TWICE a week the train stopped at Wymore siding to throw off and take on mail. On the other five days it roared through the settlement, a meteor rushing from ocean to ocean.
Except for the noise of its passing, Wymore lay undisturbed, steeped in the thin, pine-scented mountain air. A small group of log shanties formed the town—post-office and general store, pool-room and dance-hall, the section foreman’s residence, a straggling line of half-a dozen cabins used as houses. These buildings faced the railway track in a half-moon of stumps, backed against a wall of evergreens. Station-house and freight-shed, as yet unused, stood by the garish yellow of their new platform, for the railway company anticipated the development of this forest settlement into a busy centre. Timber and mineral wealth lay unused about it, and a tumbling mountain river—power for their development—ran beside the track for fifty miles down the mountain slope.
Here, on Tuesdays and Saturdays the population of the settlement met as at a festival. The Italian section foreman, usually addressed as Dago Joe, combined the functions of station-master and freight-agent. His Indian satellites revolved with the scanty mail and freight at his bidding. The post-master, also owner of the general store, was one James Bowden—a whiskered bachelor, whom rumor stated had been attracted to this unfrequented spot because of its scarcity of women. He had an interest in the pool-room, which was managed by a half-breed, and was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the district. Besides the aristocracy of the townsmen, there was to be found at these gatherings the scanty population of twenty miles around. These were mostly of the male persuasion, men having small mining and timber claims, a few squatters on claims, a squatters on the narrow meadows along the river, growing well-to-do from the sale of river hay to the lumber camps. A picturesque line of Indians stood in the background, hoping for gain by posing for snapshots for the tourists on the Transcontinental.
But on this Saturday, Wymore had come to see a great event. Wild Dick Harrington was coming down from his mountain cabin to meet his bride. The breathless news had traveled throughout the district, although there was no telephone to spread it. Literally shouted from peak to peak was the tidings, that “Wild Dick’s woman was comin’ on Sat’day’s flyer,” and the invitation followed—“better come down and see the fun!”
Consequently an hour before train time every unit of the population—with the exception of the bridegroom —was waiting on the platform, indulging in wild speculation as to the appearance and personality of the bride. A group of young prospectors, friends of Dick’s, held the centre.
“Dick’s been going up to Larrabee pretty regular lately," said Tommy Fagin, who had a claim next to Harrington on Lookout Mountain. “They’s five, maybe six, pretty gals there, I’ve heard tell.”
“Naw,” broke in another of the group, “that ain’t where she comes from. She’s a gal that Dick met in the city. You all know he goes to the city every winter to work. Ever tell you anything about his girl, Tommy? You’re pretty thick with him.”
“There ain’t many folks gets thick enough with Dick to ask him questions. Besides, I ain’t at the claim much.”
“You’ve said a mouthful. Tommy. Some mining guy, you are. You wear out more billiard cues than shovels. But I back you up about Larrabee. Nice-lookin’ women there. This here town is the only dump along the line where there ain’t no attractive females.”
"If old Bowden would get out of town, some respectable women might come in,” came a suggestion discreetly offered from the rear.
This caused a laugh at the old post-master’s expense. He smiled and for answer pointed to the mountain trail.
"Here comes Dick.”
Which shrewdly drew the attention of the jesters from himself and threw it upon the natural butt of all practical jokers—the bridegroom.
Harrington was a tall, keen-eyed man of some twenty-five or six years, tanned and lean with long hours on mountain-trails. He was popular with the men, reputed a sure shot and a successful hunter, and worked what was supposed to be a rich claim in one of the most inaccessible parts of the mountains. How he had earned the sobriquet of “wild” no one could say, except that he tackled every job, work or play, with an unbridled energy that usually carried him through in a whirlwind of success. He rode a slim-legged bay mountain pony, and led a second saddled mount.
A storm of jokes and badinage greeted him, above which rose high the voice of Tommy Fagin, whereon Harrington, who had now dismounted, set Master Tommy down hard on the edge of the platform.
“Glad to see you all here,” he said. “Mighty kind of you to come. Hope you have the beer on ice, Bowden. The boys will be thirsty after so much gabble. The treat’s on me, fellows.”
He had a slow, soft manner of speech, which contrasted oddly with his direct, decisive manner. When the ponies were securely tied he joined the group on the platform, concurred good-humoredly in the jokes of the younger set, and quietly thanked the older men for their good wishes.
“How’s the train, Joe?”
“She’s on time, Meester Dick. You can see her smoke from the bend. There’s a tel'gram for you, thrown off last night’s train. I have eet in da office.”
Harrington followed the kindly Italian into the station house where from the new but dusty desk of the unused office he carefully took out the yellow envelope. A telegram was an event, not to be lightly handed out in public, as were letters and newspapers. Harrington opened it and read the message.
DAGO JOE returned to his duties outside, but the man remained a long time in the cool office, pondering the message in his hand. Presently he folded it carefully, replaced it in the envelope, and thrust the whole deep into his breeches-pocket. Tommy Fagin shouted through the door. The train was coming.
"Cheer up, Dick. It ain’t as bad as all that. Here he is, boys! Shove him to the front.”
The merry crowd fell in behind, as the bridegroom walked mechanically towards the slowing train. He could see the mail-clerk leaning far out of the door, ready to throw out the sack and catch in the out-going mail, for the train rarely stopped entirely, slowing down only enough to discharge and take on the mail-sacks. Freight was handled by a slow local which backed and shunted along the division once a week.
But to-day the train did not make its expected stop at once. Instead it first gathered speed, slowed, and then moved on again a second time. As it did so, a girl in a blue cloak jumped off the steps of the day coach and came along the platform, keeping close in under the high cars. The crowd on the platform waited courteously, leaving Harrington to walk hesitatingly toward her.
THE conductor leaned far out and signalled to the driver. The brakes ground the heavy wheels and the stopped with a jerk. A heavily-built, gay-mustached man dropped off the rear of the coaches. The girl in blue began to run.
Harrington saw her face clearly as she ran toward him. She was very pale and her mouth twitched. He saw, too, that her eyes were very dark and hunted. She reminded him of a soft-eyed creature caught in a trap. Harrington never trapped. He shot, swiftly and mercifully. The big man overtook her, and laid a heavy hand on her shoulder, so that they stopped face to face with the wondering crowd on the platform. Harrington spoke first.
“What’s the matter here?”
The gray-mustached man ignored the question, and spoke sharply to the girl.
“I asked you what’s the trouble here?” repeated Harrington.
“I don’t know as it matters to you, mister. I’m Detective Holland, and this young woman is wanted by the police at the coast. They wired me that she was on this train, and for me to bring her back.”
“How do you know this is the right girl?”
“Here’s the description: Eileen Howard—pale—dark eyes—fair hair—-blue cape—brown shoes—blue serge dress—small scar on the right hand”—the girl hastily wrapped her hands in her cloak—“and here’s my authority. Now don’t butt in, mister, or I’ll have to take you along too.”
Dick’s mouth set in a tight line.
“That sort of talk doesn’t go around here. We’re accustomed to real police in these mountains, not fat guys trailing helpless girls. How can you be sure of your prisoner on such a description? I’ve seen hundreds of girls such as your warrant describes.”
“Oh, I know, all right, all right. I’ve seen enough of these dames to know ’em. All right, conductor, you can start your bus. We’re ready. This way, my girl, and no fuss, or it’ll be the bracelets for you.”
The girl suddenly jerked her arm free from the detective’s grasp and ran to Harrington. She made no spoken appeal, but laid her small hand timidly on the sleeve of his khaki-colored shirt. Behind her the detective swore under his breath and reached into his pockets for his hand-cuffs.
When Harrington had walked along the platform to meet the train his immobile face had concealed such a storm of anger and hurt pride as he had never before experienced. He had gone to meet the train because for once he did not know what to say or do. Now to that pride and anger were added pity for this little helpless thing, and contempt for the hunter at her heels. He stepped forward with the swift decision which characterized him.
“Put those handcuffs back into your pocket,” he said, sharply, “and listen to me. You’re on the wrong track, my man. I don’t know anything about the Eileen Howard you’re after, but this young lady is my fiancee, Miss Mildred Burton, who is to be married to me to-day. Here is my license, and those fellows are my friends who have come to the wedding.”
“What’s that you say? What sort of a game are you putting up?”
“Just what I have told you. This lady has come to be married to me. You get back on your train and take yourself off. We’ve no proof that you are an officer but your own say-so. How do we know what you are? You had better beat it while the beating’s good.”
The crowd chimed in with a menacing growl. The astounded official hesitated and was lost.
HARRINGTON had caught the eye of the Pullman porter who was standing on the high step of the coach, enjoying the break in the monotony of his run. With the prescience of porters, his eye followed down to the hand thrust into the breeches pocket, and caught the glint of green. He saw a great light.
“Yassuh, dat’s so,” he said, eagerly. “Mistuh detective, dis yere lady done got on at Mountain Springs, five stations back.”
“Was there another woman in a blue cloak?” demanded the detective.
The crumpled green in the half-withdrawn hand moved. The porter had another inspiration.
“Lemme think—yassuh, mister detective, dere was now. The young lady wid a cloak like dis here young lady’s, dat changed her mind so suddenly at Winton Junction, and took the train dere foh de States. Mighty quick work movin’, suh, I tell you. Slipped me a five-spot to get her bags ovah.”
The detective stamped in his chagrin.
“You see,” said Harrington, “you’re following the wrong trail. Porter, get this lady’s bag. It’s a strange thing that a young lady cannot travel for five stations on a public train without being annoyed in this manner.” Before the officer could make up his mind to any action, the porter had handed out a small black club-bag, and received into his care the crumpled bill. Then he discreetly retired from the scene.
The conductor gave the scheme another helping hand. “For the love o’ Mike, how long are we going to be held up here? Get on or off, officer, whichever you are going to do. We’re fifteen minutes late now.”
The detective threw up his hands.
“Take her, man, with my blessing. Conductor, how soon can I get a train back to Winston Junction?”
“You’ll have to come on to the next divisional point and get to-morrow’s train back. Let ’er go, Jimmy. All-l-l-l aboard!”
The train moved on, gathering its thunder as it went.
Harrington found himself in the midst of a cheering crowd, with a strange girl, wanted by the police, on his arm.
He felt the clutch of her fingers, but she had not looked up or spoken. Bending down, he spoke to her under cover of his noisy friends’ congratulations.
“Don’t be afraid. As soon as he’s well out of the way, I’ll explain to the boys, and you can leave unmolested. The section foreman’s wife here will look after you. Just act the part a little longer, please. The train’s in sight yet.”
She looked up, then, and smiled and nodded wistfully. Harrington felt suddenly lonely and depressed. The touch of her hand was warm and friendly, yet she seemed far off, unapproachable. The voice of the old mountain missionary, who had ridden twenty miles over rocky trails to perform the marriage ceremony, greeted them.
“Let me shake hands with your bride, Richard. My dear child,” said the kindly old man, “it does me good to find so fair a flower in our hills. You have my prayers for your happiness.”
“Now,” continued the old man, “where do you wish to have the ceremony performed, Richard? If I may offer my advice, what better place than here under these great pines? There is no building in town large enough to hold us all, for your friends wish to witness the ceremony.”
“Right here’s the place, Dick. Join hands, fellows. Make a ring.”
The miners joined hands, forming a circle under the trees. Back of them the rugged frontier town, the primeval forest, the mighty hills. Over the trees to the east a few shreds of smoke told of the departing train. He stood in the centre of it all, beside the silent girl, before the gray-haired missionary opening his warm book. Now was the time to speak.
“Just a minute, Mr. Gordon,” he said.
The missionary paused, looking expectantly over his steel-rimmed spectacles.
There was a movement behind them. Someone was pushing through the ring of men, to the accompaniment of whispered threats and shoves. Harrington turned to face the detective.
Holland grinned amiably.
“Seeing as how I had pestered the young lady, I thought I’d stay and give her a wedding present. Go on with the ceremony, Parson. I ain’t seen a wedding in years.”
HARRINGTON knew that he had only to say the word and the detective would be hustled out of town. But he had sufficiently recovered his usual common sense to know that that course of action would help them only for the immediate present. He judged that Holland was used to being hustled when the odds were against him, only to return, as he had done now, to the scene of action with surer weapons. He saw in a flash the dilemma which his headlong impulse had brought upon him; saw, too, that in saving this girl from the consequences of her unknown crime he was binding himself not only for this hour, but for all time. He thought—it is up to her—and bent down to speak.
But in her upward glance he saw the revelation of a new personality. Gone was the hopeless, timid face that had appealed to him for help. She returned his glance, strongly, bravely, with an inner flare of soul flaring in her wide, dark eyes.
“Shall I go on?” he asked.
She spoke to him for the first time, standing on tiptoe to reach his ear.
“If you are not afraid—I—I was foolish, perhaps, but I am not wicked. I could not bear—”
The impatient spectators broke in.
“Shall we kill him, Dickey?”
Harrington took his decision.
“Let him stay, boys. He can put up the cigars. We’re all ready now, Mr. Gordon. Here is the license.”
At the words, with instinctive gesture of reverence every man’s head was bared. The clear voice of the missionary carried far through the quiet evening air. In place of walls the mountains flamed in rose color, eternal as love, everlasting as death, and about him he saw the weather-beaten faces of his comrades, men strong in living, heroic in dying, invincible even against the forces of nature with which they daily contended for their bread —saw the pale face of his unknown bride. He thought as he mechanically made his responses, that of all the strange ventures upon which he had entered, this was surely the strangest.
“And forasmuch as Richard Harrington and Mildred Burton have consented together— I pronounce that they be man and wife together, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The ring broke, mighty paws smote broad shoulders, fists groped for fists, hoarse voices shouted. Old miners stiffened with years of stooping over picks, turned boys capers. The bride found herself swiftly but gently lifted to the saddle of a pony which swayed under the light weight. She gripped the horn desperately and twenty hands steadied her. Then she laughed, for the first time in weeks. The detective, standing alone under the pines, meditatively stroked his shaggy mustache.
Harrington mounted his pony and the procession started. The miners fell in line, shouting, leaping, firing their revolvers. A lumberman in a red and black plaid shirt ambled at the head, playing a frantic imitation of the wedding march on an accordeon. The Indians stood in the dust of the roadside to watch the show, with grins and congratulatory "How’s.”
At the door of the pool-room the procession waited until the groom lifted the bride from her saddle and led her inside. For the occasion the pool-tables had been carried outside and the chairs ranged around the walls. The bars was stacked with trays of ham and bologna sandwiches, bottles of bright-colored drinks, mild beers, and at a small stove in one comer the section foreman’s wife presided over a boiler of steaming coffee. The man with the accordeon had been joined by the rest of the orchestra, a violin, two mouth-organs and a Jew’s harp.
The girl looked at this rough scene with wondering eyes. Uncouth it was, wild, primitive—but what friendly faces, what true hospitality and kindly mirth. The odor of the steaming coffee filled her lungs and her knees bent beneath her. She felt weak and tired and very lonely.
When her vision cleared again, she was seated in a deep chair before the rusty stove. A delicious glow of heat enveloped her. Someone was rubbing her cold hands, and someone, with warm gentle fingers was unlacing her shoes. A dark-faced woman pulled a warm shawl about her shaking shoulders, at intervals crooning to her in a strange language, and again murmuring invective in broken English against those who had no heart of mercy for the poor signora.
Harrington drew off her shoes, set her feet on a box before the fire, and sat down beside her.
“How long since you had anything to eat?” he asked.
She tried to answer, but an iron hand had her by the throat, and the tears rolled unbidden down her cheeks.
“Bring her some hot coffee, Mrs. Joe.”
The hot liquid ran like fire down her throat, and its warmth penetrated to her toes and fingertips. When she had drunk the whole cupful, the man brought her a sandwich and advised her to eat it very slowly. The color gradually returned to her white face. She saw that the room was empty and the wedding guests waiting outside.
“Oh, please tell them to come in. I am spoiling everything.”
Her words brought the noisy crowd in with a rush. Every hand held a thick sandwich, and Mrs. Joe was surrounded by a crowd importuning for some of her famous coffee. Merry faces smiled upon the girl and asked her how she did, wished her a happy married life, prosperity, and no troubles but little ones, a broad jest happily lost upon the girl. The bronzed faces and the rough voices surrounded her like a mighty wall inside which was warmth and protection, and against which the forces of suspicion and cruelty against which she had so long been contending might beat in vain.
SHE looked at the man who was now her husband. He was leaning against the bar, tall, almost Indian-like in the passivity of his brown face, talking to Bowden and a couple of the older miners. Occasionally he broke off the conversation to beckon forward some backward guest whom he supposed was not getting his share of the refreshments. He did not look towards his bride. But the girl, watching him, lost the feeling of unfamiliarity of him. She felt as if she had known him always, as if he had been waiting at the little mountain station for her all those troubled months.
When the piles of sandwiches had disappeared, the Italian woman went to Harrington and whispered to him, gesticulating with her pretty brown hands. He smiled, and nodded, and followed her behind the bar whence they emerged with a huge brown paper parcel. This was set on a table and when unwrapped revealed an immense wedding cake.
It was a mountain of cake. It must have weighed fifty pounds, five tiers of it, iced and frosted to glacier whiteness, sugar bells, silver roses and all. Its appearance brought forth a storm of applause which became deafening when Mrs. Joe produced a butcher knife and beckoned to the bride.
The girl knew what was expected of her. Smiling she rose, then blushed as she remembered that her shoes were off. She slipped her feet into them, threw aside her cloak and went to play her part in the cake ceremony.
Harrington observed her closely for the first time as she walked toward him. She moved with grace and freedom, a very little girl, slender yet wholly feminine, with no trace of boyishness in her appearance. She reminded him of a little Dresden figure, but without the mincing airs of the china shepherdesses. When she stood beside him at the table her soft yellow hair brushed his shoulder. Her hands were so small that she could scarcely hold the big black knife. Her dress pleased him, having known so long only the rough dull garb of the mountain settlers’ wives— a soft dull blue in color, splashed with black and rose embroideries.
“How shall I cut it, Mrs. Joe?” she asked.
“Righta here, and giva da firs’ piece to da bridegroom,” cried the Italian woman. “He doesna deserve, but then alla da men, dey are ver’ bad—” rolling her dancing black eyes at the men.
The girl took both hands to the heavy knife and cut a thin wedge of the mighty cake. The bridegroom as gravely accepted it. But the guests did not consider the ceremony complete.
“Kiss her, Dick!”
“Don’t give him a bite, ma’am, till he does.”
“You forgot the kissin’ business in the ceremony. Do it right, man.”
Harrington stooped and kissed his bride, though his mouth was full of cake. The girl took her crimson face back to her chair, whence Mrs. Joe brought her a slice of the rich cake, at which she nibbled while watching the crowd. Every man received his share; no inch-size cube in a paper-trimmed box, but a huge slice, half-a-pound in weight, in his fist, which was eaten in great gulps as unconcernedly as though it were gingerbread.
And now came the important business of the evening— the dance. No jazz-crazed girl takes her pastime more earnestly than the miner or lumberman. It is a serious pleasure with them, and Harrington knew that he might as well be married without a parson as without a dance. The orchestra climbed into its gallery—chairs set on a long table behind the old bar—and proceeded to tune their instruments into some kind of harmony. A black-bearded prospector, with a stentorian voice, took his place at the head of the room as master of ceremonies, and called for the wedding waltz.
To her surprise the girl learned that she was expected to dance this with Harrington. The thought of dancing with anyone, even with this man, was abhorrent to her at first. But Mrs. Joe whispered in her ear:
“Dance wit’ him.; it badda luck not to,” and summoning her courage she rose to comply. Somehow she could not bear to disappoint her guests.
As she rose the orchestra struck up a gay march and, gravely offering her his arm, Harrington walked with her around the room. Two and two the others fell in behind them— Joe and Mrs. Joe, a few Indian and half-breed couples who knew the waltz, miners and prospectors and lumbermen, as many as could find room. The others lined the walls, crowded doors and windows, and shouted encouragement and criticisms to the prospective dancers.
WHEN the room was filled with marching couples, the orchestra began the immortal waltz, “The Beautiful Blue Danube.” Despite the crudity of the instruments, the harmony rose clear and in true tempo, sweet and shrill, drone of the accordeon, wail of violin, plaintive twang of the Jew’s-harp, the merry lilting of the mouth-organ. The girl felt herself lifted and mechanically setting her steps to the music, floated, buoyant, through the crowded room. Harrington was a perfect dancer, and her light feet, tired and sore as they were, easily followed his.
Through the door she saw a bonfire kindled in the open street before the pool-room, and by its light stood her hunter placidly eating sandwiches. The settlers might hang him, but first they would share their food with him. But the sight of the detective brought no heaviness to her heart, as she moved in this stranger’s arms. She experienced again the sense of security and comfort which had come to her when, the hounds at her heels, she had laid an appealing hand on his arm.
The waltz broke up at last to a loud clapping of hands. Harrington led the girl back to her chair where for the rest of the evening she sat as in a dream. The courage which her waltz had given her was fading. She seemed to be another personality, watching a little fair-haired girl, who had married a miner and was at her own wedding dance.
Harrington danced the second waltz with Mrs. Joe, but his bride was excused from further exertion on account of her apparent fatigue, but had to promise endless waltzes to her guests for the future. Now that there was gettin’ to be some ladies in town there was goin’ to be some real hoe-downs, you bet! Then the missionary wandered in, sat down beside her, and talked. He told her who these men were and what they did; spoke of his wanderings among his wide-scattered and wandering flock; of the Indians and their faded glories. She was grateful to him because he did not question her. He promised to call and talk again with her during the following week when he would pass her husband’s claim on his rounds.
AT MIDNIGHT the dance broke up. The girl was made aware of it by the sudden stir of preparation about her—men searched for their hats, the women no longer stood consciously aloof waiting for partners, but gathered together in friendly gossiping groups the orchestra began to put away its precious instruments. Mrs. Joe brought her her cloak and wrapped her warmly, with whispered endearments and kindly invitations for future visiting. Harrington beckoned to her from the door. She rose and went unsteadily to him.
The light of pine torches flared on the waiting saddles, and the long patient faces of the ponies. Harrington lifted her to the saddle and wrapped her cloak warmly about her feet.
“Where you goin’ to camp to-night, Dick?” asked Tommy Fagin.
“I’ll try and make our old camp at the little meadow, Tommy, then to-morrow we can make home by night, provided it’s not too hard going for Mrs. Dick, here.”
He mounted, took the lead rein of her pony, and started. The torches shone ahead, about, behind them. The ponies leaped and snorted at the flares, but quieted at their master’s sharp voice. As it moved the procession broke into song, old love melodies, long sung by lonely men in camps—Juanita—Annie Laurie—and lastly, Home, Sweet Home. But at the edge of the clearing they stopped and came no further.
Looking back the pine flares danced to the chorus of kindly farewells. She waved, and the dance became a frenzy of streaming lights. Harrington called back to them his thanks for their attendance and a cordial invitation to visit his shack. He clucked to the impatient ponies and the ground rose under their feet. The black fronds of the pines pressed down upon them, and, in silence, broken only by the creaking of saddle leather and the shuffling of the ponies’ feet on the dry pine-needles, the little procession took the upward trail.
COMING from the lights of the settlement, their way moved at first in a soft darkness, fragrant with forest scents. But as her eyes gathered sight from the blackness she saw the dim figure of her husband whose pony walked a few paces ahead of hers. He did not turn toward her or speak.
Presently other shapes emerged—the trunks of trees, melting into darker masses of foliage. Through an opening in the branches she saw the bulk of mountains, dark against a violet-black sky spangled with vivid stars. The moon was rising with a pale glow behind the peaks, and rounding a turn in the trail the lights of the settlement appeared far below them. A distant rumble and a rising glow marked the passage of a through freight. Then they turned once more to the ascent and the last sign of the world below disappeared.
Then suddenly the nervous tension which had held the girl rigid rather than quiescent for so long, snapped, and she realized where she was—riding a lonely trail with a man whom she had known only a few hours, whom she had married, and with whom she was going home into the unknown fastnesses of the mountains. And she thought: “I have only exchanged one keeper for another.”
The startled gasp which expressed her astonished realization of the situation attracted her companion’s attention.
“How are you coming? All right? Are you warm?”
His voice was non-committal, unemotional. He, at any rate, seemed to see nothing unusual in the situation.
“I’m comfortable enough. But I’m not used to riding.”
“Lean forward on the ascent, and leave the reins loose. He knows the way. We’ll not go far to-night since you are tired. The moon will soon be up, and our camp is only another hour’s ride ahead. I can come down in a day, but going up takes longer.”
Then he turned his head and spoke to her no more.
In an hour’s time the ponies turned off the trail into a smooth glade, walled with trees and paved with short turf. The girl had been dozing for the past half-hour, and waked with a start when her pony stepped jerkily over an obstacle. Now someone spoke to her, calling her by name. She started up in terror.
“Gently, girl. Your feet are in the stirrups.”
She stood unsteadily on the ground, stiff and cold. He spread a blanket for her, then gathered wood into a small, intense fire. She was warm.
“Are you hungry?”
“No—" She was wondering who had called her Eileen.
Harrington unslung the packs, set up the tent, hobbled his beasts and turned them loose to graze before he came near her again. Then he lifted the exhausted girl inside the tent, covered her with blankets and came out to make his bed under the stars.
Eileen opened her eyes against the white wall of the tent. Her body was exquisitely warm and drowsy, her skin fresh and cool. She drew the comfortable wool close to her face, sleepily. Outside she heard the noise of chopping of wood, the stamping of hoofs, and near her tent a beast grazed, the grass breaking under its teeth with a tearing sound. Mischievously she scratched with her finger-nail on the canvas, and the pony snorted, and hopped away, hampered by its hobbles. Then she heard Harrington at the tent door.
“Last call for breakfast!”
She felt ravenously hungry at the suggestion and scrambled out of the blankets. A hand thrust in to her her bag and a tin bucket of water, with a rough crash towel. The cold tang of the water refreshed her. She stepped into the winey air of the morning.
Her companion was frying sausages over a small fire laid between two green logs. A smoky coffee pot steamed between two sticks supporting thick slices of bread browning over the coals. There was no butter, but the toasted bread was dipped in the sweet fat of the meat. They ate silently, and when Eileen stopped, ashamed of her appetite, the prospector remembered that he had brought a jar of raspberry jam for her special use. Laughingly, she gave in, accepted another slice of toast, and ate until she could eat no more.
“You’re a different girl altogether, for that breakfast,” said the man, looking at her critically. “Now sit here and steep yourself in the heat while I clear up. The horses need to graze a little longer and I want to talk to you.”
SHE watched him deftly roll their tent and blankets, clean and pack the few cooking utensils and the necessary paraphernalia of the camp. He worked with ease and grace, a man used to camp and trail, yet she vaguely received the impression of a fineness rather than a refinement that marked his personality from the average upstanding but rough handed mountaineer. This man was her husband. She knew nothing of his moods or his morality, his past or his future. Yet she was not afraid. Life, which had hitherto been complex, amazing, a tangled mass of binding threads, had suddenly, at the touch of this man’s brown hand resolved itself into orderly strands. Fear and pain had become peace and security, and struggle merged into the quiet of balsam woods, sunshine on sweet turf, the tang of wood smoke on morning mists. A squirrel danced across the grass to eat the scattered crumbs about the fire, and watched her fearlessly, head on one side, his tail an arrogant plume behind his ears. The packhorses, full of grass, put their brown noses together, and dozed, lopsided on three legs, long tails lazily switching. Physical comfort, spiritual rest, enfolded her, body and soul. She did not even remember the old worry and fear. She felt a strong conviction that this man was going to solve her problems. He came toward her when his tasks were finished, moving with tall grace, smiling, bareheaded, his bronze hair burnished by the sun. Again she received the impression of some mysterious godlike element, which humbled her while it comforted.
“This glade is an old camp-ground of mine,” he said, as he sat down by the fire, filling his pipe. “You seem to fit into the picture. Is your name really Eileen Howard?”
That name which for a blissful half-hour she had forgotten, brought back with it the old demons of fear and unrest. But she answered him bravely.
“Yes—that is my name.”
“Why were you running away from that officer?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
There was a sudden glint of fear in the girl’s brown eyes, and she glanced about apprehensively.
Harrington noticed the slight motion of her head.
“Do you think I would give you away?”
“Oh, no—no—But, Oh, I can’t tell you—I can’t.”
THE little squirrel whisked away to his piney kingdom, the ponies pricked their ears and nudged each other. Fear had invaded their refuge. They were afraid of that strange sound—human weeping. The girl began to sob hopelessly. But the man made no attempt to comfort her.
The wound must be probed, though gently, in all mercy.
“Were you guilty of some offence? Believe me, I’m not judging you when I ask you this.”
“No, I have done no wrong. I am innocent. I am not a criminal.”
She spoke vehemently, as if she could not bear that he should think her guilty.
“Then why not go back and clear yourself? You create suspicion by the very fact of your running away. If you are innocent, no one can hurt you. I’ll go back with you and get this matter cleared. I believe in you. Trust me. I would be very glad to help you.”
She shook her head.
“I can’t go back—that’s impossible. But you are very kind to say you believe in me. I want to be trusted. People are suspicious and seem to be glad to find out another in a sin, and loath to believe them innocent. You are the first person who has wanted to believe in me. But I can’t go back. It wouldn’t be right.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you anything more. You’ll have to take me on trust. Better let the matter rest until it is forgotten—until I am forgotten. I have made a bargain with you, and I’ll do my best to live up to it.”
“I married you. You saved me, and so much more than you know, by marrying me—there—at the station. You will never know how much it meant to me or how grateful I am. Hell would have been better than going back, and you offered me an honorable escape, at the risk of your own happiness. I do thank you—” and she laid her hand on his.
The slim white fingers rested on his brown ones, bare of any ornament but the plain gold band which he had placed on them himself. It seemed to him that they belonged there and he was loath to let them go. This girl, this bewildered child, did not understand. He raised the white fingers to his lips reverently then placed them back on her lap.
“You owe me nothing,” he said gently. “You are not bound by any agreement. You are not my wife.”
“What! Not married to you? Was the whole thing a farce?”
“The girl I married was Mildred Burton. You are Eileen Howard.”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I was dazed—insane. What shall I do now? Oh, what shall I do? I shall have to go back.”
She buried her face in her hands. Harrington left her to her despair for a few moments, and rose and walked about the clearing. He, too, had his problem to face and his decision to make. Life at the moment might be dull and empty for him, love a thing of the past, but he feared that the natural elasticity of his spirit might rebound from the depths in which he now found himself, and demand the fullness of love and life, long denied. This girl, fair and innocent as she appeared—he could not bring himself to believe in her guilt—might be a disappointment to him, her nature unknown; and she in her turn might tire of the lonely life which at the present was all he might offer her. A man of kindly and tender nature, he had often been led astray by pity, and pity overwhelmed his better judgment as he looked at her, lying face downwards on the blankets by the ashes of their fire. She was so small, so helpless, so unfitted to take her own part. She needed someone to fight her battles for her.
“There is no need of your going back,” he said, impulsively. “If you had rather have married me, a rough chap you never saw before, will it be any worse to stay with me, now? I assure you there is nothing to fear from me. I’ll treat you like my own sister. Come, Eileen, let us make a bargain. You come on with me, and I’ll get a new license and send word to Mr. Gordon. He can be trusted with your story, and he’ll marry us properly. Then, later on, perhaps we can find a way out of your troubles. It’s mighty lonesome for a chap up where I live, but it's peaceful and nobody shall trouble you. That’s better than going back, isn’t it?”
His cheerful confidence roused the girl from her apathy. She sat up and dried her tears.
“If you don’t care to do that,” continued Harrington. “I’ll try to get you across into Alberta, and you can go unmolested that way. But in either case you can’t very well go back to Wymore. Holland is still there and watching to see what will turn up. Think it over while I load the ponies. It’s a strange deal for both of us, but if we play the game I believe we can win through.”
HE FINISHED saddling and loading the ponies, cleared away all the debris of the camp and extinguished the fire with water from the little mountain stream. Then he returned to her again.
Perplexity and doubt were written on the pathetic face upturned to his.
“Do not let any consideration for me influence you." he told her. “At any rate, you have a few days to think things over, for it will take some time to get the missionary to us. But I assure you it would make me happy to have you stay, and happy, also, to see you safely on your way, if that is what you most desire. But for the present you must decide—either come to the shelter of my cabin, or we’ll go straight on over the pass.”
But Eileen had decided.
“I shall stay with you,” she said. “But I must tell you this much. I would go back, but if I do, another, for whom I care very much, would suffer horribly. For the sake of that one I am willing to go on with you, to marry you if you still wish it, to drop out of my former life. If I marry you, I will be a true wife to you and you needn’t fear for your good name. I have been more the victim of circumstances, and have chosen to bear the punishment for a wrong that has been done. I can’t tell you any more —now. If you are willing to take me under these conditions, I’ll go on.”
Harrington held out his hand.
“It’s a bargain.”
Eileen took his hand, and he lifted her into the saddle. Without further words the little train started out of the clearing. The way back looked very smooth and easy, very inviting to the girl in the warm morning sunlight. But she resolutely turned her pony’s head after Harrington, and followed him on the upward trail.
THE trail ended at sunset. From a dense pine wood they emerged onto a level grass-grown shelf of the mountain. A log cabin stood at the far end, backed against the trees. The turf was short and green, watered by a small break which had its source in a spring. A dog barked and came leaping. The horses of the train whinnied, knowing their stable. Harrington dismounted and opened a gate in a rough fence of split pine.
Used as she was to the magnificence of British Columbia scenery, Eileen was astounded by the prospect before her.
The ledge lay, a half-mile in length, sloping precipitously from its outer edge to the forests below. A river glinted silver and rose through the shadows of the valley. Above them and behind, the mountain rose in buttress and tower to the snow-line, whence its white peaks hid themselves in the mists of summer clouds. Everywhere the dark evergreens fought desperately for the shallow soil, trailing their green banners from ledge to ledge. Before her the valley stretched as far as eye could see to east and west, and the mountains, snow-capped and forest-robed, rose sharply against the red sunset, or, towards the East, were empurpled against an opal sky where the first stars of evening showed.
The horses stopped of their own accord at the cabin-door, and Harrington welcomed her home. The thought did not astonish her so much as the aspect of her own mental attitude to the situation. She was neither alarmed at the consequences or afraid for her own future. She had absolute trust in this man. She remembered their journey upwards, his calm acceptance of her as a part of his life, his thoughtfulness for her, unused to the stiff trail. He had not spoken again of the strange bargain they had made. He took her presence as a matter of course, his attitude toward her was unemotional and commonplace, but enveloping her with an atmosphere of trust and protection.
The big black dog made friends at once, and followed her into the cabin. The girl had expected to find the romantic interior which hearsay had taught her to expect. But the inside was barely furnished with furniture made of rough, hand-hewn lumber. Ashes piled the cold hearth and the dust and litter of masculine house-keeping lay everywhere. She experienced a sudden depression of spirit.
“I’m a rotten house-keeper, all right,” said Harrington, coming in with an armful of wood. “Wait until I make a fire before you take off your wraps. It’s damp in here.” When seated in a comfortable old chair before the blazing fire, Eileen felt more at home. Harrington set about preparing supper, for they were famished, having eaten only cold food on the way in. The girl was stiff and sore from riding, and once seated felt that she could never rise again.
“I know I should be helping you,” she apologized. “But I don’t believe I could walk if I tried. I’ll do something to pay for my keep to-morrow.”
“That’s all right. You are my guest, you know. I’ll have some grub ready in a brace of shakes.”
He dragged an oilcloth-covered table close to the fire.
“I’ve a couple of pack-loads of stuff that Bowden sold me for housekeeping, but I can’t lay hands on it. You can sort it over tomorrow if you will. I’ve got some special grub here, so we can celebrate.”
He sliced ham rapidly, then rummaged around for a frying-pan.
“It’s a bit dirty,” he said, examining it critically. “I’ve a bad habit of leaving the dishes to be washed at a more convenient season and then forgetting them altogether.”
They enjoyed their meal—ham, canned peas, canned sweet potatoes fried in the fat of the ham, stewed dried peaches and fancy biscuits from the tin boxes of Bowden’s show-case. There was no bread or butter. Harrington had forgotten them.
“If you can contrive me an oven, I’ll bake bread,” said Eileen.
“Home-made bread? Can you cook?”
“Yes, fairly well. And make a cake, too, if you can find me an egg. I don’t see why vegetables and poultry wouldn’t do well here.”
“You’re a real pioneer’s wife. I’ll never be able to keep you. Even Mrs. Joe at the station can’t make bread.” Then, he added:
“Well, you’re pretty tired, I take it. How about bed? If you can sleep on that bunk there, for to-night, I’ll fix something more comfortable for you to-morrow.” He hauled out blankets from the shelves, and a black-bear robe off the wall.
“How will these do?”
“I’ll be very comfortable--”
“Then I’ll leave you to it. You won’t be afraid, will you. I’ll be in the stable and within call. Tim, here, is a good watch-dog.”
“I don’t want to turn you out of your own house,” began Eileen, hesitatingly.
“That’s all right. There’s plenty of hay in the stable, and lots of blankets. Don’t be afraid of putting wood on the fire, for there’s plenty of it in this box. Good-night, then--”
And he was off, abruptly, as if he -wished to avoid further questioning.
She heard his footsteps die away, his merry whistle to the dog, and then silence. And with that silence, the memories which she had been crowding into the background all day, rushed out upon her and held her captive. She had made up her mind, riding up the mountain beside Harrington, that she would blot out the past entirely and forever, and she had schooled her thoughts and actions to the thoughts and actions of the wife of a poor mountaineer. She had asked him about his house and how he would like it kept; of his work and how she might help him. He had answered her in like vein, telling her of his daily labor on his claim, cutting timber, clearing the shallow soil, prospecting for the mineral in which that district abounded. He would show her everything tomorrow. It would be good to have someone to take an interest in his work.
That was to-day, but to-night how different! she sat in the big shabby armchair, at the rim of the fading firelight. Behind her was the darkness of the empty room and the loneliness and the menace of the night. Fear came in and sat beside her, until she had to grip the arms of her chair to keep from screaming aloud, or rushing out into the night to seek her companion, and beg him to sit beside her until morning.
What had she to fear, who was innocent? Yet she seemed to hear about the cabin as she had heard them behind her in the city, the following footsteps of those who watched, relentless, all-seeing, for the proofs of guilt. She saw again the circle of hard faces about her who showed her horrible things—a smoke blackened, bloody coat— and heard again the monotonous grating voice which repeated again and again into her ears—“You did it—you know you did it— say you did it”—until for very madness she had almost screamed the words back at him.
They had let her go because they could find no guilt in her. But the footsteps took up again their ceaseless following until the iron in her which had so long resisted, gave way. She began to think, to plan, escape. To get away, to lose herself in the world, to be forgotten, to escape from the relentless watching eyes, the whispering, malignant tongues, to save herself—to save Jerry.
Jerry—whom she loved more than anyone else in the world—if she could get away and never be found again, taking the guilt away with her into forgetfulness—that would save Jerry. She became very cunning and watchful, so that often the footsteps would fall so far behind that she could no longer hear them.
So she became obsessed by one idea—to go away—so obsessed that she remembered neither time nor place until she found herself on a train, and the conductor punching her ticket. She did not even know what destination was marked on the little strip of pasteboard. But she had gotten away. She bought an evening paper from the news-agent, and huddled behind it in the corner. The headlines were tall and dark but they had nothing to say about a wanted girl. She had not been missed.
It was dark outside the car windows and she could not tell in what direction she was traveling, nor did it matter. Cautiously, from behind her paper she watched the passengers. All were strangers. They read, yawned, played cards, or gazed stolidly ahead. They did not notice her in her corner.
Presently a negro porter came in with an armful of bedding. Then she saw that she was in a sleeping car. She beckoned to the attendant and told him to make up her berth for the night. Behind the thick close curtains she slept fitfully in the safety of the friendly dark.
THE steady roar of the engine; clicking and pounding of the wheels, under her. The green curtains sway back and forth. At times a pushing body dragged the curtains with it—a belated passenger, or a trainman on a round of inspection. All the weary minutiae of night travel.
She woke finally in the first grayness of dawn and, raising the blind, beheld dim shaped mountains, barred with black smudges of trees. Beside the track foamed a turgid mountain stream. The train dashed past dim stations on side-tracks, through blackened waste where the fire had destroyed, a country as hopeless and dreary as herself. Shuddering, she drew the blind and pulled the blankets over her face. The warmth of the wool lulled her into heavy sleep.
It was next noon that she first saw, or rather felt, the eyes. Dozing in her corner, that strange mysterious sense of the hunted warned her of danger close at hand. The eyes were narrow and cold. When she looked up with a start they turned away. But they had been watching her for a long time.
Then she knew that she must get off the train at once.
The train was running through sunny stretches of forest. Ahead rose mountain peaks. At a large town a second engine was attached, and running heavily, the long train dragged itself up the pass. The stations were little houses set under pines, with the forest wall a few feet from their doors.
A wild plan came to her. Let her first get out of this coach, away from the eyes for a few moments. She looked in her purse—there were a few small bills. She would go to the dining-car and order food, then, on the way back— Ostentatiously she rose as the porter entered, and pausing beside the gray eyes, asked if she could buy food.
“Yes, missy. De diner opened now. Three cars on.”
She turned and went forward through the cars into the diner, and gave an order. When it was brought, she looked from the bright forest outside her window, to see the eyes watching her from the next table.
Hurriedly she went out of the car, but not so quickly but that she saw the big man rise to follow her. The train was slowing down for a station. She ran along the corridor and tried to open the doors of the car platform.
“You can’t get out there, ma’am: those doors always locked.”
“I feel ill. I want to go into the fresh air.”
It was the porter in charge of her car.
“You can get out at the day-coach. But we only slow down here for mail. I’ll get your hat and coat, missy, and you can stand at the door and feel better. Car’s awful hot an’ stuffy.”
The kindly darky ran ahead for her wraps. Sounds of altercation behind her, a waiter with a loaded tray, a pushing, angry passenger—she would still have time. She snatched her cloak with scanty thanks and ran into the day coach. The man behind tried the dressing-room doors in the pullman. Now the cold air from the outside rushed past her hot cheeks.
“Hol' on dere! Where you goin’?”
If the train would only move faster. She kept in close beside the coaches under the windows, where the casual looker-out would not see her. A crowd of men stood on the platform, the usual loungers of the backwoods station. The train was gathering speed. A minute more, and freedom! She drew the thin icy air into her hot lungs in great reviving gulps. The brakes bit the wheels and held them. She began to run.
And she had run into a stranger’s arms, and claimed sanctuary—
The dog’s joyful yelping woke her in the morning. Someone was thumping on the door.
“Can I come in? Are you awake? I’m hungry as a hunter!”
“Just a minute—”
She was stiff, cold, and yet refreshed and comforted. Rising, she hurriedly dressed and smoothed her hair. Then she opened the door to him.
The glory of the morning enveloped them. The sun had just risen above the eastern peaks and was casting long lines of light through the valley. The air sparkled with golden points. It mingled with her blood like an elixir; her throat and lungs throbbed with its tonic cold.
Harrington had a small fire burning on the sunny side of the cabin, and breakfast was laid on a box. The cook indicated his completed art, with a triumphant grin.
“Some spread, isn’t it? Fine morning, too.”
“Wonderful! I can understand why you live here. But isn’t it lonely in the winter?”
“I don’t stay here in the wintertime.”
“No? Where do you go?”
“I go to some town, and—get a job. I haven’t made much of this claim yet, and need money for the summer’s grubstake. Besides we’d be shut in here for keeps in the winter. The trail is impassable until late spring. Snow ten feet deep in places.”
“What do you do with your ponies?” as she noticed her mount of the night before feeding near by.
“I drive them down to Bowden’s and he looks after them. Here, Bingo,” and he whistled to the pony, who approached at his call, ears pricked expectantly, and breathing strongly through his nostrils. Harrington sprinkled salt on the palm of his hand and the pony licked greedily.
“Here, let me put some on your hand for him. You’ll be riding him and he should learn to know you. No, leave your fingers straight or he’ll nibble them. Here comes the rest of the bunch.”
He called them by name, and fed them salt.
“Now, what’s your program for today?” he asked, when the ponies had been petted and admired.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to clean house.”
“What! Is that a reflection on my house-keeping?”
“Oh, no, no! I only meant that as I am likely to make my home here I would like to take over my share of the work at once.”
“Spoken like a true pal. I think you and I are going to get along famously. I give the place a scrub-out every now and then, but a man is no housekeeper. If he is, he’s generally pretty much of an old maid— fussy, always setting chairs straight, and so on. I’ll help you with the heavy part of it. You’ll want lots of water, won’t you?”
“Yes, but I won’t need much help. I can’t bear to see things untidy, but you mustn’t think I am criticising your home. I really think it’s lovely. And such beautiful surroundings.”
“The loveliest spot in the Canadian Rockies,” said the owner, proudly. “I built the house myself, even to the fireplace and chimney. The material was at hand and I could choose the best.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Five years. But don’t hurry away, Eileen. There’s one thing we have to decide this morning. Are you going to go or stay?”
“I thought we had settled that question,” said she, sitting down again wearily. She had felt so secure in this sanctuary that she had no wish to think about the old perplexity again.
“We have, partly. You’re not cold out here? No? Well, then, let’s sit here in the sun. I can talk and think better outside than in. You agreed to come here with me for the present, to save yourself from a danger that was pressing you. But we are either to send for Parson Gordon and have a legal ceremony performed, or I was to take you over the Pass and set you safely on your way to the south. I don’t want to hurry your decision, Eileen, but the sooner you are legally my wife, or go on your way, the better it will be for you. If you are in need of funds, I can supply you. And I would always hold myself ready to go to your assistance at any time. Or, as I suggested to you before, I will go back with you to where you came from and see what can be done to clear your name of this accusation. Let me again advise you that this would be the better way. For I do not believe you are guilty of any crime any more than I can understand how it is right for you to suffer for the wrongdoing of someone else.”
“You are very good to say so,” replied the girl. “I wish I could tell you how grateful I am to you for your faith in me. As to your last suggestion—I cannot go back. That is final. Your other two plans—”
SHE broke off suddenly, left him and walked away. She dare not tell him how strong a temptation he had put upon her; how she longed to rush to him, to throw herself on his compassion and strength, and be guided and saved by him. She fought the battle, head bent, hands tightly clasped behind her, alone. She must not go back. Had she not promised, by the Man who had himself died innocently for the sins of others, that she would bear it? Yet what a shame to lay even the shadow of that guilt on this innocent life which had so generously offered her shelter. She came back and stood before him.
“Do you think I could get away to the south?”
Harrington hesitated. He realized, astonished, that that was not the course he wished her to take. But he must not influence her in this decision. He tried to be impartial in his judgment.
“I don’t know. I can promise to take you safely across the mountains at least. It’s sixty miles by the pass and you can get a train on to Calgary, and then to the south. Or if you wish it, I will go on to the border with you and set you safely across.”
“We would have trouble getting over the border. I suppose every official has been notified to watch for me.”
“We wouldn’t trouble the officials,” said Harrington, with a strange tight-lipped smile that revealed a new phase of his character to her. “I could slip you across without any supervision on their part. The danger is that you will be missed from here—it would soon spread about that my wife had left me—and your pursuit would start again. You would have to take that chance.”
“Am I not taking a chance here?”
“Not so much, especially if you are sure that Holland is not a Vancouver man.”
“I am sure he is not. I have seen them all. I got away so quickly that they had no time to follow me. This man was probably known to be in this district and warned to search the trains for any girl answering a certain description. No doubt every train and boat was watched the same way. He was to keep me in sight until someone could be sent for in order to identify me. He would have followed out his instructions if it hadn’t been for you. I am secure now, but how long will it last? They have only to investigate to find out that I am not Mildred Burton.”
“That needn’t worry you. If you don’t mind my speaking of my own affairs, the real Mildred Burton lives a long way from here. It is true that I expected her to come the day I was in Wymore, and we were to have been married. But she is a great lady and a rich lady, and I suppose thought better of marrying a poor prospector—and rightly too. She would find these mountains a poor setting for her brilliance. At any rate, she sent me a wire to say that she had changed her mind, and was going to Europe, to Italy, to study art, or something of the sort. I’ll show you her telegram,”—he fumbled in his shirt pocket. “Can’t find it just now, but I’ll let you see it later. It will take the police gentry some time to locate her, and until they do so, they cannot establish the fact that you are not Mildred Burton.”
“They may come up here to see.”
“Not without a legitimate reason. Besides, Holland is evidently convinced that he is on the wrong trail and has been following the wrong girl. He will go back to those who sent him and you will be forgotten. There is no reason why he should bear you in mind; on the contrary, his professional pride will induce him to cover his mistake.”
“You certainly succeeded in putting him off the scent,” said the girl, half-smiling at the stout detective’s chagrin. “How did you ever think of so clever a scheme? It seems to me, then, that I will be safest here, as your wife.”
“I believe you will be. But I don’t want you to stay without clearly understanding our future relations. As long as things are as they are, you are as safe here as in your mother’s arms. But if you marry me, please don’t expect them to continue. I want my home and my children as much as any normal man.”
“I don’t believe in loveless marriages.”
“It might not always be a loveless union, Eileen. I am, I confess to you, a disappointed man, but I think we could be happy together. You are a good girl, you would be a good wife. I will try to be a good husband to you. Life has, perhaps, been a little hard on us. We start with sympathy and understanding of each other’s past. We can trust each other. Now, I’ll not say any more to you, for I want you to make the decision yourself.”
“You have been very candid and truthful with me, and that’s the best way. I’m only a girl, and it’s a hard subject for me to speak about, but I don’t consider that you are unfair in what you ask of me. If I marry you, I’ll be a true wife to you. But, on your part, understand that I marry you, not for gratitude, though God knows I bear it for you, nor for love, but to save another whom you will never know. The guilt will perish along with me and be forgotten with my name. So—I will marry you.”
“And is the other—guilty?”
“Guilty? Oh, God, how guilty! But I cannot betray my trust. I must save him.”
“Don’t cry, Eileen. I can’t bear to see you cry. It is tough on you to rake up all this bitterness. But now that we’ve settled it, let it be buried forever. Don’t let us ever indulge in regrets. I’ll send word to Mr. Gordon, and in the meantime let us be as happy as we can.”
SO THEY decided and life for Eileen fell into peaceful routine. All day she dreamed about the clearing, and dozed in the sun. Harrington would not let her begin her household round that day. To-morrow morning the mailcarrier would come down the pass with the mail for the train at Wymore, and to him they would entrust the letter for the old missionary. Harrington promised to write the letter that evening, and next morning they would walk down to the main trail, where his letterbox was nailed to a tree.
Eileen could not have told how the hours of the day passed, but her mind and body, wearied beyond endurance, drank deep of the warm peace of that sheltered clearing. Harrington’s face, brown and kindly, passed in and out of the haze of her dreaming. Always he brought something to minister to her wants—food, an extra wrap where she sat in an exposed spot, an old book, a pleasant word. Always she had been compelled to give, and the consideration of her wants by another was a miracle of pleasure. If she lived to be a thousand years, she thought, and every year a burden and sorrow, the memory of that kindly day could never be blotted out.
The chill of the evening drove her into the cabin where Harrington built a ruddy fire, and then rummaged about in a drawer for pen and paper to write his message to Mr. Gordon, asking him to come as soon as possible on an urgent matter.
"Do you think he will come?” asked Eileen, when he read the letter aloud for her approval.
“No doubt about it. The parson has never failed to answer a call. I have met him and his old gray nag in all kinds of weather and on every road. - When the snow gets too deep for Aminadab’s legs, his master travels on snow-shoes.”
“He must be a good man,” said the girl. “I wonder what brought him to this lonely parish.”
“It would be hard to say. So many different things bring people here—drink, shame, love of adventure, disappointment—but in the parson’s case I imagine it is his devotion to his Master. He’s been in this district twenty years. Never been away on a vacation that I ever heard of. A real old apostle is our parson.”
NEXT morning Eileen felt so revived by the rest of the day before that the prospector asked her to go with him to the mailbag.
“Is it very far?”
“A mile or so. We’ll take Bingo for you to ride in case the trail is too hard. You’re not used to walking up and down the hills.”
Bingo left his mates at call, and without troubling to saddle him Harrington took the gentle creature by his halter and led him. Eileen chose to walk as long as she could.
“That’s all the fence I had to build to keep stock in. There’s plenty of feed and water here during the summer.”
The trail was scarcely wide enough for three, so Harrington left the pony to follow and walked beside Eileen.
The slope ended in the broad, rocky ravine down which ran the train to Wymore. To the East this trail ascended to the top of the pass where it crossed the divide and wound down to the automobile road recently built across the mountains. All along its way there branched from it little mountain trails to lumber camp, mine, and settlement. And twice a week, on the days on which the train stopped at Wymore, came Long John Wetherby, with the mountain mail.
The letterbox was an old soap box nailed to a tree, the name—R. E. Harrington—was painted neatly in black letters across the top. It was unlocked, and the carrier had only to lift the lid to drop in or take put the mail. In this rude receptacle the important letter was placed, and Harrington broke off a small twig of green pine and set it upright in a small hole in the lid.
“That’s to show there is outgoing mail,” he said. “You had better ride Bingo now. It’s a stiff climb back.”
“I think I hear something up the pass,” said the girl.
“You do? You’ve good hearing if you can. Sure, there is something. Ponies’ feet on the trail. Perhaps it’s the mailcarrier. Let’s wait for him. He is quite a character, and you'll enjoy making his acquaintance. Besides, he’ll have to be convinced that you’re here, or he won’t leave mail for you.”
“But no one will write to me,” said Eileen, sadly. For answer, her companion pointed up the pass where the mail-carrier came in sight.
He was a tall, gaunt, lantern-jawed man, with a drooping sandy moustache, a complexion of brick-color, and eyes of steely gray, narrowed by squinting along vast distances under brilliant suns. He rode a bony, lop-eared mountain pony, and led by leading reins to his saddle-horn were two pack ponies. Each bore across his saddle the gray canvas mail-sacks, stamped with the black crown and G.R. In front of his own saddle was a small red sack, with heavy steel locks, wound round and round with cord—the registered mail.
“He has a complete arsenal with him,” said Eileen, staring at the weapons.
“He sure needs them. He often carries as much as five thousand with him, on a trip—payroll money. Twice he has been held up, but each time he has beaten off the bandits and kept the money. Looks like a character out of a movie, doesn’t he? Well, you’ll still find a few of his kind hereabouts. Hello, John, how goes it?”
“Purty well, Dick, purty well. I see you’ve got a letter for me to-day. I shouldn’t think you’d be writing to the girls any more. I reckon this is Mis’ Harrington. Pleased to meet yer, ma’am,” —as Dick made the introduction in due form—“wish ye a long and happy married life, I do, indeed.”
"Do you happen to know where Parson Gordon is at present, John?” inquired Harrington.
“I reckon I do.” The carrier paused in his information to indulge himself with a huge bite of chewing tobacco. “I met Ben Thompson from up Benson way t’other day, and he said as they was expectin’ Parson there this week to baptize their newest kid. Then, Thompson says he was a-goin' across Liftin’ Creek to see that Mercer gal which is dyin’ of consumption. And I says to Ben says I, if parson can get across Liftin’ Creek this time o’ year, he’ll be doin’ better’n anyone in this district ever done. But Ben says ‘Melia Mercer is near her end, and Parson will get to pray with her if it costs him his life. So he’ll be in the Liftin’ Creek district most likely.”
“I want to get a letter to him as soon as possible. It is very urgent.”
To be continued