The road on which they advanced into the mountains was well made and well kept up. The cañon through the foothills was not very deep – for Colorado – and the ascent was gentle. Naturally it wound in every direction following the devious course of the river which it frequently crossed from one side to the other on rude log bridges. A brisk gallop of a half mile or so on a convenient stretch of comparatively level going put the two in the lead far ahead of the lumbering wagon and out of sight of those others of the party who had elected to go a horseback. There was perhaps a tacit agreement among the latter not to break in upon this growing friendship or, more frankly, not to interfere in a developing love affair.
The cañon broadened here and there at long intervals and ranch houses were found in every clearing, but these were few and far between and for the most part Armstrong and Enid Maitland rode practically alone save for the passing of an occasional lumber wagon.
"You can't think," began the man, as they drew rein after a splendid gallop and the somewhat tired horses readily subsided into a walk, "how I hate to go back and leave you."
"And you can't think how loath I am to have you return," the girl flashed out at him with a sidelong glance from her bright blue eyes and a witching smile from her scarlet lips.
"Enid Maitland," said the man, "you know I just worship you. I'd like to sweep you out of your saddle, lift you to the bow of mine and ride away with you. I can't keep my hands off you, I – "
Before she realized what he would be about he swerved his horse toward her, his arm went around her suddenly. Taken completely off her guard she could make no resistance, indeed she scarcely knew what to expect until he crushed her to him and kissed her, almost roughly, full on the lips.
"How dare you!" cried the girl, her face aflame, freeing herself at last, and swinging her own horse almost to the edge of the road which here ran on an excavation some fifty feet above the river.
"How dare I?" laughed the audacious man, apparently no whit abashed by her indignation. "When I think of my opportunity I am amazed at my moderation."
"Your opportunity, your moderation?"
"Yes; when I had you helpless I took but one kiss, I might have held you longer and taken a hundred."
"And by what right did you take that one?" haughtily demanded the outraged young woman, looking at him beneath level brows while the color slowly receded from her face. She had never been kissed by a man other than a blood relation in her life – remember, suspicious reader, that she was from Philadelphia – and she resented this sudden and unauthorized caress with every atom and instinct of her still somewhat conventional being.
"But aren't you half-way engaged to me?" he pleaded in justification, seeing the unwonted seriousness with which she had received his impudent advance. "Didn't you agree to give me a chance?"
"I did say that I liked you very much," she admitted, "no man better, and that I thought you might – "
"Well, then – " he began.
But she would not be interrupted.
"I did not mean that you should enjoy all the privileges of a conquest before you had won me. I will thank you not to do that again, sir."
"It seems to have had a very different effect upon you than it did upon me," replied the man fervently. "I loved you before, but now, since I have kissed you, I worship you."
"It hasn't affected me that way," retorted the girl promptly, her face still frowning and indignant. "Not at all, and – "
"Forgive me, Enid," pleaded the other. "I just couldn't help it. You were so beautiful I had to. I took the chance. You are not accustomed to our ways."
"Is this your habit in your love affairs?" asked the girl swiftly and not without a spice of feminine malice.
"I never had any love affairs before," he replied with a ready masculine mendacity, "at least none worth mentioning. But you see this is the west, we have gained what we have by demanding every inch that nature offers, and then claiming the all. That's the way we play the game out here and that's the way we win."
"But I have not yet learned to play the 'game,' as you call it, by any such rules," returned the young woman determinedly, "and it is not the way to win me if I am the stake."
"What is the way?" asked the man anxiously. "Show me and I'll take it no matter what its difficulty."
"Ah, for me to point out the way would be to play traitor to myself," she answered, relenting and relaxing a little before his devoted wooing. "You must find it without assistance. I can only tell you one thing."
"And what is that?"
"You do not advance toward the goal by such actions as those of a moment since."
"Look here," said the other suddenly. "I am not ashamed of what I did, and I'm not going to pretend that I am, either."
"You ought to be," severely.
"Well, maybe so, but I'm not. I couldn't help it any more than I could help loving you the minute I saw you. Put yourself in my place."
"But I am not in your place, and I can't put myself there. I do not wish to. If it be true, as you say, that you have grown to – care so much for me and so quickly – "
"If it be true?" came the sharp interruption as the man bent toward her fairly devouring her with his bold, ardent gaze.
"Well, since it is true," she admitted under the compulsion of his protest, "that fact is the only possible excuse for your action."
"You find some justification for me, then!"
"No, only a possibility, but whether it be true or not, I do not feel that way – yet."
There was a saving grace in that last word, which gave him a little heart. He would have spoken, but she suffered no interruption, saying:
"I have been wooed before, but – "
"True, unless the human race has become suddenly blind," he said softly under his breath.
"But never in such ungentle ways."
"I suppose you have never run up against a real red-blooded man like me before."
"If red-blooded be evidenced mainly by lack of self-control, perhaps I have not. Yet there are men whom I have met who would not need to apologize for their qualities even to you, Mr. James Armstrong."
"Don't say that. Evidently I make but poor progress in my wooing. Never have I met with a woman quite like you." – And in that indeed lay some of her charm, and she might have replied in exactly the same language and with exactly the same meaning to him. – "I am no longer a boy. I must be fifteen years older than you are, for I am thirty-five."
The difference between their years was not quite so great as he declared, but woman-like the girl let the statement pass unchallenged.
"And I wouldn't insult your intelligence by saying you are the only woman that I have ever made love to, but there is a vast difference between making love to a woman and loving one. I have just found that out for the first time. I marvel at the past, and I am ashamed of it, but I thank God that I have been saved for this opportunity. I want to win you, and I am going to do it, too. In many things I don't match up with the people with whom you train. I was born out here, and I've made myself. There are things that have happened in the making that I am not especially proud of, and I am not at all satisfied with the results, especially since I have met you. The better I know you the less pleased I am with Jim Armstrong, but there are possibilities in me, I rather believe, and with you for inspiration, Heavens!" – the man flung out his hand with a fine gesture of determination. "They say that the east and west don't naturally mingle, but it's a lie, you and I can beat the world."
The woman thrilled to his gallant wooing. Any woman would have done so, some of them would have lost their heads, but Enid Maitland was an exceedingly cool young person, for she was not quite swept off her feet, and did not quite lose her balance.
"I like to hear you say things like that," she answered. "Nobody quite like you has ever made love to me, and certainly not in your way, and that's the reason I have given you a half-way promise to think about it. I was sorry that you could not be with us on this adventure, but now I am rather glad, especially if the even temper of my way is to be interrupted by anything like the outburst of a few moments since."
"I am glad, too," admitted the man. "For I declare I couldn't help it. If I have to be with you either you have got to be mine, or else you would have to decide that it could never be, and then I'd go off and fight it out."
"Leave me to myself," said the girl earnestly, "for a little while; it's best so. I would not take the finest, noblest man on earth – "
"And I am not that."
"Unless I loved him. There is something very attractive about your personality. I don't know in my heart whether it is that or – "
"Good," said the man, as she hesitated. "That's enough," he gathered up the reins and whirled his horse suddenly in the road, "I am going back. I'll wait for your return to Denver, and then – "
"That's best," answered the girl.
She stretched out her hand to him, leaning backward. If he had been a different kind of a man he would have kissed it, as it was he took it in his own hand and almost crushed it with a fierce grip.
"We'll shake on that, little girl," he said, and then without a backward glance he put spurs to his horse and galloped furiously down the road.
No, she decided then and there, she did not love him, not yet. Whether she ever would she could not tell. And yet she was half bound to him. The recollection of his kiss was not altogether a pleasant memory; he had not done himself any good by that bold assault upon her modesty, that reckless attempt to rifle the treasure of her lips. No man had ever really touched her heart, although many had engaged her interest. Her experiences therefore were not definitive or conclusive. If she had truly loved James Armstrong, in spite of all that she might have said, she would have thrilled to the remembrance of that wild caress. The chances, therefore, were somewhat heavily against him that morning as he rode hopefully down the trail alone.
His experiences in love affairs were much greater than hers. She was by no means the first woman he had kissed – remember suspicious reader that he was not from Philadelphia! – hers were not the first ears into which he had poured passionate protestations. He was neither better nor worse than most men, perhaps he fairly enough represented the average, but surely fate had something better in store for such a superb woman – a girl of such attainments and such infinite possibilities, she must mate higher than with the average man. Perhaps there was a sub-consciousness of this in her mind as she silently waited to be overtaken by the rest of the party.
There were curious glances and strange speculations in that little company as they saw her sitting her horse alone. A few moments before James Armstrong had passed them at a gallop, he had waved his hand as he dashed by and had smiled at them, hope giving him a certain assurance, although his confidence was scarcely warranted by the facts.
His demeanor was not in consonance with Enid's somewhat grave and somewhat troubled present aspect. She threw off her preoccupation instantly and easily, however, and joined readily enough in the merry conversation of the way.
Mr. Robert Maitland, as Armstrong had said, had known him from a boy. There were things in his career of which Maitland did not and could not approve, but they were of the past, he reflected, and Armstrong was after all a pretty good sort. Mr. Maitland's standards were not at all those of his Philadelphia brother, but they were very high. His experiences of men had been different; he thought that Armstrong, having certainly by this time reached years of discretion, could be safely entrusted with the precious treasure of the young girl who had been committed to his care, and for whom his affection grew as his knowledge of and acquaintanceship with her increased.
As for Mrs. Maitland and the two girls and the youngster, they were Armstrong's devoted friends. They knew nothing about his past, indeed there were things in it of which Maitland himself was ignorant, and which had they been known to him might have caused him to withhold even his tentative acquiescence in the possibilities.
Most of these things were known to old Kirkby who with masterly skill, amusing nonchalance and amazing profanity, albeit most of it under his breath lest he shock the ladies, tooled along the four nervous excited broncos who drew the big supply wagon. Kirkby was Maitland's oldest and most valued friend. He had been the latter's deputy sheriff, he had been a cowboy and a lumberman, a mighty hunter and a successful miner, and now although he had acquired a reasonable competence, and had a nice little wife and a pleasant home in the mountain village at the entrance to the cañon, he drove stage for pleasure rather than for profit. He had given over his daily twenty-five mile jaunt from Morrison to Troutdale to other hands for a short space that he might spend a little time with his old friend and the family, who were all greatly attached to him, on this outing.
Enid Maitland, a girl of a kind that Kirkby had never seen before, had won the old man's heart during the weeks spent on the Maitland ranch. He had grown fond of her, and he did not think that Mr. James Armstrong merited that which he evidently so overwhelmingly desired. Kirkby was well along in years, but he was quite capable of playing a man's game for all that, and he intended to play it in this instance.
Nobody scanned Enid Maitland's face more closely than he, sitting humped up on the front seat of the wagon, one foot on the high brake, his head sunk almost to the level of his knee, his long whip in his hand, his keen and somewhat fierce brown eyes taking in every detail of what was going on about him. Indeed there was but little that came before him that old Kirkby did not see.
Imagine, if you please, the forest primeval; yes, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks of the poem as well, by the side of a rapidly rushing mountain torrent fed by the eternal snows of the lofty peaks of the great range. A level stretch of grassy land where a mountain brook joined the creek was dotted with clumps of pines and great boulders rolled down from the everlasting hills – half an acre of open clearing. On the opposite side of the brook the cañon wall rose almost sheer for perhaps five hundred feet, ending in jagged, needle-edged pinnacles of rock, sharp, picturesque and beautiful. A thousand feet above ran the timber line, and four thousand feet above that the crest of the greatest peak in the main range.
The white tents of the little encampment which had gleamed so brightly in the clear air and radiant sunshine of Colorado, now stood dim and ghost-like in the red reflection of a huge camp fire. It was the evening of the first day in the wilderness.
For two days since leaving the wagon, the Maitland party with its long train of burros heavily packed, its horsemen and the steady plodders on foot, had advanced into unexplored and almost inaccessible retreats of the mountains – into the primitive indeed! In this delightful spot they had pitched their tents and the permanent camp had been made. Wood was abundant, the water at hand was as cold as ice, as clear as crystal and as soft as milk. There was pasturage for the horses and burros on the other side of the mountain brook. The whole place was a little amphitheater which humanity occupied perhaps the first time since creation.
Unpacking the burros, setting up the tents, making the camp, building the fire had used up the late remainder of the day which was theirs when they had arrived. Opportunity would come to-morrow to explore the country, to climb the range, to try the stream that tumbled down a succession of waterfalls to the right of the camp and roared and rushed merrily around its feet until, swelled by the volume of the brook, it lost itself in tree-clad depths far beneath. To-night rest after labor, to-morrow play after rest.
The evening meal was over. Enid could not help thinking with what scorn and contempt her father would have regarded the menu, how his gorge would have risen – hers too for that matter! – had it been placed before him on the old colonial mahogany of the dining-room in Philadelphia. But up there in the wilds she had eaten the coarse homely fare with the zest and relish of the most seasoned ranger of the hills. Anxious to be of service, she had burned her hands and smoked her hair and scorched her face by usurping the functions of the young ranchman who had been brought along as cook, and had actually fried the bacon herself! Imagine a goddess with a frying pan! The black thick coffee and the condensed milk, drunk from the graniteware cup, had a more delicious aroma and a more delightful taste than the finest Mocha and Java in the daintiest porcelain of France. Optimum condimentum. The girl was frankly, ravenously hungry, the air, the altitude, the exertion, the excitement made her able to eat anything and enjoy it.
She was gloriously beautiful, too; even her brief experience in the west had brought back the missing roses to her cheek, and had banished the bister circles from beneath her eyes. Robert Maitland, lazily reclining propped up against a boulder, his feet to the fire, smoking an old pipe that would have given his brother the horrors, looked with approving complacency upon her, confident and satisfied that his prescription was working well. Nor was he the only one who looked at her that way. Marion and Emma, his two daughters, worshiped their handsome Philadelphia cousin and they sat one on either side of her on the great log lying between the tents and the fire. Even Bob junior condescended to give her approving glances. The whole camp was at her feet. Mrs. Maitland had been greatly taken by her young niece. Kirkby made no secret of his devotion; Arthur Bradshaw and Henry Phillips, each a "tenderfoot" of the extremest character, friends of business connections in the east, who were spending their vacation with Maitland, shared in the general devotion; to say nothing of George the cook, and Pete, the packer and "horse wrangler."
Phillips, who was an old acquaintance of Enid's, had tried his luck with her back east and had sense enough to accept as final his failure. Bradshaw was a solemn young man without that keen sense of humor which was characteristic of the west. The others were suitably dressed for adventure, but Bradshaw's idea of an appropriate costume was distinguished chiefly by long green felt puttees which swathed his huge calves and excited curious inquiry and ribald comment from the surprised denizens of each mountain hamlet through which they had passed, to all of which Bradshaw remained serenely oblivious. The young man, who does not enter especially into this tale, was a vestryman of the church in his home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His piety had been put to a severe strain in the mountains.
That day everybody had to work on the trail – everybody wanted to for that matter. The hardest labor consisted in the driving of the burros. Unfortunately there was no good and trained leader among them through an unavoidable mischance, and the campers had great difficulty in keeping the burros on the trail. To Arthur Bradshaw had been allotted the most obstinate, cross-grained and determined of the unruly band, and old Kirkby and George paid particular attention to instructing him in the gentle art of manipulating him over the rocky mountain trail.
"Wall," said Kirkby with his somewhat languid, drawling, nasal voice, "that there burro's like a ship w'ich I often seed 'em w'n I was a kid down east afore I come out to God's country. Nature has pervided 'em with a kind of a hellum. I remember if you wanted the boat to go to the right you shoved the hellum over to the left. Sta'boad an' port was the terms as I recollects 'em. It's jest the same with burros, you takes 'em by the hellum, that's by the tail, git a good tight twist on it an' ef you want him to head to the right, slew his stern sheets around to the left, an' you got to be keerful you don't git no kick back w'ich if it lands on you is worse 'n the ree-coil of a mule."
Arthur faithfully followed directions, narrowly escaping the outraged brute's small but sharp pointed heels on occasion. His efforts not being productive of much success, finally in his despair he resorted to brute strength; he would pick the little animal up bodily, pack and all – he was a man of powerful physique – and swing him around until his head pointed in the right direction; then with a prayer that the burro would keep it there for a few rods anyway, he would set him down and start him all over again. The process, oft repeated, became monotonous after a while. Arthur was a slow thinking man, deliberate in action, he stood it as long as he possibly could. Kirkby who rode one horse and led two others, and therefore was exempt from burro driving, observed him with great interest. He and Bradshaw had strayed way behind the rest of the party.
At last Arthur's resistance, patience and piety, strained to the breaking point, gave way suddenly. Primitive instincts rose to the surface and overwhelmed him like a flood. He deliberately sat down on a fallen tree by the side of a trail, the burro halting obediently, turned and faced him with hanging head apparently conscious that he merited the disapprobation that was being heaped upon him, for from the desperate tenderfoot there burst forth so amazing, so fluent, so comprehensive a torrent of assorted profanity, that even the old past master in objurgation was astonished and bewildered. Where did Bradshaw, mild and inoffensive, get it? His proficiency would have appalled his Rector and amazed his fellow vestrymen. Not the Jackdaw of Rheims himself was so cursed as that little burro. Kirkby sat on his horse in fits of silent laughter until the tears ran 'down his cheeks, the only outward and visible expression of his mirth.
Arthur only stopped when he had thoroughly emptied himself, possibly of an accumulation of years of repression.
"Wall," said Kirkby, "you sure do overmatch anyone I ever heard w'en it comes to cursin'. W'y you could gimme cards an' spades an' beat me, an' I was thought to have some gift that-a-way in the old days."
"I didn't begin to exhaust myself," answered Bradshaw, shortly, "and what I did say didn't equal the situation. I'm going home."
"I wouldn't do that," urged the old man. "Here, you take the hosses an' I'll tackle the burro."
"Gladly," said Arthur. "I would rather ride an elephant and drive a herd of them than waste another minute on this infernal little mule."
The story was too good to keep, and around the camp fire that night Kirkby drawled it forth. There was a freedom and easiness of intercourse in the camp, which was natural enough. Cook, teamster, driver, host, guest, men, women, children, and I had almost said burros, stood on the same level. They all ate and lived together. The higher up the mountain range you go, the deeper into the wilderness you plunge, the further away from the conventional you draw, the more homogeneous becomes society and the less obvious are the irrational and unscientific distinctions of the lowlands. The guinea stamp fades and the man and the woman are pure gold or base metal inherently and not by any artificial standard.
George, the cattle man who cooked, and Peter, the horse wrangler, who assisted Kirkby in looking after the stock, enjoyed the episode uproariously, and would fain have had the exact language repeated to them, but here Robert Maitland demurred, much to Arthur's relief, for he was thoroughly humiliated by the whole performance.
It was very pleasant lounging around the camp fire, and one good story easily led to another.
"It was in these very mountains," said Robert Maitland, at last, when his turn came, "that there happened one of the strangest and most terrible adventures that I ever heard of. I have pretty much forgotten the lay of the land, but I think it wasn't very far from here that there is one of the most stupendous cañons through the range. Nobody ever goes there – I don't suppose anybody has ever been there since. It must have been at least five years ago that it all happened."
"It was four years an' nine months, exactly, Bob," drawled old Kirkby, who well knew what was coming.
"Yes, I dare say you are right. I was up at Evergreen at the time, looking after timber interests, when a mule came wandering into the camp, saddle and pack still on his back."
"I knowed that there mule," said Kirkby. "I'd sold it to a feller named Newbold, that had come out yere an' married Louise Rosser, old man Rosser's daughter, an' him dead, an' she bein' an orphan, an' this feller bein' a fine young man from the east, not a bit of a tenderfoot nuther, a minin' engineer he called hisself."
"Well, I happened to be there too, you remember," continued Maitland, "and they made up a party to go and hunt up the man, thinking something might have happened."
"You see," explained Kirkby, "we was all mighty fond of Louise Rosser. The hull camp was actin' like a father to her at the time, so long's she hadn't nobody else. We was all at the weddin', too, some six months afore. The gal married him on her own hook, of course, nobody makin' her, but somehow she didn't seem none too happy, although Newbold, who was a perfect gent, treated her white as far as we knowed."
The old man stopped again and resumed his pipe.
"Kirkby, you tell the story," said Maitland.
"Not me," said Kirkby. "I have seen men shot afore for takin' words out'n other men's mouths an' I ain't never done that yit."
"You always were one of the most silent men I ever saw," laughed George. "Why, that day Pete yere got shot accidental an' had his whole breast tore out w'en we was lumbering over on Black Mountain, all you said was, 'Wash him off, put some axle grease on him an' tie him up.'"
"That's so," answered Pete, "an' there must have been somethin' powerful soothin' in that axle grease, for here I am, safe an' sound, to this day."
"It takes an old man," assented Kirkby, "to know when to keep his mouth shet. I learned it at the muzzle of a gun."
"I never knew before," laughed Maitland, "how still a man you can be. Well, to resume the story, having nothing to do, I went out with the posse the sheriff gathered up – "
"Him not thinkin' there had been any foul play," ejaculated the old man.
"No, certainly not."
"Well, what happened, Uncle Bob," inquired Enid.
"Just you wait," said young Bob, who had heard the story. "This is an awful good story, Cousin Enid."
"I can't wait much longer," returned the girl. "Please go on."
"Two days after we left the camp, we came across an awful figure, ragged, blood stained, wasted to a skeleton, starved – "
"I have seen men in extreme cases afore," interposed Kirkby, "but never none like him."
"Nor I," continued Maitland.
"Was it Newbold?" asked Enid.
"And what had happened to him?"
"He and his wife had been prospecting in these very mountains, she had fallen over a cliff and broken herself so terribly that Newbold had to shoot her."
"What!" exclaimed Bradshaw. "You don't mean that he actually killed her?"
"That's what he done," answered old Kirkby.
"Poor man," murmured Enid.
"But why?" asked Phillips.
"They were five days away from a settlement, there wasn't a human being within a hundred and fifty miles of them, not even an Indian," continued Maitland. "She was so frightfully broken and mangled that he couldn't carry her away."
"But why couldn't he leave her and go for help?" asked Bradshaw.
"The wolves, the bears, or the vultures would have got her. These woods and mountains were full of them then and there are some of them, left now, I guess."
The two little girls crept closer to their grown up cousin, each casting anxious glances beyond the fire light.
"Oh, you're all right, little gals," said Kirkby, reassuringly, "they wouldn't come nigh us while this fire is burnin' an' they're pretty well hunted out I guess; 'sides, there's men yere who'd like nothin' better'n drawin' a bead on a big b'ar."
"And so," continued Maitland, "when she begged him to shoot her, to put her out of her misery, he did so and then he started back to the settlement to tell his story and stumbled on us looking after him."
"What happened then?"
"I went back to the camp," said Maitland. "We loaded Newbold on a mule and took him with us. He was so crazy he didn't know what was happening, he went over the shooting again and again in his delirium. It was awful."
"Did he die?"
"I don't think so," was the answer, "but really I know nothing further about him. There were some good women in that camp, and we put him in their hands, and I left shortly afterwards."
"I kin tell the rest," said old Kirkby. "Knowin' more about the mountains than most people hereabouts I led the men that didn't go back with Bob an' Newbold to the place w'ere he said his woman fell, an' there we found her, her body, leastways."
"But the wolves?" queried the girl.
"He'd drug her into a kind of a holler and piled rocks over her. He'd gone down into the cañon, w'ich was somethin' frightful, an' then climbed up to w'ere she'd lodged. We had plenty of rope, havin' brought it along a purpose, an' we let ourselves down to the shelf where she was a lyin'. We wrapped her body up in blankets an' roped it an' finally drug her up on the old Injun trail, leastways I suppose it was made afore there was any Injuns, an' brought her back to Evergreen camp, w'ich the only thing about it that was green was the swing doors on the saloon. We got a parson out from Denver an' give her a Christian burial."
"It that all?" asked Enid as the old man paused again.
"Oh, the man?" exclaimed the woman with quick intuition.