The Sky Line of Spruce
Part 3 out of 5
haunting dread and deep-lying fear of the northern winter. But that
dread season was gone now, yielding for a few happy months to a gay
invader from the South; and the whole forest world rejoiced.
Both Beatrice and Ben could sense the new wakening and revival in the
still depths about them. The forest was hushed, tremulous, yet vibrant
and ecstatic with renewed life. The old grizzly bear had left his winter
lair; and good feeding was putting the fat again on his bones; the old
cow moose had stolen away into the farther marshes for some mystery and
miracle of her own. Everywhere young calves of caribou were breathing
the air for the first time, trying to stand on wobbly legs and pushing
with greedy noses into overflowing udders. The rich new grass yielded
milk in plenty for all these wilderness nurslings. Even the she-wolf
forgot her wicked savagery to nurse and fondle her whelps in the lair;
even the she-lynx, hunting with renewed fervor through the branches,
knew of a marvelous secret in a hollow log that she would be torn to
scraps of fur rather than reveal.
The she-ermine, her white hair falling out, was brooding a litter of
cutthroats and murderers in a nest of grass and twigs, and each one of
them was a source of pride and joy to her mother heart. Even the
wolverine had some wicked-eyed little cubs that, to her, were precious
beyond rubies; but which would ultimately receive all the oaths in the
language for stealing bait on the trap lines out from the settlements.
Beatrice, a woods creature herself, knew the stir and thrill of spring;
but there were also more personal, more deeply hidden reasons why she
was happy to-day. She was certainly a very girlish-girl in most ways,
with even more than the usual allowance of romance and sentiment, and
the idea of an all-day picnic with this stalwart forester went straight
home to her imagination. She had been tremendously impressed with him
from the first, and the day's ride out from Snowy Gulch had brought him
very close to her indeed. And what might not the day bring forth! What
mystery and wonder might come to pass!
Her dark eyes were lustrous, and the haunting sadness they often held
was quite gone. Her face was faintly flushed, her red lips wistful,
every motion eager and happy as a child's. But Ben looked at her
Coldly his eye leaped over her supple, slender form. He saw with relief
that she was stoutly clad in middy and skirt of wool, wool stockings,
and solid little boots. The heavy coat she had brought was not
particularly noteworthy in these woods, but it would have drawn instant
admiration from knowing people of a great city. It was not cut with
particular style, neither was it beautifully lined, but the fabric
itself was plucked otter,--the dark, well-wearing fur of many lights and
of matchless luster and beauty.
"For goodness sake, Mr. Darby," the girl cried. "What have you got in
this boat? Surely that isn't just the lunch--" She pointed to the pile
of supplies, covered by the blankets, in the center of the craft.
"It looks like we had enough to stay a month, doesn't it?" he laughed.
"There's blankets there, of course--for table cloths and to make us
comfortable--and the lunch, and a pillow or two--and some little
surprises. The rest is just some stores that I'm going to take this
opportunity to put across the river--to my next camp. Now, Miss
Neilson--if you'll take the seat in the bow. Fenris is going to ride in
The girl's eyes fell with some apprehension on the shaggy wolf. "I
haven't established very friendly relations with Fenris--"
"I'd leave him at home, but he won't stand for it. Besides I'd like to
teach him how to retrieve grouse. Lie down, old boy." Ben motioned, and
Fenris sprawled at his feet. "Now come here and pet him, Miss Neilson.
His fur, at this season, is wonderful--"
Reluctant to show her fear before Ben, the girl drew near. The wolf
shivered as the soft hand touched his side and moved slowly to his
fierce head; but he gave no further sign of enmity.
"He understands," Ben explained. "He realizes that I've accepted you,
and you're all right. Until he's given orders otherwise, he'll treat you
with the greatest respect."
She was deeply and sincerely pleased. It did not occur to her, in the
least, little degree, that occasion could possibly arise whereby
contradictory orders would be given. Ben started to help her into the
"You've not forgotten anything?" he asked casually.
"Nothing I can think of."
"Got plenty of extra shells?"
"Part of a box. It's a small caliber automatic, you see, and a box holds
"It is, eh?" Ben's tone indicated deep interest. "May I see 'em a
minute? I think I had a gun like it once. Not the gun--just the box of
She had strapped the weapon around her waist, by now, so she didn't
attempt to put it in his hands. From her pocket she procured a small box
of shells, and these she passed to him. He examined them with a great
show of interest, balancing their weight in the palm of his hand; then
he carelessly threw the box down among the duffle in front of the stern
seat. Presently he started to push off.
"You're not taking the other paddle?" the girl asked curiously.
"No. I don't believe in letting young ladies work when I take 'em on an
outing. You are just to sit in the bow and enjoy yourself. Fenris, sit
still and don't rock the boat!"
Just one moment more he hesitated. From his pocket he drew a piece of
paper, carefully folded and sealed with tallow. This he inserted into a
little crack in the blade of the second paddle--the one that was to be
left at the landing.
"Just a little note for your father," he explained, "to tell him where
we are, in case he worries about you."
"That's very considerate of you," the girl answered in a thoughtful
She wondered at the curious glowings, lurid as red coals, that came and
went in his eyes.
After the manner of backwoods fathers Jeffery Neilson had offered no
objections to his daughter's all-day excursion with Ben. The ways of the
frontier are informal; and besides, he had every confidence in her
ability to take care of herself. The only unfortunate phase of the
affair concerned Ray. The latter would look with no favor upon the
venture; and in all probability a disagreeable half-hour would ensue
with him if he found it out.
The control of Ray Brent had been an increasingly difficult problem.
Always sullen and envious, once or twice he had not been far from open
rebellion. There is a certain dread malady that comes to men at the
sight of naked gold, and Ray's degenerate type was particularly subject
to it. Every day the mine had shown itself increasingly rich, and Ray's
ambition had given way to greed, and his greed to avarice of the most
dangerous sort. For instance, he had a disquieting way of gathering the
nuggets into his hands, fondling them with an unholy love. Neilson
realized perfectly, now, that the younger man would not be content with
a fourth share or less; and on the other hand he resolutely refused to
yield any of his own, larger share. Sometime the issue would bring them
to grips. Ray's dreadful crime of a few days past had given him an added
insolence and self-assurance that complicated the problem still further.
The leopard that has once tasted human flesh is not to be trusted again.
Finally, there remained this matter of Beatrice.
Neilson's love for his daughter forbade that he should force her to
receive unwelcome attentions. Ray, on the other hand, had always
insisted that his chief allow him a clear field. He would be infuriated
when he heard of the trip she was taking with Ben to-day. Neilson
straightened, resolving to meet the issue with old-time firmness.
When he heard his daughter's voice on the canoe landing, one hundred
yards below, he was inordinately startled. She had not told him that
their picnic would take them on to the water. The reason had been, of
course, that Beatrice knew her father's distrust of the treacherous
stream and either feared his refusal to her plan or wished to save him
worry. Even now they were starting. He could hear the first stroke of
the paddle through the hushed woods.
He turned toward the door, instinctively alarmed; then hesitated. After
all, he could not tell her to come back. Beatrice would be mortified;
and besides, there was nothing definite to fear. The river was almost as
still as a lake for a long stretch immediately in front of the landing;
even a poor canoeist could cross with ease. It was true that rapids,
mile after mile of them past counting, lay just below, but surely the
canoeists would stay at a safe distance above them. And if by any chance
this young prospector had no skill with a canoe, Beatrice herself was an
Yet what, in reality, did he know of Ben Darby? He had liked the man's
face: whence he came and what was his real business on the Yuga he had
not the least idea. All at once a baffling apprehension crept like a
chill through his frame.
He could not laugh it away. It laid hold of him, refusing to be
dispelled. It was as if an inner voice was warning him, telling him to
rush down to the river bank and check that canoe ride at all costs. It
occurred to him, for the moment, that this might be premonition of a
disastrous accident, yet vaguely he sensed a plot, an obscure design
that filled him with ghastly terror. Once more the man started for the
Unaware of his ground, he did not hurry at first. He hardly knew what to
say, by what excuse he could call Beatrice back to the landing. His
heart was racing incomprehensibly in his breast, and all at once he
started to run.
At the first step he fell sprawling, and stark panic was upon him when
he got to his feet again. And when he reached the landing the canoe was
already near the opposite shore, heading swiftly downstream.
He saw in one glance that the craft was rather heavily laden, Fenris
atop the pile of duffle, and that Ben was paddling with a remarkably
fast, easy stroke. "Come back, Beatrice," he shouted. "You've forgotten
The girl turned, waving, but Ben's voice drowned out hers. "We'll see
you later," he called in a gay voice. "We can't come back now."
"Come back!" Neilson called again. "I order you--"
He stared intently, hoping that the man would turn. Already they were
practically out of hearing; and not even Beatrice was dipping her paddle
in obedience to his command. Looking more closely, he saw that the man
only was paddling.
Then his eye fell to the landing on which he stood, instinctively trying
to locate the second paddle. It lay at his feet. A foolhardy thing to
do, he thought, a broken paddle, out there above the rapids, would mean
death and no other thing. Helpless in the current, the canoe could not
be guided through those fearful gates of peril below. If by a
thousandth chance it escaped the rocks, it would be carried for
unnumbered miles into a land unknown, a territory that could be entered
only by the greatest difficulty--packing day after day over range and
through thicket with a great train of pack horses--and from which the
egress, except by the same perilous water route, would be almost
impossible. But the thought passed as he discerned the white paper that
had been fastened in the paddle blade.
He bent for it with eager hand. He knew instinctively that it contained
an all-important and sinister message for him. His eyes leaped over the
bold writing on the exterior.
"To Ezra Melville's murderers," Ben had written. And with that reading
Jeffery Neilson knew a terror beyond any experienced in the darkest
nightmare of his iniquitous life.
It did not occur to him to bring the note, unopened, to Ray Brent. As
yet he did not fully understand; yet he knew that the issue was one of
seconds. _Seconds_ must decide everything; his whole world hung in the
balance. His hand ripped apart the sealed fold, and he held the sheet
before his eyes.
Possessing only an elementary education Jeffery Neilson was not,
ordinarily, a fast reader. Usually he sounded out his words only with
the greatest difficulty. But to-day, one glance at the page conveyed to
him the truth: from half a dozen words he got a general idea of the
letter's full, dread meaning. Ben had written:
TO NEILSON AND HIS GANG:--
When you get this, Beatrice will be on her way to Back There--either
there or on her way to hell.
Ezra Melville was my pard. A letter leaving his claim to me is in my
pocket, and I alone know where Hiram's will is, leaving it to Ezram.
Your title will never stand as long as those papers aren't
destroyed. If you don't care enough about saving your daughter from
me, at least you'll want those letters. Come and get them. I'll be
waiting for you.
As the truth flashed home, Neilson's first thought was of his rifle. He
was a wilderness man, trained to put his trust in the weapon of steel;
and if it were only in his hands, there might yet be time to prevent the
abduction. One well-aimed bullet over the water, shooting with all his
old-time skill, might yet hurl the avenger to his death in the moment of
his triumph. Just one keen, long gaze over the sights,--heaven or earth
could not yield him a vision half so glorious as this! For all his
terror he knew that he could shoot as he had never shot before, true as
a light-ray. His remorseless eyes for once could see clear and sure. One
shot--and then Beatrice could seize the paddle and save herself. And he
cursed himself, more bitterly than he had ever cursed an enemy, when his
empty hands showed him that he had left his rifle in his cabin.
His pistol, however, was at his belt, and his hand reached for it. But
the range was already too far for any hope of accurate pistol fire. His
hard eyes gazed along the short, black barrel. His steady finger pressed
back against the trigger.
The first shot fell far short. The pistol was of large caliber but small
velocity; and a hundred yards was its absolute limit of point-blank
range. He lifted the gun higher and shot again. Again he shot low. But
the third bullet fell just a few feet on the near side of the canoe.
He had the range now, and he shot again. It was like a dream, outside
his consciousness, that Beatrice was screaming with fear and amazement.
She was already too far to give or receive a message: all hope lay in
the pistol alone. The fifth shot splashed water beyond the craft.
Once more he fired, but the boat was farther distant now, and the bullet
went wild. The pistol was empty. Like a moose leaping through a marsh he
turned back to his cabin for his rifle.
But already he knew that he was lost. Before ever he could climb up the
hundred yards to the cabin, and back again, the craft would be around
the bend in the river. Heavy brush would hide it from then on. He
hastened frantically up the narrow, winding trail.
Ben was fully aware, as he pushed the canoe from landing, that the
success of his scheme was not yet guaranteed. Long ago, in the hard
school of the woods, he had found out life; and one of the things he had
learned was that nothing on earth is infallible and no man's plans are
sure. There are always coincidents of which the scheming brain has not
conceived: the sudden interjection of unexpected circumstances. The
unforeseen appearance of Beatrice's father on the landing had been a
case in point.
Most of all he had been afraid that Beatrice herself would leap from the
canoe and attempt to swim to safety. He had learned in his past
conversations with her that she had at least an elementary knowledge of
swimming. Had she not confessed at the same time fear of the water, his
plan could have never been adopted. The northern girls have few
opportunities to obtain real proficiency in swimming. Their rivers are
icy cold, their villages do not afford heated natatoriums. Yet he
realized that he must quiet her suspicions as long as possible.
"I've got the landing picked out," he told her as they started off.
"I've been all over the river this morning. It is quite a way
down--around the bend--but it's perfectly safe. So don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid--with you. And how fast you paddle!"
It was true: in all her days by rivers she had never seen such perfect
control of a canoe. He paddled as if without effort, but the streaming
shore line showed that the boat moved at an astonishing rate. He was a
master canoeist, and whatever fears she might have had vanished at once.
She talked gayly to him, scarcely aware that they were heading across
and down the stream.
When her father had appeared on the bank, calling, she had not been in
the least alarmed. Ben's gay shouts kept her from understanding exactly
what he was saying. And when the old man had drawn his pistol and fired,
and the bullet had splashed in the water some twenty yards toward shore,
her mind had refused to accept the evidence of her senses.
The second shot followed the first, and the third the second, resulting
in, for her part, only the impotence of bewilderment. Her first thought
was that her father's fierce temper, long known to her, had engulfed him
in murderous rage. Trusting Ben wholly, the real truth did not occur to
She screamed shrilly at the fourth shot; and Ben looked up to find her
pale as the foam from his flashing paddle. "Turn around and go back,"
she cried to Ben. "He'll kill you if you don't! Oh, please--turn
"And get in range of him so he _can_ kill me?" Ben replied savagely.
"Can't you see he's shooting at me?"
"Then throw up your hands--it's all some dreadful mistake. Can't you
hear me--turn and go back."
The fifth and sixth shots were fired by now; and Neilson had gone to his
cabin for his rifle. Ben smiled grimly into her white face.
"We'd better keep on going to our landing place," he advised. "There's
no place to land above it--I went all over the shore this morning. That
will give him time to cool down. I only want to get around this curve
before he comes with his rifle."
She stared at him aghast, too confused and terrified to make rational
answer. He was pale, too; but she had a swift feeling that the cold,
rugged face was in some way exultant, too. The first chill of fear of
him brushed her like a cold wind.
But they were around the bend by now, and Ben's breath caught as if in a
triumphant gasp. Already all opportunity for the girl to swim to shore
was irremediably past. While he could still control the canoe with
comparative ease, the river was a swift-moving sheet of water that would
carry any one but the strongest swimmer remorselessly into the rapids
below. Ben smiled, like a man who has come into a great happiness, and
rested on his paddle.
"Push into shore," the girl urged. "The home shore--if you can. Then
I'll go and find him and try to quiet him. He'll kill you if you don't."
A short pause followed the girl's words. The man smiled coldly into her
"He'll kill me, will he?" he repeated.
The response to the simple question was simply unmitigated terror, swift
and deadly, surging through the girl's frame. It caught and twisted her
throat muscles like a cruel hand; and her childish eyes widened and
darkened under his contemptuous gaze.
"What do you mean?" she asked breathlessly. "What--are you going to do?"
"He won't kill me," Ben went on. "I may kill him--and I will if I
can--but he won't kill me. See--we're going faster all the time."
It was true. Strokes of the paddle were no longer necessary to propel
the craft at the breakneck pace. It sped like an arrow--straight toward
the perilous cataracts below.
The girl watched him with transcending horror, and slowly the truth went
home. The supplies in the boat, her father's desperate attempt to rescue
her, even at the risk of her own life and the cost of Ben's, this white,
exultant face before her, more terrible than that of the wolf between,
the cold reptile eyes so full of some unhallowed emotion,--at last she
saw their meaning and relation. Was it _death_--was _that_ what this mad
man in the stern had for her? She remembered what she had told him the
day before, her description of the cataracts that lay below. She
struggled to shake off the trance that her terror had cast about her.
"Turn into the shore," she told him, half-whispering. There was no
pleading in her tone: the hard eyes before her told her only too plainly
how futile her pleas would be. "You still have time to steer into shore.
I'll jump overboard if you don't."
He shook his head. "Don't jump overboard, Beatrice," he answered, some
of the harshness gone from his tones. "It isn't my purpose to kill
you--and to jump over into this stream only means to die--'for any one
except the most powerful swimmer. You'd be carried down in an instant."
The girl knew he spoke the truth. Only death dwelt in those cold and
rushing waters. "What do you mean to do?" she asked.
Her tone was more quiet now, and he waited an instant before he
answered. The canoe glided faster--ever faster down the stream. Somewhat
afraid, but still trusting in the imperial mind of his master, the wolf
raised his head to watch the racing shore line.
"It's just a little debt I owe your father--and his gang," Ben
explained. "I'll tell you some time, in the days to come. It was a debt
The girl's dark eyes charged with red fire. "And you, a coward, take
your payment on a woman. Turn the canoe into the bank."
"The payment won't be taken from you," he explained soberly. "You'll be
safe enough--even the fate that Neilson fears for you won't happen. I
hate him too much to take _that_ payment from you. I'd die before I'd
touch the flesh of his flesh to mine! Do you understand that?"
His fury had blazed up, for the instant, and she saw the deadly zeal of
a fanatic in his gray eyes. A hatred beyond all naming, a bitterness and
a rage such as she had never dreamed could blast a human heart was
written in his brown, rugged face. Her woman's intuition gave her added
vision, and she glimpsed something of the fire that smoldered and seared
behind his eyes. They were of one blood, this man in the stern and the
wolf on the duffle.
"You're safe with me--the daughter of Jeff Neilson can't ever be
anything but safe with me--as far as the thing you fear is concerned.
Don't be afraid for that. I'm simply paying an honest debt, and you're
the unfortunate agent. Don't you know the things he's fearing now are
more torment to him than anything I could do to his flesh? If we should
be killed in these rapids that are coming, it will be fair enough too;
he'll know what it is to lose the dearest thing on earth he has. For you
and me it will only be a minute that won't greatly matter. For him it
will be weeks--months! But that's only a part of it. I hope to bring you
through. The main thing is--that sooner or later they'll come for
you--into a country where I'll have every advantage. Where there won't
be any escape or chance for them. Where I can watch the trails, and
shatter them--every one--as slow or as fast as I like. Where they'll
have to hunt for me, week on week and month on month, their fears eating
into them. That's my game, Beatrice. There will be discomfort for
you--and some danger--but I'll make it as light as I can. And in another
"You've still got time to turn back," the girl answered him, seemingly
without feeling. "Glide into shore, and we'll try to catch an
overhanging limb. It's my last warning."
It was true that a few seconds remained in which they might, with heroic
effort, save themselves. But these were passing: already they could see
the gleaming whitecaps of the cataract below.
The roar of the wild waters was in their ears. Ahead they could see
great rocks, emerging like fangs above the water, sharp-edged and wet
with spray. The boat was shuddering; the water seemed to covet them, and
a great force, like the hand of a river god, reached at them from
beneath as if to crush them in a merciless grasp. A hundred yards
farther the smooth, swift water fell into a seething, roaring
cataract--such a manifestation of the mighty powers of nature as checks
the breath and awes the heart--a death stream in which seemingly the
canoe would be shattered to pieces in an instant.
Ben shook his head. The girl's white hand flashed to her side, then rose
sure and steady, holding her pistol. "Turn quick, or I'll fire," she
He felt that, if such action were in her power, she told the truth. No
mercy dwelt in her clear gaze. His eye fell to the box of cartridges,
now fallen safely among the duffle. Presently he smiled into her eyes.
"Your gun is empty, Beatrice," he told her quietly. He heard her sob,
and he smiled a little, reassuringly. "Never mind--and pray for a good
voyage," he advised. "We're going through."
The craft and its occupants were out of sight by the time Jeffery
Neilson reached the river bank with his rifle. The flush had swept from
his bronze skin, leaving it a ghastly yellow, and for once in his life
no oaths came to his lips. He could only mutter, strangely, from a
Like an insane man he hastened down the river bank, fighting his way
through the brush. The thickets were dense, ordinarily impenetrable to
any mortal strength except to that mighty, incalculable power of the
moose and grizzly; yet they could not restrain him now. The tough
clothes he wore were nearly torn from his body; his face and hands were
scratched as if by the claws of a lynx; but he did not pause till he
reached the bank of the gray river.
Only one more glimpse of the canoe was vouchsafed him, and that glimpse
came too late. He saw the light barge just as it hovered at the crest of
the rapids. Even if he could have shot straight at so great a range and
had killed the man in the stern, no miracle could have saved his
daughter. She would have been instantly swept to her death against the
Some measure of self-control returned to him then, and he made his way
fast as he could toward the claim. Sensing the older man's distress, Ray
straightened from his work at the sight of him.
The face before him was drawn and white; but there was no time for
questions. Hard hands seized his arm.
"Ray, do you know of a canoe anywhere--up or down this river?"
"There's one at the landing. None other I know of."
"Think, man! You don't know where we can get one?"
"No. Old Hiram's canoe was the only one. What's the matter?"
"Do you think there's one chance in a million of getting down through
those rapids on a raft?"
Ray's eyes opened wide. "A raft!" he echoed. "Man, are you crazy? Even
at this high water a canoe wouldn't have a chance in ten of making it.
The river's falling every hour--"
"I know it. Do you suppose there's a canoe in town?"
"No! Of course there isn't--one that you could even dream about shooting
those rapids in. Besides, by the time we got there and packed it up--it
would take two days to pack it the best we could do--the river would be
too far down to tackle the trip at all. And it won't come up again till
fall--you know that. Tell me what's the matter. Has Beatrice--"
"Beatrice has gone down, that's all."
"Then she's dead--no hope of anything else. Only an expert could hope to
take her through, and there's nothing to live on Back There. What's the
use of trying to follow--?"
Neilson straightened, his eyes searching Ray's. "She's got food, I
suppose. And she's got an expert paddler to take her there."
Ray's face seemed to darken before his eyes. His hands half closed,
shook in his face, then caught at Neilson's shoulders. "You don't
mean--she's run away?"
"Don't be a fool. Not run away--abducted. The prospector I told you
about--Darby--was the old man's partner. He's paying us back. Heaven
only knows what the girl's fate will be--I don't dare to think of it.
Ray, I wish to God I had died before I ever saw this day!"
Ray stared blankly. "Then he found out--about the murder?" he gasped.
"Yes. Here's his letter. Take time--and read it. There's no use to try
to act before we think--how to act. If I could only see a way--"
Ray read the letter carefully, crumpling it at last in savage wrath.
"It's your fault!" he cried. "Why didn't you save her for me as I've
always asked you to do; why did you let her go out with him at all? I'll
bet she wanted to go--"
"I'd rather she had, instead of being taken by force!" The older
man--aged incredibly in a few little minutes--slowly straightened. "But
don't storm at me, Ray!" he warned, carefully and quietly. "I've stood a
lot from you, but to-day I'd kill you for one word!"
They faced each other in black disdain, but Ray knew he spoke the truth.
There was no toying with this man's wrath to-day.
"And if you'd let me croak this devil like I wanted to, it wouldn't have
happened either. But there's no use crying about either one. The girl's
a goner, sure; she's deep in the rapids by now."
"Yes, and it's part of this man's hellish plan to take her clear through
to Back There. You see, he dares us to come for her--and he'll be
waiting and ready for us, mark my words. My God, she's probably
dead--smashed to pieces--already!"
"He says he's got the old man's letter, leaving the claim to him. That
messes up things even worse."
"I wish I'd never heard of the claim. There's only one thing to do, and
that's to rush into Snowy Gulch and get a big outfit--all the horses and
supplies we can find--and go after her by land."
"Yes, and walk right into his trap. Think again, Neilson. It would take
weeks and months to get in that way. Besides, what would happen to the
claim while we're gone?"
"You needn't fear for the claim! Of course, I'd expect you to think of
that first--you who loved Beatrice so dearly!" Neilson's face was white
with disdain. "It'll be recorded in our names, by then--likely Chan is
already in Bradleyburg--and Darby himself is the only man on earth we
have to fear." He paused, putting his faith in desperate craft. "If you
want to cinch the claim, the first thing to do is go and stamp the life
out of Darby; otherwise he'll turn up and make us trouble, just as he
"He can't do much if the claim's recorded in our names!"
"He can make us plenty of trouble. If you want the girl, Ray--don't lose
a minute. Put your things together as fast as you can. We'll try to get
some men in Snowy Gulch to come with us--to join in the hunt--and we'll
hire every pack horse in the country. Get busy, and get busy quick."
Reluctant to leave his gold, yet seeing the truth in Neilson's words,
Ray hastened to his cabin to get such few supplies as would be needed
for the day's march into Snowy Gulch. In less than five minutes they
were on their way--tramping in file down the narrow moose trail.
They crossed the divide, thus reaching the headwaters of Poor Man's
Creek; then took the trail down toward the settlements. But the two
claim-jumpers had not yet learned all the day's ill news. Half-way to
the mouth of the stream they met Chan Heminway on his way back to the
At the first sight of him, riding in the rear of a long train of laden
pack horses, they could hardly believe their eyes. It was not to be
credited that he had made the trip to Bradleyburg and back in the few
days he had been absent. Only an aeroplane could have made so fast a
trip. Could it be that in spite of his definite orders he was returning
with the duty of recording the claim still unperformed? To Neilson,
however, the sight of the long pack train brought some measure of
satisfaction. Here were horses laden with the summer supplies that Chan
had been told to procure, and they could be utilized in the pursuit of
Beatrice. Two days at least could be saved.
"What in the devil you coming back for?" Ray shouted, when Chan's
identity became certain.
Chan rode nearer as if he had not heard. He checked his horse
deliberately, undoubtedly inwardly excited by the news he had to tell
and perhaps somewhat triumphant because he was its bearer. "I'm coming
back because there ain't no use in staying at Snowy Gulch any longer,"
he answered at last. "I've got the supplies, and I'm packin' up to the
claim, just as I was told."
"But why didn't you go to Bradleyburg and record the claim?" Ray
stormed. "Don't you know until that's done we're likely to be chased off
Chan looked into his partner's angry eyes, and his own lips drew in a
scowl. "Because there wasn't any use in goin' to Bradleyburg."
Ray was stricken with terror, and his words faltered. "You mean you
could tend to it in Snowy Gulch--"
"I don't mean nothing of the kind. Shut up a minute, and I'll tell you
about it. A few days ago Steve Morris got a letter addressed to old
Hiram Melville--in care of Steve. He opened it and read it, and I heard
about it soon as I got into town. There ain't no use of our trying to
record that claim."
"For God's sake, why?"
"Because it's already recorded, that's why. We all felt so sure, and we
wasn't sure at all. Before old Hiram died he wrote a letter--one of them
two letters you heard about, Neilson--and which you wished you'd got
hold of. Who that letter was to was an official in Bradleyburg--an old
friend of Hiram's--and in it was a description of the claim. This letter
Morris got was a notice that his claim was all properly filed in
his--Hiram's--name. Whatever formalities was necessary was cut out
because the old man had been too sick to make the trip--the recorder got
special permission from Victoria. To be plain, I didn't file the claim
because it's already filed, and I didn't want to show myself up as a
claim-jumper quite as bad as that."
"It's all over town--about the claim?"
"Sure, but there won't be a rush. There's quite a movement over
Bradleyburg way for one thing; for another, this is a pocket country,
once and for always."
For some seconds thereafter his partners could make no intelligent
response. This bitter blow had been anticipated by neither. But Ray was
a strong man, and his self-control quickly returned to him.
"You see what that means, don't you?" he asked Neilson.
"It means we've lost!"
The eyes before him narrowed and gleamed. "So that's what it means to
you! Well, I don't look at it just that way. It means to me that we've
got to take these supplies and these pack horses and start out and find
Ben Darby--and never stop hunting till we've found him."
"Of course we've got to rescue Beatrice--"
"Rescuing Beatrice isn't all of it now, by a long shot. For the Lord's
sake, Neilson--use your head a minute. Didn't old Hiram leave a will,
giving this claim to his brother Ezra? If the claim wasn't recorded that
will wouldn't mean much--but it is. And hasn't this Ben got a letter
from Ezra leaving the claim to him? Now do you want to know who owns
that claim? Ben Darby owns it, and as long as he can kick, that quarter
of a million in gold can never be ours."
"You mean we've got to find him--and destroy that letter--"
"We've got to; that's all. He wrote us he had it, just to taunt us, and
we've got to burn that up whether we find the girl or not. But that
ain't all we've got to destroy--that piece of paper. You see that, don't
Neilson breathed heavily. "It's all plain enough."
"I want it to be plain, so next time I want to let daylight through a
man you won't stand in the way. It ain't just enough to burn up that
letter. We've got to get the man who owns it, too. If we don't he'd
still have a good enough case against us--with a good lawyer. Likely
enough lots of people knew of their partnership, maybe have seen the
letter--and they'd all be good witnesses in a suit. Our reputation ain't
so good, after that Jenkins deal, that we'd shine very bright in a suit.
Even if he couldn't prove his own claim, he could lug out the will old
Hiram left--he alone knows where it's hid--and then his next nearest
relatives would come in and get the claim. On the other hand, if we
smash him, the thing will all quiet down; there'll be no claimants to
work the mine; and after a few months we can step in and put up our own
notices. But we've got to do that first--smash him wide-open as soon as
we can catch up with him. He'll be way out in Back There, and no man
would ever know what became of him, and there'd be nobody left to oppose
us any more. But we can't be safe any other way."
Neilson nodded slowly. His subordinate had put the matter clearly; and
there was truth in his words. In Ben's murder alone lay their safety.
He had always been adverse to bloodshed; but further reluctance meant
ruin. Ben was one whom he could strike down without mercy or regret. And
the blow would not be for expediency alone. There would be a personal
debt to pay after the long months of searching. He could not forget that
Beatrice was helpless in his hands.
"The thing to do is to turn back with Chan, at once," he said.
"Of course," Ray agreed. "That plan of yours to get help in chasing 'em
down don't go any more. We don't want any spectators for what's ahead of
us. Here's grub and horses a-plenty, and we needn't lose any time."
So they turned back toward the Yuga, on their quest of hate.
Beatrice Neilson was a mountain girl, with the strong thews of Jael, yet
she hid her face as the canoe shot into the crest of the rapids. It
seemed incredible to her that the light craft should buffet that wild
cataract and yet live. She was young and she loved life; and death
seemed very near.
The scene that her eyes beheld in that last little instant in which the
boat seemed to hang, shuddering, at the crest of the descent was branded
indelibly on her memory. She saw Ben's face, set like iron, the muscles
bunching beneath his flannel sleeves as he set his paddle. He was
leaning forward, aware of nothing in the world but the forthcoming
crisis. And in that swift flash of vision she saw not only the steel
determination and the brutal savagery of the avenger. A little glimpse
of the truth went home to her, and she beheld something of the
misdirected idealism of the man, the intensity and steadfastness that
were the dominant traits of his nature. She could not doubt his belief
in the reality of his cause. Whether fancied or real the injury, deep
wells of emotion in his heart had broken their seals and flowed forth.
The wolf crouched on the heap of supplies, fearful to the depths of his
wild heart of this mighty stream, yet still putting his faith in his
master in the stern. Beatrice saw his wild, frightened eyes as he gazed
down into the frightful whirlpools. The banks seemed to whip past.
Then the rushing waters caught the craft and seemed to fling it into
the air. There was the swift sense of lightning and incredible movement,
of such incalculable speed as that with which a meteor blazes through
the sky, and then a mighty surging, struggle; an interminable instant of
ineffable and stupendous conflict. The bow dipped, split the foam; then
the raging waters seized the craft again, and with one great impulse
hurled it through the clouds of spray, down between the narrow portals
Beatrice came to herself with the realization that she had uttered a
shrill cry. Part of the impulse behind it was simply terror; but it was
also the expression of an intensity of sensation never before
experienced. She could have understood, now, the lure of the rapids to
experienced canoeists. She forced herself to look into the wild
The boat sped at an unbelievable pace. Ben held his paddle like iron,
yet with a touch as delicate as that of a great musician upon piano
keys, and he steered his craft to the last inch. His face was still like
metal, but the eyes, steely, vivid, and magnetic, had a look of triumph.
The first of the great tests had been passed.
Sudden confidence in Ben's ability to guide her through to safety began
to warm the girl's frozen heart. There were no places more dangerous
than that just past; and he had handled his craft like a master. He was
a voyageur: as long as his iron control was sustained, as long as his
nerve was strong and his eye true she had every chance of coming out
alive. But they had irremediably cast their fortunes upon the river,
now. They could not turn back. She was in his whole charge, an agent of
vengeance against her own father and his confederates.
Hot, blinding tears suddenly filled her eyes. Her frantic fear of the
river had held them back for a time; but they flowed freely enough now
the first crisis was past. In utter misery and despair her head bowed in
her hands; and her brown hair, disheveled, dropped down.
Ben gazed at her with a curious mingling of emotions. It had not been
part of his plan to bring sorrow to this girl. After all, she was not in
the least responsible for her father's crimes. He had sworn to have no
regrets, no matter what innocent flesh was despoiled in order that he
might strike the guilty; yet the sight of that bowed, lovely head went
home to him very deeply indeed. She was the instrument of his vengeance,
necessary to his cause, but there was nothing to be gained by afflicting
her needlessly. At least, he could give her his pity. It would not
weaken him, dampen his fiery resolution, to give her that.
As he guided his craft he felt growing compassion for her; yet it was a
personal pity only and brought no regrets that he had acted as he did.
"I wish you wouldn't cry," he said, rather quietly.
Amazed beyond expression at the words, Beatrice looked up. For the
instant her woe was forgotten in the astounding fact that she had won
compassion from this cast-iron man in the stern.
"I'll try not to," she told him, her dark eyes ineffably beautiful with
their luster of tears. "I don't see why I should try--why I should try
to do anything you ask me to--but yet I will--"
Further words came to him, and he could not restrain them. "You're sort
of--the goat, Beatrice," he told her soberly. "It was said, long ago,
that the sins of the father must be visited upon the children; and maybe
that's the way it is with you. I can't help but feel sorry--that you had
to undergo this--so that I could reach your father and his men. If you
had seen old Ezram lying there--the life gone from, his kind, gray old
face--the man who brought me home and gave me my one chance--maybe you'd
They were speechless a long time, Beatrice watching the swift leap of
the shore line, Ben guiding, with steady hand, the canoe. Neither of
them could guess at what speed they traveled this first wild half-hour;
but he knew that the long miles--so heart-breaking with their ridges and
brush thickets to men and horses--were whipping past them each in a few,
little breaths. Ever they plunged deeper into the secret, hushed heart
of the wild--a land unknown to the tread of white men, a region so still
and changeless that it seemed excluded from the reign and law of, time.
The spruce grew here, straight and dark and tall, a stalwart army whose
measureless march no human eyes beheld. Already they had come farther
than a pack train could travel, through the same region, in weary days.
Already they were at the border of Back There. They had cut the last
ties with the world of men. There were no trails here, leading slowly
but immutably to the busy centers of civilization; not a blaze on a tree
for the eyes of a woodsman riding on some forest venture, not the ashes
of a dead camp fire or a charred cooking rack, where an Indian had
broiled his caribou flesh. Except by the slow process of exploration
with pack horses, traveling a few miles each day, fording unknown rivers
and encircling impassable ranges, or by waiting patiently until the fall
rains swelled the river, they might never leave this land they had so
boldly entered. They could not go out the way they had come--over those
seething waters--and the river, falling swiftly, would soon be too low
to permit them to push down to its lower waters where they might find
Nothing was left but the wilderness, ancient and unchanged. The spruce
forest had a depth and a darkness that even Ben had never seen; the wild
creatures that they sometimes glimpsed on the bank stared at them wholly
without knowledge as to what they were, and likely amazed at the
strength whereby they had braved this seething torrent that swept
through their sylvan home. Here was a land where the grizzly had not yet
learned of a might greater than his, where he had not yet surrendered
his sovereignty to man. Here the moose--mightiest of the antlered
herd--reached full maturity and old age without ever mistaking the call
of a birch-bark horn for that of his rutting cow. Young bulls with only
a fifty-inch spread of horns and ten points on each did not lead the
herds, as in the more accessible provinces of the North. All things were
in their proper balance, since the forest had gone unchanged for time
immemorial; and as the head-hunters had not yet come the bull moose did
not rank as a full-grown warrior until he wore thirty points and had
five feet of spread, and he wasn't a patriarch until he could no longer
walk free between two tree trunks seventy inches apart. Certain of the
lesser forest people were not in unwonted numbers because that fierce
little hunter, the marten, had been exterminated by trappers; the otter,
yet to know the feel of cold iron, fished to his heart's content in
rivers where an artificial fly had never fallen and the trout swarmed in
uncounted numbers in the pools.
Darting down the rapids Ben felt the beginnings of an exquisite
exhilaration. Part of it arose from the very thrill and excitement of
their headlong pace; but partly it had a deeper, more portentous origin.
Here was his own country--this Back There. While all the spruce forest
in which he had lived had been his natural range and district--his own
kind of land with which he felt close and intimate relations--this was
even more his home than his own birthplace. By light of a secret
quality, hard to recognize, he was of it, and it was of him. He felt the
joy of one who sees the gleam of his own hearth through a distant
He _knew_ this land; it was as if he had simply been away, through the
centuries, and had come home. The shadows and the stillness had the
exact depth and tone that was true and right; the forest fragance was
undefiled; the dark sky line was like something he had dreamed come
true. He felt a strange and growing excitement, as if magnificent
adventure were opening out before him. His gaze fell, with a queer sense
of understanding, to Fenris.
The wolf had recovered from his fear of the river, by now, and he was
crouched, alert and still, in his place. His gaze was fast upon the
shore line; and the green and yellow fires that mark the beast were
ablaze again in his eyes. Fenris too made instinctive response to those
breathless forests; and Ben knew that the bond between them was never so
close as now.
Fenris also knew that here was his own realm, the land in which the
great Fear had not yet laid its curse. The forest still thronged with
game, the wood trails would be his own. Here was the motherland, not
only to him but to his master, too. They were its fierce children: one
by breed, the other because he answered, to the full, the call of the
wild from which no man is wholly immune.
Ben could have understood the wolf's growing exultation. The war he was
about to wage with Neilson. would be on his own ground, in a land that
enhanced and developed his innate, natural powers, and where he had
every advantage. The wolf does not run into the heart of busy cities in
pursuit of his prey. He tries to decoy it into his own fastnesses.
A sudden movement on the part of Beatrice, in the bow of the canoe,
caught his eye. She had leaned forward and was reaching among the
supplies. His mind at once leaped to the box of shells for her pistol
that he had thrown among the duffle, but evidently this was not the
object of her search. She lifted into her hands a paper parcel, the same
she had brought from her cabin early that morning.
He tried to analyze the curious mingling of emotions in her face. It was
neither white with disdain nor dark with wrath; and the tears were gone
from her eyes. Rather her expression was speculative, pensive. Presently
her eyes met his.
His heart leaped; why he did not know. "What is, it?" he asked.
"Ben--I called you that yesterday and there's no use going back to last
names now--I've made an important decision."
"I hope it's a happy one," he ventured.
"It's as happy as it can be, under the circumstances. Ben, I came of a
line of frontiersmen--the forest people--and if the woods teach one
thing it is to make the best of any bad situation."
Ben nodded. For all his long training he had not entirely mastered this
lesson himself, but he knew she spoke true.
"We've found out how hard Fate can hit--if I can make it plain," she
went on. "We've found out there are certain powers--or devils--or
something else, and what I don't know--that are always lying in wait for
people, ready to strike them down. Maybe you would call it Destiny. But
the Destiny city men know isn't the Destiny we know out here--I don't
have to tell you that. We see Nature just as she is, without any gay
clothes, and we know the cruelty behind her smile, and the evil plans
behind her gentle words."
The man was amazed. Evidently the stress and excitement of the morning
had brought out the fanciful and poetic side of the girl's nature.
"We don't look for good luck," she told him. "We don't expect to live
forever. We know what death is, and that it is sure to come, and that
misfortune comes always--in the snow and the cold and the falling
tree--and when we have good luck we're glad--we don't take it for
granted. Living up here, where life is real, we've learned that we have
to make the best of things in order to be happy at all."
"And you mean--you're going to try to make the best of _this_?" His
voice throbbed ever so slightly, because he could not hold it even.
"There's nothing else I can do," she replied. "You've taken me here and
as yet I don't see how I can get away. This doesn't mean I've gone over
to your side."
He nodded. He understood _that_ very well.
"I'm just admitting that at present I'm in your hands--helpless--and
many long weeks in before us," she went on. "I'm on my father's side,
last and always, and I'll strike back at you if the chance comes. Expect
no mercy from me, in case I ever see my way to strike."
The man's eyes suddenly gleamed. "Don't you know--that you'd have a
better chance of fighting me--if you didn't put me on guard?"
"I don't think so. I don't believe you'd be fooled that easy.
Besides--I can't pretend to be a friend--when I'm really an enemy."
For one significant instant the man looked down. This was what he had
done--pretended friendship when he was a foe. But his was a high cause!
"I'm warning you that I'm against you to the last--and will beat you if
I see my way," the girl went on. "But at the same time I'm going to make
the best of a bad situation, and try to get all the comfort I can. I'm
in your hands at present, and we're foes, but just the same we can talk,
and try to make each other comfortable so that we can be comfortable
ourselves, and try not to be any more miserable than we can help. I'm
not going to cry any more."
As she talked she was slowly unwrapping the little parcel she had
brought. Presently she held it out to him.
It was just a box of homemade candy--fudge made with sugar and canned
milk--that she had brought for their day's picnic. But it was a peace
offering not to be despised. A heavy load lifted from Ben's heart.
He waited his chance, guiding the boat with care, and then reached a
brown hand. He crushed a piece of the soft, delicious confection between
his lips. "Thanks, Beatrice," he said. "I'll remember all you've told
It is a peculiar fact that no one is more deeply moved by the great
works and phenomena of nature than those who live among them. It is the
visitor from distant cities, or the callow youth with tawdry clothes and
tawdry thoughts who disturbs the great silences and austerity of
majestic scenes with half-felt effusive words or cheap impertinences.
Oddly enough, the awe that the wilderness dweller knows at the sight of
some great, mysterious canyon or towering peak seems to increase, rather
than decrease, with familiarity. His native scenes never grow old to
him. Their beauty and majesty is eternal.
Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that the native woodsman knows
nature as she really is: living ever close to her he knows her power
over his life. Perhaps there is a religious side to the matter, too. In
the solitudes the religious instincts receive an impulse that is
impossible to those who know only the works of man. The religion that
this gives is true and deep, and the eye instinctively lifts in
reverence to the manifestations of divine might.
When the swirling waters carried the canoe down into the gorge of the
Yuga both Ben and Beatrice were instinctively awed and stilled. Ever the
walls of the gorge grew more steep, until the sunlight was cut off and
they rode as if in twilight. The stone of the precipices presented a
marvellous array of color; and the spruce, almost black in the subdued
light, stood in startling contrast. Ben saw at once that even were they
able to land they could not--until they had emerged from the
gorge--climb to the highlands. A mountain goat, most hardy of all
mountaineers, could scarcely scale the abrupt wall.
During this time of half-light they saw none of the larger forest
creatures that at first had gazed at them with such wonder from the
banks. The reason was simply that they could not descend and ascend the
Mostly Ben had time only for an occasional glimpse at the colossus above
him. His work was to guide the craft between the perilous boulders.
Occasionally the river slackened its wild pace, and at such times he
stretched his arms and rested his straining eyes.
Both had largely forgotten the danger of the ride. Because she was
trying bravely to make the best of a tragic situation Beatrice had
resolved to keep danger from her thoughts. Ben had known from the first
that danger was an inevitable element in his venture, and he accepted it
just as he had considered it,--with entire coldness. Yet both of them
knew, in their secret thoughts, that the balance of life and death was
so fine that the least minor incident might cast them into darkness. It
would not have to be a great disaster, a wide departure from the
commonplace. They were traveling at a terrific rate of speed, and a
sharp rock too close to the surface would rip the bottom from their
craft. Any instant might bring the shock and shudder of the end.
There would scarcely be time to be afraid. Both would be hurled into the
stream; and the wild waters, pounding against the rocks, would close the
matter swiftly. It awed them and humbled them to realize with what
dispatch and ease this wilderness power could snuff out their mortal
lives. There would be no chance to fight back, no element of
uncertainty in the outcome. Here was a destiny against which the
strength of man was as thistledown in the wind! The thought was good
spiritual medicine for Ben, just as it would have been for most other
men, and his egoism died a swift and natural death.
One crash, one shock, and then the darkness and silence of the end! The
river would rage on, unsatiated by their few pounds of flesh, storming
by in noble fury; but no man would know whither they had gone and how
they had died. The walls of the gorge would not tremble one whit, or
notice; and the spruce against the sky would not bow their heads to show
that they had seen.
But the canyon broke at last, and the craft emerged into the sunlight.
It was good to see the easy slope of the hills again, the spruce
forests, and the forms of the wild creatures on the river bank, startled
by their passing. Noon came and passed, and for lunch they ate the last
of the fudge. And now a significant change was manifest in both of them.
Psychologists are ever astounded at the ability of mortals, men and
animals, to become adjusted to any set of circumstances. The wax of
habit sets almost in a day. The truth was, that in a certain measure
with very definite and restricted limits, both Ben and Beatrice were
becoming adjusted even to this amazing situation in which they found
themselves. This did not mean that Beatrice was in the least degree
reconciled to it. She had simply accepted it with the intention of
making the best of it. She had been abducted by an enemy of her father
and was being carried down an unknown and dangerous river; but the
element of surprise, the life of which is never but a moment, was
already passing away. Sometimes she caught herself with a distinct
start, remembering everything with a rage and a bitter load on her
heart; but the mood would pass quickly.
It is impossible, through any ordinary change of fortune, for a normal
person to lose his sense of self-identity. As long as that remains
exterior conditions can make no vital change, or make him feel greatly
different than he felt before. The change from a peasant to a
millionaire brings only a moment's surprise, and then readjustment.
Beatrice was still herself; the man in the stern remained Ben Darby and
no one else. Very naturally she began to talk to him, and he to answer
The fact that they were bitter foes, one the victim of the other, did
not decree they could not have friendly conversation, isolated as they
were. From time to time Ben pointed out objects of interest on the
shore; and she found herself remarking, in a casual voice, about them.
And before the afternoon he had made her laugh, in spite of herself,--a
gay sound in which fear and distress had little echo.
"We're bound to see a great deal of each other in the next few weeks,"
he had said; and this fact could not be denied. The sooner both became
adjusted to it the better. Actual fear of him she had none; she
remembered only too well the steel in his eyes and the white flame on
his cheeks as he had assured her of her safety.
In mid-afternoon Ben began to think of making his night's camp. From
time to time the bank became an upright precipice where not even a tree
could find foothold; and it had occurred to him, with sudden vividness,
that he did not wish the darkness to overtake him in such a place. The
river rocks would make short work of him, in that case. It was better to
pick out a camp site in plenty of time lest they could not find one at
the day's end.
In one of the more quiet stretches of water he saw the place--a small
cove and a green, tree-clad bank, with the gorge rising behind. Handling
his canoe with greatest care he slanted toward it. A moment later he had
caught the brush at the water's edge, stepped off into shallow water,
and was drawing the canoe up onto the bank.
"We're through for the day," he said happily, as he helped Beatrice out
of the boat. "I'll confess I'm ready to rest."
Beatrice made no answer because her eyes were busy. Coolly and quietly
she took stock of the situation, trying to get an idea of the
geographical features of the camp site. She saw in a glance, however,
that there was no path to freedom up the gorge behind her. The rocks
were precipitate: besides, she remembered that over a hundred miles of
impassable wilderness lay between her and her father's cabin. Without
food and supplies she could not hope to make the journey.
The racing river, however, wakened a curious, inviting train of thought.
The torrent continued largely unabated for at least one hundred miles
more, she knew, and the hours that it would be passable in a canoe were
numbered. The river had fallen steadily all day; driftwood was left on
the shore; rocks dried swiftly in the sun, cropping out like fangs above
the foam of the stream. Was there still time to drift on down the Yuga a
hundred or more miles to the distant Indian encampment? She shut the
thought from her mind, at present, and turned her attention to the work
of making camp.
With entire good humor she began to gather such pieces of dead wood as
she could find for their fire.
"Your prisoner might as well make herself useful," she said.
Ben's face lighted as she had not seen it since their outward journey
from Snowy Gulch. "Thank God you're taking it that way, Beatrice," he
told her fervently. "It was a proposition I couldn't help--"
But the girl's eyes flashed, and her lips set in a hard line. "I'm doing
it to make my own time go faster," she told him softly, rather slowly.
"I want you to remember that."
But instantly both forgot their words to listen to a familiar clucking
sound from a near-by shrub. Peering closely they made out the plump,
genial form of Franklin's grouse,--a bird known far and wide in the
north for her ample breast and her tender flesh.
"Good Lord, there's supper!" Ben whispered. "Beatrice, get your
Her eyes smiled as she looked him in the face. "You remember--my pistol
"Excuse me. I forgot. Give it to me."
She handed him the little gun, and he slipped in the shells he had taken
from it. Then--for the simple and sensible reason that he didn't want to
take any chance on the loss of their dinner--he stole within twenty feet
of the bird. Very carefully he drew down on the plump neck.
"Dinner all safe," he remarked rather gayly, as the grouse came tumbling
through the branches.
Quietly Beatrice retrieved the bird and began to remove its feathers.
Ben built the fire, chopped sturdily at a half-grown spruce until it
shattered to the earth, and then chopped it into lengths for fuel. When
the fire was blazing bright, he cut away the green branches and laid
them, stems overlapping, into a fragrant bed.
"Here's where you sleep to-night, Beatrice," he informed her.
She stopped in her work long enough to try the springy boughs with her
arms; then she gave him an answering smile. Even a tenderfoot can make
some sort of a comfortable pallet out of evergreen boughs--ends
overlapping and plumes bent--but a master woodsman can fashion a
veritable cradle, soft as silk with never a hard limb to irritate the
flesh, and yielding as a hair mattress. Such softness, with the
fragrance of the balsam like a sleeping potion, can not help but bring
Ben had been wholly deliberate in the care with which he had built the
pallet. He had simply come to the conclusion that she was paying a high
price for her father's sins; and from now on he intended to make all
things as easy as he could for her. Moreover, she had been a sportswoman
of the rarest breed and merited every kindness he could do for her.
He was not half so careful with his own bed, built sixty feet on the
opposite side of the fire. He threw it together rather hastily. And when
he walked back to the fire he found an amazing change.
Already Beatrice had established sovereignty over the little patch of
ground they had chosen for the camp,--and the wilderness had drawn back.
This spot was no longer mere part of the far-spreading, trackless wilds.
It had been set off and marked so that the wilderness creatures could no
longer mistake it for part of their domain. Over the fire she had
erected a cooking rack; and water was already boiling in a small bucket
suspended from it. In another container a fragrant mixture was in the
process of cooking. She had spread one of the blankets on the grass for
As twilight lowered they sat down to their simple meal,--tea, sweetened
with sugar, and vegetables and meat happily mingled in a stew. It was
true that the vegetable end was held up by white grains of rice alone,
but the meat was the white, tender flesh of grouse, permeating the
entire dish with its tempting flavor. As a whole, the stew was greatly
satisfying to the inner man.
"I wish I'd brought more tea," Ben complained, as he sipped that most
delightful of all drinks, the black tea beloved of the northern men.
"You a woodsman, and don't know how to remedy that!" the girl responded.
"I know of a native substitute that's almost as good as the real
About the embers of the fire they sat and watched the tremulous wings of
night close round them. The copse grew breathless. The distant trees
blended into shadow, the nearer trunks dimmed and finally faded; the
large, white northern stars emerged in infinite troops and companies,
peering down through the rifts in the trees. Here about their fire they
had established the domain of man. For a few short hours they had routed
the forces of the wilderness; but the foe pressed close upon them. Just
at the fluctuating ring of firelight he waited, clothed in darkness and
mystery,--the infinite, brooding spirit of the ancient forest.
They had never known such silence, broken only by the prolonged chord of
the river, as descended upon them now. It was new and strange to the
conscious life of Ben, himself, the veritable offspring of the woods;
although infinitely old and familiar to a still, watching, secret self
within him. It was as if he had searched forever for this place and had
just found it, and it answered, to the full, a queer mood of silence in
his own heart. The wind had died down now. The last wail of a
coyote--disconsolate on a far-away ridge--had trembled away into
nothingness; the voices of the Little People who had chirped and rustled
in the tree aisles during the daylight hours were stilled with a
breathless, dramatic stillness. Such sound as remained over the
interminable breadth of that dark forest was only the faint stirrings
and rustlings of the beasts of prey going to their hunting; and this was
only a moving tone in the great chord of silence.
To Ben the falling night brought a return of his most terrible moods.
Beatrice sensed them in his pale, set face and his cold, wolfish eyes.
The wolf sat beside him, swept by his master's mood, gazing with deadly
speculations into the darkness. Beatrice saw them as one breed to-night.
The wild had wholly claimed this repatriated son. The paw of the Beast
was heavy upon him; the softening influences of civilization seemed
wholly dispelled. There was little here to remind her that this was the
twentieth century. The primitive that lies just under the skin in all
men was in the ascendancy; and there was little indeed to distinguish
him from the hunter of long ago, a grizzled savage at the edge of the
ice who chased the mammoth and wild pony, knowing no home but the
forest and no gentleness unknown to the wolf that ran at his heels....
The tenderness and sympathy he had had for her earlier that day seemed
quite gone now. She searched for it in vain in the dark and savage lines
of his pale face.
Because it has always been that the happiness of women must depend upon
the mood of men, her own spirits fell. The despair that descended upon
her brought also resentment and rage; and soon she slipped away quietly
to her bed. She drew the blankets over her face; but no tears wet her
cheeks to-night. She was dry-eyed, thoughtful--full of vague plans.
She lay awake a long time, until at last a little, faint ray of hope
beamed bright and clear. More than a hundred miles farther down the
Yuga, past the mouth of Grizzly River, not far from the great,
north-flowing stream of which the Yuga was a tributary, lay an Indian
village--and if only she could reach it she might enlist the aid of the
natives and make a safe return, by a long, roundabout route, to her
father's arms. The plan meant deliverance from Ben and the defeat of all
his schemes of vengeance,--perhaps the salvation of her father and his
She realized perfectly the reality of her father's danger. She had read
the iron resolve in Ben's face. She knew that if she failed to make an
immediate escape from him, all his dreadful plans were likely to
succeed: his enemies would follow him into the unexplored mazes of Back
There to effect her rescue and fall helpless in his trap. What quality
of mercy he would extend to them then she could readily guess.
Just to get down to the Indian village: this was her whole problem. But
it was Ben's plan to land and enter the interior somewhere in the vast
wilderness between, from which escape could not be made until the flood
waters of fall. The way would remain open but a few hours more, due to
the simple fact that the waters were steadily falling and the
river-bottom crags, forming impassable barriers at some points, would be
exposed. _If she made her escape at all it must be soon._
Yet she could not attempt it at night. She could not see to guide the
canoe while the darkness lay over the river. Just one further chance
remained--to depart in the first gray of dawn.
She fell into troubled sleep, but true to her resolution, wakened when
the first ribbon of light stretched along the eastern horizon. She sat
up, laying the blankets back with infinite care. This was her chance:
Ben still lay asleep.
Just to steal down to the water's edge, push off the canoe, and trust
her life to the doubtful mercy of the river. The morning soon would
break; if she could avoid the first few crags, she had every chance to
guide her craft through to deliverance and safety. By no conceivable
chance could Ben follow her. He would be left in the shadow of the
gorge, a prisoner without hope or prayer of deliverance. There was no
crossing the cliffs that lifted so stern and gray just behind. Before he
could build any kind of a craft with axe and fire, the waters would fall
to a death level, beyond any hope of carrying him to safety. The tables
would be turned; he would be left as helpless to follow her as Neilson
had been to follow him.
The plan meant deliverance for her; but surely it meant _death_ to him.
Starvation would drive him to the river and destruction, before men
could ever come the long way to rescue him. But this was not her
concern. She was a forest girl and he her enemy: he must pay the price
for his own deeds.
She got to her feet, stalking with absolute silence. She must not waken
him now. Softly she pressed her unshod foot into the grass. He stirred
in his sleep; and she paused, scarcely breathing.
She looked toward him. Dimly she could see his face, tranquil in sleep
and gray in the soft light; and an instantaneous surge of remorse sped
through her. There was a sweetness, a hint of kindly boyishness in his
face now, so changed since she had left him beside the glowing coals.
Yet he was her deadly enemy; and she must not let her woman's heart cost
her her victory in its moment of fulfillment. She crept on down to the
She could discern the black shadow of the canoe. One swift surge of her
shoulders, one leap, the splash of the stern in the water and the swift
stroke of the paddle, and she would be safe. She stepped nearer.
But at that instant a subdued note of warning froze her in her tracks.
It was only a small sound, hushed and hardly sharp enough to arouse Ben
from his sleep; but it was deadly, savage, unutterably sinister. She had
forgotten that Ben did not wage war alone. For the moment she had given
no thought to his terrible ally,--a pack brother faithful to the death.
A great, gaunt form raised up from the pile of duffle in the canoe; and
his fangs showed ivory white in the wan light. It was Fenris, and he
guarded the canoe. He crouched, ready to spring if she drew near.
The girl sobbed once, then stole back to her blankets.
Ben wakened refreshed, at peace with the world as far as he could ever
be until his ends were attained; and immediately built a roaring fire.
Beatrice still slept, exhausted from the stress and suspense of her
attempt to escape. When the leaping flames had dispelled the frost from
the grass about the fire Ben stepped to her side and touched her
"It's time to get up and go on," he said. "We have only a few hours more
It was true. The river had fallen appreciably during the night. Not many
hours remained in which to make their permanent landing. Although the
river was somewhat less violent from this point on, the lower water line
would make traveling practically as perilous as on the preceding day.
The girl opened her eyes. "I'd rather hoped--I had dreamed it all," she
told him miserably.
The words touched him. He looked into her face, moved by the girlishness
and appeal about the red, wistful mouth and the dark, brimming eyes.
"It's pretty tough, but I'm afraid it's true," he said, more kindly than
he had spoken since they had left the landing. "Do you want me to cook
breakfast and bring it to you here?"
"No, I want to do that part myself. It makes the time pass faster to
have something to do."
He went to look for fresh meat, and she slipped into her outer garments.
She found water already hot in a bucket suspended from the cooking rack,
permitting a simple but refreshing toilet. With Ben's comb she
straightened out the snarls in her dark tresses, parted them, and
braided them into two dusky ropes to be worn Indian fashion in front of
her shoulders. Then she prepared the meal.
It was a problem to tax the ingenuity of any housekeeper,--to prepare an
appetizing breakfast out of such limited supplies. But in this art,
particularly, the forest girls are trained. A quantity of rice had been
left from the stew of the preceding night, and mixing it with flour and
water and salt, she made a batter. Sooner or later fresh fat could be
obtained from game to use in frying: to-day she saw no course other than
to melt a piece of candle. The reverberating roar of the rifle a hundred
yards down the river bank, however, suggested another alternative.
A moment later Ben appeared--and the breakfast problem was solved. It
was another of the woods people that his rifle had brought down,--one
that wore fur rather than feathers and which had just come in from night
explorations along the river bank. It was a yearling black bear--really
no larger than a cub--and he had an inch of fat under his furry hide.
The fat he yielded was not greatly different from lard; and the
pancakes--or fritters, as Ben termed them--were soon frying merrily.
Served with hot tea they constituted a filling and satisfactory
breakfast for both travelers.
After breakfast they took to the river, yielding themselves once more to
the whims of the current. Once more the steep banks whipped past them in
ever-changing vista; and Ben had to strain at his paddle to guide the
craft between the perilous crags. The previous day the high waters had
carried them safely above the boulders of the river bed: to-day some of
the larger crags all but scraped the bottom of the canoe. It did not
tend toward peace of mind to know that any instant they might encounter
a submerged crag that would rip their craft in twain. Ben felt a growing
eagerness to land.
But within an hour they came out once more upon the open forest. The
river broadened, sped less swiftly, the bank sloped gradually to the
distant hills. This was the heart of Back There,--a virgin and primeval
forest unchanged since the piling-up of the untrodden ranges. The wild
pace of the craft was checked, and they kept watch for a suitable place
There was no need to push on through the seething cataracts that lay
still farther below. Shortly before the noon hour Ben's quick eye saw a
break in the heavy brushwood that lined the bank and quickly paddled
toward it. In a moment it was revealed as the mouth, of a small, clear
stream, flowing out of a beaver meadow where the grass was rank and
high. In a moment more he pushed the canoe into the mud of the creek
They both got out, rather sober of mien, and she helped him haul the
canoe out upon the bank. They unloaded it quickly, carrying the supplies
in easy loads fifty yards up into the edge of the forest, on
well-drained dry ground.
The entire forest world was hushed and breathless, as if startled by
this intrusion. Neither of the two travelers felt inclined to speak. And
the silence was finally broken by the splashing feet of a moose, running
through a little arm of the marsh that the forest hid from view.
"Is this our permanent camp?" the girl asked at last.
"Surely not," was the reply. "It's too near the river for one
thing--too easily found. It's too low, too--there'll be mosquitoes in
plenty in that marsh two months from now. The first thing is--to look
around and find a better site."
"You want me to come?"
"I'd rather, if you don't mind."
She understood perfectly. He did not intend to give her complete freedom
until the river fell so low that the rapids farther down would be wholly
"I'll come." Beatrice smiled grimly. "We can have that picnic we
planned, after all."
They found a moose trail leading into the forest, and leaving the wolf
on guard over the supplies, they filed swiftly along it in that
peculiar, shuffling, mile-speeding gait that all foresters learn. At
once both were aware of a subdued excitement. In the first place, this
was unknown country and they experienced the incomparable thrill of
exploration. Besides they were seeking a permanent camp where their
fortunes would be cast, the drama of their lives be enacted, for weeks
Almost at once they began to catch glimpses of wild life,--a squirrel
romping on a limb; or a long line of grouse, like children in school,
perched on a fallen log. The trapper had not yet laid his lines in this
land, and the tracks of the little fur-bearers weaved a marvelous and
intricate pattern on the moose trail. Once a marten with orange throat
peered at them from a covert, and once a caribou raced away, too fast
for a shot.
Mostly the wild things showed little fear or understanding of the two
humans. The grouse relied on their protective coloration, just as when
menaced by the beasts of prey. An otter, rarely indeed seen in daylight,
hovered a moment beside a little stream to consider them; and a coyote,
greatest of all cowards, lingered in their trail until they were within
fifty feet of his grey form, then trotted shyly away.
"We won't starve for meat, that's certain," Ben informed her. His voice
was subdued; he had fallen naturally into the mood of quietness that
dwells ever in the primeval forest.
Because the trail seemed to be leading them too far from the waterways,
they took a side trail circling about a wooded hill. Ever Ben studied
the landmarks, looked carefully down the draws and tried to learn as
much as possible of the geography of the country; and Beatrice
understood his purpose with entire clearness. He wished to locate his
camp so that it would have every natural advantage and insurance against
surprise attack. He desired that every advantage of warfare be in his
favor when finally he came to grips with Neilson and his men.
They crossed a low ridge, following down another of the thousand creeks
that water the northern lands. In a moment it led them to a long, narrow
lake, blue as a sapphire in its frame of dusky spruce.
For a moment both of them halted on its bank, held by its virgin beauty.
Lost in the solitudes as it was, perhaps never before gazed upon by the
eyes of men, still it gave no impression of bleakness and stagnation.
Rather it was a scene of scintillating life, vivid past all expression.
Far out of range on the opposite shore a huge bull moose stood like a
statue in black marble, gazing out over the shimmering expanse. Trout
leaped, flashing silver, anywhere they might look; and a flock of loon
shrieked demented cries from its center. The burnished wings of a flock
of mallard flashed in the air, startled by some creeping hunter.
Slowly, delighted in spite of themselves by the lovely spot, they
followed along its shore. They climbed the bank; and now Ben began to
examine his surroundings with great care.
He had suddenly realized that he was in a region wonderfully fitted for
his permanent camp. The low ridge between the lake and the creek gave a
clear view of a large part of the surrounding country, affording him
every chance of seeing his enemies before they saw him. If they came
along the river--the course they would naturally follow--they would be
obliged to cross the beaver marsh--a half-mile of open grassland with no
protecting coverts. Beatrice saw, dismayed, that his gray eyes were
kindling with unholy fire under his heavy, dark brows.
What if he should see them, deep in the wet grass, filing across the
open marsh! How many shots would be needed to bring his war to a
triumphant end? There were no thickets in which they might find shelter:
hidden himself, they could not return his fire. Before they could break
and run to cover he could destroy them all!
Should they cross the narrow neck of the marsh, higher up, he would have
every chance to see them on the lake shore. The site was good from the
point of health and comfort--high enough to escape the worst of the
insect pests, close to fresh water, plenty of fuel, and within a few
hundred yards of a lake that simply swarmed with fish and waterfowl.
Still following a narrow, racing trout stream that flowed into the lake
they advanced a short distance farther, clear to the base of a rock
wall. And all at once Beatrice, walking in front, drew up with a gasp.
She stood at the edge of a little glade, perhaps thirty yards across,
laying at the base of the cliff. The creek flowed through it, the grass
was green and rich, beloved by the antlered herds that came to graze,
the tall spruce shaded it on three sides. But it was not these things
that caught the girl's eye. Just at the edge of a glade a dark hole
yawned in the face of the cliff.
In an instant more they were beside it, gazing into its depths. It was a
natural cavern with rock walls and a clean floor of sand--a roomy place,
and yet a perfect stronghold against either mortal enemies or the powers
of wind and rain.
"It's home," the man said simply.
Ben and Beatrice went together back to the canoe, and in two trips they
carried the supplies to the cave. By instinct a housekeeper, Beatrice
showed him where to stow the various supplies, what part of the cave was
to be used for provisions, where their cots would be laid, and where to
erect the cooking rack. Shadows had fallen over the land before they
finished the work.
Tired from the hard tramp, yet sustained by a vague excitement neither
of them could name or trace, they began to prepare for the night. Ben
cut boughs as before, placing Beatrice's bed within the portals of the
cave and his own on the grass outside. He cut fuel and made his fire:
Beatrice prepared the evening meal.
The flesh of the cub-bear they had procured that morning would have to
serve them to-night; but more delicious meat could be procured
to-morrow. Ben knew that the white-maned caribou fed in the high park
lands. Beatrice made biscuits and brewed tea; and they ate the simple
food in the firelight. Already the darkness was pressing close upon
them, tremulous, vaguely sinister, inscrutably mysterious.
They had talked gayly at first; but they grew silent as the fire burned
down to coals. A great preoccupation seemed to hold them both. When one
spoke the other started, and word did not immediately come in answer.
Beatrice's despair was not nearly so dominating to-night; and Ben
harbored a secret excitement that was almost happiness.
Its source and origin Ben could not trace. Perhaps it was just relief
that the perilous journey was over. The strain of his hours at the
paddle had been severe; but now they were safe upon the sustaining
earth. Yet this fact alone could hardly have given him such a sense of
security,--an inner comfort new to his adventurous life.
The forest was oppressive to-night, tremulous with the passions of the
Young World; yet he did not respond to it as before. The excitement that
sparkled in the red wine of his veins was not of the chase and death,
and he had difficulty in linking it up with the thoughts of his
forthcoming vengeance. Rather it was a mood that sprang from their
surroundings here, their shelter at the mouth of the cave. He felt
deeply at peace.
The fire blazed warmly at the cavern maw; the wolf stood tense and
still, by means of the secret wireless of the wild fully aware of the
tragic drama, the curtain of which was the dark just fallen; yet Ben's
wild, bitter thoughts of the preceding night did not come readily back
to him. There was a quality here--in the firelight and the haven of the
cave--that soothed him and comforted him. The powers of the wild were
helpless against him now. The wind might hurl down the dead trees, but
the rock of the cavern Wall would stand against them. Even the dreaded
avalanche could roar and thunder on the steep above in vain.
There was no peril in the hushed, breathless forest for him to-night.
This was his stronghold, and none could assail it. And it was a
significant fact that his sense of intimate relationship with the wolf,
Fenris, Was someway lessened. Fenris was a creature of the open forest,
sleeping where he chose on the trail; but his master had found a cavern
home. There was a strange and bridgeless chasm between such breeds as
roamed abroad and those that slept, night after night, in the shelter of
the same walls.
He watched the girl's face, ruddy in the firelight, and it was
increasingly hard to remember that she was of the enemy camp,--the
daughter of his arch foe. To-night she was just a comrade, a habitat of
his own cave.
For the first time since he had found Ezram's body--so huddled and
impotent in the dead leaves--he remembered the solace of tobacco. He
hunted through his pockets, found his pipe and a single tin of the weed,
and began to inhale the fragrant, peace-giving smoke. When he raised his
eyes again he found the girl studying him with intent gaze.
She looked away, embarrassed, and he spoke to put her at ease. "You are
perfectly comfortable, Beatrice?" he asked gently.
"As good as I could expect--considering everything. I'm awfully relieved
that we're off the water."
"Of course." He paused, looking away into the tremulous shadows. "Is
that all? Don't you feel something else, too--a kind of satisfaction?"
The coals threw their lurid glow on her lovely, deeply tanned face.
"It's for you to feel satisfaction, not me. You couldn't expect me to
feel very satisfied--taken from my home--as a hostage--in a feud with my
father. But I think I know what you mean. You mean--the comfort of the
fire, and a place to stay."
"That's it. Of course."
"I feel it--but every human being does who has a fire when this big,
northern night comes down and takes charge of things. It's just an
instinct, I suppose, a comfort and a feeling of safety--and likely only
the wild beasts are exempt from it." Her voice changed and softened, as
her girlish fancy reached ever farther. "I suppose the first men that
you were telling me about on the way out, the hairy men of long ago,
felt the same way when the cold drove them to their caves for the first
time. A great comfort in the protecting walls and the fire."
"It's an interesting thought--that perhaps the love of home sprang from
"Quite possibly. Perhaps it came only when they had to fight for their
homes--against beasts, and such other hairy men as tried to take their
homes away from them. Perhaps, after all, that's one of the great
differences between men and beasts. Men have a place to live in and a
place to fight for--and the fire is the symbol of it all. And the beasts
run in the forest and make a new lair every day."
Thoughts of the stone age were wholly fitting in this stone-age forest,
and Ben's fancy caught on fire quickly. "And perhaps, when the hairy men
came to the caves to live, they forgot their wild passions they knew on
the open trails--their blood-lust and their wars among themselves--and
began to be men instead of beasts." Ben's voice had dropped to an even,
low murmur. "Perhaps they got gentle, and the Brute died in their
"Yes. Perhaps then they began to be tamed."
The silence dropped about them, settling slowly; and all except the
largest heap of red coals burned down to gray ashes. The darkness
pressed ever nearer. The girl stretched her slender, brown arms.
"I'm sleepy," she said. "I'm going in."
He got up, with good manners; and he smiled, quietly and gently, into
her sober, wistful face. "Sleep good," he prayed. "You've got solid
walls around you to-night--and some one on guard, too. Good night."
A like good wish was on her lips, but she pressed it back. She had
almost forgotten, for the moment, that this man was her abductor and her
father's enemy. She ventured into the darkness of the cave.
Scratching a match Ben followed her, so that she could see her way. For
the instant the fireside was deserted. And then both of them grew
breathless and alert as the brush cracked and rustled just beyond the
Some huge wilderness creature was venturing toward them, at the edge of
the little glade.
The match flared out in Ben's fingers, and the only light that was left
was the pale moonlight, like a cobweb on the floor of the glade, and the
faint glow from the dying fire. About the glade ranged the tall spruce,
Watching breathlessly; and for a termless second or two a profound and
portentous silence descended on the camp. No leaf rustled, not a tree
limb cracked. The creature that had pushed through the thickets to the
edge of the glade was evidently standing motionless, deciding on his
Only the wild things seem to know what complete absence of motion means.
To stand like a form in rock, not a muscle quivering or a hair stirring,
is never a feat for ragged, over stretched human nerves; and it requires
a perfect muscle control that is generally only known to the beasts of
the forest. Only a few times in a lifetime in human beings are the
little, outward motions actually suspended; perhaps under the paralysis
of great terror or, with painstaking effort, before a photographer's
camera. But with the beasts it is an everyday accomplishment necessary
to their survival. The fawn that can not stand absolutely motionless,
his dappled skin blending perfectly with the background of shrubbery
shot with sunlight, comes to an end quickly in the fangs of some great
beast of prey. The panther that can not lurk, not a muscle quivering, in
his ambush beside the deer trail, never knows full feeding. The creature
on the opposite side of the glade seemed as bereft of motion as the
spruce trees in the moonlight, or the cliff above the cave.
"What is it?" Beatrice whispered. The man's eyes strained into the
"I don't know. It may be just a moose, or maybe a caribou. But it may
He tiptoed to the door of the cave, and his eye fell to the crouching
form of Fenris. The creature outside was neither moose nor caribou. The
great wolf of the North does not stand at bay to the antlered people. He
was poised to spring, his fangs bared and his fierce eyes hot with fire,
but he was not hunting. Whatever moved in the darkness without, the wolf
had no desire to go forth and attack. Perhaps he would fight to the
death to protect the occupants of the cave; but surely an ancient and
devastating fear had hold of him. Evidently he recognized the intruder
as an ancestral enemy that held sovereignty over the forest.
At that instant Ben leaped through the cavern maw to reach his gun.
There was nothing to be gained by waiting further. This was a savage and
an uninhabited land; and the great beasts of prey that ranged the forest
had not yet learned the restraint born of the fear of man. And he knew
one breathless instant of panic when his eye failed to locate the weapon
in the faint light of the fire.
Holding hard, he tried to remember where he had left it. The form across
the glade was no longer motionless. Straining, Ben saw the soft roll of
a great shadow, almost imperceptible in the gloom--advancing slowly
toward him. Then the faint glow of the fire caught and reflected in the
They suddenly glowed out in the half-darkness, two rather small circles
of dark red, close together and just alike. This night visitor was not
moose or caribou, or was it one of the lesser hunters, lynx or
wolverine, or a panther wandered far from his accustomed haunts. The
twin circles were too far above the ground. And whatever it was, no
doubt remained but that the creature was steadily stalking him across
the soft grass.
At that instant Ben's muscles snapped into action. Only a second
remained in which to make his defense--the creature had paused, setting
his muscles for a death-dealing charge. "Go back into the cave--as far
as you can," he said swiftly to Beatrice. His own eyes, squinted and
straining for the last iota of vision in that darkened scene, made a
last, frantic search for his rifle. Suddenly he saw the gleam of its
barrel as it rested against the wall of the cliff, fifteen feet distant.
At once he knew that his only course was to spring for it in the instant
that remained, and trust to its mighty shocking power to stop the charge
that would in a moment ensue. Yet it seemed to tear the life fiber of
the man to do it. His inmost instincts, urgent and loud in his ear, told
him to remain on guard, not to leave that cavern maw for an instant but
to protect with his own body the precious life that it sheltered. His
mind worked with that incredible speed that is usually manifest in a
crisis; and he knew that the creature might charge into the cavern
entrance in the second that he left it. Yet only in the rifle lay the
least chance or hope for either of them.
"At him, Fenris!" he shouted. The wolf leaped forward like a thrown
spear,--almost too fast for the eye to follow. He was deathly afraid,
with full knowledge of the power of the enemy he went to combat, but his
fears were impotent to restrain him at the first sound of that masterful
voice. These were the words he had waited for. He could never disobey
such words as these--from the lips of his god. And Ben's mind had worked
true; he knew that the wolf could likely hold the creature at bay until
he could seize his rifle.
In an instant it was in his hands, and he had sprung back to his post in
front of the cavern maw. And presently he remembered, heartsick, that
the weapon was not loaded.
For his own safety he had kept it empty on the outward journey, partly
to prevent accident, partly to be sure that his prisoner could not turn
it against him. But he had shells in the pocket of his jacket. His hand
groped, but his reaching fingers found but one shell, dropping it
swiftly into the gun. And now he knew that no time remained to seek
another. The beast in the darkness had launched into the charge.
Thereafter there was only a great confusion, event piled upon event with
incredible rapidity, and a whole lifetime of stress and fear lived in a
single instant. The creature's first lunge carried him into the brighter
moonlight; and at once Ben recognized its breed. No woodsman could
mistake the high, rocking shoulders, the burly form, the wicked ears
laid back against the flat, massive head, the fangs gleaming white, the
long, hooked claws slashing through the turf as he ran. It was a
terrible thing to see and stand against, in the half-darkness. The
shadows accentuated the towering outline; and forgotten terrors,
lurking, since the world was young, in the labyrinth of the germ plasm
wakened and spread like icy streams through the mortal body and seemed
to threaten to extinguish the warm flame of the very soul.
The grizzly bawled as he came, an explosive, incredible storm of sound.
Few indeed are the wilderness creatures that can charge in silence:
muscular exertion can not alone relieve their gathered flood of madness
and fury. And at once Ben sensed the impulse behind the attack. He and
the girl had made their home in the grizzly's cave--perhaps the lair
wherein he had hibernated through the winter and which he still slept in
from time to time--and he had come to drive them out. Only death could
pay for such insolence as this,--to make a night's lair in the den of
his sovereignty, the grizzly.
It is not the accustomed thing for a grizzly to make an unprovoked
attack. He has done it many times, in the history of the west, but
usually he is glad enough to turn aside, only launching into his
terrible death-charge when a mortal wound obliterates his fear of man,
leaving only his fear of death. But this grizzly, native to these
uninhabited wilds, had no fear of man to forget. He did not know what
man was, and he had not learned the death that dwells in the shining
weapon he carries in his arms. No trappers mushed through his snows of
spring; no woodsman rode his winding trails. True, from the first
instant that the human smell had reached him on the wind he had been
disturbed and discomfited; yet it was not grizzly nature to yield his
den without a fight. The sight of the wolf--known to him of old--only
wakened an added rage in his fierce heart.
The wolf met him at his first leap, springing with noble courage at his
grizzled throat; and the bear paused in his charge to strike him away.
He lashed out with his great forepaw; and if that blow had gone straight
home the ribs of the wolf would have been smashed flat on his heart and
lungs. The tough trunk of a young spruce would have been broken as
quickly under that terrible, blasting full-stroke of a grizzly. The
largest grizzly weighs but a thousand pounds, but that weight is simple
fiber and iron muscle, of a might incredible to any one but the woodsmen
who know this mountain king in his native haunts. But Fenris whipped
aside, and the paw missed him.
Immediately the wolf sprang in again, with a courage scarcely compatible
with lupine characteristics, ready to wage this unequal battle to the
death. But his brave fight was tragically hopeless. For all that his
hundred and fifty pounds were, every ounce, lightning muscle and vibrant
sinew, it was as if a gopher had waged war with a lynx. Yet by the law
of his wild heart he could not turn and flee. His master--his stalwart
god whose words thrilled him to the uttermost depths--had given his
orders, and he must obey them to the end.
The second blow missed him also, but the third caught a small shrub that
grew twenty feet beyond the dying fire. The shrub snapped off under the
blow, and its branchy end smote the wolf across the head and neck. As if
struck by a tornado he was hurled into the air, and curtailed and
indirect though the blow was, he sprawled down stunned and insensible in
the grass. The bear paused one instant; then lunged forth again.
But the breath in which the wolf had stayed the charge had given Ben his
chance. With a swift motion of his arm he had projected the single rifle
shell into the chamber of the weapon. The stock snapped to his shoulder;
and his keen, glittering eyes sought the sights.
Few wilderness adventures offer a more stern test to human nerves than
the frightful rush of a maddened grizzly. It typifies all that is primal
and savage in the wild: the insane rage that can find relief only in the
cruel rending of flesh; the thundering power that no mere mortal
strength can withstand. But Ben was a woodsman. He had been tried in the
fire. He knew that not only his life, but that of the girl in the cavern
depended upon this one shot; and it was wholly characteristic of Wolf
Darby that his eye held true and his arm was steady as a vice of iron.
He was aware that he must wait until the bear was almost upon him, in
order to be sure to send the bullet home to a vital place. This alone
was a test requiring no small measure of self-control. The instinct was
to fire at once. In the moonlight it was difficult to see his sights:
his only chance was to enlarge his target to the last, outer limit of
safety. He aimed for the great throat, below the slavering jaw.
His finger pressed back steadily against the trigger. The slightest
flinching, the smallest motion might yet throw off his aim. The rifle
spoke with a roar.
But this wilderness battle was not yet done. The ball went straight
home, down through the throat, mushrooming and plowing on into the neck,
inflicting a wound that was bound to be mortal within a few seconds. The
bear recoiled; but the mighty engine of its life was not yet destroyed.
Its incalculable fonts of vitality had not yet run down.
The grizzly bounded forward again. The ball had evidently missed the
vertebrae and spinal column. His crashing, thunderous roar of pain
smothered instantly the reechoing report of the rifle and stifled the
instinctive cry that had come to Ben's lips. He was a forester; and he
had known of old what havoc a mortally wounded bear can wreak in a few
seconds of life. In that strange, vivid instant Ben knew that his own
and the girl's life still hung in the balance, with the beam inclining
The grizzly was in his death-agony, nothing more; yet in that final
convulsion he could rip into shreds the powerful form that opposed him.
Ben knew, with a cold, sure knowledge, that if he failed to slay the
beast, it would naturally crawl into its lair for its last breath. As
this dreadful thought flashed home he dropped the empty rifle and seized
the axe that leaned against a log of spruce beside the fire.
There was no time at all to search out another shell and load his rifle.
If the shock of the heavy bullet had not slackened the bear's pace he
would not even have had time to seize the axe. Finally, if the bear had
not been all but dead, in his last, threshing agony, Ben's mortal
strength could not have sent home one blow. As it was they found
themselves facing each other over the embers of the fire, well-matched
contestants whose stake was life and whose penalty was death. The
grizzly turned his head, caught sight of Ben, identified him as the
agent of his agony, and lurched forward.
Just in time Ben sprang aside, out of the reach of those terrible
forearms; and his axe swung mightly in the air. Its blade gleamed and
descended--a blow that might have easily broken the bear's back if it
had gone true but which now seemed only to infuriate him the more. The
bear reared up, reeled, and lashed down; and dying though he was, he
struck with incredible power. One slashing stroke of that vast forepaw,
one slow closing of those cruel fangs upon skull or breast, and life
would have gone out like a light. But Ben leaped aside again, and again
swung down his axe.
These were but the first blows of a terrific battle that carried like a
storm through the still reaches of the forest. Far in the distant tree
aisles the woods people paused in their night's occupation to listen,
stirred and terrified by the throb and thrill in the air; the grazing
caribou lifted his growing horns and snorted in terror; the beasts of
prey paused in the chase, growling uneasily, gazing with fierce,
luminous eyes in the direction of the battle.
It is beyond the ken of man whether or not, in their wild hearts, these
forest folk sensed what was taking place,--that their gray monarch, the
sovereign grizzly, was at the death-fight with some dreadful invader
from the South. They heard the bear's fierce bawls, unimitatable by any
other voice as he lashed down blow after blow; and they heard the thud
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