Chapter 6. 0n the Snow-Trail
 

Aline had passed into the house, moved by an instinct which shrank from publicity in the inevitable personal meeting between her and her husband. Now, Harley, with the cavalier nod of dismissal, which only a multimillionaire can afford, followed her and closed the door. A passionate rush of blood swept Ridgway's face. He saw red as he stood there with eyes burning into that door which had been shut in his face. The nails of his clenched fingers bit into his palms, and his muscles gathered themselves tensely. He had been cast aside, barred from the woman he loved by this septuagenarian, as carelessly as if he had no claim.

And it came home to him that now he had no claim, none before the law and society. They had walked in Arcadia where shepherds pipe. They had taken life for granted as do the creatures of the woods, forgetful of the edicts of a world that had seemed far and remote. But that world had obtruded itself and shattered their dream. In the person of Simon Harley it had shut the door which was to separate him and her. Hitherto he had taken from life what he had wanted, but already he was grappling with the blind fear of a fate for once too strong for him.

"Well, I'm damned if it isn't Waring Ridgway," called a mellow voice from across the gulch.

The man named turned, and gradually the set lines of his jaw relaxed.

"I didn't notice it was you, Sam. Better bring the horses across this side of that fringe of aspens."

The dismounted horseman followed directions and brought the floundering horses through, and after leaving them in the cleared place where Ridgway had cut his firewood he strolled leisurely forward to meet the mine-owner. He was a youngish man, broad of shoulder and slender of waist, a trifle bowed in the legs from much riding, but with an elastic sufficiency that promised him the man for an emergency, a pledge which his steady steel-blue eyes, with the humorous lines about the corners, served to make more valuable. His apparel suggested the careless efficiency of the cow-man, from the high-heeled boots into which were thrust his corduroys to the broad-brimmed white Stetson set on his sunreddened wavy hair. A man's man, one would vote him at first sight, and subsequent impressions would not contradict the first.

"Didn't know you were down in this neck of woods, Waring," he said pleasantly, as they shook hands.

An onlooker might have noticed that both of them gripped hands heartily and looked each other squarely in the eye.

"I came down on business and got caught in the blizzard on my way back. Came on her freezing in the machine and brought her here along with me. I had my eye on that slide. The snow up there didn't look good to me, and the grub was about out, anyhow, so I was heading for the C B Ranch when I sighted you."

"Golden luck for her. I knew it was a chance in a million that she was still alive, but Harley wanted to take it. Say, that old fellow's made of steel wire. Two of my boys are plugging along a mile or two behind us, but he stayed right with the game to a finish--and him seventy-three, mind you, and a New Yorker at that. The old boy rides like he was born in a saddle," said Sam Yesler with enthusiasm.

"I never said he was a quitter," conceded Ridgway ungraciously.

"You're right he ain't. And say, but he's fond of his wife. Soon as he struck the ranch the old man butted out again into the blizzard to get her--slipped out before we knew it. The boys rounded him up wandering round the big pasture, and none too soon neither. All the time we had to keep herd on him to keep him from taking another whirl at it. He was like a crazy man to tackle it, though he must a-known it was suicide. Funny how a man takes a shine to a woman and thinks the sun rises and sets by her. Far, as I have been able to make out women are much of a sameness, though I ain't setting up for a judge. Like as not this woman don't care a hand's turn for him."

"Why should she? He bought her with his millions, I suppose. What right has an old man like that with one foot in the grave to pick out a child and marry her? I tell you, Sam, there's something ghastly about it."

"Oh, well, I reckon when she sold herself she knew what she was getting. It's about an even thing--six of one and half a dozen of the other. There must be something rotten about a woman who will do a thing of that sort."

"Wait till you've seen her before passing judgment. And after you have you'll apologize if you're a white man for thinking such a thing about her," the miner said hotly.

Yesler looked at his friend in amiable surprise. "I don't reckon we need to quarrel about Simon Harley's matrimonial affairs, do we?" he laughed.

"Not unless you want to say any harm of that lamb."

A glitter of mischief gleamed from the cattleman's eyes. "Meaning Harley, Waring?"

"You know who I mean. I tell you she's an angel from heaven, pure as the driven snow."

"And I tell you that I'll take your word for it without quarreling with you," was the goodhumored retort. "What's up, anyhow? I never saw you so touchy before. You're a regular pepper-box."

The rescuers had brought food with them, and the party ate lunch before starting back. The cow-punchers of the C B had now joined them, both of them, as well as their horses, very tired with the heavy travel.

"This here Marathon race business through three-foot snow ain't for invalids like me and Husky," one of them said cheerfully, with his mouth full of sandwich. "We're also rans, and don't even show for place."

Yet though two of them had, temporarily at least, been rescued from imminent danger, and success beyond their expectations had met the others, it was a silent party. A blanket of depression seemed to rest upon it, which the good stories of Yesler and the genial nonsense of his man, Chinn, were unable to lift. Three of them, at least, were brooding over what the morning had brought forth, and trying to realize what it might mean for them.

"We'd best be going, I expect," said Yesler at last. "We've got a right heavy bit of work cut out for us, and the horses are through feeding. We can't get started any too soon for me."

Ridgway nodded silently. He knew that the stockman was dubious, as he himself was, about being able to make the return trip in safety. The horses were tired; so, too, were the men who had broken the heavy trail for so many miles, with the exception of Sam himself, who seemed built of whipcord and elastic. They would be greatly encumbered by the woman, for she would certainly give out during the journey. The one point in their favor was that they could follow a trail which had already been trodden down.

Simon Harley helped his wife into the boy's saddle on the back of the animal they had led, but his inexperience had to give way to Yesler's skill in fitting the stirrups to the proper length for her feet. To Ridgway, who had held himself aloof during this preparation, the stockman now turned with a wave of his hand toward his horse

"You ride, Waring."

"No, I'm fresh."

"All right. We'll take turns."

Ridgway led the party across the gulch, following the trail that had been swept by the slide. The cowboys followed him, next came Harley, his wife, and in the rear the cattleman. They descended the draw, and presently dipped over rolling ground to the plain beyond. The procession plowed steadily forward mile after mile, the pomes floundering through drifts after the man ahead.

Chinn, who had watched him breasting the soft heavy blanket that lay on the ground so deep and hemmed them in, turned to his companion.

"On the way coming I told you, Husky, we had the best man in Montana at our head. We got that beat now to a fare-you-well. We got the two best in this party, by crickey."

"He's got the guts, all right, but there ain't nothing on two legs can keep it up much longer," replied the other. "If you want to know, I'm about all in myself."

"Here, too," grunted the other. "And so's the bronc."

It was not, however, until dusk was beginning to fall that the leader stopped. Yesler's voice brought him up short in his tracks.

"Hold on, Waring. The lady's down."

Ridgway strode back past the exhausted cowboys and Harley, the latter so beaten with fatigue that he could scarce cling to the pommel of his saddle.

"I saw it coming. She's been done for a long time, but she hung on like a thoroughbred," explained Yesler from the snow-bank where Aline had fallen.

He had her in his arms and was trying to get at a flask of whisky in his hip-pocket.

"All right. I'll take care of her, Sam. You go ahead with your horse and break trail. I don't like the way this wind is rising. It's wiping out the path you made when you broke through. How far's the ranch now?"

"Close to five miles."

Both men had lowered their voices almost to a whisper.

"It's going to be a near thing, Sam. Your men are played out. Harley will never make it without help. From now on every mile will be worse than the last."

Yesler nodded quietly. "Some one has got to go ahead for help. That's the only way."

"It will have to be you, of course. You know the road best and can get back quickest. Better take her pony. It's the fittest."

The owner of the C B hesitated an instant before he answered. He was the last man in the world to desert a comrade that was down, but his common sense told him his friend had spoken wisely. The only chance for the party was to get help to it from the ranch.

"All right. If anybody plays out beside her try to keep him going. If it comes to a showdown leave him for me to pick up. Don't let him stop the whole outfit."

"Sure. Better leave me that bottle of whisky. So-long."

"You're going to ride, I reckon?"

"Yes. I'll have to."

"Get up on my horse and I'll give her to you. That's right Well, I'll see you later."

And with that the stockman was gone. For long they could see him, plunging slowly forward through the drifts, getting always smaller and smaller, till distance and the growing darkness swallowed him.

Presently the girl in Ridgway's arms opened her eyes.

"I heard what you and he said," she told him quietly.

"About what?" he smiled down into the white face that looked up into his.

"You know. About our danger. I'm not afraid, not the least little bit."

"You needn't be. We're coming through, all right. Sam will make it to the ranch. He's a man in a million."

"I don't mean that. I'm not afraid, anyway, whether we do or not."

"Why?" he asked, his heart beating wildly.

"I don't know, but I'm not," she murmured with drowsy content.

But he knew if she did not. Her fear had passed because he was there, holding her in his arms, fighting to the last ounce of power in him for her life. She felt he would never leave her, and that, if it came to the worst, she would pass from life with him close to her. Again he knew that wild exultant beat of blood no woman before this one had ever stirred in him.

Harley was the first to give up. He lurched forward and slipped from the saddle to the snow, and could not be cursed into rising. The man behind dismounted, put down his burden, and dragged the old man to his feet.

"Here! This won't do. You've got to stick it out."

"I can't. I've reached my limit." Then testily: "'Are not my days few? Cease then, and let me alone,'" he added wearily, with his everready tag of Scripture.

The instant the other's hold on him relaxed the old man sank back. Ridgway dragged him up and cuffed him like a troublesome child. He knew this was no time for reasoning.

"Are you going to lie down and quit, you old loafer? I tell you the ranch is only a mile or two. Here, get into the saddle."

By sheer strength the younger man hoisted him into the seat. He was very tired himself, but the vital sap of youth in him still ran strong in his blood. For a few yards farther they pushed on before Harley slid down again and his horse stopped.

Ridgway passed him by, guiding his bronco in a half-circle through the snow.

"I'll send back help for you," he promised.

"It will be too late, but save her--save her," the old man begged.

"I will," called back the other between set teeth.

Chinn was the next to drop out, and after him the one he called Husky. Both their horses had been abandoned a mile or two back, too exhausted to continue. Each of them Ridgway urged to stick to the trail and come on as fast as they could.

He knew the horse he was riding could not much longer keep going with the double weight, and when at length its strength gave out completely he went on afoot, carrying her in his arms as on that eventful night when he had saved her from the blizzard.

It was so the rescue-party found him, still staggering forward with her like a man in a sleep, flesh and blood and muscles all protestant against the cruelty of his indomitable will that urged them on in spite of themselves. In a dream he heard Yesler's cheery voice, gave up his burden to one of the rescuers, and found himself being lifted to a fresh horse. From this dream he awakened to find himself before the great fire of the living-room of the ranch-house, wakened from it only long enough to know that somebody was undressing him and helping him into bed.

Nature, with her instinct for renewing life, saw to it that Ridgway slept round the clock. He arose fit for anything. His body, hard as nails, suffered no reaction from the terrific strain he had put upon it, and he went down to his breakfast with an appetite ravenous for whatever good things Yesler's Chinese cook might have prepared for him.

He found his host already at work on a juicy steak.

"Mornin'," nodded that gentleman. "Hope you feel as good as you look."

"I'm all right, barring a little stiffness in my muscles. I'll feel good as the wheat when I've got outside of the twin steak to that one you have."

Yesler touched a bell, whereupon a soft-footed Oriental appeared, turned almond eyes on his proprietor, took orders and padded silently back to his kingdom--the kitchen. Almost immediately he reappeared with a bowl of oatmeal and a pitcher of cream.

"Go to it, Waring."

His host waved him the freedom of the diningroom, and Ridgway fell to. Never before had food tasted so good. He had been too sleepy to cat last night, but now he made amends. The steak, the muffins, the coffee, were all beyond praise, and when he came to the buckwheat hot cakes, sandwiched with butter and drenched with real maple syrup, his satisfied soul rose up and called Hop Lee blessed. When he had finished, Sam capped the climax by shoving toward him his case of Havanas.

Ridgway's eyes glistened. "I haven't smoked for days," he explained, and after the smoke had begun to rise, he added: "Ask what you will, even to the half of my kingdom, it's yours."

"Or half of the Consolidated's," amended his friend with twinkling eyes.

"Even so, Sam," returned the other equably. "And now, tell me how you managed to round us all up safely."

"You've heard, then, that we got the whole party in time?"

"Yes, I've been talking with one of your enthusiastic riders that went out with you after us. He's been flimflammed into believing you the greatest man in the United States. Tell me how you do it."

"Nick's a good boy, but I reckon he didn't tell you quite all that."

"Didn't he? You should have heard him reel off your praises by the yard. I got the whole story of how you headed the relief-party after you had reached the ranch more dead than alive."

"Then, if you've got it, I don't need to tell you. I was a bit worried about the old man. He was pretty far gone when we reached him, but he pulled through all right. He's still sleeping like a top."

"Is he?" His guest's hard gaze came round to meet his. "And the lady? Do you know how she stood it?"

"My sister says she was pretty badly played out, but all she needs is rest. Nell put her in her own bed, and she, too, has been doing nothing but sleep."

Ridgway smoked out his cigar in silence then tossed it into the fireplace as he rose briskly.

"I want to talk to Mesa over the phone, Sam."

"Can't do it. The wires are down. This storm played the deuce with them."

"The devil! I'll have to get through myself then."

"Forget business for a day or two, Waring, and take it easy up here," counseled his host.

"Can't do it. I have to make arrangements to welcome Simon Harley to Mesa. The truth is, Sam, that there are several things that won't wait. I've got to frame them up my way. Can you get me through to the railroad in time to catch the Limited?"

"I think so. The road has been traveled for two or three days. If you really must go. I hate to have you streak off like this."

"I'd like to stay, Sam, but I can't. For one thing, there's that senatorial fight coming on. Now that Harley's on the ground in person, I'll have to look after my fences pretty close. He's a good fighter, and he'll be out to win."

"After what you've done for him. Don't you think that will make a difference, Waring?"

His friend laughed without mirth. "What have I done for him? I left him in the snow to die, and while a good many thousand other people would bless me for it, probably he has a different point of view."

"I was thinking of what you did for his wife."

"You've said it exactly. I did it for her, not for him. I'll accept nothing from Harley on that account. He is outside of the friendship between her and me, and he can't jimmy his way in."

Yesler shrugged his shoulders. " All right. I'll order a rig hitched for you and drive you over myself. I want to talk over this senatorial fight anyhow. The way things look now it's going to be the rottenest session of the legislature we've ever had. Sometimes I'm sick of being mixed up in the thing, but I got myself elected to help straighten out things, and I'm certainly going to try."

"That's right, Sam. With a few good fighters like you we can win out. Anything to beat the Consolidated."

"Anything to keep our politics decent," corrected the other. "I've got nothing against the Consolidated, but I won't lie down and let it or any other private concern hog-tie this State--not if I can help it, anyhow."

Behind wary eyes Ridgway studied him. He was wondering how far this man would go as his tool. Sam Yesler held a unique position in the State. His influence was commanding among the sturdy old-time population represented by the non-mining interests of the smaller towns and open plains. He must be won at all hazards to lend it in the impending fight against Harley. The mine-owner knew that no thought of personal gain would move him. He must be made to feel that it was for the good of the State that the Consolidated be routed. Ridgway resolved to make him see it that way.