The Sky Line of Spruce
Part 5 out of 5
oppress them. They might expect an attack from their implacable foe at
any moment. It did not make for ease of mind to know that any brush
clump might be their enemy's ambush; that any instant a concealed rifle
might speak death to them in the silence. Ben would have every advantage
of fortress and ambush. They had not thought greatly of this matter at
first; but now the fear increased with the passing days. Even Neilson
was not wholly exempt from it. It seemed a hideous, deadly thing,
incompatible with life and hope, that they should be plunging deeper,
farther into helplessness and peril.
If mental distress and physical discomfort can constitute vengeance Ben
was already avenged. Now that they were in the hill-lands, out from the
gorge and into a region of yellow beaver meadows lying between gently
sloping hills, their apprehension turned to veritable terror. A blind
man could see how small was their fighting chance against a hidden foe
who had prepared for their coming. The skin twitched and crept when a
twig cracked about their camp at night, and a cold like death crept
over the frame when the thickets crashed under a leaping moose.
Ray found himself regretting, for the first time, that murderous crime
of his of months before. Even riches might not pay for these days of
dread and nights of terror: the recovery of the girl from Ben's arms
could not begin to recompense. Indeed, the girl's memory was
increasingly hard to call up. The mind was kept busy elsewhere.
"We're walking right into a death trap," he told Neilson one morning.
"If he is here, what chance have we got; he'd have weeks to explore the
country and lay an ambush for us. Besides, I believe he's dead. I don't
believe a human being could have got down this far, alive."
Chan too had found himself inclining toward this latter belief; without
Ray's energy and ambition he had less to keep him fronted to the chase.
Neilson, however, was not yet ready to turn back. He too feared Ben's
attack, but already in the twilight of advancing years, he did not
regard physical danger in the same light as these two younger men.
Besides, he was made of different stuff. The safety of his daughter was
the one remaining impulse in his life.
And more and more, in the chill August nights, the talk about the camp
fire took this trend: the folly of pushing on. It was better to turn
back and wait his chances to strike again, Ray argued, than to walk
bald-faced into death. Sometime Ben must return to the claim: a chance
might come to lay him low. Besides, ever it seemed more probable that
the river had claimed him.
One rainy, disagreeable morning, as they camped beside the river near
the mouth of a small creek, affairs reached their crisis. They had
caught and saddled the horses; Ray was pulling tight the last hitch.
Chan stood beside him, speaking in an undertone. When he had finished
Ray cursed explosively in the silence.
Neilson turned. He seemed to sense impending developments. "What now?"
"I'm not going on, that's what it is," Ray replied. "Neilson, it's two
against one--if you want to go on you can--but Ray and I are going back.
That devil's dead. Beatrice is, too--sure as hell. If they ain't dead,
he'll get us. I was a fool ever to start out. And that's final."
"You're going back, eh--scared out!" Neilson commented coldly.
"I'm going back--and don't say too much about being scared out, either."
"And you too, Chan? You're against me, too?"
Chan cursed. "I'd gone a week ago if it'd been me. We knew the way
home, at least."
The old man looked a long time into the river depths. Only too well he
realized that their decision was final. But there was no answer, in the
swirling depths, to the question that wracked his heart: whether or not
in these spruce-clad hills his daughter still lived. It could only
murmur and roar, without shaping words that human ears could grasp,
never relieving the dreadful uncertainty that would be his life's curse
from henceforth. He sighed, and the lines across his brow were dark and
"Then turn the horses around, you cowards," he answered. "I can't go on
For once neither Ray nor Chan had outward resentment for the epithet.
Secretly they realized that old Neilson was to the wall at last, and
like a grizzly at bay, it was safer not to molest him. Chan went down
to the edge of the creek to water his saddle horse.
But presently they heard him curse, in inordinate and startled
amazement, as he gazed at some imprint in the mud of the shore. They saw
the color sweep from his face. In an instant his two companions were
Clear and unmistakable in the mud they saw the stale imprint of Ben's
canoe as they had landed, and the tracks of both the man and the girl as
they had turned into the forest.
The dawn that crept so gray and mysterious over the frosty green of
spruce brought no hope to Beatrice, sitting beside the unconscious form
of Ben in the cave fronting the glade. Rather it only brought the tragic
truth home more clearly. Her love for him had manifested itself too late
to give happiness to either of them: even now his life seemed to be
stealing from her, into the valley of the shadow.
She had watched beside him the whole night; and now she beheld a
sinister change in his condition. He was still unconscious, but he no
longer drew his breath at long intervals, softly and quietly. He was
breathing in short, troubled gasps, and an ominous red glow was in his
cheeks. She touched his brow, only to find it burning with fever.
The fact was not hard to understand. The downpour of cold rain in which
he had lain, wounded, for so many hours had drawn the life heat out of
him, and some organic malady had combined with his bodily injuries to
strike out his life. Her predicament was one of absolute helplessness.
She was hundreds of miles--weary weeks of march--from medical attention,
and she could neither leave him nor carry him. The wilderness forces,
resenting the intrusion into their secret depths, had seemingly taken
full vengeance at last. They had seemingly closed all gates to life and
safety. They had set the trap with care; and the cruel jaws had sprung.
She sat dry-eyed, incoherent prayers at her trembling lips. Mostly she
did not touch the man, only sat at his bedside in the crude chair Ben
had fashioned for her while the minutes rolled into hours and the hours
sped the night away,--in tireless vigil, watching with lightless eyes.
Once she bent and touched her lips to his.
They were not cold now. They were warm with fever. But in the strange
twilight-world of unconsciousness he could neither know of nor respond
to her kiss. She patted down his covering and sometimes held his hard
hands warm between hers, as if she could thus keep death from seizing
them and leading him away. But her courage did not break again.
The wan light showed her his drawn face; and just for an instant her
arms pressed about it. "I won't give up, Ben," she promised. "I'll keep
on fighting--to the last minute. And maybe I can pull you through."
Beatrice meant exactly what she said: to the last minute. That did not
mean to the gray hour when, by all dictate of common sense, further
fight is useless. She meant that she would battle tirelessly as long as
one pale spark glowed in his spirit, as long as his breath could cloud a
glass. The best thing for her now, however, was rest. She was exhausted
by the strain of the night; and she must save herself for the crisis
that was sure to come. Ben was sleeping easily now; the instant when his
life hung in the balance still impended.
She built up the fire, put on water to heat, covered the man with added
blankets, then lay down on Ben's cot. Soon she drifted into uneasy
slumber, waking at intervals to serve her patient.
The hours dragged by, the night sloped down to the forest; and the dawn
followed the night. Ben's life still flickered, like a flame in the
wind, in the twilight land between life and death.
Yet little could she do for him these first few days, except, in her
simple faith, to pray. Never an hour passed but that prayers were at her
lips, childlike, direct, entreating prayers from her woman's heart. Of
all her offices these were first: she had no doubt but that they counted
most. She sat by his bedside, kept him covered with the warmest robes,
hewed wood for the fire; but as yet he had never fully emerged from his
unconsciousness. Would he slip away in the night without ever wakening?
But in the morning of the fourth day he opened his eyes vividly,
muttered, and fell immediately to sleep. He woke again at evening; and
his moving lips conveyed a message. In response she brought him steaming
grouse broth, administering it a spoonful at a time until he fell to
In the days that followed he was conscious to the degree that he could
drink broth, yet never recognizing Beatrice nor seeming to know where he
was. His fever still lingered, raging; yet in these days she began to
notice a slow improvement in his condition. The healing agents of his
body were hard at work; and doubt was removed that he had received
mortal internal injuries. She had set his broken arm the best she could,
holding the bones in place with splints; but in all likelihood it would
have to be broken and set again when he reached the settlements. She
began to notice the first cessation of his fever; although weeks of
sickness yet remained, she believed that the crisis was past. Yet in
spite of these hopeful signs, she was face to face with the most tragic
situation of all. Their food was almost gone.
It would be long weeks before Ben could hope for sufficient strength to
start the journey down to the settlements, even if the way were open. As
it was their only chance lay in the fall rains that would flood the
Yuga and enable them to journey down to the native villages in their
canoe. These rains would not fall till October. For all that she had
hoarded their supplies to the last morsel, eating barely enough herself
to sustain life in her body, the dread spectre of starvation waited just
without the cave. She had realized perfectly that Ben could not hope to
throw off the malady without nutritious food and she had not stinted
with him; and now, just when she had begun to hope for his recovery, she
shook the last precious cup of flour from the sack.
The rice and sugar were gone, long since. The honey she had hoarded to
give Ben--knowing its warming, nutritive value--not tasting a drop
herself. Of all their stores only a few pieces of jerked caribou
remained; she had used the rest to make rich broth for Ben, and there
was no way under heaven whereby they might procure more.
The rifle was broken. The last of the pistol shots was fired the day she
had prepared the poisoned cup for Ben.
Yet she still waged the fight, struggling with high courage and tireless
resolution against the frightful odds that opposed her. Her faith was as
of that nameless daughter of the Gileadite; and she could not yield. Not
ambition, not hatred--not even such fire of fury as had been wakened in
Wolf Darby's heart that first frenzied night on the hillside--could have
been the impulse for such fortitude and sacrifice as hers. It was not
one of these base passions--known in the full category to her rescuers
who were even now bearing down upon her valley--that kept the steel in
her thews and the steadfastness in her heart. She loved this man; her
love for him was as wholesome and as steadfast as her own self; and the
law of that love was to give him all she had.
There were few witnesses to this infinite giving of hers. Ben himself
still lingered in a strange stupor, remembering nothing, knowing neither
the girl nor himself. Perhaps the wild things saw her desperate efforts
to find food in the wilderness,--the long hours of weary searching for a
handful of berries that gave such little nourishment to his weakened
body, or for a few acorns stored for winter by bird or rodent. Sometimes
a great-antlered moose--an easy trophy if the rifle had been
unbroken--saw her searching for wocus like a lost thing in the tenacious
mud of the marshes; and almost nightly a silent wolf, pausing in his
hunting, gazed uneasily through the cavern maw. But mostly her long
hours of service in the cave, the chill nights that she sat beside Ben's
cot, the dreary mornings when she cooked her own scanty breakfast and
took her uneasy rest, the endless labor of fire-mending so that the cave
could be kept at an even heat went unobserved by mortal eyes. The
healing forces of his body called for warmth and nourishment; but for
all the might of her efforts she waged a losing fight.
What little wocus she was able to find she made into bread for Ben; yet
it was never enough to satisfy his body's craving. The only meat she had
herself was the vapid flesh that had been previously boiled for Ben's
broth; and now only a few pieces of the jerked meat remained. She
herself tried to live on such plants as the wilderness yielded, and she
soon began to notice the tragic loss of her own strength. Her eyes were
hollow, preternaturally large; she experienced a strange, floating
sensation, as if spirit and flesh were disassociated.
Still Ben lingered in his mysterious stupor, unaware of what went on
about him; but his fever was almost gone by now, and the first
beginnings of strength returned to his thews. His mind had begun to
grope vaguely for the key that would open the doors of his memory and
remind him again of some great, half-forgotten task that still
confronted him, some duty unperformed. Yet he could not quite seize it.
The girl who worked about his cot was without his bourne of knowledge;
her voice reached him as if from an infinite distance, and her words
penetrated only to the outer edges of his consciousness. It was not
strictly, however, a return of his amnesia. It was simply an outgrowth
of delirium caused by his sickness and injuries, to be wholly dispelled
as soon as he was wholly well.
But now the real hour of crisis was at hand,--not from his illness, but
from the depletion of their food supplies. Beatrice had spent a hard
afternoon in the forest in search of roots and berries, and as she crept
homeward, exhausted and almost empty-handed, the full, tragic truth was
suddenly laid bare. Her own strength had waned. Without the miracle of a
fresh food supply she could hardly keep on her feet another day. Plainly
and simply, the wolf was at the door. His cruel fangs menaced not only
her, but this stalwart man for whose life she had fought so hard.
The fear of the obliterating darkness known to all the woods people
pressed close upon her and appalled her. She loved life simply and
primitively; and it was an unspeakable thing to lose at the end of such
a battle. Out so far, surrounded by such endless, desolate wastes of
gloomy forest, the Shadow was cold, inhospitable; and she was afraid to
face it alone. If Ben would only waken and sustain her drooping spirit
with his own! She was lonely and afraid, in the shadow of the inert
spruce, under the gray sky.
She could hardly summon strength for the evening's work of cutting fuel.
The blade would not drive with its old force into the wood. The blaze
itself burned dully; and she could not make it leap and crackle with its
old cheer. And further misfortune was in store for her when she crept
into the cave to prepare Ben's supper.
A pack rat--one of those detested rodents known so well to all northern
peoples--had carried off in her absence two of the three remaining
sticks of jerked caribou. For a moment she gazed in unbelieving and
speechless horror, then made a frenzied search in the darkened corners
of the cabin.
This was no little tragedy: the two sticks of condensed and concentrated
protein might have kept Ben alive for a few days more. It was disaster,
merciless and sweeping. And the brave heart of the girl seemed to break
under the blow.
The hot, bitter tears leaped forth; but she suppressed the bitter,
hopeless sobs that clutched at her throat. She must not let Ben know of
this catastrophe. Likely in his stupor he would not understand; yet she
must not take the chance. She must nourish the spark of hope in his
breast to the last hour. She walked to the mouth of the cave; and Famine
itself stood close, waiting in the shadows. She gazed out into the
The tears blinded her eyes at first. Slowly the dark profile of the
spruce against the gray sky penetrated to her consciousness: the somber
beauty of the wilderness sky line that haunts the woodsman's dreams.
With it came full realization of the might and the malevolency of these
shadowed wilds she had battled so long. They had got her down at last;
they had crushed her and beaten her, and had held up to scorn her
sacrifice and her mortal strength. She knew the wild wood now: its
savage power, its remorselessness, and yet, woods girl that she was, she
could not forget its dark and moving beauty.
The forest was silent to-night. Not a twig cracked or a branch rustled.
It was hushed, breathless, darkly sinister. All at once her eyes peered
and strained into the dusk.
Far across the valley, beyond the beaver marsh and on the farther shore
of the lake she saw a little glimmer of light through the rift in the
trees. She dared not believe in its reality at first. Perhaps it was a
trick of her imagination only, a hallucination born of her starvation,
child of her heartfelt prayer. She looked away, then peered again. But,
yes--a tiny gleam of yellow light twinkled through the gloom! It was
real, _it was true_! A gleam of hope in the darkness of despair.
Her rescuers had come. There could be no other explanation. She hastened
into the cave, drew the blankets higher about Ben's shoulders, then
crept out into the dusk. Half running, she hastened toward their distant
Beatrice's first impulse was to run at a breakneck pace down the ridge
and about the lake into her father's camp, beseeching instant aid to the
starving man in the cave. She wished that she had a firearm with which
to signal to them and bring them at once to the cavern. And it was not
until she had descended the ridge and stood at the edge of the beaver
meadow that her delirious joy began to give way to serious, thought.
She was brought to a halt first by the sight of the horses that had
wandered about the long loop of the lake and were feeding in the rich
grass of the meadow. The full moon rising in the east had cast a
nebulous glow over the whole countryside by now; and she could make a
hasty estimation of their numbers. It was evident at once that her
father had not made the expedition alone. The large outfit implied a
party of at least three,--indicating that Ray Brent and Chan Heminway
had accompanied him.
She had only fear and disdain for these two younger men; but surely they
would not refuse aid to Ben. Yet perhaps it was best to proceed with
some caution. These were her lover's enemies; if for no other reason
than their rage at her own abduction they might be difficult to control.
Her father, in all probability, would willingly show mercy to the
helpless man in the cavern--particularly after she told him of Ben's
consideration and kindness--but she put no faith in Ray and Chan. She
knew them of old. Besides, she remembered there was a further
consideration,--that of a gold claim.
Could Ben have told her the truth when he had maintained that they would
kill him on sight if he did not destroy them first? Was it true that he
had waged the war in defense of his own rights? Weeks and months had
passed since she had seen her father's face: perhaps her old control of
him could no longer be relied upon. If indeed their ownership of a rich
claim depended upon Ben's death, Ray and Chan could not be trusted at
She resolved to proceed with the utmost caution. Abruptly she turned out
of the beaver marsh, where the moonlight might reveal her, and followed
close to the edge of the timber, a course that could not be visible from
beyond the lake. She approached the lake at its far neck, then followed
back along the margin clear to the edge of the woods in which the fire
In her years in the woods Beatrice had learned to stalk, and the
knowledge was of value to her now. With never a misstep she took down a
little game trail toward the camp fire. She was within fifty yards of it
now--she could make out three dark figures seated in the circle of
firelight. Walking softly but upright she pushed within ninety feet of
Then she waited, in doubt as to her course. She was still too far
distant to hear more than the murmur of their voices. If she could just
get near enough to catch their words she could probably glean some idea
of their attitude toward Ben. She pushed on nearer, through the dew-wet
Impelled by the excitement under which she advanced, her old agility of
motion had for the moment returned to her; and she crept softly as a
fawn between the young trees. One misstep, one rustling branch or
crackling twig might give her away; but she took each step with
consummate care, gently thrusting the tree branches from her path.
Once a rodent stirred beneath her feet, and she froze--like a hunting
wolf--in her tracks. One of the three men looked up, and she saw his
face plainly through the low spruce boughs. And for a moment she thought
that this was a stranger. It was with a distinct foreboding of disaster
that she saw, on second glance, that the man was Ray Brent.
She had never seen such change in human countenance in the space of a
few months. She did not pause to analyze it. She only knew that his eyes
were glittering and fixed; and that she herself was deeply,
unexplainably appalled. The man cursed once, blasphemously, his face
dusky and evil in the eerie firelight, but immediately turned back to
his talk. Beatrice crept closer.
Now she was near enough to catch an occasional word, but not discern
their thoughts. It was evident, however, that their conversation was of
Ben and herself,--the same topic they had discussed nights without end.
She caught her own name; once Chan used an obscene epithet as he spoke
of their enemy.
Her instincts were true and infallible to-night; and she was ever more
convinced of their deadly intentions toward Ben. It was not wise to
announce herself yet. Perhaps she would have to rely upon a course other
than a direct appeal for aid. Now her keen eyes could see the whole
camp: the three seated figures of the men, their rifles leaning near
them, their supplies spread out about the fire.
At one side, quite to the edge of the firelight, she saw a kyack--one of
those square boxes that are hung on a pack saddle--which seemed to be
heaped with jerked caribou or moose flesh. For the time of a breath she
could not take her eyes from it. It was food--food in plenty to sustain
Ben through his illness and the remaining weeks of their exile--and her
eyes moistened and her hands trembled at the sight. She had been taught
the meaning of famine, these last, bitter days. In reality she was now
in the first stage of starvation, experiencing the first, vague
hallucinations, the sense of incorporeality, the ever-declining
strength, the constant yearning that is nothing but the vitals'
submerged demand for food. The contents of the kyack meant _life_ to
herself and to Ben,--deliverance and safety when all seemed lost.
A daughter of the cities far to the south--even a child of
poverty--rarely could have understood the unutterable craving that
overswept her at the sight of this simple food. It was unadorned,
unaccompanied by the delicacies that most human beings have come to look
upon as essentials and to expect with every meal: it was only animal
flesh dried in the smoke and the sun. It not only attracted her
physically; but in that moment it possessed real objective beauty for
her; as it would have possessed for the most cultivated esthete that
might be standing in her place. This girl was down to the most stern
realities, and life and death hung in the balance.
She went on her hands and knees, creeping nearer. Still she did not make
the slightest false motion, creeping with an uncanny silence in the
under shrubbery. And now the words came plain.
"But we must be near," Chan was saying. "They can't be more than a mile
or so from here. We'll find 'em in the morning--"
"If he doesn't find us first and shoot up our camp," Ray replied. "I
wish we'd built our fire further into the woods. Here we've looked all
day without even finding a track except those tracks in the mud."
"They might be beyond the marsh," Neilson suggested.
"But Chan went over that way and didn't find a trace," Ray objected.
"But just the same--we'll make a real search to-morrow. I believe we'll
find the devil. And then--we can leave this hellish country and go back
in peace--if we don't want to wait for the flood."
Beatrice's eyes were on his face, wondering what growth of wickedness,
what degeneracy had so filled his cruel eyes with light and stamped his
face with evil. This was the man to whom she must look for mercy. Ben's
life, if she led the three men to the cave, would be in his hands. She
sensed from his authoritative tone that her father's control over him
was largely broken. She hovered, terrified and motionless, in her
Ray reached for his rifle, glancing at the sights and drawing the lever
back far enough to see the brass of its shells. Chan's lean face was
drawn with a cruel glee.
"You can't keep your hands off that gun, Ray," he said. "You sure are
"I won't use it on him," Ray replied, slowly and carefully. "It's too
good for him--except maybe the stock. He didn't lead me clear out here
just to see him puff out and blow up in a minute with a rifle ball
through his head. Just the same I want the gun near me, all the time."
The two men looked at him, sardonic-eyed; and both of them seemed to
understand fully what he meant. They seemed to catch more from the slow
tones, so full of lust and frenzy that they seemed to drop from his
lips in an ugly monotone, than they did from the words themselves. They
took a certain grim amusement in these quirks of abnormal depravity that
had begun to manifest themselves in Ray. The man's fingers were wide
spread as he spoke, and his lip twitched twice, sharply, when he had
The words came clear and distinct to the listening girl. She tried to
take them literally--that Ray would not shoot Ben! _"It's too good for
him--except maybe the stock!"_ Did he mean _that_ too! Was there any
possible meaning in the world other than that he was planning some
unearthly, more terrible fate for the man she loved! She would not yet
yield to the dreadful truth, yet even now terror was clutching at her
throat, strangling her; and the cold drops were beading her brow. Still
the dark drama of the fireside continued before her eyes.
Chan suddenly turned to Neilson, evidently imbued with Ray's fervor.
"What do you think of that, old man?" he asked menacingly. Thus Chan,
too, had escaped from Neilson's dominance: plainly Ray was his idol now.
It was also plain that he recognized attributes of mercy and decency in
his grizzled leader that might interfere with his own and his
companion's plans. "What's worrying me--whether you're goin' to join in
on the sport when we catch the weasel!"
Sport! The word was more terrible to Beatrice than the vilest oath he
had used to emphasize it. She crouched, shivering. Watching intently,
she saw Ray look up, too, waiting for the reply; and her father, sensing
his lost dominance, bowed his head.
"You could hardly expect me to let him off easy--seeing what he did to
"What he done to your daughter ain't all--I don't care if he treated her
like a queen of the realm all the time," Ray interrupted harshly. "That
makes no difference to neither me nor Chan. The main thing is--he
brought us out here, away from the claim--and gave us months of the
worst hell I ever hope to spend. I guess you ain't forgotten what Chan
found out in Snowy Gulch--that the claim's recorded--in old Hiram's
name. This Darby's got a letter in his pocket from Hiram's brother that
would stand in any court. We've got to get that first. If Darby was an
angel I'd mash him under my heel just the same; we've gone too far to
start crawfishing. Just let me see him tied up in front of me--"
Beatrice did not linger to hear more. She had her answer: only in Ben's
continued concealment lay the least hope of his salvation. These wolves
about the fire meant what they said. But already her plans were shaping;
and now she saw the light.
In the kyack of venison lay her own and her lover's safety: it contained
enough nutritious food to sustain them until the fall rains could swell
the Yuga and enable them to escape down to the Indian encampment. Her
mind was swift and keen as never before: swiftly she perfected the last
detail of her plan. The canoe, due to Ben's foresight, was securely
hidden in a maze of tall reeds on the lake shore: they were certain to
overlook it. The cavern, however, was almost certain to be discovered in
the next day's search. They must make their escape to-night.
Ben, though terribly weakened, would be able to walk a short distance
with her help. They could slip into the deepest forest, concealing
themselves in the coverts until the three men had given up the search
and gone away. She would take their robes and blankets to keep them
warm; a camp fire would of course reveal their hiding place. The work
could easily be accomplished in the midnight shadows: deliverance,
salvation, life itself depended on the tide of fate in the next few
She intended to steal the kyack of dried meat without which Ben and
herself could not live. She crept back farther into the underbrush; then
waited, scarcely breathing, while the fire died down. Already the three
men were preparing to go to their bunks. Chan had already lain down; her
father was removing his coat and boots. Ray, however, still sat in the
The moments passed. Would he never rise and go? The fire, however, was
dying: its circle of ruddy light ever drew inward. The kyack was quite
in the shadow now, yet she dared not attempt its theft until the three
men were asleep. She waited, thrilling with excitement.
Chan and Neilson were seemingly asleep, and now Ray was knocking the
ashes from his pipe. He yawned, stretching wide his arms; then, as if
held by some intriguing thought, sat almost motionless, gazing into the
graying coals. Presently Beatrice heard him curse, softly, in the
He got up, and removing his outer coat, rolled in his blankets. The
night hours began their mystic march across the face of the wilderness.
Now was the time to act. As far as she could tell, the three men were
deeply asleep: at least the likelihood would be as great as at any time
later in the night. The fire was a heap of gray ashes except for its
red-hot center: the kyack was in gloom. Very softly she crept through
the thickets, meanwhile encircling the dying fire, and came up behind
Now it was almost in reach: now her hands were at its loops. She started
to lift it in her arms.
But disaster still dogged her trail. Ray Brent had been too wary of
attack, to-night, to sink easily into deep slumber. He heard the soft
movement as Beatrice lifted the heavy canvas bag off the ground; and
with a startled oath sprang to his feet.
He leaped like a panther. "Who's there?" he cried.
Sensing immediate discovery the girl placed all her hope in flight.
Perhaps yet she could lose her pursuers in the darkness. Still trying to
hold the kyack of food that meant life to Ben, she turned and darted
into the shadows.
Like a wolf Ray sped after her. The moonlight showed her fleeing figure
in the trees, and shouting aloud he sprang through the coverts to
intercept her flight. The chase was of short duration thereafter.
Emburdened by the heavy box she could not watch her step; and a
protruding root caught cruelly at her ankle. She was hurled with
stunning force to the ground.
Desperate and intent, but in realization of impending triumph, Ray's
strong arms went about her.
For the second time in his life Ray Brent felt the sting of Beatrice's
strong hand against his face. In the desperation of fear she had smote
him with all her force. His arms withdrew quickly from about her; and
her wide, disdainful eyes beheld a sinister change in his expression.
The moonlight was in his eyes, silver-white; and they seemed actually to
redden with fury, and again she saw that queer, ghastly twitching at the
corner of his lips. The girl's defiance was broken with that one blow.
She dropped her head, then walked past him into the presence of her
Neilson and Chan were on their feet now, and they regarded her in the
utter silence of amazement. Breathing fast, Ray came behind her.
"Build up the fire, Chan," he said in a strange, grim voice. "We want to
see what we've caught."
Obediently Chan kicked the coals from under the ashes, and began to heap
on broken pieces of wood. The sticks smoked, then a little tongue of
yellow flame crept about the fuel. But still the emburdened silence
continued--the white-faced girl in the ring of silent, watching men.
Slowly the fire's glow crept out to her, revealing--even better than the
bright moonlight--her wide, frightened eyes and the dark, speculative
faces of the men. Then Ray spoke sharply in his place.
"Well, why don't you question her?" he demanded of Neilson. "I suppose
you know what she was doing. She was trying to steal food. It looks to
me like she's gone over to the opposite camp."
Her father sighed, a peculiar sound that seemed to come from above the
tree tops, as if fast-flying waterfowl were passing overhead. "Is that
so, daughter?" he asked simply.
"I was trying to take some of your food--to Ben," Beatrice replied
softly. "He's in need of it."
"You see, they're on intimate terms," Ray suggested viciously. "Ben was
in need of food--so she came here to steal it."
But Neilson acted as if he had not heard. "Why didn't you speak to
us--and tell us you were safe?" he asked. "We've come all the way here
to find you."
"Perhaps _you_ did. If you had been here alone, I would have told you.
But Ray and Chan came all the way here to find Ben. I heard what they
said--back there in the brush. They intend to kill him when they find
him. I--I didn't want him killed."
Her father stared at her from under his bushy brows. "After carrying you
from your home--taking you into danger and keeping you a prisoner--you
still want to protect him?"
The girl nodded. "And I want you to protect him, too," she said.
"Against these men." Suddenly she moved forward in earnest appeal. "Oh,
Father--I want you to save him. He's never touched me--he's treated me
with every respect--done everything he could for me. When he was injured
he told me to go back--to take what little food there was, and go
"I can take it, then, that you're out of food?" Ray asked.
"We're starving--and Ben's sick. Father, I make this one appeal--if your
love for me isn't all gone, you'll grant it. I love him. You might as
well know that now, as later. I want you to save the man your daughter
Chan cursed in the gloom, his lean face darkened; but Neilson made no
answer. Ray in his place sharply inhaled; but the sullen glow in his
eyes snapped into a flame.
If Beatrice had glanced at Ray, she would have ceased her appeal and
trusted everything to the doubtful mercy of flight,--into the gloom of
the forest. As it was, she did not fully comprehend the cruel lust, like
flame, that sped through his veins. She would have hoped for no mercy if
she could have seen the strange, black surge of wrath in his face.
"He has been kind to me--and he was in the right, not in the wrong. I
know about the claim-jumping. Father, I want you to stand between him
and these men--help him--and give him food. I didn't speak to you
because I was afraid for him--afraid you'd kill him or do some other
awful thing to him--"
Slowly her father shook his head. "But I can't save him now. He brought
this on himself."
"Remember, he was in the right," the girl pleaded brokenly. "You
won't--you couldn't be a partner to murder. That's all it would
be--murder--brutal, terrible, cold-blooded murder--if you kill him
without a fight. It couldn't be in defense of me--I tell you he hasn't
injured me--but was always kind to me. It would be just to take that
letter away from him--"
"So he has the letter, has he?" Ray interrupted. He smiled grimly, and
his tone was again flat and strained. "And he's sick--and starving. It
isn't for your father to say, Beatrice, what's to be done with Ben.
There's three of us here, and he's just one. Don't go interfering with
what doesn't concern you, either--about the claim. You take us where he
is, and we'll decide what to do with him."
Her eyes went to his face; and her lips closed tight. Here was one
thing, on this mortal earth, that she must not tell. Perhaps, by the
mercy of heaven, they would not find the cave, hidden as it was at the
edge of the little glade. The forests were boundless; perhaps they would
miss the place in their search. She straightened, scarcely perceptibly.
"Yes, tell us where he is," her father urged. "That's the first thing.
We'll find him, anyway, in the morning."
The girl shook her head. She knew now that even if they promised mercy
she must not reveal Ben's whereabouts. Their rage and cruelty would not
be stayed for a spoken promise. The only card she had left, her one
last, feeble hope of preserving Ben's life, lay in her continued
silence. Ray's foul-nailed, eager hands could claw her lips apart, but
he could not make her speak.
"I won't tell you," she answered at last, more clearly than she had
spoken since her capture. "You said a few minutes ago I had gone
over--to the opposite camp. I am, from now on. He was in the right, and
he gave up his fight against you long ago. Now I want to go."
Fearing that Neilson might show mercy, Ray leaped in front of her. "You
don't go yet awhile," he told her grimly. "I've got a few minutes'
business with you yet. I tell you that we'll find him, if we have to
search all year. And he'll have twice the chance of getting out alive if
you tell us where he is."
She looked into his face, and she knew what that chance was. Her eyelids
dropped halfway, and she shook her head. "I'd die first," she answered.
"It never occurred to you, did it, that there's ways of _making_ people
tell things." He suddenly whirled, with drawn lips, to her father.
"Neilson, is there any reason for showing any further consideration to
this wench of yours? She's betrayed us--gone over to the opposite
camp--lived for weeks, willing, with Ben. I for one am never going to
see her leave this camp till she tells us where he is. I'm tired of
talking and waiting. I'm going to get that paper away from him, and I'm
going to smash his heart with my heel. We've almost won out--and I'm
going to go the rest of the way."
Neilson straightened, his eyes steely and bright under his grizzled
brows. Only too well he knew that this was the test. Affairs were at
their crisis at last. But in this final moment his love for his daughter
swept back to him in all its unmeasured fullness,--and when all was said
and done it was the first, the mightiest impulse in his life. Ben had
been kind to her, and she loved him; and all at once he knew that he
could not yield him or her to the mercy of this black-hearted man before
He had lived an iniquitous life; he was inured to all except the worst
forms of wickedness; but for the moment--in love of his daughter--he
stood redeemed. He was on the right side at last. His hand drew back,
and his face was like iron.
"Shut that foul mouth!" he cautioned, with a curious, deadly evenness of
tone. "I haven't surrendered yet to you two wolves. If one of you dares
to lay a hand on Beatrice, I'll kill him where he stands."
Even as he spoke his thought went to his rifle, leaning against a dead
log ten feet away. This was the moment of test: the jealousy and rivalry
and hatred between himself and Ray had reached the crisis. And the
spirit of murder, terrible past any demon of the Pit, came stalking from
the savage forest into the ruddy firelight.
Ray leered, his muscles bunching. "And I say to you, you're a dirty
traitor too," he answered. "She ain't your daughter any more. She's Ben
Darby's squaw. She's not fit for a white man to touch any more, for all
her lies. You say one word and you'll get it too."
And at that instant the speeding pace of time seemed to halt, showing
this accursed scene, so savage and terrible in the eerie light of the
camp fire, at the edge of the haunted, breathless darkness, in vivid and
ghastly detail. Neilson leaped forward with all his power; and if his
blow had gone home, Ray would have been shattered beneath it like a tree
in the lightning blast. But Ray's arms were incredibly swift, and his
rifle leaped in his hands.
The barrel gleamed. The roar reechoed in the silence. Neilson's head
bowed strangely; and for a moment he stood swaying, a ghastly blankness
on his face; then pitched forward in the dew-wet grass.
Beatrice's last defense had fallen, seriously wounded; and Ray's arm
seized her as, screaming, she tried to flee.
The shot that wounded Jeffery Neilson carried far through the forest
aisles, reechoing against the hills, and arresting, for one breathless
moment, all the business of the wilderness. The feeding caribou swung
his horns and tried to catch the scent; the moose, grubbing for water
roots in the lake bottom, lifted his grotesque head and stood like a
form in black iron. It came clear as a voice to the cavern where Ben
The man started violently in his cot. His entire nervous system seemed
to react. Then there ensued a curious state in which his physical
functions seemed to cease,--his heart motionless in his breast, his body
tensely rigid, his breath held. There was an infinite straining and
travail in his mind.
The truth was that the sound acted much as a powerful stimulant to his
retarded nervous forces. It was the one thing his resting nerve-system
needed; it was as if chemicals were in suspension in a crucible, and at
a slight jar of the glass they made mysterious union and expelled a
precipitation. Almost instantly he recognized the sound that had reached
him, with a clear and unmistakable recognition such as he had not
experienced since the night of the accident, as the report of a rifle.
His mind gave a great leap and remembered its familiar world.
A rifle--probably discharged by Beatrice in a hunt after big game. It
was true that their meat supply was low; he remembered now. Yet it was
curious that she should be hunting after dark. The gloom was deep at
the cavern mouth. Besides, he had always kept his rifle from her,
fearing that she might turn it against him. He looked about him, trying
to locate the source of the flood of light on the cavern floor. It was
the moon, and it showed that the girl was gone. He started to sit up.
But his left arm did not react just properly to the command of his
brain. It impeded him, and its old strength was impaired. For a moment
more he lay quiet, deep in thought. Of course--he had been injured by
the falling tree. He remembered clearly, now. And the rifle had been
The only possible explanation for the shot was that a rifle had been
fired by some invader in their valley--in all probability Neilson or one
of his men. Beatrice's absence would also indicate this fact: perhaps
she had already joined her father and was on her way back to Snowy Gulch
with him. In that case, why had he himself been spared?
He looked out of the door of the cavern, trying to get some idea of the
lateness of the hour. The very quality of the darkness indicated that
the night was far advanced. Neilson would not be hunting game at this
hour. Was his own war--planned long ago--even now being waged in ways
beyond his ken?
His old concern for Beatrice swept through him. With considerable
difficulty he got to his feet, then holding on to the wail, guided
himself to the shelf where they ordinarily kept their little store of
matches. He scratched one of them against the wall.
In the flaring light his eyes made a swift but careful appraisal of his
surroundings. The girl's cot had not been slept in; and to his great
amazement he saw that their food supplies were spent. Still holding to
the wall he walked to the cave mouth.
Instantly his keen eyes saw the far-off gleam of the camp fire on the
distant margin of the lake. For all that the hour was late, it burned
high and bright. He watched it, vaguely conscious of the insidious
advance of a ghastly fear. Beatrice was his ally now--if these weeks had
sent home one fact to him it was this--and her absence might easily
indicate that she was helpless in the enemy's hands. The thing suggested
ugly possibilities. Yet he could not aid her. He could scarcely walk;
even the knife that he wore at his belt was missing, probably carried by
Beatrice when she gathered roots in the woods.
But presently all questions as to his course were settled for him. His
straining ear caught the faintest, almost imperceptible vibration in the
air--a soundwave so dim and obscure that it seemed impossible that the
human mind could interpret it--but Ben recognized it in a flash. In some
great trouble and horror, in the sullen light of that distant camp fire,
Beatrice had screamed for aid.
Only by the grace of the Red Gods had he heard the sound at all. Except
for the fact that the half-mile intervening was as still as death, and
that half the way the sound sped over water, he couldn't have hoped to
perceive it. If the wind had blown elsewhere than straight toward him
from the enemy camp, or if his marvelous sense of hearing had been less
acute, the result would have been the same; and there could have been no
answer from this dark man at the cave mouth who stood so tense and
still. Finally, by instinct as much as by conscious intelligence, he
identified the sound, marked it as a reality rather than a fancy, and
read the tragic need behind it. Swiftly he started down the glade toward
Yet in a moment he knew that unless he conserved his strength he could
not hope to make a fourth of the distance. At the first steps he swayed,
half staggering. He had paid the price for his weeks of illness and his
injuries. If he had been in a sick room, under a physician's care, he
would have believed it impossible to walk unsupported across the room.
But need is the mother of strength, and this was the test. Besides, he
had had several days of convalescence that had put back into his sinews
a measure of his mighty strength. Mostly he progressed by holding on to
the trees, pulling himself forward step by step.
Likely he would come too late to change the girl's fate. Yet even now he
knew he must not turn back. If the penalty were death, there must be no
hesitancy in him; he must not withhold one step.
But it was a losing fight. The hill itself seemed endless; a hundred
cruel yards of marsh must be traversed before ever he reached the
nearest point by the lake. The enemy camp from where Beatrice had called
to him lay on the far side of the lake, a distance of a full mile if he
followed around the curving shore. And black and bitter self-hatred
swept like fire through him when he realized that he could not possibly
keep on his feet for so long a way.
Was this all he had fought for--surging upward through these long, weary
weeks out of the shadow of death--only to fall dead on the trail in the
moment of Beatrice's need? Instantly he knew that nothing in his life,
no other desire or dream, had ever meant as much to him as this: that he
might reach her side in time. Even his desire for vengeance, in that
twilight madness, like Roland's, that had shaped his destiny, had been
wavering and feeble compared to this. And no moment of his existence had
ever been so dark, so bereft of the last, dim star of hope that lights
men's way in the deep night of despair.
He gave no thought to the fact of his own helplessness against three
armed men in case he did succeed in reaching their camp. The point could
not possibly be considered. The imperious instincts that forced him on
simply could not take it into reckoning. He knew only he must reach her
side and put in her service all that he had.
He fell again and again as he tried to make headway in the marsh. But
always he forced himself up and on. Only too plain he saw that the time
was even now upon him when he could no longer keep his feet at all. But
still he plunged on, and with tragically slow encroachments the shore
line drew up to him.
But he could not go on. The fire itself was hardly a quarter of a mile
distant, directly across the lake, but to follow the long shore was an
insuperable mile. Already his leg muscles were failing him, refusing to
the respond to the impulse of his nerves. Yet it might be that if he
could make himself heard his enemies would leave the girl for a moment,
at least--give her an instant's respite--while they came and dispatched
his own life. Whatever they were doing to her, there in that ring of
firelight, might be stayed for a moment, at least.
But at that instant he remembered the canoe. He had always kept it
hidden in a little thicket of tall reeds,--if only the girl had not
removed it from its place in his weeks of sickness! He plunged down into
the tall tules. Yes, the boat was still in place.
It took all the strength of his weakened body to push it out from the
reeds into the water. Then he seized the long pole they had sometimes
used to propel themselves over the lake. Except for his injured arm,
the paddle would have been better--he could have made better time and
escaped the danger of being stranded in deep water--but he doubted that
he could handle it with his faltering arm. He pushed off, putting most
of the strain on his uninjured right arm.
The canoe was strongly but lightly made, so that it could be portaged
with greatest possible ease; and his strokes, though feeble, propelled
it slowly through the water. The great, white full moon, beloved of long
ago, looked down from above the tall, dark heads of the spruce and
changed the little water-body into a miracle of burnished silver. In its
light Ben's face showed pale, but with a curious, calm strength.
The lake seemed untouched by the faint breath of wind that blew from the
distant shore. The waters lay quiet, and the trout beneath saw the black
shadow of the canoe as it passed. A cow moose and her calf sprang up the
bank with a splash, frightened by the poling figure in the stern. And on
the far shore, clear where the lake had its outlet in a small river,
even more keen wilderness eyes might have beheld the black, moving dot
that was the craft. But the distance was too far and the wind was wrong
for the keen mind behind the eyes to make any sort of an interpretation.
It might have been that Fenris the wolf, running with a female and two
younger males that he had mastered that long-ago night on the ridge,
paused in his hunting to watch and wonder. But his wild brute thoughts
were not under the bondage of memory to-night; his savage heart was
thrilled and full; and more than likely he did not even turn his head.
Ray and Chan, standing beside their prisoner in their grisly camp on the
opposite shore, might have beheld Ben's approach if weightier matters
had not occupied their minds. They had only to walk to the edge of the
firelight and stare down through a rift in the trees to see him. But
they stood with the angry glare revealing a strange and sinister
intentness in their drawn faces and ominous speculations in their evil
It was a wilderness moon that rose over the spruce to-night,--white as
new silver, incredibly large, inscrutably mysterious. The winds had
whisked away the last pale cloud that might have dimmed its glory, and
its light poured down with equal bounty on peak and hill, forest and
yellow marsh. The heavy woods partook most deeply of its enchantment:
tall, stately trees pale and nebulous as if with silver frost, each
little stream dancing and shimmering in its light, every glade laid with
a fairy tapestry, every shadow dreadful and black in contrast. The
wilderness breathed and shivered as if swept with passion.
The wilderness moon is the moon of desire; and all this great space of
silence seemed to respond. It seemed to throb, like one living entity,
as if in longing for something lost long ago--a half-forgotten
happiness, a glory and a triumph that were gone never to return. No
creatures that followed the woods trails were dull and flat to-night.
They were all swept with mystery, knowing vague longings or fierce
desires. It was the harvest moon; but here it did not light the fields
so that men might harvest grain. Rather it illumined the hunting trails
so that the beasts of prey might find relief from the wild lusts and
seething ferment that was in their veins. But mostly the forest mood was
disconsolate, rather than savage, to-night. The wild geese on the lake
called their weird and plaintive cries, their strange complaints that no
man understands; the loons laughed in insane despair; and the coyotes
on the ridge wailed out the pain of living and the vague longings of
their wild hearts.
In the glory of that moon Fenris the wolf knew the same, resistless
longings that so many times before had turned him from the game trails.
There was something here that was unutterably dear to him,--something
that drew him, called him like a voice, and he could not turn aside.
Because he was a beast, he likely did not know the force that was
drawing him again along the lake shore. Yet the souls of the lower
creatures no man knows; and perhaps he had conscious longings,
profoundly intense, for a moment's touch of a strong hand on his
shoulder,--one never-to-be-forgotten caress from a certain god that had
gone to a cave to live. It was true that his wild instincts, ever more
in dominance these past weeks, would likely halt him at the cavern maw,
permitting no intimacy other than to ascertain that all was well. They
were too strong ever to brook man's control again. The moon was a moon
of desire, but only because it was also the moon of memory,--and perhaps
memories, stirring and exalting, were sweeping through him. Straight as
an arrow he turned toward the cave.
His followers--the gaunt female and two younger males, the structure
about which the winter pack would form--hesitated at first. They had no
commanding memories of the cavern on the far side of the lake. Yet
Fenris was their leader; by the deep-lying laws of the pack they must
follow where he led. They could not decoy him into the trails of game.
As ever they sped swiftly, silently after him.
In this forest of desires Ben knew but one,--that he might yet be of aid
to Beatrice. But he knew in his heart that it was a vain hope. He was
within a hundred yards of Ray's camp now, but the struggle to reach the
lake and the poling across its waters had brought him seemingly to the
absolute limit of his strength, clear to the brink of utter exhaustion.
Never in his life before had he known the full meaning of
fatigue,--fatigue that was like a paralysis, blunting the mechanism of
the brain, burning like a slow fire in his muscles, poisoning the vital
fluids of his nerves. Stroke after stroke, never ceasing!--The flame was
high, crackling--just before him. Through a rift in the trees he could
see the outline of two men and the slim form of the girl. Just a few
But of all the desires that the moon invoked in the woods people there
were none so unredeemed, so wicked and cruel as this that slowly wakened
in the evil hearts of these two degenerate men, Beatrice's captors. She
sensed it only vaguely at first. All the disasters that had fallen upon
her had not taught her to accept such a thing as this: surely this would
be spared her, at least. There is a kindly blind spot in the brain that
often will not let the ugly truth go home.
For a strange, still moment Ray's face seemed devoid of all expression.
It was flat and lifeless as dark clay. Then Beatrice felt the insult of
his quickening gaze.
"Put a rope around her wrists, Chan," he said. "We don't want to take
chances on her getting away."
He spoke slowly, rather flatly. There was nothing that her senses could
seize upon--either in his face or voice to justify the swift,
strangling, killing horror that came upon her. He stood simply gazing,
and as she met his gaze her lips parted and drew back in a grimace of
terror; thus they stood until the blood began to leap fast in Chan's
veins. She needed no further disillusionment. Chan spoke behind her, a
startled oath cut off short, and she felt him moving swiftly toward her.
It was her last instant of respite; and her muscle set and drew for a
final, desperate attempt at self-defense.
She wore Ben's knife at her belt, and her hand sped toward it. But the
motion, fast as it was, came too late. Chan saw it; and leaping swiftly,
his arms went about her and pinned her own arms to her sides.
She tried in vain to fight her way out of his grasp. She writhed,
screaming; and in the frenzy of her fear she all but succeeded in
hurling him off. She managed to draw the knife clear of the sheath, yet
she couldn't raise her arm to strike. Ray was aiding his confederate
now; and in an instant more she was helpless.
Their drawn faces bent close to hers. She felt their hot hands as they
drew her wrists in front of her and fastened them with a rope. "Not too
tight, Chan," Ray advised. "We don't want her to get uncomfortable
before we're done with her. Don't tie her ankles; she can't run through
the brush with her arms tied.--Now give her a moment to breathe."
They stood on each side of her, regarding her with secret, growing
excitement. Already they had descended too far to know pity for this
girl. The wide-open eyes, so dark with terror and in contrast with the
stark paleness of her face, the lips that trembled so piteously, the
slender, girlish figure so helpless to their depraved desires moved them
not at all.
The scene was one of never-to-be-forgotten vividness. The tenderness and
mercy, most of all the restraint that has become manifest in men in
these centuries since they have left their forest lairs to live in
permanent abodes, had no place here. About them ringed the primeval
forest, ensilvered by the moon; the fire crackled with a dread ferocity;
and at the edge of the thickets the motionless form of Jeffery Neilson
lay with face buried in the soft, summer grass. All was silent and
motionless, except the fierce crackling of the fire; except a curious,
intermittent, upward twitching of the corner of Ray's lips.
"So you and Ben are bunkies now, are you?" he asked slowly, without
But the girl made no reply, only gazing at him with starting eyes.
"A traitor to us, and Ben's squaw!" He turned fiercely to Chan. "I guess
that gives us right to do what we want to with her. And now she can yell
if she wants to for her lover to come and save her."
She did not even try to buy their mercy by informing them where they
might find Ben. Only too well she knew that their dreadful intentions
could not be turned aside: she would only sacrifice Ben without aiding
herself. Ray moved toward her, his eyes deeply sunken, the pupils
"You haven't lost all your looks," he told her breathlessly. "That mouth
is still pretty enough to kiss. And I guess you won't slap--this time--"
He drew her toward him, his dark face lowering toward hers. She
struggled, trying to wrench away from him. Helpless and alone, the
moment of final horror was at hand. In this last instant her whole being
leaped again to Ben,--the man whose strength had been her fort
throughout all their first weeks in the wilds, but whom she had left
helpless and sick in the distant cavern. Yet even now he would rise and
come to her if he knew of her peril. Her voice rose shrilly to a scream.
And Ray's hands fell from her shoulders as he heard the incredible
answer from the shore of the lake. The brush rustled and cracked: there
was a strange sound of a heavy footfall,--slow, unsteady, but
approaching them as certain as the speeding stars approach their
mysterious destinations in the far reaches of the sky. Ray
straightened, staring; Chan stood as if frozen, his hands half-raised,
his eyes wide open.
"I'm coming, Beatrice," some one said in the coverts. Her cries, uttered
when her father fell, had not gone unheard. In the last stages of
exhaustion, deathly pale yet with a face of iron, Ben came reeling
toward them out of the moonlight.
Ben walked quietly into the circle of firelight and stood at Beatrice's
side. But while Ray and Chan gazed at him as if he were a spectre from
the grave, Beatrice's only impulse was one of immeasurable and
unspeakable thankfulness. No fate on earth was so dreadful but that it
would be somewhat alleviated by the fact of his presence: just the sight
of him, standing beside her, put her in some vague way out of Ray's
power to harm. Exhausted, reeling, he was still the prop of her life and
"Here I am," he said quietly. "The letter's in my pocket. Do what you
want with me--but let Beatrice go."
His words brought Ray to himself in some degree at least. The ridiculous
fear of the moment before speedily passed away. Why, the man was
exhausted--helpless in their hands--and the letter was in his pocket. It
meant _triumph_--nothing else. All Ray's aims had been attained. With
Ben's death the claim, a fourth of which had been his motive when he had
slain Ezram, would pass entirely to him,--except for such share as he
would have to give Chan. His star of fortune was in the sky. It was his
moment of glory,--long-awaited but enrapturing him at last.
Neilson lay seriously wounded, perhaps dead by now. Whatever his
injuries, he would not go back with them to share in the gold of the
claim. The girl, also, was his prey,--to do with what he liked.
"I see you've come," he answered. "You might as well; we'd have found
you to-morrow." His voice was no longer flat, but rather exultant,
boasting. "You thought you could get away--but we've shown you."
Ben nodded. "You are--" he strained for the name he had heard Beatrice
speak so often--"Ray Brent?" His eyes fell to the form of Neilson,
wounded beyond the fire. "I see you've been at your old job--killing. It
was you who killed Ezra Melville."
Ray smiled, ever so faintly: this was what he loved. "You're talking to
the right man. Anything you'd like to do about it?"
Ben's face hardened. "There is nothing I can do, now. You came too late.
But I would have had something to do if I had my rifle. I'm glad it was
you, not Beatrice's father. I ask you this--will you accept my
proposition. To take Ezram's letter, destroy it and me too--and let the
girl go in safety?"
Beatrice stretched her bound arms and touched his hairy wrist. "No,
Ben," she told him quietly. "There's no use of trying to make such a
bargain as that. Men that murder--and assault women,--won't keep their
"They were about to attack you, were they?" His voice dropped a tone;
otherwise it seemed the same.
"Yes--just as you came."
He turned once more to Ray, eyeing him with such a look of contempt and
scorn that it smarted like a whiplash in spite of the protecting mantel
of his new-found triumph. "Oh, you depraved dogs!" he told them quietly
and distinctly. "You yellow, mongrel cowards!"
Ray straightened, stung by the words. "And I'll make you wish you was
dead before you ever said that," he threatened. "I'll tell you what you
wanted to know a minute ago--and I tell you no. I won't make any deal
with you. We'll do what we like to you, and we'll do what we like with
your dirty squaw, too--the woman you've been living with all these
months. We've got you where we want you. You're in no fix to make terms.
Chan--put a rope around his legs and a gag in his rotten mouth!"
They moved toward him simultaneously, and Ben summoned the last jot of
his almost-spent strength to hurl them off. They did not need deadly
weapons for this wasted form. Yet for the duration of one second Ben
fought with an incredible ferocity and valor.
He hurled Chan from his path, and his sound right arm leaped to Ray's
throat in a death grip. For that one instant his old-time strength
returned to him,--as to Samson as his arms went about the pillars of the
temple. They found him no weakling, in that first instant, but a deadly,
fighting beast, the "Wolf" Darby of the provinces,--his finger nails
sinking ever deeper into the flesh of Ray's throat, his body braced
against Chan's attack. And for all that Beatrice's arms were tied, she
leaped like a she-wolf to her lover's aid.
But such an unequal battle could last only an instant. Ray focused his
attack upon Ben's injured left arm, Chan struck once at the girl,
hurling her to the ground with a base blow, then lashed brutal blows
into Ben's face. The burst of strength ebbed as quickly as it had come:
his legs wilted under him, and he sank slowly to the ground.
Maddened with battle, for a moment more Chan lashed cowardly blows into
his face; and he left the brutal labor only to help Ray affix ropes
about his ankles. Then the two conquerors stood erect, breathing loudly.
Seemingly the utter limit of their brutality was reached,--but for the
moment only. A strange and foreboding silence fell over the camp: only
the sound of troubled breathing was heard above the lessening crackle of
the fire. They did not turn at once again to the work of crushing Ben's
life out with their fists and boots, nor did they restrain Beatrice as
she crawled over the blood-stained grass to reach her lover's side.
"Let her go," Ray said to Charley. "She can't help him any."
It was true. They had put up their last defense. The girl crept nearer,
lying almost prone beside him, and her soft hands stole over his bruised
flesh. But no tears came now. She was past the kindly mercy of tears.
She could only gaze at him, and sometimes dry half-sobs clutched at her
throat. The man half-opened his eyes, smiling.
Life still remained in his rugged body. Even the cruel test of the last
hour had not taken that from him. The sturdy heart still beat, and the
breath still whispered through his lips: there was life in plenty to
afford such sport as Ray and Chan might have for him.
The last, least quality of redemption--such magic and beauty as might
have been wrought by the firelight dancing over the moonlit glade--was
quite gone now. The powers of wickedness were in the ascendency, and
this was only the abode of horror. Yet it was all tragically true, not a
nightmare from which she would soon waken. This was the remote heart of
Back There--a primeval land where the demons of lust and death walked
unrestrained--and the shadow of the moonlit trees fell dark upon her.
The back logs were burning dully now, and the coals were red, and Chan
and Ray took seats on a huge, dead spruce to talk over their further
plans. It was all easy enough. They could linger here, living mostly on
meat, until the rising waters of the Yuga could carry them down to the
Indian villages. Their methods and procedure in regard to Ben were the
only remaining questions.
For a few minutes they took little notice of the prone figures at the
far edge of the fading firelight. In their hands they were as helpless
as Jeffery Neilson, left already by the receding radiance to the soft
mercy of the shadows. Attention could be given them soon enough. Their
own triumph was beginning to give way to deep fatigue.
Ben and Beatrice had talked softly at first, accepting their fate at
last and trying to forget all things but the fact of each other's
presence. They had kept the faith to-night, they had both been true; and
perhaps they had conquered, in some degree, the horror of death. His
right hand held hers close to his lips, and only she could understand
the message in its soft pressure, and the gentle, kindly shadows in his
quiet eyes. But presently her gaze fastened on some object in the grass
He did not understand at first. He knew enough not to attract his
enemies' attention by trying to turn. The girl relaxed again, but her
hand throbbed in his, and her eyes shone somberly as if the luster of
some strange, dark hope.
"What is it?" he asked whispering.
"I see a way out--for us both," she told him. She knew he would not
misunderstand and dream that she saw an actual avenue to life and
safety. "Don't give any sign."
"Then hurry," he urged. "They may be back any instant. What is it?"
"A way to cheat 'em--to keep them from torturing you--and to save
me--from all the things they'll do to me--when you're dead. Oh,
Ben--you won't fail me--you'll do it for me."
He smiled, gently and strongly. "Do you think I'd fail you now?"
"Then reach your good arm on the other side--soft as you can. There's a
knife lying there--your own knife--they knocked out of my hand. They'll
jump at the first gleam. You know what to do--first me, in the
His face showed no horror at her words. They were down to the most
terrible realities; and as she had said, this was the way out! The great
kindness still dwelt in his eyes--and she knew he would do as she asked.
One gleam of steal, one swift touch at the throat--and they would never
know the unspeakable fate that their depraved captors planned for them.
_It was no less than victory in the last instant of despair!_ It was
freedom: although they did not know into what Mystery and what Fear the
act would dispatch them, it was freedom from Ray and Chan, none the
less. And Ben welcomed the plan as might a prisoner, waiting in the
death-cell, welcome a reprieve.
He turned, groping with his hand. There was no use of waiting longer.
The knife lay just beyond his reach; and softly he moved his body
through the grass.
But this gate to mercy was closed before they reached it. A sudden
flaring of the fire revealed them--the gleam of the blade and Ben's
stretching hand--and Ray left his log in a swift, catlike leap.
If Ben had possessed full use of both hands there still might have been
time to send home the two crucial blows, or at least to dispatch
Beatrice out of Ray's power to harm. But his injured arm impeded him,
and his hand fumbled as he tried to seize the hilt. With a sharp oath
Ray crushed the blade into the ground with his heel; then kicked
viciously at the prone body of his enemy.
And at that first base blow his rage and blood-lust that had been
gathering was swiftly freed. It was all that was needed to set him at
the work of torture. For an instant he stood almost motionless except
for the spasmodic twitching--now almost continuous--at his lips and for
the slow turning of his head as he looked about for a weapon with which
he could more quickly satiate the murder-madness in his veins. The knife
appealed to him not at all; but his eye fell on a long, heavy club of
spruce that had been cut for fuel. He bent and his strong hands seized
As he swung it high the girl leaped between--with a last, frantic
effort, wholly instinctive--to shield Ben's body with her own. But it
was only an instant's reprieve. Chan had followed Ben, and sharing Ray's
fiendish mood, jerked her aside. Ben raised himself up as far as he
could at a final impulse to thrust the girl out of harm's way.
Yet it was to be that Ray's murderous blow was never to go home. A
mighty and terrible ally had come to Ben's aid. He came pouncing from
the darkness, a gaunt and dreadful avenger whose code of death was as
remorseless as Ray's own.
It was Fenris the wolf, and he had found his master at last. Missing him
at the accustomed place in the cave, he had trailed him to the lake
margin: a smell on the wind had led him the rest of the way. He was not
one to announce his coming by an audible footfall in the thicket. Like a
ghost he had glided almost to the edge of the firelight, lingering
there--with a caution learned in these last wild weeks of running with
his brethren--until he had made up his brute mind in regard to the
strangers in the camp. But he had waited only until he saw Ray kick the
helpless form before him,--that of the god that Fenris, for all the wild
had claimed him, still worshipped in his inmost heart. With fiendish,
maniacal fury he had sprung to avenge the blow.
And his three followers, trained by the pack laws to follow where he
led, and keyed to the highest pitch by their leader's fury, leaped like
gray demons of the Pit in his wake.
As a young tree breaks and goes down in the gale Ray Brent went down
before the combined attack of the wolves. What desperate struggle he
made only seemed to increase their fury and shatter him the faster.
Utterly futile were all his blows: his frantic, piercing screams of fear
and agony raised to heaven, but were answered with no greater mercy than
that he would have shown to Ben a moment before.
Seemingly in an instant he was on his back and the ravening pack were
about him in a ring. In that lurid firelight their fangs gleamed like
ivory as they flashed, here and there, over his body and throat, and
their fierce eyes blazed with pale-blue fire,--the mark and sign of the
blood madness of the beasts of prey.
Seemingly in a single instant the life had been torn from him, leaving
only a strange, huddled, ghastly thing beside the dying fire. But the
pack leaped from him at once. Fenris had caught sight of Chan's figure
as he ran for the nearest tree and seemingly with one leap he was upon
him. He sprang at him from the side; and his fangs gleamed once.
He had struck true, his fangs went home, and the life went out of Chan
Heminway in a single, neighing scream. He pitched forward, shuddered
once in the soft grass, and lay still. The pack surged around his body,
struck at it once or twice, then stood growling as if waiting for their
Before ever Ray fell, Ben had taken what measures of self-defense he
could in case the pack, forgetting its master's master, might turn on
himself and the girl. He had reached the knife hilt and severed the
ropes about the girl's wrists. "Stay behind me," he cautioned. "Don't
move a muscle."
He knew that any attempt to reach and climb a tree would attract the
attention of the pack and send them ravening about her. Again he knew
that her life as well as his own depended on his control of the pack
leader. He saw Chan go down, seemingly in a single instant, and he
braced himself against attack. "Down, Fenris!" he shouted. "Down--get
The great wolf started at the voice, then stood beside the fallen,
gazing at Ben with fierce, luminous eyes. "Down, down, boy," Ben
cautioned, in a softer voice. "There, old fellow--down--down."
Then Fenris whined in answer, and Ben knew that he was no longer to be
feared. The three lesser wolves seemed startled, standing in a nervous
group, yet growling savagely and eyeing him across the dying fire. For a
moment Fenris's fury had passed to them, but now that his rage was dead,
all they had left was an inborn fear of such a breed as this,--these
tall forms that died so easily in their fangs. Fenris trotted slowly
toward Ben, but with the true instincts of the wild his followers knew
that this was no affair of fangs and death. He came in love, in a
remembered comradeship, just as often he had led them to the mouth of
the cavern, and they did not understand. They slowly backed away into
the shadows, fading like ghosts.
Ben's arms, in unspeakable gratitude, went about the shoulders of the
wolf. Beatrice, sobbing uncontrollably yet swept with that infinite
thankfulness of the redeemed, crept to his side. Fenris whined and
shivered in the arms of his god.
Quietude came at last to that camp beside the lake, in the far, hidden
heart of Back There. Once more the blood moved with sweet, normal
tranquillity in the veins, the thrill and stir died in the air, and the
moonlight was beautiful on the spruce.
The wolves had gone. Fenris's three brethren had slipped away, perhaps
wholly mystified and deeply awed by their madness of a moment before;
and from the ridge top they had called for their leader to join them. He
had done his work, he had avenged the base blow that had seemed to
strike at his own wild heart, he had received the caress he had
craved,--and there was no law for him to stay. The female called
enticingly; the wild game was running for his pleasure on the trails.
Ben had watched the struggle in his fierce breast, and Beatrice's eyes
were soft and wonderfully lustrous in the subdued light as she gave the
wolf a parting caress. But he could not stay with them. The primal laws
of his being bade otherwise. His was the way of the open trails, the
nights of madness and the rapture of hunting--and these were folk of the
caves! They were not his people, although his love for them burned like
fire in his heart.
He could not deny the call of his followers on the ridge. It was like a
chain, drawing him remorselessly to them. Whining, he had sped away into
The fire had been built up, Beatrice had rallied her spent strength by
full feeding of the rich, dried meat, and had done what she could for
Neilson's injury. Ben, exhausted, had lain down in some of the blankets
of his enemy's outfit. Neilson was not, however, mortally hurt. The
bullet had coursed through the region of his shoulder, missing his heart
and lungs, and although he was all but unconscious, they had every
reason to believe that a few weeks of rest would see him well again.
Beatrice bathed the wound, bandaged it the best she could, then covered
him up warmly and let him go to sleep. And the time came at last, long
past the midnight hour, that she crept once more to Ben's side.
There was little indeed for them to say. The stress of the night had
taken from them almost all desire to talk. But Ben took her hand in his
feebly, and held it against his lips.
"We're safe now," Beatrice told him, her eye's still bright with tears.
"We've seen it through, and we're safe."
Ben nodded happily. It was true: there was nothing further for them to
fear. With the aid of the rifles of the three fallen, they could procure
meat in plenty for their remaining time at Back There; besides, the
store of jerked caribou and moose was enough to hold them over. When the
rains came again, the three of them--Neilson and Ben and Beatrice--could
glide on down to the Indian encampments in the canoe. Thence they could
reach the white settlements beyond the mountains.
Her glance into the future went still farther, because she knew certain
news that as yet Ben had not heard. She had heard from Ray's lips that
night that Ben's claim had been legally filed; he had only to return and
take possession. It straightened out the future, promised success in the
battle of life, gave him an interest to hold him in these northern
forests. But she would not tell him to-night. It could wait for a more
Presently she saw that he was trying to speak to her, whispering; trying
to draw her ear down to his lips. She smiled, with an infinite
tenderness. Dimly though he spoke, she heard him every word.
"I love you," he told her simply. He watched her face, as intently as
the three Wise Men watched the East, for a sign. And he saw it, clear
and ineffably wonderful, in the stars that came into her eyes.
"I love you," she answered, with equal simplicity. They lay a while in
silence, blissful in this wonder each had for the other, wholly content
just that their hands and lips should touch.
The same miracle was upon them both; and the girl's thought, ranging
far, seized upon a deep and moving discovery. "All this belongs to us,"
she told him, indicating with one movement of her arm the boundless
solitudes about them. "This is our own country, isn't it, Ben? We can't
It was true: they could never leave the forest for long. They were its
children, bred in the bone. Their strong thews would waste in a gentler
land. It was their heritage. They must not go where they could not
behold the dark line of the forest against the sky.
The fire burned down. The moon wheeled through the sky. The tall spruce
saw the dawn afar and beckoned.
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