"Wait," he cried again and again. "Come up higher. Get out of the cañon. You'll be drowned."
But he had waited too long, the storm had developed too rapidly, she was too far ahead of and beneath him. She heard nothing but the sound of a voice, shrill, menacing, fraught with terror for her, not a word distinguishable; scarcely to her disturbed soul even a human voice, it seemed like the weird cry of some wild spirit of the storm. It sounded to her overwrought nerves so utterly inhuman that she only ran the faster.
The cañon swerved and then doubled back, but he knew its direction; losing sight of her for the moment he plunged straight ahead through the trees, cutting off the bend, leaping with superhuman agility and strength over rocks and logs until he reached a point where the rift narrowed between two walls and ran deeply. There and then the heavens opened and the floods came and beat into that open maw of that vast crevasse and filled it full in an instant.
As the deluge came roaring down, bearing onward the sweepings and scourings of the mountains, he caught a glimpse of her white desperate face rising, falling, now disappearing, now coming into view again, in the foamy midst of the torrent. He ran to the cliff bank and throwing aside his gun he scrambled down the wall to a certain shelf of the rock over which the rising water broke thinly. Ordinarily it was twenty feet above the creek bed. Bracing himself against a jagged projection he waited, praying. The cañon was here so narrow that he could have leaped to the other side and yet it was too wide for him to reach her if the water did not sweep her toward his feet. It was all done in a second – fortunately a projection on the other side threw the force of the torrent toward him and with it came the woman.
She was almost spent; she had been struck by a log upheaved by some mighty wave, her hands were moving feebly, her eyes were closed, she was drowning, dying, but indomitably battling on. He stooped down and as a surge lifted her he threw his arm around her waist and then braced himself against the rock to sustain the full thrust of the mighty flood. As he seized her she gave way suddenly, as if after having done all that she could there was now nothing left but to trust herself to his hand and God's. She hung a dead weight on his arm in the ravening water which dragged and tore at her madly.
He was a man of giant strength, but the struggle bade fair to be too much even for him. It seemed as if the mountain behind him was giving way. He set his teeth, he tried desperately to hold on, he thrust out his right hand, holding her with the other one, and clawed at the dripping rock in vain. In a moment the torrent mastered him and when it did so it seized him with fury and threw him like a stone from a sling into the seething vortex of the mid-stream. But in all this he did not, he would not, release her.
Such was the swiftness of the motion with which they were swept downward that he had little need to swim; his only effort was to keep his head above water and to keep from being dashed against the logs that tumbled end over end, or whirled sideways, or were jammed into clusters only to burst out on every hand. He struggled furiously to keep himself from being overwhelmed in the seething madness, and what was harder, to keep the lifeless woman in his arms from being stricken or wrenched away. He knew that below the narrows where the cañon widened the water would subside, the awful fury of the rain would presently cease. If he could steer clear of the rocks in the broad he might win to land with her.
The chances against him were thousands to nothing. But what are chances in the eyes of God. The man in his solitude had not forgotten to pray, his habits stood him in good stead now. He petitioned shortly, brokenly, in brief unspoken words, as he battled through the long dragging seconds.
Fighting, clinging, struggling, praying, he was swept on. Heavier and heavier the woman dragged in an unconscious heap. It would have been easier for him if he had let her go; she would never know and he could then escape. The idea never once occurred to him. He had indeed withdrawn from his kind, but when one depended upon him all the old appeal of weak humanity awoke quick response in the bosom of the strong. He would die with the stranger rather than yield her to the torrent or admit himself beaten and give up the fight. So the conscious and the unconscious struggled through the narrow of the cañon.
Presently with the rush and hurl of a bullet from the mouth of a gun, they found themselves in a shallow lake through which the waters still rushed mightily, breaking over rocks, digging away shallow rooted trees, leaping, biting, snarling, tearing at the big walls spread away on either side. He had husbanded some of his strength for this final effort, this last chance of escape. Below them at the other end of this open the walls came together again; there the descent was sharper than before and the water ran to the opening with racing speed. Once again in the torrent and they would be swept to death in spite of all.
Shifting his grasp to the woman's hair, now unbound, he held her with one hand and swam hard with the other. The current still ran swiftly, but with no gigantic upheaving waves as before. It was more easy to avoid floating timber and débris, and on one side where the ground sloped somewhat gently the quick water flowed more slowly. He struck out desperately for it, forcing himself away from the main stream into the shallows and ever dragging the woman. Was it hours or minutes or seconds after that he gained the battle and neared the shore at the lowest edge?
He caught with his forearm, as the torrent swerved him around, a stout young pine so deeply rooted as yet to have withstood the flood. Summoning that last reserve of strength that is bestowed upon us in our hour of need, and comes unless from God we know not whence, he drew himself in front of the pine, got his back against it, and although the water thundered against him still – only by comparison could it be called quieter – and his foothold was most precarious, he reached down carefully and grasped the woman under the shoulders. His position was a cramped one, but by the power of his arms alone he lifted her up until he got his left arm about her waist again. It was a mighty feat of strength indeed.
The pine stood in the midst of the water, for even on the farther side the earth was overflowed but the water was stiller; he did not know what might be there, but he had to chance it. Lifting her up he stepped out, fortunately meeting firm ground; a few paces and he reached solid rock above the flood. He raised her above his head and laid her upon the shore, then with the very last atom of all his force, physical, mental and spiritual, he drew himself up and fell panting and utterly exhausted but triumphant by her side.
The cloud burst was over, but the rain still beat down upon them, the thunder still roared above them, the lightning still flashed about them, but they were safe, alive if the woman had not died in his arms. He had done a thing superhuman – no man knowing conditions would have believed it. He himself would have declared a thousand times its patent impossibility.
For a few seconds he strove to recover himself; then he thought of the flask he always carried in his pocket. It was gone; his clothes were ragged and torn, they had been ruined by his battle with the waves. The girl lay where he had placed her on her back. In the pocket of her hunting skirt he noticed a little protuberance; the pocket was provided with a flap and tightly buttoned. Without hesitation he unbuttoned it. There was a flask there, a little silver mounted affair; by some miracle it had not been broken. It was half full. With nervous hands he opened it and poured some of its contents down her throat; then he bent over her his soul in his glance, scarcely knowing what to do next. Presently she opened her eyes.
And there, in the rain, by that raging torrent whence he had drawn her as it were from the jaws of death by the power of his arm, in the presence of the God above them, this man and this woman looked at each other and life for both of them was no longer the same.
Old Kirkby, who had been lazily mending a saddle the greater part of the morning, had eaten his dinner, smoked his pipe and was now stretched out on the grass in the warm sun taking a nap. Mrs. Maitland was drowsing over a book in the shadow of one of the big pines, when Pete, the horse wrangler, who had been wandering rather far down the cañon rounding up the ever straying stock, suddenly came bursting into the camp.
"Heavens!" he cried, actually kicking the prostrate frontiersman as he almost stumbled over him. "Wake up, old man, an' – "
"What the – " began Kirkby fiercely, thus rudely aroused from slumber and resentful of the daring and most unusual affront to his dignity and station, since all men, and especially the younger ones, held him in great honor.
"Look there!" yelled Pete in growing excitement and entirely oblivious to his lèse-majesté, pointing at a black cloud rolling over the top of the range. "It'll be a cloud burst sure, we'll have to git out o' here an' in a hurry too. Oh, Mrs. Maitland."
By this time Kirkby was on his feet. The storm had stolen upon him sleeping and unaware, the configuration of the cañon having completely hid its approach. At best the three in the camp could not have discovered it until it was high in the heavens. Now the clouds were already approaching the noonday sun. Kirkby was alive to the situation at once; he had the rare ability of men of action, of awakening with all his faculties at instant command; he did not have to rub his eyes and wonder where he was, and speculate as to what was to be done. The moment that his eyes, following Pete's outstretched arm, discovered the black mass of clouds, he ran toward Mrs. Maitland, and standing on no ceremony he shook her vigorously by the shoulder.
"We'll have to run for our lives, ma'm," he said briefly. "Pete, drive the stock up on the hills, fur as you kin, the hosses pertikler, they'll be more to us an' them burros must take keer of themselves."
Pete needed no urging, he was off like a shot in the direction of the improvised corral. He loosed the horses from their pickets and started them up the steep trail that led down from the hogback to the camp by the water's edge. He also tried to start the burros he had just rounded up in the same direction. Some of them would go and some of them would not. He had his hands full in an instant. Meanwhile Kirkby did not linger by the side of Mrs. Maitland; with incredible agility for so old a man he ran over to the tent where the stores were kept and began picking out such articles of provision as he could easiest carry.
"Come over here, Mrs. Maitland," he cried. "We'll have to carry up on the hill somethin' to keep us from starvin' till we git back to town. We hadn't orter camped in this yere pocket noways, but who'd ever expected anything like this now."
"What do you fear?" asked the woman, joining him as she spoke and waiting for his directions.
"Looks to me like a cloud bust," was the answer. "Creek's pretty full now, an' if she does break everything below yere'll go to hell on a run."
It was evidence of his perturbation and anxiety that he used such language which, however, in the emergency did not seem unwarranted even to the refined ear of Mrs. Maitland.
"Is it possible?" she exclaimed.
"Taint only possible, it's sartin. Now ma'm," he hastily bundled up a lot of miscellaneous provisions in a small piece of canvas, tied it up and handed it to her, "that'll be for you." Immediately after he made up a much larger bundle in another tent fly, adding, "an' this is mine."
"Oh, let us hurry," cried Mrs. Maitland, as a peal of thunder, low, muttered, menacing, burst from the flying clouds now obscuring the sun, and rolled over the camp.
"We've got time enough yit," answered Kirkby coolly calculating their chances. "Best git your slicker on, you'll need it in a few minutes."
Mrs. Maitland ran to her own tent and soon came out with sou'wester and yellow oil skins completely covering her. Kirkby meantime had donned his own old battered soiled rain clothes and had grabbed up Pete's.
"I brought the children's coats along," said Mrs. Maitland, extending three others.
"Good," said Kirkby, "now we'll take our packs an' – "
"Do you think there is any danger to Robert?"
"He'll git nothin' worse'n a wettin'," returned the old man confidently. "If we'd pitched the tents up on the hogback, that's all we'd a been in for."
"I have to leave the tents and all the things," said Mrs. Maitland.
"You can stay with them," answered Kirkby, dryly, "but if what I think's goin' to happen comes off, you won't have no need of nothin' no more – Here she comes."
As he spoke there was a sudden swift downpour of rain, not in drops, but in a torrent. Catching up his own pack and motioning the woman to do likewise with her load, Kirkby caught her by the hand, and half led, half dragged her up the steep trail from the brook to the ridge which bordered the side of the cañon. The cañon was much wider here than further up and there was much more room and much more space for the water to spread. Yet, they had to hurry for their lives as it was. They had gone up scarcely a hundred feet when the disgorgement of the heavens took place. The water fell with such force, directness and continuousness that it almost beat them down. It ran over the trail down the side of the mountain in sheets like waterfalls. It required all the old man's skill and address to keep himself and his companion from losing their footing and falling down into the seething tumult below.
The tents went down in an instant. Where there had been a pleasant bit of meadow land was now a muddy tossing lake of black water. Some of the horses and most of the burros which Pete had been unable to do anything with were engulfed in a moment. The two on the mountain side could see them swimming for dear life as they swept down the cañon. Pete himself, with a few of the animals, was already scrambling up to safety.
Speech was impossible between the noise of the falling rain and the incessant peals of thunder, but by persistent gesture old Kirkby urged the terrified trembling woman up the trail until they finally reached the top of the hogback, where under the poor shelter of the stunted pines they joined Pete with such of the horses as he had been able to drive up. Kirkby taking a thought for the morrow, noted that there were four of them, enough to pull the wagon if they could get back to it.
After the first awful deluge of the cloud burst it moderated slightly, but the hard rain came down steadily, the wind rose as well and in spite of their oil skins they were soon wet and cold. It was impossible to make a fire, there was no place for them to go, nothing to be done, they could only remain where they were and wait. After a half hour of exposure to the merciless fury of the storm, a thought came suddenly to Mrs. Maitland; she leaned over and caught the frontiersman by his wet sleeve. Seeing that she wished to speak to him he bent his head toward her lips.
"Enid," she cried, pointing down the cañon; she had not thought before of the position of the girl.
Kirkby, who had not forgotten her, but who had instantly realized that he could do nothing for her, shook his head, lifted his eyes and solemnly pointed his finger up to the gray skies. He had said nothing to Mrs. Maitland before, what was the use of troubling her.
"God only kin help her," he cried; "she's beyond the help of man."
Ah, indeed, old trapper, whence came the confident assurance of that dogmatic statement? For as it chanced at that very moment the woman for whose peril your heart was wrung was being lifted out of the torrent by a man's hand! And, yet, who shall say that the old hunter was not right, and that the man himself, as men of old have been, was sent from God?
"It can't be," began Mrs. Maitland in great anguish for the girl she had grown to love.
"Ef she seed the storm an' realized what it was, an' had sense enough to climb up the cañon wall," answered the other, "she won't be no worse off 'n we are; ef not – "
Mrs. Maitland had only to look down into the seething caldron to understand the possibility of that "if."
"Oh," she cried, "let us pray for her that she sought the hills."
"I've been a doin' it," said the old man gruffly.
He had a deep vein of piety in him, but like other rich ores it had to be mined for in the depths before it was apparent.
By slow degrees the water subsided, and after a long while the rain ceased, a heavy mist lay on the mountains and the night approached without any further appearance of the veiled sun. Toward evening Robert Maitland with the three men and the three children joined the wretched trio above the camp. Maitland, wild with excitement and apprehension, had pressed on ahead of the rest. It was a glad faced man indeed who ran the last few steps of the rough way and clasped his wife in his arms, but as he did so he noticed that one was missing.
"Where is Enid?" he cried, releasing his wife.
"She went down the cañon early this mornin' intendin' to stay all day," slowly and reluctantly answered old Kirkby, "an' – "
He paused there, it wasn't necessary for him to say anything more.
Maitland walked to the edge of the trail and looked down into the valley. It had been swept clean of the camp. Rocks had been rolled over upon the meadow land, trunks of trees torn up by the roots had lodged against them, it was a scene of desolate and miserable confusion and disaster.
"Oh, Robert, don't you think she may be safe?" asked Mrs. Maitland.
"There's jest a chance, I think, that she may have suspicioned the storm an' got out of the cañon," suggested the old frontiersman.
"A slim chance," answered Maitland gloomily. "I wouldn't have had this happen for anything on earth."
"Nor me; I'd a heap ruther it had got me than her," said Kirkby simply.
"I didn't see it coming," continued Maitland nodding as if Kirkby's statement were to be accepted as a matter of course, as indeed it was. "We were on the other slope of the mountain, until it was almost over head."
"Nuther did I. To tell the truth I was lyin' down nappin' w'en Pete, yere, who'd been down the cañon rounding up some of the critters, came bustin' in on us."
"I ain't saved but four hosses," said Pete mournfully, "and there's only one burro on the hogback."
"We came back as fast as we could," said Maitland. "I pushed on ahead. George, Bradshaw and Phillips are bringing Bob and the girls. We must search the cañon."
"It can't be done to-night, old man," said Kirkby.
"I tell you we can't wait, Jack!"
"We've got to. I'm as willin' to lay down my life for that young gal as anybody on earth, but in this yere mist an' as black a night as it's goin' to be, we couldn't go ten rod without killin' ourselves an' we couldn't see nothin' noways."
"But she may be in the cañon."
"If she's in the cañon 'twon't make no difference to her w'ether we finds her to-morrer or next day or next year, Bob."
Maitland groaned in anguish.
"I can't stay here inactive," he persisted stubbornly.
"It's a hard thing, but we got to wait till mornin'. Ef she got out of the cañon and climbed up on the hogback she'll be all right; she'll soon find out she can't make no progress in this mist and darkness. No, old friend, we're up agin it hard; we jest got to stay the night w'ere we are an' as long as we got to wait we might as well make ourselves as comfortable as possible. For the wimmen an' children anyway. I fetched up some ham and some canned goods and other eatin's in these yere canvas sacks, we might kindle a fire – "
"It's hardly possible," said Maitland, "we shall have to eat it cold."
"Oh, Robert," pleaded his wife, "isn't it possible that she may have escaped?"
"Possible, yes, but – "
"We won't give up hope, ma'am," said Kirkby, "until to-morrer w'en we've had a look at the cañon."
By this time the others joined the party. Phillips and Bradshaw showed the stuff that was in them; they immediately volunteered to go down the cañon at once, knowing little or nothing of its dangers and indifferent to what they did know, but as Kirkby had pointed out the attempt was clearly impossible. Maitland bitterly reproached himself for having allowed the girl to go alone, and in those self reproaches old Kirkby joined.
They were too wet and cold to sleep, there was no shelter and it was not until early in the morning they succeeded in kindling a fire. Meanwhile the men talked the situation over very carefully. They were two days' journey from the wagons. It was necessary that the woman and children should be taken back at once. Kirkby hadn't been able to save much more than enough to eat to get them back to a ranch or settlement, and on very short rations at best. It was finally decided that George and Pete with Mrs. Maitland, the two girls and the youngster should go back to the wagon, drive to the nearest settlement, leave the women and then return on horseback with all speed to meet Maitland and Kirkby who would meanwhile search the cañon.
The two men from the east had to go back with the others although they pleaded gallantly to be allowed to remain with the two who were to take up the hunt for Enid. Maitland might have kept them with him, but that meant retaining a larger portion of the scanty supplies that had been saved, and he was compelled against his will to refuse their requests. Leaving barely enough to subsist Maitland and Kirkby for three or four days, or until the return of the relief party, the groups separated at daybreak.
"Oh, Robert," pleaded his wife, as he kissed her good-by, "take care of yourself, but find Enid."
"Yes," answered her husband, "I shall, never fear, but I must find the dear girl or discover what has become of her."
There was not time for further leave taking. A few hand clasps from man to man and then Robert Maitland standing in the midst of the group bowed his head in the sunny morning, for the sky again was clear, and poured out a brief prayer that God would prosper them, that they would find the child and that they would all be together again in health and happiness. And without another word, he and Kirkby plunged down the side of the cañon, the others taking up their weary march homeward with sad hearts and in great dismay.