Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 3. One to One
The solitary rider stood for a moment in silhouette against the somber sky-line, his keen eyes searching the lowering clouds.
"Getting its back up for a blizzard," he muttered to himself, as he touched his pony with the spur.
Dark, heavy billows banked in the west, piling over each other as they drove forward. Already the advance-guard had swept the sunlight from the earth, except for a flutter of it that still protested near the horizon. Scattering snowflakes were flying, and even in a few minutes the temperature had fallen many degrees.
The rider knew the signs of old. He recognized the sudden stealthy approach that transformed a sun-drenched, friendly plain into an unknown arctic waste. Not for nothing had he been last year one of a search-party to find the bodies of three miners frozen to death not fifty yards from their own cabin. He understood perfectly what it meant to be caught away from shelter when the driven white pall wiped out distance and direction; made long familiar landmarks strange, and numbed the will to a helpless surrender. The knowledge of it was spur enough to make him ride fast while he still retained the sense of direction.
But silently, steadily, the storm increased, and he was forced to slacken his pace. As the blinding snow grew thick, the sound of the wind deadened, unable to penetrate the dense white wall through which he forced his way. The world narrowed to a space whose boundaries he could touch with his extended hands. In this white mystery that wrapped him, nothing was left but stinging snow, bitter cold, and the silence of the dead.
So he thought one moment, and the next was almost flung by his swerving horse into a vehicle that blocked the road. Its blurred outlines presently resolved themselves into an automobile, crouched in the bottom of which was an inert huddle of humanity.
He shouted, forgetting that no voice could carry through the muffled scream of the storm. When he got no answer, he guided his horse close to the machine and reached down to snatch away the rug already heavy with snow. To his surprise, it was a girl's despairing face that looked up at him. She tried to rise, but fell back, her muscles too numb to serve.
"Don't leave me," she implored, stretching her, arms toward him.
He reached out and lifted her to his horse. "Are you alone?"
"Yes. He went for help when the machine broke down--before the storm," she sobbed. He had to put his ear to her mouth to catch the words.
"Come, keep up your heart." There was that in his voice pealed like a trumpet-call to her courage.
"I'm freezing to death," she moaned.
She was exhausted and benumbed, her lips blue, her flesh gray. It was plain to him that she had reached the limit of endurance, that she was ready to sink into the last torpor. He ripped open his overcoat and shook the snow from it, then gathered her close so that she might get the warmth of his body. The rugs from the automobile he wrapped round them both.
"Courage!" he cried. "There's a miner's cabin near. Don't give up, child."
But his own courage was of the heart and will, not of the head. He had small hope of reaching the hut at the entrance of Dead Man's Gulch or, if he could struggle so far, of finding it in the white swirl that clutched at them. Near and far are words not coined for a blizzard. He might stagger past with safety only a dozen feet from him. He might lie down and die at the very threshold of the door. Or he might wander in an opposite direction and miss the cabin by a mile.
Yet it was not in the man to give up. He must stagger on till he could no longer stand. He must fight so long as life was in him. He must crawl forward, though his forlorn hope had vanished. And he did. When the worn-out horse slipped down and could not be coaxed to its feet again, he picked up the bundle of rugs and plowed forward blindly, soul and body racked, but teeth still set fast with the primal instinct never to give up. The intense cold of the air, thick with gray sifted ice, searched the warmth from his body and sapped his vitality. His numbed legs doubled under him like springs. He was down and up again a dozen times, but always the call of life drove him on, dragging his helpless burden with him.
That he did find the safety of the cabin in the end was due to no wisdom on his part. He had followed unconsciously the dip of the ground that led him into the little draw where it had been built, and by sheer luck stumbled against it. His strength was gone, but the door gave to his weight, and he buckled across the threshold like a man helpless with drink. He dropped to the floor, ready to sink into a stupor, but he shook sleep from him and dragged himself to his feet. Presently his numb fingers found a match, a newspaper, and some wood. As soon as he had control over his hands, he fell to chafing hers. He slipped off her dainty shoes, pathetically inadequate for such an experience, and rubbed her feet back to feeling. She had been torpid, but when the blood began to circulate, she cried out in agony at the pain.
Every inch of her bore the hall-mark of wealth. The ermine-lined motoring-cloak, the broadcloth cut on simple lines of elegance, the quality of her lingerie and of the hosiery which incased the wonderfully small feet, all told of a padded existence from which the cares of life had been excluded. The satin flesh he massaged, to renew the flow of the dammed blood, was soft and tender like a babe's. Quite surely she was an exotic, the last woman in the world fitted for the hardships of this frontier country. She had none of the deep-breasted vitality of those of her sex who have fought with grim nature and won. His experience told him that a very little longer in the storm would have snuffed out the wick of her life.
But he knew, too, that the danger was past. Faint tints of pink were beginning to warm the cheeks that had been so deathly pallid. Already crimson lips were offering a vivid contrast to the still, almost colorless face.
For she was biting the little lips to try and keep back the cries of pain that returning life wrung from her. Big tears coursed down her cheeks, and broken sobs caught her breath. She was helpless as an infant before the searching pain that wracked her
"I can't stand it--I can't stand it," she moaned, and in her distress stretched out her little hand for relief as a baby might to its mother.
The childlike appeal of the flinching violet eyes in the tortured face moved him strangely. He was accounted a hard man, not without reason. His eyes were those of a gambler, cold and vigilant. It was said that he could follow an undeviating course without relenting at the ruin and misery wrought upon others by his operations. But the helpless loveliness of this exquisitely dainty child-woman, the sense of intimacy bred of a common peril endured, of the strangeness of their environment and of her utter dependence upon him, carried the man out of himself and away from conventions.
He stooped and gathered her into his arms, walking the floor with her and cheering her as if she had indeed been the child they both for the moment conceived her.
"You don't know how it hurts," she pleaded between sobs, looking up into the strong face so close to hers.
"I know it must, dear. But soon it will be better. Every twinge is one less, and shows that you are getting well. Be brave for just a few minutes more now."
She smiled wanly through her tears. "But I'm not brave. I'm a little coward--and it does pain so."
"I know--I know. It is dreadful. But just a few minutes now."
"You're good to me," she said presently, simply as a little girl might have said it.
To neither of them did it seem strange that she should be there in his arms, her fair head against his shoulder, nor that she should cling convulsively to him when the fierce pain tingled unbearably. She had reached out for the nearest help, and he gave of his strength and courage abundantly.
Presently the prickling of the flowing blood grew less sharp. She began to grow drowsy with warmth after the fatigue and pain. The big eyes shut, fluttered open, smiled at him, and again closed. She had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
He looked down with an odd queer feeling at the small aristocratic face relaxed upon his ann. The long lashes had drooped to the cheeks and shuttered the eyes that had met his with such confident appeal, but they did not hide the dark rings underneath, born of the hardships she had endured. As he walked the floor with her, he lived once more the terrible struggle through which they had passed. He saw Death stretching out icy hands for her, and as his arms unconsciously tightened about the soft rounded body, his square jaw set and the fighting spark leaped to his eyes.
"No, by Heaven," he gave back aloud his defiance.
Troubled dreams pursued her in her sleep. She clung close to him, her arm creeping round his neck for safety. He was a man not given to fine scruples, but all the best in him responded to her unconscious trust.
It was so she found herself when she awakened, stiff from her cramped position. She slipped at once to the floor and sat there drying her lace skirts, the sweet piquancy of her childish face set out by the leaping fire-glow that lit and shadowed her delicate coloring. Outside in the gray darkness raged the death from which he had snatched her by a miracle. Beyond--a million miles away--the world whose claim had loosened on them was going through its routine of lies and love, of hypocrisies and heroisms. But here were just they two, flung back to the primordial type by the fierce battle for existence that had encompassed them--Adam and Eve in the garden, one to one, all else forgot, all other ties and obligations for the moment obliterated. Had they not struggled, heart beating against heart, with the breath of death icing them, and come out alive? Was their world not contracted to a space ten feet by twelve, shut in from every other planet by an illimitable stretch of storm?
"Where should I have been if you had not found me?" she murmured, her haunting eyes fixed on the flames.
"But I should have found you--no matter where you had been, I should have found you."
The words seemed to leap from him of themselves. He was sure he had not meant to speak them, to voice so soon the claim that seemed to him so natural and reasonable.
She considered his words and found delight in acquiescing at once. The unconscious demand for life, for love, of her starved soul had never been gratified. But he had come to her through that fearful valley of death, because he must, because it had always been meant he should.
Her lustrous eyes, big with faith, looked up and met his.
The far, wise voices of the world were storm-deadened. They cried no warning to these drifting hearts. How should they know in that moment when their souls reached toward each other that the wisdom of the ages had decreed their yearning futile?