.
"We built another raft and started next morning. Jim Plaskett, Mabyn and Rina went on the first; and Sandy Arkess, Garth, Natalie and I followed on the other. The other two fellows were to drive all the horses back over the prairie. Say, that was quite a journey! Garth was getting better; and we all felt pretty good, sitting round and swapping yarns, and looking at the scenery, while the current carried us down. When we got out of the gorge, coming down so quietly as we were, we saw any amount of game. Got a moose right on the bank! Gee! that was good meat! And at night, say it was out o' sight! sitting there talking about going home, and watching the trees march past, and a bang-up show of Northern lights up above! It was pretty cold.
"There was the Dickens of a pow-pow at the Fort, when we got there at last! It's great sport being a hero! The Bishop and his party were there, just ready to start for home, and you never saw such a surprised man, when he saw Garth coming in from the other direction. And the old woman—I mean Mrs. Bishop—took to Natalie like her long-lost mother.
"Their party was obliged to start at once for fear of the river's closing on them; and Garth insisted on sending Natalie out with the old lady. She kicked like anything at leaving him there wounded; and I braced him, too, to let her stay; but he told me it was for the sake of her good name. I didn't quite see that—why any one who knew Natalie!—but I suppose he knew best.
"Garth and I stayed at Fort Ochre. The Inspector came down the river; and there was an official investigation. I was right in the thick of it. Gee! but it was sport! Colonel Whinyates is a great little chap—cheeks as red as church cushions, and eyes that pop like gooseberries! It was great to hear him bawl at the witnesses. But he's all right. Him and I were good friends!
"Garth told his story and I told mine, and Rina and Plaskett. And Natalie had left what they call a disposition behind her. Everything was all straight, but Garth clinched the matter by calling Mabyn to testify. He was carried in on a stretcher. And blamed if he didn't tell the truth! He'd had a close call, you see, and had what Garth called a change of heart. It was Rina did it; day and night she never left him!