The water was deep enough to receive her dive and the pool was long enough to enable her to swim a few strokes. The first chill of the icy water was soon lost in the vigorous motions in which she indulged, but no mere human form however hardened and inured could long endure that frigid bath. Reluctantly, yet with the knowledge that she must go, after one more sweeping dive and a few magnificent strokes, she raised her head from the water lapping her white shoulders, and shaking her face clear from the drops of crystal, faced the shore. It was no longer untenanted, she was no longer alone.
What she saw startled and alarmed her beyond measure. Planted on her clothes, looking straight at her, having come upon her in absolute silence, nothing having given her the least warning of his approach, and now gazing at her with red, hungry, evil, vicious eyes, the eyes of the covetous filled with the cruel lust of desire and carnal possession, and yet with a glint of surprise in them, too, as if he did not know quite what to make of the white loveliness of this unwonted apparition flashing so suddenly at him out of the water, this strange invader of the domain of which he fancied he was sole master and lord paramount, stood a great, monstrous frightful looking Grizzly Bear. Ursus Horribilis, indeed.
He was an aged monarch of the mountains, reddish brown in color originally, but now a hoary dirty gray. His body was massive and burly, his legs short, dark colored and immensely powerful. His broad square head moved restlessly. His fanged mouth opened and a low hoarse growl came from the red cavern of his throat. He was an old and terrible monster who had tasted the blood of man and who would not hesitate to attack even without provocation especially anything at once so harmless and so whitely inviting as the girl in the pool.
The girl forgot the chill of the water in the horror of that moment. Alone, naked, defenseless, lost in the mountains, with the most powerful, sanguinary and ferocious beast of the continent in front of her, she could neither fight nor fly, she could only wait his pleasure. He snuffed at her clothing a moment and stood with one fore foot advanced for a second or two growling deeply, evidently, she thought with almost superhuman keenness of perception, preparing to leap into the pool and seize upon her.
The rush of the current as it swirled about her caused her to sway gently, otherwise she stood motionless and apprehensive, terribly expectant. She had made no sound, and save for that low growl the great beast had been equally silent. There was an awful fixity in the gaze she turned upon him and he wavered under it. It annoyed him. It bespoke a little of the dominance of the human. But she was too surprised, too unnerved, too desperately frightened to put forth the full power of mind over matter. There was piteous appeal in her gaze. The bear realized this and mastered her sufficiently.
She did not know whether she was in the water or in the air, there were but two points upon which her consciousness was focussed in the vast ellipse of her imagination. Another moment or two and all coherency of thought would be gone. The grizzly, still unsettled and uneasy before her awful glance, but not deterred by it, turned its great head sideways a little to escape the direct immobile stare, brought his sharp clawed foot down heavily and lurched forward.
Scarcely had a minute elapsed in which all this happened. That huge threatening heave of the great body toward her relieved the tension. She found voice at last. Although it was absolutely futile she realized as she cried, her released lips framed the loud appeal.
"Help! for God's sake."
Although she knew she cried but to the bleak walls of the cañon, the drooping pines, the rushing river, the distant heaven, the appeal went forth accompanied by the mightiest conjuration known to man.
"For God's sake, Help!"
How dare poor humanity so plead, the doubter cries. What is it to God if one suffers, another bleeds, another dies. What answer could come out of that silent sky?
Sometimes the Lord speaks with the loud voice of men's fashioning, instead of in that still whisper which is His own and the sound of which we fail to catch because of our own ignoble babble!
The answer to her prayer came with a roar in her nervous frightened ear like a clap of thunder. Ere the first echo of it died away, it was succeeded by another and another and another, echoing, rolling, reverberating among the rocks in ever diminishing but long drawn out peals.
On the instant the bear rose to his feet, swayed slightly and struck as at an imaginary enemy with his weighty paws. A hoarse, frightful guttering roar burst from his red slavering jaws, then he lurched sideways and fell forward, fighting the air madly for a moment, and lay still.
With staring eyes that missed no detail, she saw that the brute had been shot in the head and shoulder three times, and that he was apparently dead. The revulsion that came over her was bewildering; she swayed again, this time not from the thrust of the water but with sick faintness. The tension suddenly taken off, unstrung, the loose bow of her spirit quivered helplessly; the arrow of her life almost fell into the stream.
And then a new and more appalling terror swept over her. Some man had fired that shot. Actæon had spied upon Diana. With this sudden revelation of her shame, the red blood beat to the white surface in spite of the chill water. The anguish of that moment was greater than before. She could be killed, torn to pieces, devoured, that was a small thing, but that she should be so outraged in her modesty was unendurable. She wished the hunter had not come. She sunk lower in the water for a moment fain to hide in its crystal clarity and realized as she did how frightfully cold she was. Yet, although she froze where she was and perished with cold she could not go out on the bank to dress, and it would avail her little she saw swiftly, since the huge monster had fallen a dead heap on her clothes.
Now all this, although it takes minutes to tell, had happened in but a few seconds. Seconds sometimes include hours, even a life time, in their brief composition. She thought it would be just as well for her to sink down and die in the water, when a sudden splashing below her caused her to look down the stream.
She was so agitated that she could make out little except that there was a man crossing below her and making directly toward the body of the bear. He was a tall black bearded man, she saw he carried a rifle, he looked neither to the right nor to the left, he did not bestow a glance upon her. She could have cried aloud in thanksgiving for his apparent obliviousness to her as she crouched now neck deep in the benumbing cold. The man stepped on the bank, shook himself like a great dog might have done and marched over to the bear. He up-rooted a small near-by pine, with the ease of a Hercules – and she had time to mark and marvel at it in spite of everything – and then with that as a lever he unconcernedly and easily heaved the body of the monster from off her clothing. She was to learn later what a feat of strength it was to move that inert carcass weighing much more than half a ton.
Thereafter he dropped the pine tree by the side of the dead grizzly and without a backward look tramped swiftly and steadily up the cañon through the trees, turning at the point of it, and was instantly lost to sight. His gentle and generous purpose was obvious even to the frightened, agitated, excited girl.
The woman watched him until he disappeared, a few seconds longer, and then she hurled herself through the water and stepped out upon the shore. Her sweater, which the bear had dragged forward in its advance, lay on top of the rest of her clothes covered with blood. She threw it aside and with nervous, frantic energy, wet, cold, though she was, she jerked on in some fashion enough clothes to cover her nakedness and then with more leisurely order and with necessary care she got the rest of her apparel in its accustomed place upon her body, and then when it was all over she sank down prone and prostrate upon the grass by the carcass of the now harmless monster which had so nearly caused her undoing, and shivered, cried and sobbed as if her heart would break.
She was chilled to the bone by her motionless sojourn, albeit it had been for scarcely more than a minute, in that icy water, and yet the blood rushed to her brow and face, to every hidden part of her in waves as she thought of it. It was a good thing that she cried, she was not a weeping woman, her tears came slowly as a rule and then came hard. She rather prided herself upon her stoicism, but in this instance the great deeps of her nature had been undermined and the fountains thereof were fain to break forth.
How long she lay there, warmth coming gradually to her under the direct rays of the sun, she did not know, and it was a strange thing that caused her to arise. It grew suddenly dark over her head. She looked up and a rim of frightful, black, dense clouds had suddenly blotted out the sun. The clouds were lined with gold and silver and the long rays shot from behind the somber blind over the yet uncovered portions of the heaven, but the clouds moved with the irresistible swiftness and steadiness of a great deluge. The wall of them lowered above her head while they extended steadily and rapidly across the sky toward the other side of the cañon and the mountain wall.
A storm was brewing such as she had never seen, such as she had no experience to enable her to realize its malign possibilities. Nay, it was now at hand. She had no clew, however, of what was toward, how terrible a danger overshadowed her. Frightened but unconscious of all the menace of the hour her thoughts flew down the cañon to the camp. She must hasten there. She looked for her watch which she had picked from the grass and which she had not yet put on; the grizzly had stepped upon it, it was irretrievably ruined. She judged from her last glimpse of the sun that it must now be early afternoon. She rose to her feet and staggered with weakness, she had eaten nothing since morning, and the nervous shock and strain through which she had gone had reduced her to a pitiable condition.
Her luncheon had fortunately escaped unharmed. In a big pocket of her short skirt there was a small flask of whiskey, which her Uncle Robert had required her to take with her. She felt sick and faint, but she knew that she must eat if she was to make the journey, difficult as it might prove, back to the camp. She forced herself to take the first mouthful of bread and meat she had brought with her, but when she had tasted she needed no further incentive, she ate to the last crumb; she thought this was the time she needed stimulants too, and mingling the cold water from the brook with a little of the ardent spirit from the flask she drank. Some of the chill had worn off, some of the fatigue had gone.
She rose to her feet and started down the cañon; her bloody sweater still lay on the ground with other things of which she was heedless. It had grown colder but she realized that the climb down the cañon would put her stagnant blood in circulation and all would be well.
Before she began the descent of the pass, she cast one long glance backward whither the man had gone. Whence came he, who was he, what had he seen, where was he now? She thanked God for his interference in one breath and hated him for his presence in the other.
The whole sky was now black with drifting clouds, lightning flashed above her head, muttered peals of thunder, terrifically ominous, rocked through the silent hills. The noise was low and subdued but almost continuous. With a singular and uneasy feeling that she was being observed, she started down the cañon, plunging desperately through the trees, leaping the brook from side to side where it narrowed, seeking ever the easiest way. She struggled on, panting with sudden inexplicable terror almost as bad as that which had overwhelmed her an hour before – and growing more intense every moment, to such a tragic pass had the day and its happenings brought her.
Poor girl, awful experience really was to be hers that day. The Fates sported with her – bodily fear, outraged modesty, mental anguish and now the terror of the storm.
The clouds seemed to sink lower, until they almost closed about her. Long gray ghostly arms reached out toward her. It grew darker and darker in the depths of the cañon. She screamed aloud – in vain.
Suddenly the rolling thunder peals concentrated, balls of fire leaped out of the heavens and struck the mountains where she could actually see them. There are not words to describe the tremendous crashings which seemed to splinter the hills, to be succeeded by brief periods of silence, to be followed by louder and more terrific detonations.
In one of those appalling alternations from sound to silence she heard a human cry – an answering cry to her own! It came from the hills behind her. It must proceed, she thought, from the man. She could not meet that man; although she craved human companionship as never before, she did not want his. She could not bear it. Better the wrath of God, the fury of the tempest.
Heedless of the sharp note of warning, of appeal, in the voice ere it was drowned by another roll of thunder, she plunged on in the darkness. The cañon narrowed here, she made her way down the ledges, leaping recklessly from rock to rock, slipping, falling, grazing now one side, now the other, hurling herself forward with white face and bruised body and torn hands and throbbing heart that would fain burst its bonds. There was once an ancient legend of a human creature, menaced by all the furies, pitilessly pursued by every malefic spirit of earth and air; like him this sweet young girl, innocent, lovely, erstwhile happy, fled before the storm.
And then the heavens opened, the fountains of the great deeps were broken down, and with absolute literalness the floods descended. The bursting clouds, torn asunder by the wild winds, riven by the pent up lightning within their black and turgid breasts, disburdened themselves. The water came down, as it did of old when God washed the face of the world, in a flood. The narrow of the cañon was filled ten, twenty, thirty feet in a moment by the cloud burst. The black water rolled and foamed, surging like the rapids at Niagara.
The body of the girl, utterly unprepared, was caught up in a moment and flung like a bolt from a catapult down the seething sea filled with the trunks of the trees and the débris of the mountains, tossing almost humanly in the wild confusion. She struck out strongly, swimming more because of the instinct of life than for any other reason. A helpless atom in the boiling flood. Growing every minute greater and greater as the angry skies disgorged themselves of their pent up torrents upon her devoted head.
The man was coming back from one of his rare visits to the settlements. Ahead of him he drove a train of burros who, well broken to their work, followed with docility the wise old leader in the advance. The burros were laden with his supplies for the approaching winter. The season was late, the mountains would soon be impassable on account of the snow, indeed he chose the late season always for his buying in order that he might not be followed and it was his habit to buy in different places in different years that his repeated and expected presence at one spot might not arouse suspicion.
Intercourse with his fellow men was limited to this yearly visit to a settlement and even that was of the briefest nature, confined always to the business in hand. Even when busy in the town he pitched a small tent in the open on the outskirts and dwelt apart. No men there in those days pried into the business of other men too closely. Curiosity was neither safe nor necessary. If he aroused transient interest or speculation it soon died away. He vanished into the mountains and as he came no more to that place, he was soon forgotten.
Withdrawing from his fellow men and avoiding their society, this man was never so satisfied as when alone in the silent hills. His heart and spirit rose with every step he made away from the main traveled roads or the more difficult mountain trails.
For several days he journeyed through the mountains, choosing the wildest and most inaccessible parts for his going. Amid the cañons and peaks he threaded his way with unerring accuracy, ascending higher and higher until at last he reached the mountain aerie, the lonely hermitage, where he made his home. There he reveled in his isolation. What had been punishment, expiation, had at last become pleasure.
Civilization was bursting through the hills in every direction, railways were being pushed hither and thither, the precious metals were being discovered at various places and after them came hoards of men and with them – God save the mark – women; but his section of the country had hitherto been unvisited even by hunters, explorers, miners or pleasure seekers. He was glad, he had grown to love the spot where he had made his home, and he had no wish to be forced, like little Joe, to move on.
Once a man who loved the strife, noble or ignoble, of the madding crowd, he had grown accustomed to silence, habituated to solitude. Winter and summer alike he roamed the mountains, delving into every forest, exploring every hidden cañon, surmounting every inaccessible peak; no storm, no snow, no condition of wind or weather daunted him or stopped him. He had no human companionship by which to try his mettle, but nevertheless over the world of the material which lay about him he was a master as he was a man.
He found some occupation, too, in the following of old Adam's inheritance, during the pleasant months of summer he made such garden as he could. His profession of mining engineer gave him other employment. Round about him lay treasures inestimable, precious metals abounded in the hills. He had located them, tested, analyzed, estimated the wealth that was his for the taking – it was as valueless to him as the doubloons and golden guineas were to Selkirk on his island. Yet the knowledge that it was there gave him an energizing sense of potential power, unconsciously enormously flattering to his self esteem.
Sometimes he wandered to the extreme verge of the range and on clear days saw far beneath him the smoke of great cities of the plains. He could be a master among men as he was a master among mountains, if he chose. On such occasions he laughed cynically, scornfully, yet rarely did he ever give way to such emotion.
A great and terrible sorrow was upon him; cherishing a great passion he had withdrawn himself from the common lot to dwell upon it. From a perverted sense of expiation, in a madness of grief, horror and despair, he had made himself a prisoner to his ideas in the desert of the mountains. Back to his cabin he would hasten, and there surrounded by his living memories – deathless yet of the dead! – he would recreate the past until dejection drove him abroad on the hills to meet God if not man – or woman. Night-day, sunshine-shadow, heat-cold, storm-calm; these were his life.
Having disburdened his faithful animals of their packs and having seen them safely bestowed for the winter in the corral he had built near the base of the cliff upon which his rude home was situated, he took his rifle one morning for one of those lonely walks across the mountains from which he drew such comfort because he fancied the absence of man conduced to the nearness of God. It was a delusion as old nearly as the Christian religion. Many had made themselves hermits in the past in remorse for sin and for love toward God; this man had buried himself in the wilderness in part for the first of these causes, in other part for the love of woman. In these days of swift and sudden change he had been constant to a remembrance and abiding in his determination for five swift moving years. The world for him had stopped its progress in one brief moment five years back – the rest was silence. What had happened since then out yonder where people were mated he did not know and he did not greatly care.
In his visits to the settlements he asked no questions, he bought no papers, he manifested no interest in the world; something in him had died in one fell moment, and there had been, as yet, no resurrection. Yet life, and hope, and ambition do not die, they are indeed eternal. Resurgam!
Life with its tremendous activities, its awful anxieties, its wearing strains, its rare triumphs, its opportunities for achievement, for service; hope with its illuminations, its encouragements, its expectations; ambition with its stimulus, its force, its power; and greatest of all love, itself alone – all three were latent in him. In touch with a woman these had gone. Something as powerful and as human must bring them back.
It was against nature that a man dowered as he should so live to himself alone. Some voice should cry to his soul in its cerements of futile remorse, vain expiations and benumbing recollection; some day he should burst these grave clothes self-wound about him and be once more a man and a master among men, rather than the hermit and the recluse of the solitudes.
He did not allow these thoughts to come into his life, indeed it is quite likely that he scarcely realized them at all yet; such possibilities did not present themselves to him; perhaps the man was a little mad that morning, maybe he trembled on the verge of a break – upward, downward I know not so it be away – unconsciously as he strode along the range.
He had been walking for some hours, and as he grew thirsty it occurred to him to descend to the level of the brook which he heard below him and of which he sometimes caught a flashing glimpse through the trees. He scrambled down the rocks and found himself in a thick grove of pine. Making his way slowly and with great difficulty through the tangle of fallen timber which lay in every direction, the sound of a human voice, the last thing on earth to be expected in that wilderness, smote upon the fearful hollow of his ear.
Any voice or any word then and there would have surprised him, but there was a note of awful terror in this voice, a sound of frightened appeal. The desperation in the cry left him no moment for thought, the demand was for action. The cry was not addressed to him, apparently, but to God, yet it was he who answered – sent doubtless by that Over-looking Power who works in such mysterious ways His wonders to perform!
He leaped over the intervening trees to the edge of the forest where the rapid waters ran. To the right of him rose a huge rock, or cliff, in front of him the cañon bent sharply to the north, and beneath him a few rods away a speck of white gleamed above the water of a deep and still pool that he knew.
There was a woman there!
He had time for but the swiftest glance, he had surmised that the voice was not that of a man's voice instantly he heard it, and now he was sure. She stood white breast deep in the water staring ahead of her. The next instant he saw what had alarmed her – a Grizzly Bear, the largest, fiercest, most forbidding specimen he had ever seen. There were a few of those monsters still left in the range, he himself had killed several.
The woman had not seen him. He was a silent man by long habit; accustomed to saying nothing, he said nothing now. But instantly aiming from the hip with a wondrous skill and a perfect mastery of the weapon, and indeed it was a short range for so huge a target, he pumped bullet after bullet from his heavy Winchester into the evil monarch of the mountains. The first shot did for him, but making assurance doubly and trebly sure, he fired again and again. Satisfied at last that the bear was dead, and observing that he had fallen upon the clothes of the bather, he turned, descended the stream for a few yards until he came to a place where it was easily fordable, stepped through it without a glance toward the woman shivering in the water, whose sensation, so far as a mere man could, he thoroughly understood and appreciated, and whose modesty he fain would spare, having not forgotten to be a gentleman in five years of his own society – high test of quality, that.
He climbed out upon the bank, up-rooted a small tree, rolled the bear clear of the heap of woman's clothing and marched straight ahead of him up the cañon and around the bend.
Thereafter, being a man, he did not faint or fall, but completely unnerved he leaned against the cañon wall, dropped his gun at his feet and stood there trembling mightily, sweat bedewing his forehead, and the sweat had not come from his exertions. In one moment the whole even tenor of his life was changed. The one glimpse he had got of those white shoulders, that pallid face, that golden head raised from the water had swept him back five years. He had seen once more in the solitude a woman.
Other women he had seen at a distance and avoided in his yearly visits to the settlements of course; these had passed him by remotely, but here he was brought in touch intimately with humanity. He who had taken life had saved it. A woman had sent him forth, was a woman to call him back?
He cursed himself for his weakness. He shut his eyes and summoned other memories. How long he stood there he could not have told; he was fighting a battle and it seemed to him at last that he triumphed. Presently the consciousness came to him that perhaps he had no right to stand there idle, it might be that the woman needed him, perhaps she had fainted in the water, perhaps – He turned toward the bend which concealed him from her and then he stopped. Had he any right to intrude upon her privacy? He must of necessity be an unwelcome visitor to her, he had surprised her at a frightful disadvantage; he knew instinctively, although the fault was none of his, although he had saved her life thereby, that she would hold him and him alone responsible for the outrage to her modesty, and although he had seen little at first glance and had resolutely kept his eyes away, the mere consciousness of her absolute helplessness appealed to him – to what was best and noblest in him, too. He must go to her. Stay, she might not yet be clothed, in which event – But no, she must be dressed, or dead, by this time and in either case he would have a duty to discharge.
It devolved upon him to make sure of her safety, he was in a certain sense responsible for it, until she got back to her friends wherever they might be; but he persuaded himself that otherwise he did not want to see her again, that he did not wish to know anything about her future; that he did not care whether it was well or ill with her; and it was only stern obligation which drove him toward her – oh fond and foolish man!
He compromised with himself at last by climbing the ridge that had shut off a view of the pool, and looking down at the place so memorable to him. He was prepared to withdraw instantly should circumstances warrant, and he was careful so to conceal himself as to give no possible opportunity for her to discover his scrutiny.
With a beating heart and eager eyes he searched the spot. There lay the bear and a little distance away prone on the grass, clothed but whether in her right mind or not he could not tell, lay the woman. For a moment, as he bent a concentrated eager gaze upon her, he thought she might have fainted or that she might have died. In any event he reflected that she had strength and nerve and will to have dressed herself before either of these things had happened. She lay motionless under his gaze for so long that he finally made up his mind that common humanity required him to go to her assistance.
He rose to his feet on the instant and saw the woman also lift herself from the grass as if moved by a similar impulse. In his intense preoccupation he had failed to observe the signs of the times. A sense of the overcast sky came to him suddenly, as it did to her, but with a difference. He knew what was about to happen, his experience told him much more as to the awful potentialities of the tempest than she could possibly imagine. She must be warned at once, she must leave the cañon and get up on the higher ground without delay. His duty was plain and yet he did it not. He could not. The pressure upon him was not yet strong enough.
A half dozen times as he watched her deliberately sitting there eating, he opened his mouth to cry to her, yet he could not bring himself to it. A strange timidity oppressed him, halted him, held him back. A man cannot stay away five years from men and woman and be himself with them in the twinkling of an eye. And when to that instinctive and acquired reluctance against which he struggled in vain, he added the assurance that whatever his message he would be unwelcome on account of what had gone before, he could not force himself to go to her or even to call to her, not yet. He would keep her under surveillance, however, and if the worst came he could intervene in time to rescue her. He counted without his cost, his usual judgment bewildered. So he followed her through the trees and down the bank.
Now he was so engrossed in her and so agitated that his caution slept, his experience was forgotten. The storm in his own breast was so great that it overshadowed the storm brewing above. Her way was easier than his and he had fallen some distance behind when suddenly there rushed upon him the fact that a frightful and unlooked for cloudburst was about to occur above their heads. A lightning flash and a thunder clap at last arrested his attention. Then, but not until then, he flung everything to the winds and amid the sudden and almost continuous peals of thunder he sent cry after cry toward her which were lost in the tremendous diapason of sound that echoed and re-echoed through the rifts of the mountains.