"But you will never come back if you once get in those mountains alone."
"I don't care whether I do or not. It's no use, old man, I am going and that's all there is about it."
Robert Maitland knew men, he recognized finality when he heard it or when he saw it and it was quite evident that he was in the presence of it then. It was of no use for him or anyone to say more.
"Very well," he said, "I honor you for your feeling even if I don't think much of your common sense."
"Damn common sense," cried Armstrong triumphantly, "it's love that moves me now."
At that moment there was a tap on the door. A clerk from an outer office bidden to enter announced that old Kirkby was in the ante-room.
"Bring him in," directed Maitland, eager to welcome him.
He fancied that the new comer would undoubtedly assist him in dissuading Armstrong from his foolhardy, useless enterprise.
"Mornin', old man," drawled Kirkby.
"Howdy, Armstrong. My respects to you, sir," he said, sinking his voice a little as he bowed respectfully toward Mr. Stephen Maitland, a very sympathetic look in the old frontiersman's eyes at the sight of the bereaved father.
"Kirkby, you've come in the very nick of time," at once began Robert Maitland.
"Allus glad to be Johnny-on-the-spot," smiled the older man.
"Armstrong here," continued the other intent upon his purpose, "says he can't wait until the spring and the snows melt, he is going into the mountains now to look for Enid."
Kirkby did not love Armstrong, he did not care for him a little bit, but there was something in the bold hardihood of the man, something in the way which he met the reckless challenge of the mountains that the old man and all the others felt that moved the inmost soul of the hardy frontiersman. He threw an approving glance at him.
"I tell him that it is absurd, impossible; that he risks his life for nothing, and I want you to tell him the same thing. You know more about the mountains than either of us."
"Mr. Kirkby," quavered Stephen Maitland, "allow me. I don't want to influence you against your better judgment, but if you could sit here as I have done and think that maybe she is there and perhaps alive still, and in need, you would not say a word to deter him."
"Why, Steve," expostulated Robert Maitland, "surely you know I would risk anything for Enid; somehow it seems as if I were being put in the selfish position by my opposition."
"No, no," said his brother, "it isn't that. You have your wife and children, but this young man – "
"Well, what do you say, Kirkby? Not that it makes any difference to me what anybody says. Come, we are wasting time," interposed Armstrong, who, now that he had made up his mind, was anxious to be off.
"Jim Armstrong," answered Kirkby decidedly, "I never thought much of you in the past, an' I think sence you've put out this last projick of yourn that I'm entitled to call you a damn fool, w'ich you are, an' I'm another, for I'm goin' into the mountains with you."
"Oh, thank God!" cried Stephen Maitland fervently.
"I know you don't like me," answered Armstrong; "that's neither here nor there. Perhaps you have cause to dislike me, perhaps you have not; I don't like you any too well myself; but there is no man on earth I'd rather have go with me on a quest of this kind than you, and there's my hand on it."
Kirkby shook it vigorously.
"This ain't committin' myself," he said cautiously. "So far's I'm concerned you ain't good enough for Miss Maitland, but I admires your spirit, Armstrong, an' I'm goin' with you. Tain't no good, twon't produce nothin', most likely we'll never come back agin; but jest the same I'm goin' along; nobody's goin' to show me the trail; my nerve and grit w'en it comes to helpin' a young feemale like that girl is as good as anybody's I guess. You're her father," he drawled on, turning to Stephen Maitland, "an' I ain't no kin to her, but by gosh, I believe I can understand better than anyone else yere what you are feelin'."
"Kirkby," said Robert Maitland, smiling at the other two, "you have gone clean back on me. I thought you had more sense. But somehow I guess it's contagious, for I am going along with you two myself."
"And I, cannot I accompany you?" pleaded Stephen Maitland, eagerly drawing near to the other three.
"Not much," said old Kirkby promptly. "You ain't got the stren'th, ol' man, you don't know them mountains, nuther; you'd be helpless on a pair of snow shoes, there ain't anything you could do, you'd jest be a drag on us. Without sayin' anything about myself, w'ich I'm too modest for that, there ain't three better men in Colorado to tackle this job than Jim Armstrong an' Bob Maitland an' – well, as I said, I won't mention no other names."
"God bless you all, gentlemen," faltered Stephen Maitland. "I think perhaps I may have been wrong, a little prejudiced against the west, you are men that would do honor to any family, to any society in Philadelphia or anywhere else."
"Lord love ye," drawled Kirkby, his eyes twinkling, "there ain't no three men on the Atlantic seaboard that kin match up with two of us yere, to say nothin' of the third."
"Well," said Robert Maitland, "the thing now is to decide on what's to be done."
"My plan," said Armstrong, "is to go to the old camp."
"Yep," said Kirkby, "that's a good point of deeparture, as my seafarin' father down Cape Cod way used to say, an' wot's next."
"I am going up the cañon instead of down," said the man, with a flash of inspiration.
"That ain't no bad idea nuther," assented the old man; "we looked the ground over pretty thoroughly down the cañon, mebbe we can find something up it."
"And what do you propose to take with you?" asked Maitland.
"What we can carry on the backs of men. We will make a camp somewhere about where you did. We can get enough husky men up at Morrison who will pack in what we want and with that as a basis we will explore the upper reaches of the range."
"And when do we start?"
"There is a train for Morrison in two hours," answered Armstrong. "We can get what we want in the way of sleeping bags and equipment between now and then if we hurry about it."
"Ef we are goin' to do it, we might as well git a move on us," assented Kirkby, making ready to go.
"Right," answered Robert Maitland grimly. "When three men set out to make fools of themselves the sooner they get at it and get over with it the better. I've got some business matters to settle, you two get what's needed and I'll bear my share."
A week later a little band of men on snow shoes, wrapped in furs to their eyes, every one heavily burdened with a pack, staggered into the clearing where once had been pitched the Maitland camp. The place was covered with snow of course, but on a shelf of rock half way up the hogback, they found a comparatively level clearing and there, all working like beavers, they built a rude hut which they covered with canvas and then with tightly packed snow and which would keep the three who remained from freezing to death. Fortunately they were favored by a brief period of pleasant weather and a few days served to make a sufficiently habitable camp.
Maitland, Kirkby and Armstrong worked with the rest. There was no thought of search at first. Their lives depended upon the erection of a suitable shelter and it was not until the helpers, leaving their burdens behind them, had departed that the three men even considered what was to be done next.
"We must begin a systematic search to-morrow," said Armstrong decisively as the three men sat around the cheerful fire in the hut.
"Yes," assented Maitland. "Shall we go together, or separately?"
"Separately, of course. We are all hardy and experienced men, nothing is apt to happen to us, we will meet here every night and plan the next day's work. What do you say, Kirkby?"
The old man had been quietly smoking while the others talked. He smiled at them in a way which aroused their curiosity and made them feel that he had news for them.
"While you was puttin' the finishin' touches on this yere camp, I come acrost a heap o' stuns, that somehow the wind had swept bare. There was a big drift in front of it w'ich kep' us from seein' it afore; it was built up in the open w'ere there want no trees, an' in our lumberin' operations we want lookin' that-a-way. I came acrost a bottle by chance an' – "
"Well, for God's sake, old man," cried Armstrong impatiently, "what did you find in it, anything?"
"This," answered Kirkby, carefully producing a folded scrap of paper from his leather vest.
Armstrong fell on it ravenously, and as Maitland bent over him they both read these words by the fire light.
"Miss Enid Maitland, whose foot is so badly crushed as to prevent her traveling, is safe in a cabin at the head of this canon. I put this notice here to reassure any who may be seeking her as to her welfare. Follow the stream up to its source."Wm. Berkeley Newbold.
"Thank God!" exclaimed Robert Maitland.
"You called me a damn fool, Kirkby," said Armstrong, his eyes gleaming. "What do you think of it now?"
"It's the damn fool, I find," said Kirkby sapiently, "that gener'ly gits there. Providence seems to be a-watchin' over 'em."
"You said you chanced on this paper, Jack," continued Maitland, "it looks to me like the deliberate intention of Almighty God."
"I reckon so," answered the other simply. "You see He's got to look after all the damn fools on earth to keep 'em from doin' too much damage to theirselves an' to others in this yere crooked trail of a world."
"Let us start now," urged Armstrong.
"Tain't possible," said the old man, taking another puff at his pipe, and only a glistening of the eye betrayed the joy that he felt; otherwise his phlegmatic calm was unbroken, his demeanor just as undisturbed as it always was. "We'd jest throw away our lives a wanderin' round these yere mountains in the dark, we've got to have light an' clear weather. Ef it should be snowin' in the mornin' we'd have to wait until it cleared."
"I won't wait a minute," cried Armstrong. "At daybreak, weather or no weather, I start."
"What's your hurry, Jim?" continued Kirkby calmly. "The gal's safe, one day more or less ain't goin' to make no difference."
"She's with another man," answered Armstrong quickly.
"Do you know this Newbold?" asked Maitland, looking at the note again.
"No, not personally, but I have heard of him."
"I know him," answered Kirkby quickly, "an' you've seed him too, Bob; he's the fellow that shot his wife, that married Louise Rosser."
"The very same."
"You say you never saw him, Jim?" asked Maitland.
"I repeat I never met him," said Armstrong, flushing suddenly, "but I knew his wife."
"Yes, you did that – " drawled the old mountaineer.
"What do you mean?" flashed Armstrong.
"I mean that you knowed her, that's all," answered the old man with an innocent air that was almost childlike.
When the others woke up in the morning Armstrong's sleeping bag was empty. Kirkby crawled out of his own warm nest, opened the door and peered out into the storm.
"Well," he said, "I guess the damn fool has beat God this time; it don't look to me as if even He could save him now."
"But we must go after him at once," urged Maitland.
"See for yourself," answered the old man, throwing wider the door. "We've got to wait 'til this wind dies down unless we give the Almighty the job o' lookin' after three instid o' one."
Whatever the feelings of the others, Armstrong found himself unable to sleep that night. It seemed to him that fate was about to play him the meanest and most fantastic of tricks. Many times before in his crowded life he had loved other women, or so he characterized his feelings, but his passion for Louise Rosser Newbold had been in a class by itself until he had met Enid Maitland. Between the two there had been many women, but these two were the high points, the rest was lowland.
Once before, therefore, this Newbold had cut in ahead of him and had won the woman he loved. Armstrong had cherished a hard grudge against him for a long time. He had not been of those who had formed the rescue party led by old Kirkby and Maitland which had buried the poor woman on the great butte in the deep cañon. Before he got back to the camp the whole affair was over and Newbold had departed. Luckily for him, Armstrong had always thought, for he had been so mad with grief and rage and jealousy that if he had come across him helpless or not he would have killed him out of hand.
Armstrong had soon enough forgotten Louise Rosser, but he had not forgotten Newbold. All his ancient animosity had flamed into instant life again, at the sight of his name last night. The inveteracy of his hatred had been in no way abated by the lapse of time it seemed.
Everybody in the mining camp had supposed that Newbold had wandered off and perished in the mountains, else Armstrong might have pursued him and hunted him down. The sight of his name on that piece of paper was outward and visible evidence that he still lived. It had almost the shock of a resurrection, and a resurrection to hatred rather than to love. If Newbold had been alone in the world, if Armstrong had chanced upon him in the solitude, he would have hated him just as he did; but when he thought that his ancient enemy was with the woman he now loved, with a growing intensity, beside which his former resentment seemed weak and feeble, he hated him yet the more.
He could not tell when the notice, which he had examined carefully, was written; there was no date upon it, but he could come to only one conclusion. Newbold must have found Enid Maitland alone in the mountains very shortly after her departure and he had had her with him in his cabin alone for at least a month. Armstrong gritted his teeth at the thought. He did not undervalue the personality of Newbold, he had never happened to see him, but he had heard enough about him to understand his qualities as a man. The tie that bound Armstrong to Enid Maitland was a strong one, but the tie by which he held her to him, if indeed he held her at all, was very tenuous and easily broken; perhaps it was broken already, and so he hated him still more and more.
Indeed his animosity was so great and growing that for the moment he took no joy in the assurance of the girl's safety, yet he was not altogether an unfair man and in calmer moments he thanked God in his own rough way that the woman he loved was alive and well, or had been when the note was written. He rejoiced that she had not been swept away with the flood or that she had not been lost in the mountains and forced to wander on, finally to starve and freeze and die. In one moment her nearness caused his heart to throb with joyful anticipation. The certainty that at the first flush of day he would seek her again sent the warm blood to his cheeks. But these thoughts would be succeeded by the knowledge that she was with his enemy. Was this man to rob him of the latest love as he had robbed him of the first? Perhaps the hardest task that was ever laid upon Armstrong was to lie quietly in his sleeping bag and wait until the morning.
So soon as the first indication of dawn showed through the cracks of the door, he slipped quietly out of his sleeping bag and without disturbing the others drew on his boots, put on his heavy fur coat and cap and gloves, slung his Winchester and his snow shoes over his shoulder and without stopping for a bite to eat softly opened the door, stepped out and closed it after him. It was quite dark in the bottom of the cañon, although a few pale gleams overhead indicated the near approach of day. It was quite still, too. There were clouds on the mountain top heavy with threat of wind and snow.
The way was not difficult, the direction of it that is. Nor was the going very difficult at first; the snow was frozen and the crust was strong enough to bear him. He did not need his snow shoes and indeed would have had little chance to use them in the narrow broken rocky pass. He had slipped away from the others because he wanted to be the first to see the man and the woman. He did not want any witness to that meeting. They would have to come on later of course, but he wanted an hour or two in private with Enid and Newbold without any interruption. His conscience was not clear. Nor could he settle upon a course of action.
How much Newbold knew of his former attempt to win away his wife, how much of what he knew he had told Enid Maitland, Armstrong could not surmise. Putting himself into Newbold's place and imagining that the engineer had possessed entire information, he decided that he must have told everything to Enid Maitland so soon as he had found out the quasi relation between her and Armstrong. And Armstrong did not believe the woman he loved could be in anybody's presence a month without telling something about him. Still it was possible that Newbold knew nothing and that he told nothing therefore.
The situation was paralyzing to a man of Armstrong's decided, determined temperament. He could not decide upon the line of conduct he should pursue. His course in this, the most critical emergency he had ever faced, must be determined by circumstances of which he felt with savage resentment he was in some measure the sport. He would have to leave to chance what ought to be subject to his will. Of only one thing was he sure – he would stop at nothing, murder, lying, nothing to win that woman, and to settle his score with that man.
There was really only one thing he could do and that was to press on up the cañon. He had no idea how far it might be or how long a journey he would have to make before he reached that shelf on the high hill where stood that hut in which she dwelt. As the crow flies it could not be a great distance, but the cañon zigzagged through the mountains with as many curves and angles as a lightning flash. He plodded on therefore with furious haste, recklessly speeding over places where a misstep in the snow or a slip on the icy rocks would have meant death or disaster to him.
He had gone about an hour, and had perhaps made four miles from the camp, when the storm burst upon him. It was now broad day and the sky was filled with clouds and the air with driving snow. The wind whistled down the cañon with terrific force, it was with difficulty that he made any headway at all against it. It was a local storm; if he could have looked through the snow he would have discovered calmness on the top of the peaks. It was one of those sudden squalls of wind and snow which rage with terrific force while they last but whose range was limited and whose duration would be as short as it was violent.
A less determined man than he would have bowed to the inevitable and sought some shelter behind a rock until the fury of the tempest was spent, but there was no storm that blew that could stop this man so long as he had strength to drive against it. So he bent his head to the fierce blast and struggled on. There was something titantic and magnificent about the iron determination and persistence of Armstrong. The two most powerful passions which move humanity were at his service; love led him and hate drove him. And the two were so intermingled that it was difficult to say which predominated, now one and now the other. The resultant of the two forces however was an onward move that would not be denied.
His fur coat was soon covered with snow and ice, the sharp needles of the storm cut his face wherever it was exposed. The wind forced its way through his garments and chilled him to the bone. He had eaten nothing since the night before and his vitality was not at its flood, but he pressed onward and upward and there was something grand in his indomitable progress. Excelsior!
Back in the hut Kirkby and Maitland sat around the fire waiting most impatiently for the wind to blow itself out and for that snow to stop falling through which Armstrong struggled forward. As he followed the windings of the cañon, not daring to ascend to the summit of either wall and seek short cuts across the range, he was sensible that he was constantly rising. There were many indications to his experienced mind; the decrease in the height of the surrounding pines, the increasing rarity of the icy air, the growing difficulty in breathing under the sustained exertion he was making, the quick throbbing of his accelerated heart, all told him he was approaching his journey's end.
He judged that he must now be drawing near the source of the stream, and that he would presently come upon the shelter. He had no means of ascertaining the time, he would not have dared to unbutton his coat to glance at his watch, and it is difficult to measure the flying minutes in such scenes as those through which he passed, but he thought he must have gone at least seven miles in perhaps three hours, which he fancied had elapsed, his progress in the last two having been frightfully slow. Every foot of advance he had to fight for.
Suddenly, after a quick turn in the cañon, a passage through a narrow entrance between lofty cliffs, and he found himself in a pocket or a circular amphitheater which he could see was closed on the further side. The bottom of this enclosure or valley was covered with pines, now drooping under tremendous burdens of snow. In the midst of the pines a lakelet was frozen solid, the ice was covered with the same dazzling carpet of white.
He could have seen nothing of this had not the sudden storm now stopped as precipitately almost as it had begun. Indeed, accustomed to the grayness of the snowfall, his eyes were fairly dazzled by the bright light of the sun, now quite high over the range, which struck him full in the face.
He stopped, panting, exhausted, and leaned against the rocky wall of the cañon's mouth which, here rose sheer over his head. This certainly was the end of the trail, the lake was the source of the frozen rivulet along whose rocky and torn banks he had tramped since dawn. Here if anywhere he would find the object of his quest.
Refreshed by the brief pause and encouraged by the sudden stilling of the storm, he stepped out of the cañon and ascended a little knoll whence he had a full view of the pocket over the tops of the pines. Shading his eyes from the light with his hand as best he could, he slowly swept the circumference with his eager glance, seeing nothing until his eye fell upon a huge broken trail of rocks projecting from the snow, indicating the ascent to a broad bare shelf of the mountains across the lake to the right. Following this up he saw a huge block of snow which suggested dimly the outlines of a hut!
Was that the place? Was she there? He stared fascinated and as he did so a thin curl of smoke rose above the snow heap and wavered up in the cold quiet air! That was a human habitation then, it could be none other than the hut referred to in the note. Enid Maitland must be there, and Newbold!
The lake lay directly in front of him beyond the trees at the foot of the knoll and between him and the slope that led up to the hut. If it had been summer, he would have been compelled to follow the water's edge to the right or to the left, both journeys would have led over difficult trails with little to choose between them, but the lake was now frozen hard and covered with snow. He had no doubt that the snow would bear him, but to make sure he drew his snow shoes from his shoulder, slipped his feet in the straps, and sped straight on through the trees and then across the lake like an arrow from a bow.
In five minutes he was at the foot of the giant stairs. Kicking off his snow shoes he scrambled up the broken way, easily finding in the snow a trail which had evidently been passed and repassed daily. In a few moments he was at the top of the shelf. A hard trampled path ran between high walls of snow to a door!
Behind that door what would he find? Just what he brought to it, love and hate he fancied. We usually find on the other side of doors no more and no less than we bring to our own sides. But whatever it might be, there was no hesitation in Armstrong's course. He ran toward it, laid his hand on the latch and opened it.
What creatures of habit we are! Early in that same morning, after one vain attempt again to influence the woman who was now the deciding and determining factor and who seemed to be taking the man's place, Newbold, ready for his journey, had torn himself away from her presence and had plunged down the giant stair. He had done everything that mortal man could do for her comfort; wood enough to last her for two weeks had been taken from the cave and piled in the kitchen and elsewhere so as to be easily accessible to her, the stores she already had the run of and he had fitted a stout bar to the outer door which would render it impregnable to any attack that might be made against it, although he saw no quarter from which any assault impended.
Enid had recovered not only her strength but a good deal of her nerve. That she loved this man and that he loved her had given her courage. She would be fearfully lonely of course, but not so much afraid as before. The month of immunity in the mountains without any interruption had dissipated any possible apprehensions on her part. It was with a sinking heart however that she saw him go at last.
They had been so much together in that month they had learned what love was. When he came back it would be different, he would not come alone. The first human being he met would bring the world to the door of the lonely but beloved cabin in the mountains – the world with its questions, its inferences, its suspicions, its denunciations and its accusations! Some kind of an explanation would have to be made, some sort of an answer would have to be given, some solution of the problem would have to be arrived at. What these would be she could not tell.
Newbold's departure was like the end of an era to her. The curtain dropped, when it rose again what was to be expected? There was no comfort except in the thought that she loved him. So long as their affections matched and ran together nothing else mattered. With the solution of it all next to her sadly beating heart she was still supremely confident that Love, or God – and there was not so much difference between them as to make it worth while to mention the One rather than the Other – would find the way.
Their leave taking had been singularly cold and abrupt. She had realized the danger he was apt to incur and she had exacted a reluctant promise from him that he would be careful.
"Don't throw your life away, don't risk it even, remember that it is mine," she had urged.
And just as simply as she had enjoined it upon him he had promised. He had given his word that he would not send help back to her but that he would bring it back, and she had confidence in that word. A confidence that had he been inclined to break his promise would have made it absolutely impossible. There had been a long clasp of the hands, a long look in the eyes, a long breath in the breast, a long throb in the heart and then – farewell. They dared no more.
Once before he had left her and she had stood upon the plateau and followed his vanishing figure with anxious troubled thought until it had been lost in the depths of the forest below. She had controlled herself in this second parting for his sake as well as her own. Under the ashes of his grim repression she realized the presence of live coals which a breath would have fanned into flame. She dared nothing while he was there, but when he shut the door behind him the necessity for self-control was removed. She had laid her arms on the table and bowed her head upon them and shook and quivered with emotions unrelieved by a single tear – weeping was for lighter hearts and less severe demands!
His position after all was the easier of the two. As of old it was the man who went forth to the battle field while the woman could only wait passively the issue of the fight. Although he was half blinded with emotion he had to give some thought to his progress, and there was yet one task to be done before he could set forth upon his journey toward civilization and rescue.
It was fortunate, as it turned out, that this obligation detained him. He was that type of a merciful man whose mercies extended to his beasts. The poor little burros must be attended to and their safety assured so far as it could be, for it would be impossible for Enid Maitland to care for them. Indeed he had already exacted a promise from her that she would not leave the plateau and risk her life on the icy stairs with which she was so unfamiliar.
He had gone to the corral and shaken down food enough for them which if it had been doled out to them day by day would have lasted longer than the week he intended to be absent; of course he realized that they would eat it up in half that time, but even so they would probably suffer not too great discomfort before he got back.
All these preparations took some little time. It had grown somewhat late in the morning before he started. There had been a fierce storm raging when he first looked out and at her earnest solicitation he had delayed his departure until it had subsided.
His tasks at the corral were at last completed; he had done what he could for them both, nothing now remained but to make the quickest and safest way to the settlement. Shouldering the pack containing his ax and gun and sleeping bag and such provisions as would serve to tide him over until he reached human habitations, he set forth. He did not look up to the hut; indeed, he could not have seen it for the corral was almost directly beneath it; but if it had been in full view he would not have looked back, he could not trust himself to; every instinct, every impulse in his soul would fain drag him back to that hut and to the woman. It was only his will and, did he but know it, her will that made him carry out his purpose.
He would have saved perhaps half a mile on his journey if he had gone straight across the lake to the mouth of the cañon. We are creatures of habit. He had always gone around the lake on the familiar trail and unconsciously he followed that trail that morning. He was thinking of her as he plodded on in a mechanical way over the trail which followed the border of the lake for a time, plunged into the woods, wound among the pines and at last reached that narrow rift in the encircling wall through which the river flowed. He had passed along the white way oblivious to all his surroundings, but as he came to the entrance he could not fail to notice what he suddenly saw in the snow.