WHAT Stephen Fox particularly wanted to impress upon Geraldine Benson was the fact that, although a man knows very little about a horse, it does not necessarily follow that he is an ass. And this is a point of view that the enthusiastic admirer of the equine race finds it exceedingly difficult to understand. To the sportsman who confines himself to man's best friend there is no other point of view and no other branch of athletics—the rest are merely a waste of time. This point of view, probably, had never occurred to the somewhat spoilt and wilful beauty who presided occasionally over the destinies of her father's big ranch in Texas. That is to say, when she was not in New York, or at Orange Beach, or in Paris, she was at home generally in her riding habit, and usually astride of a horse that was worth anything up to ten thousand dollars.
Old man Benson, like most American fathers, utterly spoilt his daughter, which was quite natural, seeing that she was his only child, and old man Benson was by far the richest man in that part of the world. In the language of the boys, he was "no slouch," either as a man of business or as a man of the world. Neither was he the typical Western farmer to whom the pictures have accustomed us, for he represented the third generation, and was a very cultured gentleman indeed. All sorts of people came to the ranch from all parts of the world, and the hospitable owner of the estate was always glad to see them, especially when his daughter was at home to share the honours of the house, and this was usual in the autumn, before Geraldine proceeded to Orange Beach with the rest of the fashionable world.
And so it came about that Stephen Fox happened along in due course, and put in a whole month at the ranch. He came for two reasons—first, because he had a letter of introduction from a famous English statesman, and, secondly, because he had met Geraldine in New York, where he had made up his mind to induce her to change her name as soon as possible.
He was a young man of good family enough—a fine specimen of the English athlete, neat and trim, perfectly self-assured, and, withal, modest enough, but unfortunately he knew little of horses, and cared less. It so happened that certain family misfortunes had tied him somewhat largely to town life, until chance smiled on him, and he found himself, at twenty-five, in possession of a fine family estate. But if he knew nothing about horses, he was quite at home with every other branch of sport, and he was a magnificent shot with rifle and revolver, and there was no man whose reputation stood higher with the Alpine Club.
It was, perhaps, a mistake on the young man's part to follow that wilful young woman to her native heath. She liked him —in fact, she liked him immensely—but then he was only one of a large and enthusiastic crowd, all equally anxious to lay siege to the Benson dollars; and, whatever her faults were, Geraldine Benson was no fool. Emphatically she was not going to marry any man who was after her fortune. She knew, of course, that Fox was fairly well off—that is, comparatively speaking—which was in his favour, and when he appeared she was pleased enough to see him. She was living just then in the open air, leading a healthy, simple life in connection with a magnificent black horse that she managed to perfection, though it seemed to Fox that she was running unnecessary risks with a mount that would have been too much for many a man who had been brought up all his life in the vicinity of a stable. But Geraldine only laughed and made fun of Fox's fears. She could not induce him to mount anything more formidable than a farm filly; and when once he had made something of an exhibition of himself in connection with a splendid three-year-old, she showed her open contempt.
It seemed to her that Fox was actually afraid. She could see that he had lost something of his healthy tan, and that there was a cold perspiration on his forehead. Oh, yes, he was afraid, right enough, and Geraldine did not forget to let him see that she was aware of it. And from that moment his fortune seemed to droop. He was treated with open contempt, he was left severely alone—so severely, in fact, that Miss Benson went off to Orange Beach without the formality of saying good-bye to him.
She might have been annoyed, and she might not, and there was the problem that fairly maddened Fox. Did she regard him as a coward? he wondered. But he need not have wondered at all, because that was exactly her point of view.
As a matter of fact, she was angry and disappointed and, perhaps, more distressed than she would have liked to admit. For she had never allowed a man before to go quite so far as Fox had gone, and that proud little heart of hers was sorely wounded. She blamed herself bitterly for allowing her affections to stray in the direction of a man who frankly lacked courage. And this, in the eyes of a daughter of the West, was an unpardonable sin. She would go away down to Orange Beach and forget all about him.
At the same time Fox made up his mind that he would go away, too, and forget all about her, with the inevitable result that he presented himself at Stephano's Hotel, at Orange Beach, a fortnight later, where, at dinner, on the first night of his arrival, he was coldly and unmistakably cut by his late hostess.
It was tragedy—stark tragedy—and Fox's soul was bitter within him. He knew perfectly well that he was no coward, he knew perfectly well that he was being badly treated, but for the present there was nothing to do except wait for an unkind Fate to give him a last chance. And quite unexpectedly the Fate aforesaid played straight into his hands.
Now, behind the five or six miles of smiling paradise that lie between the sea and the mountains at Orange Beach is a big swamp given over to various flowers of gorgeous beauty, an amazing collection of butterflies like so many brilliant jewels flung from the lap of Nature in her most profligate mood, and a few wild animals, such as bears and the like, which found their way occasionally from the swamps through the wide belt of trees, where honey was to be found. No man had ever dared to cross those swamps— that is, no visitor—only a shy native or two, and at the back of the swamp rose the rampart of hills, some peaks of which are above the snow-line. And in this belt lurked a few lawless individuals, cattle thieves and the like, who had been forced into hiding, where they maintained a precarious existence, and where they were hunted down from time to time, when the law-abiding inhabitants of the cattle belt summoned up energy enough to make a raid. And amongst these desperadoes were two, named respectively Pete and Silas, who occasionally looted Orange Beach when food was scarce, and who conceived the brilliant idea of kidnapping Miss Geraldine Benson and holding her up to ransom. And this they actually did one sunny afternoon, when the girl was idling her time away over a book in a secluded corner of the beach. They snatched her up and, stifling her cries with a shawl, carried her across the swamp up into the hills, and all this in the broad light of day. They and they alone of white men knew the only path across that traitorous morass—having learnt the secret from an old peon, whom they had thoughtfully disposed of—so that they were not afraid of pursuit, as, before the telegraph and telephone could get in action against them, days must of necessity elapse, and their captive's plight grow steadily worse. Their idea was simple enough. They were going to demand fifty thousand dollars as a ransom, and a free passage to—well, anywhere, as long as they could leave the South American continent behind them.
Meanwhile there was nothing to be done except notify the authorities right and left, and organise a movement against the miscreants from the mainland. This, of course, was a matter of some considerable time, and Fox fretted and fumed, writhing at his own helplessness and burning to do something for the woman who had treated him so badly, and for whom he had such tender feelings. He actually made one or two attempts to cross the swamp, escaping suffocation and a horrible death by the skin of his teeth on two separate occasions before he gave it up. He fell into the habit of passing most of his mornings on the edge of the swamp, brooding there and racking his brain for some way of crossing over to the firm, rugged ground on the far side. If he could only accomplish that, he had no fear as to the rest. It would be no great matter to track the rascals down then, for they would not be very far off, and if he could only confront them with a revolver, he was quite prepared to leave the rest to chance.
And then, on the third day, a ray of hope came his way. As he sat under the shade of the trees on the edge of the swamp, he saw a brown, woolly mass coming in his direction. It was a bear—an ordinary brown bear— which had actually crossed that treacherous, smiling greenery in search of honey. For an hour or two Fox watched keenly. He saw the bear attack a nest of wild bees and surfeit himself with the sweets inside; then he turned his snout in the direction of the morass, and seemingly plunged into the thick of it. But where a bear could go, a man could follow, so that Fox did not hesitate a moment. He tracked the bear very slowly and cautiously into the thick of that shuddering horror that smiled so fairly and yet hugged so terrible a danger to its verdant breast. Taking a letter or two from his pocket, Fox tore them up into minute fragments, dropping one or two here and there, so as to make a trail and render his return journey safe. At the end of two hours he was on the far side of the swamp, faint and weary, worn out and smothered with mud and slime from head to foot. But there was no wind to blow his tracks away, so that, with any luck, the return journey was fairly easy.
But it is one thing to go one way over virgin soil, and the other to come back in reverse conditions, so that Fox was only half-way across when the darkness fell, and he dared not go another yard. He sat himself down on a big tuft of grass and waited all through a night which seemed as long as eternity. He could hear all sorts of hair-raising sounds going on around him, the slimy, oozy crawling of snakes, and once the unmistakable cough of an alligator. He sat there reflecting bitterly as to what Geraldine might say if she could see him at that moment, and if she would be inclined to call him a coward any more. He did not underrate what he was doing, neither did he make too much of it. As a matter of fact, it was a wonderful piece of pluck and endurance in the face of unseen terrors that might have struck fear into the heart of any man.
The long night came to an end at length, the sun rose, and Fox's spirits with it. Very slowly he made his way back, tracing his course by the aid of those precious scraps of paper, and finally reached his bedroom before anyone in the hotel was about. Then he changed and bathed and had a long sleep, after which he slipped a couple of revolvers in his pocket and made his way straight down to the swamp again. And there, on the fringe of the wood, was his old friend the bear once more. And once more did Fox follow, his pockets plentifully filled with torn paper now, so that he blazed a wide white trail on both sides of the track until he reached the other side.
It was all straightforward going now, up a long rocky ravine that led him presently into a narrow gorge in the hillside, and round the mountain path cut in the side of the cliff, a path so narrow that here and there Fox's shoulder brushed the side as he went along. There were some hundred yards or more of this, with a sheer drop on the one side of at least three hundred feet. It was safe enough and easy enough for a member of the Alpine Club, but Fox was worried in his mind as to how Geraldine would negotiate it if he were fortunate enough to effect her rescue. But all that for the moment was a small issue. He pushed doggedly along until he came at length to a grassy little plateau, on the far side of which stood a dilapidated hut, which was clearly inhabited, for smoke was comings from the chimney. Then a big man, carrying a Winchester rifle in his hand, came out of the hut and strode up the valley. As he had a game-bag slung over his shoulder, and a dog trotting at his heels. Fox came to the conclusion that the big man was bent on supplying the larder. Given any luck, therefore, he would probably not be back for some hours yet.
So it was going to be one man against another. And once that one man was out of the way, then the rest would be easy. All the same, Fox crept cautiously across the open space, taking advantage of every bit of cover, until he was within a yard or two of the door of the hut. He could see that this was slightly ajar, he could see there was somebody moving about inside, carelessly and freely, as if utterly indifferent to danger. But then clearly these men were not expecting anything in the shape of a surprise. They had not anticipated the possibility of a frontal attack in any case, and an advance upon them from the rear would mean a long business. So the man inside the hut was whistling and singing to himself.
It was only for a moment, however, and then Fox moved swiftly forward and stood in the doorway. He had his revolver in his hand now, and the big, gaunt figure in the shadow of the hut was covered before the man himself realised that he was face to face with an armed and resolute stranger.
"Put up your hands," Fox said.
The man immediately dived for such cover as was afforded by a table, and from underneath this he fired at Fox twice in rapid succession. But he was too flurried and too unsteady for anything like fine work, so that both shots passed harmlessly by Fox's head. Then he in his turn pressed the trigger and shot his antagonist neatly just beneath the knee of an, exposed leg which had been incautiously left within sight.
Immediately the man dropped his left hand with a cry of rage and pain, and, heedless of further danger, rubbed the wounded spot tenderly. Then Fox, grim and determined, fired again, and shot his man through the right shoulder. The revolver dropped from his fingers, and every ounce of fight went out of him. Fox strolled coolly into the hut.
"Now, then," he said, as he picked up the fallen weapon—"now, then, listen to me. Oh, I know you are in great pain, but that is your own fault. But I know you are all alone, because I watched your friend go off with his dog and his gun. And now, please, where is the lady?"
"What lady?" the man asked truculently. His face was white and set with pain, and Fox could see that the sweat was running down it. "What lady? Say, who're you getting at? There ain't no lady here."
"Oh, yes, there is," said a cool, calm voice from somewhere in the background. "I'm here, a prisoner in the little lean-to shed at the back of the hut."
The man on the ground smiled in a bitter sort of way and made some attempt to hump his shoulders.
"All right, stranger," he said. "I don't know how you got here, unless you came in an aeroplane, but you are top dog, and I am not squealing. Take her and get back the way you came. I guess you must know a considerable deal about these here parts, for you are the only man on the coast that could find his way across them swamps. You see—"
"Oh, never mind about that," Fox said. "I am here, as you have learnt to your cost; but I've no time to argue with you, so I am just going to lock you in here and leave the key in the door, so that your friend can find you when he comes back."
With which Fox turned abruptly away and went round to the back of the hut, where, a few minutes later, he released Geraldine Benson from her prison-house. He wanted to get away now as quickly as possible, and to find himself round the bend of that dizzy cliff path before the other man returned. He might be away for hours, but, on the contrary, he might come back at any moment; and, burdened as he was with a frightened and nerve-stricken girl, it would never do to invite anything in the shape of a conflict until the danger zone was passed.
But it was no frightened, timorous young woman who emerged from that restricted hiding-place, no creature in the last stage of mental prostration. Geraldine stood before him neat and cool, and almost spotless in her linen dress, her hair as neat and tidy as if she had just come down to breakfast in the morning.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" she said.
There was nothing particularly friendly in her voice, either. She just stood there quietly, almost offensively, regarding Fox with a critical look which was a poor reward indeed for all that he had done for her.
"Apparently," he said. "Rather strange, is it not, that I, above all men in the world, should be able to do you a service? And I think that you must admit that it is a service."
"Yes, I suppose it is—indeed, I am sure of it. Still, Mr. Fox, I am greatly obliged to you. At any rate, you have relieved me from a great unpleasantness."
"What's the good of talking like the hero and heroine of a melodrama?" Fox asked impatiently. "It would be all very well on the stage, but I want you to realise that we are in great danger here. That other man might come back at any moment—he might even be watching us now."
"Yes, there's certainly something in that," the girl said. "But how did you get here?
I have been coming to Orange Beach on and off ever since I was a child, and I have always been told that those swamps were impassable, except to one or two natives, who have kept the secret for their own sakes."
"A very pardonable curiosity," Fox said, "and one that I can gratify as we go along. This way, please."
He fell in line by the girl's side, and rapidly they went down the slope and up the other side, till they came at length to what appeared to be an impasse of rocks.
"We can't go this way," Geraldine protested.
"Nevertheless, this is the way by which you came," Fox replied. "There is no other way."
"Perhaps so; I don't know. You see, I was blindfolded, and those men carried me part of the way. Oh, Mr. Fox, I couldn't do it—I couldn't indeed! I could never walk along that narrow ledge. The mere thought of a cliff always makes me faint and giddy. Call me a coward, if you like!"
It was strange to see how distressed she was, how white her beautiful face had grown, and how filled the clear grey eyes were with terror, It was a revelation in its way, and it drew Fox nearer to her than he had ever been before.
"No, I won't call you a coward," he said quietly, "though I think that once you applied that epithet to me. You see, it's largely a matter of habit. I have seen men who have displayed the highest courage in certain circumstances who have been quite helpless in others. But really this is no time to go into that sort of thing. If you value your life and safety, you will have to crawl along that narrow ledge for a hundred yards or more. After that the rest is plain sailing. Come, Miss Geraldine, you're not going to funk it now."
"I—I dare not!" the girl said almost piteously. "Oh, I am a coward—I who thought I could face anything! Isn't there any other way?"
"None," Fox said sternly. "And you've got to come, whether you like it or not. They brought you this way, but you didn't know the danger, because you were blindfolded. And now I'm going to blindfold you again, and you are going to be carried on my back like a sack. Oh, it's perfectly safe—it's only a matter of nerve. Why, out in the Alps we should think no more of that than we should of climbing up the side of a grass bank. Come, take your courage in both hands!"
All the haughtiness and aloof contempt had left the girl now. She was white and shaking from head to foot, and Fox could almost hear the beating of her heart as he bound his handkerchief about her eyes. But she was obedient enough to do exactly what he told her, as she locked her hands round his neck, after which they moved forward along the narrow ledge till the danger was passed, and Fox set her on her feet again. He tore the handkerchief from her eyes and smiled into her face.
"There!" he said encouragingly. "Nothing in it, after all!"
"Oh, please don't laugh at me!" the girl said. "Another minute, and I should have fainted—I who never did such a thing in my life! And yet, perhaps, you will believe me when I tell you that I was not really frightened when those men got hold of me, and I have managed to keep my head ever since. Of course, they told me what they were after, and they promised me I should come to no harm, but I don't mind confessing that I was rather proud of my courage. Perhaps you will say now that I haven't got any courage."
"I should say nothing of the sort," Fox replied. "No girl who lacked courage could ride the horses you are accustomed to, and no girl could go through what you have endured without showing signs of it. I knew a man who displayed the most marvellous bravery in connection with a mining accident of which he thought nothing, because, you see, he was an engineer and accustomed to dangers underground. But it so happened that that man couldn't swim, and when I took him on a river in a small boat—by way of enabling him to catch a train—he sat white and silent, and confessed to me afterwards that he had never felt more frightened in his life. And that was one of the bravest men I ever met. As I said before, it is all a matter of habit. Of course, it's fun to put a man like myself for the first time in my life on the back of an unbroken brute of a horse, but it wasn't particularly funny for me, and I don't apologise for making an exhibition of myself. I want you to understand that there are two points of view, and it's only fair that one should try and understand the other fellow's. But come on—we haven't finished yet."
It was a very quiet and subdued Geraldine whom Fox preceded across the stony ground in the direction of the swamp. She was evidently thinking matters over, and regarding the philosophy of life from a fresh angle altogether. But she began to show signs of nervous hesitation once again as Fox plunged into the swamp and bade her to tread carefully in his footsteps. There was something fearfully nerve-racking in the green silence of the place, with its tufts of rushes and oily, silent pools, and here and there the sinuous gleam of a snake.
"Are you q-quite sure?" the girl faltered.
"Absolutely," Fox said. "I came here across the swamp, of course, and I can find my way back again. If you look on both sides of you a little way ahead, you will see what looks like the trail of a paper-chase. Well, I placed those bits of paper there, so that there should be no mistake. Yes, I know it's a horrible place, and I know what a fearful death lurks on both sides of us; but we are going to win through, for all that. And you'll never guess how I found the way, so I'll tell you. I followed a brown bear that came over to the woods in search of honey. I followed in its fresh tracks and laid the trail as I went. Yes, it took some doing, and more than once I had to hold on to myself to keep from turning back. I knew that, if I once let my imagination get hold of me, I should funk it, so I kept steadily on till I got on the other side. But getting back was worse. I wanted to locate where you were, and I cut it rather fine. Do you see that flat tuft of rushes over yonder? Well, I spent the night there, when it got too dark to go any further, and I don't want to do it again. Anything more utterly lonely it is impossible to imagine. But come along—I ought not to have told you this just yet."
"And you did all this for me?" Geraldine asked.
"Well, of course," Fox said simply.
She did not speak again until they were well across the swamp and in the thick fringe of woods at the back of the hotel. There was no one in sight, for it was over-early yet, and most of the guests were still at the breakfast table. It was just before they emerged into the glorious sunshine that Geraldine paused and looked Fox in the face. He could see that she was all white and trembling, and that those usually frank and fearless eyes of hers were full of tears.
"I wonder, can you ever forgive me?" she faltered.
"There is nothing to forgive," Fox said. "We have both made a mistake, and we are both too proud to admit it. That's why I came down here to see yDu, and I suppose that is why you refused to speak to me. But I think I have proved—"
"Proved! Of course you have," Geraldine said impetuously. "And if I had cared less—"
"Oh, then, you do care?"
Geraldine said nothing, but smiled unsteadily, at which he caught her in his arms and kissed her, and together they walked quietly out into the sunshine.