Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 4. Tort Salvation
She must have fallen asleep there, for when she opened her eyes it was day. Underneath her was a lot of bedding he had found in the cabin, and tucked about her were the automobile rugs. For a moment her brain, still sodden with sleep, struggled helplessly with her surroundings. She looked at the smoky rafters without understanding, and her eyes searched the cabin wonderingly for her maid. When she remembered, her first thought was to look for the man. That he had gone, she saw with instinctive terror.
But not without leaving a message. She found his penciled note, weighted for security by a dollar, at the edge of the hearth.
"Gone on a foraging expedition. Back in an hour, Little Partner," was all it said. The other man also had promised to be back in an hour, and he had not come, but the strong chirography of the note, recalling the resolute strength of this man's face, brought content to her eyes. He had said he would come back. She rested secure in that pledge.
She went to the window and looked out over the great white wastes that rose tier on tier to the dull sky-line. She shuddered at the arctic desolation of the vast snow-fields. The mountains were sheeted with silence and purity. It seemed to the untaught child-woman that she was face to face with the Almighty.
Once during the night she had partially awakened to hear the roaring wind as it buffeted snow-clouds across the range. It had come tearing along the divide with the black storm in its vanguard, and she had heard fearfully the shrieks and screams of the battle as it raged up and down the gulches and sifted into them the deep drifts.
Half-asleep as she was, she had been afraid and had cried out with terror at this strange wakening; and he had been beside her in an instant.
"It's all right, partner. There's nothing to be afraid of," he had said cheerfully, taking her little hand in his big warm one.
Her fears had slipped away at once. Nestling down into her rug, she had smiled sleepily at him and fallen asleep with her cheek on her hand, her other hand still in his.
While she had been asleep the snow-tides had filled the gulch, had risen level with the top of the lower pane of the window. Nothing broke the smoothness of its flow save the one track he had made in breaking a way out. That he should have tried to find his way through such an untracked desolation amazed her. He could never do it. No puny human atom could fight successfully against the barriers nature had dropped so sullenly to fence them. They were set off from the world by a quarantine of God. There was something awful to her in the knowledge. It emphasized their impotence. Yet, this man had set himself to fight the inevitable.
With a little shudder she turned from the window to the cheerless room. The floor was dirty; unwashed dishes were piled upon the table. Here and there were scattered muddy boots and overalls, just as their owner, the prospector, had left them before he had gone to the nearest town to restock his exhausted supply of provisions. Disorder and dirt filled the rough cabin, or so it seemed to her fastidious eye.
The inspiration of the housewife seized her. She would surprise him on his return by opening the door to him upon a house swept and garnished. She would show him that she could be of some use even in such a primitive topsy-turvy world as this into which Fate had thrust her willy-nilly.
First, she carried red live coals on a shovel from the fireplace to the cook-stove, and piled kindling upon them till it lighted. It was a new experience to her. She knew nothing of housework; had never lit a fire in her life, except once when she had been one of a camping party. The smoke choked her before she had the lids back in their places, but despite her awkwardness, the girl went about her unaccustomed tasks with a light heart. It was for her new-found hero that she played at housekeeping. For his commendation she filled the tea-kettle, enveloped herself in a cloud of dust as she wielded the stub of a broom she discovered, and washed the greasy dishes after the water was hot. A childish pleasure suffused her. All her life her least whims had been ministered to; she was reveling in a first attempt at service. As she moved to and fro with an improvised dust-rag, sunshine filled her being. From her lips the joy notes fell in song, shaken from her throat for sheer happiness. This surely was life, that life from which she had so carefully been hedged all the years of her young existence.
As he came down the trail he had broken, with a pack on his back, the man heard her birdlike carol in the clear frosty air. He emptied his chest in a deep shout, and she was instantly at the window, waving him a welcome with her dust-rag.
"I thought you were never coming," she cried from the open door as he came up the path.
Her eyes were starry in their eagerness. Every sensitive feature was alert with interest, so that the man thought he had never seen so mobile and attractive a face.
"Did it seem long?" he asked.
"Oh, weeks and weeks! You must be frozen to an icicle. Come in and get warm."
"I'm as warm as toast," he assured her.
He was glowing with exercise and the sting of the cold, for he had tramped two miles through drifts from three to five feet deep, battling with them every step of the way, and carrying with him on the return trip a box of provisions.
"With all that snow on you and the pack on your back, it's like Santa Claus," she cried, clapping her hands.
"Before we're through with the adventure we may think that box a sure enough gift from Santa," he replied.
After he had put it down, he took off his overcoat on the threshold and shook the snow from it. Then, with much feet stamping and scattering of snow, he came in. She fluttered about him, dragging a chair up to the fire for him, and taking his hat and gloves. It amused and pleased him that she should be so solicitous, and he surrendered himself to her ministrations.
His quick eye noticed the swept floor and the evanishment of disorder. "Hello! What's this clean through a fall house-cleaning? I'm not the only member of the firm that has been working. Dishes washed, floor swept, bed made, kitchen fire lit. You've certainly been going some, unless the fairies helped you. Aren't you afraid of blistering these little hands?" he asked gaily, taking one of them in his and touching the soft palm gently with the tip of his finger.
"I should preserve those blisters in alcohol to show that I've really been of some use," she answered, happy in his approval.
"Sho! People are made for different uses. Some are fit only to shovel and dig. Others are here simply to decorate the world. Hard world. Hard work is for those who can't give society anything else, but beauty is its own excuse for being," he told her breezily.
"Now that's the first compliment you have given me," she pouted prettily. "I can get them in plenty back in the drawing-rooms where I am supposed to belong. We're to be real comrades here, and compliments are barred."
"I wasn't complimenting you," he maintained. "I was merely stating a principle of art."
"Then you mustn't make your principles of art personal, sir. But since you have, I'm going to refute the application of your principle and show how useful I've been. Now, sir, do you know what provisions we have outside of those you have just brought?"
He knew exactly, since he had investigated during the night. That they might possibly have to endure a siege of some weeks, he was quite well aware, and his first thought, after she had gone to sleep before the fire, had been to make inventory of such provisions as the prospector had left in his cabin. A knuckle of ham, part of a sack of flour, some navy beans, and some tea siftings at the bottom of a tin can; these constituted the contents of the larder which the miner had gone to replenish. But though the man knew he assumed ignorance, for he saw that she was bubbling over with the desire to show her forethought.
"Tell me," he begged of her, and after she had done so, he marveled aloud over her wisdom in thinking of it.
"Now tell me about your trip," she commanded, setting herself tailor fashion on the rug to listen.
"There isn't much to tell," he smiled "I should like to make an adventure of it, but I can't. I just went and came back."
"Oh, you just went and came back, did you?" she scoffed. "That won't do at all. I want to know all about it. Did you find the machine all right?"
"I found it where we left it, buried in four feet of snow. You needn't be afraid that anybody will run away with it for a day or two. The pantry was cached pretty deep itself, but I dug it out."
Her shy glance admired the sturdy lines of his powerful frame. "I am afraid it must have been a terrible task to get there through the blizzard."
"Oh, the blizzard is past. You never saw a finer, more bracing morning. It's a day for the gods," he laughed boyishly.
She could have conceived no Olympian more heroic than he, and certainly none with so compelling a vitality. "Such a warm, kind light in them!" she thought of the eyes others had found hard and calculating.
It was lucky that the lunch the automobilists had brought from Avalanche was ample and as yet untouched. The hotel waiter, who had attended to the packing of it, had fortunately been used to reckon with outdoor Montana appetites instead of cloyed New York ones. They unpacked the little hamper with much gaiety. Everything was frozen solid, and the wine had cracked its bottle.
"Shipped right through on our private refrigerator-car. That cold-storage chicken looks the finest that ever happened. What's this rolled up in tissue-paper? Deviled eggs and ham sandwiches and caviar, not to speak of claret frappe. I'm certainly grateful to the gentleman finished in ebony who helped to provision us for this siege. He'll never know what a tip he missed by not being here to collect."
"Here's jelly, too, and cake," she said, exploring with him.
"Not to mention peaches and pears. Oh, this is luck of a special brand! I was expecting to put up at Starvation Camp. Now we may name it Point Plenty."
"Or Fort Salvation," she suggested shyly. "Because you brought me here to save my life."
She was such a child, in spite of her charming grown-up airs, that he played make-believe with a zest that surprised himself when he came to think of it. She elected him captain of Fort Salvation, with full power of life and death over the garrison, and he appointed her second in command. His first general order was to put the garrison on two meals a day.
She clapped her little hands, eyes sparkling with excitement. "Are we really snow-bound? Must we go on half-rations?"
"It is the part of wisdom, lieutenant," he answered, smiling at her enthusiasm. "We don't know how long this siege is going to last. If it should set in to snow, we may be here several days before the relief-party reaches us." But, though he spoke cheerfully, he was aware of sinister possibilities in the situation. "Several weeks" would have been nearer his real guess.
They ate breakfast at the shelf-table nailed in place underneath the western window. They made a picnic of it, and her spirits skipped upon the hilltops. For the first time she ate from tin plates, drank from a tin cup, and used a tin spoon the worse for rust. What mattered it to her that the teapot was grimy and the fryingpan black with soot! It was all part of the wonderful new vista that had suddenly opened before her gaze. She had awakened into life and already she was dimly realizing that many and varied experiences lay waiting for her in that untrodden path beyond her cloistered world.
A reconnaissance in the shed behind the house showed him no plethora of firewood. But here was ax, shovel, and saw, and he asked no more. First he shoveled out a path along the eaves of the house where she might walk in sentry fashion to take the deep breaths of clear sharp air he insisted upon. He made it wide enough so that her skirt would not sweep against the snow-bank, and trod down the trench till the footing was hard and solid. Then with ax and saw he climbed the hillside back of the house and set himself to get as much fuel as he could. The sky was still heavy with unshed snow, and he knew that with the coming of night the storm would be renewed.
Came noon, mid-afternoon, the early dusk of a mountain winter, and found him still hewing and sawing, still piling load after load in the shed. Now and again she came out and watched him, laughing at the figure he made as he would come plunging through the snow with his armful of fuel.
She did not know, as he did, the vital necessity of filling the lean-to before winter fell upon them in earnest and buried them deep with his frozen blanket, and she was a little piqued that he should spend the whole day away from her in such unsocial fashion.
"Let me help," she begged so often that he trod down a path, made boots for her out of torn gunny-sacks which he tied round her legs, and let her drag wood to the house on a pine branch which served for a sled. She wore her gauntlets to protect her tender hands, and thereafter was happy until, detecting signs of fatigue, he made her go into the house and rest.
As soon as she dared she was back again, making fun of him and the earnestness with which he worked.
"Robinson Crusoe" was one name she fastened upon him, and she was not satisfied till she had made him call her "Friday."
Twilight fell austere and sudden upon them with an immediate fall of temperature that found a thermometer in her blue face.
He recommended the house, but she was of a contrary mood.
"I don't want to," she announced debonairly.
In a stiff military attitude he gave raucous mandate from his throat.
"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant."
"I think I'm going to mutiny," she informed him, with chin saucily in air.
This would not do at all. The chill wind sweeping down the canon was searching her insufficient clothing already. He picked her up in his arms and ran with her toward the house, setting her down in the trench outside the door. She caught her startled breath and looked at him in shy, dubious amazement.
"Really you " she was beginning when he cut her short.
"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant," came briskly from lips that showed just a hint of a smile.
At once she clicked her heels together, saluted, and wheeled into the cabin.
From the grimy window she watched his broad-shouldered vigor, waving her hand whenever his face was turned her way. He worked like a Titan, reveling in the joy of physical labor, but it was long past dark before he finished and came striding to the hut.
They made a delightful evening of it, living in the land of Never Was. For one source of her charm lay in the gay, childlike whimsicality o her imagination. She believed in fairies and heroes with all her heart, which with her was an organ not located in her brain. The delicious gurgle of gaiety in her laugh was a new find to him in feminine attractions.
There had been many who thought the career of this pirate of industry beggared fiction, though, few had found his flinty personality a radiaton of romance. But this convent-nurtured child had made a discovery in men, one out of the rut of the tailor-made, convention-bound society youths to whom her experience for the most part had been limited. She delighted in his masterful strength, in the confidence of his careless dominance. She liked to see that look of power in his gray-blue eyes softened to the droll, half-tender, expression with which he played the game of make-believe. There were no to-morrows; to-day marked the limit of time for them. By tacit consent they lived only in the present, shutting out deliberately from their knowledge of each other, that past which was not common to both. Even their names were unknown to each other, and both of them were glad that it was so.
The long winter evening had fallen early, and they dined by candle-light, considering merrily how much they might with safety eat and yet leave enough for the to-morrows that lay before them. Afterward they sat before the fire, in the shadow and shine of the flickering logs, happy and content in each other's presence. She dreamed, and he, watching her, dreamed, too. The wild, sweet wonder of life surged through them, touching their squalid surroundings to the high mystery of things unreal.
The strangeness of it was that he was a man of large and not very creditable experience of women, yet her deep, limpid eyes, her sweet voice, the immature piquancy of her movements that was the expression of her, had stirred his imagination more potently than if he had been the veriest schoolboy nursing a downy lip. He could not keep his eyes from this slender, exquisite girl, so dainty and graceful in her mobile piquancy. Fire and passion were in his heart and soul, restraint and repression in his speech and manner. For the fire and passion in him were pure and clean as the winds that sweep the hills.
But for the girl--she was so little mistress of her heart that she had no prescience of the meaning of this sweet content that filled her. And the voices that should have warned her were silent, busy behind the purple hills with lies and love and laughter and tears.