"He recovered his senses so they told us, an' w'en we got back he'd gone."
"Where?" was the instant question.
Old Kirkby stretched out his hands.
"Don't ax me," he said. "He'd jest gone. I ain't never seed or heerd of him sence. Poor little Louise Rosser, she did have a hard time."
"Yes," said Enid, "but I think the man had a harder time than she. He loved her?"
"It looked like it," answered Kirkby.
"If you had seen him, his remorse, his anguish, his horror," said Maitland, "you wouldn't have had any doubt about it. But it is getting late. In the mountains everybody gets up at daybreak. Your sleeping bags are in the tents, ladies, time to go to bed."
As the party broke up, old Kirkby rose slowly to his feet. He looked meaningly toward the young woman, upon whom the spell of the tragedy still lingered, he nodded toward the brook, and then repeated his speaking glance at her. His meaning was patent, although no one else had seen the covert invitation.
"Come, Kirkby," said the girl in quick response, "you shall be my escort. I want a drink before I turn in. No, never mind," she said, as Bradshaw and Phillips both volunteered, "not this time."
The old frontiersman and the young girl strolled off together. They stopped by the brink of the rushing torrent a few yards away. The noise that it made drowned the low tones of their voices and kept the others, busy preparing to retire, from hearing what they said.
"That ain't quite all the story, Miss Enid," said the old trapper meaningly. "There was another man."
"What!" exclaimed the girl.
"Oh, there wasn't nothin' wrong with Louise Rosser, w'ich she was Louise Newbold, but there was another man. I suspected it afore, that's why she was sad. W'en we found her body I knowed it."
"I don't understand."
"These'll explain," said Kirkby. He drew out from his rough hunting coat a package of soiled letters; they were carefully enclosed in an oil skin and tied with a faded ribbon. "You see," he continued, holding them in his hand, yet carefully concealing them from the people at the fire. "W'en she fell off the cliff – somehow the mule lost his footin', nobody never knowed how, leastways the mule was dead an' couldn't tell – she struck on a spur or shelf about a hundred feet below the brink. Evidently she was carryin' the letters in her dress. Her bosom was frightfully tore open an' the letters was lying there. Newbold didn't see 'em, because he went down into the cañon an' came up to the shelf, or butte head, w'ere the body was lyin', but we dropped down. I was the first man down an' I got 'em. Nobody else seein' me, an' there ain't no human eyes, not even my wife's, that's ever looked on them letters, except mine and now yourn."
"You are going to give them to me?"
"I am," said Kirkby.
"I want you to know the hull story."
"But why, again?"
"I rather guess them letters'll tell," answered the old man evasively, "an' I like you, and I don't want to see you throwed away."
"What do you mean?" asked the girl, curiously, thrilling to the solemnity of the moment, the seriousness, the kind affection of the old frontiersman, the weird scene, the fire light, the tents gleaming ghost-like, the black wall of the cañon and the tops of the mountain range broadening out beneath the stars in the clear sky where they twinkled above her head. The strange and terrible story, and now the letters in her hand which somehow seemed to be imbued with human feeling, greatly affected her! Kirkby patted her on the shoulder.
"Read the letters," he said. "They'll tell the story. Good-night."
Long after the others in the camp had sunk into the profound slumber of weary bodies and good consciences, a solitary candle in the small tent occupied by Enid Maitland alone, gave evidence that she was busy over the letters which Kirkby had handed to her.
It was a very thoughtful girl indeed who confronted the old frontiersman the next morning. At the first convenient opportunity when they were alone together she handed him the packet of letters.
"Have you read 'em?" he asked.
"Wall, you keep 'em," said the old man gravely. "Mebbe you'll want to read 'em agin."
"But I don't understand why you want me to have them."
"Wall, I'm not quite sure myself why, but leastways I do an' – "
"I shall be very glad to keep them," said the girl still more gravely, slipping them into one of the pockets of her hunting shirt as she spoke.
The packet was not bulky, the letters were not many nor were they of any great length. She could easily carry them on her person and in some strange and inexplicable way she was rather glad to have them. She could not, as she had said, see any personal application to herself in them, and yet in some way she did feel that the solution of the mystery would be hers some day. Especially did she think this on account of the strange but quiet open emphasis of the old hunter.
There was much to do about the camp in the mornings. Horses and burros to be looked after, fire wood to be cut, plans for the day arranged, excursions planned, mountain climbs projected. Later on unwonted hands must be taught to cast the fly for the mountain trout which filled the brook and pool, and all the varied duties, details and fascinating possibilities of camp life must be explained to the new-comers.
The first few days were days of learning and preparation, days of mishap and misadventure, of joyous laughter over blunders in getting settled, or learning the mysteries of rod and line, of becoming hardened and acclimated. The weather proved perfect; it was late October and the nights were very cold, but there was no rain and the bright sunny days were invigorating and exhilarating to the last degree. They had huge fires and plenty of blankets and the colder it was in the night the better they slept.
It was an intensely new experience for the girl from Philadelphia, but she showed a marked interest and adaptability, and entered with the keenest zest into all the opportunities of the charming days. She was a good sportswoman and she soon learned to throw a fly with the best of them. Old Kirkby took her under his especial protection, and as he was one of the best rods in the mountains, she enjoyed every advantage.
She had always lived in the midst of life. Except in the privacy of her own chamber she had rarely ever been alone before – not twenty feet from a man: she thought whimsically; but here the charm of solitude attracted her, she liked to take her rod and wander off alone. She actually enjoyed it.
The main stream that flowed down the cañon was fed by many affluents from the mountain sides, and in each of them voracious trout appeared. She explored them as she had opportunity. Sometimes with the others but more often by herself. She discovered charming and exquisite nooks, little stretches of grass, the size perhaps of a small room, flower decked, ferny bordered, overshadowed by tall gaunt pine trees, the sunlight filtering through their thin foliage, checkering the verdant carpet beneath. Huge moss covered boulders, wet with the everdashing spray of the roaring brooks, lay in mid-stream and with other natural stepping stones hard-by invited her to cross to either shore. Waterfalls laughed musically in her ears, deep still pools tempted her skill and address.
Sometimes leaving rod and basket by the waterside, she climbed some particularly steep acclivity of the cañon wall and stood poised, wind blown, a nymph of the woods, upon some pinnacle of rock rising needle like at the cañon's edge above the sea of verdure which the wind waved to and fro beneath her feet. There in the bright light, with the breeze blowing her golden hair, she looked like some Norse goddess, blue eyed, exhilarated, triumphant.
She was a perfectly formed woman on the ancient noble lines of Milo rather than the degenerate softness of Medici. She grew stronger of limb and fuller of breath, quicker and steadier of eye and hand, cooler of nerve, in these demanding, compelling adventures among the rocks in this mountain air. She was not a tall woman, indeed slightly under rather than over the medium size, but she was so ideally proportioned, she carried herself with the fearlessness of a young chamois, that she looked taller than she was. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh upon her, yet she had the grace of Hebe, the strength of Pallas Athene, and the swiftness of motion of Atalanta. Had she but carried bow and spear, had she worn tunic and sandals, she might have stood for Diana and she would have had no cause to blush by comparison with the finest model of Praxiteles' chisel or the most splendid and glowing example of Appelles' brush.
Uncle Robert was delighted with her. His contribution to her western outfit was a small Winchester. She displayed astonishing aptitude under his instructions and soon became wonderfully proficient with that deadly weapon and with a revolver also. There was little danger to be apprehended in the daytime among the mountains the more experienced men thought, still it was wise for the girl always to have a weapon in readiness, so in her journeyings, either the Winchester was slung from her shoulder or carried in her hand, or else the Colt dangled at her hip. At first she took both, but finally it was with reluctance that she could be persuaded to take either. Nothing had ever happened. Save for a few birds now and then she had seemed the only tenant of the wildernesses of her choice.
One night after a camping experience of nearly two weeks in the mountains, and just before the time for breaking up and going back to civilization, she announced that early the next morning she was going down the cañon for a day's fishing excursion.
None of the party had ever followed the little river very far, but it was known that some ten miles below the stream merged in a lovely gem-like lake in a sort of crater in the mountains. From thence by a series of waterfalls it descended through the foothills to the distant plains beyond. The others had arranged to climb one especially dangerous and ambition provoking peak which towered above them and which had never before been surmounted so far as they knew. Enid enjoyed mountain climbing. She liked the uplift in feeling that came from going higher and higher till some crest was gained, but on this occasion they urged her to accompany them in vain.
When the fixity of her decision was established she had a number of offers to accompany her, but declined them all, bidding the others go their way. Mrs. Maitland, who was not feeling very well, old Kirkby, who had climbed too many mountains to feel much interest in that game, and Pete, the horse wrangler, who had to look after the stock, remained in camp; the others, with the exception of Enid, started at daybreak for their long ascent. She waited until the sun was about an hour high and then bade good-by to the three and began the descent of the cañon. Traveling light for she was going far – farther indeed than she knew – she left her Winchester at home, but carried the revolver with the fishing tackle and substantial luncheon.
Now the river – a river by courtesy only – and the cañon turned sharply back on themselves just beyond the little meadow where the camp was pitched. Past the tents that had been their home for this joyous period the river ran due east for a few hundred feet, after which it curved sharply, doubled back and flowed westward for several miles before it gradually swung around to the east on its proper course again.
It had been Enid's purpose to cut across the hills and strike the river where it turned eastward once more, avoiding the long detour back. In fact she had declared her intention of doing that to Kirkby and he had given her careful directions so that she should not get lost in the mountains.
But she had plenty of time and no excuse or reason for saving it; she never tired of the charm of the cañon; therefore, instead of plunging directly over the spur of the range, she followed the familiar trail and after she had passed westward far beyond the limits of the camp to the turning, she decided, in accordance with that utterly irresponsible thing, a woman's will, that she would not go down the cañon that day after all, but that she would cross back over the range and strike the river a few miles above the camp and go up the cañon instead.
She had been up in that direction a few times, but only for a short distance, as the ascent above the camp was very sharp; in fact for a little more than a mile the brook was only a succession of waterfalls; the best fishing was below the camp and the finest woods were deeper in the cañon. She suddenly concluded that she would like to see what was up in that unexplored section of the country and so, with scarcely a momentary hesitation, she abandoned her former plan and began the ascent of the range.
Upon decisions so lightly taken what momentous consequences depend? Whether she should go up the stream or down the stream, whether she should follow the rivulet to its source or descend it to its mouth, was apparently a matter of little moment, yet her whole life turned absolutely upon that decision. The idle and unconsidered choice of the hour was fraught with gravest possibilities. Had that election been made with any suspicion, with any foreknowledge, had it come as the result of careful reasoning or far-seeing of probabilities, it might have been understandable, but an impulse, a whim, the vagrant idea of an idle hour, the careless chance of a moment, and behold! a life is changed. On one side were youth and innocence, freedom and contentment, a happy day, a good rest by the cheerful fire at night; on the other, peril of life, struggle, love, jealousy, self-sacrifice, devotion, suffering, knowledge – scarcely Eve herself when she stood apple in hand with ignorance and pleasure around her and enlightenment and sorrow before her, had greater choice to make.
How fortunate we are that the future is veiled, that the psalmist's prayer that he might know his end and be certified how long he had to live is one that will not and cannot be granted; that it has been given to but One to foresee His own future, for no power apparently could enable us to stand up against what might be, because we are only human beings not sufficiently alight with the spark divine. We wait for the end because we must, but thank God we know it not until it comes.
Nothing of this appeared to the girl that bright sunny morning. Fate hid in those mountains under the guise of fancy. Lighthearted, carefree, fitted with buoyant joy over every fact of life, she left the flowing water and scaled the cliff beyond which in the wilderness she was to find, after all, the world.
The ascent was longer and more difficult and dangerous than she had imagined when she first confronted it, perhaps it was typical and foretold her progress. More than once she had to stop and carefully examine the face of the cañon wall for a practicable trail; more than once she had to exercise extremest care in her climb, but she was a bold and fearless mountaineer by this time and at last surmounting every difficulty she stood panting slightly, a little tired but triumphant, upon the summit.
The ground was rocky and broken, the timber line was close above her and she judged that she must be several miles from the camp. The cañon was very crooked, she could see only a few hundred yards of it in any direction. She scanned her circumscribed limited horizon eagerly for the smoke from the great fire that they always kept burning in the camp, but not a sign of it was visible. She was evidently a thousand feet above the river whence she had come. Her standing ground was a rocky ridge which fell away more gently on the other side for perhaps two hundred feet toward the same brook. She could see through vistas in the trees the up-tossed peaks of the main range, bare, chaotic, snow covered, lonely, majestic, terrible.
The awe of the everlasting hills is greater than that of the heaving sea. Save in the infrequent periods of calm, the latter always moves, the mountains are the same for all time. The ocean is quick, noisy, living; the mountains are calm, still – dead.
The girl stood as it were on the roof of the world, a solitary human being, so far as she knew, in the eye of God above her. Ah, but the Eyes Divine look long and see far; things beyond the human ken are all revealed. None of the party had ever come this far from the camp in this direction she knew. And she was glad to be the first, as she fatuously thought, to observe that majestic solitude.
Surveying the great range she wondered where the peak climbers might be. Keen sighted though she was she could not discover them. The crest that they were attempting lay in another direction hidden by a nearer spur. She was in the very heart of the mountains; peaks and ridges rose all about her, so much so that the general direction of the great range was lost. She was at the center of a far flung concavity of crest and range. She marked one towering point to the right of her that rose massively grand above all the others. To-morrow she would climb to that high point and from its lofty elevation look upon the heavens above and the earth beneath, aye and the waters under the earth far below. To-morrow! – it is generally known that we do not usually attempt the high points in life's range at once, content are we with lower altitudes to-day.
There was no sound above her, the rushing water over the rocks upon the nearer side she could hear faintly beneath her, there was no wind about her, to stir the long needles of the pines. It was very still, the kind of a stillness of body which is the outward and visible complement of that stillness of the soul in which men know God. There had been no earthquake, no storm, the mountains had not heaved beneath her feet, the great and strong wind had not passed by, the rocks had not been rent and broken, yet Enid caught herself listening as if for a Voice. The thrall of majesty, silence, loneliness was upon her. She stood – one stands when there is a chance of meeting God on the way, one does not kneel until He comes – with her raised hands clasped, her head uplifted in exultation unspeakable, God-conquered with her face to heaven upturned.
"I will lift up mine eyes to the hills whence cometh my salvation," her heart sang voicelessly. "We praise Thee, O God, we magnify Thy Holy Name forever," floated through her brain, in great appreciation of the marvelous works of the Almighty Shaping Master Hand. Caught up as it were into the heavens, her soul leaped to meet its maker. Thinking to find God she waited there on the heaven-kissing hill.
How long she stayed she did not realize; she took no note of time, it did not occur to her even to look at the watch on her wrist; she had swept the skyline cut off as it were by the peaks when first she came, and when at last she turned away – even divinest moments must have an end – she looked not backward. She saw not a little cloud hid on the horizon behind the rampart of ages, as it were, no bigger than a man's hand, a cloud full of portent and which would alarm greatly the veteran Kirkby in the camp and Maitland on the mountain top. Both of them unfortunately were unable to see it, one being on the other side of the range, and the other deep in the cañon, and for both of them as for the girl the sun still shone brightly.
The declivity to the river on the upper side was comparatively easy and Enid Maitland went slowly and thoughtfully down to it until she reached the young torrent. She got her tackle ready, but did no casting as she made her way slowly up the ever narrowing, ever rising cañon. She was charmed and thrilled by the wild beauty of the way, the spell of the mountains was deep upon her. Thoughtfully she wandered on until, presently she came to another little amphitheater like that where the camp was pitched, only smaller. Strange to say the brook, or river, here broadened into a little pool perhaps twenty feet across; a turn had thrown a full force of water against the huge boulder wall and in ages of effort a giant cup had been hollowed out of the native rock. The pool was perhaps four or five feet deep, the rocky bottom worn smooth, the clearing was upon the opposite side and the banks were heavily wooded beyond the spur of the rock which formed the back of the pool. She could see the trout in it. She made ready to try her fortune, but before she did so an idea came to her – daring, unconventional, extraordinary, begot of innocence and inexperience.
The water of course was very cold, but she had been accustomed all her life to taking a bath at the natural temperature of the water at whatever season. She knew that the only people in that wilderness were the members of her own party; three of them were at the camp below, the others were ascending a mountain miles away. The cañon was deep sunk, and she satisfied herself by careful observation that the pool was not overlooked by any elevations far or near.
Her ablutions in common with those of the rest of the campers had been by piecemeal of necessity. Here was an opportunity for a plunge in a natural bath tub. She was as certain that she would be under no observation as if she were in the privacy of her own chamber. Here again impulse determined the end. In spite of her assurance there was some little apprehension in the glance that she cast about her, but it soon vanished. There was no one. She was absolutely alone. The pool and the chance of the plunge had brought her down to earth again; the thought of the enlivening exhilaration of the pure cold water dashing against her own sweet warm young body changed the current of her thoughts – the anticipation of it rather.
Impulsively she dropped her rod upon the grass, unpinned her cap, threw the fishing basket from her shoulder. She was wearing a stout sweater; that too joined the rest. Nervous hands manipulated buttons and the fastenings. In a few moments the sweet figure of youth, of beauty, of purity and of innocence brightened the sod and shed a white luster upon the green of the grass and moss and pines, reflecting light to the gray brown rocks of the range. So Eve may have looked on some bright Eden morning. A few steps forward and this nymph of the woods, this naiad of the mountains, plunged into the clear, cold waters of the pool – a water sprite and her fountain!