Chapter XIII. Almost a Tragedy
 

The quiet sequence of daily life was soon interrupted by circumstances that nearly ended in a tragedy. One morning Burt saw an eagle sailing over the mountains. The snow had been greatly wasted, and in most places was so strongly incrusted that it would bear a man's weight. Therefore the conditions seemed favorable for the eagle hunt which he had promised himself; and having told his father that he would look after the wood teams and men on his way, he took his rifle and started.

The morning was not cold, and not a breath of air disturbed the sharp, still outlines of the leafless trees. The sky was slightly veiled with a thin scud of clouds. As the day advanced these increased in density and darkened in hue.

Webb remarked at dinner that the atmosphere over the Beacon Hills in the northeast was growing singularly obscure and dense in its appearance, and that he believed a heavy storm was coming.

"I am sorry Burt has gone to the mountains to-day," said Mrs. Clifford, anxiously.

"Oh, don't worry about Burt," was Webb's response; "there is no more danger of his being snowed in than of a fox's."

Before the meal was over, the wind, snow-laden, was moaning about the house. With every hour the gale increased in intensity. Early in the afternoon the men with the two teams drove to the barn. Amy could just see their white, obscure figures through the blinding snow, Even old Mr. Clifford went out to question them. "Yes, Mr. Burt come up in de mawnin' an' stirred us all up right smart, slashed down a tree hisself to show a new gawky hand dat's cuttin' by de cord how to 'arn his salt; den he put out wid his rafle in a bee-line toward de riber. Dat's de last we seed ob him;" and Abram went stolidly on to unhitch and care for his horses.

Mr. Clifford and his two elder sons returned to the house with traces of anxiety on their faces, while Mrs. Clifford was so worried that, supported by Amy, she made an unusual effort, and met them at the door.

"Don't be disturbed, mother," said Webb, confidently. "Burt and I have often been caught in snowstorms, but never had any difficulty in finding our way. Burt will soon appear, or, if he doesn't, it will be because he has stopped to recount to Dr. Marvin the results of his eagle hunt."

Indeed, they all tried to reassure her, but, with woman's quick instinct where her affections are concerned, she read what was passing in their minds. Her husband led her back to her couch, where she lay with her large dark eyes full of trouble, while her lips often moved in prayer. The thought of her youngest and darling son far off and alone among those cloud-capped and storm-beaten mountains was terrible to her.

Another hour passed, and still the absent youth did not return. Leonard, his father, and Amy, often went to the hall window and looked out. The storm so enhanced the early gloom of the winter afternoon that the outbuildings, although so near, loomed out only as shadows. The wind was growing almost fierce in its violence. Webb had so long kept up his pretence of reading that Amy began in her thoughts to resent his seeming indifference as cold-blooded. At last he laid down his book, and went quietly away. She followed him, for it seemed to her that something ought to be done, and that he was the one to do it. She found him in an upper chamber, standing by an open window that faced the mountains. Joining him, she was appalled by the roar of the wind as it swept down from the wooded heights.

"Oh, Webb," she exclaimed--he started at her words and presence, and quickly closed the window--"ought not something to be done? The bare thought that Burt is lost in this awful gloom fills me with horror. The sound of that wind was like the roar of the ocean in a storm we had. How can he see in such blinding snow? How could he breast this gale if he were weary?"

He was silent a moment, looking with contracted brows at the gloomy scene. At last he began, as if reassuring himself as well as the agitated girl at his side:

"Burt, you must remember, has been brought up in this region. He knows the mountains well, and--"

"Oh, Webb, you take this matter too coolly," interrupted Amy, impulsively. "Something tells me that Burt is in danger;" and in her deep solicitude she put her hand on his arm. She noticed that it trembled, and that he still bent the same contracted brow toward the region where his brother must be if her fears were true. Then he seemed to come to a decision.

"Yes," he said, quietly, "I take it coolly. Perhaps it's well that I can. You may be right, and there may be need of prompt, wise action. If so, a man will need the full control of all his wits. I will not, however, give up my hope--my almost belief--that he is at Dr. Marvin's. I shall satisfy myself at once. Try not to show your fears to father and mother, that's a brave girl."

He was speaking hurriedly now as they were descending the stairs. He found his father in the hall, much disturbed, and querying with his eldest son as to the advisability of taking some steps immediately. Leonard, although evidently growing anxious, still urged that Burt, with his knowledge and experience as a sportsman, would not permit himself to be caught in such a storm.

"He surely must be at the house of Dr. Marvin or some other neighbor on the mountain road."

"I also think he is at the doctor's, but shall see," Webb remarked, quietly, as he drew on his overcoat.

"I don't think he's there; I don't think he is at any neighbor's house," cried Mrs. Clifford, who, to the surprise of all, had made her way to the hall unaided. "Burt is thoughtless about little things, but he would not leave me in suspense on such a night as this."

"Mother, I promise you Burt shall soon be here safe and sound;" and Webb in his shaggy coat and furs went hastily out, followed by Leonard. A few moments later the dusky outlines of a man and a galloping horse appeared to Amy for a moment, and then vanished toward the road.

It was some time before Leonard returned, for Webb had said: "If Burt is not at the doctor's, we must go and look for him. Had you not better have the strongest wood-sled ready? You will know what to do."

Having admitted the possibility of danger, Leonard acted promptly. With Abram's help a pair of stout horses were soon attached to the sled, which was stored with blankets, shovels to clear away drifts, etc.

Webb soon came galloping back, followed a few moments later by the doctor, but there were no tidings of Burt.

Amy expected that Mrs. Clifford would become deeply agitated, but was mistaken. She lay on her couch with closed eyes, but her lips moved almost continuously. She had gone to Him whose throne is beyond all storms.

Mr. Clifford was with difficulty restrained from joining his sons in the search. The old habit of resolute action returned upon him, but Webb settled the question by saying, in a tone almost stern in its authority, "Father, you must remain with mother."

Amy had no further reason to complain that Webb took the matter too coolly. He was all action, but his movements were as deft as they were quick. la the basket which Maggie had furnished with brandy and food he placed the conch-shell used to summon Abram to his meals. Then, taking down a double-barrelled breech-loading gun, he filled his pocket with cartridges.

"What is that for?" Amy asked, with white lips, for, as he seemed the natural leader, she hovered near him.

"If we do not find him at one of the houses well up on the mountain, as I hope we shall, I shall fire repeatedly in our search. The reports would be heard further than any other sound, and he might answer with his rifle."

Leonard now entered with the doctor, who said, "All ready; we have stored the sledge with abundant material for fires, and if Burt has met with an accident, I am prepared to do all that can be done under the circumstances."

"All ready," responded Webb, again putting on his coat and fur cap.

Amy sprang to his side and tied the cap securely down with her scarf.

"Forgive me," she whispered, "for saying that you took Bart's danger coolly. I understand you better now. Oh, Webb, be careful! Think of yourself too. I now see that you are thinking of Burt only."

"Of you also, little sister, and I shall be the stronger for such thoughts. Don't give way to fear. We shall find Burt, and all come home hungry as wolves. Good-by."

"May the blessing of Him who came to seek and save the lost go with you!" said the aged father, tremulously.

A moment later they dashed away, followed by Burt's hound and the watch-dog, and the darkness and storm hid them from sight.

Oh, the heavy cross of watching and waiting! Many claim that woman is not the equal of man because she must watch and wait in so many of the dread emergencies of life, forgetting that it is infinitely easier to act, to face the wildest storm that sweeps the sky or the deadliest hail crashing from cannons' mouths, than to sit down in sickening suspense waiting for the blow to fall. The man's duty requires chiefly the courage which he shares with the greater part of the brute creation, and only as he adds woman's patience, fortitude, and endurance does he become heroic. Nothing but his faith in God and his life-long habit of submission to his will kept Mr. Clifford from chafing like a caged lion in his enforced inaction. Mrs. Clifford, her mother's heart yearning after her youngest and darling boy with an infinite tenderness, alone was calm.

Amy's young heart was oppressed by an unspeakable dread. It was partly due to the fear and foreboding of a child to whom the mountains were a Siberia-like wilderness in their awful obscurity, and still more the result of knowledge of the sorrow that death involves. The bare possibility that the light-hearted, ever-active Burt, who sometimes perplexed her with more than fraternal devotion, was lying white and still beneath the drifting snow, or even wandering helplessly in the blinding gale, was so terrible that it blanched her cheek, and made her lips tremble when she tried to speak. She felt that she had been a little brusque to him at times, and now she reproached herself in remorseful compunction, and with the abandonment of a child to her present overwrought condition, felt that she could never refuse him anything should his blue eyes turn pleadingly to her again. At first she did not give way, but was sustained, like Maggie, by the bustle of preparation for the return, and in answering the innumerable questions of Johnnie and Alf. Webb's assurance to his mother that he would bring Burt back safe and sound was her chief hope. From the first moment of greeting he had inspired her with a confidence that had steadily increased, and from the time that he had admitted the possibility of this awful emergency he had acted so resolutely and wisely as to convince her that all that man could do would be done. She did not think of explaining to herself why her hope centred more in him than in all the others engaged in the search, or why she was more solicitous about him in the hardships and perils that the expedition involved, and yet Webb shared her thoughts almost equally with Burt. If the latter were reached, Webb would be the rescuer, but her sickening dread was that in the black night and howling storm he could not be found.

As the rescuing party pushed their way up the mountain with difficulty they became more and more exposed to the northeast gale, and felt with increasing dread how great was the peril to which Burt must be exposed had he not found refuge in some of the dwellings nearer to the scene of his sport. The roar of the gale up the rugged defile was perfectly terrific, and the snow caught up from the overhanging ledges was often driven into their faces with blinding force. They could do little better than give the horses their heads, and the poor brutes floundered slowly through the drifts. The snow had deepened incredibly fast, and the fierce wind piled it up so fantastically in every sheltered place that they were often in danger of upsetting, and more than once had to spring out with their shovels. At last, after an hour of toil, they reached the first summit, but no tidings could be obtained of Burt from the people residing in the vicinity. They therefore pushed on toward the gloomy wastes beyond, and before long left behind them the last dwelling and the last chance that he had found shelter before night set in. Two stalwart men had joined them in the search, however, and formed a welcome re-inforcement. With terrible forebodings they pressed forward, Webb firing his breech-loader rapidly, and the rest making what noise they could, but the gale swept away these feeble sounds, and merged them almost instantly in the roar of the tempest. It was their natural belief that in attempting to reach home Burt would first try to gain the West Point road that crossed the mountains, for here would be a pathway that the snow could not obliterate, and also his best chance of meeting a rescuing party. It was therefore their purpose to push on until the southern slope of Cro' Nest was reached, but they became so chilled and despondent over their seemingly impossible task that they stopped on an eminence near a rank of wood. They knew that the outlook commanded a wide view to the south and north, and that if Burt were cowering somewhere in that region, it would be a good point from which to attract his attention.

"I move that we make a fire here," said Leonard. "Abram is half-frozen, we are all chilled to the bone, and the horses need rest. I think, too, that a fire can be seen further than any sound can be heard."

The instinct of self-preservation caused them all to accede, and, moreover, they must keep up themselves in order to accomplish anything. They soon had a roaring blaze under the partial shield of a rock, while at the same time the flames rose so high as to be seen on both sides of the ridge as far as the storm permitted. The horses were sheltered as well as possible, and heavily blanketed. As the men thawed out their benumbed forms, Webb exclaimed, "Great God! what chance has Burt in such a storm? and what chance have we of finding him?"

The others shook their heads gloomily, but answered nothing.

"It will kill mother," he muttered.

"There is no use in disguising the truth," said the doctor, slowly. "If Burt's alive, he must have a fire. Our best chance is to see that. But how can one see anything through this swirl of snow, that is almost as thick in the air as on the ground?"

To their great joy the storm soon began to abate, and the wind to blow in gusts. They clambered to the highest point near them, and peered eagerly for some glimmer of light; but only a dim, wild scene, that quickly shaded off into utter obscurity, was around them. The snowflakes were growing larger, however, and were no longer swept with a cutting slant into their faces.

"Thank God!" cried Webb, "I believe the gale is nearly blown out. I shall follow this ridge toward the river as far as I can."

"I'll go with you," said he doctor, promptly.

"No," said Webb; "it will be your turn next. It won't do for us all to get worn out together. I'll go cautiously; and with this ridge as guide, and the fire, I can't lose my way. I'll take one of the dogs, and fire my gun about every ten minutes. If I fire twice in succession, follow me; meanwhile give a blast on the conch every few moments;" and with these words he speedily disappeared.

The doctor and Leonard returned to the fire, and watched the great flakes fall hissing into the flames. Hearing of Webb's expedition, the two neighbors who had recently joined them pushed on up the road, shouting and blowing the conch-shell as often as they deemed it necessary. Their signal also was to be two blasts should they meet with any success. Leonard and the doctor were a corps de reserve. The wind soon ceased altogether, and a stillness that was almost oppressive took the place of the thunder of the gale. They threw themselves down to rest, and Leonard observed with a groan how soon his form grew white. "Oh, doctor," he said in a tone of anguish, "can it be that we shall never find Burt till the snow melts?"

"Do not take so gloomy a view," was the reply. "Burt must have been able to make a fire, and now that the wind has ceased we can attract his attention."

Webb's gun was heard from time to time, the sounds growing steadily fainter. At last, far away to the east, came two reports in quick succession. The two men started up, and with the aid of lanterns followed Webb's trail, Abram bringing up the rear with an axe and blankets.

Sometimes up to his waist in snow, sometimes springing from rock to rock that the wind had swept almost bare, Webb had toiled on along the broken ridge, his face scratched and bleeding from the shaggy, stunted trees that it was too dark to avoid; but he thought not of such trifles, and seemed endowed with a strength ten times his own. Every few moments he would stop, listen, and peer about him on every side. Finally, after a rather long upward climb, he knew he had reached a rock of some altitude. He again fired his gun. The echoes soon died away, and there was no sound except the low tinkle of the snowflakes through the bushes. He was just about to push on, when, far down to the right and south of him, he thought he saw a gleam of light. He looked long and eagerly, but in vain. He passed over to that side of the ridge, and fired again; but there was no response--nothing but the dim, ghostly snow on every side. Concluding that it had been but a trick of the imagination, he was about to give up the hope that had thrilled his heart, when feebly but unmistakably a ray of light shot up, wavered, and disappeared. At the same moment his dog gave a loud bark, and plunged down the ridge. A moment sufficed to give the preconcerted signal, and almost at the risk of life and limb Webb rushed down the precipitous slope. He had not gone very far before he heard a long, piteous howl that chilled his very soul with dread. He struggled forward desperately, and, turning the angle of a rock, saw a dying fire, and beside it a human form merely outlined through the snow. As the dog was again raising one of his ill-omened howls, Webb stopped him savagely, and sprang to the prostrate figure, whose face was buried in its arm.

It was Burt. Webb placed a hand that trembled like an aspen over his brother's heart, and with a loud cry of joy felt its regular beat. Burt had as yet only succumbed to sleep, which in such cases is fatal when no help interposes. Webb again fired twice to guide the rescuing party, and then with some difficulty caused Burt to swallow a little brandy. He next began to chafe his wrists with the spirits, to shake him, and to shout in his ear. Slowly Burt shook off his fatal lethargy, and by the time the rest of the party reached him, was conscious.

"Good God!" he exclaimed, "did I go to sleep? I vowed I would not a hundred times. Nor would I if I could have moved around; but I've sprained my ankle, and can't walk."

With infinite difficulty, but with hearts light and grateful, they carried him on an improvised stretcher to the sled. Bart explained that he had been lured further and further away by a large eagle that had kept just out of range, and in his excitement he had at first paid no attention to the storm. Finally its increasing fury and the memory of his distance from home had brought him to his senses, and he had struck out for the West Point road. Still he had no fears or misgivings, but while climbing the slope on which he was found, he slipped, fell, and in trying to save himself came down with his whole weight on a loose stone, and sprained his left ankle. He tried to crawl and hobble forward, and for a time gave way to something like panic. He soon found that he was using up his strength, and that he would perish with the cold before he could make half a mile. He then crawled under the sheltering ledge where Webb discovered him, and by the aid of his good woodcraft soon had a fire, for it was his fortune to have some matches. A dead and partially decayed tree, a knife strong enough to cut the saplings when bent over, supplied him with fuel. Finally the drowsiness which long exposure to cold induces began to oppress him. He fought against it desperately for a time, but, as events proved, was overpowered.

"God bless you, Webb!" he said, concluding his story. "You have saved my life."

"We have all had a hand at it," was the quiet reply. "I couldn't have done anything alone."

Wrapped up beyond the possibility of further danger from the cold, and roused from time to time, Burt was carried homeward as fast as the drifts permitted, the horses' bells now chiming musically in the still air.

       *       *       *       *       *

As hour after hour passed and there was nothing left to do, Amy took Johnnie on her lap, and they rocked back and forth and cried together. Soon the heavy lids closed over the little girl's eyes, and shut off the tears. Alf had already coiled up on a lounge and sobbed himself to sleep. Maggie took up the little girl, laid her down beside him, and covered them well from the draughts that the furious gale drove through every crack and cranny of the old house, glad that they had found a happy oblivion. Amy then crept to a footstool at Mrs. Clifford's side--the place where she had so often seen the youth whom the storm she now almost began to believe had swept from them forever--and she bowed her head on the old lady's thin hand and sobbed bitterly.

"Don't give way so, darling," said the mother, as her other hand stroked the brown hair. "God is greater than the storm. We have prayed, and we now feel that he will do what is best."

"Oh, that I had your faith!"

"It will come in time--when long years have taught you his goodness."

She slowly wiped her eyes, and stole a glance at Mr. Clifford. His earlier half-desperate restlessness had passed away, and he sat quietly in his chair gazing into the fire, occasionally wiping a tear from his eyes, and again looking upward with an expression of sublime submission. Soon, as if conscious of her wondering observation, he said, "Come to me, Amy."

She stood beside him, and he drew her close as he continued:

"My child, one of the hardest lessons we can learn in this world is to say, 'Not my will, but Thine be done.' I have lived fourscore years, and yet I could not say it at first; but now" (with a calm glance heavenward) "I can say, 'My Father, thy will be done.' If he takes Burt, he has given us you;" and he kissed her so tenderly that she bowed her head upon his shoulder, and said, brokenly:

"You are my father in very truth."

"Yes," was his quiet response.

Then she stole back to her seat. There was a Presence in the room that filled her with awe, and yet banished her former overwhelming dread and grief.

They watched and waited; there was no sound in the room except the soft crackle of the fire, and Amy thought deeply on the noble example before her of calm, trustful waiting. At last she became conscious that the house was growing strangely still; the faint tick of the great clock on the landing of the stairs struck her ear; the rush and roar of the wind had ceased. Bewildered, she rose softly and went to Maggie's room, and found that the tired mother in watching over her children had fallen asleep in her chair. She lifted a curtain, and could scarcely believe her eyes when she saw that the trees that had been writhing and moaning in the gale now stood white and spectral as the lamp-light fell upon them. When had the wind ceased? It seemed as if the calm that had fallen upon her spirit had extended to nature; that the storm had hushed its rude clamor even while it continued. From the window she watched the white flakes flutter through the light she knew not how long: the old clock chimed out midnight, and then, faint and far away, she thought she heard the sleigh-bells. With swift, silent tread, she rushed to a side door and threw it open. Yes, clear and distinct she now heard them on the mountain road. With a low cry she returned and wakened Maggie, then flew to the old people, and, with a voice that she tried in vain to steady, said, "They are coming."

Mr. Clifford started up, and was about to rush from the room, but paused a moment irresolutely, then returned, sat down by his wife, and put his arm around her. He was true to his first love. The invalid had grown faint and white, but his touch and presence were the cordials she needed.

Amy fled back to the side door, and the sled soon appeared. There was no light at this entrance, and she was unobserved. She saw them begin to lift some one out, and she dashed through an intervening drift nearly to her waist. Webb felt a hand close on his arm with a grip that he long remembered.

"Burt?" she cried, in a tone of agonizing inquiry.

"Heigh-ho, Amy," said the much-muffled figure that they were taking from the sled; "I'm all right."

In strong reaction, the girl would have fallen, had not Webb supported her. He felt that she trembled and clung almost helplessly to him.

"Why, Amy," he said, gently, "you will take your death out here in the cold and snow"; and leaving the others to care for Burt, he lifted her in his arms and carried her in.

"Thank God, he's safe," she murmured. "Oh, we have waited so long! There, I'm better now," she said, hastily, and with a swift color coming into her pale cheeks, as they reached the door.

"You must not expose yourself so again, sister Amy."

"I thought--I thought when you began to lift Burt out--" But she could not finish the sentence.

"He has only sprained his ankle. Go tell mother."

Perhaps there is no joy like that which fills loving hearts when the lost is found. It is so pure and exalted that it is one of the ecstasies of heaven. It would be hard to describe how the old house waked up with its sudden accession of life--life that was so warm and vivid against the background of the shadow of death. There were murmured thanksgivings as feet hurried to and fro, and an opening fire of questions, which Maggie checked by saying:

"Possess your souls in patience. Burt's safe--that's enough to know until he is cared for, and my half-famished husband and the rest get their supper. Pretty soon we can all sit down, for I want a chance to hear too."

"And no one has a better right, Maggie," said her husband, chafing his hands over the fire. "After what we've seen to-night, this place is the very abode of comfort, and you its presiding genius;" and Leonard beamed and thawed until the air grew tropical around him.

At Mrs. Clifford's request (for it was felt that it was not best to cross the invalid), Burt, in the rocking-chair wherein he had been placed, was carried to her room, and received a greeting from his parents that brought tears to the young fellow's eyes. Dr. Marvin soon did all within his power at that stage for the sprained ankle and frost-bitten fingers, the mother advising, and feeling that she was still caring for her boy as she had done a dozen years before. Then Burt was carried back to the dining-room, where all were soon gathered. The table groaned under Maggie's bountiful provision, and lamp-light and fire-light revealed a group upon which fell the richer light of a great joy.

Burt was ravenously hungry, but the doctor put him on limited diet, remarking, "You can soon make up for lost time." He and Leonard, however, made such havoc that Amy pretended to be aghast; but she soon noted that Webb ate sparingly, that his face was not only scratched and torn, but almost haggard, and that he was unusually quiet. The reasons were soon apparent. When all were helped, and Maggie had a chance to sit down, she said:

"Now tell us about it. We just heard enough when you first arrived to curdle our blood. How in the world, Burt, did you allow yourself to get caught in such a storm?"

"If it had not been for this confounded sprain I should have come out all right;" and then followed the details with which the reader is acquainted, although little could be got out of Webb.

"The upshot of it all is," said Leonard, as he beamed upon the party with ineffable content, "between mother's praying and Webb's looking, Burt is here, not much the worse for his eagle hunt."

They would not hear of the doctor's departure, and very soon afterward old Mr. Clifford gathered them around the family altar in a thanksgiving prayer that moistened every eye.

Then all prepared for the rest so sorely needed. As Webb went to the hall to hang up his gun, Amy saw that he staggered in his almost mortal weariness, and she followed him.

"There are your colors, Amy," he said, laughingly, taking her scarf from an inner pocket. "I wore it till an envious scrub-oak tore it off. It was of very great help to me--the scarf, not the oak."

"Webb," she said, earnestly, "you can't disguise the truth from me by any such light words. You are half-dead from exhaustion. I've been watching you ever since your return. You are ill--you have gone beyond your strength, and in addition to it all I let you carry me in. Oh dear! I'm so worried about you!"

"It's wonderfully nice to have a little sister to worry about a fellow."

"But can't I do something for you? You've thought about everybody, and no one thinks for you."

"You have, and so have the rest, as far as there was occasion. Let me tell you how wan and weary you look. Oh, Amy, our home is so much more to us since you came!"

"What would our home be to us to-night, Webb, were it not for you! And I said you took Burt's danger too coolly. How I have reproached myself for those words. God bless you, Webb! you did not resent them; and you saved Burt;" and she impulsively put her arm around his neck and kissed him, then fled to her room.

The philosophical Webb might have had much to think about that night had he been in an analytical mood, for by some magic his sense of utter weariness was marvellously relieved. With a low laugh, he thought,

"I'd be tempted to cross the mountains again for such a reward."