The Sky Line of Spruce
Part 4 out of 5
and crunch of the axe against his body. Had this monarch of the trails
found his master at last?
Gazing out through the aperture of the cave Beatrice beheld the whole
picture: the ring of spruce trees, the glade so strange and ensilvered
in the moonlight, and these two fighting beasts, magnificent in fury
over the embers of the dying fire. And Ben's powers increased, rather
than lessened. Ever he swung his terrible axe with greater power.
He fought like the wolf that was his blood brother,--lunging, striking
down, recoiling out of harm's way, and springing forward to strike
again. This man was Wolf Darby, a forester known in many provinces for
his woods prowess, but even those who had seen his most spectacular
feats, in past days, had not appreciated the real extent of his powers.
There was a fury and a might in his blows that was hard to associate
with the world of human beings,--such ferociousness and wolf-like
savagery, welling strength and prowess of battle that mostly men have
forgotten in their centuries of civilization, but which still mark the
death-fight between beasts.
Ben had always recalled the earlier types of man--his great-thewed
ancestors, wild hunters in the forests of ancient Germany--but never so
much as to-night. He was in his natural surroundings--at the mouth of
his cave in which the Woman watched and exulted in his blows, enclosed
by the primeval forest and beside the ashes of his fire. There could be
nothing strange or unreal about this scene to Beatrice. It was more true
than any soft vista of a far-away city could possibly be. It was life
itself,--man battling for his home and his woman against the raw forces
of the wild.
All superficialities and superfluities were gone, and only the basic
stuff of life remained,--the cave, the fire, the man who fought the
beast in the light of the ancient moon. At that moment Ben was no more
of the twentieth century than he was of the first, or of the first more
than of some dark, unnumbered century of the world's young days. He was
simply the male of his species, the man-child of all time, forgetting
for the moment all the little lessons civilization had taught, and
fighting his fight in the basic way for the basic things.
This was no new war which Ben and the grizzly fought in the pale light
of the moon. It had begun when the race began, and it would continue,
in varied fields, until men perished from the earth. Ben fought for
_life_--not only his own but the girl's--that old, beloved privilege to
breathe the air and see and know and be. He represented, by a strange
symbolism, the whole race that has always fought in merciless and
never-ending battle with the cruel and oppressive powers of nature. In
the grizzly were typified all those ancient enemies that have always
opposed, with claw and fang, this stalwart, self-knowing breed that has
risen among the primates: he symbolized not only the Beast of the
forest, but the merciless elements, storm and flood and cold and all the
legions of death. And had they but known their ultimate fate if this
intruder survived the battle and brought his fellows into this, their
last stronghold, the watching forest creatures would have prayed to see
the grizzly strike him to the earth.
Ben knew, too, that he was fighting for his home; and this also lent him
strength. _Home_! His shelter from the storm and the cold, the thing
that marked him a man instead of a beast. The grizzly had come to drive
him forth; and they had met beside the ashes of his fire.
The old exhilaration and rapture of battle flashed through him as he
swung his axe, sending home blow after blow. Sometimes he cried out,
involuntarily, in his fury and hatred; and as the bear weakened he waged
the fight at closer quarters. His muscles made marvelous response,
flinging him out of danger in the instant of necessity and giving
terrific power to his blows.
He danced about the shaggy, bleeding form of the bear, swinging his axe,
howling in his rage, and escaping the smashing blows of the bear with
miraculous agility,--a weird and savage picture in the moonlight. But
at last the grizzly lunged too far. Ben sprang aside, just in time, and
he saw his chance as the great, reeling form sprawled past. He aimed a
terrific blow just at the base of the skull.
The silence descended quickly thereafter. The blow had gone straight
home, and the last flicker of waning life fled from the titanic form. He
went down sprawling; Ben stood waiting to see if another blow was
needed. Then the axe fell from his hands.
For a moment he stood as if dazed. It was hard to remember all that
occurred in the countless life times he had lived since the grizzly had
stolen out of the spruce forest. But soon he remembered Fenris and
walked unsteadily to his side.
The wolf, however, was already recovering from the blow. He had been
merely stunned; seemingly no bones were broken. Once more Ben turned to
the mouth of the cavern.
Sobbing and white as the moonlight itself Beatrice met him in the
doorway. She too had been uninjured; his arm had saved her from the
rending fangs. She was closer to him now, filling a bigger part of his
life. He didn't know just why. He had fought for her; and some way--they
were more to each other.
And this was his cavern,--his stronghold of rock where he might lay his
head, his haven and his hearth, and the symbol of his dominance over the
beasts of the field. He had fought for this, too. And he suddenly knew a
great and inner peace and a love for the sheltering walls that would
dwell forever in the warp and woof of his being.
Ben rose at daybreak, wonderfully refreshed by the night's sleep, and
built the fire at the cavern mouth. Beatrice was still asleep, and he
was careful not to waken her. The days would be long and monotonous for
her, he knew, and the more time she could spend in sleep the better.
He did, however, steal to the opening of the cavern and peer into her
face. The soft, morning light fell gently upon it, bringing out its
springtime freshness and the elusive shades of gold in her hair. She
looked more a child than a woman, some one to shelter and comfort rather
than to harry as a foe. "Poor little girl," he murmured under his
breath. "I'm going to make it as easy for you as I can."
He meant what he said. He could do that much, at least--extend to her
every courtesy and comfort that was in his power, and place his own
great strength at her service.
His first work was to remove the skin of last night's invader,--the huge
grizzly that lay dead just outside the cavern opening. They would have
use for this warm, furry hide before their adventure was done. It would
supplement their supply of blankets; and if necessary it could be cut
and sewed with threads of sinew into clothes. Because the animal had
but recently emerged from hibernation his fur, except for a few rubbed
places, was long and rich,--a beautiful, tawny-gray that shimmered like
cloth-of-gold in the light.
It taxed his strength to the utmost to roll over the huge body and skin
it. When the heavy skin was removed he laid it out, intending to stretch
it as soon as he could build a rack. He cut off some of the fat; then
quartering the huge body, he dragged it away into the thickets.
The hour was already past ten; but Beatrice--worn out by the stress of
the night before--did not waken until she heard the crack of her pistol.
She lay a while, resting, watching through the cavern opening Ben's
efforts to prepare breakfast. A young grouse had fallen before the
pistol, and her companion was busy preparing it for the skillet.
The girl watched with some pleasure his rather awkward efforts to go
about his work in silence,--evidently still believing her asleep. She
laughed secretly at his distress as he tripped clumsily over a piece of
firewood; then watched him with real interest as he mixed batter for
griddle cakes and fried the white breast of the grouse in bear fat.
Filling one of the two tin plates he stole into the cavern.
Falling into his mood the girl pretended to be asleep. She couldn't have
understood why her pulse quickened as he knelt beside her, looking so
earnestly and soberly into her face. Then she felt the touch of his
fingers on her shoulder.
"Wake up, Beatrice," he commanded, with pretended gruffness. "It's after
ten, and you've got to cook my breakfast."
She stirred, pretending difficulty in opening her eyes.
"Get right up," he commanded again. "D'ye think I'm going to wait all
She opened her eyes to find him regarding her with boyish glee. Then--as
a surprise--he proffered the filled plate, meanwhile raising his arm in
feigned fear of a blow.
She laughed; then began upon her breakfast with genuine relish. Then he
brought her hot water and the meager toilet articles; and left the cave
to prepare his own breakfast.
"I'm going on a little hunt," he said, when this rite was over. "We
can't depend on grouse and bear forever. I hate to ask you to go--"
His tone was hopeful; and she could not doubt but that the lonely spirit
of these solitudes had hold of him. They were two human beings in a vast
and uninhabited wilderness, and although they were foes, they felt the
primitive need of each other's companionship. "I don't mind going," she
told him. "I'd rather, than stay in the cave."
"It's a fine morning. And what's your favorite meat--moose or caribou?"
"Caribou--although I like both."
He might have expected this answer. There are few meats in this
imperfect earth to compare in flavor with that of the great, woodland
caribou, monarch of the high park-lands.
"That means we do some climbing, instead of watching in the beaver
meadows. I'm ready--any time."
They took the game trail up the ridge, venturing at once into the heavy
spruce; but curiously enough, the mysterious hush, the dusky shadows did
not appall Beatrice greatly to-day. The miles sped swiftly under her
feet. Always there were creatures to notice or laugh at,--a squirrel
performing on a branch, a squawking Canada Jay surprised and utterly
baffled by their tall forms, a porcupine hunched into a spiny ball and
pretending a ferociousness that deceived not even such hairbrained folk
as the chipmunks in the tree roots, or those queens of stupidity, the
fool hens on the branch. In the way of more serious things sometimes
they paused to gaze down on some particularly beautiful glen--watered,
perhaps, by a gleaming stream--or a long, dark valley steeped deeply in
the ancient mysticism of the trackless wilds.
He helped her over the steeps, waited for her at bad crossings; and
meanwhile his thoughts found easy expression in words. He had to stop
and remind himself that she was his foe. Beatrice herself attempted no
such remembrance; she was simply carrying out her resolve to make the
best of a deplorable situation.
She could see, however, that he kept close watch of her. He intended to
give her no opportunity to strike back at him. He carried his rifle
unloaded, so that if she were able, in an unguarded moment, to wrest it
from him she could not turn it against him. But there was no joy for her
in noticing these small precautions. They only reminded her of her
imprisonment; and she wisely resolved to ignore them.
They climbed to the ridge top, following it on to the plateau where
patches of snow still gleamed white and the spruce grew in dark clumps,
leaving open, lovely parks between. Here they encountered their first
This animal, however, was not to their liking in the way of meat for the
table. A turn in the trail suddenly revealed him at the edge of the
glade, his white mane gleaming and his graceful form aquiver with that
unquenchable vitality that seems to be the particular property of
northern wild animals; but Ben let him go his way. He was an old bull,
the monarch of his herd; he had ranged and mated and fought his rivals
for nearly a score of years in the wild heart of Back There,--and his
flesh would be mostly sinew.
Ten minutes later, however, the girl touched his arm. She pointed to a
far glade, fully three hundred yards across the canyon. Her quick eyes
made out a tawny form against the thicket.
It was a young caribou--a yearling buck--and his flesh would be tender
as a spring fowl.
"It's just what we want, but there's not much chance of getting him at
that range," he said.
"Try, anyway. You've got a long-range rifle. If you can hold true, he's
This was one thing that Ben was skilled at,--holding true. He raised the
weapon to his shoulder, drawing down finely on that little speck of
brown across the gulch. Few times in his life had he been more anxious
to make a successful shot. Yet he would never have admitted the true
explanation: that he simply desired to make good in the girl's eyes.
He held his breath and pressed the trigger back.
Beatrice could not restrain a low, happy cry of triumph. She had
forgotten all things, for the moment, but her joy at his success. And
truly, Ben had made a remarkable shot. Most hunters who boast of
long-range hits do not step off the distance shot; fifty yards is called
a hundred, a hundred and fifty yards three hundred; and to kill true at
this range is not the accustomed thing on the trails of sport. The
bullet had gone true as a light-shaft, striking the animal through the
shoulders, and he had never stirred out of his tracks. With that joy of
conquest known to all owners of rod and gun--related darkly to the
blood-lust of the beasts--they raced across the gully toward the
Ben quartered the animal, and again he saw fit to save the hide. It is
the best material of all for the parka, the long, full winter garment of
Ben carried the meat in four trips back to the camp. By the time this
work was done, and one of the quarters was drying over a fire of
quivering aspen chips, the day was done. Again they saw the twilight
shadows grow, and the first sable cloak of night was drawn over the
shoulders of the forest. Beatrice prepared a wonderful roast of caribou
for their evening meal; and thereafter they sat a short time at the
mouth of the cavern, looking quietly into the red coals of the dying
fire. Again Ben knew the beneficence and peace of the sheltering walls
of home. Again he felt a sweet security,--a taming, gentling influence
through the innermost fiber of his being.
But Fenris the wolf gazed only into the darkened woods, and the hair
stood stiff at his shoulders, and his eyes glowed and shone with the
ancient hunting madness induced by the rising moon.
June passed away in the wilds of Back There, leaving warmer, longer
days, a more potent sun, and a greener, fresher loveliness to the land.
The spring calves no longer tottered on wabbly legs, but could follow
their swift mothers over the most steep and difficult trails. Fledglings
learned to fly, the wolf cubs had their first lessons in hunting on the
ridges. The wild Yuga had fallen to such an extent that navigation--down
to the Indian villages on the lower waters--was wholly impossible.
The days passed quickly for Ben and Beatrice. They found plenty of work
and even of play to pass the time. Partly to fill her lonely moments,
but more because it was an instinct with her, Beatrice took an
ever-increasing interest in her cave home. She kept it clean and cooked
the meals, performing her tasks with goodwill, even at times a gaiety
that was as incomprehensible to herself as to Ben.
Their diet was not so simple now. Of course their flour and sugar and
rice, and the meat that they took in the chase furnished the body of
their meals, and without these things they could not live; but Beatrice
was a woods child, and she knew how to find manna in the wilderness.
Almost every morning she ventured out into the still, dew-wet forest,
and nearly always she came in with some dainty for their table. She
gathered watercress in the still pools and she knew a dozen ways to
serve it. Sometimes she made a dressing out of animal oil, beaten to a
cream; and it was better than lettuce salad. Other tender plant tops
were used as a garnish and as greens, and many and varied were the
edible roots that supplied their increasing desire for fresh vegetables.
Sometimes she found wocus in the marsh--the plant formerly in such
demand by the Indians--and by patient experiment she learned how to
prepare it for the table. Washing the plant carefully she would pound it
into paste that could be used as the base for a nutty and delicious
bread. Other roots were baked in ashes or served fried in animal fat,
and once or twice she found patches of wild strawberries, ripening on
This was living! They plucked the sweet, juicy berries from the vines;
they served as dessert and were also used in the fashioning of delicious
puddings with rice and sugar. Several times she found certain treasures
laid by for winter use by the squirrels or the digging people--and
perfectly preserved nuts and acorns, The latter, parched over coals,
became one of the staples of their diet.
She gathered leaves of the red weed and dried them for tea. She searched
out the nests of the grouse and robbed them of their eggs; and always
high celebration in the cave followed such a find as this. Fried eggs,
boiled eggs, poached eggs tickled their palates for mornings to come.
And she traced down, one memorable day when their sugar was all but
gone, a tree that the wild bees had stored with honey.
In the way of meat they had not only caribou, but the tender veal of
moose and all manner of northern small game. Ben did not, however, spend
rifle cartridges in reckless shooting. When at last his enemies came
filing down through the beaver meadow he had no desire to be left with a
half-empty gun. He had never fired this more powerful weapon since he
had felled their first caribou. The moose calves and all the small game
were taken with Beatrice's pistol.
Sometimes he took ptarmigan--those whistling, sprightly grouse of the
high steeps--and Beatrice served uncounted numbers of them, like the
famous blackbirds, baked in a pie. Fried ptarmigan was a dish never to
forget; roast ptarmigan had a distinctive flavor all its own, and the
memory of ptarmigan fricassee often called Ben home to the cavern an
hour before the established mealtime. Indeed, they partook of all the
northern species of that full-bosomed clan, the upland game birds;
little, brown quail, willow grouse, fool hens, and the incomparable blue
grouse, half of the breast of which was a meal. It was true that their
little store of pistol cartridges was all but gone, but worlds of big
game remained to fall back upon.
Ben never ceased regretting that he had not brought a single fishhook
and a piece of line. He had long since carried the canoe from the river
bank and hid it in the tall reeds of the lake shore, not only for
pleasure's sake, but to preserve it for the autumn floods when they
might want to float on down to the Indian villages; and surely it would
have afforded the finest sport in the way of trolling for lake trout.
But with utter callousness he made his pistol serve as a hook and line.
Often he would crawl down, cautiously as a stalking wolf, to the edge of
a trout pool, then fire mercilessly at a great, spotted beauty below.
The bullet itself did not penetrate the water, but the shock carried
through and the fish usually turned a white belly to the surface. A fat
brook or lake trout, dipped in flour and fried to a chestnut brown, was
a delight that never grew old.
At every fresh find Beatrice would come triumphant into Ben's presence;
and at such times they scarcely conducted themselves like enemies. An
unguessed boyishness and charm had come to Ben in these ripe, full
summer days: the hard lines softened in his face and mostly the hard
shine left his eyes. Beatrice found herself curiously eager to please
him, taking the utmost care and pains with every dish she prepared for
the table; and it was true that he made the most joyful, exultant
response to her efforts. The searing heat back of his eyes was quite
gone, now. Even the scarlet fluid of his veins seemed to flow more
quietly, with less fire, with less madness. A gentling influence had
come to bear upon him; a great kindness, a new forbearance had
brightened his outlook toward all the world. A great redemption was even
now hovering close to him,--some unspeakable and ultimate blessing that
he could not name.
Their days were not without pleasure. Often they ventured far into the
heavy forest, and always fresh delight and thrilling adventure awaited
them. Ever they learned more of the wild things that were their only
neighbors,--creatures all the way down the scale from the lordly moose,
proud of his growing antlers and monarch of the marshes, to the small
pika, squeaking on the slide-rock of the high peaks. They knew and loved
them all; they found ever-increasing enjoyment in the study of their shy
ways and furtive occupations; they observed with delight the droll
awkwardness of the moose calves, the impertinence and saucy speech of
the jays, the humor of the black bear and the surly arrogance of the
grizzly. They knew that superlative cunning of his wickedness, the
wolverine; the stealth of the red fox; the ferociousness of the ermine
whose brown skin, soon to be white, suggested only something silken and
soft and tender instead of a fiendish cutthroat, terror of the Little
People; the skulking cowardice of the coyote; and the incredible
savagery and agility of the fisher,--that middle-sized hunter that
catches and kills everything he can master except fish. They climbed
high hills and descended into still, mysterious valleys; they paddled
long, dreamy twilight hours on the lake; they traversed marshes where
the moose wallowed; and they walked through ancient forests where the
decayed vegetation was a mossy pulp under their feet. Sometimes they
forgot the poignancy of their strange lives, romping sometimes,
gossiping like jays in the tree-limbs, and sometimes, forgetting enmity,
they told each other their secret beliefs and philosophies. They had
picnics in the woods; and long, comfortable evenings before their
dancing fire. But there was one enduring joy that always surpassed all
the rest, a happiness that seemed to have its origin in the silent
places of their hearts. It was just the return, after a fatiguing day in
forest and marsh, to the sheltering walls of the cave.
With his axe and hunting knife Ben prepared a complete set of furniture
for their little abode. His first Work was a surpassing-marvelous
dining-room suite of a table and two chairs. Then he put up shelves for
their rapidly dwindling supplies of provisions and cut chunks of spruce
log, with a bit of bark remaining, for fireside seats. And for more than
a week, Beatrice was forbidden to enter a certain covert just beyond the
glade lest she should prematurely discover an even greater wonder that
Ben, in off hours, was preparing for a surprise.
From time to time she heard him busily at work, the ring of his axe and
his gay whistling as he whittled bolts of wood; but other than that it
concerned the grizzly skin she had not the least idea of his task. But
the work was completed at last, and then came two days of rather
significant silence,--quite incomprehensible to the girl. She was at a
loss why Ben did not reveal his treasure.
But one morning she missed the familiar sounds of his fire-building,
usually his first work on wakening. The very fact of their absence
startled her wide-awake, while otherwise she would have perhaps slept
late into the morning. Ben had seemingly vanished into the heavy timber
across the glade.
Presently she heard him muttering and grunting as he moved some heavy
object to the door of the cave. Boyishly, he could not wait for the
usual late hour when she wakened. He made a wholly unnecessary amount of
noise as he built the fire. Then he thrust his lean head into the cavern
"I hope I haven't waked you up?" he said.
The girl smiled secretly. "I wanted to wake up, anyway--to-day."
"I wish you'd get up and come and look at something ugly I've got just
outside the door."
She hurried into her outer garments, and in a moment appeared. It was
ugly, certainly, the object that he had fashioned with such tireless
toil: not fitted at all for a stylish city home; yet the girl, for one
short instant, stopped breathing. It was a hammock, suspended on a stout
frame, to take the place of her tree-bough bed on the cave floor. He had
used the grizzly skin, hanging it with unbreakable sinew, and fashioning
it in such a manner that folds of the hide could be turned over her on
cold nights. For a moment she gazed, very earnestly, into the rugged,
homely, raw-boned face of her companion.
Beatrice was deeply and inexplicably sobered, yet a curious happiness
took swift possession of her heart. Reading the gratitude in her eyes,
Ben's lips broke into a radiant smile.
"I guess you've forgotten what day it is," he said.
"Of course. I hardly know the month."
"I've notched each day, you know. And maybe you've forgotten--on the
ride out from Snowy Gulch--we talked of birthdays. To-day is yours."
She stared at him in genuine astonishment. She had not dreamed that this
little confidence, given in a careless moment of long weeks before, had
lingered in the man's memory. She had supposed that the fury and
savagery of his war with her father and the latter's followers had
effaced all such things as this.
And it was true that had this birthday come a few weeks before, on the
river journey and previous to their occupation of the cave, Ben would
have let it pass unnoticed. The smoldering fire in his brain would have
seared to ashes any such kindly thought as this. But when the wild
hunter leaves his leafy lair and goes to dwell, a man rather than a
beast, in a permanent abode, he has thought for other subjects than his
tribal wars and the blood-lust of his hates. The hearth, and the care
and friendship of the girl had tamed Ben to this degree, at least.
But wonders were not done. The look in the girl's eyes suddenly melted,
as the warm sun melts ice, some of the frozen bitterness of his spirit.
"It's your birthday--and I hope you have many of 'em," he went on. "No
more like this--but all of 'em happy,--as you deserve."
He walked toward her, and her eyes could not leave his. He bent soberly,
and brushed her lips with his own.
There were always worlds to talk about in the warm gleam of their fire.
When the day's work was done, and the hush of early night gathered the
land to its arms, they would sit on their fireside seats and settle all
problems, now and hereafter, to the perfect satisfaction of them both.
From Ben, Beatrice gained a certain strength of outlook as well as depth
of insight, but she gave him in return more than she received. He felt
that her influence, in his early years, would have worked wonders for
him. She straightened out his moral problems for him, taught him lessons
in simple faith; and her own childish sweetness and absolute purity
showed his whole world in a new light.
Sometimes they talked of religion and ethics, sometimes of science and
economics, and particularly they talked of what was nearest to
them,--the mysteries and works of nature. She had been a close observer
of the forest. She had received some glimpse of its secret laws that
were, when all was said and done, the basic laws of life. But for all
her love of science she was not a mere biologist. She had a full and
devout faith in Law and Judgment beyond any earthly sphere.
"No one can live in this boundless wilderness and not believe," she told
him earnestly, her dark eyes brimming with her fervor. "Perhaps I can't
tell you why--maybe it's just a feeling of need, of insufficiency of
self. Besides, God is close, like He was to the Israelites when they
were in the wilderness; but you will remember that He never came close
again.--This forest is so big and so awful, He knows he must stay close
to keep you from dying of fear.--God may not be a reality to the people
of the cities, where they see only buildings and streets, but Ben, He is
to me. You can't forget Him up here. He stands on every mountain, just
as the sons of Aaron saw Him."
He found, to his surprise, that she was not ill-read, particularly in
the old-time classics. But her environment had also influenced her
choice of reading. She loved the old legends in the minor,--far-off and
plaintive things that reflected the mood of the dusky forest in which
One night, when the moon was in the sky, he told her of his war record,
of the shell-shock and the strange, criminal mania that followed it; and
then of his swift recovery. With an over-powering need of
self-justification he told her of his further adventures with Ezram, of
the old man's murder and the theft of the claim. She heard him out,
listening attentively; but in loyalty to her father she did not let
herself believe him entirely. The answer she gave him was the same as
she had always given at his every reference to his side of the case.
"If you were in the right, you'd take me back and let the law take its
course," she told him. "You'd not be out here laying an ambush for them,
to kill them when they try to rescue me."
He could never make her understand how, by the intricacies of law, it
would be a rare chance that he would be able to fasten the crime on the
murderers: that he had taken the only sure way open to make them pay for
Ezram's death. He told her of the old man's, final request; how that his
war with her father and his men was a debt that, by secret, inscrutable
laws of his being, could never be written off or disavowed. But he could
never fully find words to uphold his position. The thing went back to
his instincts, traced at last to the remorseless spirit of the wolf that
was his heritage.
Yet these hours of talk were immensely good for him. While they never
met on common grounds, the girl's true outlook and nobility of character
were ever more manifest to him; and were not without a gentling, healing
influence upon him. He could not blind himself to them. And sometimes
when he sat alone by his dying fire, as the dark menaced him, and the
girl that was his charge slept within the portals of stone, he had the
unescapable feeling that the very structure of his life was falling and
shattering down; but even now he could see, an enchanted vista in the
distance, a mightier, more glorious tower, builded and shaped by this
While Beatrice was at her household tasks--cooking the meals, cleaning
the cave, washing and repairing their clothes--Ben never forgot his more
serious work. Certain hours every day he spent in exploration, seeking
out the passes over the hills, examining every possible means of
entrance and egress into his valley, getting the lay of the land and
picking out the points from which he would make his attack. Already he
knew every winding game trail and every detail of the landscape for five
miles or more around. His ultimate vengeance seemed just as sure as the
night following the day.
Ever he listened for the first sound of the pack train in the forest;
and even in his hours of pleasure his eyes ever roamed over the sweep of
valley and marsh below. He was prepared for his enemies now. One or
five, they couldn't escape him. He had provided for every contingency
and had seemingly perfected his plan to the last detail.
He had not the slightest fear that his eagerness would cost him his aim
when finally his eye looked along the sights at the forms of his
enemies, helpless in the marsh. He was wholly cold about the matter now.
The lust and turmoil in his veins, remembered like a ghastly dream from
that first night, returned but feebly now, if at all. This change, this
restraint had been increasingly manifest since his occupation of the
cave, and it had marked, at the same time, a growing barrier between
himself and Fenris. But he could not deny but that such a development
was wholly to have been expected. Fenris was a child of the open forest
aisles, never of the fireside and the hearth. It was not that the wolf
had ceased to give him his dint of faithful service, or that he loved
him any the less. But each of them had other interests,--one his home
and hearth; the other the ever-haunting, enticing call of the wildwood.
Lately Fenris had taken to wandering into the forest at night, going and
coming like a ghost; and once his throat and jowls had been stained with
"It's getting too tame for you here, old boy, isn't it?" Ben said to him
one hushed, breathless night. "But wait just a little while more. It
won't be tame then."
It was true: the hunting party, if they had started at once, must be
nearing their death valley by now. Except for the absolute worst of
traveling conditions they would have already come. Ben felt a growing
impatience: a desire to do his work and get it over. His pulse no longer
quickened and leaped at the thought of vengeance; and the wolflike
pleasure in simple killing could no longer be his. It would merely be
the soldier's work--a dreadful obligation to perform speedily and to
forget. Even the memory of the huddled form of his savior and friend, so
silent and impotent in the dead leaves, did not stir him into madness
Yet he never thought of disavowing his vengeance. It was still the main
purpose of his life. He had no theme but that: when that work was done
he could conceive of nothing further of interest on earth, nothing else
worth living for. Not for an instant had he relented: except for that
one kiss, on the occasion of her birthday, he had never broken his
promise in regard to his relations with Beatrice. His first trait was
steadfastness, a trait that, curiously enough, is inherent in all living
creatures who are by blood close to the wild wolf, from the German
police dog to the savage husky of the North. But he was certainly and
deeply changed in these weeks in the cave. He no longer hated these
three murderous enemies of his. The power to hate had simply died in his
body. He regarded their destruction rather as a duty he owed old Ezram,
an obligation that he would die sooner than forego.
The hushed, dark, primal forest had a different appeal for him now. He
loved it still, with the reverence and adoration of the forester he was,
but no longer with that love a servant bears his master. He had
distinctly escaped from its dominance. The passion and mounting fire
that it wakened at the fall of darkness could no longer take possession
of him, as strong drink possesses the brain, bending his will, making of
him simply a tool and a pawn to gratify its cruel desires and to achieve
its mysterious ends. He had been, in spirit, a brother of the wolf,
before: a runner in the packs. Such had been the outgrowth of innate
traits; part of his strange destiny. Now, after these weeks in the cave,
he was a man. It was hard for him to explain even to himself. It was as
if in the escape from his own black passions, he had also escaped the
curious tyranny of the wild; not further subject to its cruel moods and
whims, but rather one of a Dominant Breed, a being who could lift his
head in defiance to the storm, obey his own will, go his own way. This
was no little change. Perhaps, when all is said and done, it marks the
difference between man and the lesser mammals, the thing that has
evolved a certain species of the primates--simply woods creatures that
trembled at the storm and cowered in the night--into the rulers and
monarchs of the earth.
Ben had come out from the darkened forest trails where he made his lairs
and had gone into a cave to live! He had found a permanent abode--a
lasting, shelter from the cold and the storm. It suggested a curious
allegory to him. Some time in the long-forgotten past, probably when the
later glaciers brought their promise of cold, all his race left their
leafy bowers and found cave homes in the cliffs. Before that time they
were merely woods children, blind puppets of nature, sleeping where
exhaustion found them; wandering without aim in the tree aisles; mating
when they met the female of their species on the trails and venturing on
again; knowing the ghastly, haunting fear of the night and the blind
terror of the storm and elements: merely higher beasts in a world of
beasts. But they came to the caves. They established permanent abodes.
They began to be men.
All that now stands as civilization, all the conquest of the earth and
sea and air began from that moment. It was the Great Epoch,--and Ben had
illustrated it in his own life. The change had been infinitely slow, but
certain as the movement of the planets in their spheres. Behind the
sheltering walls they got away from fear,--that cruel bondage in which
Nature holds all her wild creatures, the burden that makes them her
slaves. Never to shudder with horror when the darkness fell in silence
and mystery; never to have the heart freeze with terror when the thunder
roared in the sky and the wind raged in the trees. The cave dwellers
began to come into their own. Sheltered behind stone walls they could
defy the elements that had enslaved them so long. This freedom gained
they learned to strike the fire; they took one woman to keep the cave,
instead of mating indiscriminately in the forest, thus marking the
beginning of family life. Love instead of deathless hatred, gentleness
rather than cruelty, peace in the place of passion, mercy and tolerance
and self-control: all these mighty bulwarks of man's dominance grew into
strength behind the sheltering walls of home.
Thus in these few little weeks Ben Darby--a beast of the forest in his
unbridled passions--had in some measure imaged the life history of the
race. He had lived again the momentous regeneration. The protecting
walls, the hearth, particularly Beatrice's wholesome and healing
influence, had tamed him. He was still a forester, bred in the
bone--loving these forest depths with an ardor too deep for words--but
the mark of the beast was gone from his flesh.
He could still deal justice to Ezram's murderers and thus keep faith
with his dead partner; but the primal passions could no longer dominate
him. His pet, however, remained the wolf. The sheltering cavern walls
were never for him. He loved Ben with an undying devotion, yet a barrier
was rising between them. They could not go the same paths forever.
Matters reached a crisis between Fenris and himself one still, warm
night in late July. The two were sitting side by side at the cavern maw,
watching the slow enchantment of the forest under the spell of the
rising moon; Beatrice had already gone to her hammock. As the last
little blaze died in the fire, and it crackled at ever longer intervals,
Ben suddenly made a moving discovery. The fringe of forest about him,
usually so dreamlike and still, was simply breathing and throbbing with
Ben dropped his hand to the wolf's shoulders. "The little folks are
calling on us to-night," he said quietly.
In all probability he spoke the truth. It was not an uncommon thing for
the creatures of the wood--usually the lesser people such as rodents and
the small hunters--to crowd close to the edge of the glade and try to
puzzle out this ruddy mystery in its center. Unused to men they could
never understand. Sometimes the lynx halted in his hunt to investigate,
sometimes an old black bear--kindly, benevolent good-humored old
bachelor that every naturalist loves--grunted and pondered at the edge
of shadow, and sometimes even such lordly creatures as moose and caribou
paused in their night journeys to see what was taking place.
Curiously, the wolf started violently at Ben's touch. The man suddenly
regarded him with a gaze of deepest interest. The hair was erect on the
powerful neck, the eyes swam in pale, blue fire, and he was staring away
into the mysterious shadows.
"What do you see, old-timer?" Ben asked. "I wish I could see too."
He brought his senses to the finest focus, trying hard to understand. He
was aware only of the strained silence at first. Then here and there,
about the dimmining circle of firelight, he heard the soft rustle of
little feet, the subdued crack of a twig or the scratch of a dead leaf.
The forest smells--of which there is no category in heaven or
earth--reached him with incredible clarity. These were faint, vaguely
exciting smells, some of them the exquisite fragrances of summer
flowers, others beyond his ken. And presently two small, bright circles
appeared in a distant covert, glowed once, and then went out.
By peering closely, with unwinking eyes, he began to see other
twin-circles of green and yellow light. Yet they were furtive little
radiances--vanishing swiftly--and they were nothing of which to be
"They _are_ out to-night," he murmured. "No wonder you're excited,
Fenris. What is it--some celebration in the forest?"
There was no possible explanation. Foresters know that on certain nights
the wilderness seems simply to teem with life--scratchings and rustlings
in every covert--and on other nights it is still and lifeless as a
desert. The wild folk were abroad to-night and were simply paying
casual, curious visits to Ben's fire.
Once more Ben glanced at the wolf. The animal no longer crouched. Rather
he was standing rigid, his head half-turned and lifted, gazing away
toward a distant ridge behind the lake. A wilderness message had reached
him, clear as a voice.
But presently Ben understood. Throbbing through the night he heard a
weird, far-carrying call--a long-drawn note, broken by half-sobs--the
mysterious, plaintive utterance of the wild itself. Yet it was not an
inanimate voice. He recognized it at once as the howl of a wolf, one of
Fenris' wild brethren.
The creature at his feet started as if from a blow. Then he stood
motionless, listening, and the cry came the second time. He took two
leaps into the darkness.
Deeply moved, Ben watched him. The wolf halted, then stole back to his
master's side. He licked the man's hand with his warm tongue, whining
"What is it, boy?" Ben asked. "What do you want me to do?"
The wolf whined louder, his eyes luminous with ineffable appeal. Once
more he leaped into the shadows, pausing as if to see if Ben would
The man shook his head, rather soberly. A curious, excited light was in
his eyes. "I can't go, old boy," he said. "This is my place--here.
Fenris, I can't leave the cave."
For a moment they looked eyes into eyes--in the glory of that moon as
strange a picture as the wood gods ever beheld. Once more the wolf call
sounded. Fenris whimpered softly.
"Go ahead if you like," Ben told him. "God knows it's your destiny."
The wolf seemed to understand. With a glad bark he sped away and almost
instantly vanished into the gloom.
But Fenris had not broken all ties with the cave. The chain was too
strong for that, the hold on his wild heart too firm. If there is one
trait, far and near in the wilds, that distinguishes the woods children,
it is their inability to forget. Fenris had joined his fellows, to be
sure; but he still kept watch over the cave.
The strongest wolf in the little band, the nucleus about which the
winter pack would form, he largely confined their hunting range to the
district immediately about the cave. It held him like a chain of iron.
Although the woods trails beguiled him with every strong appeal, the
sight of his master was a beloved thing to him still, and scarcely a
night went by but that he paused to sniff at the cavern maw, seeing that
all was well. At such times his followers would linger, trembling and
silent, in the farther shadows. Because they had never known the love of
man they utterly failed to understand. But in an instant Fenris would
come back to them, the wild urge in his heart seemingly appeased by the
mere assurance of Ben's presence and safety.
Ben himself was never aware of these midnight visits. The feet of the
wolves were like falling feathers on the grass; and if sometimes,
through the cavern maw, he half-wakened to catch the gleam of their
wild eyes, he attributed it merely to the presence of skulking coyotes,
curious concerning the dying coals of the fire.
Beatrice had kept only an approximate track of the days; yet she knew
that an attempt to rescue her must be almost at hand. Even traveling but
half a dozen miles a day, and counting out a reasonable time for
exploration and delays, her father's party must be close upon them. And
the thought of the forthcoming battle between her abductor and her
rescuers filled every waking moment with dread.
She could not escape the thought of it. It lingered, hovering like a
shadow, over all her gayest moments; it haunted her more sober hours,
and it brought evil dreams at night. Her one hope was that her father
had given her up for lost and had not attempted her rescue.
She realized perfectly the perfection of Ben's plans. She knew that he
had provided for every contingency; and besides, he had every natural
advantage in his favor. The end was inevitable: his victory and the
destruction of his foes. There would be little mercy for these three in
the hands of this iron man from the eastern provinces. If they were to
be saved it must be soon, not a week from now, nor when another moon had
waned. If Ben was to be checkmated there were not many hours to waste.
She had had no opportunity to escape, at first. Ben knew that she could
not make her way over the hundreds of miles of howling wilderness
without food supplies, and always the wolf had been on guard. He was
like a were-wolf, a demon, anticipating her every move, knowing her
secret thoughts. But the wolf had gone now to join his fellows. She was
not aware of his almost nightly return. Perhaps the fact of his absence
gave her an opportunity, her one chance to save her father from Ben's
Conditions for escape were more favorable than at any time since their
departure from the canoe landing, that late spring day of long ago. The
wolf was gone; Ben's guard of her was ever more lax. The season was
verdant: she could supplement what supplies she took from the cave with
roots and berries, and the warm nights would enable her to carry a
minimum of blankets. She knew that she could never hope to succeed in
the venture except by traveling light and fast. On the other hand she
would need all of Ben's remaining supplies to bring her through: in a
few more days the stores would be so low that she could not attempt the
trip. Human beings cannot survive, in the forests of the north, on roots
and berries alone. Tissue-building flour and sustaining meat are
necessary to climb the ridges and battle the thicket.
How could she obtain these things? For all his seeming carelessness Ben
kept a fairly close watch on her actions, and he would discover her
flight within a few hours. Stronger than she, and knowing every trail
and pass for miles around he could overtake her with ease. He gave her
no opportunity to seize his rifle, load it and turn it against him, thus
making her escape by force.
The fact that she would leave him without food mattered not one way or
another. He would still have his rifle, and his small stock of rifle
cartridges would procure sufficient big game to sustain him for weeks
and months to come. After all, the whole issue depended on the
rifle,--the symbol of force. It would be his instrument of vengeance
when his chance came. If she could only take this weapon from him she
need not fear the coming of her rescuers. In that case Ben would be
helpless against them.
Unfortunately, the gun rarely left his hands. If indeed she should
attempt to seize it he would wrest it away from her before she could
destroy or injure it. But it was a hopeful fact that the rifle was
useless without its shells!
To procure these, however, presented an unsolvable problem. Any way she
turned she found a barrier Ben kept them in his shell belt, and he wore
the belt about his waist, waking or sleeping. Only to procure it, run
like a deer and hurl it into the rapids of the Yuga,--and her problem
would be absolutely solved. Ben would be obliged to leave the cave home
at once and return with her to the Yuga cabins, utilizing the few stores
they had left for the journey--simply because to stay, unarmed, would
mean to die of starvation. Indeed the few remaining supplies would not
more than last them through now, traveling early and late, so if the
venture were to be attempted at all it must be at once. On the other
hand his rifle and shells would enable the two of them to remain in the
cavern indefinitely on a diet of meat alone.
As she worked about the cavern she brooded over the plan; but at first
she could conceive of no possible way to procure the shells. If the
chance came, however, she wanted to be ready. She planned all other
details of the venture; the shortest route to the nearest rapids of the
river where she might dispose of the deadly cylinders of brass. It
became necessary, also, to consider the lesser weapon for the plain
reason that it might defeat her in the moment of her success.
Ben kept the weapon in his cartridge belt, but the extra pistol shells
were among the supplies. They could easily be procured. It would also be
necessary to induce him to fire away the few shells that he carried in
the pistol magazine; but this would likely be easy enough to do. He put
little reliance on the weapon, trusting rather to his rifle both for the
impending war and the procurance of big game; and he would not harbor
the pistol shells as long as he had his rifle.
But the days were passing! Any attempt at deliverance must be made
before the food stores were further depleted. They could not make the
march without food. Days and nights overtook her with her triumph as far
distant as ever. The moment of opportunity she had watched for, in which
she might seize the cartridge belt and destroy it, had never come to
pass. The plans she had made while the night lay soft and mysterious in
the solitudes had all come to nothing. He had never, as she had hoped,
removed his belt and forgotten to replace it, nor had his slumber ever
been so deep that she could steal it from him.
His own triumph surely was almost at hand. Surely his pursuers had
almost overtaken him. The stores had already fallen far below the margin
of safety for the long journey home. The thought was with her, and she
was desperate one long, warm afternoon as she searched for roots and
berries in the forest. Edible plants were ever more hard to find, these
past days; but what there were she gathered almost automatically,
herself lost in a deep preoccupation. And all at once her hand reached
toward a little vine of black berries, each with a green tuft at the
end, not unlike gooseberries in southern gardens.
As if by instinct, hardly aware of the motion, she withdrew her hand.
She knew this vine. She was enough of a forester never to mistake it.
It was the deadly nightshade, and a handful of the berries spelt death.
She started to look elsewhere.
But presently she paused, arrested by an idea so engrossing and yet so
terrible that her heart seemed to pause in her breast. Had any rules
been laid down for her to follow in her war with Ben? Was she to
consider methods at such a time as this? Was she not a woods girl,--a
woman, not a child, trained and tutored in the savage code of the wild
that knows no ethics other than might, whether might of arm or craft, of
brain or fell singleness of purpose? Should she consider ethics now?
Her father's life was in imminent danger. Another day might find him
stretched lifeless before her. Ben had not hesitated to use every weapon
in his power; she should not hesitate now. Ben had made his war; she
would wage it by his own code.
For a moment she stood almost without outward motion, intrigued by the
possibilities of this little handful of berries. She shuddered once,
nervously, but there was no further impulse of remorse. Perhaps she
trembled slightly; and her eyes were simply depthless shadows under her
They were so little, seemingly so inoffensive: these dark berries in the
shadows of the covert. They were scarcely to be noticed twice. But not
even the savage grizzly was of such might; storms or seas were not so
deadly. There they were, inconspicuous among their sister plants,
waiting for her hand.
It was right that they should be black in color. Their blackness was as
of a black night without a star shining through,--a black cloud with
never a rainbow to promise hope. She could not turn her eyes away! How
black they were among the green leaves--lightless as death itself.
A handful of them meant death: her father had warned her about them long
ago. But half a handful--perhaps a dozen of the sable berries in the
palm of her hand--what did _they_ mean? Just a sickness wherein one
could no longer guard a prisoner. They were a powerful alkaloid, she
knew; and a dozen of them would likely mean hours and hours of deep,
dreamless sleep,--a sleep in which one could take no reckoning of hands
fumbling at a cartridge belt! Half a handful would, in all probability,
fail to strike the life from such a powerful frame as Ben's, but would
certainly act upon him like a powerful opiate and leave him helpless in
Eagerly her fingers plucked the black berries.
In one of the tin cups Beatrice pressed the juice from the nightshade,
obtaining perhaps a tablespoonful of black liquor. To this she added
considerable sugar, barely tasting the mixture on the end of her finger.
The balance was inclining toward the success of her plan. The sugar
mostly killed the pungent taste of the berries.
Then she concealed the cup in a cluster of vines, ready for the moment
of need. Her next act was to procure from among the supplies the little
cardboard box containing half a dozen or so of her pistol shells. The
way of safety was to destroy these first. The effect of the poison might
be of only a few minutes' duration, and every motion might count. Under
any conditions, they would be out of the way. She was careful, with a
superlative cunning, to take the box as well as its contents. She
foresaw that in all likelihood Ben would seek the shells as soon as he
fired the few that remained in his pistol magazine; and an empty
container might put him upon his guard. On the other hand, if he could
not find the box at all, he could easily be led to believe that it had
been simply misplaced among the other supplies.
She scattered the shells in the heavy brush where not even the bright,
searching eyes of the Canada jay might ever find them. Then she hastened
up the ridge to meet Ben on his way to the cave.
She waited a few minutes, then spying his stalwart form at the edge of
the beaver meadow, she tripped down to meet him. He was not in the least
suspicious of this little act of friendship. It was quite the customary
thing, lately, for her thus to watch for his coming; and his brown face
always lighted with pleasure at the first glimpse of her graceful form
framed by the spruce. She too had always taken pleasure in these little
meetings and in the gay talk they had as they sped down toward the
cavern; but her delight was singularly absent to-day. She tried to
restrain the wild racing of her heart.
She knew she must act her part. Her plan was to put him off his guard,
to hide her treachery with pretended friendship. To meet him here--far
distant from the poison cup hidden in the vines--would give her time to
master her leaping heart and to strengthen her self-control.
Yet she had hardly expected him to greet her in just this way,--with
such a light in his eyes and such obvious delight in his smile. He had a
rather boyish, friendly smile, this foe of hers whom she was about to
despatch into the very shadow of death. She dispelled quickly a small,
faltering voice of remorse. This was no time for remorse, for gentleness
and mercy. She hurried to his side.
"You're flushed from hurrying down that hill," he told her gayly.
"Beatrice, you're getting prettier every day."
"It's the simple life that's doing it, Ben! No late hours, no
"Speaking of food--I'm famished. I hope you've got something nice for
lunch--and I know you have."
She _had_ been careful with to-day's lunch; but it had merely been part
of her plot to put him off his guard. "Caribou tenderloin--almost the
last of him--wocus bread and strawberries," she assured him. "Does that
suit your highness?"
He made a great feint of being overwhelmed by the news. "Then let's
hurry. Take my arm and we'll fly."
She seized the strong forearm, thrilled in spite of herself by the
muscles of steel she felt through the sleeves. He fell into his fastest
walking stride,--long steps that sped the yards under them. They emerged
from the marsh and started to climb the ridge.
At a small hollow beside the creek bed her fingers suddenly tightened on
his arm. A thrill that was more of wonder than of joy coursed through
her; and her dark eyes began to glitter with excitement. The wilderness
was her ally to-day. She suddenly saw her chance--in a manner that could
not possibly waken his suspicions of her intentions--of disposing of the
remainder of his pistol cartridges.
On a log thirty feet distant sat an old grouse with half a dozen of her
brood, all of them perched in a row and relying on their protective
coloring to save them from sight. They were Franklin's grouse--and they
had appeared as if in answer to Beatrice's secret wish.
These birds were common enough in their valley, and not a day passed
without seeing from five to fifty of them, yet the sight went straight
home to Beatrice's superstitions. "Get them with your pistol," she
whispered. "I want them all--for a big grouse pie to-night."
"But our pistol shells are getting low," Ben objected. "I've hardly got
enough shells in the gun to get 'em all--"
"No matter. You have to use them some time. There's a few more in the
cave, I think. We'll have to rely on big game from now on, anyway. Don't
Ben drew his pistol, then walked up within twenty feet. He drew slowly
down, knocking the old bird from her perch with a bullet through the
"Good work," Beatrice exulted. "Now for the chicks."
Ben took the bird on the extreme right, and again the bullet sped true.
The remainder of the flock had become uneasy now; and at the next shot
all except one flew into the branches of the surrounding trees. This
shot was equally successful, and with the fourth he knocked the
remaining bird from the log.
Each of the four birds he had downed with a shot either through the head
or the neck; and such shooting would have been marvelous indeed in the
eyes of the tenderfoot. But both these two foresters knew that there was
nothing exceptional about it. Pistol shooting is simply a matter of a
sure eye and steady nerves, combined with a greater or less period of
practice. Few were the trappers or woodsmen north of fifty-three that
could not have done as much.
Ben turned his attention to the fowl on the lower tree limbs, hitting
once but missing the second time. To correct this unpardonable
proceeding, he knocked with his seventh a fat cock, his spurs just
starting, from almost the top of a young spruce.
"Here's one more," Beatrice urged him. "I'll need every one for the
But the gun was empty. The firing pin snapped harmlessly against the
breach. They gathered the grouse and sped on down to the cavern.
Her heart seemingly leaped into her throat at every beat; but with
steady hands and smiling face she went about the preparation of the
meal. She fried the venison and baked the wocus bread, and with more
than usual spirit and gaiety set the dishes at Ben's place at the
table. "Draw up your chair," she told him. "I'll have the tea in a
Ben peered with sudden interest into her face. "What's troubling you,
Bee?" he asked gently. "You're pale as a ghost."
"I'm not feeling overly well." Her eyes dropped before his gaze. "I'm
not hungry--at all. But it's nothing to worry about--"
She saw by his eyes that he _was_ worrying; yet it was evident that he
had not the slightest suspicion of the real cause of the sudden pallor
in her cheeks. She saw his face cloud and his eyes darken; and again she
heard that faint, small voice of remorse--whispering deep in her heart's
heart. He was always so considerate of her, this jailer of hers. His
concern was always so real and deep. Yet in a moment more the kindly
sympathy would be gone from his face. He would be lying very still--and
his face would be even more pale than hers.
Listlessly she walked to the door of the cave, procuring a handful of
dried red-root leaves that she used for tea. Through the cavern opening
he saw her drop them into the bucket that served as their teapot.
Then she came back for the oiled, cloth bag that contained the last of
their sugar. This was always one of her little kindnesses,--to sweeten
his tea for him before she brought it to him. He began to eat his steak.
In one glance the girl saw that he was wholly unsuspecting. He trusted
her; in their weeks together he had lost all fear of treachery from her.
There he was, exulting over the frugal lunch she had prepared, with no
inkling of the deadly peril that even now was upon him. She wished he
did not trust her so completely; it would be easier for her if he was
just a little wary, a little more on guard.
She felt cold all over. She could hardly keep from shivering. But this
was the moment of trial; the thing would be done in a moment more. She
mustn't give way yet to the growing weakness in her muscles. She walked
to the vine where she had left the potion.
How much of it there was--it seemed to have doubled in quantity since
she had left it. A handful of the black berries meant death--certain as
the sunrise--but what did half a handful mean? The question came to her
again. How did she know that half a handful did not mean death too,--not
just hours of slumber, but relentless and irremediable death! Would that
be the end of her day's work--to see this tall, friendly warden of hers
lying dead before her gaze, the laughter gone from his lips and the
light faded from his eyes? She would be free then to strip the shell
belt from his waist. He would never waken to prevent her. She could
escape too--back to her father's home--and leave him in the cave.
All that he had told her concerning his war with her father recurred to
her in one vivid flash. Could it have been that he had told the
truth--that her father and his followers had been the attackers in the
beginning? She had never believed him fully; but could it be that he was
in the right? His claim had been invaded, he said, and his one friend
murdered in cold blood. Was this not cause enough, by the code of the
North, for a war of reprisal?
But even as these thoughts came to her, she had walked boldly to the
fire and emptied the contents of the cup into the boiling water in the
teapot. Ben would have only had to look up to see her do it. Yet still
he did not suspect.
She waited an instant, steadying herself for the ordeal to come. Then
she took the pot off the fire and poured the hot contents into the cup
that had just held the potion. She had been careful not to put enough
water into the pot to weaken the drink. The cup brimmed; but none was
left. She brought it steaming to Ben's side.
No kindly root tripped her feet as she entered, no merciful unsteadiness
caused her to drop this cup of death and spill its contents.
"Thanks, Beatrice." Ben looked up, smiling. "I'm a brute to let you fix
my tea when you are feeling so bad. But I sure am grateful, if that
His voice sounded far away, like a voice in a nightmare. "It's pretty
strong, I'm afraid," she told him. "The leaves weren't very good, and I
boiled them too long. I'm afraid you'll find it bitter."
"I'll drink it, if it's bitter as gall," he assured her, "after your
kindness to fix it."
His hand reached and seized the handle of the cup. Even now--_now_--he
was raising it to his lips. In an instant more he would be pouring it
down his throat, too considerate of her to admit its unwholesome taste,
drinking it down though it tasted the potion of death that it was! The
hair seemed to start on her head.
Then she seemed to writhe as in a convulsion. Her voice rose in a
piercing scream. "Ben--_Ben_--_don't drink it_!" she cried. "God have
mercy on my soul!"
But with that utterance a strength surpassing that of sinew and muscle
returned to her. She reached and knocked the cup from his hand; and its
black contents, like dark blood, stained the sandy floor of the cavern.
Ben's first thought was curiously not of his own narrow escape, but was
rather in concern for Beatrice. Whether or not he had actually
swallowed any of the liquor in the cup he did not know; nor did he give
the matter a thought. He was aware of only the terror-stricken girl
before him, her face deathly white and her eyes starting and wide. He
leaped to his feet.
Fearing that she was about to faint he steadied her with his hand. The
echo of her scream died in the cavern, the cup rolled on the floor and
came to a standstill against the wall; but still she made no sound, only
gazing as if entranced. But slowly, as he steadied her, the blessed
tears stole into her eyes and rolled down her white cheeks; and once
more breath surged into her lungs.
"Never mind, Beatrice," the man was saying, his deep, rough voice gentle
as a woman's. "Don't cry--please don't cry--just forget all about it.
Let's go over to your hammock and rest awhile."
With a strong arm he guided her to her cot, and smiling kindly, pushed
her down into it. "Just take it easy," he advised. "And forget all about
it. You'll be all right in a minute."
"But you don't understand--you don't know--what I tried to do--"
"No matter. Tell me after a while, if you want to. Don't tell me at all
if you'd rather not. I'm going back to my lunch." He laughed, trying to
bring her to herself. "I wouldn't miss that caribou steak for
anything--even though I can't have my tea. Just lay down a while, and
His rugged face lighted as he smiled, kindly and tolerantly, and then he
turned to go. But her solemn voice arrested him.
"Wait, Ben. I want you to know--now--so you won't trust me again--or
give me another chance. The cup--was poisoned."
But the friendly light did not yet wane in his eyes. "I didn't think it
was anything very good--the way you knocked it out of my hand. We'll
just pretend it was very bad tea--and let it go at that."
"No. It was nightshade--it might have killed you." She spoke in a flat,
lifeless voice. "I didn't want it to kill you--I just wanted to give you
enough to put you to sleep--so I could take your rifle shells and throw
them away--but I was willing to let you drink it, even if it _did_ kill
The man looked at her, in infinite compassion, then came and sat beside
her in the hammock. Rather quietly he took one of her hands and gazed at
it, without seeing it, a long time. Then he pressed it to his lips.
For a breath he held it close to his cheek, his eyes lightless and far
away, and she gazed at him in amazement.
"You'd kiss my hand--after what I did--?"
"After what you _didn't_ do," he corrected. "Please, Beatrice--don't
blame yourself. Some way--I understand things better--than I used to.
Even if you had killed me--I don't see why it wouldn't have been your
right. I've held you here by force. Yet you didn't let me drink the
stuff. You knocked it out of my hand."
And now, for the first time, an inordinate amazement came into his face.
He looked at her intently, yet with no unfriendliness, no passion.
Rather it was with overwhelming wonder.
"_You knocked it out of my hands_!" he repeated, more loudly. "Oh,
Beatrice--it's my turn to beg forgiveness now! When I was at your mercy,
and the cup at my lips--you spared me. Why did you do it, Beatrice?"
He gazed at her with growing ardor. She shook her head. She simply did
not know the reason.
"It's not your place to feel penitent," he told her, with infinite
sincerity. "If you had let me take it, you'd have just served me
right--you'd have just paid me back in my own coin. It was fair
enough--to use every advantage you had. Good Lord, have you forgotten
that I am holding you here by force? But instead--you saved me, when you
might have killed me--and won the fight. All you've done is to show
yourself the finer clay--that's what you've done. God knows I suppose
the woman is always finer clay than the man--yet it comes with a jolt,
just the same. It's not for you to be down-hearted--Heaven knows the
strength you've shown is above any I ever had, or ever will have. You've
shown how to feel mercy--I could never show anything but hate, and
revenge. You've shown me a bigger and stronger code than mine. And
there's nothing--nothing I can say."
The tone changed once more to the personal and solicitous. "But it's
been a big strain on you--I can see that. I believe I'd lie here and
rest awhile if I were you. I'll eat my dinner--and the fire's about out
too. That's the girl--Beatrice."
Gently he picked her up, seemingly with no physical effort and laid her
in her hammock. "Then--you'll forgive me?" she asked brokenly.
"Good Heavens, I wish there was something to forgive--so we'd be a
little more even. But you've accomplished something, Beatrice--and I
don't know what it is yet--I only know you've changed me--and softened
me--as I never dreamed any one in the world could. Now go to sleep."
He turned from her, but the food on the table no longer tempted him. For
a full hour he stood before the ashes of the fire, deeply and
inextricably bewildered with himself, with life, and with all these
thoughts and hopes and regrets that thronged him. He was like ashes now
himself; the fires of his life seemed burned out. The thought recalled
him to the need of cutting fuel for the night's fire.
He might be able to quiet the growing turmoil in his brain when the
still shadows of the spruce closed around him. He seized his axe, then
peered into the cave. Beatrice, worn out by the stress of the hour
before and immensely comforted by Ben's words, was already deeply
asleep. His rifle leaned against the wall of the cavern, and he put it
in the hollow of his arm. It was not that he feared Beatrice would
attempt to procure it. The act was mostly habit, combined with the fact
that their supply of meat was all but exhausted and he did not wish to
miss any opportunity for big game.
The forest was particularly gloomy to-day. Its shadows lay deep. And
this was not merely the result of his own darkened outlook: glancing up,
he saw that clouds were gathering in the sky. They would need fuel in
plenty to keep the fire bright to-night. Evidently rain was
impending,--one of those cold, steady downpours that are disliked so
cordially by the folk of the upper Selkirks.
He went a full two hundred yards before he found a tree to his liking.
It was a tough spruce of medium height and just at the edge of the
stream. He laid his rifle down, leaning it against a fallen log; then
began his work.
It was an awkward place to stand; but he gave no thought to it. His mind
dwelt steadily on the events in the cavern of the hour before; the
girl's remorse in the instant that she had him at her mercy and the
example it set for him. The blade bit into the wood with slow
encroachments. Perhaps the expenditure of brute energy in swinging the
axe would relieve his pent-up feelings.
He was not watching his work. His blows struck true from habit. Now the
tree was half-severed: it was time to cut on the opposite side. Suddenly
his axe crashed into yielding, rotten wood.
Instantly the powers of the wilderness took their long-awaited toll. Ben
had been unwary, too absorbed by his swirling thoughts to mark the
ambush of death that had been prepared for him. Ever to keep watch, ever
to be on guard: such is the first law of the wild; and Ben had
disregarded it. Half of the tree had been rotten, changing the direction
of its fall and crashing it down before its time.
Ben leaped for his life, instinctively aiming for the shelter of the log
against which he had inclined his rifle; but the blow came too soon. He
was aware only of the rush of air as he leaped, an instant's hovering at
the crest of a depthless chasm, then the sense of a mighty, resistless
blow hurling him into infinity.
Ben's rifle, catching the full might of the blow, was broken like a
match. Ben himself was crushed to earth as beneath a meteor, the branchy
trunk shattering down upon his stalwart form like the jaws of a great
trap. He uttered one short, half-strangled cry.
Then the darkness, shot with varied and multiple lights, dropped over
him. The noise of the falling tree died away; the forest-dwellers
returned to their varied activities. The rain clouds deepened and spread
above his motionless form.
Beatrice's dreams were troubled after Ben's departure into the forest.
She tossed and murmured, secretly aware that all was not well with her.
Yet in the moments that she half-wakened she ascribed the vague warning
to nervousness only, falling immediately to sleep again. Wakefulness
came vividly to her only with the beginnings of twilight.
She opened her eyes; the cavern was deep with shadow. She lay resting a
short time, adjusting her eyes to the soft light. In an instant all the
dramatic events of the day were recalled to her: the tin cup that had
held the poison still lay against the wall, and the liquor still stained
the sandy floor, or was it only a patch of deeper shadow?
She wondered why Ben did not come into the cave. Was he embittered
against her, after all; had he spoken as he did just from kindness, to
save her remorse? She listened for the familiar sounds of his fuel
cutting, or his other work about the camp. Wherever he was, he made no
sound at all.
She sat up then, staring out through the cavern maw. For an instant she
experienced a deep sense of bewilderment at the pressing gloom, so
mysterious and unbroken over the face of the land. But soon she
understood what was missing. The fire was out.
The fact went home to her with an inexplicable shock. She had become so
accustomed to seeing the bright, cheerful blaze at the cavern mouth that
its absence was like a little tragedy in itself. Always it had been the
last vista of her closing eyes as she dropped off to sleep--the soft,
warm glow of the coals--and the sight always comforted her. She could
scarcely remember the morning that it wasn't crackling cheerily when she
wakened. Ben had always been so considerate of her in this
regard--removing the chill of the cave with its radiating heat to make
it comfortable for her to dress. Not even coals were left now--only
ashes, gray as death.
She got up, then walked to the cavern maw. For a moment she stood
peering into the gloom, one hand resting against the portals of stone.
The twilight was already deep. It was the supper hour and past; dark
night was almost at hand. There could be no further doubt of Ben's
absence. He was not at the little creek getting water, nor did she hear
the ring of his axe in the forest. She wondered if he had gone out on
one of his scouting expeditions and had not yet returned. Of course this
was the true explanation; she had no real cause to worry.
Likely enough he had little desire to return to the cavern now. She
could picture him following at his tireless pace one of the winding
woods trails, lost in contemplation, his vivid eyes clouded with
She looked up for the sight of the familiar stars that might guide him
home. They were all hidden to-night. Not a gleam of light softened the
stark gloom of the spruce. As she watched the first drops of rain fell
softly on the grass.
The drops came in ever-increasing frequency, cold as ice on her hand.
She heard them rustling in the spruce boughs; and far in the forest she
discerned the first whine of the wakening wind. The sound of the rain
was no longer soft. It swelled and grew, and all at once the wind caught
it and swept it into her face. And now the whole forest moaned and
soughed under the sweep of the wind.
There is no sound quite like the beat of a hard rain on dense forest. It
has no startling discords, but rather a regular cadence as if the wood
gods were playing melodies in the minor on giant instruments,--melodies
remembered from the first, unhappy days of the earth and on instruments
such as men have never seen. But this was never a melody to fill the
heart with joy. It touches deep chords of sorrow in the most secret
realms of the spirit. The rain song grew and fell as the gusts of the
wind swept it, and the rock walls of the cliff swam in clouds of spray.
The storm could not help but bring Ben to camp, she thought. At least
she did not fear that he would lose his way: he knew every trail and
ridge for miles around the cave. Even such pressing, baleful darkness as
this could not bewilder him. She went back to her cot to wait his
The minutes seemed interminable. Time had never moved so slowly before.
She tried to lie still, to relax; then to direct her thought in other
channels; but all of these meandering streams flowed back into the main
current which was Ben. Yet it was folly to worry about him; any moment
she would hear his step at the edge of the forest. But the night was so
dark, and the storm so wild. A half-hour dragged its interminable length
Her uneasiness was swiftly developing into panic. Just to-day she was
willing to risk his life for her freedom: it was certainly folly now to
goad herself to despair by dwelling on his mysterious absence. It might
speed the passing minutes if she got up and found some work to do about
the cave; but she simply had no heart for it. Once she sat up, only to
lie down again.
The moments dragged by. Surely he would have had time to reach camp by
now. The storm neither increased nor decreased; only played its mournful
melodies in the forest. The song of the rain was despairing,--low
mournful notes rising to a sharp crescendo as the fiercer gusts swept it
into the tree tops. The limbs murmured unhappily as they smote together;
and a tall tree, swaying in the wind, creaked with a maddening
regularity. She was never so lonely before, so darkly miserable.
"I want him to come," her voice suddenly spoke aloud. It rang strangely
in the gloomy cave. "I want him to come back to me."
She felt no impulse for the words. They seemed to speak themselves.
Presently she sat erect, her heart leaping with inexpressible relief, at
the sound of a heavy tread at the edge of the glade.
The steps came nearer, and then paused. She sprang to her feet and went
to the mouth of the cave. A silence that lived between the beating rain
and the complaining wind settled down about her. Her eyes could not
pierce the darkness.
"Is that you, Ben?" she called.
She strained into the silence for his reply. The cold drops splashed
into her face.
"Ben?" she called again. "Is that you?"
Then something leaped with an explosive sound, and running feet splashed
in the wet grass in flight. The little spruce trees at the edge of the
glade whipped and rustled as a heavy body crashed through. The steps had
been only those of some forest beast--a caribou, perhaps, or a
moose--come to mock her despair.
She remembered that Ben had been wishing for just such a visitation
these past few days; of course in the daylight hours when he could see
to shoot. Their meat supply was almost gone.
She did not go to her cot again. She stood peering into the gloom. All
further effort to repel her fears came to nothing. The storm was already
of two hours' duration, and Ben would have certainly returned to the
cave unless disaster had befallen him. Was he lost somewhere in the
intertwining trails, seeking shelter in a heavy thicket until the dawn
should show him his way? There were so many pitfalls for the
unsuspecting in these trackless wilds.
Yet she could be of no aid to him. The dark woods stretched
interminably; she would not even know which way to start. It would just
mean to be lost herself, should she attempt to seek him. The trails that
wound through the glades and over the ridges had no end.
"Ben!" she called again. Then with increasing volume. "Ben!"
But no echo returned. The darkness swallowed the sound at once.
The night was chill: she longed for the comfort of the fire. The actual
labor of building it might take her mind from her fears for a while at
least; and its warm glow might dispel the growing cold of fear and
loneliness in her breast. Besides, it might be a beacon light for Ben.
She turned at once to the pile of kindling Ben had prepared.
But before she could build a really satisfactory fire, one that would
endure the rain, she must cut fuel from some of the logs Ben had hewn
down and dragged to the cave. She lighted a short piece of pitchy wood,
intending to locate the heavy camp axe. Then, putting on her heavy
coat--the same garment of lustrous fur which Ben had sent her back for
the day of her abduction--she ventured into the storm.
The rain splashed in vain at her torch. The pitch burned with a fierce
flame. But her eyes sought in vain for the axe.
This was a strange thing: Ben always left it leaning against one of the
chunks of spruce. Presently she halted, startled, gazing into the black
depths of the forest.
Ben had taken it; he had plainly gone forth after fuel. Trees stood all
about the little glade: he couldn't have gone far. The inference was
obvious: whatever disaster had befallen him must have occurred within a
few hundred yards of the cave.
Holding her torch high she went to the edge of the glade and again
called into the gloom. There was no repression in her voice now. She
called as loudly as she could. She started to push on into the fringe of
But at once she paused, holding hard on her self-control. It was folly
to make a blind search. To penetrate the dark mystery of the forest with
only this little light--already flickering out--would probably result in
becoming lost herself. Such a course would not help Ben's cause.
Evidently he was lying within a few hundred feet of her,
unconscious--perhaps dead--or he would have replied to her call.
Dead! The thought sped an icy current throughout the hydraulic system of
She was a mountain girl, and she made no further false motions. She
turned at once to the cave, and piling up her kindling, built a fire
just at the mouth of the cave. It was protected here in some degree from
the rain, and the wind was right to carry the smoke away. This fire
would serve to keep her direction and lead her back to the cavern.
Once more she ventured into the storm, and gathering all the cut fuel
she could find, piled it on her fire. The two spruce chunks that Ben had
cut for their fireside seats were placed as back logs. Then she hunted
for pine knots taken from the scrub pines that grew in scattering clumps
among the spruce, and which were laden with pitch.
One of these knots she put in the iron pan they used for frying, then
lighted it. Then she pushed into the timber.
Holding her light high she began to encircle the glade clear to the
barrier of the cliffs. To the eyes of the wild creatures this might have
been a never-to-be-forgotten picture: the slight form of the girl, her
face blanched and her eyes wide and dark in the flaring light, her
grotesque torch and its weird shadows, and then rain sweeping down
between. She reached the cliff, then started back, making a wider
Adding fresh fuel to the torch, she peered into every covert and
examined with minute care any human-shaped shadow in that eerie world of
shadows; but the long half-circle brought her back to the cliff wall
without results. She was already wet to the skin, and her pine knots
were nearly spent. Ever the load of dread was heavier at her heart. In
the hour or more she had searched--she had no way of estimating
time--she had already gone farther than Ben usually went for his fuel.
As yet no tears came; only the raindrops lay on her face and curled her
dark hair in ringlets. But she must not give up yet. It was hard to hold
her shoulders straight; but she must make the long circle once more.
With courage and strength such as she had not dreamed she possessed,
she launched forward again. But fatigue was breaking her now. The tree
roots tripped her faltering feet, the branches clutched at her as she
passed. It was hard to tell what territory she had searched, or how far
she had gone. But when she was halfway around, she suddenly halted,
motionless as an image, at the edge of the stream.
The flickering light revealed a tree, freshly cut, its, naked stump
gleaming and its tall form lying prone. Yet beneath it the shadows were
of strange, unearthly shape, and something showed stark white through
the green foliage. Great branches stretched over it, like bars over a
Just one curious deep sob wracked her whole body. The life-heat, the
mystery that is being, seemed to steal away from her. Her strength
wilted; and for an instant she could only stand and gaze with fixed,
unbelieving eyes. But almost at once the unquenchable fires of her
spirit blazed up anew. She saw her task, and with a faith and
steadfastness conformable more to the sun and the earth than to human
frailty, her muscles made instant and incredible response.
Instantly she was beside the form of her comrade and enemy, struggling
with the cruel limbs that pinned him to the earth.
Beatrice knew one thing and one alone: that she must not give way to the
devastating terror in her heart. There was mighty work to do, and she
must keep strong. Her only wish was to kneel beside him, to lift the
bleeding head into her arms and let the storm and the darkness smother
her existence; but her stern woods training came to her aid. She began
the stupendous task of freeing him from the imprisoning tree limbs.
The pine knots flickered feebly; and by their light she looked about for
Ben's axe. Her eyes rested on the broken gun first: then she saw the
blade, shining in the rain, protruding from beneath a broken bough. She
drew it out and swung it down.
Some of the lesser limbs she broke off, with a strength in her hands she
did not dream she possessed. The larger ones were cut away with blows
incredibly strong and accurate. How and by what might she did not know,
but almost at once the man's body was free except for the tree trunk
that wedged him against a dead log toward which he had leaped for
She seemed powerless to move it. Her shoulders surged against it in
vain. A desperate frenzy seized her, but she fought it remorselessly
down. Her self-discipline must not break yet. Seeing that she could not
move the tree itself, she thrust with all her power against the dead log
beside which Ben lay. In a moment she had rolled it aside.
Then for the first time she went to her knees beside the prone form.
Ben was free of the imprisoning limbs, but was his soul already free of
the stalwart body broken among the broken boughs? She had to know this
first; further effort was unavailing until she knew this. Her hand stole
over his face.
She found no reassuring warmth. It was wet with the rain, cold to the
touch. His hair was wet too, and matted from some dreadful wound in the
scalp. Very softly she felt along the skull for some dreadful fracture
that might have caused instant death; but the descending trunk had
missed his head, at least. Very gently she shook him by the shoulders.
Her stern self-control gave way a little now. The strain had been too
much for human nerves to bear. She gathered him into her arms, still
without sobbing, but the hot tears dropped on to his face.
"Speak to me, Ben," she said quietly. The wind caught her words and
whisked them away; and the rain played its unhappy music in the tree
foliage; but Ben made no answer. "Speak to me," she repeated, her tone
lifting. "My man, my baby--tell me you're not dead!"
Dead! Was that it--struck to the earth like the caribou that fell before
his rifle? And in that weird, dark instant a light far more bright than
that the flickering pine knots cast so dim and strange over the scene
beamed forth from the altar flame of her own soul. It was only the light
of knowledge, not of hope, but it transfigured her none the less.
All at once she knew why she had hurled the poisoned cup from his hand,
even though her father's life might be the price of her weakness. She
understood, now, why these long weeks had been a delight rather than a
torment; why her fears for him had gone so straight to her heart. She
pressed his battered head tight against her breast.
"My love, my love," she crooned in his ear, pressing her warm cheek
close to his. "I do love you, I do, I do," she told him confidingly, as
if this message would call him back to life. Her lips sought his, trying
to give them warmth, and her voice was low and broken when she spoke
again. "Can't you hear me, Ben--won't you try to come back to me? If
you're dead I'll die too--"
But the man did not open his eyes. Would not even this appeal arouse him
from this deep, strange sleep in which he lay? He had always been so
watchful of her--since that first day--so zealous for her safety. She
held him closer, her lips trembling against his.
But she must get herself in hand again! Perhaps life had not yet
completely flickered out; and she could nurse it back. She dropped her
ear to his breast, listening.
Yes, she felt the faint stirring of his heart. It was so feeble, the
throbs were so far apart, yet they meant life,--life that might flush
his cheeks again, and might yet bring him back to her, into her arms. He
was breathing, too; breaths so faint that she hardly dared to believe in
their reality. And presently she realized that his one hope of life lay
in getting back to the fire.
For long hours he had been lying in the cold rain; a few more minutes
would likely extinguish the spark of life that remained in his breast.
Her hand stole over his powerful frame, in an effort to get some idea of
the nature of his wounds.
One of his arms was broken; its position indicated that. Some of his
ribs were crushed too--what internal injuries he had that might end him
before the morning she did not know. But she could not take time to
build a sledge and cut away the brush. She worked her shoulder under his
Wrenching with all her fine, young strength she lifted him upon her
shoulder; then, kneeling in the vines, she struggled for breath. Then
thrusting with her arm she got on her feet.
His weight was over fifty pounds greater than her own; but her woods
training, the hard work she had always done, had fitted her for just
such a test as this. She started with her burden toward the cave.
She had long known how to carry an injured man, suspending him over her
shoulder, head pointed behind her, her arms clasping his thigh. With her
free arm she seized the tree branches to sustain her. She had no light
now; she was guided only by the faint glow of the fire at the cavern
After a hundred feet the load seemed unbearable. Except for the fact
that she soon got on the well-worn moose trail that followed the creek,
she could scarcely have progressed a hundred feet farther. As it was,
she was taxed to the utmost: every ounce of her reserve strength would
be needed before the end.
At the end of a hundred yards she stopped to rest, leaning against a
tree and still holding the beloved weight upon her shoulder. If she laid
it down she knew she could not lift it again. But soon she plunged on,
down toward the beacon light.
Except for her love for him, and that miraculous strength that love has
always given to women, she could not have gone on that last, cruel
hundred yards. But slowly, steadily, the circle of light grew brighter,
larger, nearer; ever less dense were the thickets of evergreen between.
Now she was almost to the glade; now she felt the wet grass at her
ankles. She lunged on and laid her burden on her bed.
Then she relaxed at his feet, breathing in sobbing gasps. Except for the
crackle of the fire and the beat of the rain, there was no sound in the
cave but this,--those anguished sobs from her wracked lungs.
But far distant though Ben was and deep as he slept--just outside the
dark portals of death itself--those sounds went down to him. He heard
them dimly at first, like a far-distant voice in a dream, but as the
moments passed he began to recognize their nature and their source. Sobs
of exhaustion and distress--from the girl that was in his charge. He lay
a long time, trying to understand.
On her knees beside him Beatrice saw the first flutter of his eyelids.
In awe, rather than rapture, her arms crept around him, and she kissed
his rain-wet brow. His eyes opened, looking wonderingly into hers.
She saw the first light of recognition, then a half-smile, gentle as a
girl's, as he realized his own injuries. Of course Ben Darby would smile
in such a moment as this; his instincts, true and manly, were always to
try to cheer her. Presently he spoke in the silence.
"The tree got me, didn't it?" he asked.
"Don't try to talk," she cautioned. "Yes--the tree fell on you. But
you're not going to die. You're going to live, live--"
He shook his head, the half-smile flickering at his lips. "Let me talk,
Beatrice," he said, with just a whisper of his old determination. "It's
important--and I don't think--I have much time."
Her eyes widened in horror. "You don't mean--"
"I'm going back in a minute--I can't hardly keep awake," he said. His
voice, though feeble, was preternaturally clear. She heard every kind
accent, every gentle tone even above the crackle of the fire without and
the beat of the rain. "I think it's the limit," he went on. "I believe
the tree got me--clear inside--but you must listen to everything I say."
She nodded. In that eerie moment of suspense she knew she must hear what
he had to tell her.
"Don't wait to see what happens to me," he went on. "I'll either go out
or I'll live--you really can't help me any. Where's the rifle?"
"The rifle was broken--when the tree fell."
"I knew it would be. I saw it coming." He rested, waiting for further
breath. "Beatrice--please, please don't stay here, trying to save me."
"Do you think I would go?" she cried.
"You must. The food--is about gone. Just enough to last one person
through to the Yuga cabins--with berries, roots. Take the pistol.
There's six shots or so--in the box. Make every one tell. Take the dead
grouse too. The rifle's broken and we can't get meat. It's
just--death--if you wait. You can just make it through now."
"And leave you here to die, as long as there's a chance to save you?"
the girl answered. "You couldn't get up to get water--or build a fire--"
He listened patiently, but shook his head at the end. "No, Bee--please
don't make me talk any more. It's just death for both of us if you stay.
The food is gone--the rifle broken. Your father's gang'll be here sooner
or later--and they'd smash me, anyway. I could hardly fight 'em off with
those few pistol shells--but by God I'd like to try--"
He struggled for breath, and she thought he had slipped back into
unconsciousness. But in a moment the faltering current of his speech
"Take the pistol--and go," he told her. "You showed me to-day how to
give up--and I don't want to kill--your father--any more. I renounce it
all! Ezram--forgive me--old Ez that lay dead in the leaves." He smiled
at the girl again. "So don't mind leaving me. Life work's all
spent--given over. Please, Beatrice--you'd just kill yourself without
aiding me. Wait till the sun comes up--then follow up the river--"
Unconsciousness welled high above him, and the lids dropped over his
eyes. The gloom still pressed about the cavern, yet a sun no less
effulgent than that of which he had spoken had risen for Ben. It was his
moment of renunciation, glorious past any moment of his life. He had
renounced his last, little fighting chance that the girl might live. And
Ezram, watching high and afar, and with infinite serenity knowing at
last the true balance of all things one with another, gave him his full
The girl began to strip the wet clothes from his injured body.
The trail was long and steep into Back There for Jeffery Neilson and his
men. Day after day they traveled with their train of pack horses,
pushing deeper into the wilds, fording mighty rivers, traversing silent
and majestic mountain ranges, climbing slopes so steep that the packs
had to be lightened to half before the gasping animals could reach the
crest. They could go only at a snail's pace,--even in the best day's
travel only ten miles, and often a single mile was a hard, exhausting
Of course there was no kind of a trail for them to follow. As far as
possible they followed the winding pathways of big game--as long as
these led them in their general direction--but often they were obliged
to cut their way through the underbrush. Time after time they
encountered impassable cliffs or rivers from which they were obliged to
turn back and seek new routes; they found marshes that they could not
penetrate; ranges they could not climb; wastes of slide rock where they
could make headway only at a creeping pace and with hourly risk of their
They had counted on slow travel, but the weeks grew into the months
before they even neared the obscure heart of Back There where they
thought Ben and Beatrice might be hidden. The way was hard as they had
never dreamed. Every day, it seemed to them, brought its fresh tragedy:
a long back-trailing to avoid some impassable place, a fatiguing
digression, perhaps several hours of grinding work with the axe in order
to cut a trail. Sometimes the harness broke, requiring long stops on
the trail to repair it, the packs slipped continually from the hard
going; and they found it increasingly difficult to secure horse feed for
Even Indian ponies cannot keep fat on such grass as grows in the deep
shade of the spruce. They need the rich growths of the open park lands
to stiffen them for the grinding toil; and even with good feeding,
foresters know that pack animals must not be kept on the trail for too
many days in succession. Jeffery Neilson and his men disregarded both
these facts, with the result that the animals lost flesh and strength,
cutting down the speed of their advance. Oaths and shouts were
unavailing now: only cruel blows could drive them forward at all.
They seemed to sense a great hopelessness in their undertaking. Usually
well-trained pack horses will follow their leader without question, walk
almost in his tracks, and the rider in front only has to show the way.
After the first few days of grinding toil, the morale of the entire
outfit began to break. The horses broke away into thickets on each side;
and time after time, one hour upon another, the horsemen had to round
them up again. When they came to the great rivers--wild tributaries of
the Yuga--they had to follow up the streams for days in search of a
place to ford. Then they were obliged to carry the packs across in small
loads, making trip after trip with the utmost patience and toil. The
horses, broken in spirit, took the wild waters just as they climbed the
steep slopes, with little care whether they lived or died.
The days passed, June and July. Ever they moved at a slower pace. One of
the horses, giving up on a steep pitch and frenzied by Ray's cruel,
lashing blows, fell off the edge of the trail and shot down like a
plummet two hundred feet into the canyon below--and thereupon it became
necessary not only to spend the rest of the day in retrieving and
repairing the supplies that had fallen with him, but also to heap bigger
loads on the backs of the remaining horses. And always they were faced
by the cruel possibility that this whole, mighty labor was in
vain,--that Ben and Beatrice might have gone to their deaths in the
rapids, weeks before.
The food stores brought for the journey were rapidly depleted. The
result was that they had to depend more and more upon a diet of meat.
Men can hold up fairly well on meat alone, particularly if it has a fair
amount of fat, but the effort of hunting and drying the flesh into jerky
served to cut down their speed.
The constant delays, the grinding, blasting toil of the day's march, and
particularly the ever-recurring crises of ford and steep, made serious
inroads on the morale of the three men. Just the work of urging on the
exhausted horses drained their nervous energy in a frightful stream: the
uncertainty of their quest, the danger, the scarcity of any food but
meat, and most of all the burning hatred in their hearts for the man who
had forced the expedition upon them combined to torment them; even now,
Ben Darby had received no little measure of vengeance.
No experience of their individual lives had ever presented such a daily
ordeal of physical distress; none had ever been so devastating to hope
and spirit. There was not one moment of pleasure, one instant of relief
from the day's beginning to its end. At night they went to sleep on
hastily made beds, cursing at all things in heaven and earth; they
blasphemed with growing savagery all that men hold holy and true; and
degeneracy grew upon them very swiftly. They quarreled over their
tasks, and they hated each other with a hatred only second to that they
bore Darby himself. All three had always been reckless, wicked, brutal
men; but now, particularly in the case of Ray and Chan, the ordeal
brought out and augmented the latent abnormalities that made them
criminals in the beginning, developing those odd quirks in human minds
that make toward perversion and the most fiendish crime.
Jeffery Neilson had almost forgotten the issue of the claim by now. He
had told the truth, those weary weeks before, when he had wished he had
never seen it. His only thought was of his daughter, the captive of a
relentless, merciless man in these far wilds. Never the moon rose or the
sun declined but that he was sick with haunting fear for her. Had she
gone down to her death in the rapids? This was Neilson's fondest wish:
the enfolding oblivion of wild waters would be infinitely better than
the fate Ben had hinted at in his letter. Yet he dared not turn back.
She might yet live, held prisoner in some far-off cave.
At first all three agreed on this point: that they must not turn back
until either Ben was crushed under their heels or they had made sure of
his death. Ray had not forgotten that Ben alone stood between him and
the wealth and power he had always craved. He dreamed, at first, that
the deadly hardships of the journey could be atoned for by years of
luxury and ease. His mind was also haunted with dark conjectures as to
the fate of Beatrice, but jealousy, rather than concern for her, was the
Neilson knew his young partner now. He saw clearly at last that Ray was
not and had never been a faithful confederate, but indeed a malicious
and bitter enemy, only waiting his chance to overthrow his leader. They
were still partners in their effort to rescue the girl and slay her
abductor; otherwise they were at swords' points. And there would be
something more than plain, swift slaying, now. If Neilson could read
aright, the actual, physical change that had been wrought in Ray's face
foretold no ordinary end for Ben. His features were curiously drawn; and
his eyes had a fixed, magnetic, evil light. Occasionally in his darker
hours Neilson foresaw even more sinister possibilities in this change in
Ray: the abnormal intensity manifest in every look and word, the weird,
evil preoccupation that seemed ever upon him. There was not only the
fate of Ben to consider, but that of Beatrice too, out in these desolate
forests. But surely Ray's degenerate impulses could be mastered. Neilson
need not fear this, at least.
Chan Heminway, also, had developed marvelously in the journey. He also
was more assertive, less the underling he had been. He had developed a
brutality that, though it contained nothing of the exquisite fineness of
cruelty of which Ray's diseased thought might conceive, was nevertheless
the full expression of his depraved nature. He no longer cowered in fear
of Neilson. Rather he looked to Ray as his leader, took him as his
example, tried to imitate him, and at last really began to share in his
mood. In cruelty to the horses he was particularly adept; but he was
also given to strange, savage bursts of insane fury.
"We must be close on them now," Neilson said one morning when they had
left the main gorge of the Yuga far behind them. "If they're not dead
we're bound to find trace of 'em in a few days."
The hope seemed well-founded. It is impossible for even most of the wild
creatures--furtive as twilight shadows--to journey through wood spaces
without leaving trace of their goings and comings: much less clumsy
human beings. Ultimately the searchers would find their tracks in the
soft earth, the ashes of a camp fire, or a charred cooking rack.
"And when we get 'em, we can wait and live on meat until the river goes
up in fall--then float on down to the Indian villages in their canoe,"
Chan answered. "It will carry four of us, all right."
Ray, Chan, Neilson and Neilson's daughter--these made four. What
remained of Ben when Ray was through could be left, silent upon some
hushed hillside, to the mercy of the wild creatures and the elements.
Surely they were in the enemy-country now; and now a fresh fear began to
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