They had started from their last camp early in the morning. It had been mid-day when she fell and long after noon when he killed her and lapsed into merciful oblivion. It was dusk in the cañon when he came to life again. The sun was still some distance above the horizon, but the jutting walls of the great pass cut off the light, the butte top was in ever deepening shadow.
I have often wondered what were the feelings of Lazarus when he was called back to life by the great cry of his Lord. "Hither – Out!" Could that transition from the newer way of death to the older habit of living have been accomplished without exquisite anguish and pain, brief, sudden, but too sacred, like his other experiences, to dwell upon in mortal hours?
What he of Bethany might perhaps have experienced this man felt long after under other circumstances. The enormous exertions of the day, the cruel bruises and lacerations to which clothes and body gave evidence, the sick, giddy, uncertain, helpless, feeling that comes when one recovers consciousness after such a collapse, would have been hard enough to bear; but he took absolutely no account of any of these things for, as he lifted himself on his hands, almost animal-like for a moment, from the cold body of his wife, everything came across him with a sudden, terrific, overwhelming, rush of recollection.
She was dead, and he had killed her. There were reasons, arguments, excuses, for his course; he forgot them confronted by that grim, terrific, tragic fact. The difference between that mysterious thing so incapable of human definition which we call life, and that other mysterious thing equally insusceptible of explanation which we call death, is so great that when the two confront each other the most indifferent is awed by the contrast. Many a man and many a woman prays by the bedside of some agonized sufferer for a surcease of anguish only to be brought about by death, by a dissolution of soul and body, beseeching God of His mercy for the oblivion of the last, long, quiet, sleep; but when the prayer has been granted, and the living eyes look into the dead, the beating heart bends over the still one – it is a hard soul indeed which has the strength not to wish again for a moment, one little moment of life, to whisper one word of abiding love, to hear one word of fond farewell.
Since that is true, what could this man think whose hand had pointed the weapon and pulled the trigger and caused that great gaping hole through what had once been a warm and loving heart? God had laid upon him a task, than which none had ever been heavier on the shoulders of man, and he did not think as he stared at her wildly that God had given him at the same time strength to bear his burden.
Later, it might be that cold reason would come to his aid and justify him for what he had done, but now, now, he only realized that she was dead, and he had killed her. He forgot her suffering in his own anguish and reproach of himself. He found time to marvel at himself with a strange sort of wonder. How could he have done it.
Something broke the current of his thoughts, and it was good for him that it was so. He heard a swish through the air and he looked away from his dead wife in the direction of the sound. A little distance off upon a pinnacle of rock he saw a vulture, a hideous, horrible, unclean, carrion bird. While he watched, another and another settled softly down. He rose to his feet and far beneath him from the tree clad banks of the river the long howl of a wolf smote upon his ear. Gluttony and rapine were at hand. Further down the declivity the body of the dead mule was the object of the converging attack from earth and air. The threat of that attack stirred him to life.
There were things he had to do. The butte top was devoid of earth or much vegetation, yet here and there in hollows where water settled or drained, soft green moss grew. He stooped over and lifted the body of the woman. She seemed to fall together loosely and almost break within his hands – it was evidence of what the fall had done for her, justification for his action, too, if he had been in a mood to reason about it, but his only thought then was of how she must have suffered. By a strange perversion he had to fight against the feeling that she was suffering now. He laid her gently and tenderly down in a deep hollow in the rock shaped almost to contain her. He straightened her poor twisted limbs. He arranged with decent care the ragged dress, covering over the torn breast and the frightful wound above her heart. With the last of the water in the canteen, he washed her face, he could not wash out the scar of course. With rude unskillful hands, yet with pitiable tenderness, he strove to arrange her blood-matted hair, he pillowed her head upon his hat again.
Sometimes the last impression of life is stamped on the face of death, sometimes we see in the awful fixity of feature that attends upon dissolution, the index of the agony in which life has passed, but more often, thank God, death lays upon pain and sorrow a smoothing, calming hand. It was so in this instance. There was a great peace, a great relief, in the face he looked upon; this poor woman had been tortured not only in body, that he knew, but she had suffered anguish of soul of which he was unaware, and death, had it come in gentler form would perhaps not have been unwelcome. That showed in her face. There was dignity, composure, surcease of care, repose – the rest that shall be forever!
The man had done all that he could for her. Stop, there was one thing more; he knelt down by her side, he was not what we commonly call a religious man, the habit that he had learned at his mother's knee he had largely neglected in maturer years, but he had not altogether forgotten, and even the atheist – and he was far from that – might have prayed then.
"God, accept her," he murmured. "Christ receive her," – that was all but it was enough.
He remained by her side some time looking at her; he would fain have knelt there forever; he would have been happy at that moment if he could have lain down by her and had someone do for them both the last kindly office he was trying to do for her. But that was not to be, and the growing darkness warned him to make haste. The wolf barks were sharper and nearer, he stooped over her, bent low and laid his face against hers. Oh that cold awful touch of long farewell. He tore himself away from her, lifted from her neck a little object that had gleamed so prettily amid the red blood. It was a locket. He had never seen it before and had no knowledge of what it might contain. He kissed it, slipped it into the pocket of his shirt and rose to his feet.
The plateau was strewn with rock; working rapidly and skillfully he built a burial mound of stone over her body. The depression in which she lay was deep enough to permit no rock to touch her person. The cairn, if such it may be called, was soon completed. No beast of the earth or bird of the air could disturb what was left of his wife. It seemed so piteous to him to think of her so young, and so sweet and so fair, so soft and so tender, so brave and so true, lying alone in the vast of the cañon, weighted down by the great rocks that love's hands had heaped above her. But there was no help for it.
Gathering up the revolver and canteen he turned and fell rather than climbed to the level of the river. It was quite dark in the depths of the cañon, but he pressed rapidly on over the uneven and broken rocks until he reached the giant stairway. Up them he toiled painfully until he attained again the trail.
It was dark when he reached the wooded recess where they had slept the night before. There were grass and trees, a bubbling spring, an oasis amid the desert of rocks; he found the ashes of their fire and gathering wood heaped it upon the still living embers until the blaze rose and roared. He realized at last that he was weary beyond measure, he had gone through the unendurable since the morning. He threw himself down alone where they had lain together the night before and sought in vain for sleep. In his ears he heard that sharp, sudden, breaking cry once more, and her voice begging him to kill her. He heard again the rasp of her agonized breathing, the crashing detonation of the weapon. He writhed with the anguish of it all. Dry-eyed he arose at last and stretched out his hands to that heaven that had done so little for him he thought.
Long after midnight he fell into a sort of uneasy, restless stupor. The morning sun of the new and desolate day recalled him to action. He arose to his feet and started mechanically down the trail alone – always and forever alone. Yet God was with him though he knew it not.
Four days later a little party of men winding through the foothills came upon a wavering, ghastly, terrifying figure. Into the mining town two days before had wandered a solitary mule, scraps of harness dangling from it. They had recognized it as one of a pair the man had purchased for a proposed journey far into the unsurveyed and inaccessible mountains – to hunt for the treasures hidden within their granite breasts. It told too plainly a story of disaster. A relief party had been hurriedly organized to search for the two, one of whom was much beloved in the rude frontier camp.
The man they met on the way was the man they had come to seek. His boots were cut to pieces, his feet were raw and bleeding for he had taken no care to order his going or to choose his way. His clothes were in rags, through rents and tatters his emaciated body showed its discolored bruises. His hands were swollen and soiled with wounds and the stains of the way. The front of his shirt was sadly and strangely discolored. He was hatless, his hair was gray, his face was as white as the snow on the crest of the peak, his lips were bloodless yet his eyes blazed with fever.
For four days without food and with but little water this man had plodded down the mountain toward the camp. All his energies were merged in one desire, to come in touch with humanity and tell his awful story; the keeping of it to himself, which he must do perforce because he was alone in the world, added to the difficulty of endurance. The sun had beaten down upon him piteously during the day. The cold dew had drenched him in the night. Apparitions had met his vision alike in the darkness and in the light. Voices had whispered to him as he plodded on. But something had sustained him in spite of the awful drain, physical and mental, which had wasted him away. Something had sustained him until he came in touch with men, thereafter the duty would devolve upon his brethren not upon himself.
They caught him as he staggered into the group of them, these Good Samaritans of the frontier; they undressed him and washed him, they bound up his wounds and ministered to him, they laid him gently down upon the ground, they bent over him tenderly and listened to him while he told in broken, disjointed words the awful story, of her plunge into the cañon, of his search for her, of her last appeal to him. And then he stopped.
"What then?" asked one of the men bending over him as he hesitated.
"God forgive me – I shot her – through the heart."
There was appalling stillness in the little group of rough men, while he told them where she lay and begged them to go and bring back what was left of her.
"You must bring her – back," he urged pitifully.
None of the men had ever been up the cañon, but they knew of its existence and the twin peaks of which he had told them could be seen from afar. He had given them sufficient information to identify the place and to enable them to go and bring back the body for Christian burial. Now these rude men of the mining camp had loved that woman as men love a bright and cheery personality which dwelt among them.
"Yes," answered the spokesman, "but what about you?"
"I shall be – a dead man," was the murmured answer, "and I don't care – I shall be glad – "
He had no more speech and no more consciousness after that. It was a sardonic comment on the situation that the last words that fell from his lips then should be those words of joy.
Miss Enid Maitland was a highly specialized product of the far east. I say far, viewing Colorado as a point of departure not as identifying her with the orient. The classic shades of Bryn Mawr had been the "Groves of Academus where with old Plato she had walked." Incidentally during her completion of the exhaustive curriculum of that justly famous institution she had acquired at least a bowing acquaintance with other masters of the mind.
Nor had the physical in her education been sacrificed to the mental. In her at least the mens sana and the corpore sano were alike in evidence. She had ridden to hounds many times on the anise-scented trail of the West Chester Hunt! Exciting tennis and leisurely golf had engaged her attention on the courts and greens of the Merion Cricket Club. She had buffeted "Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste" on the beach at Cape May and at Atlantic City.
Spiritually she was a devoted member of the Episcopal Church, of the variety that abhors the word "Protestant" in connection therewith. Altogether she reflected great credit upon her pastors and masters, spiritual and temporal, and her up-bringing in the three departments of life left little to be desired.
Upon her graduation she had been at once received and acclaimed by the "Assembly Set," of Philadelphia, to which indeed she belonged unquestioned by right of birth and position – and there was no other power under heaven by which she could have effected entrance therein; at least that is what the "outs" thought of that most exclusive circle. The old home of the Maitlands overlooking Rittenhouse Square had been the scene of her début. In all the refined and decorous gayeties of Philadelphia's ultra-fastidious society she had participated. She had even looked upon money standardized New York in its delirium of extravagance, at least in so far as a sedate and well-born Philadelphia family could countenance such golden madness. During the year she had ranged like a conqueror – pardon the masculine appellation – between Palm Beach in the South and Bar Harbor in the North. Philadelphia was proud of her, and she was not unknown in those unfortunate parts of the United States which lay without.
In all this she had remained a frank, free, unspoiled young woman. Life was full of zest for her, and she enjoyed it with the most un-Pennsylvanian enthusiasm.
The second summer after her coming out found her in Colorado. Robert Maitland was one of the big men of the west. He had departed from Philadelphia at an early age and had settled in Colorado while it was still in the formative period. There he had grown up with the state. The Philadelphia Maitlands could never understand it or explain it. Bob Maitland must have been, they argued, a reversion to an ancient type, a throwback to some robber baron long antecedent to William Penn. And the speculation was true. The blood of some lawless adventurer of the past, discreetly forgot by the conservative section of the family, bubbled in his veins unchecked by the repressive atmosphere of his home and his early environment.
He had thoroughly identified himself with his new surroundings and had plunged into all the activities of the west. During one period in his life he had actually served as sheriff of one of the border counties, and it was a rapid "bad man" indeed, who enjoyed any advantage over him when it came to drawing his "gun." His skill and daring had been unquestioned. He had made a name for himself which still abides, especially in the mountains where things yet remained almost as primitive as they had been from the beginning.
His fame had been accompanied by fortune, too; the cattle upon a thousand hills were his, the treasures of mines of fabulous richness were at his command. He lived in Denver in one of the greatest of the bonanza palaces on the hills of that city, confronting the snow-capped mountain range. For the rest he held stock in all sorts of corporations, was a director in numerous concerns and so on – the reader can supply the usual catalogue, they are all alike. He had married late in life and was the father of two little girls and a boy, the oldest sixteen and the youngest ten.
Going east, which he did not love, on an infrequent business trip he had renewed his acquaintance with his brother and the one ewe lamb of his brother's flock, to wit, the aforementioned Enid. He had been struck, as everybody was, by the splendid personality of the girl and had striven earnestly to disabuse her mind of the prevalent idea that there was nothing much worth while on the continent beyond the Alleghanies except scenery.
"What you need, Enid, is a ride across the plains, a sight of real mountains, beside which these little foothills in Pennsylvania that people back here make so much of wouldn't be noticed. You want to get some of the spirited glorious freedom of the west into your conservative straight-laced little body!"
"In my day, Robert," reprovingly remarked his brother, Enid's father, "freedom was the last thing a young lady gently born and delicately nurtured would have coveted."
"Your day is past, Steve," returned the younger Maitland with shocking carelessness. "Freedom is what every woman desires now, especially when she is married. You are not in love with anybody are you, Enid?"
"With not a soul," frankly replied the girl, greatly amused at the colloquy between the two men, who though both mothered by the same woman were as dissimilar as – what shall I say, the east is from the west? Let it go at that.
"That's all right," said her uncle, relieved apparently. "I will take you out west and introduce you to some real men and – "
"If I thought it possible," interposed Mr. Stephen Maitland in his most austere and dignified manner, "that my daughter," with a perceptible emphasis on the "my," as if he and not the daughter were the principal being under consideration, "should ever so far forget what belongs to her station in life and her family as to allow her affections to become engaged by anyone who, from his birth and up-bringing in the er – ah – unlicensed atmosphere of the western country would be persona non grata to the dignified society of this ancient city and – "
"Nonsense," interrupted the younger brother bluntly. "You have lived here wrapped up in yourselves and your dinky little town so long that mental asphyxiation is threatening you all."
"I will thank you, Robert," said his brother with something approaching the manner in which he would have repelled a blasphemy, "not to refer to Philadelphia as – er – What was your most extraordinary word?"
"'Dinky,' if my recollection serves."
"Ah, precisely. I am not sure as to the meaning of the term but I conceive it to be something opprobrious. You can say what you like about me and mine, but Philadelphia, no."
"Oh, the town's right enough," returned his brother, not at all impressed. "I'm talking about people now. There are just as fine men and women in the west as in New York or Philadelphia."
"I am sure you don't mean to be offensive, Robert, but really the association of ideas in your mention of us with that common and vulgar New York is er – unpleasant," fairly shuddered the elder Maitland.
"I'm only urging you to recognize the quality of the western people. I dare say they are of a finer type than the average here."
"From your standpoint, no doubt," continued his brother severely and somewhat wearily as if the matter were not worth all this argument. "All that I want of them is that they stay in the west where they belong and not strive to mingle with the east; there is a barrier between us and them which it is not well to cross. To permit any intermixtures of er – race or – "
"The people out there are white, Steve," interrupted his brother sardonically. "I wasn't contemplating introducing Enid here to Chinese, or Negroes, or Indians, or – "
"Don't you see," said Mr. Stephen Maitland, stubbornly waving aside this sarcastic and irrelevant comment, "from your very conversation the vast gulf that there is between you and me? Although you had every advantage in life that birth can give you, we are – I mean you have changed so greatly," he had quickly added, loath to offend.
But he mistook the light in his brother's eyes, it was a twinkle not a flash. Robert Maitland laughed, laughed with what his brother conceived to be indecorous boisterousness.
"How little you know of the bone and sinew of this country, Steve," he exclaimed presently. Robert Maitland could not comprehend how it irritated his stately brother to be called "Steve." Nobody ever spoke of him but as Stephen Maitland – "But Lord, I don't blame you," continued the Westerner. "Any man whose vision is barred by a foothill couldn't be expected to know much of the main range and what's beyond."
"There isn't any danger of my falling in love with anybody," said Enid at last, with all the confidence of two triumphant social seasons. "I think I must be immune even to dukes," she said gayly.
"I referred to worthy young Americans of – " began her father who, to do him justice, was so satisfied with his own position that no foreign title 'dazzled' him in the least degree.
"Rittenhouse Square," cut in Robert Maitland with amused sarcasm. "Well, Enid, you seem to have run the gamut of the east pretty thoroughly, come out and spend the summer with me in Colorado. My Denver house is open to you, we have a ranch amid the foothills, or if you are game we can break away from civilization entirely and find some unexplored, unknown cañon in the heart of the mountains and camp there. We'll get back to nature, which seems to be impossible in Philadelphia, and you will see things and learn things that you will never see or learn anywhere else. It'll do you good, too; from what I hear, you have been going the pace and those cheeks of yours are a little too pale for so splendid a girl, you look too tired under the eyes for youth and beauty."
"I believe I am not very fit," said the girl, "and if father will permit – "
"Of course, of course," said Stephen Maitland. "You are your own mistress anyway, and having no mother" – Enid's mother had died in her infancy – "I suppose that I could not interfere or object if I wished to, but no marrying or giving in marriage: Remember that."
"Nonsense, father," answered the young woman lightly. "I am not anxious to assume the bonds of wedlock."
"Well, that settles it," said Robert Maitland. "We'll give you a royal good time. I must run up to New York and Boston for a few days, but I shall be back in a week and I can pick you up then."
"What is the house in Denver, is it er – may I ask, provided with all modern conveniences and – " began the elder Maitland nervously.
Robert Maitland laughed.
"What do you take us for, Steve? Do you ever read the western newspapers?"
"I confess that I have not given much thought to the west since I studied geography and —The Philadelphia Ledger has been thought sufficient for the family since – "
"Gracious!" exclaimed Maitland. "The house cost half a million dollars if you must know it, and if there is anything that modern science can contribute to comfort and luxury that isn't in it, I don't know what it is. Shall it be the house in Denver, or the ranch, or a real camp in the wilds, Enid?"
"First the house in Denver," said Enid, "and then the ranch and then the mountains."
"Right O! That shall be the program."
"Will my daughter's life be perfectly safe from the Cowboys, Indians and Desperadoes?"
"Quite safe," answered Robert, with deep gravity. "The cowboys no longer shoot up the city and it has been years since the Indians have held up even a trolley car. The only real desperado in my acquaintance is the mildest, gentlest old stage driver in the west."
"Do you keep up an acquaintance with men of that class, still?" asked his brother in great surprise.
"You know I was Sheriff in a border county for a number of years and – "
"But you must surely have withdrawn from all such society now."
"Out west," said Robert Maitland, "when we know a man and like him, when we have slept by him on the plains, ridden with him through the mountains, fought with him against some border terror, some bad man thirsting to kill, we don't forget him, we don't cut his acquaintance, and it doesn't make any difference whether the one or the other of us is rich or poor. I have friends who can't frame a grammatical sentence, who habitually eat with their knives, yet who are absolutely devoted to me and I to them. The man is the thing out there." He smiled and turned to Enid. "Always excepting the supremacy of woman," he added.
"How fascinating!" exclaimed the girl. "I want to go there right away."
And this was the train of events which brought about the change. Behold the young lady astride of a horse for the first time in her life in a divided skirt, that fashion prevalent elsewhere not having been accepted by the best equestriennes of Philadelphia. She was riding ahead of a lumbering mountain wagon, surrounded by other riders, which was loaded with baggage, drawn by four sturdy broncos and followed by a number of obstinate little burros at present unencumbered with packs which would be used when they got further from civilization and the way was no longer practicable for anything on wheels.
Miss Enid Maitland was clad in a way that would have caused her father a stroke of apoplexy if he could have been suddenly made aware of her dress, if she had burst into the drawing-room without announcement for instance. Her skirt was distinctly short, she wore heavy hobnailed shoes that laced up to her knees, she had on a bright blue sweater, a kind of a cap known as a tam-o-shanter was pinned above her glorious hair, which was closely braided and wound around her head. She wore a silk handkerchief loosely tied around her neck, a knife and revolver hung at her belt, a little watch was strapped to one wrist, a handsomely braided quirt dangled from the other, a pair of spurs adorned her heels and, most discomposing fact of all, by her side rode a handsome and dashing cavalier.
How Mr. James Armstrong might have appeared in the conventional black and white of evening clothes was not quite clear to her, for she had as yet never beheld him in that obliterating raiment, but in the habit of the west, riding trousers, heavy boots that laced to the knees, blue shirt, his head covered by a noble "Stetson," mounted on the fiery restive bronco which he rode to perfection, he was ideal. Alas for the vanity of human proposition! Mr. James Armstrong, friend and protégé these many years of Mr. Robert Maitland, mine owner and cattle man on a much smaller scale than his older friend, was desperately in love with Enid Maitland, and Enid, swept off her feet by a wooing which began with precipitant ardor so soon as he laid eyes on her, was more profoundly moved by his suit, or pursuit, than she could have imagined.
Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
She had been wooed in the conventional fashion many times and oft, on the sands of Palm Beach, along the cliffs of Newport, in the romantic glens of Mount Desert, in the old fashioned drawing-room overlooking Rittenhouse Square. She had been proposed to in motor cars, on the decks of yachts and once even while riding to hounds, but there had been a touch of sameness about it all. Never had she been made love to with the headlong gallantry, with the dashing precipitation of the west. It had swept her from her moorings. She found almost before she was aware of it that her past experience now stood her in little stead. She awoke to a sudden realization of the fact that she was practically pledged to James Armstrong after an acquaintance of three weeks in Denver and on the ranch.
Business of the most important and critical nature required Armstrong's presence east at this juncture, and willy-nilly there was no way he could put off his departure longer. He had to leave the girl with an uneasy conscience that though he had her half-way promise, he had her but half-way won. He had snatched the ultimate day from his business demands to ride with her on the first stage of her journey to the mountains.