Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 5. Enter Simon Harley
The prospector's house in which they had found refuge was perched on the mountainside just at one edge of the draw. Rough as the girl had thought it, there was a more pretentious appearance to it than might have been expected. The cabin was of hewn logs mortared with mud, and care had been taken to make it warm. The fireplace was a huge affair that ate fuel voraciously. It was built of stone, which had been gathered from the immediate hillside.
The prospect itself showed evidence of having been worked a good deal, and it was an easy guess for the man who now stood looking into the tunnel that it belonged to some one of the thousands of miners who spend half their time earning a grubstake, and the other half dissipating it upon some hole in the ground which they have duped themselves into believing is a mine.
From the tunnel his eye traveled up the face of the white mountain to the great snow-comb that yawned over the edge of the rock-rim far above. It had snowed again heavily all night, and now showed symptoms of a thaw. Not once nor twice, but a dozen times, the man's anxious gaze had swept up to that great overhanging bank. Snowslides ran every year in this section with heavy loss to life and property. Given a rising temperature and some wind, the comb above would gradually settle lower and lower, at last break off, plunge down the precipitous slope, bringing thousands of tons of rock and snow with it, and, perhaps, bury them in a Titanic grave of ice. There had been a good deal of timber cut from the shoulder of the mountain during the past summer, and this very greatly increased the danger. That there was a real peril the man looking at it did not attempt to deny to himself. It would be enough to deny it to her in case she should ever suspect.
He had hoped for cold weather, a freeze hard enough to crust the surface of the snow. Upon this he might have made shift somehow to get her to Yesler's ranch, eighteen miles away though it was, but he knew this would not be feasible with the snow in its present condition. It was not certain that he could make the ranch alone; encumbered with her, success would be a sheer impossibility. On the other hand, their provisions would not last long. The outlook was not a cheerful one, from whichever point of view he took it; yet there was one phase of it he could not regret. The factors which made the difficulties of the situation made also its delights. Though they were prisoners in this solitary untrodden caynon, the sentence was upon both of them. She could look to none other than he for aid; and, at least, the drifts which kept them in held others out.
Her voice at his shoulder startled him.
"Wherefore this long communion with nature, my captain?" she gaily asked. "Behold, my, lord's hot cakes are ready for the pan and his servant to wait upon him." She gave him a demure smiling little curtsy of mock deference.
Never had her distracting charm been more in evidence. He had not seen her since they parted on the previous night. He had built for himself a cot in the woodshack, and had contrived a curtain that could be drawn in front of her bed in the living-room. Thus he could enter in the morning, light the fires, and start breakfast without disturbing her. She had dressed her hair, now in a different way, so that it fell in low waves back from the forehead and was bunched at the nape of her neck. The light swiftness of her dainty grace, the almost exaggerated carnation of the slightly parted lips, the glad eagerness that sparked her eyes, brought out effectively the picturesqueness of her beauty.
His grave eyes rested on her so long that a soft glow mantled her cheeks. Perhaps her words had been too free, though she had not meant them so. For the first time some thought of the conventions distressed her. Ought she to hold herself more in reserve toward him? Must she restrain her natural impulses to friendliness?
His eyes released her presently, but not before she read in them the feelings that had softened them as they gazed into hers. They mirrored his poignant pleasure at the delight of her sweet slenderness so close to him, his perilous joy at the intimacy fate had thrust upon them. Shyly her lids fell to the flushed cheeks.
"Breakfast is ready," she added self-consciously, her girlish innocence startled like a fawn of the forest at the hunter's approach
For whereas she had been blind now she saw in part. Some flash of clairvoyance had laid bare a glimpse of his heart and her own to her. Without misunderstanding the perfect respect for her which he felt, she knew the turbid banked emotions which this dammed. Her heart seemed to beat in her bosom like an imprisoned dove.
It was his voice, calm and resonant with strength, that brought her to earth again.
"And I am ready for it, lieutenant. Right about face. Forward--march!"
After breakfast they went out and tramped together the little path of hard-trodden snow in front of the house. She broached the prospect of a rescue or the chances of escape.
"We shall soon be out of food, and, anyhow, we can't stay here all winter," she suggested with a tremulous little laugh.
"You are naturally very tired of it already," he hazarded.
"It has been the experience of my life. I shall fence it off from all the days that have passed and all that are to come," she made answer vividly.
Their eyes met, but only for an instant.
"I am glad," he said quietly.
He began, then, to tell her what he must do, but at the first word of it she broke out in protest.
"No--no--no! We shall stay together. If you go I am going, too."
"I wish you could, but it is not possible. You could never get there. The snow is too soft and heavy for wading and not firm enough to bear your weight."
"But you will have to wade."
"I am stronger than you, lieutenant."
"I know, but----" She broke down and confessed her terror. "Would you leave me here-- alone--with all this snow Oh, I couldn't stay--I couldn't."
"It's the only way," he said steadily. Every fiber in him rebelled at leaving her here to face peril alone, but his reason overrode the desire and rebellion that were hot within him. He must think first of her ultimate safety, and this lay in getting her away from here at the first chance.
Tears splashed down from the big eyes. "I didn't think you would leave me here alone. With you I don't mind it, but-- Oh, I should die if I stayed alone."
"Only for twenty-four hours. Perhaps less. I shouldn't think of it if it weren't necessary."
"Take me with you. I am strong. You don't know how strong I am. I promise to keep up with you. Please!"
He shook his head. "I would take you with me if I could. You know that. But it's a man's fight. I shall have to stand up to it hour after hour till I reach Yesler's ranch. I shall get through, but it would not be possible for you to make it."
"And if you don't get through?"
He refused to consider that contingency. -"But I shall. You may look to see me back with help by this time to-morrow morning."
"I'm not afraid with you. But if you go away Oh, I can't stand it. You don't know--you don't know." She buried her face in her hands.
He had to swallow down his sympathy before he went on. "Yes, I know. But you must be brave. You must think of every minute as being one nearer to the time of my return."
"You will think me a dreadful coward, and I am. But I can't help it. I am afraid to stay alone. There's nothing in the world but mountains of snow. They are horrible--like death-- except when you are here."
Her child eyes coaxed him to stay. The mad longing was in him to kiss the rosy little mouth with the queer alluring droop to its corners. It was a strange thing how, with that arched twist to her eyebrows and with that smile which came and went like sunshine in her eyes, she toppled his lifelong creed. The cardinal tenet of his faith had been a belief in strength. He had first been drawn to Virginia by reason of her pluck and her power. Yet this child's very weakness was her fountain of strength. She cried out with pain, and he counted it an asset of virtue in her. She acknowledged herself a coward, and his heart went out to her because of it. The battle assignments of life were not for the soft curves and shy winsomeness of this dainty lamb.
"You will be brave. I expect you to be brave, lieutenant." Words of love and comfort were crowding to his brain, but he would not let them out.
"How long will you be gone?" she sobbed.
"I may possibly get back before midnight, but you mustn't begin to expect me until to-morrow morning, perhaps not till to-morrow afternoon."
"Oh, I couldn't--I couldn't stay here at night alone. Don't go, please. I'll not get hungry, truly I won't, and to-morrow they will find us."
He rose, his face working. "I must go, child. It's the thing to do. I wish to Heaven it weren't. You must think of yourself as quite safe here. You are safe. Don't make it hard for me to go, dear."
"I am a coward. But I can't help it. There is so much snow--and the mountains are so big." She tried valiantly to crush down her sobs. "But go. I'll--I'll not be afraid."
He buried her little hands in his two big ones and looked deep into her eyes. "Every minute of the time I am away from you I shall be with you in spirit. You'll not be alone any minute of the day or night. Whether you are awake or asleep I shall be with you."
"I'll try to remember that," she answered, smiling up at him but with a trembling lip.
She put him up some lunch while he made his simple preparations. To the end of the trench she walked with him, neither of them saying a word. The moment of parting had come.
She looked up at him with a crooked wavering little smile. She wanted to be brave, but she could not trust herself to say a word.
"Remember, dear. I am not leaving you. My body has gone on an errand. That is all."
Just now she found small comfort in this sophistry, but she did not tell him so.
"I--I'll remember." She gulped down a sob and still smiled through the mist that filmed her sight.
In his face she could see how much he was moved at her distress. Always a creature of impulse, one mastered her now, the need to let her weakness rest on his strength. Her arms slipped quickly round his neck and her head lay buried on his shoulder. He held her tight, eyes shining, the desire of her held in leash behind set teeth, the while sobs shook her soft round body in gusts.
"My lamb--my sweet precious lamb," she heard him murmur in anguish.
From some deep sex trait it comforted her that he suffered. With the mother instinct she began to regain control of herself that she might help him.
"It will not be for long," she assured him. "And every step of your way I shall pray for, your safety," she whispered.
He held her at arm's length while his gaze devoured her, then silently he wheeled away and plunged waist deep into the drifts. As long as he was in sight he saw her standing there, waving her handkerchief to him in encouragement. Her slight, dark figure, outlined against the snow, was the last thing his eyes fell upon before he turned a corner of the gulch and dropped downward toward the plains.
But when he was surely gone, after one fearful look at the white sea which encompassed her, the girl fled to the cabin, slammed the door after her, and flung herself on the bed to weep out her lonely terror in an ecstasy of tears. She had spent the first violence of her grief, and was sitting crouched on the rug before the open fire when the sound of a footstep, crunching the snow, startled her. The door opened, to let in the man who had just left her.
"You are back--already," she cried, her tear? stained face lifted toward him.
"Yes," he smiled' from the doorway. "Come here, little partner."
And when she had obediently joined him her eye followed his finger up the mountain-trail to a bend round which men and horses were coming.
"It's a relief-party," he said, and caught up his field-glasses to look them over more certainly. Two men on horseback, leading a third animal, were breaking a way down the trail, black spots against the background of white. "I guess Fort Salvation's about to be relieved," he added grimly, following the party through the glasses.
She touched the back of his hand with a finger. "Are you glad?" she asked softly.
"No, by Heaven!" he cried, lowering his glasses swiftly.
As he looked into her eyes the blood rushed to his brain with a surge. Her face turned to his unconsciously, and their lips met.
"And I don't even know your name," she murmured.
"Waring Ridgway; and yours?"
"Aline Hope," she said absently. Then a hot Rush ran over the girlish face. "No, no, I had forgotten. I was married last week."
The gates of paradise, open for two days, clanged to on Ridgway. He stared out with unseeing eyes into the silent wastes of snow. The roaring in his ears and the mountainsides that churned before his eyes were reflections of the blizzard raging within him.
"I'll never forget--never," he heard her falter, and her voice was a thousand miles away.
From the storm within him he was aroused by a startled cry from the girl at his side. Her fascinated gaze was fixed on the summit of the ridge above them. There was a warning crackle. The overhanging comb snapped, slid slowly down, and broke off. With gathering momentum it descended, sweeping into its heart rocks, trees, and debris. A terrific roar filled the air as the great white cloud came tearing down like an express-train.
Ridgway caught her round the waist and flung the girl against the wall of the cabin, protecting her with his body. The avalanche was upon them, splitting great trees to kindling-wood in the fury of its rush. The concussion of the wind shattered every window to fragments, almost tore the cabin from its foundations. Only the extreme tail of the slide touched them, yet they were buried deep in flying snow.
He found no great difficulty in digging a way out, and when he lifted her to the surface she was conscious. Yet she was pale even to the lips and trembled like an aspen in the summer breeze, clinging to him for support helplessly.
His cheerful voice rang like a bugle to her shocked brain.
"It's all past. We're safe now, dear--quite safe."
The first of the trail-breakers had dismounted and was plowing his way hurriedly to the cabin, but neither of them saw him as he came up the slope.
"Are you sure?" She shuddered, her hands still in his. "Wasn't it awful? I thought--" Her sentence trailed out unfinished.
"Are you unhurt, Aline?" cried the newcomer. And when he saw she was, he added: "Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy endureth forever. He saved them for His name's sake, that He might make His mighty power to be known."
At sound of the voice they turned and saw the man hurrying toward them. He was tall, gray, and seventy, of massive frame and gaunt, still straight and vigorous, with the hooked nose and piercing eyes of a hawk. At first glance he looked always the bird of prey, but at the next as invariably the wolf, an effect produced by the salient reaching jaw and the glint of white teeth bared for a lip smile. Just now he was touched to a rare emotion. His hands trembled and an expression of shaken thankfulness rested in his face.
Aline, still with Ridgway's strong arms about her, slowly came back to the inexorable facts of life.
"As soon as we could get through--and thank God in time."
"I would have died, except for--" This brought her immediately to an introduction, and after she had quietly released herself the man who had saved her heard himself being formally presented: "Mr. Ridgway, I want you to meet my husband, Mr. Harley."
Ridgway turned to Simon Harley a face of hammered steel and bowed, putting his hands deliberately behind his back.
"I've been expecting you at Mesa, Mr. Harley," he said rigidly. "I'll be glad to have the pleasure of welcoming you there."
The great financier was wondering where he had heard the man's name before, but he only said gravely: "You have a claim on me I can never forget, Mr. Ridgway."
Scornfully the other disdained this proffer. "Not at all. You owe me nothing, Mr. Harley--absolutely nothing. What I have done I have done for her. It is between her and me."
At this moment the mind of Harley fitted the name Ridgway to its niche in his brain. So this was the audacious filibuster who had dared to fire on the trust flag, the man he had come West to ruin and to humble.
"I think you will have to include me, Mr. Ridgway," he said suavely. "What is done for my wife is done, also, for me."